Thursday, May 31, 2018

Aphorism No. 90; One of a Series; Collect The Whole Set!

The brain is not located on the tip of the tongue.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Wise King (from "The Devil's Waiting Room — Fairy Tales For The Over-Grown" )

Once there was a wise king.

There may well have been a few others over the years, but really, not so very many. Let's face it — it's a tough gig.

This particular king, by the way, was not King Solomon, known worldwide for his wisdom, if mainly thanks to that notorious baby-splitting story.

Nor was he the famous Caliph Haroun Al Rashid (all his pals called him Al), who went in disguise among his subjects so as to better understand them, long before this was known as slumming.  (The term "dive bar," which would replace it, hadn't occurred yet, which meant that dive bars were still wonderful. And terrible.)

He wasn't the Twenty-Fifth Maharaja of Mysore, that great patron of art and culture, science and knowledge, who fooled the British into providing electricity for his people by putting 96,000 lightbulbs on his own palace. (It may have been 97,000. I forget.  Either way, it was a lot.)

He was most definitely not the Emperor with the new clothes, or merry old King Cole, or even Nat "King" Cole. And certainly not Elvis.

Instead, he was a just a comparatively unknown King, from a fairly obscure little country, and he didn't really get into the whole showbiz publicity schtick about making sure he was heralded far and wide for his wisdom. That in itself may have been yet another sign of his wisdom.

A big problem with wisdom is that it looks so much different than being smart. Being smart is something you can mark on test papers, although if you're a king, or a king-to-be, or a prince or a jack or something, they usually grade you a lot higher than you probably deserve. And then add a shiny stick-on star.

Meanwhile, this King — King Leonard; Leonard the Wise, though some local wags called him "Lenny The Learned" — leaned way over to the wise side, but inevitably that meant that not everybody in his kingdom was convinced that he was all that smart. There were some, in fact, who were dead certain that he was A Royal Dope. And you can understand how they might. There he was, The King, in charge of everything, supposedly, allegedly, apparently.  And then some controversy would swirl up, with everybody in the entire kingdom fussing and fighting and bickering and biting, and then. . . and then . . . and then would come the word that King Leonard's official response was: "No Comment."

This was one of the perks that come with being King. If he'd been a President, say, or even a President-For-Life, he would necessarily been forced to have sporadic occasional press conferences. And while many a President — and especially those darn Presidents-For-Life — has said "No Comment" at a press conference, or else had their Press Secretary hurl their own body on top of the microphone like it was a hand grenade, it really is a lot better to be a King, because everybody sort of assumes in advance that you're pretty used to having your own way, and not answering any questions you don't feel like answering and so forth. After all, it's not like you grew up with your mom, the Queen Mother, always demanding "So did you take out the garbage yet?"

Ah, but sometimes discretion is the soul of wisdom, or the better part of valor, or so they tell us, anyway. (And think about it — even by telling us, they're automatically breaking the rule of silence and discretion right there. How's that for a confusing conundrum, a perplexing paradox, a hunk of hypocrisy?) And one of the things that was most troubling to the wise mind of King Leonard was this question: Where is a King supposed to find a friend?

Because when you're King, hey, everybody's your friend. And if everybody's your friend . . . well, you can guess how it goes. I mean, it's nice and all — everybody bowing down low the minute you come back from the bathroom . . . but who's gonna tell you you've got a long trailing piece of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of your shoe?

Still, since King Leonard was indeed King Leonard the Wise, he made sure that he was surrounded by plenty of smart cookies. He had ministers and prime ministers and plenipotentiaries and counselors and privy counselors and courtiers and even an actual court jester, all of who were there to counsel and advise, to console and articulate, to clarify and observe.   Or just jest.  He even had a guy who was either a bishop or a cardinal — he wasn't sure which, since he didn't know which hat was which color, and also because everybody just called him Your Eminence, and plus, old Cardinal Bishop was so old he mostly just sat around snoring loudly, with that weird hat of his bobbling up and down. But he was handy to have hanging around all the same, because it meant that no one could say that King Leonard was committing any heresies or blasphemies or such, not with old Cardinal Bishop Whats-His-Name always on hand. What was his name, anyway?

Then too, the King always received really great advice from his Queen, Queen Leonora. And she too was quite wise, which was all the more remarkable since she and the King were actually cousins or something, once or twice removed. (Once very late night in bed, after a long dinner party, they figured out she was actually also the King's great-aunt.) Despite the fact that theirs had been an arranged marriage, they were really quite attracted to one another — there was just something tantalizing to both of them when they looked at one another. And because the Queen was always plotting to have her side of the family achieve more power and land and wealth and control and dominion, her counsel was genuinely rather sharp. So the King merely had to take certain things into consideration, and then generally — but not always — do the opposite. Or else take her advice and see what happened next. Within limits, of course.

The fact was, though, that no matter how many people surrounded him, from the time he woke up in the morning until the moment he and the Queen turned off the reading light in bed, King Leonard the Wise was highly, deeply, strongly, acutely aware that he had no friends. When you're the King, it's awfully tough to have any true friends, any real friends, because everybody you meet knows you're the King, and everybody either wants something, or else they just spend all their time staring at you. And if you want to shoot pool or play cards or go out for a few beers at the bowling alley, it becomes this big state occasion. And then  they always let you win. (Though in fact, and even wise King Leonard had to admit this himself, he was a pretty terrific bowler, with a consistently high average and his own personalized ball. It was purple, with kind of a marble-ized surface. And he had matching purple shoes — none of those stinky rental shoes for him, naturally. And naturally, everybody wanted him on their bowling team. But then,  of course, they always expected him to pay for the embroidered team shirts.)

I'm sure you can see how the whole No Friends thing was really quite a problem. Sometimes he felt like the closest thing to a close friend he had in life was his court jester, Frank, who was not really quite short enough to be officially called a dwarf. And Frank was actually the Queen's brother-in-law's older brother, so even there, there were complicated family politics. And, if truth be told, Frank wasn't really all that great a jester — he tended to tell the same off-color jokes a little too often, and he couldn't really juggle or tumble or do the splits. True, every once in a while, he came out with a real zinger, but it was usually at the expense of some prominent member of the court, and then there were all kinds of resentments to patch up over about who had laughed loudest at whom. But at least King Leonard could talk with Frank about sports, because Frank loved to bet and gamble and try to beat the point-spread. Oh, and the glory days of Las Vegas — Frank loved to talk about that stuff. For hours on end, it sometimes seemed like.

Every once in a while, quite late at night, King Leonard would wander down to the kitchen and attempt a friendly chat with the Royal Chef while trying to scrounge up a meatball sandwich. Preferably with pickles. But that was difficult too, because the chef was terribly nervous about loose talk with the King. After all, the King had an Official Food-Taster, whose job it was to see that the Royal Chef didn't poison the King, and the very nature of that whole deal made the chef nervous, as well as vaguely insulted.  Worse, the chef, who happened to be French, felt that the Official Food-Taster was both a philistine and a barbarian, with shockingly undeveloped tastebuds, an absurdly ignorant palate for wine, and a near-absence of aesthetic principle, with a name that sounded suspiciously German.   But to have suggested any of this would, of course, have laid him open to suspicion, so the chef held his tongue. Which is extremely difficult for any sensible chef, and all the more so for a French one, and even more so for a French chef surrounded by those who merely swallow to survive, rather than eat to live more profoundly.   There was so much the chef wished to say, but he held his tongue for fear of losing his head. So when the King would invade the kitchen in hope of rustling up a sandwich composed of loose leftovers — preferrably meatball, and hopefully with pickles, but whatever— what little conversation they achieved turned out to be immensely, intensely unsatisfying to both of them. As a side result, the king never learned the secret of how his chef managed to keep all those four-and-twenty blackbirds alive while they were baked in a pie. And he really did wonder about that one quite a bit sometimes. It would have been nice to know.

So there he was, wise as he could be, but perfectly free of any friends. How wise is a man who can't even succeed in making a single friend? It was the sort of thing that you think about on those nights when you wake up in bed, wishing you had a mere meatball sandwich, or even just half of one,  without pickles even, and then, before you know it, you're even hungrier to have a friend you can call, and they'll let you wake them up in the middle of the night. And to be a notoriously wise king, and not have either one, a late night friend or even just half a plain meatball sandwich with no pickles — well, it can make you feel a little foolish.  

It was on one of these very nights, with the Queen snoring away like a defective two-stroke chainsaw, that he made his decision. First of all, he was going downstairs to make himself his own damn sandwich. Then, tomorrow, the very next day, first thing, he was going to leave the Queen in charge of the kingdom while he went out there on his own, all alone, and made some close personal friends, the kind of friends who would stick by him through thick and thin, whether he bought the bowling team's shirts or not. The kind of friends who you could call late at night to bail you out of jail when you'd made the mistake of driving home after the office Christmas party. The kind of friends who you could barbecue with and when your wife made a big deal about having gone vegetarian, and how meat was murder and all that stuff, well, they'd just hand you another hot dog and make a point of loudly asking you if you wanted more "organic" mustard on it.  And then hand you another beer.

He felt a little bit like the great Haroun Al Rashid going off into his own kingdom in disguise. Although in fact, he wasn't actually in disguise — he'd just left his crown at home, on the arm of the throne, where he pretty much always hung it at the end of the day. But because he had always been so wise, he'd truly minimized the amount of publicity he'd received — although the damn tabloids were just so invasive! — and it was actually possible for King Leonard to go forth among his own people and mingle. Part of that had to do with the fact that even as kings go, he was pretty ordinary looking. And then there was the fact that his kingdom was sort of small, and tiny, minuscule, sort of Lichtenstein-esque or less,  and just like he and Queen Leonora, a lot of people were pretty closely related to one another, so one person looked pretty much like the next.

Leonard had  always felt that if he'd only been blessed with another type of job description that, well, he was... well, not to brag or anything, but he felt like he had a pretty darn dynamic personality. He started off having breakfast in a sort of funky little greasy-spoon cafe near the market-bazaar-zouk called Hamburger Dan's. And despite the size of the sandwich he'd nearly finished in the middle of the night, he was famished. He ordered doughnuts and coffee and orange juice, two eggs over easy with home-fried potatoes and bacon and wheat toast with extra butter — hey, why worry about cholesterol when the Queen was nowhere to be seen? — and after his second refill of coffee, he was feeling as wise and full and pleased with himself as he had ever been. It was then that he realized he'd forgotten his wallet.

It was only in process that he eventually realized that he'd never actually owned a wallet. He was the King, after all — King Leonard the Wise — and never once before in life had he ever needed a wallet. Or cash or credit cards or bank cards or traveler's checks or even a coin purse full of gold coins — though in fact there had been that one time when he had rewarded that bold dragon-slayer dude with a purse of gold coins, but it had been someone else, no doubt the Royal Treasurer, who'd put that whole presentation together, and had ordered the trophy.

Well, it was embarrassing, of course. But unless he wanted to blow his cover, and announce that he was King Leonard the Temporarily Broke, he had to just try and talk his way out of it. He made a big show of standing up and hunting around in his pockets for his wallet, but nobody, not the waitress or the cook, seemed to really care. When he tried to make his excuses, and then offer to wash enough dishes to pay for his meal, the waitress just smirked, and the cook said, "Aw, just go on and get the hell out of here — we don't need any more deadbeat dishwashers."

The waitress flipped him a quarter and said, "Play A-11 on the jukebox." It turned out to be "Beat It," by Michael Jackson, so he took the message and vamoosed. He kept the quarter.

Well, no matter what, at least he'd knocked back a big tremendous breakfast — which, as we all know, is the most important meal of the day.   Ordinarily, back at home in the palace with Queen Leonora, he had to limit himself to oatmeal and skim milk and maybe some stewed prunes, so he was already . . .  well, feeling his oats. First of all, he sauntered off into the bazaar to see what the regular folks, his own subjects, the common people, as it were, were up to, and as he did, right away, he saw there was a terrific argument taking place. Naturally, he joined the crowd gathering round the uproar. As you might suspect, the dispute seemed to involve a carpet, or maybe somebody who was supposed to be buying a carpet, or else clean a carpet, or something like that. Definitely a carpet was involved, or at least a rug. King Leonard the Disguised felt much less wise than usual, less able to sort things out with a simple stroke of his sword-like logic. First of all, the fight seemed to be taking place between two women, both of them rather comely and shapely and such and the crowd that had gathered all around them was now chanting, almost ritualistically, "Cat fight! Cat fight! Cat fight!" And King Leonard the Wise wasn't even sure which carpet the women were fighting over, though he had to admit that it made for very thrill-packed action.

King Leonard noticed Frank the jester in the crowd, but Frank hadn't noticed him, because he was trying to book some betting action on the little redhead at 2-to-1 before the cops came and broke it all up.  Even after the cops came and broke it all up, King Leonard noticed that Frank hadn't noticed him whatsoever, not at all. Maybe it was because of the King's  lack of crown.  When he was back in bed with Queen Leonora, that night, he wanted to mention it — and he especially wanted to tell her about the two good-looking gals wrestling and grabbing at each other's hair,  just in case it proved stimulating — but he decided it was better to keep things undercover, incognito.  Because he was kind of in the mood to get out and do it again, as soon as possible.

The next chance he got was nearly a week later, on the weekend, when things were a little slow around the palace.   He told Leonora, who had her reading glasses on, the ones that always made her drowsy, that he needed to run out for a pack of cigarettes.   She just sort of grunted at him and turned the page of the book she was reading, which was another in a series that usually featured a swashbuckling guy on the cover whose shirt was always bulging open as he embraced a buxom wench with hair even bigger than his.   Leonard was pretty sure he had the night off.

He'd never been out alone at night before, and this time he'd made sure in advance he had a wallet.  And this time he'd made sure the wallet had some money in it, although he'd had to make up a pretty shaggy story before the Royal Exchequer's assistant, a girl with thick glasses,  let him have some petty cash, and even then, she'd  made him  sign a receipt.   And looked at him funny.  (Though that might have been the glasses.)

No matter.  He was out of the palace, all alone and on his own, and the night was his.  Songs with lyrics about night began to play in his brain.  Even if they made no sense, they all had the word "night" in them somewhere, somewhere in between "Tonight's The Night" and "Because The Night" and "Boogie Nights" and  "Boogie Wonderland."  That last one was not entirely lyrically driven by the word "night," but it had just sort of segued from one to the other, the way songs  do in your brain.  And besides, he wasn't totally listening.  He had other things on his mind.

For instance, he wanted to get to know what his subjects did at night.  Or at least those subjects who hung out in the places that were still open at this time of night on the weekend, which were mostly bars and pool-halls and discos and nightclubs and outdoor taco-and-burrito stands and  fish-and-chips vans, and a few other places that were a good deal less reputable.  To be perfectly honest, after he'd had a few tacos and a beer or two to wash them down, it was those other places that he was thinking about investigating, the less reputable ones.  After all, once you thought about it,  it was awfully important that a truly wise king got wise to what was going on in his kingdom late at night on the weekends.  And, as we agreed at the very start, Leonard was a truly wise king.  He was feeling that way right now, in fact, there on Saturday night, all full of tacos and beer.  And wisdom.

Well, you can imagine.  It wasn't long before King Leonard the Wise had his wallet lifted.   
One minute he was ordering another round of drinks with exotic names and colorful paper umbrellas for these genuinely lovely and charming young ladies he'd encountered — all subjects of his, in fact, though he was very careful not to let them know who he really was, telling them instead that he was a simple television producer from Hollywood who happened to be in the neighborhood looking for fresh talent for a very important secret project — and the next moment, large men in tight black t-shirts were holding him upside down.   His wallet was gone, all the money that the Exchequer's assistant with the thick glasses had made him sign for was gone, all the girls with the colorful paper umbrella drinks were gone, and these large men — subjects of his, no doubt — were not doing a very good job of listening to him upside-down.   

King Leonard suddenly wished he was back home, at the palace, in bed, listening to Queen Leonora snore like a chainsaw.  Worse, even while they were holding him upside down by his ankles, he realized, among other realizations, that he was hungry again.  The tacos hadn't been anywhere near enough.  He really wished he had a meatball sandwich, at home, in bed.  At the moment, the pickles were almost beside the point.

It was then that King Leonard the Wise was miraculously transformed into King Leonard the Lucky.   Out of nowhere, out of the blue, out of the black of night, out of a door that actually led back to the kitchen, a door where he'd been having a brief smoke before going back in and supervising an almost entirely incompetent staff who were frying up all kinds of nasty little late-night dance-club snacks that would be served for an incredible mark-up, King Leonard's own Royal Chef raced up and began berating the black-shirted bouncers.  "How do think you do this with this King?"  the chef said.  "Do you hold a king downside up?  By his ankle?  By both of  his ankle?  Is this how you salute your king in this silly little stupid country?  In this silly little stupid disco?  With your bad lighting and absurd little stupid snack menu?   Pfffaahhh....."  And this last part, this last expression, was by far his most vehement statement.  And by far the most effective. Upon hearing it, the black-shirted bouncers automatically, instantaneously, simultaneously dropped King Leonard the Wise directly on his head.  Which, while it made a sort of harmonic bonging noise, definitely was far nicer than what black-shirted disco-bouncers usually do once they're holding you upside down. 

Well, it all worked out better than it might have, really.  King Leonard was so grateful to his Royal Chef that he didn't fire him for moonlighting at a disreputable clip-joint disco on the weekends.  And that really helped create a spirit of trust, and respect, and you might even say friendship between the two of them.   King Leonard, ever so much wiser than he'd been before he went to the disco late on that fateful Saturday night, learned that he was probably best off staying safely inside the walls of the palace whenever possible, and not mingling, messing around, or mixing himself into the curious affairs of his subjects, who seemed to have ways of settling their own affairs that were more direct than his own, if perhaps not always as wise.   And he and the Royal Chef developed an actual friendship of sorts, one that was based on mutual respect for their own strengths, and their own weaknesses.  Oh, it's true that once King Leonard did ask the chef, after they'd been hanging out in the kitchen one night a little too late, to share the secret to the whole four-and-twenty blackbirds staying alive in the pie recipe,  but the chef was simply too wise to tell.  Even to the King.  Even to a good friend,  Even to a good friend who happened to be his boss.  I'd tell you the secret, but I know how you are.  You'd tell.

by Bart Bull
for Tom Wolfe;  Thanks, dude. 

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Aphorism No. 84; One of Series; Collect the Whole Set!

A guideline for future CIA directors:

Torture is immoral when you do it to me.
When I do it to you, it's just fine.