Ten Past Ten

Speak with respect and honor
both of the beard and the beard’s owner.
(From the poem, Hudibras)
Tragedy struck in Washington D.C. last week when a suicide caught the nation’s attention. It was one of the first of its kind. A roving robot security guard affectionately known as “Steven,” model Knightscope K-5, threw himself into a fountain of water near an office complex, short-circuiting and thus ending his troubled existence. Not since Marvin from A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey has a computer been so despondent. “Steven,” realizing he was a billion times smarter than the people he was built to protect, yet still unable to reconcile the abyss of stupidity by the very same humans that had programmed him, decided it was best to end it all right then and there. Tech support arrived to run a diagnostic on the mechanical corpse, but all they could come up with was a cryptic final note in his hard drive:
ALAS, ODD RIVAL…

DE9Y1vtU0AAAjHx

Speculation was rampant. Was “Steven” crying out for help to the humans that had given him life, was he seeking a meaning, or was he struggling with the contradiction of being smarter than the very adversaries that had created him? Either way, Steven was a hero. His life’s work was providing for the safety of others. He will be missed.
Speaking of heroes…
I like to think that my heroes will live for eternity, that they are indomitable and invulnerable, too strong to be forgotten in the vortex of history. Lucky for me, most of my heroes are artists, and so their work usually endures through the ages. Their actual bodies, however, have long since disintegrated. Hunter Thompson was shot out of a cannon in a million pieces. Hart Crane turned himself into fish food. Sarah Orne Jewett fell out of a horse carriage and Emily Dickinson’s kidneys shriveled up in anguish, with the rest of her soon to follow.
So we lovers of great artists, or lovers of the macabre, or both, had cause to celebrate this week when the body of Salvador Dali was exhumed from his crypt in Spain and it was discovered that his mustache was in the exact same upright position as when they had interred him almost thirty years ago. If the tips of his whiskers were hands on a clock they would indicate ten past ten, and in this case time has stood still for almost three decades.
I never realized Salvador Dali was actually a painter. I only knew him as the inventor of the famed lobster telephone and brief spokesman for Alka-Seltzer antacids back in the seventies. Apparently he was also a rather prolific muralist. Always learning, I am. All of that and he can stop the clock too. Incredible.
It is not easy to freeze time. Even if a person clenches real hard and holds their breath and does a little freewheeling backpedal and refuses to entertain even the slightest hint of maturity, we are all older than when we started, no matter what we started and how long it took to finish it. Bob Dylan in his song “My Back Pages” seems to suggest he keeps getting younger, but if that is the case, he is the most worn out looking kid I’ve ever seen in my life.
Leave it to Salvador Dali. He was the ultimate prankster, the ultimate practical joker. Now in death he is still messing with us. In fact I heard that when they opened up his tomb not only did his handlers realize his mustache had kept its shape, but there were three fully finished paintings lying next to him that hadn’t been there when he was buried. They were all of kittens, but hey, we can’t always be on our ‘A’ game.
I myself have a strip of facial hair running vertically down my chin. I don’t remember when I grew it or why. It may have been after I read a few historical texts that insisted that, generations ago, a man had to have a beard if he was to be regarded as intelligent and refined. Since it is impossible for me to grow a full beard I figured I’d get something going if only to not appear completely uncivilized. I can affect a thoughtful figure if I tug on my chin hair and look up at the ceiling, and I use this small gesture to get myself out of tense moments when people are expecting some kind of answer from me.
“Shh,” they say, “he is thinking.” Of course I am not, but nobody needs to know that.
If Dali’s mustache signified ten past ten on a clock, then my facial hair just looks like noon, or midnight. Sometimes if it gets a little too long my facial hair can grow to about 12:30, but for all intents and purposes let’s round to the hour.

Unknown
I finished off the evening by sitting in my library, in my favorite leather chair, with my ascot and smoking jacket and snifter of brandy and calabash pipe and small tuft of chin hair that I manipulated in just a fashion as to make me look at all contemplative, and I thought about Steven, the robot suicide, and his strange message ALAS ODD RIVAL…
Steven the robot was egg-shaped. It occurred to me that Salvador Dali loved to paint eggs. They are a recurring theme in his artwork. Of course an egg was never just an egg with him. Everything was textured with subtle meanings, and I suspected that Dali’s sudden emergence and the demise of the egg robot were not entirely unrelated. Then it hit me. ALAS ODD RIVAL.
I mixed up the letters and discovered a hidden message.
SALVADOR DALI.
Very clever, Mr. Dali.
More Alembics to come.

My Unknown, Yet Apparently No Less Real, Life

Ordinary folks are starting to catch on to what scientists and mobsters have known for decades: the best way to solve a problem is to make it disappear. Hummingbirds fly by
making their wings disappear. Buddy Rich performed drum solos by making his drumsticks disappear. The problem of Antarctica melting will be over when all the ice disappears. Frankie “The Greaseball” Costello avoided a prison sentence by making Jackie “The Nose” disappear, and the problem of sobriety was solved when I made a bottle of Four Roses disappear.
I like to think of myself as a reasonable fellow. No overt homicidal inclinations based on chronic paranoia. No unnerving, vague suspicions of being watched. No subtle twinges of feeling scrutinized. No voices in my head to argue with or shout at. But I have realized it is best if I am not startled. I will lash out to defend life and property. So it went that I had to confront an intruder the other day.
I’m still getting used to my new computer. It is a slick machine that seems to have all the answers. It anticipates my confusion. It is ready for my errors. When it spots a mistake it suggests I take steps to correct it. “Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.”

The control bar at the top of my keyboard is a touch-screen. I treat this control pad like I do my own brain, only using like ten percent of its probable potential. If that. Most of the time I ignore it. So I was a little disturbed when I chanced to see a message, from my computer, written to me, in the constantly shifting iconography it displays. I mean, who else would it be for? The computer has to know that nobody else uses it since it only recognizes my fingerprint. It knew what it was doing. I’m convinced of that. The message was both vague and menacing. It said:

I Am The Body

I knew exactly what had happened. An evil spirit had infected my computer and was offering an opening gambit in the fight for my mind and soul. It was already laying claim to my body. It was no coincidence that I had just read a news article about a technician in Corpus Christi (latin for Christ’s body!) who had gotten swallowed up inside an ATM machine. The gadgets are advancing to dominate humans. The war had begun.
I started tapping the touch screen in order to antagonize the demonic creature, when suddenly my computer beeped and a voice asked, “What can I help you with?”
It was Siri, the moll, and she had startled me. I screamed an expletive and was reprimanded for my use of foul language by her calm voice.

“Mark, please, your language,” she said.

“That’s it, bitch, you don’t come into my house and tell me my business!” I shouted, with the idiosyncratic finger-wag and head-bob of an enraged Jerry Springer guest who has just learned her man is two-timing her. Siri was ready for me. She dropped an avalanche of questions at me, figuring it best to confuse me into submission.
“Some things you can ask me? Text Brian I’m on my way. Find the best nail salon. When is the sunrise in Paris? Go to my photos from last night. When is my wife’s birthday? Should I bring an umbrella.”
First of all, I thought, who the fuck is Brian? Second, I get all my nails from Ace Hardware. I don’t need a fancy salon. I already know when the sun rises in Paris. Just like everywhere else it rises in the morning. I didn’t take any photos last night. I’m not married so how can my wife have a birthday. I don’t even know what she looks like or who she is. I don’t own an umbrella, only a collection of ornate parasols that I use on my walks during afternoons under the hot Georgia sun.

I was gobsmacked. I dared not utter a word for fear Siri would show me all of the elements of my life that were a mystery to me; the possibilities, the fantastical alternatives I was missing, my best friend Brian, my beautiful wife “Whomeva,” the pictures from my forgotten party, the rainy seascape that I stand out in front of to contemplate with my umbrella.
Instead I threw my computer out the window. It disappeared into some bushes.
Problem solved.
More Alembics to come.
(Author’s note: The author is fully aware that he has pilfered a line from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-tale Heart” in the above essay, and would kindly share any profits from said essay with the E.A. Poe literary estate or Viking Penguin LLC, the profits of which are $0.00, of which any copyright holder or subsidiary thereof is more than welcome to 15%-100% of listed value. Thank you.)

Nazi Blues

A home is not only a dwelling but an outward manifestation of the owner’s personality. Thus some are simple and some are complex. Some are overwrought. Some are tidy. Some are messy. Some are open-planned and some are like beehives. Some are a gigantic assault on the meager parcel of land they occupy. Some exist in harmony with nature and some are an affront to it. Some are hidden from view and some are right out there in the middle of it all, like my neighbor, who tends his conspicuous front yard in a wide-brimmed seeding hat and bright red bikini underwear. At least I think that is what he is wearing. Us neighbors won’t get too close for fear his microscopic gardening uniform is nothing more than rubescent body paint, and his exposed dingus a kind of warning to predators, like the granular poison frog, of its extreme toxicity.
Where was I? I forgot why I started this thing. Oh yes. A home as metaphor. Last week Argentinian authorities found a Fuehrer’s ransom of Nazi artifacts behind a wall in a secret room in some fancy house in Buenos Aires. The owner of the house, a 95-year-old German man who immigrated in 1946 and who had never even heard of the Third Reich was as surprised as anybody when informed of the discovery. At first he blamed the secret collection on his manservant, a Chilean named Manolo, whom the elderly Aryan always suspected of harboring secret Nazi sympathies. It was the way the poorly educated major-domo judiciously rid the garden of inferior weeds, his obsession with white bread, white eggs, whole milk, and vanilla ice cream, and his cheerful willingness to undergo forced sterilization.
After the police hauled the pernicious treasure trove away, the old German breathed a sigh of relief. At least they hadn’t found his secret room of bizarre German pornography. Now THAT would’ve been difficult to explain.
Apparently the authorities grew suspicious after someone noticed that the welcome mat at the front door declared, “Home Is Where The Heart, And Assorted Nazi Artifacts, Is.”
The inventory list was nothing too surprising. Bust of mascot with curiously narrow mustache. Oversized steak knives. That symbol with all the right angles in it. Egg timer.
Bad, fascist, un-American eagle. Playbill for smash Broadway show “Springtime for Hitler.” The only thing that struck me as really out of place was a box of Nazi harmonicas. What do those guys know about playing the blues? It doesn’t count that they were really good at creating the conditions necessary for the singing of them. They won’t get by on a technicality.
Of all the news clips concerning the 70-year-old breaking story, Fox had the best montage. They really know how to put a soundtrack together. Tense, racing, violin-strummed quarter notes as the photos of the secreted objects were displayed. I half-expected the razzle of a harmonica when the instruments appeared onscreen.
Everyone seemed more surprised than I was. After all, this area of the world was the last known residence of Herr Doktor Josef Mengele, the sadistic Nazi experimenter and loose constructionist of the Hippocratic Oath. Finding hidden Nazi antiquities in Argentina is like finding mouse turds in the basement. Of course that is where they are. It is where they feel safe.

Argentinian construction workers and architects should’ve gotten suspicious in the late forties when blue-eyed, German expatriates began showing up all over the city enquiring about real estate, particularly houses with fake walls and hidden rooms.

“Vee like to play zee hide und seek,” would be their weak explanation.

The problem with fascism, other than the obvious, is that a group will realize they can never be quite fascist enough. After clearing out whatever category of undesirable they have decided to focus on, they will realize that within their own remaining group of putative elites, there are members who are now impure, subordinate, imperfect, and damaged. The scale has slid. It is time to eliminate the new inferior. So they approach good old faithful Hans, who has nice skin, hair and teeth, but he is a little pigeon-toed and he stutters when he is nervous. They pat him on the back and show him to his new apartment, which doesn’t have cable TV or air conditioning and is surrounded by razor wire for his own protection.
“But I’m part of the team, right?” says Hans.
“Sure. The team of oxen. Be in the field tomorrow at sunrise.”
“What do I do until then?”
“Learn to sing the blues. Here is a harmonica. You’ll need it.”
More Alembics to come