“You’re Fyred!”

Given the option of being fired or being fyred, I would much prefer to be fired. For to be fired means the loss of a job, a minor setback in the flux of modernity, a switch in the name and address of a company paycheck. To be “fyred,” on the other hand, means to be robbed of thousands of dollars, marooned on a craggy Caribbean island, starved, without shelter, exposed to the elements, attacked by sand fleas and buried in paperwork to reclaim the luggage that the Bahamian government is holding as collateral for all the unpaid customs fees. This is the regrettable result of the Fyre Festival, a sensational debacle that took place, or didn’t take place, on Great Exuma Island in the Bahamas. I’ve had my own experiences being stranded on a deserted island and it is no laughing matter. When I was a boy some prep school chums and I were beached after a plane wreck on an unforgiving atoll, and in an attempt to govern ourselves we went mad as march hares, savagely killing each other in a relentless attempt to maintain control over our environment. William Golding wrote a book about it, changing just enough to protect our young anonymity. Happy to say we learned nothing from the experience, and are just as power-crazed and savage as ever.

The Fyre Festival was supposed to take place on Fyre Cay, an island once owned by the drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, which would’ve been a far more preferable location. Odds are there is still a smuggler’s ransom of narcotics stashed somewhere on that lump of pitched sand in the sea, a drug cache that wouldn’t have stood a chance once a thousand desperate partiers got a hold of it. After consuming hundreds of kilos of cocaine and marijuana the crowd wouldn’t have even realized or cared that nobody had bothered to perform. Billy McFarland, the hollow man party promoter could’ve told the whole audience that Jimmy Hendrix, Jerry Garcia and Jim Morrison had rocked a four-hour set list of all their greatest hits and the doped up revelers would’ve agreed it was an amazing performance, a rare collaboration, a once-in-a-lifetime show.

As it wound up the marooned festival guests were stuck on a bald patch of cement next to one of those swingers’ resorts like Hedonism, battered by a rainstorm. A young festival-goer was forced, out of sheer hunger and desperation, to trade his girlfriend to a gang of middle-aged sex fiends for a cold plate of eggs benedict and some dry pieces of toast. The girl was drenched in pineapple glaze and forced to preside like a goddess over a hundred anonymous couplings. She now lives deep in the jungle, like Kurtz, the figurehead of a nascent group of new age pleasure seekers.

The only music to result from the disaster, as far as I can tell, is a pleading ballad from Ja Rule called, “That’s not fraud.” It goes…
That’s not fraud, that’s not fraud.
That’s not fraud, that’s not fraud.
Maybe false advertising,
But definitely that’s not fraud.
It’s catchy. I like it. With any luck it will make enough money to pay off the mountain of lawsuits that have ensued.

Speaking of the savage control of the environment, I was surprised to see one of my old Lord of the Flies peers, Montana representative Greg Gianforte, elected to Congress. I had lost touch with him since the days of our barbaric, adolescent power struggle on that tiny island. Old Greg, (not that one), has lost none of his aggression, beating the snot out of Ben Jacobs, a reporter from The Guardian, for the unspeakable offense of asking a question of a political candidate. That is dangerous territory for a reporter in America these days. Ben should’ve taken the safer assignment and traveled to Syria to spend a week with ISIS rebels. Congressman Gianforte underscored, or uppercutted, a nasty reality in journalism today. Report at your own risk. It is open season on the press pool, especially out in the rugged western frontier. A seasoned reporter may ask a confrontational question, but don’t be surprised if the answer is to be hog-tied and thrown into the desert. Extra points if the writer is from The Guardian, Der Spiegel, or Mother Jones. A hog-tied reporter may not get the answer he is looking for, yet being tied up like a rodeo swine is, after all, an answer in and of itself. There is only one solution. Judo lessons for the Fourth Estate. Fight back. Cage matches in the East Wing. Battle Royale on Capitol Hill. It is the Lord of the Flies in Washington D.C., and somebody has misplaced the conch shell.
More Alembics to come.
(This entry is dedicated to Denis Johnson, a righteous poet who could hammer the lines down good and clean. May you live on in the embrace of future generations of readers.)

Curiosity Killed the Caveman

I breathed a sigh of relief the other day. My mailbox had been approved by the Postmaster General. It was stamped into the metal on the door. I had never noticed the issuance before that moment. It made me wonder whether it had always been there, or whether the Postmaster General himself had come by recently with an engraving stamp to grant his formal blessing that the tiny metal box at the foot of my driveway was indeed fit to contain, for a short while, United States parcels and postage. It is human nature to seek approval, and for those of us who are most desperate, the approval of the Postmaster General will have to do when none other is available.

I was forced then to consider the Postmaster General. Who was he and what qualifications did he have? Was he an elected official? A military adjunct? Could it be a woman? Was there a Postmaster Sergeant and a Postmaster Lieutenant? How had he become an expert on what type of mail receptacle was appropriate to hold letters and flyers? Was he an expert on Quonset huts, covered bridges, and other forms of arched containers both large and small? Had he performed a thorough diagnostic on my mailbox’s front door hinge, the only part of the letter holder that, as far as I could tell, might be subject to a gradual corrosion from usage? I pictured him dressed as a Third World military dictator. A Hailie Selassie look-a-like, with gold epaulets and a bright sash and a sword, riding through the neighborhood in a stripped down jeep with a mounted M-60 in the back.

Later on in the day, during my afternoon walk, I made it a point to stop and check all the mailboxes to see if they too had been granted legitimacy by the Postmaster General. All of them were approved. Except for one. And I wasn’t surprised.

She lives at the end of the block and she is an artist. Her medium is metal. She is to sculpture what the maverick filmmaker Stan Brakhage was to experimental film. I can appreciate the creativity but too much of it would surely drive me insane. Her front lawn looks like something out of a Tim Burton movie. It was obvious that she had made her mailbox herself, and that it didn’t need approval from a Postmaster General, or anybody else. It was an ornate piece of polished copper buried in a shrub that I realized looked a bit like, well, either like an orchid or female genitalia. I suspected her intent was the latter, since etched in careful calligraphy along the side was the caption, “Fe-mail Box.” I crept up to it, sensing that I was being watched from somewhere within the dark recesses of her artist’s dwelling. Carefully I opened the lid and almost jumped out of my skin as I peered in and realized somebody was looking back at me. There was a human head in there.
*
Forget cats. Curiosity has killed a whole bunch of stuff over the course of history. Let us go back to the beginning. Consider two Neanderthals living in the same crude shelter. Cave mates, as it were. The original odd couple. Both of them hear a lion roar outside. The first caveman, the curious adventurer type, fastens the uni-strap of his loincloth over his shoulder, grabs his puny spear and trots out to confront the bestial howl. The second fellow, cautious as he is, decides it would be better not to run out and investigate the cat’s cries. Something about the screeching just seems like bad news. So while the first caveman is outside satisfying his curiosity, the second caveman tucks himself beside his little fire and points his ear toward the mouth of the cave. For a few minutes there is human shrieking and the animal’s own caterwauling, both of which eventually subside. The little man ensconced in his rock dwelling wonders who won the battle and is given the answer by way of his former cave mate’s head rolling back at him, coming to rest at the edge of the fire with a look of supreme idiocy across his lacerated face. The lion outside devours the rest of Mr. Curious and then enters the cave and starts poking around. The survivor, contemplative and fearful proto-man, knows that if he plays his cards right he can have the whole rest of the cave to himself from now on. So he invents the shrug-and-go-limp method of conflict resolution, or what is known as tonic immobility. He plays dead, watching through an apertured eyelid as the enormous cat nudges him a bit, sniffs and then pisses on him before skulking away to sleep off the rather substantial meal he has just gorged himself on. The surviving Neanderthal, covered in animal urine, jumps up in victory. It is his genetic code of abject cowardice that will be passed down through his lineage. He keeps his old roommate’s head nearby to remind him that some mysteries are better left unsolved. Make no mistake. Curiosity is as ruthless as cancer.
*
I offer the above allegory because the head in the mailbox scared the shit out of me, and I almost felt that there could’ve been a loaded gun in it, rigged to the door, ready to blow my snooping head off. After a minute I peeked back in. There was a mirror in the far end of the mailbox. I was looking at myself. No sane Postmaster General would go near that thing.
Artists are creepy.
More Alembics to come.

A Day at the Races

“Wealthy People Benefit; The Poor Much Less So” declared a banner headline in the newspaper the other day, which caused me to erupt in an unexpected fit of laughter. I laughed, not because I am one of these heartless idolaters who believes that the wealthy are beyond good and evil, that the poor are guilty of their own circumstance, and that the pursuit of the filthy lucre is the one and only noble goal. I laughed because, while the article was referring to the new health care law, it could’ve been used for any article, written about any society, in the history of everything. It could’ve been written about global warming, tax laws, life expectancy, zoning, market volatility, technology, war, fine dining, vacation destinations, crime, hell even the weather. I decided to keep an eye out for the headline, “Poor People Get the Upper Hand; Wealthy People are Screwed” in any news source other than The Onion.

I had been having some trouble squeezing any amusement out of the news, as of late. Whether my attitude has shifted or the news itself has gotten weird and standoffish, I can’t say. This new administration is a scrappy one, and they have left the Fourth Estate licking its wounds. It’s like when two alley cats go at it for reasons of turf and table scraps. The noise is horrendous and can be heard blocks away and when it is all over there is little to joke about. The screeching lingers in the brain. Even the thought of Kim Jong-Un and Rodrigo Duterte snickering from the White House lawn was doing little to brighten my day.

Luckily I had to go to the liquor store. Sometimes all a person needs is a fragment of a phrase to get that spark of inspiration. And there is was. On a placard. Plain as day. I had pulled my car in front of the big metal refrigerator where the bagged ice is kept. There was a sign atop the container that said, “Our Ice is Lab Tested.” I sat for a good long while reading it over and over. Like that lab tested ice, my frozen mind began to drip from the sudden heat. I saw it with such clarity, serious men and women standing around in lab coats with clipboards, writing furiously, as an array of ice cubes slowly turned into water. At the end of the day they could turn in their reports to the director of the study, Dr. Kool-Aid.
“Sir we’ve noticed that there is a direct correlation between heat and deliquescence.”
“Oh Yeah!”
“Sir, we’ve made a breakthrough. More ice in a glass will keep a drink colder, longer.”
“Oh Yeah!”
“Sir, the more ice that melts in a beverage, the more watery the beverage will taste.”
“Oh Yeah!”
“Sir, our test subjects report that the ice turns the tongue numb and causes a headache between the eyes.”
“Oh Yeah!”
“Sir, repeated exposure of the ice cubes to the song, ‘Ice, Ice, Baby’ by Vanilla Ice does little to slow the rate of liquefaction.”
“Oh Yeah!”
“Sir, if we rub the cubes on our nipples it seems to both hasten the melting process and our sense of arousal.”
“Oh Yeah!”

I sat for so long I forgot what it was I had gone there for. The thought of a big, red anthropomorphic pitcher of Kool-Aid in a giant lab coat heartily agreeing with a team of eggheads had completely turned my day around. I ended up buying a bag of ice (their marketing scheme worked) and bringing it home. I plucked one cube out of the bag, got my own ice cube from the tray in my freezer, set them both out and hovered over them, officiating to see which one could hold its shape longest. It was no small coincidence that it was Kentucky Derby day. In fact, I could hear the derby announcer’s voice superimposed over my little ice competition.

“And…THEY’RE OFF! It’s Home Froze off to a fast start, and Lab Tested not showing any signs of drip. Home Froze is shrinking fast. Lab Tested holding steady. Like a glacier. Now it is Lab Tested with an emerging bead. Home Froze is sweating like a whore in church. Visible shrinkage from Home Froze. Lab Tested a great and mighty pillar of ice. Now in the home stretch, Home Froze more liquid than solid, no chance for Home Froze, and it’s Lab Tested by a landslide!”

Son of a bitch, I thought, what are they putting in this stuff? My mind went to the book Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, a satire in which a scientist develops an ice derivative called Ice-9 that freezes at room temperature, which hastens the end of the world. Of course that was a joke, of sorts, right? That could never happen in real life. I stared at the laboratory cube. It stared back, in a way. I was sweating more than the ice cube was. At the very least I’m sure anybody who invented Ice-9 would also develop a neutralizing agent that counteracts the solid molecular structure, turning it back into precious water. They could sell it to Ice-9 victims for $19.99. I could see the headline:
“Wealthy People Benefit; The Poor Much Less So.”
More Alembics to come

May Day

Don’t get me wrong, I dig technology. The ability of tiny digital chips to hold massive amounts of data is boggling. Every nugget of information in the known universe is at one’s fingertips. It is an exciting and fun time to be alive and fucking lazy. And yet while a person can take comfort in technology’s seeming omnipotence, it can also offer a false sense of security in the event that a computer freezes up and drops dead like an inept mountain climber whose beginner’s hubris has trapped him on the stormy side of a Himalayan peak.

So it went the other day, as I was typing away on my computer, that in the wink of an eye all my folders got locked up in a tiny tomb of a dead hard drive and zapped out of existence. I immediately fought the urge to kill myself right along with it! Inhale. Exhale. Take it easy.

Until that point I had considered the machine indestructible. I had trusted its massive memory capacity to store over one hundred blog essays, three and a half books, a patchwork of go-nowhere short stories, not to mention extensive drafts of my Nobel acceptance speech in the event that I was finally recognized by the committee fifty years from now. I stared at the inert computer for some time, at the nothingness of the blank screen that had, moments before, been brightly reflecting my prose back at me. I could see nothing now but a vague, dark silhouette of myself in the coal-black sheen of the monitor. It seemed fitting. In fact, the line that Robert Oppenheimer lifted from the Bhagavad-Gita blazed through my incredulous mind. “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”
I tend to relish my hyper-dramatic flair. No problem, I thought. I can fix this. I will simply turn the computer back on, and the machine will fix itself, and maybe even be better than it was before. Except it didn’t come back on, and no amount of digital CPR was going to fix the corpse. I thought back to the last thing I had seen on the computer screen. Then I remembered the spinning rainbow wheel.

I had learned, over the years, to accept the spinning rainbow wheel with equanimity. It reminded me to be patient. Let’s not be too hasty, it seemed to suggest. Let’s let everything catch up. Let’s enjoy this small moment of downtime to reflect on how lucky we are, how beautiful life is. Little did I know it was also a silent little whirling death rattle. My ancestors used to describe a white light at the end of a tunnel when recounting a near death experience. The new generation will insist that they see a technicolor vertigo beckoning.

With Plan A, ritual suicide and Plan B, machine fixing itself all off the table I tried Plan C. I popped on over to my nearest computer store and was visited by a friendly technician named Billy. He ran some preliminary tests then sat me down, and with all the measured compassion of a funeral director, suggested I be ready to say goodbye to my beloved machine.

“Let me try one more thing,” he said, proceeding to work out some intricate voodoo on the keypad. I offered to run down to the food court for some chicken bones and maybe the blood of an infant to help with the ritual. Billy ignored me. A few more diagnostic runs and he murmured, more to himself than to me, “It’s fucked.”

“Yes of course,” I nodded, understanding the word as some kind of high-tech acronym. F.U.C.K.E.D. File, Upload, Capture, Keep, Export, Deliver.

Billy shook his head. Not this time. He asked if I had everything backed up in the cloud? I looked at my feet and shuffled a bit. It was my understanding, I told him, that my computer was the one who took care of all that stuff. It was all part of the deal. I was the creative impulse. The computer was the logistics manager. I couldn’t even remember a phone number anymore, much less a system of fool-proof redundancy to mitigate unforeseen disasters exactly like the one I was currently embroiled in. Billy laughed, said he understood. He began searching on my behalf for any evidence of my years of artistic struggle. As I looked over his shoulder, as useless as a eunuch in a brothel, I suggested that the spinning rainbow wheel be replaced by a tiny icon of an old man coughing, wheezing and gagging, bent over, one hand on his knee, the other hand raised up with his index finger extended, hacking violently in a tussive symphony of phlegm and stridor. Billy applauded my idea. He promised me he’d speak to some of the higher ups.

I went home.

The writer Friedrich Nietzsche had it rough, by any standard. He had violent headaches that would lay him up for twelve hour stretches, allowing only for an hour or two of writing a day. The medicine he took for the headaches caused debilitating cramps in his stomach, followed by intense vomiting. He allegedly caught syphilis from his one and only sexual encounter, with a prostitute. Then he finally went mad as Edgar Poe after watching a horse get whipped in Turin, Italy. Even so, he produced some of the most influential writings of the last hundred and fifty years. Thank you Freddie for putting my small amount of misfortune into perspective. Little by little it all came back, a sprinkle from the cloud, an indefatigable thumb drive, a piece here and a piece there. My stuff was alive. There was some kind of benevolence afforded me. Nobody prefers adversity, yet it is easily the most powerful creator of appreciation. Consider me grateful.
More Alembics to come.

Our Neighbor, The Sun

Every community gets that sense of hope and dread when the new neighbors move in up the block. Nearby homeowners scrutinize the recent arrivals for certain clues to their probable level of annoyance. They seek out, within the crammed rental vans of household flotsam, indications they will be relatively normal, relatively tolerable. Usually these transitions are smooth, but every once in a while it happens. The newly arrived family is a nightmare. Their driveway and garage are suddenly an around-the-clock auto body shop. Audible arguments take place regularly from inside the house. The dancing blue lights of police cars provide their bi-monthly strobe effect at the edge of the property. Drugs are openly sold from the porch. Junk accumulates on the front lawn like lint in a cavernous belly button. Weird flags are hung from the gables, all fraught with mysterious significance. No member of the family is permitted to make eye contact with anybody else in the neighborhood. They are that family.

Almost as dreadful is when a nuclear fusion power plant is constructed nearby, a plant whose generator has a gooey plasma center that can be heated up to a balmy 150 million degrees Celsius, which, in this writer’s opinion, is basically the same thing as the family from hell. The combustible energy of the crazy clan up the block may never directly affect me, but just knowing it is there can be unnerving.   

Forget horror films. When I want the crap scared out of me I read the Science Times. Nothing fills me with more helpless fear than stories about my dangerous lifestyle choices that I ignore everyday, or tiny protozoa that want to eat my brain, or boiling seas, or trendy mutations, or the next big extinction.

Last week I was reading about “The Eater” (that is how it is pronounced anyway, somewhat appropriately), a new energy producing capsule that relies on the same fusion reactions that take place in the sun. I couldn’t get over the reported temperature level inside the core. 150 million degrees Celsius! I was so shocked I actually went out of my way to convert the gargantuan number to Fahrenheit, as if this new number would be somewhat more reasonable to my limited, American sensibility of weights and measures. The result… 270 million degrees Fahrenheit. Just as ungraspable. The other day it was 95 degrees in Atlanta, which seemed pretty hot. Now multiply that by 1.5 million. Exposed to that type of heat I would be nothing more than a few freckles of dust in my Hoka running shoes. (My love for my running shoes is such that I firmly believe they could survive a nine-digit temperature flare up.)

“The Eater” is different from normal nuclear power plants in that it relies on fusion instead of fission. Instead of splitting things apart it joins them together. Which is a nice idea, in theory. Bringing things together. This huge generator is constructive, not divisive. It builds instead of tears down. It could double as a therapist. Marriages could be saved. Friendships repaired. Amity instead of enmity. Unite. Let everybody get in on a great big hug.

I had to remind myself that what was being united was deuterium and tritium. These molecules don’t like unity. They are crazed little anarchists. They say “Fuck You” to the slightest suggestion of solidarity. That is why scientists must heat the little bastards up to a billion degrees whatever scale to force them to fuse. Even the worst of enemies would melt together. Nothing can withstand that type of blast. 

The designer of the Universe knew a thing or two about functional aesthetics, Feng Shui, spatial considerations. That is why she put the sun far enough from the earth to prevent immediate incineration. The sun is where molecules behave like drunken Irish poets at a pub on Saint Patrick’s Day. It is a wild riot filled with extreme behavior that, under normal conditions, would be unthinkable. To bring it to a neighborhood near you is to piss into the wind, except if your urine was 270 million degrees Fahrenheit.

P.S.

I’ve been rethinking this whole thing. It dawned on me that artists need energy. Lots of it. I need more energy as an artist than I do as a regular human being. It’s not enough to have a campfire. We freaky creative types need an inferno. I saw it all in a different way. That is, I wanted a Topomak fusion reactor planted into my chest. Don’t fear The Eater!

The fusion reaction vessel is what every artist needs to rage appropriately. It reminded me of Picasso’s famous “The sun in my belly” line when asked why he painted. I always figured he was talking about the yellow pimple in our otherwise blue sky. Picasso knew full well, the sun is a raging ball of explosive radiation, heat and energy that consumes crushes and destroys. Anything less is a dead battery. So bring it, and the artists of tomorrow will be able to say, “I create because of the poloidal magnetic plasma neutrino releaser in the core of my chest.”

More Alembics to come.

Deep State

I’ve been underwater for the better part of a month. At first I submerged, on a lark, in a Florida river for what was supposed to be an hour-long dive. I went under to get away from the constant surveillance, the ceaseless wiretaps, the enormous broad net that catches all my secrets, ensnares all my communication, traps all my intentions. Whether it is Russia, Iran, or our own highly technical American spy tactics, apparently everyone is listening all the time to everyone else in order to uncover the true malice in the hearts of men. They are fleshing out the guilty, identifying the dangerous, cornering the evil. They are seeking out and destroying that subversive citizenry who plot and scheme, and rebel against freedom, and plan the collapse of the entire sovereign way of life. And if they don’t find them, it just means they aren’t looking hard enough. Even the president is a victim.

I wanted no part of it. 

I was tired of being anonymously preyed upon by satellites, hackers, nosy neighbors, encryption experts and that Julian Assange fellow, living in some musty closet in an embassy mansion in London and yet somehow controlling every country’s sensitive secrets right there in plain sight. The whole setup seemed like something out of a Monty Python sketch.

“Come out of there at once!” yells John Cleese, dressed as an English bobby.

“No!” screams Eric Idle, dressed as Julian Assange.

“Damn. What do we do now?” mutters John Cleese.

“We wait,” says Michael Palin, also dressed as an English bobby. 

“Quite right,” says Cleese. “Um, for how long?”

“He’ll get bored and surrender. Give it about five years or so. Maybe ten.”

“That sounds like a bloody long time.”

“It is.”

“Can’t we just go get him? I mean he is standing right there!”

“Actually,” says Palin, “it’s the Ecuadorian embassy. Right there is technically Ecuador. And we can’t just go to Ecuador because if my wife finds out I went to Ecuador without her she might bloody well divorce me! I mean she has been bugging me for a vacation for months, and then to find out I just went to Ecuador without her, and didn’t even bring her back a bloody seashell would be grounds for a ruddy divorce.”

“Well then,” says Cleese, “blast it all. Call your wife down here and we can bring her along on the raid.”

“No can do,” says Palin. “She hates the tropics.”

*

So I went underwater. I started out in the shallows. Here is a picture:

thumbnail_Attachment-1

I’m the cluster of bubbles on the right. Life becomes very simplistic underwater. You feel like you are trapped in Darth Vader’s helmet. The only sound you hear is your own breathing. You move in slow motion weightlessness, like a dream. The fish and other denizen of the deep treat you like the geek at a party of cool kids. Even so, there is a certain freedom to the practice. This is the life for me, I thought. I waved off the rest of my scuba team, found a decent looking school of fish and followed along. Thirty feet. Fifty feet. A hundred feet. Two hundred feet. I kept checking my dive computer, waiting for the alarm that warns I am running out of air. Mysteriously, my cylinder remained at 2,000 psi. What the hell, I figured, I might as well keep going. The pressure above me was fantastic. I felt myself getting light-headed. A little gas narcosis is a fun and easy way to get high. Best of all, the land side news could not reach me. For weeks on end I remained in blissful animation, coasting along like a dolphin. I ate fish, I guess, and drank water, I guess. When I was tired I huddled at the ocean floor like a sea cow. There is no argument underwater. No bombast. No bragging. No emotionally potent outrage. No mendacity. Inhale. Exhale. Eat or get eaten. The bubbles escaped from my regulator. I imagined intelligence operatives somewhere above at the surface of the water, trying to capture these tiny air pockets, looking for subversive molecules. Freedom through scrutiny is a funny concept. The idea is that when everyone knows what everyone else is doing we will all be more free. Which is a complete fuck-around. We don’t really need to know what everybody thinks and does. Most people are as boring as a stale doughnut, and about as predictable as the shape of that doughnut. The fish around me, going out of their way to ignore me, were all too aware of this fact. I was a big, dopey tag-along. I created too many bubbles. Which, in the end, is probably the only real legacy. Fugacious pockets of nothing. Better examine them, just in case.

More Alembics to come.

The Wall

Recently struck with a monster case of writer’s block, which is in and of itself a wall, I panicked, which never helps. It’s like trying to stop drowning by inhaling more water, figuring that if I drink enough of it, it will no longer be there to suffocate me. It’s times like these when I begin to suspect that I may have caught some artistic viral infection. Writer’s block, like the flu, can be picked up from a handshake, a sneeze, a dirty doorknob, some kind of cross-contamination in any number of public areas. People with no imagination or sense of humor sneezing and coughing in my personal space. I could feel it coming on. The mind goes gray, mental constipation sets in, thoughts are desiccated, impacted, stuck and banjaxed. (Been dying to use that word.)

I did what any desperate writer would do. I called upon a muse, a shaman, a guide to lead me through this scorched wasteland of creative impasse. As Homer invites Mnemosyne to help him sing the rage of Achilles, or Dante uses Virgil to guide him through Hell, or Emerson calls upon Swedenborg, or Thoreau awaits the magic of Aurora, I figured why not?

I decided to seek out Orbaneja of Ubeda, the great Spanish artist who, when people stopped to ask what he was painting, would shrug and reply, “Whatever emerges.”

That is the guy for me. Unfortunately it is a bad time for foreigners in these parts, even great artists that have been dead some four hundred years. Getting him into the country turned out to be an enormous hassle. Immigration and customs officials are on the alert, and I was reprimanded for even trying to get a temporary visa for my artistic lodestar.

“He sounds like a filthy foreigner,” one official told me.

“No,” I said. “He is okay. I can’t vouch for his bathing schedule, but he understands the value of creative impulse and discipline. Plus, a little human stink is good for the sinuses.”

“He is from Spain?” said the customs official.

“Yes.”

“Isn’t that the country with all the terrorism?”

“You might be thinking of Syria,” I said.

“Five letters, starts with ‘S’ is enough for me,” said the official.

I went home, dejected. It’s a tough state of affairs when the ghost of a Spanish painter is tied up in jingoistic bureaucracy. (Actually when I just typed the word ‘bureaucracy’ I accidentally hit the ‘z’ key at the end. What resulted was ‘bureaucrazy.’ Egads I thought. Orbaneja you beautiful bastard. You are already lifting me!)

At least I could walk out of my house and breathe some fresh air, for now. Physically I am white and nondescript and non-Mexican, for that matter, which probably won’t put me in the crosshairs of anti-Mexican sentiment anytime soon, but when the order comes down to detain and scrutinize all those who look like serial killers (the vast majority are white and nondescript and non-Mexican) then I might find myself in some serious trouble. I retreated back behind the walls of my house.

I don’t fear walls. Of course walls are everywhere, and serve an array of purposes. Walls are used for security, punishment, shelter, support, to hang art from, to delineate, to define, and ultimately, metaphorically, to overcome. I tried to rely on a little proximal magic since my pal Orbaneja was stuck in limbo. That is, I blasted Pink Floyd’s The Wall over and over again for the better part of the afternoon.

It was only a fantasy.

The wall was too high, as you can see.

No matter he tried he could not break free.

And the worms ate into his brain.

Yeesh, that is bleak. I skipped to another song.

I am just a new boy…

A stranger in this town.

Where are all the good times?

Who’s gonna show this stranger around?”

Indeed. Much better. I walked out to my backyard and noticed, to my consternation, that my neighbor, a gruff old codger whose attitude and worldview is cut from a sheet of pig iron, was slowly and methodically piling stone slabs between our houses. He was, it seemed, building a wall. I just wasn’t sure whether he was keeping me out or him in.

“Hey Lee, whatcha doing?” I said.

“Bah,” said Lee. “I’m fed up with you. You are a bad influence.”

“Don’t worry Lee, I’ve been having some writer’s block.”

“My son tells me you’ve been drinking whiskey with him and filling his head with crazy ideas.”

“Walls aren’t very good at keeping out ideas, Lee.”

“This one will,” said Lee. “This is a good wall.”

I went back inside. I considered one-upping my neighbor by digging a moat between our houses next week. I’ve always wanted a moat. Fill it with carnivorous fish and dare people to cross it. Maybe that is the solution to the Mexican border issue. Forget the wall. Build a moat. Dredge a huge canal from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

We have the technology to raise creatures from extinction. Let’s make some dragons. Fill the thing with saurian beasts of yore. Failing that, we could just build a wall with unused bottles of Trump vodka, the bricks of bankrupt casinos and brochures for real estate seminars. Most reasonable people wouldn’t come within a hundred miles of the thing.

Problem solved.

More Alembics to come.