The Modern Test of a Man

It is an exciting time to be a man, or a woman, or both, or neither. I used to identify simply as being male, because, that’s pretty much what I am. Surprised then, was I, to realize there is a whole new array of options out there these days. I try to be aware of current trends, if only to keep an eye on what is happening and not necessarily to integrate fads or paradigm shifts into my own personal “style,” if it can even be called that. I also tend to just go with the simple things that have always worked for me. I watch old black and white movies. I listen to NPR on the radio. I read books made of pulp. I sit in my backyard and watch fireflies shake their glowing asses at me.

As a culture we’ve never been more flush with invention than we are now. A capitalist society lives by the mantra, “The More Choices, The Better.” And so I may walk into a car dealership and say, “I don’t want any of that newfangled, fancy, space-age stuff. Just a basic, reliable automobile.” But then the savvy car salesman will point out certain creature comforts like seats that warm themselves, hands-free blue-tooth, satellite GPS, holograms, driverless options, rear-camera visual aids, and I may say, “Wow. I had no idea this stuff existed. It’s a whole new world. Thanks oily salesman.”

And so I tried to keep an open mind as I perused the new categories of human that were available to me, now that I was firmly entrenched in the twenty-first century. I could be cis-gender, trans-gender, heterosexual, homosexual, omnisexual, asexual, metrosexual, non-gender, nonbinary, intersex, gender nonconforming, gender fluid, gender hyperbolic, gender lethargic, a tucker, a taper, a candlestick maker, half-in, half-out, all-in, all-out, top, bottom, fem, butch, prissy, hissy, vulgar, misogynistic, androphobic, aloof, lecherous, ethereal, multiple sexuality madman, or madwoman, I suppose.

The possibilities were dizzying, and what’s worse, how do I keep myself from being forced into a category of my own definition, that, once employed, may be limiting to the options I may have for myself. Oscar Wilde once said, “To define is to limit.” Indeed, and considering his tastes and proclivities, he probably would’ve happily flipped for all the new kinds of male or female alternatives, and may even have morphed into something like an Olivia Wilde, which would’ve been something to behold. If a person can write like Oscar Wilde and look like Olivia Wilde, there probably isn’t much they can’t accomplish. Kind of unfairly superhuman.

I was always just a guy who liked girls, but that suddenly seemed lame and boring. And, considering the spectrum of masculinity and femininity, not as clear-cut as I may have assumed. For instance I had been mistakenly referred to as “Ma’am” on one or two impersonal sales calls over the years. I never had any reason to doubt my voice fell into the normal tenor of an adult male, but maybe I had been kidding myself all this time. I had once, while accidentally ingesting two tabs of ecstasy, (long story, I thought they were headache relievers; and in a way, they were), danced with my hands over my head. I had sipped a can of beer through a straw. I’m terrible at fixing things. The fight club I joined turned out to be a slap fest. I don’t go out of my way to watch contact sports. In fact, when I considered it, I never realized my own betrayal to the classical precepts of my gender.

It may have had something to do with a bartender gig I had awhile back. Every Monday night the bar had a drag show. Talk about a crash course in an alternative subculture. It was like being trapped in a Federico Fellini movie one day a week, with opulent dresses, wigs, pasties, fishnets, heels whirling by, and in the middle of it all feminine figures who were technically male-born, lip synching the Pussycat Dolls “Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?”

The place was packed every Monday for years, and I developed a fun and antagonistic friendship with all the performers. On some level I made it okay for straight guys to show up to the place with their girlfriends, too. Paddy the Duke, Ambassador. The guys could sit at the bar and talk to me, feeling comfortable with one of their own, and I would lecture them seriously on metaphysical principles as applied by Marcus Aurelius and Boethius, about how humans should strive for a kind of competitive harmony whose ultimate design is an implacable mystery, all while a Tammy Wynette look-alike crooned “Stand By Your Man.”  A vague philosophical principle takes on a whole new level of curiosity when it is spoken between the knees of a six-foot-five drag queen standing atop the bar, whipping the crowd into a frenzy with “her” rendition of Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary.”

The performers were courageous, I’ll give them that. One of the drag queens I used to chat with would tell me, “It takes balls to do this. (Pause). You know what I mean!” She was right, too. One time the question was even put to me, “Are you man enough to wear a dress in public?”

The question froze me in a type of brilliant logical paradox, and “she,” the crafty Socrates, awaited my answer. If I said no, then I had to admit I wasn’t man enough. If I said yes, I might have to wear a dress in public, and the thought terrified me, and in a traditional sense, fear is generally associated with the feminine.

“Well, which one is it, sweetie?” My crafty interlocutor dared.

“Um, I’m going to go drink half a bottle of Grand Marnier,” I said. “That is my answer.”

“You’ve got a long way to go.”

“Well then, I might as well be drunk for the trip.”

More Alembics to come.

The Bulb of Light

This entry is dedicated to Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014)

“[Man’s absurdity] is so solely by virtue of the disproportion between his intention and the reality he will encounter, of the contradiction between the true strength and the aim which is in view. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation.” –Albert Camus

I was feeling a little lonely this week, artistically speaking, so I decided to have a friend accompany me through this edition of The Alembic. I chose Guido Anselmi, the tortured anti-hero played by Marcello Mastroianni in Federico Fellini’s movie “8 1/2.” It is the ultimate artist movie. It is a movie about making a movie, about making two movies, in fact, while making none of them and actually making the one that is presented.


And Guido, for those of you who have never seen the movie, or for those of you who have watched the first three minutes only to fall asleep for the rest of the film, is the ultimate artist’s protagonist. Guido is suave, accomplished, cerebral, decadent yet suffering from an inadequacy of direction. He understands, and even worse must endure the obvious contradictions of the privilege that surrounds him with the suffering necessary to produce any legitimate work. He has all the food and wine he needs, yet he needs to be hungry. He has his pick of women yet he needs desire. He has all the resources at his disposal for making a film, except for the most important thing, inspiration. He seemed like a fine choice for a road companion. Sal Paradise had Dean Moriarty, Tom Sawyer had Huck Finn, Dante had Virgil. I figured what the heck, it is my blog, I can bring in anybody I want.

We began our whimsical trip by traveling to Pakistan, because we could, Guido and I, to attend the arraignment of Musa Khan, the nine-month-old toddler charged with attempted murder because someone in his family threw a rock at a soldier. Little Musa Khan, the court claimed, was the mastermind behind the assault, holding his relatives hostage until one of his uncles was forced to throw projectiles at advancing police, only to save the family’s life from the tiny terror. The court claimed that, despite little Musa Khan’s inability to talk, and his penchant for long naps, and his crankiness when he drops his bottle, and the flagrant way he soils his diaper at authority, and the fact that he is less than a year old, the child has a deep-seated and dangerous attitude toward cops and society in general and must be stopped at all costs.

Guido and I look on from the spectator pews. Although it is strange, Guido seems to think that the boy has a special streak of luck for having to endure something so ridiculous. It is the birth of a revolutionary, he says. The nine-month-old in his highchair at the defense table throws chick peas at his accusers while his lawyers try to calm him down by singing him a lullaby. Pretty soon the infant is asleep, which doesn’t win him any favors with the judge, who warns of an added charge of contempt. They call for a recess.

“I hear there is a bar above this place,” I say, motioning overhead. “Claudia Cardinale hangs out there when she is in town.”

This brightens Guido up considerably since she is his muse in “8 1/2” and furthermore I need a drink. We adjourn upstairs to a dusty saloon. In the corner a man at an upright piano is furiously pounding the keys in a frantic rendition of the Infernal Galop. There is some gambling going on in the corner, fits and bursts of shouting. A man is somehow caught hanging from a wooden chandelier, unsure of whether to cling to the ceiling or drop himself to the floor. The cast of Moulin Rouge is atop all the tables, kicking their legs high in the air, petticoats flying every which way.

“Strange,” says Guido, dodging the high-stepping feet, “for Pakistan.”

“Hey! We’re stretching time and space. Besides, what’s good for surreal sixties Italian cinema is good for me,” I say. He shrugs, grabs a bottle of something sinister-looking from the bar, again dodges a near miss kick to the face, and settles in to take stock of the situation.

“We must find the bulb of light,” he says, looking around.

“What’s that?” I say.

He makes a closed fist gesture above his head.

“Like the divine spark? Inspiration?”

“Si, si,” says Guido. “I have a friend who is counting on me.”

“A Pakistani courthouse with a burlesque bar in it is a good place to start.”

We drink whatever is in the bottle that Guido is holding. It’s got the general effect of a blowtorch to the head. Waves of heat roll over me. Eventually I see Claudia Cardinale, seated at the bar. Actually there are two Claudia Cardinales. I spot a third. Now there are four. A fifth emerges from behind the fourth. There is way too much Claudia Cardinale, which I would’ve thought impossible, because there is no such thing as too much Claudia Cardinale, but as more Claudia Cardinales show up, it seems like the whole thing might become a stampede. At this rate we may be smothered by Claudia Cardinale. Guido seems to think this isn’t such a bad idea.

“If we have to succumb to something,” he says, “this might as well be it.”

“There are definitely worse ways to go. What I mean is, every other way to die would be worse than being smothered by a mob of Claudia Cardinales. This isn’t B-list suffocation. This is the real deal.”

The man hanging from the ceiling finally falls as the chandelier he has been holding onto breaks and here he comes, crashing down into our table. Guido rescues our bottle at the last second. He also takes something from the ground. My mind is a menace. Not only are there not many, many Claudia Cardinales, but she isn’t there at all. My fear of being overtaken by a roomful of voluptuous clones is reduced to the gritty misery of being left with none. I want the dangerous potential for infinite Claudia Cardinale. The world is boring without it. Guido says that art needs risk and uncertainty like a plant needs sunlight and water. You have to feel the dread before you get the “bulb of light,” as he calls it.

Word comes to the bar that there is a verdict for little Musa Khan. He has been acquitted on the grounds of absurdity. The crowd rejoices. Outside the nine-month-old walks down the steps of the courthouse, gives a small press conference to a handful of reporters, thanks his lawyers, then jumps into a modified Alfa Romeo Spider parked at the curb and whines the word, “suckers,” as he speeds off, although it is unclear whether he is referring to the court itself or rubber pacifiers, in general.

It is time for us to go, as well. It is just around midnight in my part of the world, and Guido and I visit a field by my house near Stone Mountain, Georgia. There is a party being held to either celebrate or mourn the onset of the ‘Blood Moon,’ which is the catchy nickname for a series of lunar eclipses that will be turning our normally gray satellite into a deep, rich, ominous red as many as three or four times within the next month. Guido and I sit in the grass looking up at the impressive moon–erumpent, fiery, theatrical, incarnadine. I find myself glad to be living in the age of science, where these types of things can be explained. Five hundred years ago somebody would’ve been thrown into the bonfire, just to be on the safe side. Guido wistfully mumbles something in Italian. Luckily he is subtitled.

“Beautiful,” he says.

As is to be expected, the blood moon brings out all types of eccentrics, as well as the garden variety parade of freaks, paranoids, pagans and postulants, reading the end of the world in the fat carbuncle hanging low in the sky, or the salvation of it. There is a lot of that strange, astrological math being thrown around, as well as charts to dictate what the blood moon means for the universe, the nations of the earth, and Spencer from “As The World Turns,” who may or may not emerge from his coma. (Or whoever is emerging from a coma on whatever soap opera is on these days.) My attention turns from the moon to the fireflies in the trees. There is a strange phenomenon that takes place when I notice a firefly. I will notice one, then a second one, then a million. I can never notice just three. I wonder why that is? I ask Guido about it. He laughs.

“I feel I can only articulate the depth of the mystery,” he says. “I can give no answers.” He gives my shirt sleeve a tug. “By the way, what is a Loup Garou?”

“A werewolf, I think. Why?”

“Because this woman next to me just said the ground is about to split open and an army of them will pour forth and devour us. You know, it’s all brought on by the blood moon. She’s got the math to prove it.”

“I think it means we should get out of here,” I say.

“Fretta,” says Guido.

We hop into a smooth looking convertible and head toward the city, but the city is no longer one that I recognize. Yet we arrive. The streets are deserted. Guido insists to find the bulb of light we must find the crowd. For an artist to be appreciated, he must first be perceived.

“Recipe for rabbit stew. First, catch rabbit,” he says.

“Like if a tree falls in the woods type of thing?”

He shakes his head. “If a tree falls in the woods and I am not there to hear it, then there is no sound, there is no lumberjack, no axe, no tree no woods. There are no chairs and tables made from the woods. There are no cabinets, dressers, no houses to put them in. No toys, none of those Dutch shoes…”

“I get it. Like if something happens and it isn’t posted to Facebook did it really happen?”

“What the hell is a face book?”

“It’s like a cloud sandwich.”

“Like a floor wall?”

“Look there,” I say, “a celebrity boxing tournament. Let’s go in. There is bound to be a crowd.”

Inside the gritty arena, which is more of a teamsters’ hall with a canvas ring in the middle, the crowd is whipped into a frenzy. The announcer introduces the fighters. In one corner it is former presidential candidate Mitt Romney and in the other, Sesame Street’s Big Bird. They will be going at it, toe-to-claw, nose-to-beak, P.B.S. versus the L.D.S, the big payback. Mitt’s hair looks perfect.The former contender a top contender. The Sesame Street icon has the eye of the tiger. Legs of a chicken. The bell dings and seconds later feathers and blood fly everywhere. The crowd goes crazy. The bird has got the reach but Mitt’s a scrapper.

Guido watches the boxing match for a minute and then his attention is caught by something else. He hears some disturbance through the noise of the crowd. Rising, he rushes to the source, up the steps, out of the arena and down an empty street. I hurry to keep up. He walks straight into a house that is pitch black. He knows his way. Couple of lefts, a few rights. He comes to a door, gives a few quick raps and walks in. The room is dark. He pulls me over to him and asks me for a boost. I lift him as best I can. I can hear the sound of metal squeaking on metal. The room lights up. Guido jumps down to the ground after inserting the lightbulb he had taken from the broken chandelier from the saloon. I am no longer hoisting him up. I am sitting at my desk, holding my head, looking at him. He seems satisfied.

“A lightbulb,” I say.

“Bulb of light,” he says.

“Thanks,” I say.

“Look how small the filament is,” he says, pointing up to the glowing bulb. “And it illuminates the whole room.” He smiles, spins on his heels and walks off down the hall. I watch him go in appreciation. I see others with him. A parade of forms and shadows long cast. Mastroianni. Fellini. Twain. Coleman Hawkins. Joseph Heller. Hunter Thompson. Iris Murdoch. Hugh Selby, Jr. Edward Hopper. John Muir. Bogart. Huston. Edna Millay. Roberto Bolano. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Out of the darkness comes the blaze of light. Someone harnesses the power. Someone catches the magic. Struggle, triumph and the rare plateau. Within a small slice of time the tiny filament can, with the right surge of energy, not only create the best of all possible worlds but the heat and light that shines immortal upon it. More Alembics to come.