Whining on Thanksgiving

The soft-dying day vines in autumn. Photograph: Alamy

The soft-dying day vines in autumn. Photograph: Alamy

For all the blah-blah-blah about how killer it is to live in Charleston, the Lowcountry of South Carolina lacks the beautiful season of autumn.   This deficiency is especially heinous to us poetical, metaphor-embracing non-haters of Obama, because autumn represents harvest, fullness, and [sigh] impending decline.

Ideally, outside our windows would blaze a burst of colorful foliage that rages against the dying of the light. You could sit there by the window and read Wallace Stevens —

Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,

Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams

And our desires. Although she strews the leaves

Of sure obliteration on our paths,

The path sick sorrow took, the many paths

Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love

Whispered a little out of tenderness,

She makes the willow shiver in the sun

For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze

Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.

She causes boys to pile new plums and pears

On disregarded plate. The maidens taste

And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.

You could look up from Stevens and out of the window and see for yourself.

photo by WLM3

photo by WLM3

Down here, though, with our loblollies, live oaks, and palms, most leaves don’t change colors, and the ones that do go immediately from green to brown. Autumn down here is like moving aging summer from your house into the nursing home, an extended decline with its good days and bad days, mostly hot and humid, or to shift metaphors, like an older person not aging gracefully, sporting lurid inappropriately tucked-in tropical shirts when tweed blazers with elbow patches are in order.

But, on a more positive note, you could argue that autumns do occur down here but are much subtler. Look closely at the marsh; without your noticing, it’s gone from green to gold, like that Japanese maple you kidnapped and planted in the front of the house. Migrating birds flap their way overhead, like a checkmark, a positive sign that things are in motion the way they should be, and let’s not forget that the impending winter will undoubtedly be mild.

photo by WLM3

photo by WLM3

No, Thanksgiving, is not a time for whining about imperfection, but a time to be grateful for what we have, a time to engorge ourselves, to watch professional football players in their glory years before the CTE sets in.

Quotes from Curmudgeons

Original Caption: W.C. Fields in typical poker face pose. Undated photograph.

Original Caption: W.C. Fields in typical poker face pose. Undated photograph.

No doubt most curmudgeons begin their careers as a high school cynics, as smart-mouthed skeptics equipped with highly sensitive antennae tuned to hypocrisy. More often male than female, these snarling scoffers tend to mock propagandists dedicated to transforming them into productive contributors to society.

Burned as idealistic children who naively believed the blandishments of their elders, they eventually begin to realize that life’s rewards and punishments can be ridiculously unjust. For example, even though Bobby copies his homework and bullies smaller kids, Santa showers him with $800 skateboards and brand name clothing; meanwhile, the rule-obeying future curmudgeon treats others kindly but ends up with a can of Play Dough and a Wal-Mart fleece.

“Yeah right,” becomes the sardonic rejoinder to uplifting quotes in the morning announcements.

But let’s face it: constant negativity is not one of Dale Carnegie’s strategies in the pursuit of winning friends and influencing people. Although the most talented high school cynics can be fairly entertaining, their shtick can get really, really old after a while.

Eventually, though, with a little luck – a good marriage helps — these young cynics can marinate over the decades into well-seasoned curmudgeons who cultivate a sense of absurdity’s humorous possibilities, rather than becoming outraged at the human tragicomedy. Life becomes not a “tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing” but a “spiritual pickle preserving the body from decay.”

So on this Thanksgiving Eve, I choose not to mock my Facebook brethren for typing “adorable” beneath photos of non-photographic babies; I choose not to mock sentimentalists for cajoling me to like and share cloying idiocies like “if you ‘heart’ your mother click like and share.”

No, instead, I’ll share, these inspiring quotes from some of my favorite curmudgeons for whom I’m especially thankful. They, by my book, truly have made the world a better place.

Jonathan Swift: “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse.”

Mark Twain: “Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.

Amboise Bierce: OBLIVION, n. Fame’s eternal dumping ground. Cold storage for high hopes. A dormitory without an alarm clock.

Oscar Wilde: “A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally.”

HL Mencken: “Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.”

Dorothy Parker: “If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”

WC Fields: “Start every day off with a smile and get it over with.”

Groucho-Marx-Duck-Soup-e1434598275998Groucho Marx: “Military justice is to justice what military music is to music.”

Lenny Bruce: “I won’t say ours was a tough school, but we had our own coroner. We used to write essays like: What I’m going to be if I grow up.”

Kurt Vonnegut: “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.”

But when it all comes down to it:

TC Boyle: I was in the water for six hours. Shivering, praying, scared full of adrenaline. I kept making deals with the Fates, with God, Neptune, whoever, thinking I’d trade places with anybody anywhere – lepers, untouchables, political prisoners, Idi Amin’s wives – anything, so long as I’d be alive.

Be thankful!

Blood-Dimmed Tides

William Cullen Bryant

William Cullen Bryant

In the misty pre-Darwinian year of 1818, William Cullen Bryant published his oft-anthologized poem “To a Waterfowl.” In the poem via apostrophe, he addresses a somewhat generic migratory bird. His vagueness in pinpointing species is probably a good idea here, because the titles “To a Duck” or “To an Egret” or “To a Wood Stork,” not only sound a bit cacophonous, but they also create concrete images that might distract from the poem’s high-minded contemplations. The image of an egret awkwardly lumbering into the air might call into question Bryant’s central message: Don’t worry; God’s in charge.

“[W]ither [. . .] dost though pursue thy solitary way?” the poet asks, addressing the waterfowl.  “Seekest thou [. . .] weedy lake [. . .] or marge of river wide” or “chafed ocean side?”

Dangers abound – “Vainly the fowler’s eye/Might mark [the waterfowl’s] distant flight to do [it] wrong.”

However, not to worry, “There is a Power/Whose care/Teaches [the waterfowl’s] way along [the] pathless coast” towards “a summer home” where it can “rest/And scream among [its] fellows.”

Bryant concludes the poem with this stanza:

He, who, from zone to zone,

Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,

In the long way that I must trace alone

Will lead my steps aright.”

Flash forward 101 years:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre,

The falcon cannot hear the falconer.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Forty-one years after the publication of Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl” and sixty years before Yeats’ composition of “The Second Coming,” Darwin published the Origin of the Species. Now, very few would buy into the concept that a micromanaging deity orchestrates the flight of migratory birds.[1]

What Darwin did was to thrust randomness and happenstance into the forefront of the scientific version of how human beings came to be human beings, which, of course, suggests that randomness and happenstance play roles in our petty lives from day to day for better or for worse.

No wonder, then, that Yeats’s poem resonates more with modern readers than does Bryant’s.

This, via, The Paris Review:

“The Second Coming” may well be the most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in English. (Perhaps Macbeth’s famous “sound and fury” monologue is a distant second.) Since Chinua Achebe cribbed Yeats’s lines for Things Fall Apart in 1958 and Joan Didion for Slouching Towards Bethlehem a decade later, dozens if not hundreds of others have followed suit, in mediums ranging from CD-ROM games to heavy-metal albums to pornography.

[. . .]

In the wake of Didion’s success, publishers have come to realize they can apply Yeats’s lines to pretty much any book that documents confusion and disarray. Thus Elyn Saks’s 2008 memoir, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, concerning her bout with schizophrenia. Though these four words from Yeats surely resonate with Saks’s feelings, the “center” in question here isn’t the moral authority of the Western world, it’s one person’s sense of stability. The trend has held for art books (David Gulden’s photography collection The Centre Cannot Hold), politics (The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies), alternate history (American Empire: The Center Cannot Hold), popular history (A Blood-Dimmed Tide: The Battle of the Bulge by the Men Who Fought It), reportage (A Blood-Dimmed Tide: Dispatches from the Middle East), religion (The Second Coming: A Pre-Mortem on Western Civilization), international affairs (Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa), right-wing moral hectoring (Slouching Toward Gomorrah), memoir (Slouching Toward Adulthood), and even humor (Slouching Towards Kalamazoo; Woody Allen’s Mere Anarchy). It seems that for every cogent allusion (Northrop Frye’s Spiritus Mundi, anyone?) there are a dozen falcons that truly can’t hear the falconer.

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats

Well, as matter of fact, the polarization of our own politics plus the utter disregard for human life of those who strap on suicide vests do suggest that “the centre cannot hold’ and “the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Virtually, every day we’re confronted with slaughter, whether it be at a bistro in Paris, a luxury hotel in Mali, or a African American church in Charleston, South Carolina.

The blood-dimmed tide has been loosed. No wonder incorporating a quote from “The Second Coming” into a title has become cliché.

[1] Of course, many still reckon that God micromanages our human existences, His making sure, for example, that Judy Birdsong’s application to her first choice graduate school was rejected so that she could meet up and marry me at USC, her second choice. (Not to mention how He later saw to it that teachers misbehaved at my present place of employment so that they would be fired to make room for me). Cf., Dabo Swinney’s “Game Plan for Life.”

Home of the Paranoid, and Land of the Constrained



We have a Thanksgiving tradition of inviting friends who can’t make it home for Turkey Day to share a meal with us at our house. When he was in graduate school studying linguistics, our younger son Ned invited colleagues whose families live abroad, and, of course, their presence made the holiday more interesting for us, and it provided them with an anthropological peek into some of our American cultural peculiarities, for example, grown men whooping and hollering and dancing around a table to celebrate a game winning interception. Nonjudgmentally, our foreign guests tolerated these absurdities with good humor.

Two years ago Ned brought with him a young woman from Syria. In pursuit of a PhD in linguistics, our guest Manar found herself cut off from her homeland, unable to return to see her parents and siblings, professional people trapped in a maelstrom not of their own making. I could only imagine the anxiety she must have suffered knowing her loved ones were trapped in a civil war in a world where bombs rain down on civilians as well as military targets. How hard it must be to concentrate on your studies when you’re bracing yourself for bad news at any moment.

Yet, except for one point when she wept in front of my wife Judy Birdsong and another female guest, Manar was vivacious, outspoken, generous, and although a Muslim, open-minded. Indeed, she’s much more open-minded than many of the xenophobic Facebook feeds I’ve seen in the days following the Paris massacre.

Of course, we can attribute much of these paradoxically un-American outbursts to fear and ignorance. Certainly, these xenophobes don’t realize that the Syrians slated to emigrate to the United States consist of families who have been thoroughly vetted, who have undergone extensive background tests conducted by various agencies and who undergo one-on-one interviews, the entire process taking 24 months according to the State Department.

Certainly, my neighbors writing to Nikki Haley demanding that no Syrians enter Dylan Roof’s home state don’t realize that only 2% of the Syrian refugees are military-aged single males. Forty percent are children, and twenty-five percent senior citizens. Less understandable is that many governors have declared they’ll be no Syrians moving into their states, even though governors lack the power to enforce such an edict. If they possessed that power, I suspect we’d have fewer Ohioans settling in the Palmetto State.

C’mon, Nikki, this isn’t the old Soviet Union where a traveller needed a visa to visit individual republics. Thank goodness, our vehicles aren’t stopped and searched at the North Carolina border when we head to Asheville. I thought we were the home of the brave and the land of the free, not the home of the paranoid and land of the constrained.

What really depresses me, though, are presidential candidates suggesting we close our national borders to Syrians, or more, liberally, to limit admission to only Christians. (Agnostics and Buddhists need not apply). Just today, Jeb Bush blamed President Obama for “creating a quagmire in Iraq” a remarkable act of chutzpah considering it was his brother (and enablers like Hillary Clinton) who created the mess in the first place by scapegoating Saddam Hussein for 9/11 and destabilizing the region by misjudging the Iraqis’ desire for freedom and democracy’s potency in a region unfamiliar with the concept. People on Facebook are actually blaming Obama for the Paris carnage. One of my Facebook friends cited Reagan as a model for the type of leader we need to fight terrorism — never mind that after 241 military personnel were killed in Beirut in 1983 when terrorists blew up their barracks, Reagan removed our soldiers from Lebanon and never launched a retaliatory attack.

Meanwhile, for the sake of making political hay, Cruz, an immigrant, has introduced a bill banning Syrians. Rubio, another immigrant, is also against thoroughly vetted families seeking to escape a repressive regime to start a new life.

Of course, all of this Islam-bashing delights ISIS. Certainly, our stigmatizing all Muslims as terrorists paints us in a bad light with the vast majority of law-abiding moderate Arabs. What would make ISIS even happier is if the West sent ground troops into the region, which is a prerequisite to their theory of the Apocalypse. However, you never hear hawks like Lindsey Graham talk about how we could finance such a massively expensive endeavor. Maybe the Koch brothers might be willing to underwrite it?

Coincidentally, I’m teaching To Kill a Mockingbird now, and today, we dropped in on the lily-white Christian ladies of Maycomb at Aunt Alexandra’s tea party, a get-together orchestrated to help the horrid living conditions of an African tribe. The irony is a bit heavy handed – innocent Tom Robinson has recently been convicted of rape and sentenced to death by an all-white jury – but I beginning to doubt our ability to appreciate irony, much less subtlety.

By the way, today our friend Manar deactivated her Facebook account.

After All



What has Ursula Hazelwood Hunt Blanton

been up to in Heaven all this time?


Shelling beans, watching soaps,

cackling among gossiping seraphs and cherubim?


I’d like to think so, along with her

sisters, Ruby and Pearl, up there

over yonder in Heaven’s Baptist wing

doing what they loved most doing

but without life’s worries

gnawing away at the back of their heads.


And what about their husbands,

where are they? Certainly, not with them,

but outside behind some cloudy bank

sneaking a drink, enjoying the fiddle music

of some winged, yodeling hillbilly gone to his reward.


Mama’s up there now as well,

maybe with daddy, his restlessness abated.

Curled up on a sofa, they smoke cigarettes

that can’t kill them, chuckling

about how, after all, it all turned out all right.

Hillbilly Heaven

Teaching Macbeth

John Downman

John Downman

In the Brit Lit high school survey course I teach, around Halloween we do Macbeth with its witches, shrieking owls, and rooky woods. I’m fortunate enough to have available a projector and stream-able copies of Orson Welles’ 1948 movie, the 1979 Trevor Nunn PBS production, and the more recent 2010 Rupert Gould Great Performances movie starring Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood. Alas, we don’t possess Polanski’s psychedelic 1971 Macbeth, but you can cop clips from YouTube. Anyway, I thought I’d share my approach as an offering to novice teachers because even though I’ve been in the business for thirty plus years, I still remember all too well not having a clue that first year as I improvised my way through my classes without a scrap of sheet music.

And believe me, brothers and sisters, I ain’t no Miles Davis, not by a long shot.

Anyway, here’s what I do.

In the 8th and 9th grades, students have read Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar, so they’re already hip to triangular plots and blank verse.

Before the first reading assignment, I offer a bit of background: The Queen is dead, James has arrived — he who has written a book on witches — and, oh yeah, Guy Fawkes has just attempted to pull a 9/11 on the British Parliament. Thanks to both our excellent history department and V for Vendetta, most of my students are hip to the 5th of November. In short, the dark clouds of the Jacobean Period have blotted out the Elizabethan sun.

To whet their appetite, on the day I assign the first reading, I show them the Polanski version of 1.1.

Of course, there’s a lot to discuss: language, paradox, the nature of evil, patriarchal views of women, dramaturgy, cinematography.

My first assignment is to read 1.1-1.4.[1]

Day 1 (45 minutes): The next day, after a reading quiz[2], perhaps over accentuating an iamb here or there, I read aloud the wounded Sergeant’s recap of Macbeth and Banquo’s battles.

Once we’re all on the same page action-wise, I mention paradoxes, a major motif. I tell them that every time I run across a paradox, I’m going to make the ah-ooh-ga submarine sound. Over the course of the play, clever students chime in with their own ah-ooh-gas, and whenever a paradox appears, I see most of the other students writing in the books (which they own).

I pick up the action with “Scene 3” “Enter Macbeth and Banquo” and ask for volunteers to read the various parts. Sometimes, I stop a reader and ask, “Can you hear the iambs marching?” I do so throughout the entire play whenever I think the meter is especially worth noting.

“The queen, my lord, is dead.”

Of course, during 1.3 the ah-ooh-gas come fast and furious.

I try to elicit via Socratic questioning the thematic implications of the twinning of “foul” and “fair.”

Then I introduce the “garment motif” and employ the sound of Parisian siren to signal when garment images occur.

I ask for new reading volunteers and have then start with [Enter Ross].

From there, I read Duncan’s “There’s no art/To find the mind’s construction in the face./He was gentleman on whom I built/An absolute trust.”

“What are the next two lines of the play?” I ask.

“Enter Macbeth,” a couple of students say. Bubble light bulbs flash over a few heads.

Their homework is to finish reading Act 1.

Day 2 (45 minutes):

The last motif I distinguish with sound effects is darkness, which is signaled by a melodramatic bum-bum-bum-BUM, the clichéd tension builder of many a bad movie.

We begin by talking about Lady Macbeth’s character, what various critics have to say, and jump to her “unsex me” speech, which I read.

I then have a female read the “Oh, never/Shall sun that morrow see” speech.

I then ask the students to reread Macbeth’s soliloquy, show them Ian McKellen’s rendition, and we dissect the soliloquy.

We end the class with a screening of Dame Judi and Sir Ian bringing the Act 1 to a close.

Assignment: read all of Act 2.

Day 3 (85 minutes)

I break the students into groups of three and have them “story board” the “Is this a dagger I see” speech. I encourage them to visualize the scene and then to create 15 to 20 panels depicting how they would choreograph the action providing quotes on the panel. Then we reconvene as a class, and the students present their visions. Here are a view examples from this year.

is this the dagger

mine eyesI have thee notThous marshellest

After the presentations, I show then Orson Welles’, Roman Polanski’s, Trevor Nunn’s, and Rupert Gould’s renditions of the scene.

We discuss.

Homework assignment; Act 3.1 – 3.3

Day 4 (45 minutes)

I have students read 2.2 aloud, and we discuss Macbeth’s and Lady Macbeth’s post-murder behavior, especially noting the dichotomy between bloody hands making “the multitudinous seas incarnadine” and a “little water” clearing them of the deed.

They’re familiar with comic relief, and I skip the Porter’s monologue and head straight into the dialogue with Macduff, pointing out that essentially it’s a “penis joke.”

(At the end of the Macbeth unit, we watch the entire Gould/Patrick Stewart film, which transforms the Porter scene into a heightening of tension as he obscenely spits out the jokes in front of Lady Macduff and her children).

We don’t spend much time on the rest of the scene, but I do highlight the irony inherit in Macbeth’s “Had I but died an hour before this chance” speech.

After the students are clear on plot info – the somewhat confusing murdering of the grooms, the flight of Malcolm and Donaldbain — we shift to Act 3.

I draw a triangle on the board with Act 3 at the apex. We use Aristotle’s term “peripetia” instead “climax,” and I ask them about the turning points of Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar. We draw rising action parallels among the R & J’s marriage, Caesar’s assassination, and Duncan’s murder.

I read the “To be thus is nothing soliloquy,” and we discuss it.



I don’t spend much time on the murderers but do point out that the canine catalogue reflects the Chain of Being concept so near and dear to the English back then.

Rather than analyzing the banquet scene, I show them Nunn’s version. I do a little stand-up, depicting the scene in modern terms using whoever is President as Macbeth (Reagan was my first victim; Hillary will be my last)[3].

Class ends with the “blood will have blood speech.”

Reading assignment Act 4.1 – 4.2

Day 5 (45 minutes): Although my students are rhythmically challenged, we attempt a hip hop reading of “double double toil and trouble.”

Despite it’s full-frontal geriatric nudity, I show them Polanski’s version and then Nunn’s.

That leaves the butchering of the Macduff family.

Day 6 (85 minutes)

While I’m critiquing rough drafts, I assign students speeches to paraphrase: Malcolm’s “I grant him bloody,” Malcolm’s “With this there grows,’ Malcolm’s “But I have none,” and Macduff’s “Fit to govern,” and Malcolm’s “Child of integrity.”

In paraphrasing, I ask students to provide 3 alternatives for every significant word, e.g., “sudden” might be rendered “impulsive, spasmodic, non-reflective.”

I hand back their rough drafts, and we look closely at the speeches.

We end the class with Ross’s entrance and the delivery of his horrid news.

Reading assignment: Read Act 5

Day 7 (45 minutes).

I show them Nunn’s rendition of 5.1 featuring Judi Dench’s blood-curdling shriekscream, certainly the greatest scream in the history of “moving pictures.’

Afterwards, I read “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,” and we analyze it as poetry. I mention nihilism, read the first paragraph of The Sound and the Fury and then show the Nunn version featuring Sir Ian.

We discuss the play in the context of tragedy, the dissolution of Macbeth as a human, the metathesis of his sinning, the moral implications.

Days 8 – 11.

We view the Gould/Stewart/Fleetwood film in its entirety, stopping the action whenever necessary for commentary. This full viewing, of course, is time-consuming, but these students face a very demanding test, and seeing the complete play performed I think is crucial.  It is, after all, great art.

Of course, if you plan using any of this, you’ll need to adjust it according to your students and schedules, and in my case, the days have not necessarily been consecutive. For example, a day of Wordly Wise vocabulary might be utilized to align an 85-minute class.

It’s up to you to pull it all together in discussion.

At any rate, keep fighting the good fight.

[1] Note, our classes meet three times a week for 45 minutes and once for 85 minutes.

[2] These reading quizzes are frequent, one for virtually every assignment.

[3] You heard it first here.

Memo to Jeb: Tips on Killing Baby Hitler

baby hitlerFirst of all, killing Embryo Hitler is verboten. It’s absolutely necessary that Mother Hitler has birthed Baby Hitler before you kill him because, as you have often noted, abortion is an abomination.

Warning: Baby Hitler is not going to be sporting that signature mustache or that off-putting hairstyle. In other words, he’s going to appear to be a sweet, innocent bundle of joy. I dare say that you won’t be able to identify him as Austrian much less as the future architect of the Holocaust. The bottom line is that killing Baby Hitler is going to be sort of like putting a pit bull puppy to death. Unless you’re a sadist, what you’re about to do is going to be very unpleasant.

I suggest offing the would-be Fuhrer shortly after his birth because newborns, despite the “beautifuls” and “adorables” you see next to their images on Facebook posts, tend to be wizened little squirming red-faced creatures that resemble very old people, whom we associate with death anyway, which makes slaying a newborn a tad bit easier, psychologically speaking, than dispatching a two-week old.

No matter the age, before ending his life, make sure to clad Baby Hitler in a miniature Nazi romper complete with swastikas. Believe me, you don’t want him sporting anything emblazoned with bunny rabbits.

Of course, the paramount question is how. Even though gassing him or strapping him in a miniature electric chair is neither cruel nor unusual given that it has been a state-sanctioned means of dispensing with our capital criminals, those methods strike us as excessive.

I suggest perhaps applying a lethal dose of cyanide to his pacifier, which again I suggest be in the form of a swastika.

But ultimately, Jeb, it’s your call.

At any rate, good luck, and God bless help the United States of America!