Snake and Sandalwood

You know the story of the werewolf — a human turns into a raging animal when moon is full — I’m sure.

Well, the old ones, the ancestors, did not tell stories like that for their health — they told us so we could get by. They knew they were gonna die, they wanted to leave us some tools for survival.

The werewolf story is simpler than the truth, but it is the truth like an algebraic equation. People have different people inside them than they know about — and some of them are animals — and when the the external conditions of the universe are right — doesn’t have to be “the moon is full” — they come out.

My job — and I was terrible at it! — was to find people when they were about to pop — and be there to explain the transformation to it. I was, as I said terrible at it! I was truly bad.

I intellectualized it too much! I said I bet you want an explanation! And I would get into Munchhausen’s trilemma which is: all explanations must end in one of three ways.

First way. The reason you just smelled sandalwood and turned into a giant snake is this universe was created by a giant witch. And she wanted you to learn what it is like to be a human who denies he is anything but a human and then turns into a giant snake. Call this the path of the unexplained explainer because — why is there a giant witch? Why did she create the universe? Why did she want you to learn what it is like to be a giant human who…etc. etc. These questions have no answers, these facts have no explanation. The first way the PUE is unsatisfactory.

Second way. The reason you just smelled sandalwood/giant snake/etc. is giant witch, giant witch is because atoms make a giant witch, atoms are because the laws of meta-possibility generate a universe in which atoms that make a witch come about, laws of meta-possibility are because of the Law of Love and Strife, the Law of Love and Strife are due to the Profound Desire of the Gods, the Gods and their profound desire were birthed from the cosmic Egg, the cosmic Egg was laid by the Eternal Fowl…etc. etc. And indeed, etc. These explanations never end. They are unsatisfactory.

Third way. A circle. The witch was created by a book that makes everything in it come true and it was written in by…guess what. A sandalwood-aroma-were-snake. The third way is unsatisfactory.

So the newly birthed cobra-man, sneaking through the pipes of the city had me by his side explaining Munchhausen’s Trilemma.

My boss fired me because “WEREWOLVES DON’T WANNA HEAR THAT SHIT.”

God I took some shitty jobs after that, typing and word-processing in the towers, being ignored by the lawyers who were dissatisfied with my work because they couldn’t even be bothered to see me as a person.

And then the changes happened in me. A full on death-with-a-scythe emerging from my pot-bellied flabby form when the moon was full.

What a fool I had been to think a snake wanted an explanation. And emerging from that fool another fool. And from that fool a full on death.

Gradually my ear could hear the chime, a very high note. A smell of sandalwood. A lot of people didn’t hear it but a lot of people did.

I walked down the street and opened the door to the basement beneath the store that sold plumbing fixtures and other items for minor home repairs. It was a flight of stone stairs. They were damp and I smelled the mildew but beneath the mildew clear notes of cold air.

All the different passageways from all the different basements joined into the central atrium. Wolves, snakes, and deaths were convening. Who were they waiting for? The lectern faced the assembled monsters.

I took my place and picked up my conductor’s baton. I rapped it twice on the lectern.

“Let us begin.”


The Mashal of Dionysus

You know the story of Dionysus — that he was burnt to ashes — died essentially — but the goddess Wisdom rescued his heart. And this is true in our lives, we are constantly dying, but there is a heart or crumb of who is really us who gets rescued by wisdom — or perhaps wisdom counts as the ability to rescue our heart when we die. And start again.

Klaus was the family exchange student from Germany and he said a strange thing at my father’s birthday party. After the old man blew out the candles he said “Do you really believe in George Washington?’ “I do, but…what? And why do you bring him up now Klaus?”

Klaus: Americans believe that George Washington visits the birthday of every American in his spirit form but one must blow out candles or he will be burned.

Me: Americans don’t believe that. Where did you get that idea, Klaus?

And Klaus reveals that his father gave him mimeographed sheets about American culture including the George Washington idea as well as

Why American womens are quiet when they orgasm: they believe the sound of an orgasm feeds bear spirits who will return to kill their children

Why Americans carve a face into a squash on Halloween: the face is the face they will have at their moment of death, and a frightening one will repel Hell demons

Why American food is so bad: to propitiate their Balloon Deity, Ruzmatuzz

and similar falsehoods. “Ah.” said Klaus “My father deliberately lied to me to test his Theory of Exoticism.” Klaus’s father, Herr Professor Oberstein, had a theory of how countries misunderstood other countries by bringing their own fantasies to the table. So Germany had misunderstood the Jews, so Russia had misunderstood Finland, so the Greeks the Persians, and the Cro Magnon the Neanderthal back to beginningless time.

FWOOSH! That life with Klaus burned up, but I was able, like Athena with Dionysus, to pluck from it its heart: its heart for wisdom.

What is the fake tour book we bring with us when we go as tourists or exchange students in another person’s soul, so we never see what is really there, but only what the guidebook says will be there?

And when we visit our own?


How Can It Be?

Sometimes we want to know what is there, or what will happen, which is “what is there?” but for events.

If I ride on this roller coaster will I fall and break my head? If I go to that store, will there be ice-cream?

But sometimes we want to know, how can it be? How can it be, that ice-cream tastes good but will give me a heart attack and make me feel bad? How could it be that if I fell off that roller coaster and broke my head — my head which is basically a box made of collagen and calcium phosphate — I will be gone?

After all, as far back as I can remember, I was always here!

I remember an argument I had once with a fellow writer when I was part of a group working on a script. Because of other things happening in the show we wanted one particular character to have a father who spoke Mandarin Chinese. However, we had established in the show that the father was an uneducated man, who had grown up his entire life living in Batesville, Arkansas. Nobody Chinese lived there. And there was no opportunity to learn Chinese. And the character grew up before the internet. We really wanted this character to know Chinese, but my colleague wanted to know — how could we do it?

My answer was we write a line of dialogue “I can speak Chinese” give it to the actor playing the father, have him say it in front of the audience, and by simply doing those things, the character would know Chinese.

From my colleague’s perspective “How could we make the father know Chinese?” had no answer, and he concluded we couldn’t. From my perspective “How could we make the father know Chinese?” had an obvious answer. There was no father in real life. He was a fictional character in a television show that we were writing. To make him know Chinese was the easiest thing in the world.

In a sense, we were each right.

How could that be?

I’m not sure. I have some inklings but they would take more space to expatiate than I have in this essay, as well as more time than I have this moment at the ready. But I have a suspicion.

I think “how can this be?” questions invite us to think about limitations and the overcoming of limitations. What was the limit or obstacle to the flow of energy that congealed into this state of affairs? What stopped things from being otherwise?

In my colleague’s mind, the obstacle was the consistency of the fictional universe we had created. He answered the question “How could the father speak Chinese?” by saying: he couldn’t.

In my mind, the obstacle was the conventions of actually writing and creating a television show. I answered the question “How could the father speak Chinese?” by saying: easiest thing in the world. Put it in the script and send the script to the actors.

Our sense of what a limit is only makes sense against a background understanding of unimpeded flow, and vice versa.

I think it may ultimately (ultimately?) come down to our personal sense of being empowered. Or not.


Desmond and Lucy

This story is like a candid photo. Only I didn’t take it with a camera and then output an image. I took it with spyware — microphones cameras through the window malware on computers. Yes, it’s illegal. A lot of art is illegal, and more would be if people understood what art is.

Desmond and Lucy were neighbors in a high rise in Manhattan, but they never spoke and did not know each other’s names. It’s June and the air is starting to get thick and sweet and the days are getting so long you start to doubt you will ever die. Desmond gets into the elevator, it would be getting towards night if this was a normal month but it’s June. When he passes the doorman and his feet touch the sidewalk on Lexington Avenue he sees a woman he doesn’t know who is wearing a jacket with fur trim. He immediately longs for her, and starts following her, staring. When she spots him she curses him out. “I feel you’re important to me! Very important! I need you!” “Fuck you.” she responds. A good samaritan shoves Desmond, he falls down into the street, breaks a bone in his wrist, urinates in his pants, starts to cry. Another well wisher looks at the number on his bracelet. He is made to sit in a chair on the bus-stop. George Maldonado who works with social services shows up on his motorbike and takes Desmond home, gets him cleaned up. “You have to stop doing that.” “She didn’t even give me a chance to explain.” says Desmond. At night, because it is night by the time this all gets sorted out, he plays world war II on his console. Mom, and Dad and George don’t understand him but he girl in the fur trim jacket would understand him. And if he made people angry, then he made people angry. His cast itched and made it hard for him to play. He was killed by a Nazi. He ate a pint of Ben and Jerry’s chocolate chocolate chocolate and fell asleep in his chair. When he woke up for a moment he didn’t remember who he was.

Lucy knew that she should not answer phone calls from Edward but she couldn’t remember why. She answered the phone and he was crying. She hung up. She knew there was a reason to be afraid of Roger. She didn’t know why. The phone rang. Had one of them said he loved her? Had Edward? Had Roger threatened her? Did she love Roger? She didn’t know. She made a call to her best friend but it was a bad connection. All she heard was a few fragments

–to all the way—but I didn’t —

–even if that were true then —

—ly Miller and–when we went–

She lost the call and it hardly seemed worthwhile to call back, the connection was so poor. Through the wall she heard the sound of gunfire, explosions, a man screaming in German. Was he angry at her as well?


Richard and the Air Shaft/Garbage Shaft

Richard, can you explain to me the pieces of your life back when you lived in the old building in the 80s? Because I think I understand what happened, but the various pieces — the people, the places — that I find hard to remember.

Well that was back when i was dead.

I understand. Does that make it hard to talk about.

Well, yeah. I mean first of all, when you’re telling something about when you’re dead, should you use words that are dead and sentences that are dead and I don’t know — narrative structures that are dead –or not?


What do you mean right? Should I use words that are dead?

Well, I’m not dead. I mean, am I?

Not yet.

Right. Not yet.

Richard looked at me.

Well, I said, say what you can to explain to me what it was like back when you were dead in the old building in the 80s.

Well Mom was sick and I had to take care of her, and I wasn’t going to school any more, and I was on unemployment but that just meant I had to go to an office and tell them that I was trying to work. And I’d do the shopping for Mom because the grocery stores had magnetic fields and Mom could feel them and it made her sick. So I would get oranges and Arnold’s bread, and prince spaghetti and ragu spaghetti sauce and eggs and I’d take care of her while she worked on her resume, although she couldn’t really get a job either because of the chemical sensitivity she had and all the jobs had some sort of chemicals there.

I never knew what to say when Richard talked about his Mom’s sensitivity. It was clear to me that she had a mental illness but I never wanted to press him on that fact.

So I don’t know what to call those guys — said Richard — who would come and examine me — but I believed that they were the ones who could decide what would happen to me.

Did you think they could give you life?

No, that’s the crazy thing, Richard said laughing, I knew I was dead but I also didn’t know I was dead so I didn’t seek life, I sought — I don’t know. Power I guess. I wanted to be an important person. And I thought if those two guys — the big one in the suit was named Mel, I don’t know what other guy was named — Mr. Ford I think — I thought if I could give them the right answer then I could be an important person. It was like an interview. Like an examination. They could ask questions about how my mind worked, about my sex life, about who I was, whether I was a person worth taking seriously or a fake and a fraud. I was ashamed. I thought my answers would be bad. I hope they would be good. But I was afraid.

a beautiful woman, a teacher with glasses was sneaking in to my room naked at night and I would take a shower with her and hide her — I hid her from my Mom and I hid her from Mel and Ford — and sometimes she was hiding under the bed teasing me when I had my interview and I felt she was teasing me and mocking me but also that she made me feel alive.

Is that how you found out you were dead.

Yes. But I didn’t know I was dead. And I felt that she was challenging me to kill myself instead. And there were scars on my body — she had already killed herself so she wasn’t afraid — but there were scars on my body and on my neck — and I was hiding the scars from the men who were interviewing me. And I also had my mother’s father who was very old — he was an Orthodox Jew and was very old and sad — I had to take him somewhere in midtown and if he found out about the scars he would shame me for giving up my life — because nothing was worth giving up your life for.

He didn’t know you were dead.

No, he didn’t want to believe it, because he thought he was a camp survivor.


Yes. So What happened was I would program the computer — back then there were floppy disks — to give answers to the two guys interviewing me because I was so distracted with my Mom with the naked woman with glasses — with my Grandpa who I had to take to the meeting midtown — so I programmed the computer to give the answers to their questions and I sort of made it look like me — I put my hair on it and my glasses and my sweater and I gave it the pipe to smoke that I smoked and it talked to those two men and answered their questions. And I had it all figured out what the questions were and what the answers were. Or. I thought I did. And I kept trying and preparing and the men kept coming in, and as the days went by the computer became more and more like me — it became a shell like a cicada cast off but it looked like me — and I programmed it to answer all the questions they could possibly answer.

And even though they came in many many times I was still waiting for them to come in. And judge me. And I was ashamed. I was very scared.

And then they came in. And I was sure they would catch me. And the naked woman in glasses was under the bed and her wrists were bleeding. She was angry at me.

But I went to the bathroom and went out on the fire escape, and I was naked. And the ailanthus tree was growing in the alley and I suddenly realized I could drop down there into the air shaft where we dropped the trash where there was still an old refrigerator from the 50s and old soda cans, the kind that you could pull off a tab, and a magazine with a picture of my Mom back when she was young and she was a beauty so I hung down off the metal ladder and let myself drop into the yard and even though I cut my hands on the concertina wire I couldn’t stop laughing.

I was alive.

I was free.

But more important than that.

I was alive.


The Magic Mirror

-do you want a hear a story about a Djinn who had a magic mirror and he could change the course of battles by drawing on the mirror?

-Is it true?

-Well yeah. Why would I tell you a story that wasn’t true?

-Well then obviously.

-OK do you know what a Djinn is?

-Not exactly.

-Well it is hard to know exactly, so that’s fair. But basically when you are alone at night in the wilderness and you are seized with terror and you do something crazy like run away leaving your water behind and die of thirst, and you were just going around in circles our forefathers said — that was because of a Djinn.

-And was it?

-Well, yeah. What else would it be?

-Some kind of subjective phenomenon?

-Sure, so then Djinn are some kind of subjective phenomenon. Do you know what that is? Exactly?

-Not really.

-Exactly. Makes two of us. Any way one time a guy died due to the machinations of this Djinn and when the Djinn was stripping his body he came across a picture book with pictures of the great kings and queens and also wild animals and I think, fruit from other countries. And the Djinn was incensed!


-Because creation belongs to God. And whoever drew a book was infringing on the prerogatives of God.

-And Djinn don’t like that?

-No. Why would they? I mean they don’t mind it if they do it, but if you do it it makes them really mad.

-Like people.

-Yes. Exactly. So the Djinn went back to the lonely deserted cleft in the mountains with the other Djinn and called like a Djinn council and they were all raging and hollering and screaming and cursing the human race, calling down horrible punishments from the second, third, fourth, fifth heavens, all the way up to the supra-Neptunian sphere, and then when the other Djinns got tired of this and asked the Djinn if he were satisfied and he said he wasn’t they said well you take it from here and he said “OK!” and he went down into a very deep crevice in the rock and hauled out a piece of mica and he dragged it to a bubbling paint-pot, a thermal mud pit, and he polished the mica so it became a mirror and he could use the paint to paint on it. And it so happened that the King had died and the king’s oldest son was ready to take power but then a son by the King’s favorite girlfriend–


–Sure. Concubine. Girlfriend. Whatevs, her son got a lot of really good guys who fought on horseback and promised them they’d get a lot of money if they supported him, so they said “okay. Reasonable!” and he decided to make it to the capitol on a forced march and kill all the king’s son’s main supporters in the ministry of finance and seize the treasury and then tell the rest of the king’s son’s supporters that he would be king and they would not be harmed if they gave up the king’s son and then they were going to kill him with the execution of the two boats and take power like that. But it’s hard to keep secrets and the King’s son found out and he decided to head off these horsemen with three companies of infantry and also a bunch of men who wheeled a big seige engine — an arbalest — and they were going to block the road going across a mountain pass and kill the horsemen and then kill the son of the king’s favorite girlfriend or concubine if you will with the execution of the two boats and then marry the girlfriend himself.

So it all came down to this one battle and it was in the Djinn’s territory and he looked at the battle in his mirror and he drew it so the horsemen got there a little bit earlier and they killed a bunch of the infantry men but then he changed it so that the arbalest got up on a mountain peak above the pass and started firing arbalistos down on the horsemen and he kept changing it back and forth until everybody was dead on both sides except for the two princes, the son of the king and the son of the king’s favorite girlfriend, and then he started drawing monsters to fight on each side — minotaurs and centaurs and penangalans and tauragases and what have you — and when the two princes were wounded he erased their wounds and when their eyes grew tired he grew powerful woke-up eyes on them and so on.

-Why did he do that? Just rage against humanity for the divine prerogative encroachment thing?

-Who can tell with djinns or humans for that matter why people do things? The wellsprings of the great river are often to be found in a hundred humble streams and so it is with the orectic heart. Anyway, these two princes were fighting for hundreds of years, the kingdom that they fought for passed from the scene, there was a technological civilization based on petroleum, it used up all the petroleum, briefly there were robots doing their thing and then they all ran down, the star got big and cold and these two cats were still at it, you dig?

-I dig, Daddy-o.

-Then the djinn did an experiment. He decided to stop. And he found that his hand kept drawing. Why?

-I don’t know, why?

-He wanted to know too! He took his magic paint pots and his magic mirror and traveled all around the world and in the antipode was a lady Djinn who had her own mirror and she was drawing him and making him do stuff.


-I know, right? And they fell in love!

-And the two princes?

-They fell in love!

-And everybody?

-Had a wedding!

-And they celebrated it?

-By taking the two mirrors and pointing them at each other!

-And they looked at each other in the mirror to find out

-What they would draw next!

-And they drew it!

-So it looked like the two mirrors were right!

-And did they learn their lesson?

-You know it, Holmes! You know it!

-And what was that?

-If you’re going to infringe on the Divine Prerogative, which you shouldn’t, cause it’s a grievous sin and deserves a grievous punishment, but if you are going to do it then…




twenty five cents can get you a large gumball or…

  1. a rubber monkey that stretches, if you write your name on the slot in the back, when you stretch the monkey it will stretch your ability to imagine special realms — behind the radiator for example but not limited to that
  2. a tiny book that instead of pages has two tiny polished pieces of metal that function as mirrors, if you write a word on a small piece of paper and bend it and write the word on the other edge of the paper and place it between the two books so that the twin-word is reflected in the twin mirrors, you will be graced to see the two sides of the word that you wrote — for example if you wrote “death” you will see the life that is in death — if you wrote “grandpa” — you will see how not until you are a grandpa do you understand what it is like to be a grandson of a grandpa, because a grandpa will let the grandson ignore him and the grandson will think he is doing wrong to ignore his grandpa until he is a grandpa and he knows he let it happen — BUT once you do this you will never be able to see that words as as single thing
  3. a medium-sized gumball
  4. a small gumball
  5. a tiny pinball game with a single shooter with a tiny spring a tiny silver bee-bee and a single hole that is worth “1” — if you practice this game then all the games that life is made of — the game of status and the game of love, the game of being yourself and the game of not being yourself — will reveal themselves as simple variations on a single game
  6. a sticker that when you put it on yourself if you should be killed by a car or lose your memory due to Alzheimer’s dementia if they look at your naked body in the hospital or the morgue and see the sticker the orderlies will say “hey! I know the gumball machine where the guy got that!”
  7. a large gumball.

If You Believe a Crazy Thing You Can Solve a Lot of Philosophical Problems

This is true, and Bernard Williams was a good writer for pointing this out. For example, Derek Parfit believes that to be a person is to instantiate some sort of abstract rational structure. As a consequences if they give me severe brain damage and also make a copy of me, the copy of me is me, and the person with brain damage is not me. Bernard Williams points out — this is crazy. To have my brain damaged is a bad thing happening to me. And it’s not lessened if there is a doppelganger somewhere calling himself Eric Kaplan. If anything that adds insult to injury.

Another example from Bernard Williams. A lot of philosophers say if you follow the rules you will never be a bad person. Your life could suck, but you won’t be bad. But Williams noticed the phenomenon of moral luck. Sometimes you might do something a little risky morally — eg leave your family to try to save the world — and it will work out. You will save the world! And then you’re a hero. But if you leave your family to save the world and fail — then you are just a creep.

Both of these cases have the same structure. You can solve a lot of tough phliosophical problems — in the first case — what is it to be a person over time? in the second — how can we act rightly — by just believing something that is…well the polite word is “implausible” but I am tempted to be less polite and call it “crazy” or “false”. Either, in the personal identity case, that to be me is to instantiate an abstract structure, or in the ethics case, that if I follow the rules I will never turn out to be a bad person.

I see three options:

1)Solve the problems and believe the crazy false thing. I don’t much like this one not just because the crazy false thing is false — I mean who knows what’s false? — but because the risk is so high. If, to take the personal identity case I am wrong that being me is being an abstract structure, I might allow myself to be brain damaged, and leave all my money to some doppelganger! If in the moral luck case I’m wrong that leading a good life means being immune to morally unlucky events, then I don’t protect myself, and I become awfully judgy.

2)Don’t believe the crazy false thing and just allow a lot of philosophical problems to remain unsolved. This is a good choice I think, though it can lead to a sort of defeatism which ain’t great.

3)Believe different crazy false things. This is attractive although risky. But if we are playing by the rules that it’s okay to believe ridiculously implausible things in order to have a nice-looking philosophical view, then why not explore the options?


Monsterbanterer — that’s an unusual name

-is it American?

-Yes it is an old American name.

-Do you know the origin?

-I do. Would you like me to tell it you?

-I would.

-Okay. In the old country–

-back when America was on the planet Earth.

-You know your history facts and feel no qualms about crowbarring them into a conversation, I see.


-Shall i go on?


-back, as I was saying before an historical fact was crowbarred into the conversation like it was a trunk full of bananas, in the old country if a vampire or werewolf would come into a house somebody would have to engage the monster in banter to give the family time to escape, and this was a traditional occupation and that’s the source of our family name — Monsterbanterer.



-Could you provide an example?

-I could if you ask like a normal person. What was that before “Example”. Where you come from is that how you get someone to provide an example? You just say example? What are you Queen of the May?

-I don’t think that degree of upbraiding is called for.

-I suppose not.

-Could you provide an example?

-Gladly. Suppose Count Yorga, a vampire, was at the door. You might say “Say that’s a nice, cape! Where did you get it?” And then the Count would say “Do you really think so?” and you’d say “Oh but i do.” and he’d say “I got it at a fine cape store in Timisoara, and while you were bantering on like that, all the children and women and frankly the less courageous men would all escape.


-I’ll say. Or suppose it were a werewolf. And you could say “My goodness, werewolf — do you know the etymology of that? And then he’d say “I do” — because it’s a rare werewolf who doesn’t take an interest…

-A rare-wolf.

-Ok if that’s how we’re going to play this…

-Continue speaking.

-OK if you ask so nicely. So, when the giant monsters started appearing, fire-breathing dinosaurs and huge moths and the like, the whole planet needed to employ the service of us monsterbanterers to keep them yakking while the entire population of Earth got in their personal spaceships and went elsewhere.

-you have a knack for taking an extremely interesting conversation and draining all the interest out of it.

-like a vampire but instead of blood interest

-yes. I suppose that you have used this banter to sneak something valuable away during our conversation as if I am a monster

-don’t flatter yourself.

-if I don’t, who will?