The Corpse Flower!

Cultural relativism aside, it would be hard to stomach eggs that have been cooked in children’s urine. Yet that is the cornerstone of a spring festival in Dongyang, China, a name that begs to be ridiculed, given the cuisine. 

“Let no waste go to waste,” say the citizens of Dongyang, who take the urine-egg festival so seriously that they put out pots and collection bottles in elementary schools so that little boys can donate their golden excretions to the process. “Micturate before you matriculate,” is the popular phrase over there, and they mean it. School is challenging enough. Math, science and language have never been more competitive in the far east, and on top of all that a student must prove his “yang” by using his “dong.” The township is relying on it. The pee-pee eggs are supposed to bring wellness, vibrancy and good luck to those who consume them, and when a whole region of China, (Dongyang by the way), when a whole region of China is counting on a teeming flow through the collective urethra of the pre-teen male population, they better deliver, or great shame may fall upon them.

“Your father, grandfather, great-grandfather pee-pee like Niagara Falls! You pee-pee like constipated mosquito!”

Tough words for a kid to hear. His grades may slip. His esteem may plummet. His enthusiasm for the power of knowledge may dry up like his tiny bladder, and then it’s a life in the salt mines.

Come on, Dongyang. As if the smell of boiled eggs wasn’t bad enough by itself. That retching miasma of sulfur that can doom the appetite of anyone within ten feet of them now has the putrid aroma of bodily waste, for the added benefit of something that has been scientifically proven to contain no nutritional value whatsoever. That’s why people get rid of it in the first place. Good luck Dongyangers, may your showers of fortune be golden.

Uninterested in the political party conventions the other week, I decided instead to watch a live streaming video from the New York Botanical Gardens of the great carrion flower known as the “Titan Arum” or “Corpse Flower” standing perfectly still in the middle of a giant greenhouse. After about five minutes I grew restless. Watching the corpse flower was about as exciting as watching an actual corpse. Named for the horrendous odor it gives off, that of decaying flesh, it tricks flies and insects, the kind that usually descend on dead animals, into pollinating for it.  Not sure why someone would pay to go smell a flower that reeks like any alley in Manhattan on trash day. It is an impressive sight, though. Ten feet high and something like two hundred pounds. Now that is a flower. The New York Times magazine supplement even went down to do an exclusive interview with the big beanstalk. It was surprisingly humble and articulate for a Corpse Flower.

NYT: “So what are your plans while you are in New York?”

C.F.: “I love this city. Always have. I try to see the sights when I’m in town. I hear Chumley’s is opening back up. That is exciting. I’m just so busy right now. Plus I’m a stationary flower.”

NYT: “Are you trying to make a statement with your terrible smell of rotting flesh? Like it is a reflection of the current pop culture.”

C.F.: “I’m a giant flower trying to get by in a very busy world. I wouldn’t look too deep into it. Like Hemingway said, ‘The Old Man and the Sea is a story about a guy and a fish. Nothing more. Quit pissing on it. If you are going to piss on something piss in a cup and send it to Dongyang for their urine soaked egg festival.’ (Hemingway said that, by the way).”

NYT: “Who are you dating?”

C.F.: “Miley Cyrus. We have a lot in common. Of course there is the smell. But I’ll get used to it.”

Over the next few days I kept going back to the Titan Arum. I started to become mesmerized by the thing. It got me thinking that life, the non-reflexive resourcefulness of survival, is pretty darned amazing. A giant Indonesian flower actually figured out a way to trick insects into doing its labor. The regal horned lizard can shoot blood out of its eyes to freak the bejeezus out of predators. The tardigrade “water bear” can live in molten lava or an iceberg. Young sunflowers track the sun through the sky, turning their bloom toward the west as the sun travels, and reset themselves at night toward the east in anticipation for the next day to follow the great erumpent helios again on its daily journey.  I can’t ever not be amazed.

Compared to the mental lassitude of most people, the grizzly bear is Einstein. Compared to the complaining masses, the hawk is Charlemagne. Compared to the perfidy of humans, the corpse flower smells like a rose.

I will leave this week with a quote from the lodestar of American letters, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“The civilized man has built a coach but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine watch but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. An almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind. His notebooks impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance office increases the number of accidents; and it may be a question whether machinery does not encumber; whether we have not lost by refinement some energy, entrenched in establishments and forms, some vigor of wild virtue.”

That was written in the mid-nineteenth century. Emerson would chew his fingers off if he were alive today.

I’m going to find a corpse flower and plant it in the middle of my front lawn. I’ll get used to the smell and so will he.

More Alembics to come.

This Is Not About Sports…

THE ALEMBIC  — “The Weird In Review”                                                  A blog

From September 3rd, 2013

Good old Ossie Schectman…Bad-ass tardigrades…

I’ve been musing as of late, about Ossie Schectman. The ninety-four-year-old basketball hall of famer, credited with making the first basket in professional basketball history, died last month. I am not a sports fanatic by any means. I rarely watch any games of anything unless I am acted on by an outside force and placed in front of one, either live or televised. It is usually just something that is happening while I’m drinking beer, which is not really necessary for the enjoyment of the beer. To be blunt, the beer happens, and the sports just happen around either side of the bottle. I am not one who needs to be doing anything while drinking. Drinking is the thing and if you are serious about it, it should require your full attention. But this Alembic entry is not about beer. It is not about sports either. Actually, I’m still trying to piece together what it’s about. I don’t lean one way or the other in matters of sport, unless there’s money involved, in which case I plead for the team that will make me the most money, which isn’t sport at all but economics, and so again this entry is not about sports.

Back to sports. Sport itself just fails to fire the necessary portion of my brain that excites me into a tortured emotional investment of sides to relish the thrill of victory, the anguish of defeat, the purchase of a numbered jersey with some fellows name stitched across the shoulders, and then the punching of the jerk who speaks ill of the player whose name is stitched across my shoulders. I’ll punch a jerk alright, just not for that reason.

Be that as it may I tend to enjoy games when I happen to be in front of them. I watch them as an anthropologist may watch some newly discovered race of titans, bigger and faster and meaner than anything imaginable. My understanding of the games is rather primitive. I suppose if it were possible to study my thoughts through one of those cartoon thought-clouds suspended over my head while I was watching any given sports match, it would reflect about an hour and a half of Atari “Pong.” (Except if I’m watching baseball, then it would look like Atari “Pong” with one paddle missing. Bowling and golf would be Atari “Pong” with both paddles missing.)

But back to Ossie Schectman and my non-sports-related blog entry. I’ve never seen a basketball game from 1946, but I suppose it probably wasn’t as fast-paced, wild, and stunning as today’s match-ups. I imagine the players from back then all acting like they were ninety-four years old even back in 1946 and so when I read the headline of Ossie Schectman passing away I read it as… “Ossie Schectman, legendary basketball player, died today. He is credited with scoring the first basket… after five missed lay-ups, three bricks and an air-ball.”

Which led me to picture the first announcers, watching this new sport, the back and forth before the first basket even went in, dialoging in an uncomfortable assessment that the whole game might’ve been a big mistake and maybe they could lower the basket, or bring more basketballs into the match, or have one player that carries a stepladder, or…. “Well Jesus H. Christ look at that, the damn thing finally went in. Folks we have a game.”

Boom! Ossie Schectman and basketball history.

As the weeks passed, the more I thought about it, Mr. Schectman was the modern Prometheus. From that point on, no pun intended, the evolution of the sport accelerated. Look at it this way, It took four billion years or so for the first professional basket to be scored on earth, and then just twenty years later Wilt Chamberlain scored like 20,000 women, or whatever. (And they called him ‘Wilt’?)

Before Ossie Schectman the basketball announcers probably didn’t even know what to talk about.

To wit…

“Well now here’s a player walking off the court to buy a hot dog from one of the vendors in the stands. And now he’s eating it. Watching the game he is supposed to be playing in. Here we have two players from opposing teams discussing property values. Should we go home?”

But now here comes Ossie Schectman, the young colt finding the balance of his shaky legs and then whoosh, taking the hell off for the far end of the court, sinking the bucket and sending the place into an uproar. By the time the game is over, I can see Mr. Schectman doing 360-degree dunks with his tongue hanging out, yelling at fans, pushing the refs, and after the first half he comes back inexplicably with a sailor’s mermaid tattooed on his neck. I have him like Elvis Presley figuring the hip movements.   I have him like Edmund Hillary standing on Everest. I have him on Omaha Beach plugging the first German. And that is the point of this blog entry. Instant evolution. How fast things progress once the initial barrier is broken.

Which brings me to my new favorite animal, the ‘Tardigrade.’ People who know will say, oh yes Mark, good call, and people who don’t will ‘google’ then say, oh yes Mark, good call.


The little fellows look like a cross between a hamster and a vacuum bag and at a millimeter in length, you are definitely going to want to have them on a leash in the backyard. They are the cuddliest of the ‘Extremophiles’ which means they can exist in temperatures as low as absolute zero (no molecular movement) or as high as a lava river. They can withstand atmospheric pressure 6,000 times that of the deepest part of the ocean, and the little bastards can even survive being thrown out into space, which, if you ask me, means the ASPCA is really dropping the ball on this one. They can survive for about ten years without food and you can drop an atom bomb on them and they just roll their backs in the radioactivity and dare you to do it again. Point being is now that we know this is possible, how long will it take for us to figure out how to mimic these adorable little thrill seekers? Everything is impossible until someone or something does it, and that is the point of this blog.

So when my motivation is sapped, and the creative energies are dormant, and the problems are insoluble, I think of the tardigrade. I think of good old Ossie Schectman. And to a lesser extent I think of Turgid Chamberlain.

Noli Timere.