Running On Empty

LAST WEEK I was listening to Running on Empty, Jackson Browne’s iconic road album from 1977.  It was a portentous moment, since three days later the entire east coast of the U.S. was NOT running BECAUSE on empty. Damn, I thought. I should’ve been listening to Aerosmith’s Permanent Vacation, because maybe that would herald my winning of the lottery, after which I’d never have to work again. 

Insofar as music has the ability to shape the future course of events, be careful what you listen to. I’ve met folks who believe that God is, in fact, nothing more than a cosmic disc jockey, sending us audible vibrations of life cues through an array of disposable pop tunes. These types of belief systems can be fraught with peril, though. The woman who dates the alcoholic, abusive, perennially jobless “Mickey” because Toni Basil kept telling her how “so fine” he is, desperately clings to her own induced misery.  

I’m getting off track. I started this piece to highlight the mass idiocy of hysterical hoarding that is part and parcel of being human. Whether it’s toilet paper or hand sanitizer, Blanton’s bourbon or gasoline, our collective penchant for stockpiling suggests a strong genetic similarity with packrats and, given the shameful social reflexes of some people, rats in general. 

It began with a banner declaration in my Atlanta morning paper: 

EXPERTS RECOMMEND AVOIDING THE HOARDING OF GAS 

Jesus creeping shit, I thought, they might as well have deleted the word “avoiding” in that headline and just told everyone to panic like the Earth was about to explode. Later in the day I was coasting down the highway, scanning each gas station I passed. Every one of them was crammed with cars filling, not only their gas tanks, but every conceivable receptacle they could get their hands on. One beady-eyed driver was topping off his Yeti cup with high test. Another had taken both his socks off and had filled them with regular unleaded, knotting them at the top to prevent spillage. The worst was an anxious mother with a gas nozzle plunged into her daughter’s mouth, filling the poor girl’s stomach, and ordering her to sit still until they got home so she could puke the fuel back into their emergency generator. The apocalypse was nigh and extreme measures had to be taken, and this kid was being told to literally suck it up for the greater good of the whole family. 

So much for the serenity that our vaunted human intelligence should be bringing us. Our big brains have actually broadened the capacity for hypothetical catastrophe, making it more likely that the hypotheticals become actuals. A round of applause then, for our vast human comedy. William Saroyan penned a portion of it in the early forties, as World War II was kicking up in earnest. He wrote, “…the strange, weed-infested, junky, wonderful, senseless yet beautiful world.” I may add: gas-filled and gas-depleted, teeming with abundance and sorely lacking, plush and vapid, tedious and inspiring, and fraught with the kind of remarkable contradictions that make it necessary to extract humor like it was an embedded, gas-soaked fossil. Humor is the fuel that keeps my sanity going. I can’t afford to run out. 

Estivate: (Verb)— To spend a hot, dry period in a state of dormancy or torpor. 

I love that word. It lends my laziness a lofty sophistication. I’m not just sitting around my house. I’m estivating. 

It is summer, so it’s a hot period, and the gas pumps have dried up, so it’s a dry period, and I’ve been hoarding Blanton’s bourbon for years, which will put me in a state of extreme dormancy. I’ll hunker down for a while, until the pipelines start gushing forth with dinosaur juice so I may again careen through the city on some frivolous path. 

I’ve got no problem estivating at Hull House, my obscured and spartan compound nestled somewhere in the heart of Dixie. I’ve got all the Blanton’s I can handle—all the pretty horses in a row. I’ve got a decent library—thus plenty to read, and I’m back to listening to Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty. I’m unaware of listening to the album for any other reason than it’s one of my favorites. However, if next week I find myself taking to the road, in love with a woman named Rosie, exalting in the thunder, passing through Shaky Town, high on cocaine, my love needing a heart, with nothing but time on my hands and wondering whether to load out or whether to “Stay…. just a little bit longer,” we’ll all know that greater cosmic musical forces are hard at work. 

More Alembics… 

Nowhere Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Alembics… 

Sing, Thalia

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

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

It’s funny what we find funny.  

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

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

Afflatus—A divine, creative impulse 

Flatus—A fart 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I went for a walk. 

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

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

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

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

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

And there we have it. 

More Alembics…

Ixion’s Bar Tab

I HAD A busy weekend planned. I’d fully intended on riding Ixion’s wheel over to pick up Maxwell’s demon so we could steal Occam’s razor to kill Schrödinger’s cat, after which we’d kind of root around Pandora’s box. Instead, I watched television for like four hours, which was its own kind of madness, since the television was off the whole time.   

Point being, nobody likes a wiseass. Life’s tough enough without having to look up a bunch of obscure references all smashed together for no discernible reason, like in that last paragraph. I suppose, in a way, that sentence, from Ixion down to Pandora, could serve as awkward metaphor. I felt like a lot had been happening recently and, at the same time, not a damn thing.  

When this strange and paradoxical malaise hits me, I usually head off to the bar. Say what you will about the perils of heavy drinking, it will reconcile the hell out of a contradiction, or at least make me perfectly happy about the contradiction, which is basically the same thing. 

I stopped in at my favorite watering hole and could immediately feel the rage in the air, the quiet tension that lingers thick before an enormous brawl erupts. I thought maybe it was the news on the television, as it had gone back to “normal” in the worst possible way—by reporting about the mass shooting epidemic instead of the COVID epidemic. 

That wasn’t it, though. The source of the outrage was a pointy-headed couple sitting at the bar who had apparently been there all afternoon yukking it up while amassing a $200 bar tab of tequila and potato chips, which should give some idea about the amount of tequila that was involved. They were wearing conical paper birthday hats atop their heads, which may have just been repurposed dunce caps. 

“I’ve got some gift cards,” the man slurred, as he handed over a stack of no less than 80 of them, each with a remaining balance of no more than $3 per card. So the bartender, apoplectic with fury, had announced a moratorium on drink service until, as she so eloquently put it, “I deal with this broke motherfucker’s squaring of his account.” 

Already there was a line of receipts running from the printer to the floor as the bartender swiped card after card, knocking the bar tab down a few bucks at a time. The rest of the customers, empty glasses in front of them, glared at the tequila-and-potato-chips duo with all the fury of Zeus casting Ixion down to Tartarus to spin on his fiery wheel for eternity, which was Ixion’s dubious claim to fame. One bar customer who was lucky enough to still have half a glass of beer in front of her offered to share it with me in exchange for protection and on the condition I buy her a full one when the madness was all over. You know the situation is fraught when a stranger offers to share a beer with another stranger in the midst of a pandemic. And even worse, he accepts. 

The birthday freaks with their pointy caps tilted on their heads looked around like doped-up unicorns. It was folks like these that were the reason for rules of any kind. They are the burden for which we all must suffer, kind of like Ixion’s wheel, and the dumber the behavior, the more draconian the rules. If the Ten Commandments were written today they would be comprised of 50 pages of digital fine print with a “Skip and Accept” button at the bottom. 

So be it. 

Disaster was averted and the birthday couple was saved from serious assault as a miraculous stroke of luck befell the bartender when she ran the last gift card and realized, somehow, that after it had cleared the $2.75 remaining bar tab there was still a $297.25 balance, which she applied to her gratuity. In 25 minutes she’d netted herself almost $300, which isn’t a bad payoff. The birthday couple stumbled out and everybody got a beer on the house, except for me, who had to fork over the cash in exchange for the beer advance I’d gotten from the woman who’d shared her pint. After all, a deal’s a deal. 

Maybe money is the root of all evil, but it definitely solves some problems, on occasion. The bartender was thereafter in a grand mood—quite charitable—and the inebriation I sought wasn’t long in manifesting. 

Life is short and the wait for a beer, sometimes, is far too long, which is the opposite of the way it should be. 

Now I have to avoid the twelve labors of Hercules and climb Sisyphus’s boulder in order to jam a little on Pan’s flute and afterwards maybe flirt with Odysseus’s Sirens…

More Alembics to come…

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MID TWACO

I KNEW I’D spoken too soon when I wished everyone a Happy New Year in the last blog entry. I sensed it was entirely too premature, yet I went ahead with it anyway, which, in retrospect, was a foolish thing to do. 

Silly me. 

I should’ve waited till at least July, or maybe I should’ve even held off until the end of the year to wish everyone good tidings for 2021. At that point, the popular salutation would have to be modified somewhat, from “Happy New Year” to, perhaps, “Made it! Damn, that was a close one.” 

It’s clear now that we’ve been going about it all wrong for centuries. The practice of expecting the best year ever on December 31st while having no real plan to combat a host of potential disasters is the worst way to brace for the future. The proverb, “Expect nothing and be prepared for everything,” is turned on its head every winter solstice and the eager mob goes rushing—in general—headlong into the future or—specifically—into the U.S. Capitol, with no real plan on what to do when they get there. 

A year is a year is a year. Usually, the resolutions fade away by the end of January, things that don’t pay attention to calendars like weather and germs will wreak their havoc, monthly bills come due and surprising displays of idiocy will rear their silly heads. Drivers will fall asleep at the wheel, fights will break out at Walmart over fudge, and cracker-head Royalists will storm Congress to steal mail, create fecal art and hang the Vice President who, because of his white hair and pale skin, was luckily mistaken for a statue of Warren G. Harding as the demented crowd ran right past him. At that point, “Happy New Year” would be the last thing on Mike Pence’s mind. Instead I’m sure he thought, “Made it! Damn, that was a close one.” And, because time was of the essence to hustle the Vice President to safety, he could spare himself valuable seconds by collapsing the whole sentiment into its very usable acronym: M.I.D. T.W.A.C.O. 

Language itself is constantly evolving. Certain phrases go out of style, and for very good reason. Sentiments like, “May the great pestilence spare all but your most onerous of sister-wives,” and “Lo, the giant serpent who devours the sun every night has seen fit to burp it back up this beautiful morning,” are not in heavy rotation anymore, thankfully. It’s a sign that things are evolving in the right direction. I mean right as in proper, and not right as in right-wing fascism, because the sight of a half-baked militia swarming over the National Mall like ants on a half-eaten corn-dog is also a sign that things are evolving in the right direction, right as in radical right, which is the wrong right, and a wrong that needs to be righted. 

If nothing else, the mob, any mob, may find it useful to disabuse itself of mob mentality. It’s never a healthy practice to willfully abandon one’s reason in favor of a blind and deaf allegiance that somehow convinces a raft of voluntary invalids that their personal freedoms will be greatly enhanced if only they perform the selfish bidding of stubborn despots. In most games of chess the pawns are generally sacrificed because the strategy is so effective. Rarely in an endgame is there one king on the board with all his pawns around him, reveling in their new status as blue-collar royalty. They’re usually in a pile next to the time clock.  

“Here’s a quarter. Call somebody who cares,” is another saying that has lost its luster, since phone booths are extinct and nobody needs a coin to place a call. Seems quite ridiculous now. Needing a quarter to make a phone call would be like needing a set of gills to swim in a public pool. However, that phrase may be making a temporary comeback, as it seems to be the outgoing presidential administration’s attitude toward the very people, now in jail, who were impelled to ransack the Capitol in the first place. 

January, for me, is Bob Marley month, if for no other reason than the sound of insouciant reggae can transport me, mentally, to a place that isn’t freezing and gray. Reggae is the soundtrack of palm trees, white sands, warm water. Bob Marley, by the way, survived a hail of automatic gunfire, performing a few nights later with a bullet lodged in him. I’m sure he smoked a fat joint after that little episode, remarking to himself, MID TWACO! 

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery…” 

Fortunately for us, Bob wrote that line. Unfortunately for us, we still need it. 

More Alembics…

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…