R.I.P. Dick Assman

Forget dignitaries. Forget heads of state. Forget kings, dictators, premiers and presidents. Forget musicians, actors, dancers. Forget top athletes. Forget philanthropists and great thinkers. All are meager men and women of accidental luck compared to the one and only Dick Assman (last name pronounced “Osmond” and why would anybody think differently). The affable gas station owner and onetime David Letterman regular from Saskatchewan, Canada, has passed away at the wizened age of 82. 

Not since “A Boy Named Sue” has a person triumphed so successfully against such a dangerous level of nominal adversity. Friendly, welcoming and disarming, Mr. Dick Assman showed no sign of holding a grudge against the world over the years for the name that had been bestowed upon him, although he could have, and when he finally gained the fame he deserved, he took it all in stride. The man was a hard worker. A customer always got a fair shake from Dick, not even making a joke there. He was an honest and decent man.

Even with the best of names the world is a brutal place. It holds no quarter. So it is especially tedious when someone heaps a pile of low slang on a birth certificate. When cheap criminals complain about their bad childhood they should be given a portrait of Dick Assman. If that guy can do it, anybody can. A name like that could drive a lesser person insane. Nobody would’ve been surprised by the newspaper headline, “Savage Maniac Dick Assman Apprehended After Merciless Killing Spree.” There is only so much ridicule a person can take, and the effects can be devastating. The guy should serve as an inspirational model for anybody who gets rankled by bullies.

I have a friend who traveled to Saskatchewan for business in the late nineties, and during one trip he actually met the megastar, at the height of his fame, when “Dick-Ass-Mania” had really taken hold of the region.

“You think these hugely famous stars are going to be pompous and aloof,” said my friend. “This guy was great. He is nothing like you would’ve thought. He is real down to earth. No pretense. Friendly. Like Bob Hope if Bob Hope were truly famous. Dick puts the Assman in class, man.”

My friend even got a t-shirt. This is it…

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Some pretty big names turned out for the Canadian icon’s funeral. Dick Trickle, Seymour Butts, Amanda Huginkiss, Ivana Spankin, Ben Dover and Wendy Shithitsthefan all arrived to pay their respects.

“He was a pioneer,” said Mr. Dover. “He paved the way.”

I was planning on attending the memorial, but the Atlanta airport was still feeling the effects of the huge computer meltdown at Delta airlines. I happen to know a few Delta guys, and I suspect the massive amount of dirty videos they keep in their phones had something to do with the widespread digital failure. I’ve never seen anything like it. No shame. When a guy has five different fetish videos downloading at once while trying to schedule three different flight crews to Chicago, Detroit and Minneapolis, it is only a matter of time before the whole system comes crashing down. The amount of “Ass Man” files (no relation to the great Canadian gas station owner) that crisscross over the wires all day effectively short circuited the entire database. 

“We’re going native,” one of the Delta people told me at a bar, trying to spin some public relations rot. “We’re going to show these big fancy computers that human ingenuity and problem-solving can still figure out how to coordinate an entire fleet of jumbo jets without all the fancy software.” 

The result: 2,500 airplanes sitting around the country like old tombstones.

Other than that I watched a bit of the Olympics. Ryan Lochte won the gold medal in mendacity. Usain Bolt came in dead last in the “humble” competition. The most improved player was the swimming pool that went from a murky green to a clear blue, and if the U.S. women’s 400-meter relay team ever needs a place to stay in Atlanta, I’ve got a ton of space. Actually I don’t, which is even better.

Congratulations, Rio. The world had written you off as a dangerous outpost with wild vigilantes running amok. A place where the city officials happily released diseased mosquitos the size of helicopters to infect all the pregnant women with crazy viruses. A place where grifters would steal the pants off your legs before you could make it from the hotel door to the taxi cab. You pulled it off with courage, which is grace under pressure. It is easier to condemn a house than it is to build it. It is easier to complain about misfortune than it is to correct it. It is easier to blame your situation than it is to make the best of it. I myself am learning. Next time I’m disappointed with myself I’m going to repeat the motivational phrase, “Don’t be a dick. Be a Dick Assman.”

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More Alembics to come.

The Emperor’s New Gallstones

There was an alarming series of accidents in my neighborhood last week. Something like five people had fallen from their roofs early Friday morning. Everybody was going to be alright, save for a few bumps and bruises. It was a strange epidemic. Why, suddenly, was there dangerous roof work being done, in the middle of the night, without the proper safety equipment, with plenty of red wine and marijuana?

Blame the asteroids. The Perseid meteor shower was predicted around midnight, Thursday. It was just the excuse some of my neighbors needed to have a party. The booze and the smoke got them in the proper stargazing mood and some had relocated to the tops of their houses to get a clearer view. They followed the astronomers’ suggestions of relaxing the eyes for about half an hour, unfocused, taking it all in, and before they knew it the night sky was awash in white tracers. For a few drowsy audience members relaxing the eyes for a half hour at midnight in the middle of a work week after two glasses of cabernet and a bowl of kind bud means passing out and, depending on the pitch of the roof, careening off the side of the house. 

Too much work will kill you. If not directly then with a slow, insidious drain of vital energy. People work until they are too tired to live. When they push themselves a little too far, that is with a late-night meteor shower party at neck-breaking elevations, they are inviting injury. All it takes is a good thirty seconds of nodding off and before they know it they are launching themselves from the eaves of their ranch house like Superman in a heroin stupor.

It reminded me of a story I had tried to write some years ago about a narcoleptic superhero. Maybe not clinical narcolepsy, per se, but as the nonstop demands of saving humanity from floods, fires, earthquakes and terrorists began to take its toll, the intrepid yet weary rescuer would take off into the sky to fix some grave injustice and about two minutes into the flight he would fall asleep and go crashing like a meteor through somebody’s house, or just create this huge, burning, hundred-meter furrow through a patch of farmland, or torpedo an overpass on the interstate. He would pull himself out of the debris, a little stiff, and mutter and shake his head. He had slept through his chance to save the schoolchildren from the avalanche, the nuns in the burning bus, the bridge from collapse, and not only that he was going bankrupt from serious amounts of civil litigation from super lawyers because of all the property damage he had caused.  The story was a bummer and I was right to abandon it. Nobody wants that type of realism.

Point being, any job can get old. A good example of this is that even the Japanese Emperor is looking to retire. Emperor Akihito is in his eighties, has survived cancer, and is ready to call it quits, even though there is something within the whole setup that frowns upon resigning. An “emperor” is as alien to my understanding of a society as the monthly ritual sacrifice of virgins. I’m only familiar with two others besides the Asian sovereign. The wrinkly old cloaked fellow from Star Wars and the one who paraded around nude in the Hans Christian Anderson story. And why not? You’re the emperor. It seems entirely natural to be able to march around naked as a jaybird. Forget the magic clothes. You’re the emperor, crazy to retire from eating peeled grapes and being fanned with palm fronds and walking around in your birthday suit. What else is there?

I left the meteor party early. I found myself becoming a little obsessive compulsive about the messiness of the visible galaxy. Even the constellations didn’t make sense. Perseus looked like a stick figure with half his body hacked off. Orion was getting heavy. The Big Dipper looked like god’s own spittoon. As I walked home I was reminded of that line in Nabokov’s novel Pnin when the two professors are walking home at night after a cocktail party. Both look up to regard the stars. The first professor marvels that, “And all these are worlds.” The second professor kind of sneers and says, “Or else it is really a fluorescent corpse. And we are inside of it.”  The first professor is a poet. The second is an acerbic genius.

When I got home there was a news update about Emperor Akihito on TV. He had released a statement…

“I have decided to retire from the throne. No longer will I wake to have my feet massaged by beautiful servants. No longer will I be welcomed with flowers everywhere I go. No longer will nubile young women regard me as semi-divine. No longer will I be able to cut the line at Kentucky Fried Chicken. No longer will people drop to their knees and stare at the floor as I walk past. No longer will I have somebody else pump my gas for me, or be able to rig horse races and boxing matches by simply shaking my head or nodding. You know what? On second thought. As your semi-divine, eternal and great emperor I advise you to disregard everything that I have said in the past few days. I may be suffering from royal dementia, which is the most honorable kind. Keep calm and carry on.”

More Alembics to come.

The Corpse Flower!

Cultural relativism aside, it would be hard to stomach eggs that have been cooked in children’s urine. Yet that is the cornerstone of a spring festival in Dongyang, China, a name that begs to be ridiculed, given the cuisine. 

“Let no waste go to waste,” say the citizens of Dongyang, who take the urine-egg festival so seriously that they put out pots and collection bottles in elementary schools so that little boys can donate their golden excretions to the process. “Micturate before you matriculate,” is the popular phrase over there, and they mean it. School is challenging enough. Math, science and language have never been more competitive in the far east, and on top of all that a student must prove his “yang” by using his “dong.” The township is relying on it. The pee-pee eggs are supposed to bring wellness, vibrancy and good luck to those who consume them, and when a whole region of China, (Dongyang by the way), when a whole region of China is counting on a teeming flow through the collective urethra of the pre-teen male population, they better deliver, or great shame may fall upon them.

“Your father, grandfather, great-grandfather pee-pee like Niagara Falls! You pee-pee like constipated mosquito!”

Tough words for a kid to hear. His grades may slip. His esteem may plummet. His enthusiasm for the power of knowledge may dry up like his tiny bladder, and then it’s a life in the salt mines.

Come on, Dongyang. As if the smell of boiled eggs wasn’t bad enough by itself. That retching miasma of sulfur that can doom the appetite of anyone within ten feet of them now has the putrid aroma of bodily waste, for the added benefit of something that has been scientifically proven to contain no nutritional value whatsoever. That’s why people get rid of it in the first place. Good luck Dongyangers, may your showers of fortune be golden.

Uninterested in the political party conventions the other week, I decided instead to watch a live streaming video from the New York Botanical Gardens of the great carrion flower known as the “Titan Arum” or “Corpse Flower” standing perfectly still in the middle of a giant greenhouse. After about five minutes I grew restless. Watching the corpse flower was about as exciting as watching an actual corpse. Named for the horrendous odor it gives off, that of decaying flesh, it tricks flies and insects, the kind that usually descend on dead animals, into pollinating for it.  Not sure why someone would pay to go smell a flower that reeks like any alley in Manhattan on trash day. It is an impressive sight, though. Ten feet high and something like two hundred pounds. Now that is a flower. The New York Times magazine supplement even went down to do an exclusive interview with the big beanstalk. It was surprisingly humble and articulate for a Corpse Flower.

NYT: “So what are your plans while you are in New York?”

C.F.: “I love this city. Always have. I try to see the sights when I’m in town. I hear Chumley’s is opening back up. That is exciting. I’m just so busy right now. Plus I’m a stationary flower.”

NYT: “Are you trying to make a statement with your terrible smell of rotting flesh? Like it is a reflection of the current pop culture.”

C.F.: “I’m a giant flower trying to get by in a very busy world. I wouldn’t look too deep into it. Like Hemingway said, ‘The Old Man and the Sea is a story about a guy and a fish. Nothing more. Quit pissing on it. If you are going to piss on something piss in a cup and send it to Dongyang for their urine soaked egg festival.’ (Hemingway said that, by the way).”

NYT: “Who are you dating?”

C.F.: “Miley Cyrus. We have a lot in common. Of course there is the smell. But I’ll get used to it.”

Over the next few days I kept going back to the Titan Arum. I started to become mesmerized by the thing. It got me thinking that life, the non-reflexive resourcefulness of survival, is pretty darned amazing. A giant Indonesian flower actually figured out a way to trick insects into doing its labor. The regal horned lizard can shoot blood out of its eyes to freak the bejeezus out of predators. The tardigrade “water bear” can live in molten lava or an iceberg. Young sunflowers track the sun through the sky, turning their bloom toward the west as the sun travels, and reset themselves at night toward the east in anticipation for the next day to follow the great erumpent helios again on its daily journey.  I can’t ever not be amazed.

Compared to the mental lassitude of most people, the grizzly bear is Einstein. Compared to the complaining masses, the hawk is Charlemagne. Compared to the perfidy of humans, the corpse flower smells like a rose.

I will leave this week with a quote from the lodestar of American letters, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“The civilized man has built a coach but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine watch but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. An almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind. His notebooks impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance office increases the number of accidents; and it may be a question whether machinery does not encumber; whether we have not lost by refinement some energy, entrenched in establishments and forms, some vigor of wild virtue.”

That was written in the mid-nineteenth century. Emerson would chew his fingers off if he were alive today.

I’m going to find a corpse flower and plant it in the middle of my front lawn. I’ll get used to the smell and so will he.

More Alembics to come.