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… 

Atlas Loitered

Birthdays…Mortality…Illusion…Ron Jeremy and the Nymphaea thermarum…

When people ask me what I’m writing these days (besides this here blog) I lie and tell them I’m working on a sequel to Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s weighty jeremiad attacking all things regulatory. In the original, the heroic captains of industry John Galt, Francisco d’Anconia, Dagney Taggart, and Hank Reardon are engaged in an epic struggle for individual achievement against collectivist government bloodsuckers. In my supposed sequel, these same captains of industry all go to Capitol Hill to beg for government bailouts to cover their shitty investments. I call it, “Atlas Fondled.” Of course the people that are fans of Ms. Rand are displeased that I’d soil the legacy, the people that think Ms. Rand a peddler of dramatic oversimplification are displeased that I’m engaged in such a ludicrous waste of time, and the people that don’t care to read anything by me just tell me it sounds interesting and that they can’t wait to read it.

The beginning of the year usually finds me in a contemplative mood. My birthday is in January, which may have something to do with it. It is generally a quiet affair, my birthday. For starters I detest presents as a low form of bribery. Even as a child when I would receive a birthday gift, I would snatch it out of the giver’s hands and quote the line that the sentry guard gives the traveler in Franz Kafka’s “The Trial,” to wit:

“I take this only to keep you from feeling that you have left something undone.”

It is a strange thing to hear from an eight-year-old. Consequently my parties were sparsely attended. I’ve put all that behind me, though. These days the occasional present, properly conceived, is a welcome addition to the gimcracks lying around the house. This year one of my more philosophical friends sent me a watch known as ‘Tikker’ in which you plug in a few actuarial factors about yourself and the watch calculates, give or take, how much time you have left to live on this here earth and counts down from there. My friend was curious whether I’d go mad with thoughts of mortality each time I glanced down at my wrist, or whether I’d buck up and start living with the constant reminder of the precious seconds falling away. He also sent me a revolver with one bullet in the chamber, and an open-ended plane ticket. It’s nice to have friends that put careful consideration into the presents they buy for you. He’s waiting for the news of my death.

Instead I decided to max out my credit cards and take to the open road. Debt is just a word, after all, and the ‘b’ is pretty much silent (and what’s that all about?), and on that shaky logic I decided to spend a lot of money that I didn’t actually have. Some call it spree living. Others call it investing in hangovers. Still others dream the big dream. Convertible by Cadillac. Music by The Cramps. Blue sky and warm breeze by God. Fuel by Exxon. Whiskey by Jim Beam. Big fat knock on the door by Big Brother Debt Collector.

Debt Collection Agencies are where a mobster goes to find decent employment when he wants to land legit. The tactics are pretty much the same, the law is mostly on your side, you can threaten without having to follow through, and you get to use your imagination, as is the case of a debt collection agency in Pittsburgh called UniCredit America that allegedly sends fake deputies to ‘arrest’ people who owe money, take them to ‘court’, and ‘fine’ them into paying off what they owe. Rather illegal, but clever just the same. Somebody got suspicious after realizing the ‘judge’ presiding over their case was none other than Ron Jeremy, the ‘bailiff’ was an opium-smacked Lindsay Lohan, and the ‘stenographer’ was a Nigerian transsexual on the run from a new law in his home country that makes it illegal to ever have met, seen, talked to or walked in the path of someone who is gay. The law was recently signed by the country’s president, a fellow by the name of Goodluck Jonathan. From now on though, it will be Goodluck ‘finding a decent interior decorator’ Jonathan.

Things are tough in the world these days. Between ruthless collection agencies, wristwatches that remind the wearer of their own death and whole countries of intolerant  officials, one must delve deep for solace. I was considering a trip to London’s Royal Botanical Gardens to spend time with my favorite flower, a rare miniature waterlily known as Nymphaea thermarum, knowing that every once in a while one must reduce one’s pleasures to a small focused treasure rather than trying to gain traction on grand, sweeping episodes. Distraught then, was I, to learn that my favorite miniature waterlily, again the Nymphaea thermarum, (which I’m guessing is some type of Latin for hot, little nymph? and maybe there is something within all that to bring up during a therapy session), again the Nymphaea thermarum, my favorite miniature waterlily, had been stolen from the Royal Botanical Gardens. Between the threat of fake jail for reckless spending and the sickening knowledge that nothing beautiful in this savage world is safe for very long I decided to look at my ‘Tikker’ wristwatch and see what time it was. Hmm. I had about thirty-five more years to live. Curious, I took my friend’s other birthday present out from its little hiding spot, the glinting revolver, and pointed it at my head. I looked down at the watch.

“Recalculating,” it said, then told me I had about ten seconds to live. I put the gun back down.  “Recalculating,” it said. It went back to the thirty-five years. I went into the kitchen and took a multi-vitamin and ate some oatmeal. “Recalculating,” it said. The screen went blank for a moment, then returned with an added five years.

“Remarkable little gadget,” I said.

The Nymphaea thermarum, the world’s smallest waterlily, was “discovered” by a German botanist in Rwanda. Yet it was “stolen” from the Royal Botanical Gardens last week. I considered this and decided that somewhere in a Rwandan newspaper last week there was a joyous story about the “retrieval” of the world’s smallest waterlily after being “stolen” by a German botanist thirty years before. I sat back, satisfied that the riches of experience lie in perspective. My ‘Tikker’ gave me an extra six months. The banks extended my credit. I am here.

More Alembics to come.