Curiosity Killed the Caveman

I breathed a sigh of relief the other day. My mailbox had been approved by the Postmaster General. It was stamped into the metal on the door. I had never noticed the issuance before that moment. It made me wonder whether it had always been there, or whether the Postmaster General himself had come by recently with an engraving stamp to grant his formal blessing that the tiny metal box at the foot of my driveway was indeed fit to contain, for a short while, United States parcels and postage. It is human nature to seek approval, and for those of us who are most desperate, the approval of the Postmaster General will have to do when none other is available.

I was forced then to consider the Postmaster General. Who was he and what qualifications did he have? Was he an elected official? A military adjunct? Could it be a woman? Was there a Postmaster Sergeant and a Postmaster Lieutenant? How had he become an expert on what type of mail receptacle was appropriate to hold letters and flyers? Was he an expert on Quonset huts, covered bridges, and other forms of arched containers both large and small? Had he performed a thorough diagnostic on my mailbox’s front door hinge, the only part of the letter holder that, as far as I could tell, might be subject to a gradual corrosion from usage? I pictured him dressed as a Third World military dictator. A Hailie Selassie look-a-like, with gold epaulets and a bright sash and a sword, riding through the neighborhood in a stripped down jeep with a mounted M-60 in the back.

Later on in the day, during my afternoon walk, I made it a point to stop and check all the mailboxes to see if they too had been granted legitimacy by the Postmaster General. All of them were approved. Except for one. And I wasn’t surprised.

She lives at the end of the block and she is an artist. Her medium is metal. She is to sculpture what the maverick filmmaker Stan Brakhage was to experimental film. I can appreciate the creativity but too much of it would surely drive me insane. Her front lawn looks like something out of a Tim Burton movie. It was obvious that she had made her mailbox herself, and that it didn’t need approval from a Postmaster General, or anybody else. It was an ornate piece of polished copper buried in a shrub that I realized looked a bit like, well, either like an orchid or female genitalia. I suspected her intent was the latter, since etched in careful calligraphy along the side was the caption, “Fe-mail Box.” I crept up to it, sensing that I was being watched from somewhere within the dark recesses of her artist’s dwelling. Carefully I opened the lid and almost jumped out of my skin as I peered in and realized somebody was looking back at me. There was a human head in there.
*
Forget cats. Curiosity has killed a whole bunch of stuff over the course of history. Let us go back to the beginning. Consider two Neanderthals living in the same crude shelter. Cave mates, as it were. The original odd couple. Both of them hear a lion roar outside. The first caveman, the curious adventurer type, fastens the uni-strap of his loincloth over his shoulder, grabs his puny spear and trots out to confront the bestial howl. The second fellow, cautious as he is, decides it would be better not to run out and investigate the cat’s cries. Something about the screeching just seems like bad news. So while the first caveman is outside satisfying his curiosity, the second caveman tucks himself beside his little fire and points his ear toward the mouth of the cave. For a few minutes there is human shrieking and the animal’s own caterwauling, both of which eventually subside. The little man ensconced in his rock dwelling wonders who won the battle and is given the answer by way of his former cave mate’s head rolling back at him, coming to rest at the edge of the fire with a look of supreme idiocy across his lacerated face. The lion outside devours the rest of Mr. Curious and then enters the cave and starts poking around. The survivor, contemplative and fearful proto-man, knows that if he plays his cards right he can have the whole rest of the cave to himself from now on. So he invents the shrug-and-go-limp method of conflict resolution, or what is known as tonic immobility. He plays dead, watching through an apertured eyelid as the enormous cat nudges him a bit, sniffs and then pisses on him before skulking away to sleep off the rather substantial meal he has just gorged himself on. The surviving Neanderthal, covered in animal urine, jumps up in victory. It is his genetic code of abject cowardice that will be passed down through his lineage. He keeps his old roommate’s head nearby to remind him that some mysteries are better left unsolved. Make no mistake. Curiosity is as ruthless as cancer.
*
I offer the above allegory because the head in the mailbox scared the shit out of me, and I almost felt that there could’ve been a loaded gun in it, rigged to the door, ready to blow my snooping head off. After a minute I peeked back in. There was a mirror in the far end of the mailbox. I was looking at myself. No sane Postmaster General would go near that thing.
Artists are creepy.
More Alembics to come.

A Day at the Races

“Wealthy People Benefit; The Poor Much Less So” declared a banner headline in the newspaper the other day, which caused me to erupt in an unexpected fit of laughter. I laughed, not because I am one of these heartless idolaters who believes that the wealthy are beyond good and evil, that the poor are guilty of their own circumstance, and that the pursuit of the filthy lucre is the one and only noble goal. I laughed because, while the article was referring to the new health care law, it could’ve been used for any article, written about any society, in the history of everything. It could’ve been written about global warming, tax laws, life expectancy, zoning, market volatility, technology, war, fine dining, vacation destinations, crime, hell even the weather. I decided to keep an eye out for the headline, “Poor People Get the Upper Hand; Wealthy People are Screwed” in any news source other than The Onion.

I had been having some trouble squeezing any amusement out of the news, as of late. Whether my attitude has shifted or the news itself has gotten weird and standoffish, I can’t say. This new administration is a scrappy one, and they have left the Fourth Estate licking its wounds. It’s like when two alley cats go at it for reasons of turf and table scraps. The noise is horrendous and can be heard blocks away and when it is all over there is little to joke about. The screeching lingers in the brain. Even the thought of Kim Jong-Un and Rodrigo Duterte snickering from the White House lawn was doing little to brighten my day.

Luckily I had to go to the liquor store. Sometimes all a person needs is a fragment of a phrase to get that spark of inspiration. And there is was. On a placard. Plain as day. I had pulled my car in front of the big metal refrigerator where the bagged ice is kept. There was a sign atop the container that said, “Our Ice is Lab Tested.” I sat for a good long while reading it over and over. Like that lab tested ice, my frozen mind began to drip from the sudden heat. I saw it with such clarity, serious men and women standing around in lab coats with clipboards, writing furiously, as an array of ice cubes slowly turned into water. At the end of the day they could turn in their reports to the director of the study, Dr. Kool-Aid.
“Sir we’ve noticed that there is a direct correlation between heat and deliquescence.”
“Oh Yeah!”
“Sir, we’ve made a breakthrough. More ice in a glass will keep a drink colder, longer.”
“Oh Yeah!”
“Sir, the more ice that melts in a beverage, the more watery the beverage will taste.”
“Oh Yeah!”
“Sir, our test subjects report that the ice turns the tongue numb and causes a headache between the eyes.”
“Oh Yeah!”
“Sir, repeated exposure of the ice cubes to the song, ‘Ice, Ice, Baby’ by Vanilla Ice does little to slow the rate of liquefaction.”
“Oh Yeah!”
“Sir, if we rub the cubes on our nipples it seems to both hasten the melting process and our sense of arousal.”
“Oh Yeah!”

I sat for so long I forgot what it was I had gone there for. The thought of a big, red anthropomorphic pitcher of Kool-Aid in a giant lab coat heartily agreeing with a team of eggheads had completely turned my day around. I ended up buying a bag of ice (their marketing scheme worked) and bringing it home. I plucked one cube out of the bag, got my own ice cube from the tray in my freezer, set them both out and hovered over them, officiating to see which one could hold its shape longest. It was no small coincidence that it was Kentucky Derby day. In fact, I could hear the derby announcer’s voice superimposed over my little ice competition.

“And…THEY’RE OFF! It’s Home Froze off to a fast start, and Lab Tested not showing any signs of drip. Home Froze is shrinking fast. Lab Tested holding steady. Like a glacier. Now it is Lab Tested with an emerging bead. Home Froze is sweating like a whore in church. Visible shrinkage from Home Froze. Lab Tested a great and mighty pillar of ice. Now in the home stretch, Home Froze more liquid than solid, no chance for Home Froze, and it’s Lab Tested by a landslide!”

Son of a bitch, I thought, what are they putting in this stuff? My mind went to the book Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, a satire in which a scientist develops an ice derivative called Ice-9 that freezes at room temperature, which hastens the end of the world. Of course that was a joke, of sorts, right? That could never happen in real life. I stared at the laboratory cube. It stared back, in a way. I was sweating more than the ice cube was. At the very least I’m sure anybody who invented Ice-9 would also develop a neutralizing agent that counteracts the solid molecular structure, turning it back into precious water. They could sell it to Ice-9 victims for $19.99. I could see the headline:
“Wealthy People Benefit; The Poor Much Less So.”
More Alembics to come

May Day

Don’t get me wrong, I dig technology. The ability of tiny digital chips to hold massive amounts of data is boggling. Every nugget of information in the known universe is at one’s fingertips. It is an exciting and fun time to be alive and fucking lazy. And yet while a person can take comfort in technology’s seeming omnipotence, it can also offer a false sense of security in the event that a computer freezes up and drops dead like an inept mountain climber whose beginner’s hubris has trapped him on the stormy side of a Himalayan peak.

So it went the other day, as I was typing away on my computer, that in the wink of an eye all my folders got locked up in a tiny tomb of a dead hard drive and zapped out of existence. I immediately fought the urge to kill myself right along with it! Inhale. Exhale. Take it easy.

Until that point I had considered the machine indestructible. I had trusted its massive memory capacity to store over one hundred blog essays, three and a half books, a patchwork of go-nowhere short stories, not to mention extensive drafts of my Nobel acceptance speech in the event that I was finally recognized by the committee fifty years from now. I stared at the inert computer for some time, at the nothingness of the blank screen that had, moments before, been brightly reflecting my prose back at me. I could see nothing now but a vague, dark silhouette of myself in the coal-black sheen of the monitor. It seemed fitting. In fact, the line that Robert Oppenheimer lifted from the Bhagavad-Gita blazed through my incredulous mind. “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”
I tend to relish my hyper-dramatic flair. No problem, I thought. I can fix this. I will simply turn the computer back on, and the machine will fix itself, and maybe even be better than it was before. Except it didn’t come back on, and no amount of digital CPR was going to fix the corpse. I thought back to the last thing I had seen on the computer screen. Then I remembered the spinning rainbow wheel.

I had learned, over the years, to accept the spinning rainbow wheel with equanimity. It reminded me to be patient. Let’s not be too hasty, it seemed to suggest. Let’s let everything catch up. Let’s enjoy this small moment of downtime to reflect on how lucky we are, how beautiful life is. Little did I know it was also a silent little whirling death rattle. My ancestors used to describe a white light at the end of a tunnel when recounting a near death experience. The new generation will insist that they see a technicolor vertigo beckoning.

With Plan A, ritual suicide and Plan B, machine fixing itself all off the table I tried Plan C. I popped on over to my nearest computer store and was visited by a friendly technician named Billy. He ran some preliminary tests then sat me down, and with all the measured compassion of a funeral director, suggested I be ready to say goodbye to my beloved machine.

“Let me try one more thing,” he said, proceeding to work out some intricate voodoo on the keypad. I offered to run down to the food court for some chicken bones and maybe the blood of an infant to help with the ritual. Billy ignored me. A few more diagnostic runs and he murmured, more to himself than to me, “It’s fucked.”

“Yes of course,” I nodded, understanding the word as some kind of high-tech acronym. F.U.C.K.E.D. File, Upload, Capture, Keep, Export, Deliver.

Billy shook his head. Not this time. He asked if I had everything backed up in the cloud? I looked at my feet and shuffled a bit. It was my understanding, I told him, that my computer was the one who took care of all that stuff. It was all part of the deal. I was the creative impulse. The computer was the logistics manager. I couldn’t even remember a phone number anymore, much less a system of fool-proof redundancy to mitigate unforeseen disasters exactly like the one I was currently embroiled in. Billy laughed, said he understood. He began searching on my behalf for any evidence of my years of artistic struggle. As I looked over his shoulder, as useless as a eunuch in a brothel, I suggested that the spinning rainbow wheel be replaced by a tiny icon of an old man coughing, wheezing and gagging, bent over, one hand on his knee, the other hand raised up with his index finger extended, hacking violently in a tussive symphony of phlegm and stridor. Billy applauded my idea. He promised me he’d speak to some of the higher ups.

I went home.

The writer Friedrich Nietzsche had it rough, by any standard. He had violent headaches that would lay him up for twelve hour stretches, allowing only for an hour or two of writing a day. The medicine he took for the headaches caused debilitating cramps in his stomach, followed by intense vomiting. He allegedly caught syphilis from his one and only sexual encounter, with a prostitute. Then he finally went mad as Edgar Poe after watching a horse get whipped in Turin, Italy. Even so, he produced some of the most influential writings of the last hundred and fifty years. Thank you Freddie for putting my small amount of misfortune into perspective. Little by little it all came back, a sprinkle from the cloud, an indefatigable thumb drive, a piece here and a piece there. My stuff was alive. There was some kind of benevolence afforded me. Nobody prefers adversity, yet it is easily the most powerful creator of appreciation. Consider me grateful.
More Alembics to come.