OK, 2021, the hour of reckoning has come. Yes, already! You can't deny we performed all the proper rituals — red underwear, grapes, buckets of water out the door, 360 million glasses of champaign in the US alone. Frankly, we gave you the most enthusiastic welcome of any year in the history of time. What did we ask in return? Just a little relief from the chaos and madness of past twelve months. But no, you couldn’t resist the opportunity to outdo 2020. You just had to start off the very first week with an insurrection designed to derail American democracy. What’s next? No, don’t tell me. I’m not sure my nerves can take it.
So much for my foolish notion that 2021 would be better than its predecessor.
I was preparing to write this year off as a total washout (why wait until the last minute?) but then I paused to reflect on some inspiring stories that have already come out of it. Stories of those who are finding ways to stay engaged in the world in spite of everything. For instance, I’m still basking in the sheer delight of my latest discovery: a lizard (specifically a bearded dragon) who has published his own cookbook, Chef Lenny: Cooking for Humans. True story; I couldn’t make this stuff up.
“It was my quarantine project,” says Valerie Musser, Lenny’s owner, ghost writer, and publicist. When her catering business was derailed by the pandemic, she began writing a long-postponed cookbook and amused herself posting Instagram photos of Lenny in a miniature chef’s hat she found on Etsy. “He actually loves wearing hats and posing for photos, so I started making miniature food for him to show off with.” Moreover, Lenny has a classic chef’s temperament. “He is very pretentious. His body language is kind of crazy, he wants what he wants, he’s very demanding and he’s kind of a snob about food, very fussy, so this project fits him very well.”
Lenny isn’t the only unexpected new celebrity. Fans of fungi will be pleased to know the once-humble mushroom has had series of makeovers and is now popping up everywhere. Adidas’ line of “vegan footwear” includes sneakers made of “mushroom-based leather” derived from the fast-growing roots known as mycelium. A Stanford designer is growing mushrooms on a diet of sawdust and using their mycelium to make bricks that are said to be “stronger than concrete.” And never worry that demand will outstrip the supply, because a Dutch inventor has created a coffin that turns bodies into mushrooms. It takes just a single week to create a “living cocoon” by growing mycelium around a box-shaped frame with an open bottom. When the time comes, you just lay your loved one to rest inside, and he or she will spend the next few years decomposing gracefully back into the earth, adding nutrients to the soil. Not surprisingly, getting this product to market will require overcoming some serious legal hurdles and the creepiness factor. If only Tales from the Crypt was still around to serve as the sponsor.
In the constellation of new superstars, perhaps the most astounding virtuoso is Secret, a young Australian shepherd who’s become an adept practitioner of doga, or dog yoga. When not mastering complex asanas (yoga poses), Secret enjoys spending time with his human, Mary Peters, painting, doing housework, and learning CPR.
Another creature-human relationship that’s taken the quarantined world by storm is the heartwarming platonic romance between Craig Foster and a female octopus living in the kelp forest of South Africa’s Cape of Storms. “What Charlotte’s Web did in the popular imagination for the humble, much-maligned barn spider, My Octopus Teacher sets out to achieve for the eight-limbed mollusc of its title,” says Variety in a review titled “An Eight-Legged Freak Becomes a Friend in Netflix’s Gorgeous Hit Nature Doc.”
The film is sensitive, intelligent, and mind-expanding, so naturally somebody had to do a goofy parody. Filmmakers rose to the challenge with My Kreepy Teacher, the story of a man bonding with his Kreepy Krauly-brand pool cleaner.
With the possible exception of the dog Secret, relationships with members of other species (let alone inanimate objects like the Kreepy Krauly pool cleaner) are severely limited by physical, verbal, and social differences. Despite all its complications, we are hard wired to need human companionship.
During a recent Zoom call, my sister Kate remarked that on top of everything else, we hardly ever get to meet new people these days. She’s right. Except for brief encounters with neighbors and sales clerks, I rarely speak to anyone who isn’t a relative or long-time friend. That got me thinking: How can we connect up — safely, online — with new people, preferably in a lively interactive format?
One of the best ways is via Meetup, an online organizer started by New Yorkers in the wake of 9/11, when encounters with neighbors gave them a fresh appreciation of the value of human connection in dark times. It costs nothing to join; you just sign up with any group that looks interesting (like the drive-in movie group I belong to) and they send you notices of events. Nowadays everything is tailored to helping us through the pandemic, with categories such as Learn New Skills, Live Mindfully, Deepen Your Tech Knowledge, and Make Lasting Connections. There are also 3,700 board game groups and 2,500 card game groups where you can play with locals or people around the world.
But what really caught my eye was Meetup’s 5,382 book clubs.
It’s fun to think about joining one of the giants, such as the London Philosophy Club or Dharma Drink: the Hangout for Buddhists (& like minded) in New York, each of which has about 10,000 members. No doubt they break out into smaller discussion subgroups, but even so, I’d feel lost in a crowd that large. You can find smaller book clubs on Meetup or through your local public library or book store. Before joining any group, be sure to find out if they read the kind of stuff you actually like. Years ago I was flattered by an invitation to join a highbrow literary book club, where I floundered through pedantic discussions of classics I admired but didn’t enjoy one bit. As you can imagine, I hightailed it out of there as soon as possible and joined a different book club.
We humans are social creatures. Our survival as individuals and as a species has always depended upon connection and cooperation. These days few of us are called upon to help the neighbors hunt a mastodon or raise a barn, but even when we’re simply partnering in a game of online Monopoly, we’re making a vital contribution to the community. Everyone needs a sense of support, the warmth of laughter, and some reassurance that we are not alone in this time of crisis. “Love and compassion,” says the Dalai Lama, “are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” That’s never been truer than in 2021.
I write these posts to contribute a little cheeriness to the general conversation, in hopes it will help us all get through these troubling times with a bit more grace and comfort. Please feel free to pass on the link to your family, friends, Zoom acquaintances, and book clubs. All are welcome here.
And before I close, I can't resist including one more small delight to brighten these dark days: an astonishing 3D animation from Le Petit Chef, a small country restaurant northeast of Paris. They project it onto your table while you’re waiting for dessert. Bon appétit!
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This post is part of my ongoing series of articles on surviving the pandemic while holding on to some shreds of our sanity and sense of humor, however weird things get.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California. Right now I'm on a Nutters' World Tour seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and wacky food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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