Ten Past Ten

Speak with respect and honor
both of the beard and the beard’s owner.
(From the poem, Hudibras)
Tragedy struck in Washington D.C. last week when a suicide caught the nation’s attention. It was one of the first of its kind. A roving robot security guard affectionately known as “Steven,” model Knightscope K-5, threw himself into a fountain of water near an office complex, short-circuiting and thus ending his troubled existence. Not since Marvin from A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey has a computer been so despondent. “Steven,” realizing he was a billion times smarter than the people he was built to protect, yet still unable to reconcile the abyss of stupidity by the very same humans that had programmed him, decided it was best to end it all right then and there. Tech support arrived to run a diagnostic on the mechanical corpse, but all they could come up with was a cryptic final note in his hard drive:


Speculation was rampant. Was “Steven” crying out for help to the humans that had given him life, was he seeking a meaning, or was he struggling with the contradiction of being smarter than the very adversaries that had created him? Either way, Steven was a hero. His life’s work was providing for the safety of others. He will be missed.
Speaking of heroes…
I like to think that my heroes will live for eternity, that they are indomitable and invulnerable, too strong to be forgotten in the vortex of history. Lucky for me, most of my heroes are artists, and so their work usually endures through the ages. Their actual bodies, however, have long since disintegrated. Hunter Thompson was shot out of a cannon in a million pieces. Hart Crane turned himself into fish food. Sarah Orne Jewett fell out of a horse carriage and Emily Dickinson’s kidneys shriveled up in anguish, with the rest of her soon to follow.
So we lovers of great artists, or lovers of the macabre, or both, had cause to celebrate this week when the body of Salvador Dali was exhumed from his crypt in Spain and it was discovered that his mustache was in the exact same upright position as when they had interred him almost thirty years ago. If the tips of his whiskers were hands on a clock they would indicate ten past ten, and in this case time has stood still for almost three decades.
I never realized Salvador Dali was actually a painter. I only knew him as the inventor of the famed lobster telephone and brief spokesman for Alka-Seltzer antacids back in the seventies. Apparently he was also a rather prolific muralist. Always learning, I am. All of that and he can stop the clock too. Incredible.
It is not easy to freeze time. Even if a person clenches real hard and holds their breath and does a little freewheeling backpedal and refuses to entertain even the slightest hint of maturity, we are all older than when we started, no matter what we started and how long it took to finish it. Bob Dylan in his song “My Back Pages” seems to suggest he keeps getting younger, but if that is the case, he is the most worn out looking kid I’ve ever seen in my life.
Leave it to Salvador Dali. He was the ultimate prankster, the ultimate practical joker. Now in death he is still messing with us. In fact I heard that when they opened up his tomb not only did his handlers realize his mustache had kept its shape, but there were three fully finished paintings lying next to him that hadn’t been there when he was buried. They were all of kittens, but hey, we can’t always be on our ‘A’ game.
I myself have a strip of facial hair running vertically down my chin. I don’t remember when I grew it or why. It may have been after I read a few historical texts that insisted that, generations ago, a man had to have a beard if he was to be regarded as intelligent and refined. Since it is impossible for me to grow a full beard I figured I’d get something going if only to not appear completely uncivilized. I can affect a thoughtful figure if I tug on my chin hair and look up at the ceiling, and I use this small gesture to get myself out of tense moments when people are expecting some kind of answer from me.
“Shh,” they say, “he is thinking.” Of course I am not, but nobody needs to know that.
If Dali’s mustache signified ten past ten on a clock, then my facial hair just looks like noon, or midnight. Sometimes if it gets a little too long my facial hair can grow to about 12:30, but for all intents and purposes let’s round to the hour.

I finished off the evening by sitting in my library, in my favorite leather chair, with my ascot and smoking jacket and snifter of brandy and calabash pipe and small tuft of chin hair that I manipulated in just a fashion as to make me look at all contemplative, and I thought about Steven, the robot suicide, and his strange message ALAS ODD RIVAL…
Steven the robot was egg-shaped. It occurred to me that Salvador Dali loved to paint eggs. They are a recurring theme in his artwork. Of course an egg was never just an egg with him. Everything was textured with subtle meanings, and I suspected that Dali’s sudden emergence and the demise of the egg robot were not entirely unrelated. Then it hit me. ALAS ODD RIVAL.
I mixed up the letters and discovered a hidden message.
Very clever, Mr. Dali.
More Alembics to come.

The Letters

What started out as a lark the other day became a terrifically onerous undertaking as I searched my book room for my copy of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Little things subconsciously inspire me to dig through my personal pile of literature. In this case it was a recent reactionary protest to a production of Julius Caesar in which the Roman emperor is cast as a Trump look-alike. Bah, I said, the producers got it all wrong. King Lear is the play that most resembles our Presidential Leader. Forget Julius Caesar. I could see a King Lear with bright orange hair pardoning the flies for copulating in front of him as he descends into madness. “The small, gilded fly does lecher in my sight!” He’s got daughters, King Lear does, and he favors some more than others, and they eventually fuck him over. I’m sure it will be staged next summer.
I couldn’t find my copy of Shakespeare’s plays, though, and in frustration I pulled all my books off the shelves, deciding right then and there to alphabetize them according to author surname, so I would not have this problem again. And like King Lear, I looked upon the mess I had created and shook my head. There are approximately six hundred books on my shelves, which is probably only matched by the poundage of dust that was kicked up when I so foolishly cleared them all to the ground.
Well begun is half done, as they say, and so I made space for twenty-five piles to coincide with the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet. (I had no books by Malcolm X.) Almost immediately I noticed that I owned an inordinate amount of books whose authors had a last name that started with ‘B.’ Burroughs, Bolano, Bukowski, Buck, Byron, Blake, Bugliosi, Bellow, Butler, Beerbohm, Barth, Boethius, Berryman, Barthelme, Baldwin, Bly and Baraka, before he became LeRoi Jones. This caused me to have a strange realization. The letter ‘B’ is the only letter in the alphabet that has cleavage. I mean, it does. I was suddenly ashamed of myself. Had I been lured to these great writers by nothing more than an abstract association of Bosomy (starts with B!) plenitude? What else was lurking in these characters that were so common to my sight and to my understanding. What was really going on?
I started with ‘A’ and realized I loved the letter because it reminded me of the design of a Swiss Chalet, the A-frame, which reminded me of a ski trip, which made me long for a snowy mountain. ‘B’ I had already covered, and quite Bawdy at that. ‘C’ and ‘D’ are obese letters, especially D. That is a fat little man, right there. ‘E’ is pronged, it can stab or comb. ‘F’ is like a broken ‘E’ and ‘G’ is a fat man that is sort of well-endowed. ‘H’ is the letter that begins my last name. Looks like a field goal post. I always liked the shape but was somewhat vexed at how breathy the letter is when spoken. Exhale and there is the H right there. Probably the most often used letter when perverts prank-call women. Kind of creepy, actually. ‘I’ is simple, tall, proud. ‘J’ is the hook, and every good story needs one. ‘K’ is like a disco dance move. Throw the left leg and left arm out, and you have your K. For fans of right angles we have the letter L. M is fun for the vertical symmetry. You can fold it neatly. N is askew. It is also the Roman numeral IV with the V fallen over. O is a portal, a ball, a letter on the move. If the greatest invention is the wheel the most brilliant letter is the O. The top-heavy P is maybe my least favorite of the crew, although it does separate the O from its almost identical neighbor Q, which is an O chained to the ground. ‘R’ I guess kind of has cleavage too, but it doesn’t offer the same promise as its sister B. ’S’ is sneaky, like a con-man. A snake. It is the most useful pattern to run in if you are being chased by an alligator. “Serpentine!”
T is like a tree. It is the letter that can provide shade on a hot day. U is a magnet. I like U, I hope U like me. V is the best design for a rock guitar and W is M reflected in a lake of water. X is a kiss, Z is sleepy, and Y? Just for the hell of it.
More Alembics to come.

Go Hemp!

I awoke with a hangover on Wednesday. It took me a few minutes to realize I hadn’t been drinking the night before. Not a drop. Outside the morning was gray and the streets were quiet. I saw none of my neighbors on their usual dog walks. Eerily deserted. I chalked it up to one of those strange, collective rises and falls that happens in the popular consciousness from time to time. There are some mornings when everyone is hungover, regardless of what happened the previous night. Like the barometric pressure, it just drops and everybody feels it. It’s physics, after all.   

Nobody in my neighborhood advertises the fact that they watch pornography. There are no lawn signs for Ron Jeremy, John Holmes, Jenna Jameson, whoever the popular “actors” and “actresses” are nowadays. There are no bumper stickers that say, “This house is pro-penetration.” There are no signs supporting fetish, bondage, girl-on-girl, guy-on-girl-on-guy, black-on-white, white-on-black, take-my-wife, take-my-husband, dwarf-on-giant, humiliation, punishment, sadomasochism, group orgy and whatever else. However, if a tech company were to descend on the neighborhood and sift through the ISP addresses and blind search histories, the results would most likely be shocking. It would be a vast trove of voyeuristic filth somewhere on the level of the discovery of the lost city of El Dorado, part of the running current of activity that goes on just below everything else that is going on. This is the basic math of the 2016 election.

In a presidential cycle that was big on sensationalism, bombast and weirdly devoid of strict policy discussions, most people are probably wondering what happens now. Even president-elect Donald J. Trump is scratching his head. He lost the popular vote and won the election. At least he was right. It is rigged. He just happened to benefit from it. Good luck to him.

The big winner is marijuana. It won the ballot in six states, on its way to national legitimacy. After a political campaign that seemed more like an amphetamine bender, it might be a wise idea for the nation to smoke a joint and calm down. Where no individual has the ability to do so, hemp may be able to unite America, or at least chill it out, which is almost as valuable.

I am somewhat of an anomaly. I was a philosophy major who never smoked a lot of pot. My lungs have always been sensitive. I had asthma as a kid. They work hard enough as it is without dumping a bunch of dirty air into them. But, one of the unspoken requirements of studying in any philosophy program is that you have to go to class high at least once, in order to assess the value of any possible shifts in perspective that may result from the tricks that substance can play on the mind. So I picked my class. Second semester Western Thought. We were studying Edmund Husserl and his ideas of reductive phenomenology. I figured what the hell. I didn’t understand any of what he said when I was sober so it couldn’t hurt to show up drooling and stoned for a lecture. It might even help.

It was a disaster. I didn’t hear one word of what the professor said. I was fascinated and transfixed, however, with a girl across the room who periodically withdrew a packaged snack from her sweatshirt pocket, peeled a bit of it from its wrapper, lashed it into her mouth, chewed carefully, then swallowed it. Five minutes later she repeated the process. I was too far away to see what the food was. It looked like a Twizzler but it was the color of an udon noodle. It was like a soggy little rope. The girl had this technique of pinching the bottom end of it and whipping it up to her mouth where she would snap at it, sometimes catching it, sometimes missing it, like a moray eel debouched from a coral pocket, lazily trying to grab some kelp. Often it would take two or three lunges for her to secure it between her teeth, after which she would absently suck it through her pursed lips, chew thoughtfully then swallow. On and on it went. In fact I decided all us students were like coral algae, just sitting there in the tranquil blue, while our one moray eel fed on ocean sprouts. The professor didn’t seem to notice or care. Most everyone else was assiduously taking notes. I hadn’t written a word. My entire being was only concerned with the next stringy snack. Would she eat another one? How many times would she snap at it before grabbing it with her mouth? Would that be enough, or would she need another floppy dose? 

“80 percent of success is just showing up,” said Woody Allen. He was probably right, maybe even a little conservative with his numbers. I ended up getting a B in my Western Thought class. Ask me today about Edmund Husserl. I won’t be able to explain a thing.

And that, maybe, is the big lesson. Collectively and individually we are like fastball pitches. We are the baseball itself, who, after leaving the grip of a powerful, professional pitching ace, believes that somehow we are free to travel wherever we want now that we have been released. We have the sky above and the seats and the field all around to explore, check out, and discover, but in all likelihood we will probably end up in the catcher’s mitt behind home plate.   

The Democrats were beaten on Tuesday night, as were the Republicans in the nine months leading up to the election. It’s like we have all been given honorary degrees from Trump University, with the promise of the vast secrets of wealth and success, but just as likely grappling with the collection agency when the tuition bill comes due. And maybe it never will. Perpetual deferment is fashionable these days. This is the lesson the rest of us can take from the rich. Send it down to the last stop. We’ll be getting off before that.

The cultural paradox, which is alway reassuring regardless of a person’s political views, is that victories always galvanize the opposition. For the defeated left this means gun sales will decrease, subscriptions to their causes will increase, the militias will be vacationing in the Everglades, the A.C.L.U. will be hiring, and donations to Planned Parenthood will fill the coffers. After all, to be great one must have a formidable adversary. Let the games begin. Since we’re heading for the catcher’s mitt we might as well smoke a legal, recreational joint. It might soften the landing.

God save the green.

More Alembics to come.

Free Pizza

My most attention-grabbing banner headline to date! Who doesn’t like pizza? That delicious and simple combination of mozzarella cheese, marinara and dough. We celebrate with it. It comforts us in low times. It is a quick and convenient dinner option. Fold it up, New Yorkers. Cut it up, Chicagoans. Load it up, America. Wedge or rectangle, florentine or Hawaiian, meat-lover, veggie-lover, plain or packed, pizza is the great Epicurean contribution of western civilization. Even better when it is free.

Here is where the reader may feel a bit tricked. This is not about the Italian gourmet staple. It is, in fact, about the plight of a polar bear in China named “Pizza”  who lives in a tiny glass box in the middle of a shopping mall in Guangzhou Province. There he sits day in and day out while kids bang on the glass all around him and take pictures. Pizza is a big draw for shoppers who stop to admire the huge animal as he sits inside a painted replica of ice floes and snow, because there is no better way to acclimate a living creature to an artificial habitat than to remind it of the natural expanse of freedom that it has been robbed of. That is why the happiest inmates in any penitentiary system are the ones with landscapes of beaches painted on the walls. It is the quickest way to joy and rehabilitation.

I can hardly stand being in a mall for ten minutes, much less all day every day. That is a fate worse than death. The music and the rabble alone are enough to drive anything crazy, be it animal, vegetable or mineral. Usually when I emerge from a mall, after a brief and determined swoop for an item I desperately need, I stand outside gulping in the fresh air, thankful that I made it out alive. I tend to “shop” in malls like Seal Team Six assassinates Osama Bin Laden. Careful planning for the quickest possible route in and out. A fast and furtive entry and exit. Get done what needs to be done and get the fuck out of there.

These days I rely on mail delivery. There is no better way to acquire goods than to have it sitting in front of the door when I get home. I save on gas. I avoid crowds. There is no awkward banter with an eagerly inept sales associate. The lighting in my house is more flattering to my physique than the deadening fluorescence of a department store and I can’t beat the prices of the bar in my living room, open all day and all night, no such thing as being over-served. It is all a seamless transaction.

My habits, though, may be partly to blame for what is dooming poor Pizza in his little glass igloo over on the other side of the world. Because internet shopping is on the rise, marketing officials feel they need something as exotic as a giant polar bear in the middle of all that commerce to encourage people to get out of their houses and shop the old-fashioned way. Animal rights groups condemn the practice. When a person is put in a tiny enclosure it is called prison. When an animal is thusly held captive, it is called an educational exhibit. The difference is semantic and minimal.  A creature that is conditioned to have the whole top end of the earth to roam around on might feel a bit cramped in a box, with hundreds of gawking teenagers staring in, all dopey and fascinated. I’m not sure what a polar bear eats, probably fish, but let’s say it eats humans too, why not, we’re made of meat, what torture it would be to have this human feast just out of reach on the other side of the glass. It would be an interesting experiment to take a person, put them in a glass cage and parade hamburgers, french fries, and ice cream back and forth all day, just beyond their grasp. See how adjusted and happy they are after two weeks sitting in the same spot, watching food they can’t eat circle them for hours on end. Sounds fun.

The owners of the mall have defended Pizza’s incarceration. They say he is well taken care of and has a bigger house than most Chinese factory workers have. In fact, they released a statement saying, “Pizza is the happiest bear in the world. He feels a sense of pride at knowing that Rolex watches and Swarovski figurines are ten percent off, and designer footwear from the fashion houses of Milan are strutting their stuff, so to speak, on the third-floor mezzanine. It is two-for-one at the fragrance counter, which always makes Pizza frolic in delight. The only time Pizza shows signs of distress is when he sees shoppers ignoring the fire sale in the “everything must go” closing at the Shack of Radios. He knows that the holidays are right around the corner, and nothing pleases him more than to hear the incessant announcements that the Amazon Firestick is now available for streaming all your, and Pizza’s, favorite shows.”

People of Guangzhou, listen up! You want to see a polar bear? Get your lazy ass onto a boat heading for the North Pole. Too much travel? Buy a stuffed animal or open a picture book. Turn on the National Geographic channel. Artificial living is a killer for people and bears alike. If malls in China need rare and interesting exhibits the United States can help. They can stage the “American Felon” exhibit. We can farm out psychotic killers to Chinese malls where people can ponder some of the world’s most notorious murderers. We’ve got Charlie Manson. We’ve got Paul Runge. We’ve got Dennis Rader. We’ve got Gary Ridgway. Take a selfie with a strangler. Leave the animals to the wild. They are aware. They are self-interested. They are the perfect work of a creator upon a fitting habitat.

It would be poetic justice for Pizza to escape his interminable confinement and turn the mall into a “maul.” Then he can flee to the Arctic waters where extradition is tricky and he holds the supreme advantage.

Free Pizza!

More Alembics to come.

Wonder-ing Woman

One thing I’ve noticed in my trivial research of subatomic particles is that they are very hard to find. Gluons, quarks, the omega minus, Higgs-Boson. All very difficult to pin down. They are tiny. They move fast. Some aren’t even particles at all. Some are more like an electrical mesh that other particles fit in, allowing bits of energy to acquire mass. What I’m saying is a person would be hard-pressed to recognize one when they are out and about, running errands, doing yard work, or playing video games. They belong in a different dimension, and there they stay. They are all around us, yet absent.

Almost as difficult, apparently, is finding a woman who holds a top position at the United Nations. Even in the twenty-first century it is still an old boys club, steeped in a patriarchal heritage, slow to adapt to a modernized world. I was reading about some of the challenges facing female security council members, how there seemed to be an embedded disdain among the old guard toward the opposite gender, and how the glass ceiling at the organization had been reinforced with concrete and wood. “A shame,” I thought, as I flipped the page and read the next headline.

“Wonder Woman named U.N. Ambassador.”

I flipped the page back to the previous article. “Women finding it difficult to integrate into male-dominated U.N. culture.”

I flipped the page forward.

“Wonder Woman named U.N. Ambassador.”

I flipped the page back. “Women finding it difficult…”

I flipped the page forward. “Wonder Woman named U.N. Ambassador.”

Back and forth I went like a ping-pong ball. It caused me to be late to everything that day, as I was stuck in a loop of confusion at the two stories. At first I thought it was a playful way to inform the public that Lynda Carter, the actress who played Wonder Woman on the seventies sitcom, had been appointed. No, in fact it was the comic book character.

A canny and shrewd move on the part of Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, I thought, or whoever made the decision. What better way to ignore a female security council member than to appoint a fictional one. While they were at it, they could’ve thrown in Betty Boop, Jessica Rabbit, Wilma Flintstone, Jane Jetson and Minnie Mouse. Why not? There would be no awkward confrontations on the floor. They wouldn’t have to shell out the extra money for translators, and it would not be an undue burden on the U.N. commissary. These women would not create any diplomatic crises. They don’t exist, after all.

My own experience with the United Nations goes back some years, when a good friend of mine from college lived over on the east side of Manhattan about two blocks up from the Dag Hammarskjold plaza. I drank heavily back then, and it was no small accomplishment for me to avoid being smashed by careening limos with little flags perched over the headlights as I tried to negotiate the two blocks between my favorite Irish pub and the safety of my friend’s apartment building. Anytime I saw a set of tiny flags on the hood of a car closing in on me I knew it was time to get my ass in gear. These drivers don’t mess around. They are terrified of an ambush. The last thing you get to see as you fall under the wheels of a speeding diplomatic Mercedes is the flag of the country that is about to run you over. They do not get parking tickets, or moving violations, and they probably would emerge unscathed from running down a pedestrian. I’d come out of this Irish bar good and tuned up at about three in the afternoon and have to make it past two city streets like I was the doomed amphibian in a game of “Frogger.”

I knew from then on that the place was vicious. If the traffic around the building was that bad, I couldn’t imagine what actually went on inside the joint. I was relieved when my friend moved up to Scarsdale.

“I have kids now,” he said. “And you can’t trust those U.N. chauffeurs. They drive like they are in the crosshairs of a sniper.” Which may have been true. Another reason to leave the neighborhood. Political assassins. Now the local residents may have to endure the constant arrival and departure of Wonder Woman’s invisible jet.

Apparently some groups are not happy with the appointment of a sexy comic book character to the U.N. roster. They were particularly outraged when Ban Ki-Moon made an announcement that all female staff members, “Would now have to wear a golden tiara, matching gold cuffs, form-fitting bodice, fishnets and knee-high boots. Just so, you know, Wonder Woman doesn’t feel too self-conscious or anything. We all know what it’s like to be the new kid on the block. You women must show some solidarity. By the way any of you sweet biscuits want to tie me up with a golden lasso, I’ll be in my office.”

Maybe it’s not a total wash. Maybe some good can come from all this. Consider that Wonder Woman could turn into, not so much Wonder Woman, superhero icon, but “Wondering” Woman, as in female who wonders about why the hell the whole world can’t stop the incredible unrest stretching across Europe, the Middle East, and Central America, say.

“I’m wondering why Aleppo has been wiped off the map.”

“I’m wondering how the U.N. introduced cholera to Haiti.”

“I’m wondering how the use of aggression is justified to an accepting populace.”

Like quarks, gluons and other micro-particles, wholesale slaughter seems almost impossible to isolate, even though officials are aware of its presence. It’s everywhere and out of reach. It’s there, yet it’s not.


More Alembics to come.

The Electric Monk

With every little technical advantage, the human mind loses a bit of its resourcefulness. With every task automatically taken care of, a brain is a little less proficient. Every time a computer makes a decision for you, you become a little more useless.

Say what you will about spiders, they are terrific artists. I’ve got this one outside of my house that can build a web faster than the average person can skip an ad during a youtube video. He is out dangling over my shrubs every autumn. We respect each others’ work environment. As long as he doesn’t infringe on my space I leave him to his art. His web is a nice little addition to the house around Halloween, even better that it’s a decoration that I don’t have to put up or take down.

The other day I walked out of my front door and into a mouthful of spiderweb. The little arachnid had violated our agreement. Angered, I caught sight of him at the top of his maze of filament, batted him to the ground and stomped on him. Judge, jury, executioner. None too surprised then, was I, when I looked under my foot and realized it wasn’t a real spider. I had pulverized a little pile of silicon dust, microchips and plastic pincers. Moments later the real spider debouched from a tree limb, visibly annoyed, with a look on his face like, “You idiot! Do you know how much that thing costs? It’s the newest model. I swapped it for like five pounds of moths. Now I might as well have flushed them all down the toilet.”

I got up close and scrutinized the little fella. That was the spider I remembered. I hadn’t seen him in a while. I could tell he was out of shape. He had gotten heavy. He had tiny little wrinkles on his teeny spider forehead. The waxy thread that used to glisten at his fingertips was now dull and coarse with no tensile strength. He seemed to indicate that he couldn’t build a web if his life depended on it. He motioned to the eaves of my house, where I noticed five or six webs currently under construction, all by A.I., or artificial insect.

He further indicated, (I’m sensitive to these types of communications), that life had gotten a little too plush for him. He had been married and divorced like four times, had lost on some big investments, and now most of his bug harvest went to alimony and child support. He had to keep up this enormous collection of prey just to break even every month. What’s worse is that he had forgotten how to build a web. It was as alien to him as particle physics. He weeped a tiny teardrop and shuffled back to wherever he had come from. 

A drunk girl at a bar once tried to explain to me, with a robust and somewhat reckless barrage of the word ‘literally’ to drive the point home, the finer features of her new phone app that, “Literally shows all the stars in the sky. Literally! All the planets, stars, constellations. It’s literally amazing.” She held up her phone for me to see.

“It seems strange,” I said, “to be absorbed in a computer replica of arguably the most accessible landscape on the planet. Unless you are trapped in a cave, the actual sky overhead is readily available for entertainment, uses no battery power whatsoever, and simply requires that the observer look up.”

“But this has everything labeled,” she said. 

“With a tiny bit of research you can do that very same thing with your brain.”

“Who needs a brain when you’ve got cloud storage?”

It reminded me of a character from the Douglas Adams book, “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency,” copyright 1987. In it there is a machine called the Electric Monk. It is an invention that absorbs and practices the tougher points of any belief system so the actual person doesn’t have to. The satirical machine becomes more and more prophetic as the technology develops. You can set your Electric Monk to atonement and it will go on a hunger strike while you stuff yourself with donuts, it will flagellate itself while you go to the spa, it will make the pilgrimage while you take a nap, and it will wear the hair shirt while you attend the all-night rave.

And so there is much in the news about driverless cars. On one hand it would be nice to have a mechanical chauffeur to boss around. On the other, it will reduce the art of driving to a civil, precise exercise in efficient transportation. Egads, what a nightmare. Who will I give the middle finger to? Who will I accuse of having their head up their ass? How do I instruct an algorithm to catch up to the pretty girl in the convertible and will the car comply with my request when it is otherwise inadvisable to do so? How do I race another computerized car, and how do I deal with the shame of being outrun by that computer? What’s worse, how do I try to drive in an emergency after years of being carried here and there? I’ll be too old for horseback and my feet will have long since shriveled up. I’ll be as helpless as a baby. I’ll scream and whine and cry until the robot that changes my diaper gives me my pacifier, complete with a microchip that will register when I’ve been properly pacified.

More Alembics to come.

R.I.P. Dick Assman

Forget dignitaries. Forget heads of state. Forget kings, dictators, premiers and presidents. Forget musicians, actors, dancers. Forget top athletes. Forget philanthropists and great thinkers. All are meager men and women of accidental luck compared to the one and only Dick Assman (last name pronounced “Osmond” and why would anybody think differently). The affable gas station owner and onetime David Letterman regular from Saskatchewan, Canada, has passed away at the wizened age of 82. 

Not since “A Boy Named Sue” has a person triumphed so successfully against such a dangerous level of nominal adversity. Friendly, welcoming and disarming, Mr. Dick Assman showed no sign of holding a grudge against the world over the years for the name that had been bestowed upon him, although he could have, and when he finally gained the fame he deserved, he took it all in stride. The man was a hard worker. A customer always got a fair shake from Dick, not even making a joke there. He was an honest and decent man.

Even with the best of names the world is a brutal place. It holds no quarter. So it is especially tedious when someone heaps a pile of low slang on a birth certificate. When cheap criminals complain about their bad childhood they should be given a portrait of Dick Assman. If that guy can do it, anybody can. A name like that could drive a lesser person insane. Nobody would’ve been surprised by the newspaper headline, “Savage Maniac Dick Assman Apprehended After Merciless Killing Spree.” There is only so much ridicule a person can take, and the effects can be devastating. The guy should serve as an inspirational model for anybody who gets rankled by bullies.

I have a friend who traveled to Saskatchewan for business in the late nineties, and during one trip he actually met the megastar, at the height of his fame, when “Dick-Ass-Mania” had really taken hold of the region.

“You think these hugely famous stars are going to be pompous and aloof,” said my friend. “This guy was great. He is nothing like you would’ve thought. He is real down to earth. No pretense. Friendly. Like Bob Hope if Bob Hope were truly famous. Dick puts the Assman in class, man.”

My friend even got a t-shirt. This is it…


Some pretty big names turned out for the Canadian icon’s funeral. Dick Trickle, Seymour Butts, Amanda Huginkiss, Ivana Spankin, Ben Dover and Wendy Shithitsthefan all arrived to pay their respects.

“He was a pioneer,” said Mr. Dover. “He paved the way.”

I was planning on attending the memorial, but the Atlanta airport was still feeling the effects of the huge computer meltdown at Delta airlines. I happen to know a few Delta guys, and I suspect the massive amount of dirty videos they keep in their phones had something to do with the widespread digital failure. I’ve never seen anything like it. No shame. When a guy has five different fetish videos downloading at once while trying to schedule three different flight crews to Chicago, Detroit and Minneapolis, it is only a matter of time before the whole system comes crashing down. The amount of “Ass Man” files (no relation to the great Canadian gas station owner) that crisscross over the wires all day effectively short circuited the entire database. 

“We’re going native,” one of the Delta people told me at a bar, trying to spin some public relations rot. “We’re going to show these big fancy computers that human ingenuity and problem-solving can still figure out how to coordinate an entire fleet of jumbo jets without all the fancy software.” 

The result: 2,500 airplanes sitting around the country like old tombstones.

Other than that I watched a bit of the Olympics. Ryan Lochte won the gold medal in mendacity. Usain Bolt came in dead last in the “humble” competition. The most improved player was the swimming pool that went from a murky green to a clear blue, and if the U.S. women’s 400-meter relay team ever needs a place to stay in Atlanta, I’ve got a ton of space. Actually I don’t, which is even better.

Congratulations, Rio. The world had written you off as a dangerous outpost with wild vigilantes running amok. A place where the city officials happily released diseased mosquitos the size of helicopters to infect all the pregnant women with crazy viruses. A place where grifters would steal the pants off your legs before you could make it from the hotel door to the taxi cab. You pulled it off with courage, which is grace under pressure. It is easier to condemn a house than it is to build it. It is easier to complain about misfortune than it is to correct it. It is easier to blame your situation than it is to make the best of it. I myself am learning. Next time I’m disappointed with myself I’m going to repeat the motivational phrase, “Don’t be a dick. Be a Dick Assman.”


More Alembics to come.