Us versus Them

Feeling somewhat dejected, I consoled myself with the music of the folk singer Loudon Wainright. For those who don’t know he is the hallowed composer of such classic hits as, “dead skunk in the middle of the road,” the followup hit, “dead skunk on the shoulder of the road,” and the somewhat attenuated, “dead skunk up the hill some on the other side of the road, cause it got clipped so it still had the energy to run a bit but it died anyway.” The main hook of the song was resonating with me. “Stinkin‘ to hiiiiiiigh heaven!”

You said it.

There is a tall can of Budweiser in my fridge but I just can’t bring myself to drink it. Not since the news that Budweiser InBev is buying Miller Beer. That is like all the Jedi knights moving onto the Death Star. It’s like Reagan and Gorbachev tearing down the Berlin Wall and then using the bricks to build a spacious condo for both of them to live in. It’s like Indiana Jones living with snakes. It’s like the Taliban buying Bryn Mawr College. It’s like Coke and Pepsi being denied a marriage license by Kim Davis. It’s like Sherlock Holmes going into business with Professor Moriarty.

Come to think of it, how did that random can of Budweiser get in my fridge, anyway?

Truth be told I don’t particularly care for either Miller or Bud. They both taste like musty club soda to me, but that isn’t the point. I’ve consumed large amounts of both beers on occasions that called for it. Fourth of July cookouts, Metallica concerts, football games–both intramural and professional. In short, it is the proper potation for purely American pursuits. What has me concerned is the collapse of giant polarizing entities in a culture that thrives on them. As a nation we love to love what we love and we love to hate what we hate.

Really, how did that can of Budweiser get in my fridge?

The idea of dynamic tension is an old one. Charles Atlas popularized the practice in the early 1900’s. Pit one muscle group against another and watch them both grow into massive weapons you can use against Coney Island bullies that kick sand in your face and steal your girlfriend. What’s good for personal fitness is good for product marketing. Over the course of the twentieth century small-scale competitors grew into merchandising titans that demanded brand loyalty.

It’s fun to watch the two biggest teams go at it. The spectators choose sides. They feel like they belong. There is an opponent that channels their vague rage. This is the essence of conflict. Of triumph. Of the dialectic that drives innovation and strategy. Bud and Miller have been cast by the vast marketing machine as the dueling drinks of American champions, war heroes, and dusty cowpokes riding off into the sunset. It’s one or the other. You’re either in or you’re out. We’ve been blasting at each other with our flintlocks for a hundred years. Now they want us to throw down our weapons and shake hands.

It was getting ridiculous. I still couldn’t figure out about that one random can of Budweiser in my refrigerator. Even stranger was that it was tucked in a beer koozy commemorating the “Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival” out of Niceville, Florida. How did that get there? Was I in Niceville, Florida, recently? Where is Niceville? Is it even nice?

I was late for a meeting so I hopped in a cab with my cold beer and my newspaper and hightailed it over to Buckhead. As I continued reading about the Bud-Miller merger it became clear that the two iconic beers may not be the staunch American bulwarks they claimed to be. The merger had more to do with an Argentinian investment firm, the Santo Domingo family of Columbia, and a fellow named Jan DePlessis hammering out negotiations in London. There was no mention of the United States of America. Bosh! I yelled, sipping my random can of beer. Super cold and delicious in all its stale mustiness.

As usual the traffic was terrible so I got out of the cab and walked. Overtaken with thirst, I stopped at one of these trendy Buckhead bars for a hit of good old fashioned American bourbon. I surrendered my can of Bud and traded it for a fresh bottle of a beer called “Eschaton” made by the Wild Heaven distillery in Atlanta. I inserted it into my Boggy Bayou beer koozy.

“Eschaton,” a fellow next to me muttered. “The end of the world.”

He was a well put-together chap, wearing Armani everything, his face pulled tight from countless surgeries. The keys to his Ferrari in plain view on the bar. We got to talking. He mentioned that he had just returned from Paris after their fashion week had wrapped. He was upset because, as he put it, “Demna Gvasalia was just named artistic director of Balenciaga. Somewhat of an insult considering the notoriety of the iconoclastic Vetements, don’t you think?”

“What the hell are you talking about?” I said. “Is that even English?”

“Just saying, the world is changing. We can’t count on the old power structures anymore.”

Maybe we had more in common than I thought.

“That whiskey you are drinking has been bought by the Japanese,” he said.

“Figures.”

“That beer you are drinking is named after the end of the world.”

“At 12% alcohol-by-volume it may very well be,” I said.

“The Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival,” he said, motioning to my beer koozy, “is run by Ukranian Separatists.”

“Wouldn’t have thunk it,” I said.

“Niceville, Florida is ill-tempered.”

“Ever heard the song ‘dead skunk in the middle of the road?’” I asked.

“It’s my favorite.”

“Let’s sing it together.”

More Alembics to come.

X-Ray Vision

Take a lesson from the citizens of Pompeii. When disaster strikes, like say for instance a volcano erupts, the best thing to do is run. Or maybe not. Maybe the best thing to do is avoid volcanos. The second best thing to do is run. The third best thing to do is get mummified in lava, soot and ash so that two thousand years later smug grad students can stick you through a CT scanner to figure out why you were too lazy to outrun the deadly plume burping out of the fiery mountain.

I like volcanos. They are beautiful from a distance, a wonder of geology. But when the thing pops like an oily teenager’s monstrous blackhead, things can turn ugly fast. Mount Vesuvius, named after those obnoxious horns used at soccer games (right?) erupted in the first century A.D. The science of seismology was a budding science at the time, making it much harder to predict catastrophe. When the ground shook it was because Zeus had been caught fornicating with livestock and when red lava flowed in rivers down the hillside it was because Prometheus was a kleptomaniac and when the crops suffered it was because of “hey, fuggeddabouddit.”

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius covered Pompeii with a blanket of powdery ash that smothered the citizens who weren’t fast enough to escape it. They were entombed and preserved in the middle of their routines–washing clothes, picking olives, bringing their sundries to market, playing their rebecs, shawms, theorbos, zithers, watching their televisions–which was their term for “window that overlooks loud neighbors,” while the sky turned black and angry fire rained from the sky. For years scientists have sought to understand more about these fossilized victims. Now new CT scanning technology is hoping to uncover details about these ancient people that were previously unknown. Already breakthroughs have been made. For instance what was thought to be pregnant women left behind turned out to be fat men who were a little too slow when it came to fleeing. Most had good teeth and hair like the Werewolves of London, which points to a certain level of vanity. Most had an amphora full of wine and a mirror nearby. Most had their feet still intact, disproving the theory that the reason they didn’t seek shelter was because they were missing. Other discoveries have been made, some that seemed only natural.

“Every one of these guys had their dick in their hand,” said an archaeologist. “Go figure.”

The writer Malcolm Lowry understood about the dangers of volcanos. He wrote a novel about a couple of them down in Mexico. Unfortunately volcanos were the least of his problems, since he had an alcohol dependency bigger than W.C. Fields, Babe Ruth and Ernie Hemingway all put together. For his first drink in the morning he had to rig a pulley system in order to lift the cup to his mouth because his shakes and tremors were so bad that if he was holding it all the tequila would fly out before he got it to his lips. Being covered in molten rock would’ve been preferable to that level of hangover.

It is hard to predict how much can be learned from x-raying our ancestors, unless through some dumb luck superstition each one of them swallowed their diaries before they perished. Every civilization has its perils. The most important lesson about Mount Vesuvius is don’t get caught around active volcanos. No CT scanning necessary. Mind the funnel cloud. Don’t pet the hooded cobra or the frothing dog or the roaring lion. Wasp nests make bad beach balls. Don’t wear the suit of armor to the lightning show. The gigantic fin sticking out of the water is probably attached to something bigger. The asteroid isn’t stopping by to make friends. The blizzard isn’t there to cover up the graffiti. Birthday cake, good. Uranium cake, bad. The guy in the van isn’t the candyman. Pain isn’t the only thing that painkillers kill. The big mushroom cloud in the sky isn’t the delicious portobello kind. The internet wants to devour you. Cancer isn’t just your cells on an ego trip. Mental illness isn’t just all in the mind.

When they stick our society into the CT scanner two thousand years from now they will detail how advanced we must have been, given our prosthetic limbs, fine dental work, plastic organs, sleek caskets, sophisticated phones clenched in ossified hands, and the fact that so many citizens died wearing ornate, bullet-shaped jewelry under their skin, clearly an indication of the ruling class.

More Alembics to come.

The Island of Dr. Moron

I need a billion dollars. Or thereabouts. I’m considering a crowd-funding push to buy Plum Island, which is up for sale. The small plot of land sits just east of Orient Point, across a narrow channel of water, beyond the northern tip of Long Island, New York. For decades it housed a research facility run by the U.S. government, notable for studying the effects of foot-and-mouth disease in cows. This isn’t to be confused with foot-IN-mouth disease, which is a plague primarily endemic to humans, usually after too many martinis, and characterized by loud and loose talk about that shameless slut, who is just “so shameless, so proud of her home wrecking, hiccup, letting it all hang out in that dress that is two sizes too small for her. She has handled more semen than the state forensics lab, that one has, and she beats her kids and she is standing right behind me, isn’t she? I don’t care. See if I care. I just done care. Hiccup.”

*

There is speculation that Plum Island, this little piece of acreage out where the ocean meets the sound, could fetch one of the highest prices in real estate history. Not since Manhattan went on the block for about thirty bucks and a few ears of corn three centuries ago is such a steep transaction expected. Not surprising, since it is all about location. Plum Island sits right above the playground of the rich known as the Hamptons. It is a bucolic stretch of seascape where hedge fund managers and movie stars sit around in the sand and compare helicopters. For a mere billion dollars I could set up a nice little bungalow and brag about my flashy neighbors like Billy Joel, Sting, Pauly Shore, that wacky family with nineteen kids, Jesco White the Dancing Outlaw, and the honey badger, just to name a few. In fact I’m not sure who lives in the Hamptons. For all I know it could just be a bunch of parvenu drinking cheap tequila and fondling the cousins. Not the immediate ones, of course, because that would be weird. Just the ones with different last names or however it is justified.

So eager was I to acquire the mysterious Plum Island that I gave little thought to what I would do once I was lord and master over it. As is my habit I fell back on the writers of yore. There were a few options. I could use it to hunt marooned sailors, like Count Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game. Use it to develop my own race of human beasts like The Island of Dr. Moreau, or just put together an army of savages like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. The possibilities seemed endless. I could rent me some Sirens, the singing mermaid type, build a reef nearby so ships could wreck on it, steal their cargo, imprison their crew and generally cultivate a reputation of terror, fear, dread and madness. I could be my own northern version of the Bermuda Triangle, just absorbing and destroying anything that wanders into my zone. Folks would stand at the railing of the New London ferry and point at the darkened outline of my rocky coast. They would warn their children against ever setting foot on the doomed shore. They would recount horrible legends that eclipsed, just slightly, the truth of the matter.

It occurred to me that I may be heading in the wrong direction on this one. Instead of being a sadistic, homicidal shit-head I could produce an earthly paradise of peace, love and understanding, more like James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. Better yet, develop a reputation for horror and murder, then make it the utopia. That would keep the weasels and rats from crashing the party. It is a regrettable truism that there is a faction of the human race full of resentment and cupidity that enjoys ruining other people’s fun. ISIS, The Huns, and Nazis to name a few. There is water on Mars. Then there was the all-inclusive red desert resort for the rich. Then there was the Fourth Reich. That’s how it goes, as Leonard Cohen says, and everybody knows.

*

I went down to the local saloon. I needed to bounce some of my ideas for my Island of Saturnalia off of the local rummies. There was Fess, Scrim, Big Frank and Calhoun. They were at the bar and good and liquored up, which meant I had them right where I wanted them. I bid them top of the morning, since Fess, Scrim, Big Frank and Calhoun liked to drink all day and you can’t drink all day unless you start early. I told them about my plan. They seemed eager to sign up. A handful of drunken colonists. They were already discussing the monument that would be erected in their honor, on a hilltop, overlooking the sea. It would be an earthly paradise, a place where ultimate freedom reigned, which is the best kind of freedom. No rules, just life reduced to its purest form of expression.

“I’d watch out if I were you,” whispered Scrim to me in haste. “Big Frank will kill you in your sleep. He sees you as a threat to his rightful position. Tell you what, we’ll pledge allegiance to him and then cut his head off in the middle of the night.” I told Scrim he was being paranoid. Even so, better safe than sorry, said he. And you can’t trust Calhoun. He’d smother his own mother. Eerie rhyme, said I. Didn’t mean it, said he. Then Fess asked what type of currency system would be in place? Which god would be our god? Who could lay claim to the best plot of land? When would we import our slaves and how could we best suppress women’s rights? How could we defend against miscegenation and fight the Islamic scourge? How could we profit off the labor of others? Calhoun suggested we turn it into a profitable penal colony and Big Frank insisted he wouldn’t go in for any gay stuff. Calhoun tried to explain what a penal colony was, but Big Frank had already outlawed “Sodomites.” That was quick. I called them all a bunch of fascist pigs and Scrim went after my throat with a butter knife, vowing to burn the island to the ground rather than see it in the hands of puking communists. “Et tu, Scrim,” I wheezed. We were all about to kill each other when the bartender brought a round of shots and everything settled down. We sipped our drinks, eyed each other cautiously. Maybe we weren’t the right people to run a fledgling society. Then we turned to the television to watch Congress try to pick a new speaker of the house.

More Alembics to come