Existentialism, Literature, Ontology, Truth

The Book Party

A Kindle without books is like a body without a soul.   Cicero

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“It’s the purple building with the domed roof, a few blocks down on the right side,” the attendant said before I could open my mouth. Oil stains covered his uniform like continents on a globe and his rolled up sleeves revealed huge but flabby biceps.

“It?” I said, not used to mediums plying their trade in this line of work.

“The book party,” he sighed. “I must have had fifty people stop in here and ask me about it since noon.”

“Book party?”

“Yeah, look at your invitation.” He retrieved a green three-by-five card from beside the register and tapped an elegant sketch of the structure with a greasy finger. “Some guy left his here.”

“Utterly fascinating,” I said, trying to decipher the black enamel calligraphy. “But could you tell me how to return to the interstate?”

“It figures,” he said, shaking his head in defeat. He gave me directions and I asked if the party was invite only.

“You can have this one. The guy who left it hasn’t been back in hours. With all the people that come and go it can’t be too hard to get in.”

“Who is the perpetrator?”

“The what?”

“The featured author.”

He blinked.

“When did it begin?”

“I’ve been working here over six months and it’s been going on since then.”

“What manner of book party lasts that long? Few merit six seconds of celebration. Most should be inaugurated by a requiem. This one must feature a different work each night.”

“You got me. But it’s a strange crowd. You should see some of the people who stop in here for directions. Most of them are pretty flaky. But some of the women — You wouldn’t believe it.”

“They are drawn to exhibitionists like peahens to peacocks. Whether it is a hirsute guitarist, a steroid-addled gamesman, or a pulp-excreting word-processor jockey makes no difference.” He crinkled up his nose as though blinded from the light of my analysis. “You have been most helpful,” I said before returning to my car.

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“Lost indeed.” I handed Sandy the invitation. “I wanted it to be a surprise. We have found the literary nexus of the world, a fête without end.”

“What book is it for? The invitation doesn’t mention the book or the author.”

“This is a top-secret affair,” I said, heading for the domed building.

“I’ve never seen a great novelist.”

“Nor shall you, absent a time machine.”

“I meant famous.”

“I will catch you if you faint.”

Upon entering we walked through a long limestone passage. Smooth slabs gleamed from Chinese lanterns. We emerged in the humbling vastness of a dark marble lobby. A huge window looked out on a pond at the foot of a hill covered in dandelions. Dwarfed by a statue of a zebra perched upon one leg, two men in white suits and matching visors circumnavigated the pond with the speed of a minute hand, staring intently at it. After a prelude to eternity, one pointed to the surface. His comrade ran to his side. They took turns framing it from different angles with their hands, looked at one another, and nodded. One picked up a metal pole with wire mesh on the end and scooped something out and gingerly laid it on a tray. He put the pole down and they resumed their encirclement.

Sandy tapped my shoulder. Opposite the window, seated in a folding chair, the lobby attendant faced the wall. I shrugged and walked to the door across from us, its existence only discernible from a silver knob. Like a man poised to tour Bedlam, I paused before opening it, bracing myself for encounters with MFA students, free-verse poets, English “majors” unfamiliar with Shakespeare, and worse. Sandy watched the aloof attendant. Above her, the ceiling spread to uncertain dimensions, as though something was leaking out, or, more ominously, Nothing was trickling in. She looked to me, puzzled, then to him, concerned. I jerked my head, imploring her to follow.

The smell of strawberries overwhelmed us. Lavishly attired literati crowded around three tables disappearing into the abyssal depths of a narrow room. Their whispers accrued to the hiss of a deflating tire. Unable to sneak a glimpse of what digested their attention, I assumed that a plague of novelists were diligently signing their latest exudations. We choreographed an elaborate dance through the gathering to arrive at a tiny bar in the corner. The bartender hunched over to avoid scraping his head on the ceiling. Thin brown hair plastered to one side matched his leathery complexion. Eyes dead like a shark’s stared into the crowd. In the distance between his shoulders stood three patrons. Sandy gasped at the sight of a zebra pelt mounted behind him. The green clock in its center had blue Roman numerals but no hands to mark the minutes or hours.

“Excuse me,” I said. “What book is this for?”

As though a hand inside it tensed to catch a ball, the bartender’s face contorted. “That book,” he hissed like a serpent provoked, pointing to the tables.

Revelation: the people crowded around the tables were reading the book. The pages must have been spread sequentially across them. “So much for fruitful miracles in the midst of solitude,” I said. “Are you selling hot dogs? Are there any cheerleaders?”

“Are you trying to make a joke, sir?” a pudgy little man beside me asked. Like most of the male literati, a Fu Man Chu beard garnished his face. Flaunting rubicund cheeks, his ponytail constrained long dark hair. A baggy paisley shirt tucked into tight jeans tucked into cowboy boots. He and the bartender vivisected me with their eyes.

“Who is the author?” I said.

The bartender shook his head in disbelief, perhaps disgust. The little man squinted at me like he had discovered a precious jewel. “Sir, the book is not finished. And it has no author. How could you not know this?”

“I am acquainted with the noxious trend of denying that books have any fixed meaning, but this must be something new. How exciting.”

He stood on his tiptoes and put his mouth to my ear. “You came here thinking the book has an author?” His hand covered his mouth and his eyes extruded. “He’s only joking,” he told the bartender. “Drunk as a skunk. Fix me another. I’ll take him outside for some air.” Sandy and I followed him to the lobby. “My name is Cletus Empiricus,” he announced, vigorously shaking my hand while engaged in a staring contest with Sandy’s chest. I could scarcely begrudge him this enchantment. Those sweet, ripened, succulent, luscious fruits of the Orient had brought me more bliss than a fête of real writers could describe with a million sonnets. “You weren’t joking about thinking the book has an author,” he said, diverting his gaze. I shook my head. “Mr. Jablonski, the book comes from the pond.”

“You mean that pond?”

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“Correct. Do you see those men? The pond is filled with tiny letters. They search for words or phrases. Sometimes they find complete sentences. They scoop out the words and put them on a tray. When it’s full they bring it inside and put it on the table. This isn’t like other book parties. It celebrates the book as it’s written.”

“What’s it about?” said Sandy.

“That depends on who you ask.”

“That depends on whom she asks,” I corrected, following the wise principle that it is never too early to establish dominion in a conversation.

“Some people are quite taken with it,” he said with a shrug.

“How do you like it?” I asked.

“I was ambivalent, but I’ve grown to hate it,” he said, as though delighted to answer the question, perhaps hoping to influence our opinions. “Can’t deny it’s technically well-written, teeming with interesting characters, lots of action, complex themes.” He sniffed his drink and stared at the pond. One man pointed to the surface while his partner brandished the pole.

“But?” I said, severing his trance.

“But all the surface activity can’t hide the hollow ground underneath it.”

“Could you phrase that so someone who has not spent his life chasing the wind after an advanced English degree can comprehend it?”

“At least he declared a major,” said Sandy.

“I will declare it as soon as they remove symbolic logic from the requirements. Did Socrates torture himself with those absurd squiggles?”

Cletus smiled, drank, rubbed his chin, and said, “There are so many tiny pictures you hardly notice the lack of a big one. But once you do, the tiny pictures don’t interest you.”

“Sandy, go fetch an English undergrad to translate.”

“I know what he means, and there’s something sad about it: interesting small things trapped in a meaningless, authorless giant thing.”

“Exactly. That’s exactly why I don’t like it.”

That they were on the same wavelength fascinated me. In my demarcation of the circles of benighted academic pursuits, communications occupied the lowly fifth circle, four full circles below English. Exchanges between them should have been impossible.

“The underlying hollowness compels a lot of people to either force the story into some interpretation they’ve cooked up, which is like trying to get an elephant into a straightjacket, or they say the pond has mysterious powers that guide the writing. That way it’s always possible the meaning is hidden or not fully revealed.”

“Why is that so hard to believe?” said Sandy.

“Look at it. It’s a scummy little pond with millions of letters floating around in it.”

“But it’s writing a book,” she said.

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“You have to judge an author by what he, or it, writes, not by what you think they could.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “Aptitude is obviously irrelevant to literary matters, if not all matters. How long is the work?”

“Too long. It might be repeating itself thematically, but it’s so long this is hard to verify. It just rambles on and on and on and on,” he said, bobbing his head to accentuate his aversion. “One damn thing after another.”

“When will it be finished?” I said.

“No one knows. Those men out there just scoop out words. They aren’t proofreaders or editors. There are no editors. There’s no one to say when the whole silly mess is over.”

“But the fact that it’s all being created by a pond is incredible,” said Sandy.

“The regular use of alliteration, anadiplosis, and anaphora has been convincingly explained in terms of the consistent breezes stirring the water. Patterns arise.”

“But the structure, the complexity of –”

“If it were my book I’d be ashamed of myself,” Cletus said, throwing his head back. “I would only publish it with a pen name to make a quick buck.”

“Then why do you come here?” said Sandy.

“One, the drinks are cheap. Two, the chicks.” Cletus winked at me. “Don’t get me wrong. Once in a while the book has its moments. Hell, once in a while it’s great. It’s just that overall it’s nothing I’d put my name on.”

“Have you ever written anything?” said Sandy.

“No. But he has,” Cletus whispered, pointing at the lobby attendant.

“Why is he facing the wall?” I said.

“He’s jealous.”

“Who’s he jealous of?” said Sandy.

“Of whom is he jealous,” I corrected.

“He’s jealous of the pond. He’s the most frustrated writer who ever lived, at least that’s what he’d like you to think. As the story goes, the books he’s written have an underlying significance that ties everything together in the end. But his novels fall stillborn from his printer while people stand in line to read a foofaraw written by a scummy pond. That’s why he sits facing the wall. He can’t bare to look at it.”

“A foofaraw? May the gods deliver me from all English majors.”

“At least they don’t think they’re smarter than everyone,” said Sandy. “Philosophy students are the worst.

“Why doesn’t he pursue employment elsewhere?” I said.

“The money’s probably good, and of course, the perks.”

“Such as?”

“Mr. Jablonski, you’ve been inside the other room. They come through here, see him all despondent, ask him what’s wrong. That’s when it starts getting deep in here — if you know what I mean. They bring him drinks, ask if there’s anything they can do, and one thing leads to another. You know, I’ve thought about pulling up a chair next to him. In a sense he’s one of the most successful writers of all time.”

Sandy gave him a quizzical look.

“Forget all that junk you’ve heard about literary ambitions. It’s a veneer. The brooding genius routine is an act they go through to appear mysterious and sensitive. The tormented writer shtick wreaks havoc on a woman’s compassion.”

“That’s not true of all writers,” Sandy said.

Her literary judgment devastated by a diet of “commercial fiction” (a euphemism for graceless drivel about the basest instincts unfolding in clichéd situations), she thought highly of both the perpetrators and their motives. Having had several of her favorite novels inflicted on me, I conceived a hypothesis concerning their origin: those authors must have secret ponds of their own. Such work is not the product of intelligent design, but mere randomness. The prose itself is what one would expect from letters drifting aimlessly in a pond. The numbing regularity of the themes (coming of age, the indomitable nature of the human spirit, who killed whom, a journey filled with conflicts, etc.) are explicable in terms of the same natural forces that create regularities like tides, eddies, and whirlpools in larger bodies of water.

“Don’t be fooled,” said Cletus. “The difference between what he’s doing and slipping your date a knockout pill is a difference of degree. Some writers are craftier than others, but deep down they’re all the same.”

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“Don’t listen to him,” said the attendant. The wall muffled any inflections his voice contained. “He doesn’t understand. To write a book is to pour your soul into a canyon.”

“Here he goes,” said Cletus. “He’s practicing one of his pickup lines. I need a drink. Come to the bar when it gets too deep in here for you.” He put his hand on my shoulder. “Take a good, long look at the book. Decide for yourself.” The hissing of the crowd filled the lobby before he closed the door.

The camouflage of the attendant’s dark hair and jacket fostered the illusion that the wall was speaking. “An echo may ring through the canyon and the people below will look up and see who shouted. But even the clearest voice can only echo for so long. Soon it will fade, absorbed by the rocks, and the canyon will be as quiet as it was before. This is true of the greatest shouts. For most, they are lucky if their voice echoes at all or if anyone looks up.”

I cleared my throat, reflected on the greatness of Pericles, and began an oration that would change his life. “Cletus and yourself may think otherwise, but over the course of conquests innumerable I have found that an air of supreme self-assuredness is the most powerful aphrodisiac. Whining about your failures may occasionally net a stray mongrel, but if you wish to mount the prize bitches you need to project confidence. Your very being must radiate strength and –”

“What the hell is wrong with you?” said Sandy.

“Disregard this conversation. I am speaking as a man to one aspiring to that status. May the gods strike me dead if my father did not say the same words to me. Perhaps the fiery rhetoric offends you, but it is necessary for inspirational purposes.”

“Just stop it or I’ll call Dave to come and pick me up.”

“Your ex. Speaking of aspiring to a manly status. Very well. Cletus told us you are an accomplished author.”  

“I wrote several books,” the wall said. “Their shouts were great and clear, but none of them echoed.”

“Why does every shout not echo?” I asked, which seemed like the proper question. Even if his detestable strategy proved successful in practice, it was grievously wrong in principle: a man must never forge inroads to a woman’s maternal instincts, only her carnal ones.

“Clarity does not entail volume,” the attendant said, coming back into focus and sounding perturbed. “And a great shout does not connote a loud shout.”

“Why is writing a book the saddest thing in the world?” said Sandy.

Because the foredoomed paths of solipsism, megalomania, and self-abasement intersect in the depths of Abaddon, I thought. And the injudicious use of metaphors and similes leaves the writer with irreparable brain damage.

“Where do all books end up?” the wall said as the lobby attendant faded from view. “Moldering on a shelf, packed in a box, abandoned and forgotten on a hard drive.”

This routine indubitably cast him as mysterious and sensitive. But to what abysmal depths has civilization plunged when sensitivity is a trait willfully sought by a man?

“So you don’t write anymore?” said Sandy, falling prey to the loathsome vice of pity, in accordance with the attendant’s strategy.  

“I do. But my books will not be subjected to burial on shelves or in boxes. They end up underground.”

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“And underground is a metaphor of what?” I said. Ask a writer for the time of day and you need an Enigma machine to decrypt the answer.

“It’s no metaphor. I literally bury them. Six feet deep.”

“No one ever reads them?” said Sandy.

“If there are no echoes you never have to adjust to the awful silence that comes when they stop.”

“That’s so sad,” she said.

“No, it is natural.”

“The Kafka gambit,” I laughed. “You are aware, I hope, that he did not bury his books; he asked a friend to burn them. Clearly you are unaware that his proficiency with the ladies was not exactly –”

Sandy turned to me, only the whites of her eyes visible. An arctic breeze blew through the room. “I won’t tell you again.”

Piqued, I looked out the window and watched the peculiar fishermen.

“But perhaps it is only outrage that leads me to this.”

“But it can take years for a writer to get recognized,” Sandy said. “You should be proud that –”

“Not that kind of outrage. I’m outraged that where a book ends up is a far better place than where other things do, that even the worst book has the potential to exist longer.”  

“What other things?”

Go and sit on his lap, I thought. How much further can he debase himself? What final act has he planned for this play of helplessness, this self-degradation, this sensitivity? Will he now curl into the fetal position and weep?

After scooping several words from the pond, the men lifted a silver tray at least six feet long and four feet wide. Their cautious handling would have sufficed for an atomic bomb. The man in front held it from behind and they marched with synchronized steps. I flirted with the idea of pounding on the window to measure the depth of their concentration, but I suspected the book’s fans might not view my behavior as a lighthearted prank. Cheers erupted from the next room. The attendant began to sob. Sandy pressed her lips to my ear. “Let’s go read some of it.”

“Of course. I’m going to fetch my notebook. Save me a place in line.”

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Petronius Who?

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Annals, Ontology, Truth

Watchman & The Mystery Box

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Obliged to survey the premises six times per shift, I began with the warehouse. From a distance the entrance looked like a mousehole but grew to a drawbridge as I approached. Opening it strained every muscle in my back, as though the occupants resisted until finally ceding territory to lay in wait. The air inside, dank and foul, was it not the necrotic tissue of a once mighty creature? Sparsely distributed over the center aisle, dangling bulbs cast little light on the dusty concrete. A few feet to either side, darkness reigned. Less valorous sentries lamented their gloomy plight. Two had ignominiously abandoned their posts. Their piteous supplications did not tempt the insolvent gods, whose impotent hands could not procure any items not “absolutely necessary.”

One terrible night, so that I might gratify a swelling curiosity, I brought a flashlight to inspect the dark recesses, hoping something lay hidden, something not meant for my eyes, something forbidden. I could scarcely have foreseen how this innocuous inspection would uncover a fiendish plot, one that would rend the very texture of my being.

That night I walked slowly down the center aisle, uncertain where to begin my excursion. When I finally set off, abandoning the token security of the firefly bulbs, I flashed my light across a desert of dust and piles of rotting lumber. Like toys scattered by the offspring of a monstrous alien or the exoskeletons of insects destined to rule the earth, huge casting molds littered the area. Similar to a spelunker exploring an abominable chasm, a balance of powers guided my steps: apprehension and prudence stalemated curiosity.

As I prepared to head to the opposite side, my light conjured something from the darkness. I jumped back and bested the urge to flee. Almost hidden between a haphazardly stacked pile of boards and an enormous polyhedral mold sat a wooden crate wrapped in a dense veil of cobwebs. Its carvings, too elaborate for a piano box, bespoke a treasure chest from the orient. After slashing through the silken wrap, I pushed the top an eighth of the way off. It had the warmth, the unmistakable tactility of a living being. I brandished my light, prepared for whatever secrets it contained.

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Before I could investigate, a remembrance struck my head like an arrow. In the bottom drawer of the guards’ desk was a book titled The Year’s Best Horror Stories. One featured a watchman in an analogous predicament. Per the traditional disparagement, he spent his working hours in a schnapps-induced stupor. After becoming lost on one of his rounds he found a mysterious box and opened it. Human heads with “kiwi-green skin” opened their eyes when he screamed. In a breathtaking twist, he dropped his flashlight. Their eyes, however, “glowed like creatures from the deep.” The heads floated out of the box “wailing and snarling.” Per another wicked stereotype vilifying his brave calling, the watchman “waddled” down a long corridor with dozens of little lights in fast pursuit. “They cast a shadow of his head on the door while he sought the right key.” The story ended with “blunt bites from cold mouths.”

An original thesis of mine is that the storage space of the mind is finite. A man should always be on guard not to clutter his head with nonsense, or, if he cannot abstain, he should force himself to forget it soon afterwards. The theoretical framework of this wretched story offended me on so many levels I tried to banish it before an entire floor of my brain became cluttered with objections and criticisms. As it clung to my mental dumpster like a mound of dog excrement, a tremendous urge swelled up within me to return to the office and lash off a letter to the author posthaste, as though this could purge my fury and nullify the malign spell of the book. Perhaps all critiques are thus. Glaring at the dark opening, I composed a draft in seconds.

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Sir,

If you were banking on your readers being too horrified by “Rent-a-Cop and the Mystery Box” to notice its incoherencies and defamation, your judgment was grievously flawed. I noticed. The following objections were written in the order in which they provoked a rational mind. They could perhaps be written in a different order. Re-arrange them if you like.

Your story ended with the implication that the floating heads devoured the watchman. Question: How on earth does a disembodied head digest its food? The secondary disadvantage to being a disembodied head (the primary being death) is the lack of a body and the deprivations this absence entails. Before you commit any further scribbling I suggest you observe an autopsy. Ask the coroner for a quick tour of the digestive system and make a note of its proximity to the head. In the same key, your story had the heads making all sorts of noises — in the absence of a respiratory system. Again, have the coroner explain the relationship between lungs and wailing.

Your rebuttal fails — miserably. You maintain that these disembodied heads can transgress the laws of biology (apparently physics too, given that they were floating). They are obviously endowed with evil supernatural powers. Very well, how could “supernaturally endowed” heads be constrained by a mere box? Could they not have conspired to hover together and lift the lid? Your story says nothing about any locks. Could they not have gnawed their way out? What were they doing for food prior to the watchman? Did they come out at night to hunt for insects? Was someone feeding them? Was someone keeping them as pets? Who would want such pets?

Your portrayal of the watchman as a bumbling, overweight dipsomaniac is unforgivable. As a practitioner of this noble calling I take personal offense. (Should you ever suffer from the suicidal melancholy so common to writers of fiction, I recommend you attempt to trespass on the property I defend.) In case you were not aware, this portrayal is known as a cliché: writers are supposed to avoid them. Likewise, having the watchman fumble with his keys was simply masterful. I suggest, for a future story, a nubile girl whose car will not start.

In conclusion, “Rent-a-Cop and the Mystery Box” is, beyond certainty, the most incongruous and preposterous horror story since Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Stylistically it is atrocious. Do not listen to the inbred parrots in your creative writing program. If I want “gritty realism” I will defecate or watch my brother feed goldfish to his Piranha. Readers turn to books for Beauty. In the tragic event that you paid $250,000 for a degree that taught you otherwise you should retain the services of an attorney who specializes in fraud.

Wrathfully,

Petronius Jablonski

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This summed things up rather well, but in an instant I conceived of two new and even more damning objections. I decided against returning to the office. A proper refutation and healthful disposal would require nothing short of a Kantian critique and would have to wait. With a vow to abstain from all horror fiction, I returned to the edge of the cobweb-veiled crate, prepared to plunge my light into the darkness of the baroque chest like a saber.

The light flickered and died. It was second shift’s responsibility to check the batteries. Judging from the lascivious periodicals polluting the desk, he had become enslaved by the merciless tyrant of onanism. (Does the suicide of our culture not vindicate Plato? Sanctifying freedom of speech is akin to extolling small pox: “I do not approve of the pestilence you spread, but I shall defend to the death your right to spread it.”)

Upon my return to the warehouse I must have chosen a different spot to digress from the center aisle. My light revealed a staircase against the wall. Amber with rust like some remnant of the Titanic, it wound its way into the darkness above. Without making any conscious decision, I found myself on the steps, the metal groaning beneath my feet. I climbed and climbed but progress eluded me as though I were pulling some great chain out of a void. When I made the dubious choice of assessing my progress by shining the light at the ground, I found myself above an abyss whose evil gravity clawed at me, in the middle of outer space with no constellations for guidance or comfort. I clutched the railings and the flashlight hurtled away like a comet, making a crunching sound as it disappeared.

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Excerpted from The Annals of Petronius Jablonski

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Canes pugnaces, Ontology, Truth

Shi Tzu, Cosmic Yak Dog

If Shi Tzu were bred by Tibetan Buddhists to resemble lions, why do they look like yaks? In the way finches inflamed Darwin, this query awakened Petronius Jablonski from dogmatic slumbers. His Eureka! is mankind’s gain. Excerpted from his Odyssey of Historic Proportions and Priceless Treasure of Philosophy:

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I empathize but disagree with the Reader’s pragmatic reaction.

“Scholar, of what import is the Shi Tzu’s origin? One can scarcely accommodate the joy and gratitude their company invokes, much less murky historical references. If the phylogenic tree bore any resemblance to reality, man and Shi Tzu would stand coequal, far above monkeys and dolphins. The dog may be our best friend, but the Shi Tzu is our allegiant peer. What more needs to be said?”

Dear Reader, knowledge of Shi Tzu history is an intrinsic good and thanks to my fruitful meditations is murky no more. According to the traditional legend, Tibetan Buddhist monks bred them to resemble lions. Folklore alleged that the Buddha traveled with a little dog who could transform itself into one. This is suspect for six reasons. First, Buddha was a great philosopher, perhaps the first rigorous empiricist; he was not a wizard. The urge to deify great philosophers can be very strong, but Hume and Schopenhauer should be the first choices.

(It is not impossible that one day legends about Zeus and I will abound, starting innocently as factual accounts of our daily wanderings through Pulaski Park and growing into wild tales of his metamorphosis to a great cosmic yak.)

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Second and most importantly, the Shi Tzu does not look anything like a lion. How to account for the discrepancy between the traditional legend and the contemporary reality? I here offer four plausible accounts. The most tenable was conceived during Sandy’s exposition, the deliriant properties of which rendered me more prolific than an oracle.

It is conceivable that the monks began with sincere intentions of breeding lion dogs, which they presented as oblations to the Chinese emperor (perhaps the great man who destroyed the flying machine). The folklore surrounding magic pups probably intrigued him. Different sects of monks, not unlike car dealers hoping to allure customers, vied for his favor.

As we all know, craftsmanship leaves when the bottom line enters. Breeding became sloppy. At least one sect of monks lost its tenuous grasp of teleology. When quantity replaced quality, as it invariably does, they produced a batch of dogs not only distinct from, but superior to the lion dogs of their competitors.

“But how could such dogs be presented to the emperor?” the Reader asks.

Beyond certainty, the following conversation occurred (in Mandarin, of course).

“These dogs you present to me, they look not like lions,” the emperor says, stroking his long wispy beard as he scrutinizes two puppies playing at his feet.

The nervous monk, dreading this response all the way from his mountainous village and through the palace strewn with Shi Tzu poo, experiences the first in a series of life-saving inspirations. “No, your highness,” he says with a deep bow. The palace eunuchs inhale in unison. “These two are not lion dogs.”

They are not?” the emperor asks in justified horror. To defile the breed is a crime against the emperor, the Buddha, and a harbinger of certain doom.

“They are yak dogs, highness,” the monk says. With head still bowed he sees the feet of the guards approach the throne. “Highness, the yak has true Buddha-nature and is the persevering friend of man.”

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The Shi Tzu — Yak Smoking Gun

Eunuchs and guards stand immobile but their eyes bounce wildly, seeking attestation from one another. Within the context of another religion, such talk would be deemed blasphemous.

“And the lion?” says the emperor. The creases across his forehead bode ill for all three visitors.

“The lion is holy, highness,” the monk says, trying to ignore white sparkles twinkling around the hem of his red robe. They subside with deep breaths. “But he spends his days in indolence, sleeping and fornicating. He is not the friend of man; he eats man. The yak spends his life humbly lessening backbreaking toil. And like the Buddha, the yak causes no sentient being to suffer. The lion, despite his holiness, inflicts terrible suffering on sentient creatures every day of his life.”

“How is it I have never heard this teaching?” says the emperor.

“Highness, teachings are so many that a thousand monks in a thousand years could not learn them all.”

One of the little yaks pees on the emperor’s foot. The monk closes his eyes. He opens them at the sound of gasps. The emperor is on his knees, delicately petting the puppies. “Go, wise monk, bring me more yak dogs.”

Face-Melting Excerpt

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In Search of Proust’s Basset Hound

Why is Maestoso The Dachshund Following You?

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Quietude, Truth

Plato’s Cave? Big Whoop!

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The Annals of Petronius Jablonski unveils the paradigm-shattering contributions of Petronius’ Shovel©, Petronius’ Blender©, Schadenfreude Before-the-Fact©, Quietude©, and Petronius’ Garage©. They take their rightful place in the pantheon above Occam’s dull Razor, Plato’s much-ballyhooed Cave, Aristotle’s overrated Golden Mean, and Russel’s leaky Teapot. (Also includes a blistering critique of the Phoenix legend).

“[R]eads like a surreal existentialist crisis, a stream-of-consciousness narrative that employs secrets and intrigue as a driving, page-turning force.”  Publishers Weekly 

“[M]ost important philosopher since Descartes?”  Dr. Aloysius Schwankmeyer

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Excerpted from Chapter II: Just as William of Occam gave philosophy his Razor (undeniably useful but somewhat overrated), I hereby contribute my Shovel. This tool will prove to be as easy to use as its namesake. An example of it in action will serve as a good first approach to understanding it.

Now, by what criterion are things considered strange or normal? According to the regularity by which they occur, one might respond. Unfortunately, by this standard a halo above a car is quite peculiar and the strangeness vs. normalcy of a great many things becomes a relativistic mishmash. But this is the mere surface of this issue. A true philosopher feels instinctively that the line separating them is, to an enormous extent (if not altogether), arbitrary or illusory. But how can he dig straight to the root of this quandary, to penetrate the imaginary surface and demonstrate the chimerical nature of the distinction for the common man to see?

“Is the halo stranger than the existence of life itself?” the philosopher asks.

“Certainly not. What can be stranger than that?” comes the reply from any man with the barest semblance of cognition. “Explanations of life, its origin and purpose, always seem inadequate, as though nothing could feasibly constitute an answer, as though the question is a gasp of dismay, not a serious inquiry. I’d rather not think about it. Isn’t there a ballgame on?”

“Is the halo stranger than the fact that Something exists instead of Nothing?” the philosopher asks.

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“Absolutely not,” comes the reply from even a business student. “That’s the most peculiar and disturbing fact there is.” Rubbing his temples he cries, “My mind is awhirl. Bring me a video game. I beg you.”

“And so,” the philosopher concludes, washing off my faithful Shovel, his labor at an end, “the halo is not really strange. Compared to the existence of life, which we see every day, it is perfectly banal. Compared to the existence of everything, it is more akin to a sleeping pill than a mystery. Rather than giving it a pejorative label and running about in a tizzy, it is simply a matter of getting used to it.”

“Agreed,” chime the man with the barest semblance of cognition and his comrade, the business student. “Let’s all compare cell phones.”

Now, far from being a mere principle or abstract utility (like Occam’s much-ballyhooed Razor), my Shovel has the unlimited potential for practical, everyday applications. In fact, as the Reader is about to behold, it saved my life, holding my wits together in the face of what a non-philosophic mind would have deemed unbearably strange.

Quietude Now!

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Regarding Quietude, the telos of the New Stoicism: just as Aristotle gave philosophy his Golden Mean, I hereby contribute my Blender, by means of which the profoundest ideas can be mixed and pureed to produce original and superior recipes. This watershed, which the steely eyes of history may very well deem superior to Aristotle’s much-ballyhooed scale, will be elucidated in graspable increments. Regarding Quietude: while the precise recipe shall remain a secret, it contains ingredients from Buddhism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Monadology. The name is from the ancient Skeptics (who should have chosen a more accurate description of their uncertain comforts). Through the use of my ingenious, innovatory Blender, these constituents have been combined to create a bold new flavor. Quietude, as I am using the term, is both an original and significant contribution to philosophy.

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Is it an Eastern or Western conception? A messenger with joyous tidings, I unveiled a concept onion-like in its manifold layers, yet sweet in its succor. Quietude is not akin to a two-by-four. I cannot pummel the Reader into understanding it. A good philosopher relies on the time-tested methods of gradual exposure and the use of context clues. My approach shall be as halcyon as Quietude herself.

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Petronius Who?

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Schrodinger's Dachshund

Everest? Big Whoop!

Mount Silenus, Destroyer of Illusions

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“A surreal existentialist crisis” Publishers Weekly

“The mountain is nothing more than an extra hilly hill,” you say, cringing. “I was letting a word freak me out. If you don’t tame their power they control you.”

Positive thinking is a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of hubris and stupidity. Try taming cyanide. The perils inherent to things exist independent of our descriptions and attitudes. Wolverines for instance. And Oxycodone. And mountains.

You walk on. Silenus grows faster than you’d expect given your cautious pace, as if clawing at you. An abstraction flickers to life: 20% of climbers take up permanent residence here, which means hundreds of breathing, eating, farting, laughing, beer-drinking, poker-playing men DIED here. They forever ceased and desisted from breathing, eating, farting, laughing, drinking beer, and playing poker courtesy of what you’re about to commence. These were not suicides. They were trying every inch of the way to avoid this irreversible and often unpleasant transformation. Then what happens? Welcome to the concrete reality of this question.

The clouds expand and diminish and the sky sheds a grimy exoskeleton to reveal an orange heart pulsing within a vast creature of which you are a mere cell. The sun pools on the snow like orange juice.

The sun, what is it?

In all your meanderings and voyages you’ve never stopped and gawked at the bone-chilling peculiarity of this. Is the existence of Existence humdrum and self-explanatory, or do these questions open empty chambers no free samples from Dr. Schlotski can fill?

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Based on a disastrous attempt

And you, what are you, and where? That mysterious theatre behind your eyes and between your ears, what perpetuates its dynamism?

“I’ll tackle it tomorrow when the weather’s nicer. I need to get an earlier start. Timing is of the essence.”

In a world where no consensus exists on its creation, who can say with certainty that guzzling champagne in the bath is not the greatest accomplishment in life? Return to your kingdom. Silenus will wait.

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A Vertical Odyssey of Extraordinary Peril began as therapy for Post-Traumatic Mountaineering Disorder (PTMD). Some events never recede on the horizon of Time. Dismissing them as the past is wishful thinking. That they occurred before other things is a trivial property, incidental and irrelevant to the sovereignty they wield. Jablonski filled hard drives with descriptions & analyses of what happened, then projected it into the eyes of characters spanning centuries.

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Petronius Who?

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Canes pugnaces, Schrodinger's Dachshund

The Danzantes of Monte Albán

Would its victims find comfort from knowing it became a tourist spot?

One glimpse above Monte Albán reveals a Copernican revolution of the idea that the moon is a light in the darkness. A slice of dead tissue clings to the black hide of an omnipresent being. Like some curio forgotten in an attic, a temple molders on a hilltop. Its ornate construction stands as a reminder of how little the past can teach the present. Between fits of mad laughter it calls, “Someday you and everything you love will be as irrelevant and forgotten and unfathomable as this.

The Mantis wanders the ruins by day, treading the same ground where priests in fish and bird masks once adjured gods more humanlike than one of love and mercy: gods sadistic, gods insane. Per his secret instructions he studies mysterious carvings, the Danzantes, templates of the human heart to which all literature and philosophy and art are footnotes.

“They weren’t dancin’ for fun,” she told him. “Look at the ones holding their guts in their hands. You didn’t want to get caught alive by the Zapotecs. They were into some wild-ass shit back then. Check out the altar. That wasn’t for sacrificing chickens. Don’t worry, we’ll be checking your thoughts so you don’t have to do nothin’. This is a total promotion. And quit wearin’ green.”

With polite obstinacy he spurns vendors who offer “authentic relics” made of baked manure. “No gracias,” he says, waving a bony finger. Not lost but found in the silent majesty of this crypt of a civilization he spends his days in pursuit of phantoms, guided by a phantom map and at the behest of connections linked by the unrelenting velocity of phantom logic. But his joy is real. Amid dark stains of misery, smeared within a pastiche of solemnity, hilarity, and tedium, the newfound purpose adds a streak of gold to the collage of his life. And like all men he mistakes the fleeting nuance for the color of the underlying canvas.

Meme researcher Delores Locascio writes, “Some memes brush against reality. How many have we seen involving Monte Albán? Princess Nica is the latest of many. This ceremonial altar has several hundred carvings known as Danzantes. The first archeologists to discover the site assumed the figures were dancing. In a sense they were. The Zapotecs depicted rival chieftains being tortured to death, many castrated. That wasn’t a symbolic flower carved between the legs of one figure; it was blood gushing from a hole. Several of the stones depict women with strange objects protruding from their eyes. Archeologists assumed from their vestments and jewels that they were priestesses. As we’ve seen, others claim they were entities the Zapotecs encountered in mirrors and made sacrifices to (until they ran out of victims).”

Schrodinger’s Dachshund is more like a collection of mysteriously connected stories than a conventional novel. Jablonski’s lyrical prose turns creepy during the second-person POV parts. What’s it about? You find yourself in the Bosch-like parallel universe of Cudahy, Wisconsin. Good luck. Jablonski doesn’t hold your hand. It’s like he’s sharing as much as he can, hoping you’ll figure it out because he can’t. This has a way of making these characters come alive. Highly recommended, but this taste is acquired. Not to be mistaken for genre espionage or sci-fi (or anything). This is plain weird! Magic anti-realism? Backhanded compliment time. It’s a showcase for Jablonski’s freaky powers of description. It’s a dark, funny, bizarre book with disarmingly vivid prose.” Goodreads

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Who is Maestoso and Why is He Following You?

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Schrodinger's Dachshund

Serial Killers Who Worked Security

A Mysterious Link Explored

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Why are there no paralegals moonlighting as Grim Reapers, no librarians driven to carnage by inquiries about Dan Brown? Security fields a disproportionate number of the empathy challenged. Practitioners of this noble calling succumb to dark nights of the soul, wondering if the property they defend requires blood to sustain its existence. Why is it always the loners? What happens in the cold vacuum of solitude, time spent with the ultimate stranger?  Consider ten instances of this cruel occupational hazard and wonder why “going rent-a-cop” never joined the lexicon.

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“I hate guards who fall asleep on the job and don’t perform their duty”

With an honor code familiar to samurai and superheroes, Bangkok guard Wittaya Jaikhan snuck away from his post to hunt slumbering comrades, killing seven, becoming the Watcher of Watchmen, Guardian of Guards, Slayer of Sleepers. Our motives are never as pure as we believe. He also took their chocolate and phones. We are not justified in assuming that madness is the best explanation. The West has had no understanding of Honor since WWI. Only historical myopia hides Jaikhan’s perspective from us. By bringing shame to his vocation, the snoozing guards brought dishonor to him. You may be okay with that. Don’t speak for others.

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Dennis Lynn Rader, the BTK killer, worked for ADT 

The acronyms will give you PTSD. He was as poor at coining them as his company is at informing guards of alarms. Was the B necessary? This is minutia, not substantive information. We assume some means of incapacitation was used, that his victims did not transcend their hard-wired response to pain on his behalf. That leaves us with TK, which is little better than Chokey or Hurty. (It’s not clear he needed the K either, since we can see the final result.) This narcissistic diva distracted attention from the QWERTY killer, UTI killer, and FDDBBFTBH killer, who struggle in vain for their fifteen minutes.

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Corporal Urinalysis

A grain of sand irritates an oyster to create a pearl. With humans all bets are off. Andrew Urdiales killed eight women and counting. In the Navy they called him Corporal Urinalysis and wouldn’t follow his orders. They called him Corporal Urinalysis. He had facial tics and less than awful social skills. If you believe all God’s creatures have a purpose you’ve got your work cut out for you. Most of these men were slated to be recipients of ridicule and conduits of fury. Did you ever make a conscious decision not to become a serial killer? Those philosophical head-trips about free will have obscenely physical instantiations. If you don’t choose your thoughts you don’t choose anything. You don’t choose your thoughts. Were Uriales’ security shifts a fortress of solitude or a hall of mirrors where Corporal Urinalysis leered from every direction? How long before you’d smash the mirror?

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Tiago Henrique Gomes da Rocha killed thirty-nine people to treat his anxiety

Proceed with caution when judging a man poisoned by cortisol and deprived of its antidote. This could have been prevented by a script for Klonopin: vitamin of Stoics, Viagra for stiff upper lips, pink slip for Mr. Gives a Shit, spinach for nervous guards. Not incidentally, the wicked stereotype of alcoholic guards comes from self-medication for a constant state of fight or flight.

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Ted Bundy 

He blamed his urges on pornography. It’s always hidden beneath the Soldier of Fortune, next to the handcuffs you aren’t supposed to use, atop the SECURITY MANUEL, across from the half-eaten bag of Fritos no one has touched for three years but you hope the new guard does just to see if he survives. Like Bundy, security guard Neal Falls had victims who all looked alike. They say routine is the anchor of life.

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Steven Alexander Hobbs, the large red-headed guard

What vicarious sacrifice did the fifteen prostitutes represent? Were they substitutes for cubicle-dwelling women who treated him with disdain, like his job was a Wiffle job, his life a Civil War reenactment? Ginger-themed taunts do not recede on the horizon of Time, where it’s always third grade. The discovery that atonement cannot be attained is bitter. The indignities guards endure come with compounding interest. The harder you try to catch up the further you fall behind.

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Kenneth Bianchi, Simon to Angela Buono’s Garfunkel

The Hillside Stranglers toured California in 1977 with a van that may as well have had FREE CANDY painted on the side. Bianchi attained the Holy Grail of security: an in-house position at a jewelry store, free from polyester uniforms and reliefs who don’t show and companies who make $20 an hour while paying you nothing. But he gave jewelry to girlfriends and paradise was lost. Many who pursue careers in this competitive field are forced to trade dreams of in-house security for sweatshop lives of rent-a-cops. Bianchi had to settle for the Whatcom Security Agency. The mysterious springs of the heart are unwound by less. Some said he had company in the attic: Multiple Personality Disorder was the flavor of the day. Here’s a secret. All guards do. Their exquisitely honed instincts become distinct and incompatible like Greek gods. The most ruthless prevails.

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They don’t sport horns or a scarlet SK

Rodney Alcala was “the devil. He’s very personable, good-looking. It’s easy to get in with this guy. He likes women with good shapes. He convinces them to let him take their photos.” A serial killer’s success is a function of camouflage. Remember that. Putting victims at ease by appearing to be something else is a screwdriver in Nature’s toolkit, like the hungry fish that looks like a rock. Primates do it too. A high IQ sans moral radar acted like a turbocharger for Alcala. His victim count remains unknown. And he brought a popular hobby among guards into disrepute. Don’t take your Nikons to work anymore.

It depends how you define “self-defense”

Louis van Schoor erred on the far side of caution when killing thirty-nine burglars in South Africa. He may have shot more than 100. Trigger happy? More like finger spasms. It also depends how you define “serial killer.” Van Schoor considered himself a crime fighter. He had no idea how good he had it. Guards in the states have to be clean-shaven.

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Britain’s worst serial killer may have been a guard

And Scottish. Jack the Stripper killed a parliament of prostitutes. His suicide note said he was “unable to take the strain any longer.” A recent study may shed light on his sorrows. “They found that shift work was associated with impaired cognition, and the impairment was worse in those who had done it for longer.” It ages the brain. Remember your grandfather’s obscene tirades when he lost his dentures? Imagine that frame of mind transplanted into a young man. Don’t judge him until you’ve slouched a mile on third-shift.

It’s not the news that any shift worker wants to hear. Not only is working irregular hours bad for your social life and likely your health, but it has a chronic effect on your ability to think, a new study has found.”

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Misfortune comes in threes

A lady guard broke Joseph Ferguson’s heart. Then his rent-a cop slavemaster fired him while he grieved. Then he missed the serial killer list because he didn’t pace himself and became consigned to the footnotes as a lowly spree killer. Where would we be without profilers and their arcane taxonomy, without men who keep a straight face as they inform us the profile is a white male in his twenties, as if we would have assumed an elderly Asian woman was to blame.

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What crimson thread links these men? Does an aptitude for solitude predestine one to infamy? Silent shifts are petri dishes where life’s indignities mutate and grow. Theories about postal workers suffering from “golden handcuffs” are no more plausible. Unarmed security is the most dangerous job in the United States. The authority it gives is not proportionate to its perils. The authority is an illusion. A guard has no more legal power than a common citizen. They’re sitting ducks and accountable for everything that occurs on their watch, the worst of both worlds. What are the long term effects of cognitive dissonance? To begin a campaign of social justice for guards, to stop the killing, begin by addressing them as Safety Technicians.

“The final total for workplace homicides in the United States, from 1990 to 1999, stood at 508 security guards slain in the line of duty and 495 police officers, and detectives, slain in the line of duty. In just one decade private security guards had surpassed even law enforcement officers in the rate of workplace homicide – an ominous occupational indicator for all those in working in the private security field. In the year 2000, the dangerous trend in violence would continue with another 46 security officers murdered in the line of duty. The same year witnessed an occupational homicide rate for public police officers and detectives of 35 killed by criminal assault or ambush.”

Incoming: Khalil Wheeler-Weaver, Guardian of Grocery.

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For more on the sorrows of security guards, read Schrodinger’s Dachshund: A Novel of Espionage, Astounding Science, and Wiener Dogs.

Petronius Who?

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