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…


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