HAPPY NEW YEAR, and by saying that I hope I haven’t already jinxed 2021. After last year it seems like anything is possible, and that the possibilities are tending more to the calamitous than to the favorable. Illness, privation, suffering, fear and hysteria are possible. Hope, faith and resilience—not so much.  

I’m pleased to report that my neighborhood is generally showing signs of optimism. It was strange that in the run-up to the end of the year the streets around my house were eerily desolate. Did they know something I didn’t? It was only after January 1st that everyone emerged from behind their heavily dead-bolted doors to explain that because the year 2020 was so traumatic they weren’t taking any chances. Quite superstitious, they all thought that the year itself would be doing one final sweep to kill off anybody it could possibly get its hands on. My neighbors had survived eleven months and three weeks of 2020, and they’d be damned if they were going to allow themselves to be added to the final roster of casualties.  

But now the clock has turned, and the vibe is good. Gardens are being prepared for the springtime, houses are getting coats of fresh paint, the bird-feeders are full and some of the more artistic souls are posting encouraging messages in their yards. I stopped to read one the other day. It went like this: 

“We believe in the existence of an Almighty Being from the consideration of his wonderful works, from those innumerable celestial and glorious bodies, and from their wonderful order and harmony.” 

“That’s nice,” I said. “Who wrote that? Aristotle or something?” 

My neighbor, who had been raking some leaves close to the curb, shifted a little. She explained that the quote was from a suicide note left by a couple from the year 1732, after which they strangled their daughter and then shot themselves out of despair over their financial situation. Their final note included that little nugget of poetry, as well as asking their landlord to look after their cat and dog once the bodies were cleared away and all the blood was mopped up.  

“Shit balls,” I cried. “That’s horrible.” 

“It’s a lovely quote, though,” she argued. “Considering.” 

“What are you posting next?” I said. “Something like, ‘When you get to the bottom you go back to the top,’ courtesy of Charlie Manson?” 

“Technically that was the Beatles,” she said. 

She was right, after all. My point is that the neighbors, in their own way, are searching out their bliss. Good for them. Even if they’re quoting homicidal maniacs, at least they’re doing it with an upbeat attitude. My other neighbor up the block from me decided to focus her attention on wildlife, in particular avian shelters. She’d taken to building birdhouses, lots of them, and putting them all over her front yard. She’s one of these people who can build anything. Many times I’d driven by her house to see her standing in her driveway sporting a welder’s mask and holding a soldering iron, standing over a huge pile of scrap metal. Two days later an enormous gyroscope or weather vane is prominently displayed on her property. 

And now, birdhouses. Lots of them. All shapes and sizes. What seemed like a serene hobby to pass the time was now appearing like a frantic race to beat some kind of migratory deadline. It all came to a head when the last “birdhouse” she put up on a giant pole was big enough for a pterodactyl. She finished it off by strapping a dead rabbit to the ledge. 

“Whatcha got there?” I said, calling to her from a safe distance in the street because of some kind of contagious insanity or COVID, although I was much more concerned with the former. 

She began explaining in rapid-fire detail about the thawing of the Permafrost, which would be exposing and reanimating long dormant DNA, and soon all sorts of once-extinct beasts would be filling the air, water and land. Before long, the sky would be swarming with winged dragons, their brains three times the size of humans. They would be way smarter than us, but because of their claws and other physical limitations they would be unable to build proper shelters, and so she was showcasing her usefulness, hoping to be spared from consumption. These flying reptiles would be smart enough to figure out which land animals were beneficial and which were sustenance, and my neighbor was convinced she’d live out the rest of her days as the architect to our imminent flying reptilian overlords. 

“Sounds great. Have a nice day,” I said with a wave. 

My pace was brisk. It was high time to flee the area for fear of my neighbor, or some hungry, oversized vulture, attacking me. She’d seen the signs in 2020, and this was her inevitable conclusion. Maybe she was right. 

I came home and paced through my house, trying to figure out, just in case, my own usefulness if and when her dire predictions came true. And I must say, my 20-foot ginormous bird bath is coming along quite nicely, although my car no longer fits in the driveway and there’s pigeon shit all over the front yard. But, as history has taught us, the survivors will always have the last laugh. In fact, I’ll end this essay with a line Kurt Vonnegut stole from the birds. I’m stealing it back. 


More Alembics…


Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose

Gertrude Stein may have been on to something when she wrote that famous “rose” line in her poem Sacred Emily. Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. Sure. Why not? I understand the idea behind it. Frustrated by airy speculation she seeks to hammer down the blatant realness of things. She is tired of writers like Marcel Proust loading simple ideas up with tedious and nervous significance. In a fight between Gertrude Stein and Marcel Proust my money would be on Gertie, anyway. Ms. Stein would whip Proust’s fragile ass like a donkey. The French invalid would dive under the blankets of his bed and immediately write ten volumes about the stumpy woman’s notched knuckles arriving on his glass jaw. 

There are limits to the argument, though. Rose is a rose. It is, after all, bull simple in its redundancy. Take Ayn Rand’s famous proclamation that “A is A.” Yes, Ms. Rand, it is, except that the letter ‘A’ can be flat and short or have a schwa sound or a long sound and can show up in a multitude of words that, when acted upon by other letters surrounding it, may take on various meanings and connotations that make the original letter all but unrecognizable in the context of bAking A cAke or rAping A lAdy or fAlling flAt on one’s fAce or rAising A bAby. The letter A is in the crowd alright, but its definition of itself as itself to understand the bigger meaning is about as useless as yesterday’s stale beer. It’s a lazy proof, annoying really, and I had to listen to it, in one form or another, for about two hours last week. 

I digress. The biggest joke in the undergraduate college scene is, “I’m going to change my major to philosophy.” I strongly advise against ever saying this to any college counselor unless it is accompanied by “just kidding, really, I’m joking, honest, there is no  need for the gag, and the taser, and the white jacket with the really long sleeves. Put that down. Hey. I’m…mmmfff….mmmmfff….mmmmfff…”

Even philosophy professors will laugh when they hear this. I remember my senior adviser, who just happened to be a philosophy professor, looking at me in astonishment when I told him that I was going to switch my major in the last year of undergraduate study from biology to philosophy.   

“Are you fucking daft?” The wording here is exact. That’s what he said.

The problem for him was that I had about four credits left for a biology major. Easy finish. I had amassed almost none for a philosophy major. To him it was like a runner stopping twenty feet from the finish line of a major marathon and announcing that he is, instead, going to stand there twenty feet from the finish line and do jumping jacks until he earns enough jumping jacks to make it into whatever paltry and stupid record of jumping-jack holders exists out there and then try to go and land a job that has nothing to do with jumping jacks by showcasing his creditable performance of last minute jack-jumping.  He wanted no part of it. Here I thought the man would be pleased to have another ally on his team, a new recruit in the cadre of Space-Time investigators, the hashers of cause and effect, the appraisers of ethical systems and historical tides. Nope. He wanted to send me for a drug test and intense psychological research and, barring that, a fucking lobotomy.

“If you decide to go through with this madness…” he said, verbatim, as he showed me the tedious schedule that would be required for a last minute major blitzkrieg, flipping through the course listings, shaking his head the entire time, and pulling a bottle of whiskey out from under his desk, and drinking from it, and not even offering me any, lest the massive amount of drugs I had surely ingested caused a lethal interaction and dropped me dead right there on his bare carpet.

When all was said and done I finished. I became a philosophy guy, for better or for worse. I haven’t regretted it a day since.  That being said, we philosophy folk take our epistemic arguments pretty seriously, even when we are making fun of things, as I am wont to do now and again. So it was a painful exercise in restraint when I was forced to endure this fellow’s blabbering last week while I was getting the tires changed on my car. Even the most abstract of us philosophers need a good set of wheels, and we must sit and wait for those wheels in a public waiting room where any rube can come in and say any old thing. 

“Life is life, wouldn’t you agree?” he said to me in a low voice.

“Excuse me, what?” I looked over at him. He was a bearded fellow, sitting five chairs down, champing at the bit to talk to somebody.

“Life is life,” he repeated.

“You said it,” I nodded, intimating acknowledgement and dismissal. The last thing I needed was for some clown to try and appear profound by simply inserting his exact premise into the conclusion.

He kept talking. He went on to explain that he was new in town. He had moved here from Los Angeles. He was the “LA guy.” He had just gotten a job as a bartender around the corner and hoped I could pop in for a few. He wanted to bring a west coast sensibility to little old Decatur Village, hip it up a little, make it as flashy and vibrant as the City of the Angels and pull in a little cash while he was doing it.

“Money is money,” he said. “Right?”


He went on to give me an unsolicited biography of himself up to that point, filled with impressive accomplishments in business and the arts. But that was all west coast stuff, he said. He was now going to do it all again on the east coast. Even better because he had learned so much in the process and one of the main things he had learned was…

“A spade is a spade.”

He eyed me down, daring me to contradict him.  It’s one thing to have to listen to somebody. Quite another to have them expect not only an answer from you, but one supportive of their rickety logic. From his new perch at the bar around the block he was going to build a core group of super hipsters who would lead the culturally bankrupt to new heights of irony and ennui. Either that or he would try and start a race war, like Charlie Manson. 

“Am I right or am I right?” he said.

“Sir! You are as circular as the wheels being placed on my car right this second! Hopefully as soon as possible. So I can get the hell out of here.”

“Where do you have to go?”

“I’m going to go kill Gertrude Stein and Ayn Rand, for one thing.”

“Maybe I misjudged you,” he said. “Maybe you’ve already been eaten up by the bland normalcy that threatens this entire country.” 

“It is what it is,” I said. Shit, now I was doing it.   

More Alembics to come.