Hard Math

I’ve been staying off the roads in Atlanta since the beginning of this here month of “JOOO-lye,” (as we say in the deep south), and for a very good reason. A new law went into effect July 1, a law that bans drivers from holding their cellphones while they are driving. 

Which isn’t a bad idea in theory, considering that most drivers conspicuously wield telephones the size of IMAX screens in front of their faces the entire time they are behind the wheel, causing near misses, dents, and wrecks throughout the metro area. What had me a bit nervous about being on the road when the new rule went into effect was the subconscious panic it would create on a good portion of the motorists who, now that they had nothing to stare at but the boring old road with boring old cars around them, would have a collective spasm. I imagined vehicular anarchy, a wild, city-wide freakout that would force drivers to careen into medians and ditches, down the opposite lanes of traffic, up the sides of buildings, into rivers, or launch themselves off half-built overpasses like the Dukes of Hazzard boys. They would behave like cats during a thunderstorm—clawing, climbing, scraping and screeching in an effort to get anywhere to feel safe. Without the reassuring glow of their all-knowing “Trancer” (my own term for any computerized rectangle that effectively cuts people off from organic communication), they may simply go back to blood, and head for the horizon. 

It seems that the initial hysteria has died down, and yet I’m still spending more time at home. Atlanta traffic sucks no matter what people have in front of them. In fact it’s no longer traffic, per se, but a big sludgy parking lot that tends to slowly drift, like continents, in certain directions. 

So I’m taking some time to clear out the scrub along the perimeter of my backyard, which has left me with a bunch of tree limbs and branches to get rid of. Ever diligent, I consulted my county’s website for the rules of proper disposal. To wit: “Branches themselves can be no longer than four feet and must be trimmed of leaves.” 

Check!

“And no branch may weigh over 50 lbs, and must be stacked neatly.” 

Check! 

I set out a tidy pile for pickup, happy to be in full compliance and well within the limits all around. So it was with some puzzlement when, on pick-up morning, I watched the garbage truck stop for a moment to scrutinize my pile, then drive away without collecting a single branch. 

Stumped, (pardon the pun), I went back to the website to make sure I had all the right parameters. I even looked for some hidden minutiae, as in, “If you sense that the trash collector is having a bad day, or is hungover, or is having a male menstrual moment in which he unexpectedly bursts into tears, you may have to gently encourage him to follow through.” 

Nothing. So I placed a call to Our Lady of the Red Tape to inquire as to what the problem might be. Not that I minded the trucks whizzing by as they ignored my piles of refuse, because when they fly by they create a nice breeze, and it is the summertime in Atlanta, after all, and we need all the breeze we can get. She told me directly that my pile was the problem. While the branches themselves were the right size, the pile itself was six-feet long, and they would only accept a maximum pile five feet in length.” 

“That’s where you are mistaken ma’am,” I said. “I don’t have one six-foot pile. I have two three-foot piles stacked side by side.” 

There was silence on the other end of the line, and I knew I was in trouble. If there is one thing that a bureaucrat hates, it’s an overly polite wiseass. 

“Actually, Ms. County Administrator, now that I think about it, I specifically created three two-foot piles, placed in consideration right next to each other to lessen the burden for our hard-working Debris Ambassadors. No wait, it’s all coming back to me. There are, in fact, six separate one-foot piles, placed in a precisely linear sequence so as not to tax our already overburdened Detritus Managers.”  

I could feel the waves of hatred coming through the phone as she took my information, saying she would get back in touch with me, which was county-speak for never hearing from anyone ever again.

“Dear, sweet, Ms. Administrator,” I said gently, “might I respectfully challenge you to a game of Nim?” 

“Oh it’s on, mother-f**ker,” she whispered, so as not to be picked up by the recording monitors for quality control. 

Nim, for the newcomers, is a mathematical strategy game in which various piles of sticks are laid out and removed by two opponents, and the person who retrieves the last stick is the loser. There are rules concerning how many can be removed and from what pile, and the idea is to force the challenger to clear one pile while guarding another. Over the next two weeks the garbage truck would screech to a stop in front of my stack of branches, idle thoughtfully next to it, pick an advantageous collection, and zoom away.  Then I would go out and remove a certain number, and on we played. I went out this past Monday to find one stick remaining, with a xeroxed piece of paper next to it bearing the image of an extended middle finger. I had lost. I hung the offending message on my fridge. Then I went out and picked up the last stick and threw it onto my neighbor’s lawn. 

Game Over. 

More Alembics… 

The “You’s” in Equus

It’s easy to be numb. It’s simple to be desensitized. Apathy is in style these days, but it is nothing new. The coolest cats in history were the Lotus Eaters, that group of drooling zombies that Odysseus encountered on his journey back from the Trojan War, which I recently found out was NOT a war over condoms, even though they weren’t nearly as abundant as they are these days and, considering how the Greeks party, probably not a bad idea to have as many on hand as possible. No, the big takeaway from the Trojan War is to always look a gift horse in the mouth. Had the citizens of Troy exercised a little caution and actually investigated the large wooden statue that the Achaeans left them as a parting gift, they might’ve noticed the thing was full of enemy soldiers waiting to catch them off guard. That thing was just begging to be re-gifted, maybe to Egypt or Phrygia. Egypt is full of gaudy bric-a-brac like pyramids and that half-man half-lion thing, and Phrygia was home to King Midas, who brought bad taste to new heights by turning everything to gold.  Stick a big wooden horse right next to it all and call it a day. O well. The gullibility of Troy is one of history’s great lessons. Unfortunately people are really bad at heeding history’s lessons. 

Which brings us to Odysseus and the Lotus Eaters. After the war it took Odysseus ten years to make it back home to Ithaca, which, considering he was a general in the war, means that the whole army wasn’t the sharpest set of knives in the drawer. A jellyfish could’ve made that trip in a fraction of the time. No wonder the war itself took ten years to win, and only after duping the other side into accepting a big awkward statue of a horse. The Trojan War should be renamed the War of Dumb and Dumber. On his way back home Odysseus stops at an island inhabited by a bunch of tosspots. They lay around all day gorging themselves on opium flowers, which means that he somehow sailed all the way over to the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco, circa 1966, and back again. (In fact, this essay is fast becoming as pointless and rambling as Odysseus’s journey, which is a clever form of conceptual art.) Of all the cautionary tales that Odysseus offers, the one that the modern world has embraced is that of the Lotus Eaters, and kind of in the opposite way. We consistently eat from the flower of not-giving-a-shit. 

Recently, boat journeys in the Aegean and Mediterranean were back in the headlines, and leave it to the muckraking journalists at the Benetton Clothing Co. to bring us the news. They have been working diligently to deliver the hardscrabble truth about the plight of European asylum seekers by releasing a series of ads depicting an overcrowded float of fashionable refugees floating around the Mediterranean Sea. Sculpted and haunting, these sexy migrants can be seen relaxing in the sun, blue waters abound, fondling each other and yucking it up as they drift listlessly looking for a safe port of entry. Not since Gilligan’s Island has the tragedy of stranded humans been so honestly rendered. The Mediterranean, after all, is a popular vacation destination for the rich and beautiful. It’s like somebody complaining that they are “stranded” in Aspen, stuck on a raft in the heated pool at the Hotel Jerome. We should all be so lucky. I never realized that the horror of overcrowded rafts full of people fleeing civil war actually include a fully stocked bar, a lido deck, shuffleboard, and nightly limbo contests. You can’t beat the sunsets, the casinos payout daily, there is a driving range and skeet shooting off the stern, and the chefs are world class. Nothing to worry about. Most every person dreams of giving up the daily drudgery of their lives and sailing around the world, and here are these insouciant men, women and children actually doing it, coasting along without a care in the world. Benetton has given their struggle a kind of hip and glamorous edge, and we all want to be hip and glamorous, so, in a way, problem solved. I have a house, a car, food for days and all the booze I can drink, but I’ve never been in a fashion magazine, which means I’m the real victim. 

Every party must come to an end, eventually, and there is still the issue of allowing these orphaned citizens entry into a place without bombs, bullets, nerve gas, rapists, marauders, and constant bombardment, and for this, I have the perfect plan based on my careful scrutiny of history and its past successes. I’m heading over to Europe with all the necessary diagrams and specs. You see, rescue and aid workers can start construction on this big hollowed out horse and…

More Alembics to come.