There’s been a poopular trend since the emergence of the cellphone. It occurs, like rodent infestations, in any public place where humans congregate. Restaurants, airports, city buses, beaches, lobbies, ski gondolas, coffee shops, train cars, checkout lines, and general waiting areas are all potential problem spots. I like to call it the “grenade boast.” It happens when the voluble sap on his or her cellphone shouts some tedious nugget of personal pride into the device only to inform the rest of the people within earshot about it. Idiotic, transparent, uncomfortable, it’s like someone forcing proximate strangers to wear their cold, wet bathing suit for ten or fifteen minutes. I actually heard this dim bulb next to me on a conference call apologize for not being able to discuss certain sensitive areas of a business deal because he was on a public bus, on his way to Snowmass for some skiing. He was encouraged, at that point, to get off as soon as possible by a couple of teeth grinders ready to commit a very justifiable homicide, tired as they were of listening to him drone on. After it was all over someone even suggested going back in time to kill Alexander Graham Bell. Things have gotten serious when otherwise reasonable people are considering an anachronistic murder rampage to change the course of history, and not even for the vilified leaders that probably deserve it like Hitler and Stalin and such, but for a mild, thoughtful Scottish inventor who only wanted to be able to have pizza delivered or make late night drunken phone calls to his friends.

Jesus Horatio Christ, did I write poopular in my opening line? Hang on, let me reread that. Looks like it. I’m usually pretty good about typos, but there it is. Poopular. I’m forced to consider, now, that maybe this is not an error. This word is meant to be there. Poopular. Let me think a minute, hang on, again. [Time elapse.] I’m back. I’ve decided the word connotes a new fad or craze that is complete and total crap. That being said, it is extremely poopular to bluster in public on a cellphone, with the ready-made excuse that the person on the phone is just exercising their first amendment right to shout their achievements, real or imagined, into a state-of-the-art communication device and that it is the casual bystander who is at fault for not being able to resist being impressed by the long list of accomplishments, real or imagined. 

There’s so much poopular stuff out there these days like selfie-sticks, the shake weight, slut-shamed Barbie, male-pattern-baldness Ken, and those travel pillows that make it look like the person has their head stuck in a giant marshmallow. There are also poopular people, people who are well-known for being self absorbed wastes, like Martin Shkreli, that “affluenza” kid from Texas, the spawn of Robert Kardashian, and any talentless kid with famous parents, or talentless parents with famous kids, for that matter. Bad taste creates a lot more millionaires than good taste, as the saying goes, and so the word poopular is tailor-made for current trends.  As H.L. Mencken put it, “No one in this world, as far as I know, has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of plain people.” He is also the coiner of the term “Booboisie” in reference to that same great mass of plain people. I’m sure one day he just mistyped bourgeoisie and became keenly happy about his accident. Right on, Mr. Mencken.

Once while drinking, (go figure), I tangled up the words “conversationalist” and “conservationist,” saying that I was a “conservationalist” only because I never wasted scotch, instead tending to drink it all, all of it, every drop. Someone pointed out my word mashup and we had a good laugh. We then decided, since the scotch was still flowing, that the fake word, “conservationalist,” was actually a real one, and it meant “person who thinks they are environmentally conscious because they buy stuff that says “organic” on it and use tote bags at the supermarket but really aren’t because they run their electricity nonstop and have huge cars and take hour-long showers and throw away tons of food.”   


One of the great voices of American law passed away this week. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. I was always fond of reading Scalia, even though I didn’t much agree with his Manichean worldview. He was at his best when penning his dissenting opinions, where the minority gets to tell the majority that they have royally screwed the pooch. His essays always had a certain street verve to them while still based on a meticulous interpretation of the Constitution. He rivaled the great writers Lewis Carroll and James Joyce for floral prose. In fact I have woven together some of Scalia’s best bon mots with the other two titans of literature. See if you can spot who is who.

“Go in for scribenery with the satiety of arthurs and inform to the old sniggering publicking press and its nation of sheepcopers about the whole plighty troth between them, ma’ lady of milady made melodi of malodi. And, as in uffish thought he stood, the Jabberwock, with eyes of flame, Came whiffling through the tulgey wood, and burbled as it came. To be engaged in argle-bargle, is to swallow the lexicon and gargle. To shred  the Constitution, as one may leave a trail of crumbs through the dark woods, is to invite the glistening tongue of cannibalistic witches, where all the jiggery-pokery won’t save you from the heated cauldron, and the evil ditches. You ivory tower, liberal pricks.”

More Alembics to come.


Luna and Her Meteorites

Speed kills!

It’s a true enough warning. Speed kills. The human body, in its current form, is not tough enough to withstand serious impact. With the invention of huge, powerful, jet fueled, turbocharged engines rocketing a generation of procrastinators across cities, countries, continents, the potential for injury is high. Our bones are brittle, our skin soft, our brains spongy and the objects we are trying to reach tend to be unforgiving, immovable, made of steel and concrete. Even water at certain heights will act like a slab of pavement. We like to go fast and we break easy. Our need for speed (on second thought that phrase is a little too Top Gun-ish) our elation for acceleration is understandable given the bigger physics of the situation. The earth itself travels at a rate of around 70,000 miles per hour, so like it or not, it’s a global population of speed freaks. Which is good, as it turns out. The planet understands something inherent about survival, and that is a moving target is harder to hit. There are other dangers whipping around the universe just as fast, if not faster, and so it’s important to keep on a rapid trajectory. Although speed kills, as it turns out, staying perfectly still isn’t so safe either. 

Case in point. There are initial reports that a meteorite has killed a man in India, supposedly.  NASA denies the meteorite theory, but I haven’t trusted that shadowy space agency since they declared the moon to be free of cheese and have never formally come out in support of Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” being the greatest concept album ever recorded ever. Ever!    

A bus driver, on his break, minding his own business in Tamil Nadu, India was blasted by a space rock. As if there weren’t enough things to worry about, enough perils in the modern age, a person now has to play one-sided dodgeball with the galaxy. So terrified was I over the weekend that I was almost killed by an oncoming car because I was too busy searching the sky for flaming rocks. I needed a little perspective, so I consulted the International Comet Quarterly. I love the International Comet Quarterly and read it whenever I can. The centerfolds are just the right balance of taste and smut.

According to the “I.C.Q.” a ton of meteoritic debris falls on earth every day. EVERY DAY! Meteorites are much more dangerous than anyone ever suspected. Most will remember the meteorite that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013, shattering glass for miles around. The space rock then apparently set up a few website scams advertising free penis pumps and cellphones, then kidnapped some Ukrainian teenage girls and sold them to Spanish brothels. In 1992 a meteorite fragment the size of a ping pong ball hit a boy in Uganda, then tortured and killed some political dissidents, throwing their mangled bodies into the river for the alligators. And in 1954 in Sylacauga, Alabama, a meteorite struck a crucifix, setting it on fire before lynching a black man who had allegedly whistled at a white woman. Like most people, I had no idea the things were so vicious.

I can’t sit alone with my thoughts for very long or I start to go mad. I feel myself turning into some doomed mental straight out of an Edgar Allan Poe story. Instead of being trapped by racist meteorites, airborne toxic events out of Puerto Rico, and an army of squirrels around my house that seem to be planning something big, I took advantage of a little nice weather and went over to a small outdoor workout area next to the Silver Comet trail near Stone Mountain. I figured I’d go for a run. Keep moving, like the earth. The workout area is great not only because it is verdant and refreshing, but also because of the people that congregate there. It is a hotbed of wild speculation about true health, how to achieve it, how to keep it, how the government and the food industry want to strip the average citizen of it. There is a guy who is always there. He’s got a huge torso, toothpick legs and a head that may have been affected by the Zika virus. He’s loud about health. What people think of as mildly unhealthy this guy thinks of as downright deadly. What people think of as healthy this guy thinks of as generally harmful.  What people consider very healthy this guy thinks of as conspiratorially destructive. His name is Mr. Camber and he’s awesome. I asked him what he thought about meteorites, just to get him going.

“Forget meteorites,” he said. “What really has me scared is estrogen.”

“How so?”

Mr. Camber went on to explain that there was a secret government plot, in collaboration with the pharmaceutical industry and run by Luna, the ancient Roman goddess of the moon, to feminize the world by introducing estrogen into the food chain.  He no longer ate seafood, he said, because the ocean was full of discarded birth control pills. Already fish are showing signs of exaggerated sex characteristics. Monsanto is, as we speak, trying to infuse estrogen into quinoa and sprouts. All part of the plan to sabotage Jupiter the great and manly sun god into a sniveling, emotional wreck, whimpering of hot flashes and eternal menopause. That is why Mr. Camber only eats his own homegrown, organic soy to combat the female hormones creeping up the food chain. I told him I sympathized. After all, it is unnerving to be sitting in a restaurant as the waiter rattles off the specials. “We have a pan seared grouper with like the biggest tits you’ve ever seen on a fish. I mean, this thing is incredible.” 

Meteorites were controlled by Luna as well, he said. It was all a rich interconnectedness that was plainly obvious if looked at the right way. A two-pronged attack. One from above. One from below. The only way to combat it, he declared, was to elect Donald J. Trump president of the United States.

I love it when things turn political.

More Alembics to come.

The Big Game

I’ve been trying to learn how to play Nim, the numbers game in which matchsticks are drawn from various matchstick piles. A player can draw any number of matchsticks, but only from one pile at a time. The player left with the last matchstick is the loser. Of course there is a mathematical strategy involved. The odds of losing increase considerably if a player simply starts grabbing matchsticks at random, which, out of impatience, I always do. Thus, I never win.

I have a friend who stops by from time to time for a session of Nim. He has a mind for numbers and game theory. He tries to teach me how to play. Being both teacher and adversary, I suspect he never gives me enough instruction to beat him. Only enough to keep me playing. I get a quiet thrill when I sense I have the advantage. I choose my matchsticks carefully. I wait for his move. He cleans me out. There is one matchstick left on the table. My matchstick. I lose again.

It isn’t a coincidence that the world’s biggest game is going on while my friend and I play Nim. We play in silence, riveted to the dwindling piles of matches. We will not watch the Super Bowl this year. There are more serious competitions afoot.

“Did you hear about the scandal in Flint, Michigan?” my friend says. “About the water.”

“Yup,” says I. 

“More lead than a pencil factory.”

“Technically pencils are made with graphite,” says I.

“How long do you think the government knew?” he asks.

“Maybe it was just an honest oversight,” says I. My friend laughs and tells me that is a good one. I watch him make a pivotal move. We both have two turns left and it is obvious I will end up with the last matchstick. I lose again. Shit.

“Remember the Libor scandal? British banks manipulating interest rates?” says he.

“Natural market fluctuations,” says I. “Educated guesses on expected returns.” My friend laughs again. He says I’m a riot. “Anyway,” I continue, “I want to believe I can trust a British accent. Even when they are robbing you, depressing or inflating the numbers, you still feel somewhat cultured and refined. Like Lord Lucan as he beat his children’s au pair to death. Atrocious and suave.” 

“You’re about to lose again,” says my friend, and he is right. My familiar lone matchstick is waiting for me on the game table.

In the game of Nim there is a thing called the Nim-Sum. The trick, that I have only a loose grasp on, is to break down the sums of the matchsticks in the various piles into factors of 4, 2, and 1, then make sure they all cancel out to zero. This ensures the winning advantage. I lose count and start drawing at random, trying to find another strategy. Before long I’m holding the lone matchstick. Lose again.   

“Remember Enron? Bear Stearns? Goldman-Sachs? J.P. Morgan? Different dogs with the same fleas.”

“You think they knew what was coming?” says I.

“You should take this stand-up act on the road,” says my friend.

I want to believe that I’m getting better at this game. Like chess I try to weigh the permutations of every possible play until my mind collapses from the sheer weight of it all. Not only do I have to figure the possibilities as they exist, but the possibilities of the possibilities after the next move. I have a hard time believing anybody is that gifted.

“Hear about Ezubao, the 7 billion dollar Chinese Ponzi scheme?” he says. “Run with the full support of the people’s government. No shame.”

“Whatever happened to the dignified option of ritual suicide?”    

“Hear about the Volkswagen emissions scandal?”

“Isn’t nitrogen oxide good for plants?” says I. “Those cars are like plant food.” 

He tells me that is funny. Then he tells me something else that’s funny. I’m about to lose again. For our next game he plays blindfolded. I’m mildly offended, but I accept the handicap. It doesn’t matter. He’s got a picture of the diminishing piles in his head. I have only to tell him how many matches I remove. He doesn’t even want to know from what pile. I lie a few times. He wins anyway.

“Hear about the Fiat Chrysler roll-away scandal?” he says.

“Finally a car that gets people to exercise as they chase after it,” says I. 

“Hear about the G.E. flawed ignition switches?”

“Broken eggs in the omelette of technological progress. You don’t like it there is always a horse and buggy.”

“Mr. Madoff?”

“Made off like a fucking bandit, he did.”

“Valeant Pharmaceuticals? Spelled incorrectly for a reason.”

“That Shkreli guy is like human jelly,” says I. “That moon-pie face and elfin nose. I mean, even people making money off him must want to kick his ass.”

“Yes, nothing valiant about fleecing the sick.”

“Whatever happened to an honest game for the fun of it?” says I.

“You’re the funniest friend I have,” he says.

We play one last game of Nim. I throw all my focus into it. I’m going to beat him this time. I keep track of the Nim-Sum. I force myself to concentrate. I remove the matchsticks. He makes a mistake somewhere down the line. I see it, a few moves ahead. He is stuck with the last matchstick. I win. He loses. He doesn’t seem upset about it. He is actually smirking. Then he lets me in on the joke. While I was concentrating on the game he had come around the table and stolen my wallet out of my back pocket. 

“Just keep on playing. You’ll win one of these days,” he says.

I can’t wait.

More Alembics to come.



Finally, I thought, reading the bold headline in the morning paper. After all, I had been searching for serious and meaningful freedom, what with the word’s abundant use in an election year and considering the armed standoff in Oregon. From the tenor of the headline it appeared I had been looking in the wrong place. What I understood to be freedom, definition-wise, as the lack of causal pressures on one’s ability to formulate a decision, actually just boiled down to the ability to not piss one’s pants. Silly me.

The male species has long prided itself on being able to take a leak anywhere, and has never been bashful about exercising the “freedom” that this biological expediency allows.  Sporting matches, alleyways, parking lots, balconies, open windows, empty bottles for the steady-handed, the wheels of police cars and the walls of precincts for the thrill seekers, subways and elevators for the bladder-bursters–it is one of the lucky conveniences of the gender. 

“You guys can just go anywhere!” women condemn all the time. I’ve heard it all my life, even from the more brazen ladies who will relieve themselves just about any place a man will, which is impressive, considering the built-in complexities of stance and positioning. There is still a very real sense of god’s discrimination, given that men can stand tall while women must adopt a kind of supplicating, balled-up posture. Which even I must admit seems a bit unfair, but, not being the maker of the rules, I just shrug and get by best I can. 

I’m getting away from myself here. Freedom is a funny word, subject to irresponsible and haphazard use. Some people think it is a substitute for “I can do whatever I want, when I want.” Some people think it is a catchy song by George Michael. A novel by Jonathan Franzen. Others think it is “just another word for nothing left to lose,” as Kris Kristofferson penned for Janis Joplin in the song, “Me and Bobby Mcgee.” Which is actually terrifying. That type of “freedom,” nothing left to lose, will drive people to do desperate and strange things, in the style of that kid from Australia last week who was arrested after planning to stuff a live kangaroo with explosives and send it bouncing into a crowd on Anzac Day, which is the Australian Veteran’s Day. I give the nutty kid credit for imagination, even though I’m not sure how much explosives would fit into the pouch of a kangaroo. After all, it’s not like the trunk of a car. And, who knows where the kangaroo would’ve eventually hopped off to. Kangaroos are notoriously bad at indoctrination. Even the most hypocritical ones don’t particularly care about religious fanaticism. They rarely sign up for jihad and the females will simply tear off their burkas and chew on them. They are good boxers, but even in this pugilistic sense they don’t seem to care about who they beat up. They are in it for the sport, and a good cross-hook is a good cross-hook, no matter what. If he had actually gone through with blowing up a kangaroo in the middle of a parade the whole messy fiasco would’ve probably resulted in nothing more than a charge of animal cruelty and some serious dry cleaning bills.

Back to freedom. In the modern world most everyone is beset by causal necessity, which is, definition-wise, the very opposite of freedom. People are hitched to their debts and responsibilities the way marionette puppets are hitched to some drunken puppeteers dancing hand. Between work pressure, relationships, personal expectations, financial issues and children, freedom may just be a fun daydream that occurs while a person is being tugged at from five different directions.  Even a politician wielding the word will fall short of somehow clearing a hopeful voter’s $30,000 debt, oppressive boss, needy children and indolent spouse. Here the kangaroos again have the advantage. A kangaroo has never gone bankrupt, been forced into debt servitude, or been made to feel less of a kangaroo through a variety of insidious social pressures. They can micturate wherever they want, and rarely go to jail for it. Even the very real threat of being packed with explosives by some wacky acne-faced Aussie teenager seems to have had little impact on general morale. They are as free as the word may suggest, and would probably not trade places with us for all the rotten lettuce in California.

Which may be the future, after all. Draft the kangaroos. It’s not fair that a creature lower than us on the food scale should be freer than ourselves. Like I said they are bad ass when it comes to fighting. Let’s use it to our advantage. They can train alongside Navy Seals, animal puns aside, and when they are united and focused they can be sent to places like the Malheur (which I think is French for misfortune, funny enough) Wildlife Refuge to take back lands that the anarchists have seized. The armed men will be mystified and amused, at first, watching as a line of cute, furry kangaroos come bounding out of the horizon. By the time the occupiers realize what is going on, they will be engaged in close combat with determined and trained marsupials. Their long-range automatic weapons will be useless at that point and they will be forced to duke it out. Afterwards, with black eyes and bloody noses, they may be willing to engage in saner means of land appropriation. 

When Duke Ellington won the presidential medal of freedom from Nixon in 69’ he defined, in his acceptance speech, four freedoms… “Freedom from hate, unconditionally; freedom from self-pity; freedom from the fear of possibly doing something that may help someone else more than it would yourself; and freedom from the kind of pride that would make a man feel he is better than his brother.”

Viva Le Duke

More Alembics to come