The Genius of Slightly Smarter Than Stupid

BEFORE THERE WAS the digital sludge of conjured bullshit roaring through the internet, there was a kind of brick and mortal bullshit ensconced in the pubs and taverns of the world. Like the internet, these watering holes routinely peddled outlandish theories, often to people who, as they got comfortably tight, were just as likely to accept without question outrageous explanations from some drunkie as they were from an anonymous “internet expert.”  Everything from secret political motives, microchipped vaccinations, high crimes and misdemeanors, news of the weird, financial schemes and whatever else were explained with virtuosic bravura. We audience could only nod our heads in baffled agreement. 

It was at one such establishment that a friend of mine told of an interesting anecdote from the other side of the world. 

To wit: 

The Italian government, in an effort to give law enforcement an advantage over fleeing criminals, had actually invested in a fleet of Lamborghini cop cars. The reasoning was that these super fast roadsters could not be outrun. City officials reckoned that felonious escape would soon be reduced to zero. On the surface it seemed like a fine idea. That is, until the criminals figured out that while they couldn’t outrun the police, they could outlast them. Since the Lamborghini burns through fuel like a NASA rocket and will come apart like wet toilet tissue if it tries to ram anything off the road, all a carload of thieves had to do was keep driving until the cops, pursuing from a safe distance, eventually ran out of gas. Then as the official sports cars conked out, one by one, drifting to the side of the road, the criminals would escape to the safety of their hideouts to unload their stolen goods, kick their heels up, open a bottle of Fernet Branca, and toast to law enforcement’s rather limited foresight. Some of the more brazen getaway cars would even turn around and do a celebratory lap past all the stalled Lamborghinis littering the side of the road as the cops watched helplessly, shaking their fists at the perpetrators. Perched on the hoods of their fine Italian automobiles, the police could do nothing more than sulk and sip on the bottles of Fernet Branca that came standard in all Italian police cars and await backup and, more importantly, a can of gas. That’s the beauty of Fernet, though. Perfect for both criminal celebration and embarrassing defeat. 

Fernet: Delizioso Per Tutte Le Occasioni 

I never bothered to check the veracity of the Lamborghini story. I’d simply decided that I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true and left it at that. I tend to accept stories showcasing humanity’s failure to anticipate certain consequences, and likewise I usually reject conspiratorial narratives in which a handful of diabolical geniuses can perfectly concoct a scheme that has every unforeseen consequence accounted for with oracular precision. If the Ponte Morandi bridge could turn to rubble one day because some civil engineer forgot to carry the one, then it’s entirely reasonable to accept a fleet of police Lamborghinis that get five miles to the gallon and bankrupt the Roman economy with the maintenance costs. 

Must be why I’m a bad candidate for conspiracy theories like Q-anon and Pizza-gate and such. These folks give way too much credit to the governmental confederacy of dunces. In this world one needn’t be smart, just smarter than stupid, a relatively low bar that a surprising amount of citizens still trip over. There are flaws in every scheme and the bigger the scheme the bigger the flaws. Don’t listen to me, though. Here are some words from history’s sharpest literary minds. 

“Nothing succeeds as planned” —Joseph Heller

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”—John Lennon 

“The best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry” —Robert Burns

“Nothing bears out in practice what it promises incipiently” —Thomas Hardy 

“It was surprised as hell to have happened” —bastardized quote from Marcus Aurelius 

I also found some other quotes that were a bit shocking.  

“Fuckin kaboom!” —The Hindenburg 

“Warble, warble, warble, smash” — Tacoma Narrows Bridge 

“Vroom, splutter, crash, [crickets],” — 1961 B-52 crash that accidentally dropped two undetonated atomic bombs in Goldsboro, North Carolina. 

“ZZZZZZZZZ,” a sleeping Captain Joseph Hazelwood, overseer of the Exxon-Valdez oil tanker spill. 

The list goes on and on. The reason evil geniuses are so hard to pin down is because, for the most part, they don’t exist. Sure, some people will be able to pull off a con for a while, like the Enron fellas and Madoff, the Prince of Ponzi. But that is due more to general gullibility than their own atomic brilliance. They aren’t smart, they’re just smarter than stupid. 

While I don’t pay much attention to the internet, I do still sit in bars and listen to all manner of opinion, wrapped in protective virus gear and drinking therapeutic Fernet Branca to avoid the masterful laboratory manufactured COVID-19, ingeniously planted in a wet market in Wuhan, China and traced by sadistic reverse-epidemiologists through the world with God-like precision to topple elderly western potentates. How diabolically brilliant of them to infect their own country first, giving the world a heads-up that went largely ignored. 

That’s dumber than stupid. 

Now, if I were a brilliant germ-peddler, I wouldn’t have wasted my time in Podunk, China. I would’ve dropped my superbug in Times Square, San Francisco’s Castro, West Hollywood, Michigan Avenue, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and a few other choice Occidental crossings. Of course I would’ve been smart enough to develop a preemptive inoculation for my own followers, so there would be no need to close any borders, thus ensuring my robust economy coasted on, unaffected, and the health, prosperity and happiness of my loyal populace continued unabated. 

Luckily it’s not possible to be that smart and that stupid at the same time. 

More Alembics….

Drunk!

IT WAS A rather quizzical moment, but then again it’s been a rather quizzical year. Still, when the world seems to have come loose from its moorings, and the general public is suffering from desperations and hostilities so intense that solitude is the only dependable companion, I can always count on my morning run to give myself a healthy dose of fresh air and a good old fashioned rush of serotonin. The body becomes limber, the extremities are oxygenated, I feel better about things in general, and I can exchange a few waves with the neighborhood without getting locked into some tedious conversation about virus conspiracies, doomsday economic projections, or at the very worst, national politics. Runners move in a different orbit than the casual pedestrian and as such are usually left alone to their focus and momentum. 

Today was mostly desolate. Not many people out, although it was a beautiful morning. Sunny, mid-sixties. I was cruising along on a quiet stretch of backroad when a rather rundown Toyota Camry sped by me, Lyft sticker prominently displayed, and the driver yelled, “Drunk!” at me. 

I spent the rest of my jog completely mystified. 

True, I’d been known to have a drink now and again; and by now and again I mean now and again five minutes after now and again and again and again and again. Still, it wasn’t like I’d polished off a few beers before setting out. I was actually, for the moment, sober. I chalked it up to the driver chiding me for absently drifting a bit from my path, or weaving a little as I trotted along. Maybe he was drunk, and he was just letting me know to watch out for him in his shabby taxi and his compromised condition. Lyft, as I understand it, has a very loose criteria for its driving candidates. They will accept a licensed driver with no more than four DUIs, they may only smoke weed in between fares unless the passenger gives his express consent, and they drive like the mother of their children is chasing them down for child support. The cars themselves leave a bit to be desired, too. Loose bumpers, dents all around, poor exhaust, cum stains abound, upholstery hanging down in tatters, and bungee cords repurposed as seat belts. They boast that their cars have four wheels, an engine, a general trajectory, and a reasonably safe delivery rate provided too much stuff doesn’t get in the way of the path of travel. 

I got home and stretched out for a cool down, still curious about the driver’s weird exclamation of “Drunk!” Something was off about the whole thing. I couldn’t let it go, until I was hit with one of those moments of clarity when I realized he hadn’t yelled “Drunk!” He’d yelled, “Trump!” 

Still weird, but now at least his outburst made a bit more sense. It’s election season, after all, and this lone canvasser was doing his part to ensure his favorite president got to kick it around the White House for another four years. Then I started wondering whether he was rallying me as part of the loyal base, or trying to antagonize me with a looming right-wing victory. I pondered how I’d been interpreted. I wasn’t wearing a mask so perhaps I seemed pro-Trump. I was wearing blue shorts, the color of the Democratic party, which could be construed as anti-Trump, but that was only because my others were in the wash. I’m white, which could definitely be interpreted as pro-Trump, but I was also exercising, which is obviously anti-Trump. I have a shaved head and tattoos, like a skinhead, which could be interpreted as pro-Trump, except I was steeped in quiet poise and concentration, which is definitely anti-Trump. I was in the South, which is the land of the Confederacy and certainly pro-Trump, but I was outside instead of being glued to Fox News, presumably anti-Trump. What a curious enigma I am! 

More than likely it was an indiscriminate clarion call. Animal, vegetable, and mineral would’ve gotten an earful of his “Trump!” endorsement. I considered him, then, the enthusiastic ward heeler. From the looks of his car he’d most likely not gotten a piece of the big payoff promised in 2016. Now, if he’d cruised by me in a Bentley with a top hat and a big old stogie shouting his support for the president, I would’ve accepted his support as a solid testimonial from an obvious success story. Maybe he’d felt gypped, and believed the president needed another four years to truly deliver on his prosperity gospel to all of his supporters, and not just the ones who were already rich. Then I started feeling sorry for the doomed son of a bitch, since more than likely he was simply an indoctrinated squawk box doing the bidding of billionaires, with little more to show for it than an old clunker and a carful of masked strangers complaining that the seats are sticky and the music is too loud. Like that fellow from Florida who sent those bombs to all those liberals, and who went from living in his van to living in the similar square footage of a prison cell, there is not much room at the top for even the most devout followers from the lower sections of society. The politicians need them but they don’t really want them, at least not too close. The only benefit of a Trump victory for this ride-share chauffeur would be no waiting period for the rifle that he would be purchasing, no abortion for his girlfriend, and the same general income and cost of living. 

This line of thought was depressing. Forget all that. I changed my mind, deciding that I’d actually heard him yell, “Drunk!” as a simple, exuberant suggestion for this most glorious of days. Smart man, and a terrific idea, as I removed the cork from a bottle of Don Julio. It’s great to be alive, but it’s a little greater to be alive and “Drunk!” 

Some things, thankfully, do not rely on elected office. 

More Alembics to come. 

Covfefe-19

STRANGE TIMES, INDEED. If the world shut-down has taught me anything, it’s that most people are terrified of the writer lifestyle. It’s one thing for an office worker to muse about spending long periods of time exercising the creative impulse in complete solitude, it’s another thing to actually be stuck in the house with no available diversion. This will drive most people bat-shit crazy, and so it’s no surprise that a number of folks out there are considering the alternative, that is, flinging themselves out into the world and licking every surface they come across in an effort to get it all over with, one way or the other.

For me, this is business as usual. There may be Walmart stampedes, toilet paper shortages, the National Guard, phony virus remedies, curfews, runaway trains crashed by conspiratorial engineers, masked drunkards standing in the middle of the street kind of staring off into the distance, but in my house the work continues, for the most part uninterrupted.

The noticeable difference in the neighborhood is all the kids on hiatus from their classes. School’s out for summer! School’s out forever! Very prophetic, Alice Cooper. Not since Prince predicted the end of the world with the song 1999 has there been a more ominous set of lyrics. The other honorable mention is Ventilator Blues, by the Rolling Stones, I guess. 

My neighbor’s kids have been playing nonstop basketball. They have a hoop in their driveway, and so continues their ultra-marathon game of one-on-one. The boy is named Sawyer, around thirteen years old. He has a sister, Phoebe, who is eleven or so. They seem pretty cool, as far as kids go, but even the most precocious and well-behaved of offspring will tax a parent if they are all forced to stew together for too long. That’s why farms were so critical to family development. ‘Children’ was just another term for free labor, and you could send them out in the fields all day, where social distancing was a must because five kids would have to tend five acres of crops, and by the time the old triangle chimed to call them back in at dusk, they couldn’t even lift a finger, much less raise a complaint.

Times have changed, and so I wasn’t too surprised when my neighbor motioned me over to the fence to beg for a small favor, in the interest of community support, and everyone pitching in to do their fair share.

“Hey, I was wondering if you could help me out. You see, my kids are smarter than I am, and I’m running out of stuff to teach them while they’re being home schooled. It’s not my fault. This is somebody else’s job. I wasn’t trained for this, is what I’m saying. You’ve got a ton of books in your house, so you must be halfway intelligent. Why don’t you come over tomorrow as a guest lecturer?”

“What do you want me to talk about?” I said.

“Who gives a shit. Just make it sound academic. I’ll be out back in the jungle gym with a bottle of whiskey and some Colorado tobacco. You can join me afterwards. I’ll even roll you your own joint, for sanitary considerations.”

I agreed. The next morning I grabbed a cup of coffee, put on a tie and a jacket with elbow patches, and arrived to my neighbor’s converted living room to dish out some education. I was impressed with Sawyer and Phoebe. They were alert and engaged. They waited for me to do something.

“Okay,” I said, “today we’re going to combine math with some biology, and throw in a bit of socio-psychology for good measure. Now, there once was a fellow named Econ, who had been having a pretty good run of luck. In fact, for about twelve years, he’d been on an unprecedented roll, just making money hand over fist.”

“How was he making money?” said Sawyer.

“O, just humping the global economy. The world was his playground, and he’d been running rampant for longer than anyone could remember. Then one day, quite recently, Econ got the clap.”

“What’s the clap?” said Phoebe.

“It’s a sexually transmitted disease. It also goes by the name chlamydia. It’s characterized by painful sores and oozing pus.”

“He didn’t wear a condom?” said Sawyer, a particularly apt pupil.

“This was a bull market,” I answered. “Condoms imply risk and caution.” Sawyer nodded.

“Now, a lot of people were relying on Econ to be out there, whooping it up. Entire sectors of the business community were counting on him. The problem, of course, was that he had this nasty, diseased dingus oozing all over the place. But some folks didn’t care. They wanted him to keep humping away as if nothing was really wrong.”

“Wouldn’t it be irresponsible of him to use his dingus in such a way?” questioned Sawyer.

“He could rapidly spread his infection,” added Phoebe.

“You kids are sharp,” I nodded. “The thing is that some high profile leaders in the business community and beyond decided that the infection was exaggerated, and that humping with the clap was better than no humping at all. In fact, they believed that some areas of the market would be happy to get the clap, if only for the greater good.”

“What’s the greater good?” asked Phoebe.

“A concept that rich people peddle, but really don’t believe,” I said.

“Like when dad told us about Santa Claus,” whispered Sawyer to his sister, who nodded.

“Like an acceptable number of people with pus-filled lesions and oozing sores, taking it up the ass for the team,” said Phoebe.

“You get an A plus today, Phoebe.”

“What’s an acceptable number?” asked Sawyer.

“There’s no real answer to that,” I replied. “There are a lot of unknowns in that statistical probability, but there would definitely be a huge outbreak of casualties. Even so, a good portion of the on-line community kept reminding Econ how good all of his orgies had felt, and to pay no attention to the fact that his dick is about to fall off.”

“Maybe he should just keep it in his pants for a while,” said Sawyer. “I mean, read a fucking book.”

I was enjoying myself. I wanted to continue the lesson, but it was pretty obvious my students were experts in today’s subject. Plus, I could see the wispy clouds of smoke wafting out of the jungle gym in the back, and so I decided to join my neighbor in the teachers lounge to relax and gossip.

Class dismissed.

More Alembics to come…

Some Avalanches Go Up

I GOT CAUGHT in an avalanche the other day. It was unexpected, since I’d been sitting in my writing room trying to get a hold of some inspiration. I wasn’t careening down the side of a snowy mountain, or climbing up one. I was on a flat surface, which is generally regarded as a low risk site for avalanches, so when the wall exploded and a hundred tons of mud and snow swallowed me up in its path, well I was goddamned surprised.

It’s hard to believe, I know, but then again it’s hard to believe that the entire city of Atlanta was brought to its knees by two inches of ice some years back. It’s hard to believe that a six-lane freeway collapsed because of a homeless man’s barrel fire a few summers ago. It’s hard to believe that two men escaped Dannemora prison by watching The Shawshank Redemption. In short, there are all sorts of surprises from the universe’s bag of curiosities, and so when the avalanche came rushing through my office I just went limp and rolled with it, which is rule number one when it comes to avalanche survival.

It wasn’t long before I got used to the slide. I was up, down, and all around, but my computer was still in front of me so my typing was uninterrupted, and the deep rumble of the massive swell was actually soothing to my state of mind. I’d just been reading about a stuntman named “Mad” Mike Hughes whose homemade rocket had crashed out in Barstow, California, killing him on impact. By the end of the article I’d decided I liked him, would’ve enjoyed a beer with him, and was sad about his death. And then, the avalanche.

It’s the era of the avalanche, after all. Things have become brittle, and the foundation has eroded. Technology has wired humanity so tightly that one tremor anywhere in the world can end up in an enormous collapse due to the sheer weight of hysteria, speculation, misinformation, disinformation, cruelty, and general idiocy. The modern system of mass communication that once promised an intellectual liberation has locked the global spectatorship into a handful of emotionally charged issues, destroying the imagination as thoroughly as a mudslide decimating a hillside village during the rainy season. 

So much for that avalanche, which I try to avoid. This new avalanche, though, the one about Mad Mike, I welcomed. I admit, I’m drawn to the weirdos. Here’s a guy out in the southwest United States just launching himself all over the place for no reason at all, which is the best reason there is. Mike had grabbed some headlines years back with the proclamation that the Earth is flat, which is not even close to the weirdest idea that’s come out of California, considering Manson’s Helter Skelter philosophy and bars that charge for oxygen.

I remember reading a section of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, the original scroll, specifically a part that did not make it into the final book. Kerouac is sitting on the corner of Hollywood and Vine waiting for a bus and he writes his observation that, “Somebody had tipped the American continent like a pinball machine and all the goofballs had come rolling into L.A. in the southwest corner.” How that didn’t make the final manuscript I will never know, but if that was my line and my editor cut it out I would’ve stuffed him into a rocket and shot him over the horizon. 

In marketing, it only counts if it’s memorable. Therefore If some California goofball  declares the Earth to be flat and then straps himself into a rocket to go confirm it, he has won, regardless of how it all washes out.  “Mad” Mike even allowed for the possibility that the Earth was round. He just wanted to see it for himself, he said. Which makes him a strict empiricist, in modern parlance, although “Mad” Mike has a lot more punch to it than “Strict Empiricist” Mike. So he decided to build a rocket to head out into space so he could get a good look at the giant thing he’d been clinging to, like an inquisitive flea trying to figure out the breed of dog he’s been gnawing on all this time.

So there he was, in Barstow, California, at the edge of the desert. This line rings familiar to me, as it’s the starting point for Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

…We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold…

Hunter goes on to describe a sky full of imaginary bats swooping down on him. If he’d been on his journey fifty years later he would’ve actually seen a huge rocket come crashing out of the sky, which is much weirder than a flock of bats in a desert.

 I was in Barstow once, taking a pit stop during a drive from Las Vegas to Redondo Beach. It was all part of a weeklong bachelor party for a friend of mine, although in retrospect it may have been more of a preliminary funeral for him, of sorts, since the only thing he succeeded in doing was getting the ball rolling on his first divorce, after which his wife drove a stake through his heart, and his bank accounts. Why did I bring this up? Oh yeah. Due to about twelve beers, the raging desert sun, and my own carsickness, I remember being on my knees in the dirt on the side of the road, retching my guts out while our party bus idled about twenty feet away. From that close a vantage point I’d have to agree with Mad Mike. The Earth looked pretty damn flat. I was so out of my head that I saw the flat world, and a flock of bats, and a talking iguana, and a hundred shiny rockets crashing out of the sky, and a million angels dancing on sunbeams, and Jim fucking Morrison, and the lost tribe of the Clock People, and the rhythmic frenzy of the Tarahumara drum circles, and every other mystery that the desert holds in its vast emptiness, and reveals from time to time as an invitation to a seeker with the proper type of mind. That’s why I salute Mad Mike. In a world of rehash and formula, it’s nice to know some folks are doing their best to shake loose the tedium of predictability, and put a little movement under our feet, and we can go with them on the big slide, and improbably elevate to a place where the air is sweet, and the view is beautiful.

Cheers, Mad Mike. I’m going to drink your beer for you. You would’ve wanted me to, I know.

More Alembics…

Gravitas

TWO THINGS OCCURRED to me, recently. One is that dogs don’t like Monday mornings any more than humans do. I’d never even considered that the great equalizer among all life was a universal distaste for the beginning of the week. From dogs to cats, lizards to leopards, aardvarks to zebras, sunflowers to mushrooms, no living thing wants to deal with the chores of survival. It doesn’t matter whether it’s chasing a Himalayan blue sheep down the side of a mountain, making a bunch of chlorophyll, or having to sit through a marketing presentation with Jim, the guy who never quite gets to the point. Mondays bring with them the annoying reality of tasks and expectation, and nobody looks forward to that. 

The other thing that occurred to me is that most people lie about their weight.

I stopped by my veterinarian’s office. My pug needed her oil changed, so to speak, and some meds for the new year. Usually the vet’s clinic is a quiet place, so I was surprised to stumble into a scene out of Orwell’s Animal Farm, specifically the part when the whole barn goes to war. Dogs on one side of the room were shouting at the dogs on the other side, who shouted back louder. All it would take is one loose canine and the place would be a blood bath, I thought. The noise was almost unbearable. I shouted my intentions to the desk worker, and took a seat amid the rabble.

My pug wanted no part of it. The pug, in my estimation, is one of the more philosophical of dog breeds. It’s the eyes, probably. The bulbous convexity seems to suggest that the dog sees the total scope of any situation, and as such realizes the futility of posturing, and the pointlessness of noise for the sake of noise. The grander realities are obvious within her expanded field of vision, and with a bemused cock of her head she will let everyone know how ridiculous all of the sound and fury is. She also has the belly of a Buddha, an indication that the puppy has achieved a level of serenity largely unknown to the leaner breeds.

“Can you weigh her?” said the desk worker, after things had quieted down, and all the psychotic mongrels had been removed to the recesses of the building. The pug is not ashamed of her weight. Happily, she jumped on the scale, and I watched the numbers flick back and forth to settle on 21.6 lbs.

“21.2,” I said, studying the desk clerk for any sign that the weight was unacceptable, or that she knew I was lying. The woman said nothing, just nodded and recorded it into the computer. I sat back down. It would be an interesting experiment, I thought, for the desk worker to have her own scale monitor hidden behind her desk where she could see how many times the dog’s actual weight did not correspond with the number shouted out by the owner. Lying for no reason is what separates us from the animals, after all.

In short order a woman was called to the scale to weigh her dog. She was wearing a jumpsuit and a workout headband, all limbered up and ready for the week. That’s a smart way to approach a Monday, geared up for physical exertion. As it turned out, she was perfectly dressed for what was about to happen.

Her dog was a skinny retriever, barely into adolescence, with legs and feet that he was still getting used to. Everything seemed to be going fine until the dog, for whatever reason, was hit with a sudden mortal dread of the scale. He braced with his awkward legs, almost melting down into the floor, while she dragged him like a sack of potatoes toward the object of his fear. Not wanting to appear cruel, she offered encouraging words to him in falsetto baby talk while she yanked him by the neck across the tiles. The dog’s ability to withstand her tugging was a marvel of resistance. He collapsed in a lump of dead weight and would not budge. My pug cocked her head, and so did I. The woman was growing anxious. Sweat appeared on her temples above her workout headband. The dog was intransigent. No way would he be getting on the scale, no matter what.

“I’ve got it,” she said, and now everyone in the waiting room was riveted to see who would win this battle of wills. She stooped down, hoisted her dog up, and placed him on the scale, only to have him slide like water back onto the floor. She looked around, snapped her fingers, and nodded. “Now I’ve really got it.” She picked up her dog again, and this time stepped on the scale with him, and recorded their combined poundage while holding him around the belly in a kind of Heimlich maneuver position, while the poor pup stared at me with such a look of shame that I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them both. She then stepped off and, subtracting her own weight, shouted out the dog’s final result.

“Your dog lost three pounds from last time,” said the desk worker, staring into her computer. “That’s alarming, unless, of course, you know…”

Yes, we all knew. The woman, in shaving off a few of her own pounds, had made it seem like her dog was suffering from some terminal disease. Better that than admit to her own weight. The desk worker suggested weighing the dog again, but the woman refused, insisting that her calculations were correct.

“I take fitness very seriously,” she said, pointing toward her headband. “I’m well aware of my own weight.”

And that was that. Tough luck there, Rex, to have an owner that would throw you under the bus with such abandon. The fictions we feed ourselves seem to require a bigger serving at the beginning of the week. I was sure that if it were Friday the woman would’ve been a little less uptight about her self-image. But on this dreariest of Mondays she needed all the positive reinforcement she could get, even if it meant people thinking her dog was diseased and had eight weeks to live.

Next up, a trundling bulldog marched to the scale, climbed upon it, sniffed around for a minute, then scrunched himself up and dropped a huge turd right in the middle of the platform. The owner gasped and lunged for it, then thought better of it at the last minute. The bulldog looked around and, satisfied that he’d communicated his attitude toward Monday, jumped off the scale and headed back from whence he came.

“So sorry!” gasped the mortified owner.

“It’s a Monday,” sighed the desk worker.

I looked over at the scale and noted the weight of the bulldog’s impressive bowel movement.

“.32 pounds,” I called out.

And that’s no lie.

You Have To Jiggle The Handle

GREETINGS, FELLOW TRAVELERS on the hazy and poorly defined road of life. Greetings fellow seekers on the circuitous, radioactive, signless, thousand-mile-an-hour expressway of existence. Greetings fellow road-ragers on the software updated, voyeurism-rich, surgically enhanced, self-branding, if-you-didn’t-post-it-it-didn’t-happen, hundred-lane superhighway replete with millions of diversions and no substantive answer to the ultimate point of anything. 

Greetings. 

I’ve been out of touch, recently. Tired of all the work and the noise, I decided to make an exploratory trip to Yellowstone National Park in order to find Forrest Fenn’s buried treasure. The search is not to be taken lightly. About a dozen people die every year looking for the legendary stash of riches, which will probably end up being a steamer trunk full of the man’s dirty laundry when someone actually stumbles upon it. Ol Forrest will have the last laugh, to be sure. Every time someone slips off the edge of a cliff or is incinerated in a boiling hot spring in a mindless pursuit for what will amount to some crusty underwear, a preternatural laugh creeps through the wilderness, although more often than not the shrieking is blamed on coyotes. 

Still, most of us treasure seekers will not be discouraged. We know that once we find an actual treasure chest filled with precious gems and pieces of gold, our problems will all be over. Because that means we’ll be able to afford the finest of everything. I’m talking about being able to purchase the absolute best of modern design and technology. I want to own the things that are built to last, and not the cheap, disposable, low-grade products that malfunction almost immediately. Actually, I’m alright with things that break down. What I get frustrated with are things that kind of break down. If something breaks I just throw it away. But if its integrity begins to gradually erode while still maintaining a certain ratio of usefulness, that is when my own sense of composure begins to erode right along with it, until both gadget and I are compromised, barely functioning versions of our former selves. 

A few months ago I was invited to a cabin by the lake. It was the kind of offer almost irresistible to a writer and a drinker. “It’s super quiet,” she said. “You can write during the morning and in the afternoon you can jump into the lake and then lay out on the dock with an ice cold beer.” 

It sounded too good to pass up, although she warned that the cabin was kind of old and quirky. Her parents owned it, and even though they were wealthy, they were somewhat frugal when it came to household repairs. They were part of the Sackler family, having made their fortune with prescription opioids. The tide was turning on their empire, and money was to be hoarded and hidden until all the class action lawsuits were settled. Anyway I was only going to be there for a day, so I didn’t think there’d be too much of a problem. I was a bit weirded out, though, when I walked onto the front porch of the quiet house in the solemn woods, only to have my foot fall through a loose board whose opposite end see-sawed up to smack me in the face. 

“Oh, I forgot to tell you, don’t step on that board. It’s firm when you walk on it from the opposite direction, but going toward the door it’ll jump up and slap you.” 

“Why don’t you replace it,” I said, rubbing my nose.

“Because it works fine if you just know how to step on it the right way.” 

Totally my fault, then. We walked inside. It had been a long drive and I needed to use the bathroom. 

“Number one or number two?” she said. 

“Um…” 

“Because if it’s number one then you have to jiggle the handle just so, not too hard, just enough to ensure the rubber stopper drops back down over the water valve. Now, if it’s number two, you have to hold the handle down as far as it can go as the poo travels into the toilet, or else it will be stuck there, and nobody wants that, right? In fact, it’s best to sit on the toilet facing the tank, so you can properly manipulate the handle, almost like the stick shift on a car.” 

“I’m just going to take a piss outside,” I said, walking out the back screen door, which fell off its hinges and down a rickety set of stairs as I tried to open it. 

“You broke it!” she screamed. “You have to pull the door to the right, toward the far jamb when you open it. Oh you’ve ripped the screen. My dad is going to have a fit.” 

“The door was already broken. Why else would it have fallen off the hinges?” 

“It didn’t fall off the hinges until you started messing with it,” she snapped. 

I shook my head and walked down to the edge of the lake. Already I’d been putting my plan together to head out to Yellowstone to look for the buried treasure. This was along with my plan to never set foot in the condemned cabin ever again. I wanted a door that would work, a floor that held whatever was standing on it, reliable plumbing, and a little joy now and again. It didn’t seem like too much to ask. I’m not an ostentatious fellow, and I rely on the basics to fulfill most needs. 

I stepped onto the floating dock, and walked to the edge of it. A quiet lake is a natural work of art, perfect in its design. A few fish lingered lazily in the water below. Then they disappeared, spooked by something. It took me a minute to realize that the dock was drifting from the shore. I knew then that I had stepped on it the wrong way, knocking it loose from its moorings, and now I was headed out into open water, stranded in a way, but in another way, completely liberated. I pulled out a Vegas Robaina I’d been saving, lighted the end of it and took a few solid puffs. Finally, something that worked. The secret of life is enjoying the ride, I decided. I could hear her yelling from the shore. I turned and watched her gesture in apoplectic fury. Luckily I was too far from her to hear what she was actually saying, her shouting sufficiently muffled by the distance, and I turned to face forward, eager for the great wide open, and whatever happened next. 

More Alembics…

Palmolive Dish Soap May Cause Clogs

There is a Murphy’s Law that applies to me every time I go to the grocery store. I will always queue up in what turns out to be the longest checkout line. 

Which doesn’t really bother me anymore. I accept my fate, for better or for worse. It’s not a matter of picking the line with the fewest number of people, either. That’s where it gets tricky. There could be ten people in one line and two in another, and I will be duped into getting on the shorter one; only to find that the person in front of me is the immovable oak tree, hellbent on winning the great price debate. “That’s not on sale? It’s advertised as on sale. I wouldn’t have gotten it if it wasn’t on sale. $1.29 for stewed tomatoes? What are they made of, fucking gold? Check it again!” Or the dissatisfied shopper who drones on at great length about the state of decay in the vegetable section. “They got more bruises than a battered housewives shelter.” Or the unlucky customer whose every item is somehow missing its bar code, resulting in the aloof bag boy being sent to retrieve a scannable version, only to return hours later, haggard, with a shadow of stubble on his face, and the wrong box of toaster strudels. 

There I stood, ready to checkout, pausing to survey my options. There were two checkout lanes available to me. All the other registers were closed, maybe because ex-New Jersey governor Chris Christie was now the general manager of our local supermarket, or something. I could get behind a withered old grandmother with a mountain of purchases towering high above her in her cart, or a well-dressed, refined fellow, a noble Castilian perhaps, with a cart that held twenty bottles of Palmolive dish soap. Nothing else. Just the soap. 

Basic math dictated I maneuver myself in line behind the Castilian, even though every instinct in my head cried out, “It’s a trap! Don’t do it! Roll the dice with the blue-haired lady that has somehow put one of every store item in her packed cart.” 

Too late, as a few people lined up behind me. We’re all in this together now, I thought. The Castilian fellow seemed like a man on the move, a man with places to go, places where they took the cleanliness of their dishes VERY seriously. 

I counted the beeps as the bottles of dish soap swept across the scanner. Exactly twenty. I was expecting the cashier to remark on the peculiarity of the purchase, but she kept her cool, kinda like the cashier who’s seen it all. I was filling in my own storyline, anyway. I imagined this fellow had already been to the store, picking up all the normal items for the week, and when he returned to his house and unloaded his bags, his overbearing wife had ripped into him about forgetting the dish soap. 

“You can’t do anything right!” I heard her shout, in my mind. 

And so here he was, ready to drop twenty bottles of the degreaser on the kitchen table when he returned to his house, in a blue ribbon example of the most passive-aggressive response in the history of marital discord. I almost wanted to follow him home to see how the whole thing played out. 

After the twenty bottles were rung up the cashier announced the price. Not so fast, indicated the man with a drop of his head, as he fished around in his jacket to produce a pack of coupons. Damn, I thought. Here we go. 

There were twenty coupons offering a fifty-cent rebate for each bottle of dish soap. The cashier set about scanning each coupon, one by one. Everybody in line shifted their weight and exhaled, trying to ignore the fact that, due to the coupons being old, or creased, or smudged, it took the cashier between ten and twenty waves of the small bits of paper for the computer to actually read the bar code. The Castilian’s face was a mask of unaffected resolve. The rest of us began to wither. The woman who was at the back of the line rushed off to either try her luck at the customer service counter or simply make a break for the front door. 

The cashier, with beads of perspiration across her forehead, made it to the last coupon. She waved it across the code-reader about a dozen times before it beeped, scanning successfully…for a five-cent discount. This sent the Castilian into a fit of apoplexy. It was supposed to be fifty cents off, not five. The cashier was stumped. She switched the coupon to her other hand to scrutinize it, as her scanning arm was exhausted and useless from all the waving. I watched as the little grandmother with her hundred bags of groceries walked out of the store, all done with her shopping for the week. 

The cashier excused herself to consult the manager about the last coupon. I could feel the silent rage building up behind me as customers began muttering underneath their breath and collapsing on themselves. I leaned on my cart and browsed the tabloids. Jennifer Aniston was pregnant with three different babies from three different fathers, and addicted to cocaine and diet pills, and suicidal and bankrupt. At least she didn’t have to stand on this line. 

By the time the cashier returned to tell the man he had hit some kind of weird limit contained in the small print of the tiny coupon, everybody was ready for blood. The Castilian, unfazed, insisted the coupon be honored, not even blinking an eye as a quarter, two nickels and a dime went bouncing across the conveyor belt, a donation from the guy behind me to subsidize the price difference. 

With the account squared up, the Castilian exited the store, while the rest of us stretched to work some of the blood back into our legs, quickly guiding ourselves through our own reasonable purchases. 

I walked outside, happy to breathe in the fresh air. I had to stop short, though, as I was almost struck down by a glossy Porsche Carrera driven by the same Castilian who had been in front of me at the checkout line. 

I’ll never understand finance. 

More Alembics to come…

9-9-6

 Sometimes less is more. Sometimes more is more. Sometimes more is less, and sometimes most is worst. 

***

The reason for that seemingly ridiculous statement is that I was recently reading about an American work trend known as 9-9-6. The idea is simple: the workday starts at 9 a.m., ends at 9 p.m., and lasts six days a week. 

 Which isn’t as bad as India’s version of 9-9-6; in which a 9-year-old worker makes 9 cents an hour stitching garments to help feed a family of 6. 

Or China’s version of 9-9-6; in which a worker clocks in at 9:00 a.m., clocks out twenty-four hours later at 9:00 a.m., only to clock back in because their workday is starting again, and they are expected to do the work of 6 people.  

Or North Korea, in which the workweek is simply ∞, which means you clock out after infinity is over, or you die, whichever comes first. 

Then there is the other side of the spectrum. France’s version of 9-9-6 has a person working nine days a month, nine months a year, with an average weekly intake of 6 bottles of Bordeaux. 

Or Venezuela’s version of 9-9-6; in which 9 windows smashed gets a person 9 loaves of bread, and 6 rolls of toilet paper.  

Or Russia’s version; in which 9 bribes to 9 different government officials buys a worker 6  days of reduced surveillance. Food and shelter not included. 

****

All of this leads to one very dismal conclusion: work sucks. Too much of it will kill you, and too little of it will make life so miserable you’ll wish you were dead. It’s one thing for a grown man to sit around his parents’ basement all day with his thumb up his ass, or more accurately, both thumbs on the controller of a video game, and it’s another for him to visibly deflate over an exhausting work schedule that leaves him little time for relaxation. If my math serves me correctly, a 9-9-6 workweek racks up a hefty seventy-two hours on the time clock. That leaves a person with little time to screw his head back on straight after twelve hours of spreadsheets, meetings, and Jim, the geek from marketing, who can’t stop talking about how HE would’ve ended Game of Thrones. 

For most workers, the free market comes with its own set of shackles. The proponents of 9-9-6 don’t want to unlock the manacles so much as convince their employees that they are, in fact, quite comfortable in them. Their campaigns are helped along by empty aphorisms like this one: 

“Don’t work till you’re tired, work till you’re done.” 

Tough shit then for most workers, whose work is never finished. For every task completed there are four more waiting. Although maybe I’m reading that line wrong. Maybe that last part doesn’t mean work till you’re done with a task, but work till you drop dead. Only then will an employer be convinced that an underling went as far as he could go. It’s the same screwy logic that governed the Salem Witch Trials, when a suspected sorceress would be submerged in water. If she rose to the surface then she was evil, and executed, and if she sank like a stone, she was innocent…and dead. 

The ‘work till you’re done’ slogan isn’t exactly a new one. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius declared it 2,000 years ago, or was it 3,000 years ago? 4,000? When did Marcus Aurelius declare things? 

Anyway, in the past, he penned this maxim: 

“It’s absurdly wrong that, in this life where your body does not give in, your spirit should be the first to surrender.” 

Which is funny, considering he was Emperor of Rome. What’s probably more accurate is Marcus Aurelius writing: “It’s absurdly wrong that, in this life, where your slaves’ bodies do not give in, their spirits should be the first to surrender.” 

Some things are easier said than done. I’m pretty sure no Roman emperor ever had to dig a canal. 

Which, I guess, leads to the big question: What’s the point? Is life a slog? Is it a seemingly endless arrival of toil, in which the individual sense of happiness collapses beneath a mountain of petty tasks. Or is it an Epicurean orgy of over-indulgence, in which every passing whim is satisfied with no broader appreciation of noble accomplishment? 

Maybe it’s some sustainable point between the two? 

You tell me… I’m going drinking, and I’m not going to drink till I’m tired, I’m going to drink till I’m done. 

More Alembics to come… 

Santa’s Dossier

Christmas-lovers everywhere were shocked to see Santa Claus finally arrested a few weeks ago.  About time, I said to myself. Here’s a guy who has been traveling the world for years, breaking into people’s homes, monitoring their children, demanding gifts from the family cookie jar, and, in a few demented cases, stealing all of the underpants from the women of the household. So it was with some relief to watch him get hauled out of his mansion by six police officers. Not since Jimmy Savile has there been a more notorious creeper. 

“Serves him right,” spat my neighbor, Valerie, as we sat at Dupin’s watching the arrest footage.  “He stole my entire drawer of panties. You know how expensive those things are?” 

I nodded. Unlike most people, I always knew Santa Claus was real, although I never actually believed the workshop at the North Pole hoax. It’s almost completely uninhabitable up there at the top of the world. It’s either dark all the time or light all the time, the nearest grocery store is probably like a hundred miles away, and the potential for isolation sickness is very high. If Santa Claus had lived atop the polar ice cap he would’ve most definitely, like in the movie The Shining, pulled a Jack Torrance and murdered Mrs. Claus and all the elves and reindeer with an ax before turning his double-barrel shotgun on himself. 

No, as it turns out, Santa Claus had been living in the Ecuadorian embassy in Britain.  He’d farmed out his labor long ago to places like China and India, where he could pay underage workers a few cents an hour to build toys for privileged kids without having to worry about providing room and board to thousands of tiny dwarf laborers. It takes a lot of money to heat a dormitory all year round in an arctic region, after all, and because of climate change all the wildlife is drowning, which means food is scarce. 

There’s no Mrs. Claus either, by the way. Which would explain his obsession with the underpants of strangers—my neighbor’s in particular. “If you really pay attention,” Valerie told me, “you’ll notice that in every picture of Santa Claus riding around in his sleigh, his sack of presents never gets any thinner, even though he’s dropping off gifts at a frantic pace the world over. Why? Because every cubic foot of presents removed is replaced by bras, thong underwear, and all manner of nylons.” She spat at the ground. “Very convenient. Santa gets pulled over by the cops on Christmas Eve. Whatcha got in the satchel, Santa? Ho, ho, ho, nothing but presents for good little boys and girls everywhere. Well, okay then, drive safe. Meanwhile that big burlap sack is teeming with pilfered negligee.” 

I’d always assumed that our neighborhood’s rash of panty thefts was due to crazy Mitch, the muttering maniac who, for a time, lived with his mother at the end of the block, and who would walk everywhere, all the time, aimlessly. Valerie was unconvinced. Since her underwear drawer had been raided December 24th, she needed no further proof of the identity of the perpetrator. I kept quiet, even though the thefts seem to end when Mitch was sent off to a treatment facility in Alabama for electric shock therapy and chemical castration. 

Where was I? Oh yeah, so no elves and no Mrs. Claus and no North Pole. Only a mansion owned by the Ecuadorian government and a pet cat, who apparently pissed and clawed his way through the embassy’s living quarters until the Ecuadorian diplomats had gotten quite fed up. “We don’t care if you’re Ol’ St. Nick, beloved holiday icon. You’re outta here.” 

So there he was being hauled out, looking as dirty as could be, which made sense considering he’d spent his life climbing up and down chimneys. I figured we could rest easy this holiday season, until I realized that the man being arrested wasn’t Santa Claus at all. It was Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks. 

When I thought about it, though, I realized there wasn’t much difference between the two men. Both had evolved into mythical personalities. Both had beards. Both were reclusive. Both were white, at least according to Megyn Kelly, and both had spent their entire lives collecting sensitive information. In Santa’s case, he knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, (Ewww.) He knows if you’ve been bad or good, and if you’ve been bad he can easily release the evidence and destroy a kid’s chance at a decent, dignified life. All a parent has to do, on Christmas morning, is walk downstairs to discover a big lump of coal underneath the tree, along with directions to a few internet links. There the parent can watch, in the name of transparency, his or her impish kid breaking a lamp, putting dog shit into the neighbors’ mailboxes, and sneaking a beer out of the fridge when the coast is clear.  His cover blown, the kid is now forced into a routine of punishment and restriction. With his self-worth reduced to zero, he embarks on a crime-riddled life of rebellion against the raw authoritarianism of the surveillance state. Ragged and homeless, he bumps into Santa one snowy evening as he searches the trash bins for any scrap of leftover food. Pressed for an explanation as to why the fat jolly man sold him out, Santa replies: 

“Ho, ho, ho, I believe in accountability, and the public’s right to know. Now I’ve gotta get going. There’s a naughty girl in that apartment building who’s about to go to sleep. Ho, ho, ho, indeed.” 

Some people can get away with anything. 

More Alembics…

Fancy as Hell

I was staring at my box of Quaker oats the other day, lost in idle thought, which is a habit of mine. I was suddenly a bit weirded out, and here’s why. There is a fellow on the box who, I presume, is a Quaker, perhaps one of the original founders of the Society of Friends, as they’re called. He’s a familiar face. As an oatmeal-eater I’ve seen him in my peripheral vision for years, but I’ve never actually scrutinized him. For the first time I found myself studying him intently, and was taken aback with the certainty that the Quaker pictured was jerking off. 

To be clear, he is only visible from the shoulders up, kind of like he is standing behind a fence of mid-chest height. He wears an ascot, and his foppish curls of stark white hair are over-styled, cascading beneath the brim of a hat that looks like it was stolen from a Seventies-era pimp. There’s something to the expression on his face, though; a kind of ruddy, glazed-over, sleepy satisfaction that is unnerving. I found myself peering into the inside of the box to see if some crazy designer had actually put a back picture of the deviant, his full dorsal side exposed, and, predictably, his plus-four knickers in a wad around his ankles. 

It wasn’t long before I removed the packets of oatmeal and discarded the box in the trash. Not in my house, no sir. I’m not even recycling you. 

I had been staring at the box, initially, because my oatmeal was advertised as “steel cut.” It sounded so fancy. But then when I thought about it, “steel cut” basically means “cut with a cutting device.” Most things that are used for cutting are made of metal, so why bother mentioning it. My grapefruit is Vitamin C infused, my milk is udder-squeezed, my bagels are “artisan,” whatever the hell that means, and my coffee is gravitationally-percolated, using Newton’s natural laws to deliver a fresh cup of joe into an ergonomically handled ceramic chalice. I never knew I was such a lavish snob. 

When I have these realizations I head over to a dive bar known as Dupin’s, located in what the neighborhood refers to as Booble Alley. It’s kind of a cynical artists’ hangout, the type of brooding, dimly lit environment patronized by tosspots too worn out from pop culture to express any genuine enthusiasm. 

I arrived, and took up my usual spot in the back. There was one man seated at the bar who didn’t quite fit in. The first thing I noticed was that he was wearing an ascot, which reminded me of the perverted Quaker. Although I don’t regard myself as superstitious, I tend to believe that seeing two ascots in one day is no coincidence, and a bad omen at that. The man’s hair was gelled up; rigidly styled like the keel of a ship, so much so that a person could’ve turned him upside down, stuck a sail on him, and piloted him across the Atlantic. 

He was bragging that he had just bought his wife a Maserati, and had had it custom painted to match the color of his wife’s eyes. The interior, he said, was upholstered in the soft skin of reindeer balls, and a Rohingya woman he had purchased off the deep web lived in a cage next to it and was responsible for cleaning it twelve hours a day, every day, with a toothbrush.  

“And,” he boasted, “my oatmeal is laser-cut.” 

Strange bastard. No wonder the rest of the animal kingdom hates us so much. It’s bad enough to be encroaching on most of the natural world, but when a reindeer galloping through the woods is caught and forced to undergo castration so some opulent lunatic can wrap his wife in its thin skin, it would seem that a certain line of decency has been crossed. He was the type of guy hellbent on accumulation and consumption, the modern ideal. 

He left shortly thereafter, which was a relief, except that it wasn’t long before he returned, looking quite different. It always amazes me how an uncontrollable rage can actually change a person’s physicality. Indeed he had morphed into something almost unrecognizable. Instead of the hyper-civilized Dr. Jekyll, here was the monstrous Mr. Hyde. It seemed that his new Maserati had been scratched while parked out front, and he was furious, and wanted blood. The bar emptied out. We reconvened in front of the stylish roadster, painted a pale blue. Yes, his wife’s eyes were a pretty color, although I wouldn’t put it past this guy to pull a Josef Mengele and inject his wife’s eyes with a suitable color for their privileged place in society. 

He raged and fumed, pointing to a tiny nick in the auto’s otherwise spotless body. That’s when I realized this man owned nothing. Every one of his possessions owned him, and tortured him with their vulnerability, and destroyed his serenity with the possibility of their own damage and decay, or even worse, inferiority when something came along that was slightly fancier. 

We never did figure out who or what caused the ding in the Maserati. I myself like to imagine that an aggrieved reindeer snuck out of the woods to drag one of his antlers across the custom paint job like, “Take that, lousy ball-snatcher!” 

More Alembics…