I was looking for my passport the other day. True, I was only heading to New York for the weekend, but it’s always good to have a way out, lest the opportunity or the need arise. I have a vague reverie of stopping in at one of the Sky Clubs at the Atlanta airport and stumbling upon some hapless international fashion model, sulking in the corner, arms wrapped around her fur knee-highs, distressed that she has nobody to take with her to Milan for an extremely important Oscar de la Renta runway show, and that her tiny toy poodle “Kimchee,” a perpetually quivering canine mouse, “really needs a solid male role model. Kimchee hasn’t been the same since Hans ran away with that Argentinian houseboy. Sob. Sob. Can you help me?”

It would be a quick phone call to the family up on Long Island to apologize for my sudden change of holiday plans, and then off to Italy, first class, to hobnob with waifs, transgenders, and high-profile heroin addicts.

The Russians have a saying that goes something like, “Don’t worry about doing the dishes when the house is on fire.” I go a little further with it. “Don’t worry about doing the dishes.” Who cares what is going on in the rest of the house. That is to say, I can procrastinate with the best of them. Wading through a sea of receipts, documents and old news articles, and still not finding my elusive passport, I came across my New Year’s Resolutions list for 2016.

“I forgot all about this,” I said to myself, which is what I intended to do from the get-go. I always make the list at the beginning of the year and then stash it. The real benefit lies in making the list, not following through on it. Making the list is like aiming a shot at an intended target. Once the trigger is pulled, and effect is committed from cause, then it is time to sit back and let the complex forces of global activity guide the trajectory wherever it may. I cursed myself for not burning the list. That would be a better ritual. Make the list and burn it. Cast it off to the four winds. Then there would be no way to accidentally discover it. I suspect, at my core, I am an honest being. Fate had succeeded in placing my plans for my own betterment back into my grasp right before the end of the year. Foiled by my own ambition, I decided, what the hell, there are still about a hundred or so hours left to get this thing done. I figured I’d shoot down the list and knock it all out real quick. First off:

-Get precisely one year older–no more and no less. Check.

-Elect new president. Check.

-Survive hottest summer on record. Check.

-Avoid all loan sharks, taxmen, debt collectors and repo thugs. Check.

-Abandon decent, healthy, romantic relationship for one of dysfunction, anger, loathing and fear. Check.

-Get open water dive certification and get bitten in the ear by small bastard of a fish. Check. (This was turning out to be much easier than I thought it would.)

-Kidnap Don Delillo and force him to teach me how to write award-winning literature. I looked at my watch and decided to skip that one.

-Write five award-winning novels after wringing them out of Mr. Delillo and win the Nobel Peace Prize. I admitted to myself I would have to skip that one as well, although I think I could’ve won the coveted literary medal had it not been for crafty-ass Bob Dylan.

-Reintroduce the word “ravishment” into modern jargon. (It’s a crazy word. It means to either seize a person against their will, rape them, or fill them with a kind of wondrous enchantment and delight. It has to be the sickest word out there. If anybody knows of an odder one, please drop a line.)

-Record rhapsodic duet with the one and only George Michael. Er, skip.

-Follow the instructions of the eighties band Squeeze in their song Hourglass and, “Take it to the bridge, throw it overboard, see if it can swim, back up to the shore. No one’s in the house. Everyone is out. All the lights are on and the blinds are down.” I shrugged and checked that one off. All done. Just in time.

A mid-twentieth century philosopher was quoted saying, “Humans are the only beings for whom being is a problem.” It’s a terribly hilarious statement, and as I continue this journey, it seems the only resolution that should ever really be considered is to never let that statement apply to yourself.

My therapist has a name. Ralph Waldo Emerson. for $18, paperback, I’ve received what people have paid thousands for, and still with no return on their investment. Actually, you don’t receive Emerson. His wisdom is buried in countless essays, and you must “dig,” which makes it all the more valuable when you find it. I happened upon this passage a few weeks ago.

“I accuse myself of sloth and unprofitableness day by day; but when these waves of the Divine flow into me I no longer reckon lost time. I no longer poorly compute my possible achievements by what remains to me of the month or the year; for these moments confer a sort of omnipresence and omnipotence which asks nothing of duration, but sees that the energy of the mind is commensurate with the work to be done, without time.”

Since I can’t compete with Mr. Emerson, I will have to go low to finish this essay.

“Right on, my main motherf**ker.” 

Happy New Year.

More Alembics to come.

A Love Letter to December

Forget what I might have said in the past. December is by far my favorite month of the dozen. We are best friends, December and I. For an artist like myself, an artist who uses the entire landscape of the annual calendar cycle as his own painter’s canvas, December is the final culmination of a year almost perfectly lived, with every hour of every day properly apportioned and utilized in the most productive way possible, from January One right around the horn till the final run to midnight, New Year’s Eve. December is a welcome embrace after eleven months of toil, like musicians onstage hugging each other at the end of a long concert, ready to play out the encore. The whole thing is a gradual ascension to the very pinnacle of my success. If January first is like base camp, then December thirty-one is the peak of Mount Everest, where I stand in satisfied exhilaration at the top of the world, surveying all I have conquered, hands in the air, with mild altitude sickness. Ah, December.

For those of you who have had occasion to chuckle at lines in The Alembic from time to time, I thank you. I will admit, for the record, that the previous paragraph may be the most hilarious thing I’ve ever written. Most would agree, could they, along with me, actually stand back and survey the jagged, cracked, serpentine and one-dimensional path that has led me through another calendar year.  Which is fine. I can’t complain. My limbs are intact, my mind is of a reasonable and functional hybrid of sanity and insanity, and the friends that I have lost make the ones I still have so much more valuable.

And anyway December is the court jester of the group. What other month could get away with the celebration of a fat old man in a furry red suit breaking into houses to trade gadgets for cookies. In December people are willing to forgive such strange eccentricities. Try doing that in August, during a hot spell. Santa would get his ass blown off at the first house he landed on. Thirty-aught-six right up the keister.

Everybody is more charitable during the holidays. I remember, when I was about seven years old, even getting a present from Satan, the dark overlord of hell. Somewhat familiar with and fearful of the highest ranking demon perched in the bowels of eternal punishment, I was none too surprised to receive, on Christmas morning, a highly sought after present from Lucifer. It was a microphone that could be tuned to a blank radio station so I could sing through the speakers, crooning along with my collection of wax records, the height of technology in 1982. Even at seven years old I had a pretty decent selection of albums, the accidental result of being born into a family of ex-hippies and gadabouts. I had a bunch of Rush, every Kiss record, Grateful Dead’s Wake of the Flood, Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic, and I had Rapper’s Delight by the Sugar Hill Gang. Rap was a pretty new medium at the time. That particular record only had one song on it. Side A was Rapper’s Delight, short version. Side B was Rapper’s Delight, long version. I learned the entire song and called my mom, aunts and uncles up to my room the evening after I had received the present to rattle off this new art form to a group of shocked white people, who fitfully endured an interminable twelve-minute babble out of a screeching microphone while I jumped around and yelled about Sucker M.C.s, Color TVs, and the Knicks playing basketball. Only the drunkest of uncles was legitimately entertained, dancing in the corner, while the rest of the women simply watched, dumbfounded as I yelled, “Gonna get a fly girl, gonna get some spank and drive off in a def OJ.”  As good repressed Irish Catholics they all stiffly sat through it. But what sent my mother into an apoplectic fury was when I finished it all off with “Thank you Satan!”

That was it.

My mother leapt up and chased me around the room, intent on beating me like a stubborn mule. She called for a crucifix, the nearest priest and a jug of holy water as she grabbed the nape of my neck. I was about to be thrashed until, as luck would have it, my hand closed around the box for the microphone, on which was a Christmas tag with the message, clearly written in my mom’s handwriting, “To Mark, Merry Christmas, Love Satan.”

I wasn’t sure what it all meant, and it took me a long time to figure out the full scope of the incident. She let go of me and read the note aloud rather sheepishly, and passed it around as the rest of the family roared with laughter. Never diagnosed with formal dyslexia, she had been wrapping presents and filling out Christmas tags hastily the night before and had misspelled “Santa” on one of the gifts, inadvertently sending the letter ‘n’ to the end of the word. A minor spoonerism, the result of fatigue and wine, with huge implications. Even at that young age I adopted a philosophical attitude. If the Prince of Darkness can be generous during the holiday season, the rest of us never have any excuse.

All the best, everybody.

More Alembics to come.

A Buzkashi Christmas

December and I have always had a strained relationship with each other. It has been a quiet antagonist for most of my life, lying in wait at the end of the calendar year with its big hungry jaws, ready to chew me up like a piece of gum. By New Year’s Eve I am usually all twisted, flavorless, and stuck to the underside of a school desk, and it takes most of January to straighten myself out again; ready, eleven months later, to be devoured in the same fashion by another incarnation of that merciless final month of the year.   

I usually treat this annual phenomenon with a big fat dose of repression and denial. Which, by the way, does nothing to alleviate the anxious energy coursing through my being. In fact, that energy, like a geyser, will find the weak spot and blast through. My drinking increases, my irritability increases, my sleep overtakes most of the waking day, I can’t focus, my optimism collapses into despair, my foresight clocks out for the rest of the year, my jokes get rotten and attract flies, and my affability goes south until a more favorable climate emerges.

It has nothing to do with the holidays, Christmas and such. This type of existential rumble precludes man-made festivals and celebrations. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if the holidays were invented precisely to cure this feeling of finality, this permeating dread, this entrance to the winter of our discontent.

The other morning there was a knock on my door. I opened it, still largely in the REM stages of deep sleep. Standing in front of me was a bright, bundled fellow, a door-to-door salesman, as it turned out.

“I would say you are the ghost of Christmas past, but you look more like Tiny Tim,” I told him through a yawn. He laughed, told me how funny I was. I liked him. I agreed to something or other, slammed the door on him, drank the rest of a beer that was on the coffee table and fell back to sleep.

The next day I turned on my television and realized that I had every single channel available on planet Earth. I roamed the endless scroll of entertainment and eventually settled on channel 520,001. And for good reason. There was a riveting game of “Buzkashi” on, which is that weird Afghani sport in which men on horseback pull the carcass of a dead goat back and forth between goals. The Shibarghan Fatwas were handily beating the Jowzjan Hazaras, which was a bit of an upset. I watched for hours, transfixed by the froward movement of the object of play, in this case a big dead goat. If you think a football bounces unpredictably, you wouldn’t believe the way this poor, hircine corpse defies the laws of physics. There is no telling where the damn thing will end up. A good “Buzkashi” player can read the deceptive flailing of a lifeless goat the way a great goaltender knows which way the ball is traveling even before it has touched the foot of the kicker. I watched an endless marathon of games for about twelve hours straight and decided, since it was morning, to make some breakfast.

I wanted pancakes.

Usually I don’t care for pancakes. That is to say, I like them fine, but I am too lazy to make them at home and I rarely search them out at diners and cafeterias. So I hardly ever have them. But since it was December, and all my reliable routines and structure had gone out the window, I decided to make some fried, flat, dough-egg things. Anyway I was hungry and the “Buzkashi” games, because of the dead goat, had turned me off to eating meat. Pancakes were a good alternative. Since I had no pancake mix I just added some eggs and what looked like flour to a carton of “Coquito,” that Puerto Rican eggnog. I made myself a big stack and opened the refrigerator to find, to my alarm, that there was no syrup. Then again, why should I be surprised? I never eat pancakes. Why would I ever need syrup? No problem. I’ll just run to the store. It took me a minute to realize that the store was closed. It was three o’clock a.m., black as night. Now I was really confused. I thought it was around ten in the morning. The moon was somewhat bright and full, but maybe I was getting sensitive to the light. I had been asleep everyday for a week straight. If somebody beamed a flashlight at me I’d probably think it was noon on the brightest day of the year at the equator.

Plan B. I shuffled, stack of pancakes in hand, to my neighbor’s house, thinking that there is never a huge tidal wave of syrup racing down the street when you need one. I had been reading about the great Boston Molasses spill of 1919, a disaster that ensued after two million gallons of the stuff had burst from a storage tank on the North End and soaked like five blocks, killing thirty or so people. And here I am without a drop. One era’s catastrophe is another’s missed opportunity. How many people had been standing at the lip of the destruction with a hot stack of griddle cakes, accidentally reaping the benefits. Probably none. The stuff moved at a rate of 35 miles per hour and destroyed an entire neighborhood. And not one moist pancake. 

My neighbor is as nocturnal as a bat. He greeted me at the door. I told him about my syrup emergency. He assured me he had some mead, 160 proof. We soaked the pancakes and ate them and ended up drunker than sailors. I told him I wanted to go back to my house to watch some more “Buzkashi.”

“Hell with that,” my neighbor belched. “The Dekalb County horse sanctuary is right around the corner. We’ll go rustle up about eight Arabians and get our own game going. We’ll do it in my backyard. Plus,” he murmured, “I think there is a goat farm around here somewhere.”

“Maybe we could just use a stuffed animal that looks like a goat,” I suggested.

“You need the weight. It’s like an ice hockey puck. You’d tear a stuffed animal to shreds in the first thirty seconds. You need something a little more tenacious.”

“Maybe we can create a whole new Christmas tradition,” I said, suddenly feeling better than I had felt in weeks. 

“Sure. Everything is subject to modification. We can have Coquito pancakes soaked in mead, and steal a pack of horses, five or six goats, and hang up some camel-toe instead of mistletoe, then have a big game of Buzkashi to cap it all off. Then we can eat what is left of our goat herd.”

“What do we call this new holiday?”

“About ninety days in jail with a decent lawyer.”

More Alembics to come.