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…
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.
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.
Very clever, Mr. Dali.
More Alembics to come.