Nowhere Man

I have a strange psychic relationship with Franz Kafka, the great modernist writer—in particular his two most famous characters: Gregor Samsa from The Metamorphosis and Joseph K. from The Trial. In effect, sometimes I wake up feeling like a bug, as poor Gregor did, and sometimes I feel slapped around by the system, as was the fate of doomed Joseph K. The other day, I felt like both. 

I am beset on all sides of my property by very loud dogs. They are friendly fellows, gregarious tail-waggers, constantly announcing their admiration for me each time I step out into the backyard. They announce and announce and announce, at delirious volumes, spurred on by each other and, in an effort to see who can love me the most, will keep at it for interminable lengths of time. While I appreciate the adoration, sometimes I prefer the languid silence that doesn’t cause the blood vessels in my head to burst apart. 

The answer was quite simple: get a stockade fence around the perimeter of the backyard. In the words of the empirical philosophers: If the dogs don’t see me then I don’t be me, and perhaps without the super-stimulation of my very presence the dogs next door will drift off into slumber, to dream of fire hydrants and dead squirrels. 

The fence company warned me that I may need to get a permit to have the fence installed. Maybe, maybe not, they said. I frowned, knowing that local governments are not very good at clarifying these types of situations. I decided I wouldn’t get one and also decided to try and find out if I actually needed one. After all, if I was going to break the rules, I should know, at least, what the rules are. I did a quick search with my zip code and was directed to the Town’s Department of Red Tape. I called them up. 

“Yes,” a woman told me, “you need a permit.” She gave me instructions on how to proceed. In a moment of weakness and sheer stupidity on my part, I decided to follow the rules. I dropped off the application and the specs. When I returned home there was already an e-mail waiting for me.

“Dear Sir, your application cannot be accepted because you don’t live here. Thank you.” 

Vexed, I called back to get a clearer explanation, a hilarious expectation on my part. 

“We cannot grant you a permit because you don’t live here,” reiterated the woman. 

“Out of curiosity where do I live?” I asked. “And don’t tell me something like, ‘In the hearts and minds of those yearning to be free,’ or some such drivel.” 

“Sir, we only know where you don’t live.” 

“Do I need a permit where I live, wherever that is?” 

“That I can’t answer because it’s in the category of the known unknown. In short: we know we don’t know where you live.” 

“What if I told you the fence I applied for is set to be 40-feet high, with spikes emerging from all sides on which I shall impale children and animals, as a kind of aggressive deterrent?” 

“Well, that would be against code where we live, but I wouldn’t want to speak for where you live.” 

“What if I told you I was building a moat?” 

“You’d need a letter from the board of health, but not our board of health.”  

“What if I was going to put a dragon in the moat?” 

“Your dragon would have to be on a leash, most likely, but that would be an entirely different department that deals with pet licensing, here or anywhere else.” 

“I appreciate you taking the time to answer all my questions,” I said. 

 “Luckily I’m on my lunch break, which is three hours long, and the wifi is down, so what the hell.” 

“How about a general inquiry: what exactly does the permit permit?” I asked. 

“Most importantly, it permits us to receive a payment from you,” she stated, her voice as neutral as a robot. “It permits us to keep an eye on you. It permits us a broad control. It permits conformity. It permits the request for permission, which is the most basic form of subjugation. It permits the perpetuation of the hierarchy. It permits the power of our Napoleonic little government, tiny and ambitious as it is. It permits the justification of our own bureaucratic existence. It permits us to kill your spirit with a million little complexities. It permits confusion, which is the easiest and most effective form of manipulation. It permits you to feel like Gregor Samsa, the trapped bug. It permits that vague sense of impotent dread that foreshadows the great and vast nothingness of your own abilities in a cold and unforgiving universe.” 

“Don’t tell me,” I said. “You majored in philosophy. Do you like Kafka?” 

“My phone is about to die on you. There will be nothing afterwards. Only silence.” 

More Alembics… 

Sing, Thalia

IT ISN’T MY intention to be crude, but it seems entirely reasonable that a fart was humanity’s original punchline. 

Comedy had to come from somewhere, and if it didn’t arrive from above, bestowed with angelic benevolence upon the masses to keep them from killing each other any more than they already do, then perhaps it emerged from “below,” as a gift of noxious yet mirthful unity that predated the development of clever rhetoric. 

It’s funny what we find funny.  

When things seem mysterious, I tend to look to evolution for a reasonable explanation. It wasn’t long before I saw the whole setup in the primordial landscape of my mind. There they were, a dozen or so cavemen, crouched around a fire, gnawing on hunks of animal flesh—chewing and grunting—when a particularly coarse troglodyte, whose intestinal gods are angry, happens to let one rip. The “gastric honk” silences the rest of the primitives while the plentiful release of methane causes the fire to grow momentarily larger, which lends a preternatural aura to the event. Then, it happens. One of the squatting Neanderthals erupts in a staggered and labored guffaw, as does the next one, then the next, and there we have the birth of comedy. 

Consider, also, an eerie linguistic similarity to these two seemingly disparate concepts. 

Afflatus—A divine, creative impulse 

Flatus—A fart 

That’s way too close to be a coincidence, right there. And, given the fact that a lot of ideas stink, well, the difference then becomes negligible. 

Humor is a mystery that we can’t live without. Laughter probably saves lives, and that’s why those ancestors who found no merriment in flatulence are extinct. Comedy announces itself in peculiar ways, from either orifice, and seems to be more effective when the subjects themselves are almost too taboo for amusement. Here’s a quote from Albert Camus that may reinforce my point. 

“I have heard of a post-war writer who, after having finished his first book, committed suicide to attract attention to his work. Attention was in fact attracted, but the book was judged no good.”  —Albert Camus

Hilarious. We’ve got flatulence and suicide. Now let’s include murder and insanity. 

Thalia, pronounced TAL-ya because the “H” is silent (but deadly?) is the divine Muse of comedy. I find it hysterical that statues devoted to her usually depict her holding what looks like some poor bastard’s severed head, although it’s apparently the mask of comedy. Still, I remain unconvinced. Every time I see her holding that decapitated cranium I think, “You better laugh. Look what happened to the last guy who didn’t think she was funny. She sliced him off at the throat and stapled the corners of his lips to his cheekbones.” 

She’s one of my favorites: crazy beheading maniac that she is.  

So we’ve got flatulence, suicide and murder. Now to the insanity. 

I won’t go into details, but this past weekend was a rough one for me. I had a bit of an existential shake-up, and in a moment of pure panic I reached out to my Muse, Thalia, pleading with her to deliver unto me a laugh for which I was in desperate need. 

“Help thyself, or I’ll cut your damn head off,” I heard her yell into my ear, because we have that kind of relationship.  

So I went for a walk. 

Blinding sunshine, trees in bloom and not a sound in the air. The walk was salubrious, but not very funny. That is, until I heard this sharp staccato knock coming from above, as rapid as machine-gun fire. It was a woodpecker, smashing his face into the side of a tree with lunatic intensity. It was almost as if he was trying to beat his own brains out. It seemed so crazy I couldn’t help but laugh. I cackled doubly hard when I decided the reason for him ramming his face into a tree was because he’d just lost his job, or had returned to his nest to find another woodpecker had shacked up with his wife. Then, the laughter I sought was really upon me. I actually noticed other animals perched in nearby trees, also watching him while shaking their own heads at the deranged little sapsucker’s relentless attempts to drive his face clear through a two-foot tree trunk. Bam-bam-bam-bam-bam, pause. Bam-bam-bam-bam-bam, pause. 

Life can be brutal, and bad days happen. But, as long as I can extract a little comedy from the chaos, I’ll be able to get through it all. 

The woodpecker suddenly stopped his racket, flew down to a nearby branch and stared at me with a look of crackpot futility. We regarded each other for a good long while, until I decided to ask him a question. 

“Mr. Woodpecker, why do you hammer your face into the tree like that?” 

“Because it feels so good when I stop,” was his deranged reply. 

And there we have it. 

More Alembics…