The Gilded Swamp, Part 3 (the sequel of the sequel)

NOW IT’S GETTING ridiculous, I know. I was wary of doing a Part 2 of The Gilded Swamp, and now I’m stuck in Part 3. That’s the other reason I don’t do essays with multiple parts—I never know when to quit. 

Indeed, I actually tried to get myself eaten by an alligator in the last installment (see The Gilded Swamp, Part 2) in order to force an ending, since being devoured by a big swamp lizard is pretty final. But no. Down the gullet of a modern dinosaur is the easy way out, creatively speaking. I must salvage this piece in the proper way, and with it my own dignity.  

Again I’ll recap, if only to remind myself what’s going on:

Suffering from a case of Daedalus Syndrome, which is another way of saying I’d been bored during the pandemic, I dropped in to see my neighborhood shaman, Astrakhan, who advised me to seek out his Uncle Linctus in Hilton Head, South Carolina for a proper mental liberation. Fast forward four hours and four hundred miles, (I drive fast). I arrived at Hilton Head Island by nightfall to a road that dead-ended into a misty swamp, and yes, I imagined myself being attacked by an alligator, because that’s just the way my mind works when I find myself in these situations. In fact, I consider it beneficial to picture myself killed by a swamp predator, or using the flotation device on a sinking airplane, or jumping from a train whose engineer has fallen asleep at the gears, because then I’m prepared for it. The great stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius called it, “Premeditatio Malorum,” which is basically the practice of visualizing the worst case scenario in order to fortify oneself against all possibilities. This technique has fallen out of fashion these days but I find it very practical. If you’re always focused on the best possible outcome, then there’s nowhere to go but down. 

Well, this time it worked. Instead of a ferocious alligator, I was greeted by the biggest mansion I’d ever seen, one of those Spanish-tiled palaces that seems to go on and on forever. Hell, the shaman business must be pretty good these days. I struck the giant front door with all my strength and it rang with a mighty reverberation. An elderly man with youth in his eyes and a fine pinstripe suit on his back answered. 

“I’m Uncle Linctus,” he said. “You must be Mark. Welcome to the gilded swamp.” 

He noticed the surprise on my face, and he laughed. 

“You were expecting a house like my nephew’s?” he said. “Bones and animal skins. That’s a sign of his youth and bravado. When you get to my level, all that stuff isn’t necessary.” 

Uncle Linctus led me to his sprawling back patio and offered me a chair. He suggested I look out into the tree-shrouded swamp beyond his estate and imagine it as a picture of the world before time, before human tinkering, before people began partitioning infinity into schedules and deadlines. I should do this, he said, in order to expand past the confines of mass expectation. He then disappeared into his stately manor. I was alone. 

Pure natural silence has a sound to it, an almost imperceptible bass line. It’s a necessary rhythm that, too often, is drowned out by artificial caterwauling. I walked to the water’s edge. Again my thoughts went to the Greek figure known as Daedalus, builder of fake cows, defective wings and mazes that he himself couldn’t even get out of. How much of life’s problems are self-inflicted? How much is wrought by the power of angst? I remembered that Mark Twain quote: “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” 

That’s when I saw two golden eyes staring at me from underwater. A predator, after all. So much for my “Premeditatio Malorum” exercise. Maybe it had done nothing but cause me to manifest this creature, watching my every move from his murky abode down below. A gator, to be sure. And before I could decide whether to panic or not, the fucking thing leapt out of the water at me. I dove out of the way, like I was leaping from a train whose engineer had fallen asleep at the gears (which comes in handy for a lot of situations). I looked up. The alligator was suspended in midair, attached to some kind of spring coil. I stood up and hammered on the thing with my fist. It was fake. 

And then I began to laugh and laugh and laugh with relief, the kind of relief that almost feels like a narcotic. I heard Uncle Linctus walk up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder. 

“You’re cured,” he said.

More Alembics…

The Gilded Swamp (Part 2)

THE REASON I don’t do a lot of blog essays with multiple parts is because of the tedious task of recapping the main points of the previous installment in order to bring everyone up to speed. It’s a delicate talent, and I fear I don’t possess it. Or maybe I just can’t see the swamp for the lily pads. 

“I try all things. I achieve what I can.” 

-Herman Melville 

Yes, Mr Melville, yes, yes, yes. Well then, here it goes. When we last left our “hero”: 

Suffering from a case of mental suffocation, or Daedalus Syndrome, I sought out my friend Astrakhan, the affable shaman of my neighborhood, to help lure me from my psychic impasse. After performing his assessment and realizing my case was one of the worst he’d ever seen, he suggested I go see his Uncle Linctus in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, for an enhanced exorcism. Hilton Head, South Carolina, is a four-hour drive from my house. After leaving Atlanta, I realized I hadn’t been away from the city in an astounding 21 months, during which there was all sorts of madness, both natural and man-made. Oh, wretched stagnant horror!  

I feel we’re caught up. 

My car was traveling at a good clip across the rural nothingness that is middle Georgia, heading east toward Uncle Linctus’s house. Although his nephew Astrakhan had insisted he couldn’t help me with my Daedalus Syndrome, I began to suspect that his suggestion of me getting out of the city to see the master shaman in his family was his own clever contribution to my therapy. Since our minds are the interface of the outer and inner world, it seems reasonable that to mend the inner it’s sometimes necessary to shift the outer. 

As I drove along I thought about the Greek mythological figure known as Daedalus. He was an inventor, which is a fine thing to be, except Daedalus always seemed to be inventing inventions to solve the problems that his previous inventions were causing, which on one hand is brilliant and on the other hand is a complete fucking waste of time.  Maybe Daedalus is a symbol for civilization’s staggered progress. The ultimate trajectory of humanity, when all is said and done, may end up looking like a pile of yarn unspooled by a determined kitten. 

Speaking of ultimate trajectory, where the hell was I going? Astrakhan’s directions seemed to terminate at the edge of a vast everglade. Maybe the road would just dead-end at a misty swamp, forcing me to abandon my car for an old rowboat helmed by some sepulchral oarsman who ferries me through the fog to a stilted teepee surrounded by alligators in the water and vultures in the trees. After all, Astrakhan’s house, in order to emphasize his role as modern sorcerer, was affected with all sorts of unnerving decorations—bones and hides and whatnot. What would his uncle’s lair look like, the grand practitioner who’d been collecting snake skins and gypsy scalps for almost a century? 

I arrived by nightfall, and when night falls in a South Carolina swampland it hits the ground with a blind thud. I drove till the road ended, then got out and walked to water’s edge, darkness all around, like the beginning of time. Nature unaffected by humanity. I stepped carefully, not wanting to tread on a copperhead or wombat, for I could sense this was wombat country, even though I wasn’t exactly sure what a wombat was.

Then I heard it, for the first time in a long time. I heard silence, absolute silence. It’s a lovely sound, silence is. Maybe that’s why I’d felt mentally locked away for so long. I was avoiding the artificial noise. I began to emerge, in a way, and that’s when I noticed two golden orbs beneath the surface of the water. Now I was really present, as I realized I was being regarded by an alligator. Relax, I told myself, thinking that I’d heard somewhere that they’re more afraid of you than you are of them. This alligator, it seemed, had not gotten the message, as he lashed out of the water, jaws wide open, looking to take advantage of the fact that he was a superior predator and I a baffled hunk of meat standing like a fool in his backyard. And, as the razor teeth snapped at me, I realized this was the end, which leads me to my very first cliffhanger. Will I survive the attack, or am I doomed to consumption, and maybe even worse, doomed to a sequel of the sequel? 

More Alembics? 

The Gilded Swamp (Part 1)

I’M NOT A big fan of math. True, it’s the language of the Universe, and only a fool would ignore it. Math is essential. It makes things run. It holds things together. It’s precise. It’s unambiguous. In short, math is very important, which is why I don’t mess with it. I’d rather leave it to the experts, the computers, or both. They can crunch the numbers and I, confident in their calculations, will sit back in my languid, dimensionless view of time. Mine is the life of the libertine, the life of the aesthete. I brook no timetable. Categories bore me. Let the record-keepers partition infinity into usable calendar days, I shall float in the vast nothing of the eternal present. 

But, like it or lump it, sometimes math will insist on me paying attention to it. 

Here’s what happened: 

I tend to suffer from what I call Daedalus Syndrome. Daedalus, as all the lovers of Greek mythology may recall, was the architect of the Labyrinth, a colossal maze so complex and disorienting that no one who wandered in could ever hope to find their way out again. And I know what you’re thinking: Daedalus also built a fake cow so a human woman could hide in it in order to trick a bull into humping her. Point being, sometimes Daedalus may have been too clever for his own good. He kind of killed his son with one of his inventions. Strange guy, Daedalus. 

Back to the Labyrinth. 

Daedalus Syndrome, then, is a mental disorder of my own coinage in which my brain turns into a vast enclosure with so many twists, turns and dead-ends that it entraps my core being for hours, days, weeks, months and sometimes years on end. It’s a purely psychological malady. To the casual observer my physical person may appear friendly and functional, but a closer look with some antiquated measuring instruments (astrolabe, phrenology pincers, tongue wench) will prove that the essence of myself is locked away in some abstract perdition, and I must take steps to find my way out. 

Author’s note: This is going to be a really shitty essay, but at this point I must get it done. Like a maze, I just have to keep going, blind turn after blind turn. 

Daedalus Syndrome isn’t something I can solve with a quick visit to my local medical professional. I have to seek out alternative therapies. So I swung by the rural lair of Astrakhan, my neighborhood Shaman, made my way past his ominous boneyard, avoided the voodoo dolls of his enemies hanging in effigy, and thumped on the door of his hut. He emerged, a towering spectacle of chiseled ebon with weeping willow dreadlocks, wearing a necklace of shrunken heads and a bikini made of lapis lazuli beads. He puffed on a billowing calumet. 

“Hey Mark, been a while.” 

“I don’t like to bother you. I know you’re busy” 

“What’s up?” 

“I’ve got another case of Daedalus Syndrome.” 

“You got raped by a bull?” 

“No, no, no. Stuck in the Labyrinth.” I tapped the side of my head. 

Astrakhan invited me in. After some initial readings with his astrolabe, phrenology pincers and tongue wench he sat back and shook his head. 

“Sorry, but this time I can’t help you. You’ve been stuck for too long. You’ll have to go see my Uncle Linctus.” 

“Where is he?” 

“He lives in the swamp.” 

“That sounds like it’s tough to get to.” 

“It’s a millionaires’ swamp. Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.” 

“That’s like four hours away.” 

“Trust me. Your case is serious.” 

Unlike many a radical conspiracy theorist, I pay attention to the experts. So when Astrakhan handed me the directions to his uncle’s house, 300 miles away, I told him I’d be headed out first thing in the morning. And here is where I return to the beginning with the idea of math, albeit a rather rudimentary calculation. Once I’d passed outside of I-285, which is a loop that runs the perimeter of the city of Atlanta, kind of like a huge moat, I realized I hadn’t been past this concrete boundary for 21 months. Shocking! Of course there’d been a major plague, quarantines, a coup attempt, a gas shortage, wild social upheaval and a collective certainty that the world was about to end, so I cut myself a little slack. I’d survived it all, up to this point and as I passed out into the Georgia hinterlands, I felt a newfound sense of freedom that only comes with the open land rolling out like an invitation into the horizon. With part of the spell already lifted and a few rays of sunshine illuminating my mental Labyrinth, I sped toward the eastern edge of the continent, eager for Uncle Linctus, and whatever else awaited me. 

End of Part 1… 

Congratulations, Henry!

WE ARE NOT all created equal. Or maybe we are, but the equality starts to warp, stretch and bend as soon as we’re out of our cradles. I’m not saying that everyone doesn’t deserve the right to equal dignity under the law, but eventually it becomes apparent that some people are just better at stuff than others. I’m not equal to my accountant when it comes to math, for instance. In that arena she’ll mop up the floor with me. My friend’s kid destroys me at chess. If one of the neighbors wants to polish up their résumé, they come to me, and I’ll edit for clarity. What follows is the statistical probability that everyone can be good at something, and we can all trade on our abilities to provide for our collective wellbeing. I’m always suspicious of the people, though, who are stratospheric overachievers. Or maybe just jealous of them. Or maybe just confused by them. 

Here’s what happened: 

I get my oil changed in my car about four times a year, give or take. So the other day I was cutting through this one neighborhood, as usual, on my quarterly trip to see my mechanic, who is way better than me at fixing cars, by the way, when I chanced to see a strangely familiar banner hanging in front of one of the houses. 

CONGRATULATIONS, HENRY! 

The banner was decked out with the normal balloons and bunting all over it. It was a nice sentiment, except that the last time I’d been by the house, three months prior, the same banner had been hanging there, congratulating Henry on whatever great thing Henry had achieved. Seemed a bit too long for a celebratory banner to be displayed. Maybe a week or two would be appropriate, depending on the accomplishment. Which made me think: what was the accomplishment? 

CONGRATULATIONS, HENRY! RECIPIENT OF THE MACARTHUR GENIUS AWARD

or: 

CONGRATULATIONS, HENRY! EARLY PAROLE… LET’S STAY OUT THIS TIME, BUDDY! 

Maybe the family would just keep the banner up year-round, like Christmas decorations, either because Henry was so damn good at besting whatever challenge came his way, or to offer some preemptive encouragement to Henry so he’d get his ass off the couch and actually do something worthwhile. Maybe it was an ironic banner from the most sarcastic parents in the world. 

CONGRATULATIONS, HENRY! YOU ACTUALLY PUT THE MILK BACK IN THE REFRIGERATOR INSTEAD OF LEAVING IT ON THE KITCHEN COUNTER, YOU OVER-ACHIEVING FUCK! 

The possibilities were endless, really. 

Henry could be one of those natural winners, a child prodigy mastering everything he put his mind to: district spelling bee, dean’s list, all-state quarterback. There’s no end to what Henry is capable of doing. It made me feel a bit bad about myself. Here I am trying to make it through the week with all my fingers, toes and sanity, and here is Henry scooping up accolades left and right without breaking a sweat, heaping triumph upon triumph as casually as the rest of us check our mailboxes. 

Keep the sign up then. Why bother taking it down, the little scamp is just going to win something else next week, and then the family has to hoist the banner back up, which, considering the size of it, is a two-person job, unless of course Henry is doing it, because Henry never needs help with anything. He was put on this earth to win, and win he shall. 

Then I started to become haunted by the intuition that Henry is pure evil. One of these kid influencers with two million followers on Twit-Insta-Tok who, because of the endorsements, is now the main breadwinner in the family and who insists on insane things like banners in his honor every day of the year or else he’ll cancel his parents, slut-shame his sister and destroy his relatives from the inside out unless his every whim is met. 

CONGRATULATIONS, HENRY! YOU WERE RIGHT AGAIN, AS YOU ALWAYS ARE. THE REST OF US SHOULD JUST LEARN TO KEEP OUR STUPID MOUTHS SHUT. 

That made more sense. Lucifer was smart, too, (non serviam!) and look at the horrible state of the world these days. 

I mentioned the banner to my mechanic.  

“Yeah, he graduated kindergarten, or something,” said my mechanic. “He’s got… what do you call them… helicopter parents.” 

“I see,” I said. 

CONGRATULATIONS, HENRY! YOU ARE ADEQUATE!

I don’t know why, but on the way home I felt a little better about myself. Thanks, Henry. 

More Alembics to come… 

Lost and Found and Lost

IS IT POSSIBLE that a jackhammer will only operate if there are other workers standing around staring at it? 

I heard the machine blasting away outside my house the other morning. I looked out the window and, sure enough, one laborer was leaned over, gripping the jittery concrete-smasher as he burrowed toward the center of the Earth while three other workers in orange vests and white helmets stared at him with lazy half-interest. They dared not look away though, lest the energy of their combined attention fail to animate the powerful jackhammer and it goes down dead, the way a ham actor only comes alive in front of an eager audience. 

“Make all the noise you want,” I cried, not that the workers could hear me amid the racket. I could hardly hear myself. I was leaving the house for the day, or so I thought. The plan was to head into town to meet an old college friend for a beer and to reminisce about the good old days… and how glad we are that they’re over. My friend is a traveling surgeon, sought the world over for some peculiar expertise he has of the human body. Knowing I wouldn’t understand, he never bothers to explain it. Not caring about the details, I always forget to ask. 

Back to the jackhammer out in the street. The jackhammer is an almost ideal addition to the category of noise pollution—an implement of such perfect aggravation that it could probably be introduced as a justifiable factor in any murder trial. 

Defendant: “You see, Your Honor, I was willing to be reasonable, but then this fucking jackhammer started going, making polite communication impossible and so I set about strangling instead.” 

Judge: “Sentence reduced to time served. Court is adjourned!” [gavel smack].

I walked outside to the road crew and gestured, curious about the reason for the hole they were creating. I wanted to be prepared if the street was about to collapse or a tidal wave of sewage was headed our way. Shit travels in all directions these days and you can’t be too careful. The guy operating the jackhammer stopped his augering and regarded me through the cloud of dust. His audience, having nothing better to do now that the jackhammer had stopped, turned to me as well. 

“Everything okay?” I said. 

“Yeah. I lost my keys the other day while we were filling in this pothole. I’m pretty sure they’re down there. Don’t worry, I’ll have this patched up in no time.” He gunned the jackhammer back to full throttle and the rest of the road crew resumed their monitoring. 

Blame everything on the Rona plague of 2020. Quarantine and malaise have spawned a host of other problems, one of which is absentmindedness. From this point on modern life may be nothing more than locating the things we’ve misplaced, finding them, misplacing them again, and then recommencing the search. I know people—lean, muscular calorie-burners—whose sole aerobic activity is trying to find what they just had right in front of them a second ago. What follows is a series of back-and-forth pacing which, cumulatively, ends up being the equivalent of a 5K mini-marathon. 

Just then my phone pinged. My friend was running late. There had been a problem in the operating room. Someone had sewn up the patient and left a scalpel and some gauze in her abdomen. They were going back in to get it. “Don’t worry,” I texted him, “you’ll have this patched up in no time. If you find anything else of value grab it and we’ll sell it down on Buford Highway.” He sent back a sad-face emoji. 

Even geniuses make dumb mistakes, and I was heartened by this realization. Doctors can just charge more for them. Since I wasn’t going anywhere for the time being I put my noise-cancelling headphones on and stared out the window at the suddenly silent road crew jackhammering away while the lovely Florence B. Price regaled me with her Symphony #1. 

Then I noticed a message from my editor. I’d sent her a portion of a manuscript and it seems I’d lost an entire subplot somewhere around chapter four. Damn it all, I had it right in front of me a second ago. If it isn’t one epidemic it’s another. 

More Alembics to come… 

Help Wanted

“WORKERS OF THE world, kick back. You have nothing to lose but your idiot boss.” 

This is about as far as I’ll get in my haphazard spoof of the Communist Manifesto. It seems I too am quitting. It’s much easier to sit around all day, drink beer and flirt on-line with grizzled old scam artists posing as sex-crazed women, ready for action. They tell me everything I want to hear, albeit in a very awkward jargon that kind of creeps me out. 

“Hey Buddy, what’s hot, other than you?” 

“Um, the sun, stolen goods, Ain’t Shit by Doja Cat and the pizza I just microwaved. Gotta go!” 

The Rona Plague may not’ve killed us, the living, but it has certainly destroyed any collective inclination to toil our ephemeral lives away at some dead-end job. Every place of business I stop at these days has two frantic workers for every fifty customers, and nobody’s happy about it. The patrons are pissed off that all efficiency has gone out the window, and the workers are so close to madness and murder you don’t even want to look in their direction for fear they’ll leap on you and bite down on your jugular to make an example out of you. Like a pit bull the medics will have to pry their locked jaws open with a jack handle, and by then, of course, it’s too late. 

This is the new American nihilism, and it’s rather fashionable. The moon is going wobbly, water witches in the west are stomping through the desert like zombies trying to find underground aquifers, and Florida high-rises are buckling from the heat. If the moon, water and civil engineering principles are calling it quits, there’s not much hope for the rest of us. 

I stopped for a beer at my local pub the other day. The owner is a friend of mine, and I  could hear him tinkering around in the kitchen when I walked in. He shouted for my order. I shouted it back to him and sat at a table. I realized there weren’t any waiters or bartenders. They’d all called in sick, or at least existentially reluctant. 

Instead, I noticed about ten Roomba vacuums cruising around on the floor with beers and food balanced atop them, and it was these little gadgets that were standing in for human servers. They were pretty efficient, too. They did their jobs quietly and methodically, they were definitely more polite, and they kept the place cleaner than any human server would ever be capable of. 

“That’s brilliant,” I nodded, swiping a pint of porter from one of the little machines.

I looked up at the television. The local news channel was on, and instead of a human anchorman there was a scarecrow perched at the desk, overdubbed by the same computer voice that refills my prescriptions from CVS. 

This will be the lasting legacy from the Rona Plague. We’ve left a wide opening in the work force that computers and Artificial Intelligence will now be able to fulfill. The future is here and the singularity is upon us. Not all bad news, though. The rest of us can kick back and relax on the bottom floor of Maslow’s hierarchy. Actualization is for suckers, right? I myself am afraid of heights, so no theoretical apex of manifesting my highest potential. It’s cool down here in Maslow’s basement. Just me and my pet Roomba serving me beers and a parade of digital sirens looking for fast love and my bank account number, not necessarily in that order. 

My digital scribe will be penning these essays from now on. 

Cheers! 

Running On Empty

LAST WEEK I was listening to Running on Empty, Jackson Browne’s iconic road album from 1977.  It was a portentous moment, since three days later the entire east coast of the U.S. was NOT running BECAUSE on empty. Damn, I thought. I should’ve been listening to Aerosmith’s Permanent Vacation, because maybe that would herald my winning of the lottery, after which I’d never have to work again. 

Insofar as music has the ability to shape the future course of events, be careful what you listen to. I’ve met folks who believe that God is, in fact, nothing more than a cosmic disc jockey, sending us audible vibrations of life cues through an array of disposable pop tunes. These types of belief systems can be fraught with peril, though. The woman who dates the alcoholic, abusive, perennially jobless “Mickey” because Toni Basil kept telling her how “so fine” he is, desperately clings to her own induced misery.  

I’m getting off track. I started this piece to highlight the mass idiocy of hysterical hoarding that is part and parcel of being human. Whether it’s toilet paper or hand sanitizer, Blanton’s bourbon or gasoline, our collective penchant for stockpiling suggests a strong genetic similarity with packrats and, given the shameful social reflexes of some people, rats in general. 

It began with a banner declaration in my Atlanta morning paper: 

EXPERTS RECOMMEND AVOIDING THE HOARDING OF GAS 

Jesus creeping shit, I thought, they might as well have deleted the word “avoiding” in that headline and just told everyone to panic like the Earth was about to explode. Later in the day I was coasting down the highway, scanning each gas station I passed. Every one of them was crammed with cars filling, not only their gas tanks, but every conceivable receptacle they could get their hands on. One beady-eyed driver was topping off his Yeti cup with high test. Another had taken both his socks off and had filled them with regular unleaded, knotting them at the top to prevent spillage. The worst was an anxious mother with a gas nozzle plunged into her daughter’s mouth, filling the poor girl’s stomach, and ordering her to sit still until they got home so she could puke the fuel back into their emergency generator. The apocalypse was nigh and extreme measures had to be taken, and this kid was being told to literally suck it up for the greater good of the whole family. 

So much for the serenity that our vaunted human intelligence should be bringing us. Our big brains have actually broadened the capacity for hypothetical catastrophe, making it more likely that the hypotheticals become actuals. A round of applause then, for our vast human comedy. William Saroyan penned a portion of it in the early forties, as World War II was kicking up in earnest. He wrote, “…the strange, weed-infested, junky, wonderful, senseless yet beautiful world.” I may add: gas-filled and gas-depleted, teeming with abundance and sorely lacking, plush and vapid, tedious and inspiring, and fraught with the kind of remarkable contradictions that make it necessary to extract humor like it was an embedded, gas-soaked fossil. Humor is the fuel that keeps my sanity going. I can’t afford to run out. 

Estivate: (Verb)— To spend a hot, dry period in a state of dormancy or torpor. 

I love that word. It lends my laziness a lofty sophistication. I’m not just sitting around my house. I’m estivating. 

It is summer, so it’s a hot period, and the gas pumps have dried up, so it’s a dry period, and I’ve been hoarding Blanton’s bourbon for years, which will put me in a state of extreme dormancy. I’ll hunker down for a while, until the pipelines start gushing forth with dinosaur juice so I may again careen through the city on some frivolous path. 

I’ve got no problem estivating at Hull House, my obscured and spartan compound nestled somewhere in the heart of Dixie. I’ve got all the Blanton’s I can handle—all the pretty horses in a row. I’ve got a decent library—thus plenty to read, and I’m back to listening to Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty. I’m unaware of listening to the album for any other reason than it’s one of my favorites. However, if next week I find myself taking to the road, in love with a woman named Rosie, exalting in the thunder, passing through Shaky Town, high on cocaine, my love needing a heart, with nothing but time on my hands and wondering whether to load out or whether to “Stay…. just a little bit longer,” we’ll all know that greater cosmic musical forces are hard at work. 

More Alembics… 

Nowhere Man

I have a strange psychic relationship with Franz Kafka, the great modernist writer—in particular his two most famous characters: Gregor Samsa from The Metamorphosis and Joseph K. from The Trial. In effect, sometimes I wake up feeling like a bug, as poor Gregor did, and sometimes I feel slapped around by the system, as was the fate of doomed Joseph K. The other day, I felt like both. 

I am beset on all sides of my property by very loud dogs. They are friendly fellows, gregarious tail-waggers, constantly announcing their admiration for me each time I step out into the backyard. They announce and announce and announce, at delirious volumes, spurred on by each other and, in an effort to see who can love me the most, will keep at it for interminable lengths of time. While I appreciate the adoration, sometimes I prefer the languid silence that doesn’t cause the blood vessels in my head to burst apart. 

The answer was quite simple: get a stockade fence around the perimeter of the backyard. In the words of the empirical philosophers: If the dogs don’t see me then I don’t be me, and perhaps without the super-stimulation of my very presence the dogs next door will drift off into slumber, to dream of fire hydrants and dead squirrels. 

The fence company warned me that I may need to get a permit to have the fence installed. Maybe, maybe not, they said. I frowned, knowing that local governments are not very good at clarifying these types of situations. I decided I wouldn’t get one and also decided to try and find out if I actually needed one. After all, if I was going to break the rules, I should know, at least, what the rules are. I did a quick search with my zip code and was directed to the Town’s Department of Red Tape. I called them up. 

“Yes,” a woman told me, “you need a permit.” She gave me instructions on how to proceed. In a moment of weakness and sheer stupidity on my part, I decided to follow the rules. I dropped off the application and the specs. When I returned home there was already an e-mail waiting for me.

“Dear Sir, your application cannot be accepted because you don’t live here. Thank you.” 

Vexed, I called back to get a clearer explanation, a hilarious expectation on my part. 

“We cannot grant you a permit because you don’t live here,” reiterated the woman. 

“Out of curiosity where do I live?” I asked. “And don’t tell me something like, ‘In the hearts and minds of those yearning to be free,’ or some such drivel.” 

“Sir, we only know where you don’t live.” 

“Do I need a permit where I live, wherever that is?” 

“That I can’t answer because it’s in the category of the known unknown. In short: we know we don’t know where you live.” 

“What if I told you the fence I applied for is set to be 40-feet high, with spikes emerging from all sides on which I shall impale children and animals, as a kind of aggressive deterrent?” 

“Well, that would be against code where we live, but I wouldn’t want to speak for where you live.” 

“What if I told you I was building a moat?” 

“You’d need a letter from the board of health, but not our board of health.”  

“What if I was going to put a dragon in the moat?” 

“Your dragon would have to be on a leash, most likely, but that would be an entirely different department that deals with pet licensing, here or anywhere else.” 

“I appreciate you taking the time to answer all my questions,” I said. 

 “Luckily I’m on my lunch break, which is three hours long, and the wifi is down, so what the hell.” 

“How about a general inquiry: what exactly does the permit permit?” I asked. 

“Most importantly, it permits us to receive a payment from you,” she stated, her voice as neutral as a robot. “It permits us to keep an eye on you. It permits us a broad control. It permits conformity. It permits the request for permission, which is the most basic form of subjugation. It permits the perpetuation of the hierarchy. It permits the power of our Napoleonic little government, tiny and ambitious as it is. It permits the justification of our own bureaucratic existence. It permits us to kill your spirit with a million little complexities. It permits confusion, which is the easiest and most effective form of manipulation. It permits you to feel like Gregor Samsa, the trapped bug. It permits that vague sense of impotent dread that foreshadows the great and vast nothingness of your own abilities in a cold and unforgiving universe.” 

“Don’t tell me,” I said. “You majored in philosophy. Do you like Kafka?” 

“My phone is about to die on you. There will be nothing afterwards. Only silence.” 

More Alembics… 

Sing, Thalia

IT ISN’T MY intention to be crude, but it seems entirely reasonable that a fart was humanity’s original punchline. 

Comedy had to come from somewhere, and if it didn’t arrive from above, bestowed with angelic benevolence upon the masses to keep them from killing each other any more than they already do, then perhaps it emerged from “below,” as a gift of noxious yet mirthful unity that predated the development of clever rhetoric. 

It’s funny what we find funny.  

When things seem mysterious, I tend to look to evolution for a reasonable explanation. It wasn’t long before I saw the whole setup in the primordial landscape of my mind. There they were, a dozen or so cavemen, crouched around a fire, gnawing on hunks of animal flesh—chewing and grunting—when a particularly coarse troglodyte, whose intestinal gods are angry, happens to let one rip. The “gastric honk” silences the rest of the primitives while the plentiful release of methane causes the fire to grow momentarily larger, which lends a preternatural aura to the event. Then, it happens. One of the squatting Neanderthals erupts in a staggered and labored guffaw, as does the next one, then the next, and there we have the birth of comedy. 

Consider, also, an eerie linguistic similarity to these two seemingly disparate concepts. 

Afflatus—A divine, creative impulse 

Flatus—A fart 

That’s way too close to be a coincidence, right there. And, given the fact that a lot of ideas stink, well, the difference then becomes negligible. 

Humor is a mystery that we can’t live without. Laughter probably saves lives, and that’s why those ancestors who found no merriment in flatulence are extinct. Comedy announces itself in peculiar ways, from either orifice, and seems to be more effective when the subjects themselves are almost too taboo for amusement. Here’s a quote from Albert Camus that may reinforce my point. 

“I have heard of a post-war writer who, after having finished his first book, committed suicide to attract attention to his work. Attention was in fact attracted, but the book was judged no good.”  —Albert Camus

Hilarious. We’ve got flatulence and suicide. Now let’s include murder and insanity. 

Thalia, pronounced TAL-ya because the “H” is silent (but deadly?) is the divine Muse of comedy. I find it hysterical that statues devoted to her usually depict her holding what looks like some poor bastard’s severed head, although it’s apparently the mask of comedy. Still, I remain unconvinced. Every time I see her holding that decapitated cranium I think, “You better laugh. Look what happened to the last guy who didn’t think she was funny. She sliced him off at the throat and stapled the corners of his lips to his cheekbones.” 

She’s one of my favorites: crazy beheading maniac that she is.  

So we’ve got flatulence, suicide and murder. Now to the insanity. 

I won’t go into details, but this past weekend was a rough one for me. I had a bit of an existential shake-up, and in a moment of pure panic I reached out to my Muse, Thalia, pleading with her to deliver unto me a laugh for which I was in desperate need. 

“Help thyself, or I’ll cut your damn head off,” I heard her yell into my ear, because we have that kind of relationship.  

So I went for a walk. 

Blinding sunshine, trees in bloom and not a sound in the air. The walk was salubrious, but not very funny. That is, until I heard this sharp staccato knock coming from above, as rapid as machine-gun fire. It was a woodpecker, smashing his face into the side of a tree with lunatic intensity. It was almost as if he was trying to beat his own brains out. It seemed so crazy I couldn’t help but laugh. I cackled doubly hard when I decided the reason for him ramming his face into a tree was because he’d just lost his job, or had returned to his nest to find another woodpecker had shacked up with his wife. Then, the laughter I sought was really upon me. I actually noticed other animals perched in nearby trees, also watching him while shaking their own heads at the deranged little sapsucker’s relentless attempts to drive his face clear through a two-foot tree trunk. Bam-bam-bam-bam-bam, pause. Bam-bam-bam-bam-bam, pause. 

Life can be brutal, and bad days happen. But, as long as I can extract a little comedy from the chaos, I’ll be able to get through it all. 

The woodpecker suddenly stopped his racket, flew down to a nearby branch and stared at me with a look of crackpot futility. We regarded each other for a good long while, until I decided to ask him a question. 

“Mr. Woodpecker, why do you hammer your face into the tree like that?” 

“Because it feels so good when I stop,” was his deranged reply. 

And there we have it. 

More Alembics…

Ixion’s Bar Tab

I HAD A busy weekend planned. I’d fully intended on riding Ixion’s wheel over to pick up Maxwell’s demon so we could steal Occam’s razor to kill Schrödinger’s cat, after which we’d kind of root around Pandora’s box. Instead, I watched television for like four hours, which was its own kind of madness, since the television was off the whole time.   

Point being, nobody likes a wiseass. Life’s tough enough without having to look up a bunch of obscure references all smashed together for no discernible reason, like in that last paragraph. I suppose, in a way, that sentence, from Ixion down to Pandora, could serve as awkward metaphor. I felt like a lot had been happening recently and, at the same time, not a damn thing.  

When this strange and paradoxical malaise hits me, I usually head off to the bar. Say what you will about the perils of heavy drinking, it will reconcile the hell out of a contradiction, or at least make me perfectly happy about the contradiction, which is basically the same thing. 

I stopped in at my favorite watering hole and could immediately feel the rage in the air, the quiet tension that lingers thick before an enormous brawl erupts. I thought maybe it was the news on the television, as it had gone back to “normal” in the worst possible way—by reporting about the mass shooting epidemic instead of the COVID epidemic. 

That wasn’t it, though. The source of the outrage was a pointy-headed couple sitting at the bar who had apparently been there all afternoon yukking it up while amassing a $200 bar tab of tequila and potato chips, which should give some idea about the amount of tequila that was involved. They were wearing conical paper birthday hats atop their heads, which may have just been repurposed dunce caps. 

“I’ve got some gift cards,” the man slurred, as he handed over a stack of no less than 80 of them, each with a remaining balance of no more than $3 per card. So the bartender, apoplectic with fury, had announced a moratorium on drink service until, as she so eloquently put it, “I deal with this broke motherfucker’s squaring of his account.” 

Already there was a line of receipts running from the printer to the floor as the bartender swiped card after card, knocking the bar tab down a few bucks at a time. The rest of the customers, empty glasses in front of them, glared at the tequila-and-potato-chips duo with all the fury of Zeus casting Ixion down to Tartarus to spin on his fiery wheel for eternity, which was Ixion’s dubious claim to fame. One bar customer who was lucky enough to still have half a glass of beer in front of her offered to share it with me in exchange for protection and on the condition I buy her a full one when the madness was all over. You know the situation is fraught when a stranger offers to share a beer with another stranger in the midst of a pandemic. And even worse, he accepts. 

The birthday freaks with their pointy caps tilted on their heads looked around like doped-up unicorns. It was folks like these that were the reason for rules of any kind. They are the burden for which we all must suffer, kind of like Ixion’s wheel, and the dumber the behavior, the more draconian the rules. If the Ten Commandments were written today they would be comprised of 50 pages of digital fine print with a “Skip and Accept” button at the bottom. 

So be it. 

Disaster was averted and the birthday couple was saved from serious assault as a miraculous stroke of luck befell the bartender when she ran the last gift card and realized, somehow, that after it had cleared the $2.75 remaining bar tab there was still a $297.25 balance, which she applied to her gratuity. In 25 minutes she’d netted herself almost $300, which isn’t a bad payoff. The birthday couple stumbled out and everybody got a beer on the house, except for me, who had to fork over the cash in exchange for the beer advance I’d gotten from the woman who’d shared her pint. After all, a deal’s a deal. 

Maybe money is the root of all evil, but it definitely solves some problems, on occasion. The bartender was thereafter in a grand mood—quite charitable—and the inebriation I sought wasn’t long in manifesting. 

Life is short and the wait for a beer, sometimes, is far too long, which is the opposite of the way it should be. 

Now I have to avoid the twelve labors of Hercules and climb Sisyphus’s boulder in order to jam a little on Pan’s flute and afterwards maybe flirt with Odysseus’s Sirens…

More Alembics to come…

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