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.

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…

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… 

From Incel to In-a-Cell

I’m having trouble starting this essay. I’ve got two seemingly divergent ideas and I’m trying to crunch them together. The most immediate topic is the vast abyss between lucky folks and unlucky folks, wild extravagance as opposed to sheer desperation. I was at the Atlanta airport, world’s busiest, in one of the lounges, watching TV. There was the story of some wack job from Toronto who went on a murdering rampage because he couldn’t get a date, almost at the same time a friendly acquaintance of mine whom I happened to run into was telling me he had just returned from Southeast Asia. He works for one of the big electronics corporations and he was sent overseas, he said, to install wifi into a Boeing 737 for “a flock of birds.” 

Wait, what? He mentioned the bird thing right as I spotted a mysterious word in quotations on the television. “Incel.” 

“What birds?” I said. 

“What the hell is incel?” he said. 

We were in a bit of a standoff. He wouldn’t answer my question until I had answered his. Since I didn’t know what incel was I pulled out my trusty pocket dictionary. Some habits are hard to kick, and I still enjoy flipping through a dictionary now and again. I found the appropriate spot. Incel, as I suspected, was not there. It should’ve been between ‘incautious’ which is a lack of caution, and ‘incendiary,’ kind of a volatility. We were relegated to Google, where we found out that it is an uneasy portmanteau meaning ‘involuntary celibacy.’ 

Welcome to the losers club. The best way to remain celibate is to join a club whose members claim to be unable to achieve a sexual encounter. That’s like a member of N.A.M.B.L.A. complaining that everyone thinks he is a pedophile. 

Dating is big business these days. I don’t mean carbon-dating or admitting that you are older than you appear to be. I mean finding a partner, either temporary or permanent. Mrs. Right or Mrs. Right-Now and the male equivalent. They are all out there looking for love, in all the various senses of the word. Match. Harmony. Farmers? Fish? Swipe left, swipe right, find that one special person who will drive you crazy in a good way, and then maybe drive you crazy in a bad way. There are books, movies and seminars on how to pick up women. There are speaking tours that invite guest lecturers, recognized Lotharios from accredited institutions of seduction, to sell a roomful of lonely hearts on how to subliminally make a woman go wild in their mere presence, although I hear they have removed the section on Quaalude usage. 

There are many different ways for a man to encourage a woman to like him. However there is one, surefire, definitely-will-not-work-in-a-million-years method of attracting a female, and that is to get into a car and run a bunch of them over. Which is exactly what Mr. Incel did, which did NOT win him a date with a woman. Instead he was carted off to prison, a place with nary a woman in sight for the rest of his life. The poor sap will now get a date, alright, although it won’t be quite the one he intended, which will hardly matter. Instead of being involuntarily celibate he will be involuntarily sodomized, so perhaps, in a way, mission accomplished. 

About those birds…

“I was setting up a wifi network for the Sultan of Brunei,” said my friend. 

“Aha!” I said. “And where does he live?” 

“Brunei.” 

“Very good.” 

“He’s got about seven private aircrafts. The one I was wiring up was for his menagerie of birds.” 

“Birds?” 

“Yeah, it is really weird being on the plane. There are eight huge first class seats and then past that there is row upon row of big horizontal wooden bars for his birds to perch on.” 

“What kind of birds?” I said. 

“How the hell should I know? I’m a technical engineer, not an ornithologist.” 

“Lucky birds, I guess,” I murmured. 

“You bet. Consider this while you are lying in bed late at night, tossing and turning and trying to figure out how to pay your meager mortgage…I have, no bullshit, installed wifi on a Sultan’s 737 because his birds love new age music and avian-based cinema. So now when he flies his birds around the world they can listen to Enya and Yanni and watch that Alfred Hitchcock movie with all those fuckin’ ravens. These birds live better than 99% of the humans on the planet.” 

It was odd because I had been watching an Eddie Izzard stand-up routine in which he describes a bird lounging on an aircraft while other birds outside stare in confusion and envy, and here was my friend telling me that it in fact exists. I pictured some albatross coasting along from Panama to North Africa and suddenly getting a passing glimpse through the window of a bunch of billionaire birds in a custom aircraft flapping around and getting wiggy to old Hitchcock movies and Orinoco Flow, while frustrated human fools sit in prison for being angry that they feel society has forced them to suck, which takes on a whole new meaning once they are stuck in jail for the rest of their lives. 

Since I can’t reconcile this, I’m abandoning it. 

More Alembics to come…