The Genius of Slightly Smarter Than Stupid

BEFORE THERE WAS the digital sludge of conjured bullshit roaring through the internet, there was a kind of brick and mortal bullshit ensconced in the pubs and taverns of the world. Like the internet, these watering holes routinely peddled outlandish theories, often to people who, as they got comfortably tight, were just as likely to accept without question outrageous explanations from some drunkie as they were from an anonymous “internet expert.”  Everything from secret political motives, microchipped vaccinations, high crimes and misdemeanors, news of the weird, financial schemes and whatever else were explained with virtuosic bravura. We audience could only nod our heads in baffled agreement. 

It was at one such establishment that a friend of mine told of an interesting anecdote from the other side of the world. 

To wit: 

The Italian government, in an effort to give law enforcement an advantage over fleeing criminals, had actually invested in a fleet of Lamborghini cop cars. The reasoning was that these super fast roadsters could not be outrun. City officials reckoned that felonious escape would soon be reduced to zero. On the surface it seemed like a fine idea. That is, until the criminals figured out that while they couldn’t outrun the police, they could outlast them. Since the Lamborghini burns through fuel like a NASA rocket and will come apart like wet toilet tissue if it tries to ram anything off the road, all a carload of thieves had to do was keep driving until the cops, pursuing from a safe distance, eventually ran out of gas. Then as the official sports cars conked out, one by one, drifting to the side of the road, the criminals would escape to the safety of their hideouts to unload their stolen goods, kick their heels up, open a bottle of Fernet Branca, and toast to law enforcement’s rather limited foresight. Some of the more brazen getaway cars would even turn around and do a celebratory lap past all the stalled Lamborghinis littering the side of the road as the cops watched helplessly, shaking their fists at the perpetrators. Perched on the hoods of their fine Italian automobiles, the police could do nothing more than sulk and sip on the bottles of Fernet Branca that came standard in all Italian police cars and await backup and, more importantly, a can of gas. That’s the beauty of Fernet, though. Perfect for both criminal celebration and embarrassing defeat. 

Fernet: Delizioso Per Tutte Le Occasioni 

I never bothered to check the veracity of the Lamborghini story. I’d simply decided that I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true and left it at that. I tend to accept stories showcasing humanity’s failure to anticipate certain consequences, and likewise I usually reject conspiratorial narratives in which a handful of diabolical geniuses can perfectly concoct a scheme that has every unforeseen consequence accounted for with oracular precision. If the Ponte Morandi bridge could turn to rubble one day because some civil engineer forgot to carry the one, then it’s entirely reasonable to accept a fleet of police Lamborghinis that get five miles to the gallon and bankrupt the Roman economy with the maintenance costs. 

Must be why I’m a bad candidate for conspiracy theories like Q-anon and Pizza-gate and such. These folks give way too much credit to the governmental confederacy of dunces. In this world one needn’t be smart, just smarter than stupid, a relatively low bar that a surprising amount of citizens still trip over. There are flaws in every scheme and the bigger the scheme the bigger the flaws. Don’t listen to me, though. Here are some words from history’s sharpest literary minds. 

“Nothing succeeds as planned” —Joseph Heller

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”—John Lennon 

“The best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry” —Robert Burns

“Nothing bears out in practice what it promises incipiently” —Thomas Hardy 

“It was surprised as hell to have happened” —bastardized quote from Marcus Aurelius 

I also found some other quotes that were a bit shocking.  

“Fuckin kaboom!” —The Hindenburg 

“Warble, warble, warble, smash” — Tacoma Narrows Bridge 

“Vroom, splutter, crash, [crickets],” — 1961 B-52 crash that accidentally dropped two undetonated atomic bombs in Goldsboro, North Carolina. 

“ZZZZZZZZZ,” a sleeping Captain Joseph Hazelwood, overseer of the Exxon-Valdez oil tanker spill. 

The list goes on and on. The reason evil geniuses are so hard to pin down is because, for the most part, they don’t exist. Sure, some people will be able to pull off a con for a while, like the Enron fellas and Madoff, the Prince of Ponzi. But that is due more to general gullibility than their own atomic brilliance. They aren’t smart, they’re just smarter than stupid. 

While I don’t pay much attention to the internet, I do still sit in bars and listen to all manner of opinion, wrapped in protective virus gear and drinking therapeutic Fernet Branca to avoid the masterful laboratory manufactured COVID-19, ingeniously planted in a wet market in Wuhan, China and traced by sadistic reverse-epidemiologists through the world with God-like precision to topple elderly western potentates. How diabolically brilliant of them to infect their own country first, giving the world a heads-up that went largely ignored. 

That’s dumber than stupid. 

Now, if I were a brilliant germ-peddler, I wouldn’t have wasted my time in Podunk, China. I would’ve dropped my superbug in Times Square, San Francisco’s Castro, West Hollywood, Michigan Avenue, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and a few other choice Occidental crossings. Of course I would’ve been smart enough to develop a preemptive inoculation for my own followers, so there would be no need to close any borders, thus ensuring my robust economy coasted on, unaffected, and the health, prosperity and happiness of my loyal populace continued unabated. 

Luckily it’s not possible to be that smart and that stupid at the same time. 

More Alembics….

9-9-6

 Sometimes less is more. Sometimes more is more. Sometimes more is less, and sometimes most is worst. 

***

The reason for that seemingly ridiculous statement is that I was recently reading about an American work trend known as 9-9-6. The idea is simple: the workday starts at 9 a.m., ends at 9 p.m., and lasts six days a week. 

 Which isn’t as bad as India’s version of 9-9-6; in which a 9-year-old worker makes 9 cents an hour stitching garments to help feed a family of 6. 

Or China’s version of 9-9-6; in which a worker clocks in at 9:00 a.m., clocks out twenty-four hours later at 9:00 a.m., only to clock back in because their workday is starting again, and they are expected to do the work of 6 people.  

Or North Korea, in which the workweek is simply ∞, which means you clock out after infinity is over, or you die, whichever comes first. 

Then there is the other side of the spectrum. France’s version of 9-9-6 has a person working nine days a month, nine months a year, with an average weekly intake of 6 bottles of Bordeaux. 

Or Venezuela’s version of 9-9-6; in which 9 windows smashed gets a person 9 loaves of bread, and 6 rolls of toilet paper.  

Or Russia’s version; in which 9 bribes to 9 different government officials buys a worker 6  days of reduced surveillance. Food and shelter not included. 

****

All of this leads to one very dismal conclusion: work sucks. Too much of it will kill you, and too little of it will make life so miserable you’ll wish you were dead. It’s one thing for a grown man to sit around his parents’ basement all day with his thumb up his ass, or more accurately, both thumbs on the controller of a video game, and it’s another for him to visibly deflate over an exhausting work schedule that leaves him little time for relaxation. If my math serves me correctly, a 9-9-6 workweek racks up a hefty seventy-two hours on the time clock. That leaves a person with little time to screw his head back on straight after twelve hours of spreadsheets, meetings, and Jim, the geek from marketing, who can’t stop talking about how HE would’ve ended Game of Thrones. 

For most workers, the free market comes with its own set of shackles. The proponents of 9-9-6 don’t want to unlock the manacles so much as convince their employees that they are, in fact, quite comfortable in them. Their campaigns are helped along by empty aphorisms like this one: 

“Don’t work till you’re tired, work till you’re done.” 

Tough shit then for most workers, whose work is never finished. For every task completed there are four more waiting. Although maybe I’m reading that line wrong. Maybe that last part doesn’t mean work till you’re done with a task, but work till you drop dead. Only then will an employer be convinced that an underling went as far as he could go. It’s the same screwy logic that governed the Salem Witch Trials, when a suspected sorceress would be submerged in water. If she rose to the surface then she was evil, and executed, and if she sank like a stone, she was innocent…and dead. 

The ‘work till you’re done’ slogan isn’t exactly a new one. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius declared it 2,000 years ago, or was it 3,000 years ago? 4,000? When did Marcus Aurelius declare things? 

Anyway, in the past, he penned this maxim: 

“It’s absurdly wrong that, in this life where your body does not give in, your spirit should be the first to surrender.” 

Which is funny, considering he was Emperor of Rome. What’s probably more accurate is Marcus Aurelius writing: “It’s absurdly wrong that, in this life, where your slaves’ bodies do not give in, their spirits should be the first to surrender.” 

Some things are easier said than done. I’m pretty sure no Roman emperor ever had to dig a canal. 

Which, I guess, leads to the big question: What’s the point? Is life a slog? Is it a seemingly endless arrival of toil, in which the individual sense of happiness collapses beneath a mountain of petty tasks. Or is it an Epicurean orgy of over-indulgence, in which every passing whim is satisfied with no broader appreciation of noble accomplishment? 

Maybe it’s some sustainable point between the two? 

You tell me… I’m going drinking, and I’m not going to drink till I’m tired, I’m going to drink till I’m done. 

More Alembics to come… 

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.