Hatch-imal Warfare

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody, or as my family likes to refer to the end of the year holiday lineup, “One down, one to go.”

I needed a little heat and insanity for this one and so I flew to Bedford Falls, Florida for the weekend to see my folks. For those unfamiliar with Bedford Falls, let me explain that it is on the gulf coast, below Alabama, above Cuba, near saltwater, lined with palm trees, and possessed, as many of the westside seaports are, with a balmy, lazy eccentricity that mingles inextricably with the warm air. It’s on your skin and up your nose and in your mouth and down into your lungs and in your bloodstream. There is no way around it. You inhale it and you exhale it.

I am an only child, thus our immediate family unit, if we choose, can be quite small. There are aunts, uncles, and cousins abound, but, like a Russian doll, we can collapse ourselves into a tiny little seedling of our full potential. We decided this year that Christmas was going to be the big get-together. Thanksgiving would be only us. The smallest “us” possible. I even got permission to bring my dog with me. She is a pug. She rarely complains, will eat any leftovers, and snores slightly less than the average drunkard. My mom picked us up at the airport, happy to have avoided, at least for the time being, the usual holiday headaches that go along with big groups of people. Little did we know that my mom was going to get our tight little family unit into big trouble, accidentally, with a text message that she said was only meant to be funny.

Although my mom can manage the occasional quip, she doesn’t have the chops for written humor. She tends to forget the most important rule…Know Your Audience. She had sent a silly Thanksgiving text blast to the old girls from her weekly card game that went something like this…

“Happy Thanksgiving. What time is dinner? LOL.”

Most everyone had taken the message for a joke. Everyone, that is, except Bonnie. Now Bonnie is an entirely maladjusted screwball, sun-drenched, with an impressive collection of ex-husbands, prescription psychotropic drugs, debt, big houses, errant children, paranoid beliefs, and sensitivities toward her friends and her enemies, both of which are interchangeable and constantly shifting in an effort to control her own image and influence. My mom describes Bonnie as “small doses.”

Wrong message for the wrong person as it turns out, since Bonnie misinterpreted the “LOL” as “Lots Of Love,” misinterpreted the question “What time is dinner?” as a formal declaration of our imminent arrival and insisted, in a string of strongly worded texts back, that we HAD to stop by. Just HAD to. We HAD to. There were already plates set out for us, not the finery of her normal soirees, but this was short notice, after all, a minor imposition but she would make do, she always did, and she wouldn’t hear another word of it… we HAD to show up. We had had the audacity to invite ourselves to dinner. Now we had to be there. That was it. Even my pug grumbled.

We arrived to a teeming house filled with a dozen loosely connected families, overlapping circles of clan, brood, and kin. The first thing I noticed as we pulled into a crowded driveway was a droopy man who looked to be about eighty years old, shirtless, in cut-off jeans, sandals and black socks, walking along the clay tiled roof above, a roof three stories high and of such a steep pitch that it defied all physical laws for him not to be in the middle of a fatal fall that would break every rickety bone in his body. Then I figured that the whole stunt was so dangerous and insane that the man had to know what he was doing, right down to his black socks and sandals. He inched his way toward the highest gable to where a big satellite was mounted.

Inside the house tiny children squealed through the rooms. My pug ran for her life as the kids tried to catch her by her curled tail. Teenagers were draped everywhere, staring into the eternity of their phones. The adults were heavy into the wine and liquor as they set about piling food on a stretch of table more suited for some medieval banquet during the reign of King Arthur. I was introduced around. I learned and forgot names in an instant. “Who are you? Where do you live?” they asked me in a tone that was partially friendly and partially accusatory.

“Nobody. Nowhere.”

I mentioned the old man on the roof but they just waved me off, told me it was Grandpa Ned, and that he was always up to something, the kook.

Everybody ate fast. The food was devoured. Thanksgiving dinners, in this modern age and for some modern people, seem to be more a necessary preparation for battle in the arena of dangerous missions known as Black Friday shopping, which now apparently starts Thursday afternoon. And so it went with this household as they cleaned their plates, put on their war paint and armed themselves with mace, tasers, potato launchers and stun guns to go find serious deals on obscure Christmas gifts, of which the most valuable this year, I was to find out, were “hatch-imals.”  A “hatch-imal,” one kid explained to me, is a big egg that contains a surprise animal, although I’m not sure if it is relegated to animals that actually produce eggs like birds, reptiles and fish. It didn’t matter. They were heading out for big savings and rare deals and failure was not an option! They would capture a hatch-imal like it was the head of Chiang Kai-shek. One of the intolerant uncles demanded to know where everybody was going.

“It’s Black Friday.”

“It’s Thanksgiving!” he bellowed.

“It’s Black Thursday Afternoon.”

The man threw his hands in the air and said, “Geez, they’ve got the whole month of February. Now they are taking over Thanksgiving.” He stalked away, grumbling.

The first convoy of shoppers left. The house was like an army outpost dispatching units of highly trained soldiers to scout and engage. I found a decent bottle of wine and waved off invitations to go along on the shopping trip. This was war, they said, but I could come along as a journalist or war correspondent.

“It used to be that journalists were off limits,” I said. “Nowadays they cut your head off.”

While we were waiting for the first wave to arrive back a woman staggered up to me, bleary-eyed. She marveled at how tall I had gotten and how long it had been. She gave me a strangely intimate kiss on the lips and whispered things hadn’t been going so well between her and my uncle. My mom gave me a look from across the room like who was that? I gave her a look like I think her name is get me the fuck out of here.

We watched as the first convoy arrived back. There were many wounded. They had been to one store where the prices were slashed, the tires were slashed, the arms and faces were slashed, a stampede had erupted, and luckily it had all been caught on video phone, so years from now aliens could watch how stupid we had all been in the lead-up to destruction. One woman with her leg bent to the side in an unnatural position was clutching a “hatch-imal” box as we dragged her to safety.

“A broken bone is temporary. A hatch-imal is forever,” she gasped before slipping into unconsciousness. While the rest of the household tended to the wounded I sat back down and poured more wine. I added some to a bowl and gave a little to my pug, who was pretty fed up at trying to avoid a huge gang of rabid children. I realized I hadn’t even met Bonnie. Or maybe I had. It didn’t matter. Somewhere a smoke alarm went off. Another busload of wounded arrived. Something that looked like Grandpa Ned dropped past a nearby window. Both of us, dog and human, didn’t feel completely safe until our plane had departed. I ordered four screwdrivers for an hour-long flight. I offered some to my furry travel companion but she wanted no part of it. If this was Thanksgiving, her look suggested, I could stuff Christmas.

Here is a picture of a hungover pug.


More Alembics to come


Choose Your Own Adventure

For the past week Atlanta has been covered in a cloud of brown smoke. The fact that it coincided with an election made the dirty haze even more troublesome. Many people were convinced that the two things were linked, that somehow the political shift had set fire to the air. The barbarians were at the gates. We would soon see them rumbling down our roads on their coal-powered iron horses, and soon after that we’d be led away in chains.

The internet is a reliable place for hysteria. It is a funhouse for the bending and refracting of light and information until it comes out all exaggerated, caricatured, a prism of grotesque reflection that bears little resemblance to the light it manipulates.

The cover story was that North Georgia was on fire. This was obvious enough. 5,500 acres of forestry burning out of control, which coincided with one of the longest droughts in recent history. The weather has been beautiful here this fall, but even paradise needs a little rain. Blue skies don’t water the plants. The leaves are falling off the trees, but nobody is sure whether that is due to a mild drop in temperature or the fact that everything is dying from lack of water. The beauty of the internet is that whichever opinion you feel like adopting, you can always find somebody who champions it. The sweeping wildfires are actually an incalculable disaster or a natural and beneficial way to enrich the soil. The drought is a normal part of the weather cycle or a troubling consequence of global warming. Crime is either out of control or statistically average. The Republican party is either going to save the nation or destroy it, at which time the Democrats will swoop in to save it further, or destroy it further, at which time the Republicans will either swoop back in to destroy what has been saved or save what has been destroyed. My barbecue grille either gives me cancer or prevents it. So does the sun. Running either helps my body fight off illness or destroys my bones and joints. California is about to fall into the ocean or serve as a model for all future economies. ISIS is either about to take over the world or they are one drone strike away from obliteration. Immigrants are either the backbone of America or its doom. It’s all so disorienting. Even Schrodinger’s famous cat released a statement saying, “You know what? Just fucking kill me. I’m a dead cat. The cat is no longer both alive and dead in his theoretical box. I’m dead. Finally, some peace.”

I went to my favorite bar the other week. Taverns, bars, public houses, and saloons, by the way, are society’s original echo chambers, long before social media and filtered news streams. A perceptive carouser can immerse in whatever news suits him just by choosing the right venue. If I want to hear people champion Corporate America I can go to Buckhead. If I want to hear people blame the greed-heads I can go to Edgewood. If I want to hear people disparage the mainstream I can go to Little Five Points. And if I want to hear the sound of a beer can being crushed between two saggy titties, I can hop on over to the Clermont lounge. Say what you will about the sound of aluminum being flattened between two sweaty boobs, sometimes it is a melodic relief from some of the more hostile rhetoric.

I was over at the Righteous Room on Ponce. It’s one of the city’s great watering holes. The place openly revolts against the modern business conveniences. Checks are still handwritten by bartenders whose penmanship is so bad that they all must’ve been in medical school at one time. The cash register is a rusty abacus. The jukebox plays wax. The walls are simple and reliable brick. And the bathrooms, well you just have to see them to believe it.

There was a kind of wild jubilation at the bar last week. People were getting as wrecked as possible to celebrate either the end of the world or the new beginning. I was talking to one guy who was wearing an arm brace. He said he had been driving on Jekyll Island and had crashed his car into a flock of seagulls, but nobody could figure out whether he had hit a gaggle of birds or the synth-punk band from the 80s. Another guy had just returned from a scuba trip to Belize where he said he had survived the biggest hurricane he had ever seen, but nobody could tell whether it was an actual storm or the high-proof rum drink. A nearby girl admitted that she had been binging on sex and the city, but nobody was sure whether she was just promiscuous in an urban setting or obsessed with the television series. Feeling sick with ambiguity I ordered a Moscow Mule and the bartender told me he would look for some Russian idiots. I told him to make anything with vodka and he told me there were no more absolutes, which either meant the bottles were empty or modern understanding had devolved into relative pluralism. Someone asked me how my novel “Wet Brain” was selling? The bartender leaned in to announce that he had heard of wet brain and that he was pretty sure it sucked, but I couldn’t tell whether he was referring to my novel or the clinical stages of alcoholism. Like everybody else, I decided to go with the option that best suited my needs.

Cheers to the new dumb.

More Alembics to come.

Go Hemp!

I awoke with a hangover on Wednesday. It took me a few minutes to realize I hadn’t been drinking the night before. Not a drop. Outside the morning was gray and the streets were quiet. I saw none of my neighbors on their usual dog walks. Eerily deserted. I chalked it up to one of those strange, collective rises and falls that happens in the popular consciousness from time to time. There are some mornings when everyone is hungover, regardless of what happened the previous night. Like the barometric pressure, it just drops and everybody feels it. It’s physics, after all.   

Nobody in my neighborhood advertises the fact that they watch pornography. There are no lawn signs for Ron Jeremy, John Holmes, Jenna Jameson, whoever the popular “actors” and “actresses” are nowadays. There are no bumper stickers that say, “This house is pro-penetration.” There are no signs supporting fetish, bondage, girl-on-girl, guy-on-girl-on-guy, black-on-white, white-on-black, take-my-wife, take-my-husband, dwarf-on-giant, humiliation, punishment, sadomasochism, group orgy and whatever else. However, if a tech company were to descend on the neighborhood and sift through the ISP addresses and blind search histories, the results would most likely be shocking. It would be a vast trove of voyeuristic filth somewhere on the level of the discovery of the lost city of El Dorado, part of the running current of activity that goes on just below everything else that is going on. This is the basic math of the 2016 election.

In a presidential cycle that was big on sensationalism, bombast and weirdly devoid of strict policy discussions, most people are probably wondering what happens now. Even president-elect Donald J. Trump is scratching his head. He lost the popular vote and won the election. At least he was right. It is rigged. He just happened to benefit from it. Good luck to him.

The big winner is marijuana. It won the ballot in six states, on its way to national legitimacy. After a political campaign that seemed more like an amphetamine bender, it might be a wise idea for the nation to smoke a joint and calm down. Where no individual has the ability to do so, hemp may be able to unite America, or at least chill it out, which is almost as valuable.

I am somewhat of an anomaly. I was a philosophy major who never smoked a lot of pot. My lungs have always been sensitive. I had asthma as a kid. They work hard enough as it is without dumping a bunch of dirty air into them. But, one of the unspoken requirements of studying in any philosophy program is that you have to go to class high at least once, in order to assess the value of any possible shifts in perspective that may result from the tricks that substance can play on the mind. So I picked my class. Second semester Western Thought. We were studying Edmund Husserl and his ideas of reductive phenomenology. I figured what the hell. I didn’t understand any of what he said when I was sober so it couldn’t hurt to show up drooling and stoned for a lecture. It might even help.

It was a disaster. I didn’t hear one word of what the professor said. I was fascinated and transfixed, however, with a girl across the room who periodically withdrew a packaged snack from her sweatshirt pocket, peeled a bit of it from its wrapper, lashed it into her mouth, chewed carefully, then swallowed it. Five minutes later she repeated the process. I was too far away to see what the food was. It looked like a Twizzler but it was the color of an udon noodle. It was like a soggy little rope. The girl had this technique of pinching the bottom end of it and whipping it up to her mouth where she would snap at it, sometimes catching it, sometimes missing it, like a moray eel debouched from a coral pocket, lazily trying to grab some kelp. Often it would take two or three lunges for her to secure it between her teeth, after which she would absently suck it through her pursed lips, chew thoughtfully then swallow. On and on it went. In fact I decided all us students were like coral algae, just sitting there in the tranquil blue, while our one moray eel fed on ocean sprouts. The professor didn’t seem to notice or care. Most everyone else was assiduously taking notes. I hadn’t written a word. My entire being was only concerned with the next stringy snack. Would she eat another one? How many times would she snap at it before grabbing it with her mouth? Would that be enough, or would she need another floppy dose? 

“80 percent of success is just showing up,” said Woody Allen. He was probably right, maybe even a little conservative with his numbers. I ended up getting a B in my Western Thought class. Ask me today about Edmund Husserl. I won’t be able to explain a thing.

And that, maybe, is the big lesson. Collectively and individually we are like fastball pitches. We are the baseball itself, who, after leaving the grip of a powerful, professional pitching ace, believes that somehow we are free to travel wherever we want now that we have been released. We have the sky above and the seats and the field all around to explore, check out, and discover, but in all likelihood we will probably end up in the catcher’s mitt behind home plate.   

The Democrats were beaten on Tuesday night, as were the Republicans in the nine months leading up to the election. It’s like we have all been given honorary degrees from Trump University, with the promise of the vast secrets of wealth and success, but just as likely grappling with the collection agency when the tuition bill comes due. And maybe it never will. Perpetual deferment is fashionable these days. This is the lesson the rest of us can take from the rich. Send it down to the last stop. We’ll be getting off before that.

The cultural paradox, which is alway reassuring regardless of a person’s political views, is that victories always galvanize the opposition. For the defeated left this means gun sales will decrease, subscriptions to their causes will increase, the militias will be vacationing in the Everglades, the A.C.L.U. will be hiring, and donations to Planned Parenthood will fill the coffers. After all, to be great one must have a formidable adversary. Let the games begin. Since we’re heading for the catcher’s mitt we might as well smoke a legal, recreational joint. It might soften the landing.

God save the green.

More Alembics to come.

Free Pizza

My most attention-grabbing banner headline to date! Who doesn’t like pizza? That delicious and simple combination of mozzarella cheese, marinara and dough. We celebrate with it. It comforts us in low times. It is a quick and convenient dinner option. Fold it up, New Yorkers. Cut it up, Chicagoans. Load it up, America. Wedge or rectangle, florentine or Hawaiian, meat-lover, veggie-lover, plain or packed, pizza is the great Epicurean contribution of western civilization. Even better when it is free.

Here is where the reader may feel a bit tricked. This is not about the Italian gourmet staple. It is, in fact, about the plight of a polar bear in China named “Pizza”  who lives in a tiny glass box in the middle of a shopping mall in Guangzhou Province. There he sits day in and day out while kids bang on the glass all around him and take pictures. Pizza is a big draw for shoppers who stop to admire the huge animal as he sits inside a painted replica of ice floes and snow, because there is no better way to acclimate a living creature to an artificial habitat than to remind it of the natural expanse of freedom that it has been robbed of. That is why the happiest inmates in any penitentiary system are the ones with landscapes of beaches painted on the walls. It is the quickest way to joy and rehabilitation.

I can hardly stand being in a mall for ten minutes, much less all day every day. That is a fate worse than death. The music and the rabble alone are enough to drive anything crazy, be it animal, vegetable or mineral. Usually when I emerge from a mall, after a brief and determined swoop for an item I desperately need, I stand outside gulping in the fresh air, thankful that I made it out alive. I tend to “shop” in malls like Seal Team Six assassinates Osama Bin Laden. Careful planning for the quickest possible route in and out. A fast and furtive entry and exit. Get done what needs to be done and get the fuck out of there.

These days I rely on mail delivery. There is no better way to acquire goods than to have it sitting in front of the door when I get home. I save on gas. I avoid crowds. There is no awkward banter with an eagerly inept sales associate. The lighting in my house is more flattering to my physique than the deadening fluorescence of a department store and I can’t beat the prices of the bar in my living room, open all day and all night, no such thing as being over-served. It is all a seamless transaction.

My habits, though, may be partly to blame for what is dooming poor Pizza in his little glass igloo over on the other side of the world. Because internet shopping is on the rise, marketing officials feel they need something as exotic as a giant polar bear in the middle of all that commerce to encourage people to get out of their houses and shop the old-fashioned way. Animal rights groups condemn the practice. When a person is put in a tiny enclosure it is called prison. When an animal is thusly held captive, it is called an educational exhibit. The difference is semantic and minimal.  A creature that is conditioned to have the whole top end of the earth to roam around on might feel a bit cramped in a box, with hundreds of gawking teenagers staring in, all dopey and fascinated. I’m not sure what a polar bear eats, probably fish, but let’s say it eats humans too, why not, we’re made of meat, what torture it would be to have this human feast just out of reach on the other side of the glass. It would be an interesting experiment to take a person, put them in a glass cage and parade hamburgers, french fries, and ice cream back and forth all day, just beyond their grasp. See how adjusted and happy they are after two weeks sitting in the same spot, watching food they can’t eat circle them for hours on end. Sounds fun.

The owners of the mall have defended Pizza’s incarceration. They say he is well taken care of and has a bigger house than most Chinese factory workers have. In fact, they released a statement saying, “Pizza is the happiest bear in the world. He feels a sense of pride at knowing that Rolex watches and Swarovski figurines are ten percent off, and designer footwear from the fashion houses of Milan are strutting their stuff, so to speak, on the third-floor mezzanine. It is two-for-one at the fragrance counter, which always makes Pizza frolic in delight. The only time Pizza shows signs of distress is when he sees shoppers ignoring the fire sale in the “everything must go” closing at the Shack of Radios. He knows that the holidays are right around the corner, and nothing pleases him more than to hear the incessant announcements that the Amazon Firestick is now available for streaming all your, and Pizza’s, favorite shows.”

People of Guangzhou, listen up! You want to see a polar bear? Get your lazy ass onto a boat heading for the North Pole. Too much travel? Buy a stuffed animal or open a picture book. Turn on the National Geographic channel. Artificial living is a killer for people and bears alike. If malls in China need rare and interesting exhibits the United States can help. They can stage the “American Felon” exhibit. We can farm out psychotic killers to Chinese malls where people can ponder some of the world’s most notorious murderers. We’ve got Charlie Manson. We’ve got Paul Runge. We’ve got Dennis Rader. We’ve got Gary Ridgway. Take a selfie with a strangler. Leave the animals to the wild. They are aware. They are self-interested. They are the perfect work of a creator upon a fitting habitat.

It would be poetic justice for Pizza to escape his interminable confinement and turn the mall into a “maul.” Then he can flee to the Arctic waters where extradition is tricky and he holds the supreme advantage.

Free Pizza!

More Alembics to come.