The Malevolent Morning of Meme

Action…. Reflection…Mimicry…Conformity…Resolution

There was a steady rain as the sun rose. The dawn sky was gray and the air chilled. The raindrops themselves had the sting of ice needles, half-frozen, tiny comets nosediving in relentless assault. Which was all fine with me. It was a comfortable, lazy, foggy morning outside my window and I had nothing to do but write and whatever. With a pot of fresh coffee brewing in the kitchen and some Coleman Hawkins on the turntable, it was shaping up to be a fine start to the day and to the week, as well. Then something rather strange happened. I went and checked my mailbox, ostensibly, for mail. This was foolish for a few reasons. First, I knew for absolute certain that there was no mail. Knew it as sure as my own name. It was early Monday morning. No mail had been delivered on Sunday. There was no mail in the mailbox and I knew it. Second, once I was outside shuffling up the driveway toward the empty mailbox I was startled by how harsh the freezing rain was. It was cold. Really cold. It was like the cold that reminds you of your own mortality.  Yet I went all the way to the edge of my front yard, to the mailbox, opened it, looked inside, closed it, walked back into the house and sat down, all the while knowing there was nothing to be retrieved and against a deluge of freezing precipitation.  I rubbed my hands to get some circulation back in them.

“What was that all about?”

I gave it some thought. Then it occurred to me. I had seen my neighbor across the street check his mail, at this ludicrous hour. Enraged and no longer concerned with the freezing rain, I stomped over to his house and began hammering on the front door with both fists. He flung the door open and stood staring at me.

“What’s your problem?” he said.

“What’s the big idea checking the mail so early in the morning, on a Monday, of all days?”

I could see his mind working. “I know, right?” he said finally. “It’s freezing. I thought I was a goner about halfway back up the driveway.”

“No mail?” I said.

“Of course no mail,” he said.

I admitted that I had checked my mailbox because I had seen him check his and that it was too cold for that type of thing. I felt I was entitled to an explanation.

“Now that I think about it, I happened to see Doug check his mailbox.” My neighbor pointed a finger accusingly a few houses up. A minute later we were both hammering on Doug’s door.

“What the hell is wrong with you two?” said Doug. “Do you know how early it is?”

We told him we demanded to know why he would check his mail this morning, so early on a Monday, cold and gray and treacherous and freezing, when he knew there couldn’t possibly be any mail delivered and inadvertently making us check ours, and who did he think he was, perpetuating this foolishness right along down the block. Was he trying to make idiots out of us or what?

“It was Valerie!” Doug exclaimed. “I saw her hustling down the driveway in her bathrobe with her cigarette and coffee just two minutes before I checked my mail. Not only did she look into the mailbox, she actually stuck her arm in and felt around.”

“Are you serious?”

“Why would I make that up?”

“Let’s get her!”

Moments later we were all on Valerie’s doorstep, raining fists on the front door. She answered just as Doug had described her. Bathrobe. Cigarette. Coffee cup.

“Hello neighbors,” she said. “Come on in. Would you like some coffee?”

“Yes,” Doug said. “And put some brandy in it, and don’t change the subject!”

We sat around Valerie’s kitchen table. We were confused, accusatory, cold and with the arrival of the brandy, a little drunk. Valerie was legitimately disturbed. She insisted she didn’t know why she had checked the mail. She almost didn’t remember doing it and had to fight back a few tears of frustration. While we sat there, not entirely trusting one another, there was another knock on Valerie’s door. It was two neighbors up the block looking for me to angrily complain as to why I would be so stupid as to check my mail this early on a Monday morning when surely no mail had been delivered. Valerie brought out more coffee cups. We made short work of the brandy.

It was a troubling notion. Was this the stranglehold of advertising, a testament to its effectiveness? Mimicry. Reflexive behavior. Did we all buy the same paper towels, the one with the fellow from the Village People on it? Same detergent? Same bread? I was ready to accept a random sampling of dentists in order to let a majority of these unknown professionals dictate the chewing gum I may prefer? Did I even like to chew gum and did it matter?

I remember once I happened to catch a video of an old Bruce Springsteen concert live at Hammersmith Odeon, ’75. A powerful performance to be sure, one of the best I’ve ever seen, and I watched it and considered it a job well done, and that was that. The next day I went to ten different stores looking for an oversized dirty wool hat. None were oversized enough, or dirty enough. After swapping one from a hobo for a pair of old sneakers I realized that Springsteen had been wearing the same hat the entire time on stage.

“Everybody hold on!” yelled Valerie. “It was Gordon. Now I remember,” she said with the dramatic flair of the amnesic from a Hitchcock movie who realizes she holds the key to the puzzle. “He was the one at the mailbox this morning before me. And not only that,” she leaned in and whispered, “he retrieved something.”

Moments later our angry mob shuffled up the block through the icy torrent. We huddled together for warmth and decided that if one of us died from exposure they would be left until the spring thaw, at which time they would receive a proper burial. When we reached Gordon’s house we could hear his dog Laddie woofing up a storm, announcing our presence. Gordon opened the door before we beat it off the hinges. He looked bemused at our rain-soaked bunch.

“What’s up?”

“Do you realize what you’ve done?”

We described the pain and anguish we had been dealing with individually and as a group because of his insensitivity in checking his mailbox first thing that morning, on a Monday, no less, in the freezing rain. Gordon laughed. He explained that his brother was going out of town for a few days and had left his spare set of house keys with Gordon to keep an eye on the property. He had tossed them in the mailbox so as not to be an early morning nuisance. We all looked at each other sheepishly, obliged and yet still unwilling to accept the explanation.

“We could run over there now,” said Gordon, jingling the keys in his hand. “He’s got a hot tub.”

Twenty minutes later we were all piled into the steamy whirlpool in various degrees of deshabille. Someone opened up a bottle of sparkling wine that happened to be laying around the refrigerator and then “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” came pounding out of the stereo. We felt no guilt or compunction about raiding Gordon’s brother’s house.  It was the least he could do since it was his fault for disturbing the entire neighborhood, and the trajectory of the day ended up going to places the most lucid oracle could not have foreseen.

More Alembics to come.

Melville Had It

Even whales can overdo it….Bartleby, Mersault and others…Bad sequels…The Modern Pandora….

Flipping through the world’s news stories over a cup of extremely strong coffee, I happened upon some video footage of a scientist, a cetology researcher perhaps, from the Faroe Islands who for either scientific reasons or just for the jackass fun of it cut open the belly of a sperm whale. Hilarity ensues.

I gave it a good four or five viewings, in real time and slow motion, and other than the keen anticipation and squeamish explosion, I began to suspect there was some deeper, more fundamental understanding of the human mind within this rather simple yet abrupt demonstration.

First off I threw away my coffee, since the mug was sitting to the right of my computer screen, precisely in the line of this bloody blast of entrails shooting from the left, to the right, and somehow contaminating my precious morning brew. Then I went and dug through my library to find my copy of “Moby Dick”. After an extended waste of time wading through my book room I gave up in defeat. I have no formal filing system, other than reckless flinging and stacking. It occurred to me, though, that I had given the book away which is basically what you do when you loan books out and so I would have to just coast through this blog entry with a patchy recollection of the mighty novel.

I have always enjoyed Herman Melville. “Bartleby The Scrivener” is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read, I guess because I can identify with him, much the way I remember identifying with Mersault from “The Stranger”, which along with Ivan Ilyich and Lord Henry from “Dorian Gray” are the folks you end up ‘hanging’ with when you utter the fool words, “I think I’d like to switch my major to philosophy.”

I pictured this scientist from the video, with his whale shears and his trendy red slicker, trying to make Bartleby cut this dead whale’s belly open and the hallowed anti-hero just standing there, issuing his famous line, “I’d prefer not to.”

“But it’s your job, man. You signed up for this. Cut this monster’s belly open.”

“I’d prefer not to.”

“But we’re paying you.”

“I’d prefer not to.”

“What would happen if everyone stopped cutting whales‘ bellies open?”

“I’d prefer not to.”

“Confound it all. Hand me those shears. I’ll do it.”

I hadn’t realized that the sperm whale’s primary diet consisted of American fast food. Either that or Fukushima sushi. I’ve actually seen worse at El Azteca, which is a popular Atlanta mexican restaurant for thrill seekers and man versus microbe types.

I defer to the scientist in the red slicker again, the Modern Pandora as I like to call him, who seems rather surprised and moves out of the line of fire damn fast. What did he expect? Jonah (for all my bible friends out there), thrown twenty feet through the air, gasping for breath, yelling about what took so long?  The shock-rock band Gwar, perhaps, emerging to the opening chords of their newest chart-topper. (If any members of Gwar happen to be reading this, I think we may have found the opening effect for the next world tour.)

Back to Herman Melville. He believed there was something mystic and profound in the whale species. Graceful, powerful, and with a preternatural level of intelligence, they are both beauty and peril, obstacle and ally. We rule the land. They rule the sea. We attack each other for bargain deals at the mall and yell at each other during sporting events, they disappear for extended periods of time for unknown reasons only to reappear seasonally, following intricate migratory patterns, which is probably just about the same thing.

This footage seems to be the big letdown sequel to the American classic. I want Ahab in mad pursuit of the unattainable. I want the crew to be swallowed into the vast unknown as is the fate of all mankind, sooner or later. I want the redemption of Ishmael, the silent wisdom of Queequeg, the wages of obsession as divine spark and ultimate betrayal.

I want all that, but after I watch this grotesque film clip one more time.

More Alembics to come.

The Shape of Language

Funeral orgies….Muddy rubbers…More holes versus less holes…Reefer tugging…Heaters and hog legs…Where is your placenta buried?…and other phrases from the pages of respected literature that might give the wrong impression…

“So,” I said to her casually, “where is your placenta buried?”

“Freak,” she hissed. “What’s wrong with you?”

Before I had asked her the question, this anonymous woman sitting across from me in the library, I had weighed the consequences. I had not weighed them seriously, however, but in a sloppy and unconcerned manner, as is my usual method. Go ahead and ask her, I told myself. What’s the worst that can happen?

My immediate thought was that death would be the worst that could happen. But is it? At least death, on some level, gets you out of the situation that caused you to ask the question in the first place. It was suddenly possible, I realized as the woman continued to glare at me, that to stew uncomfortably in a situation for an interminable amount of time might be the worst thing that could happen, which was what was happening at that moment. The woman did not seem to fear me or my comment. She made no attempt to leave the table we were both seated at. But her face dropped like a rubber see-saw with two fat men on either end. She worked herself up with a series of throaty rumbles and began to threaten all sorts of things, vague things.

“I don’t know what gauntlet you think you’re running here, Mr. Placenta, but I can assure you that a formal statement from me to a man who joined the police force specifically to thrash a greasy little felon like yourself might be bad for your health and once you are in the system you are there and DNA don’t lie.”

Wow, I thought, that was a far stranger thing to say than the placenta question.

“Let me explain,” I said.

I’ll explain.

The placenta question was a frivolous bit of fun for me from a National Geographic article I had been reading some time ago. The article was about vanishing languages. In this case the Seri tribe of Northwest Mexico posed the ‘Where is your placenta buried?’ question when they wanted to know where you were from, since in that culture the afterbirth was buried in the ground at the site where you were born. The question, at that point, made perfect sense and seemed a harmless, interesting and unique way to begin a conversation. It sounded odd, but odd in a fun way, and now I found myself crawling from the soft dirt of the language hole I had buried myself in. The woman seemed to accept my explanation, but her tone was cautionary.

“That is all fine,” she said, “but language is a funny business. You must watch how you say things to a girl. I don’t know if you know this but as it turns out the placenta sits, for about nine months at least, in that part of a woman’s body where all men would like to enter. Most men, at least. Those who don’t know how to decorate.”

We agreed to be friends after that. To be honest she was a bit androgynous and I wasn’t sure at first if I had posed the question to a man or a woman, which, thanks to the Seri tribe of Northwest Mexico, I had found the answer to without having to ask in the usual way, and my thanks to anyone from the Seri tribe who happen to be reading this.

I was hanging around the library for the morning because my neighbor Valerie had begged me for a ride to the county courthouse because she had jury duty. Or at least that was what she said. There was a good chance she was on trial for something, and would be carted off in shackles and I would be stuck at the library, which was just down the street, not knowing whether to file an appeal, or just go home, or feed her dog, or adopt her son. Anyway, Valerie needed a ride because she couldn’t remember where she had left her car, and taxi drivers kidnap people all the time, she said, and I never had anything to do anyway and I might just be useful to somebody for once. I gave her a ride to the courthouse and told her to be as bigoted and close-minded as she possibly could without being held in contempt of court and she would be booted from the jury pool in due time.

At the library I had plucked “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” out of a random pile of books stacked around me. I started reading from somewhere in the middle, trying to jog my memory since I hadn’t read it since high school. I was a bit shocked to find a strange and startling phrase that jumped out of the page at me.

Funeral Orgies.

Yeesh.

I thought at first I had picked up a William S. Burroughs book. In this instance the word orgy simply meant a party of sorts (the character in Huckleberry Finn amends it to ‘obsequies’) and I was reminded of Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” when he goes to visit his wife’s family in Texas and they have a Thanksgiving orgy, which, in Steinbeck’s travel log is just quail shooting and parlor games. There is something just so strange about the word, though. Orgy. Even when you say it it’s like having a bunch of anonymous, hairy men and women copulating in your mouth. You almost have to scratch your tongue to remove remnants of the word. I pointed this out to my new friend across the table from me who happened to be flipping through Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street”. I handed her the Huck Finn book and pointed to where she should pick up the thread. She read the page about the funeral orgies and said she didn’t realize that the book had dealt with necrophilia. She thought it was just about racial morality. There was a river involved, she said. That she was sure of. She handed the book back to me.

At the very least Mark Twain had given me some credence. If the greatest American writer had used such strange language, I was off the hook for my comments. She continued reading her book. I let her get into it a little bit, then warned her about the ‘muddy rubbers’ she would be encountering.

“What?”

Sinclair Lewis was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature. He was big on the stifling effects of middle class hypocrisy, rigidity, and the general fatalism that sets into the bones of his doomed heroes once their dreams are smashed to pieces. Yet, of all the things I’ve read from him, (except Elmer Gantry, which was just damn good through and through) the only thing that really stuck in my mind from the entire corpus of his writing was a phrase about a woman coming in from the rain and her ‘muddy rubbers’. It sounded entirely decrepit, like the title of some German snuff film. Needless to say I was a little put off by the phrase, even though I knew he meant galoshes.

I ran across the ‘rubbers’ thing though, sometime later, in Salinger’s “To Esme, with love and squalor”. Again, the rubbers are mentioned, in church no less, where people have them in their laps. (Apparently it was customary in Europe to put one’s galoshes in one’s lap, which made no sense. You couldn’t get your feet wet but you could soak your crotch?) Having been inoculated with the rubbers thing, I then had to contend, in the Salinger story, with the hero (if you consider sitting around a cafe drinking tea heroic) noting a little boy around five years old, Esme’s brother, tugging on his reefer. God in heaven, what a progressive society that lets a five-year-old sit around a European cafe smoking a joint. (Reefer, in this case, referred to the boy’s pea coat.)

As I thought about it, the noir prose of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett played loose and fast with slang. Gats, heaters and hog legs were guns. A fireplug was a hydrant. Jack was money. Woof meant weft and weft meant weave, as in a story by a lying bastard. The Big Sleep was death.

What a lovely living thing, I thought, the shape of language, of words, of the ability not just to mean what they are but to sound how they sound, to provoke a sensation by the click of the consonant and the purr of the vowel. The stertorous ‘G’, the vibratto of ‘V’ the smack-the-side-of-your-head stomp of the ‘K’. The words and phrases themselves. The dread or euphoria felt when the phrase falls. The evolution of enunciation. Ravel and unravel, flammable and inflammable. They mean the same thing. You (h)ear with your ear and your kin are of the same (s)kin, and a (t)ouch can result in an ouch. split the two e’s in see, drop the s, posit why and you’ve got an eye. (T)aste enough and you can sate with a flip of a few letters. Breathe deep. There is a whole factory of olfactory.

Suddenly I was reminded of “Americana” by Don Delillo and “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace. On pages 96, and 146, respectively (in my editions, at least) the observation is made about the disparity of holes in the old standard telephone receiver. There are six for listening and something like forty for talking. For some reason it struck me to mind this one fact as it had been revealed separately in two great books. I noticed, throughout the course of the weeks that followed that people tended to do more talking than listening, and maybe the phone design was partly responsible. They just allotted a few meager openings for listening, but a huge cluster of empty holes were just waiting to be filled with the wisdom of the caller, for the language to run rampant from one side of the world to the other. It occurred to me that phones don’t work if everybody is just listening. It wasn’t just the technology but the design itself that hastened the evolving shape of the language.

I decided to leave the library. The day was bright and I could see people on the sidewalk talking nonstop, and I wanted to be a part of it. The woman across from me that I had momentarily offended didn’t take notice. She was sunk deep into Main Street, and I let her stay there. On the way out I stopped at the librarian’s desk and for some reason spit out a line from James Joyce.

“Lipsyg dooley krieging the funk from the hinnessy,” I said with a smile.

The librarian called me a vicious pig and slapped me in the side of my head with a big copy of Finnegan’s Wake. I should’ve asked her where her placenta was buried.

More alembics to come.