I admire those people in this period of suspended animation who have their chins up and memes cued-up. After all, there’s little else a non-billionaire can substantially do as the economy itself is rolled into ICU, except to try to make the best of a bad situation.
It’s not bad to channel ol’ Norman Vincent and to tell yourself positive thinking is, well, positive. Look at all the time you have on your hands to start that herb garden, learn French or German or Sanskrit, read those classics you claimed you’d tackle after retirement.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns.
Me, on the other hand, I’m spending this gorgeous spring morning trying to pinpoint the perfect word to describe my present misery.
Let’s go alphabetically.
Angst. This word, of course, German, a language especially suited to embody dread in sound, and in, fact, can make pleasant situations sound somewhat dreadful with its “harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.”
For example, “Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!” is usually translated as “Sleep in heavenly peace.”
But I digress. Angst means fear in German, but in English that fear is more generalized. It’s not as if you’re afraid of that night shriek outside your pup tent but fear that life is merely a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Angst is stronger than anxiety, which for most people is a temporary discomfort rather than an entrenched world view.
So, no, it’s not angst I suffer from, nor anxiety either, now that my son Ned has almost fully recovered from his bout with the novel coronavirus or the Covid-19 virus or the Coriolanus virus or whatever you call it.
Ennui. When I taught English, “ennui” appeared in three of the four high school editions of our Wordly Wise workbook. The editors defined it as “boredom,” but once again, it’s more generalized than mere tedium. It connotes a world weariness rather than a momentary I-wish-I-were-somewhere-else, expressed so well by soon-to-be suicide John Berryman’s “Dream Song 14”:
Peoples (sic) bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles,
who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
So, no, I’m not suffering from ennui.
Weltschmerz. This German world means “world pain” and so correlates with ennui but connotes more pain and sadness. So, no, that’s not it.
Well, what is it then? Coopedinsocialestrangement. That’s what I’m suffering from. Coopedinsocialestrangement.
I’m enjoying my bike rides with Caroline and Brooks, the uncrowded beach a quarter of a mile away, the movies we’ve seen, but I also miss my drinking buddies, Ellis and Bob, my beloved bartenders Jen and Rochelle and Solly and Sydney, my man Jeremy down at Lowlife Bar.
So instead I’ve been hanging out with Elmore Leonard and his crowd of criminals, cops, and cool black dudes. Still, it’s not the same. I guess the good news is that unlike angst, ennui, or weltschmerz, you can eventually get over Coopedinsocialestrangement without undergoing a religious conversion.
 Pro writing tip: avoid rhyming prose.
As when an old film jumps in the projector,
You will be wading a dun hallway, rounding
A newel . . .
Richard Wilbur : “Walking to Sleep”
The tick tock clanging of a mail slot
is followed by a thud. At this ungodly hour?
A typewriter-written invitation lies at your feet.
The Insomniac’s Ball. Wednesday morning, one to five,
entertainment provided by Stan Kenton’s Big Band
reproduced mono on hi-fi. Regrets Only.
How do they know that you are one of them,
whoever they are? How do they know that at three a.m.
you tend to be tapping out trochees on a headboard?
The building isn’t as nice as you’d hoped. You rise to the third floor
caged in an elevator, the only passenger. The hall’s
somewhat seedy, the carpet worn, its roses faded.
You have been given the coded knock. The first six notes of the 2nd movement
of Beethoven’s Ninth. KNOCK knock, KNOCK knock, KNOCK knock.
The creaking door opening sounds like Bela Lugosi’s coffin
as your eyes adjust to a mazelike apartment, crowded but eerily quiet.
The Stan Kenton LP is scratched, the other guests preoccupied,
unfriendly, drifting through the rented rooms.
You peek through a door down the hall
and meet the stare of your dead grandfather,
the one whose room you used to tiptoe past,
a medicinal darkness reeking
of the Great Depression. As you escape, his memories
trail you like a shadow down the hall darkening
the passing stream of old folks, great aunts and former teachers,
rouged and wrinkled, mumbling to themselves,
some in bedroom slippers, others in stilettos.
The library’s quite impressive. A ladder runs along a rail
to reach the volumes way over your head: a textbook
in Sanskrit on Chinese mathematics you must master
to pass that class you’ve completely forgotten about!
a course you need for graduation!
You climb to the top reaching, but then look down
dizzyingly into a snakepit, concentric circles
spiraling with antlike companions from your youth,
descending, swirling, like bloody water down a drain . . .
There is a shrine for your departed lovers. On display
the beds where you once slept preserve the imprint of bodies.
Perhaps a long golden hair lies on the dented pillow,
but you’re not allowed to go beyond the red velvet ropes.
Where are they now – you wonder – what are they doing,
are they even alive, were they ever alive? You’re so
sleepy anything seems possible –
slants of light, cathedral tunes, leaden feet, riveted lips.
Couples waltz by mouthing one-two-three; one-two-three; one-two-three.
The oncoming day stretches out like a desert,
like the Bataan Death March, like life plus forty.
Thoughts of daytime responsibilities start to ricochet like billiard balls
without transition cold sheets, institutional whiteness, the ICU –
physicians and nurses whispering about your condition:
BEEP beep, BEEP beep, BEEP beep . . .
You ride the rented hearse of sleep home
to twisted sheets, to creeping light, to the bedside’s time bomb’s
tick tock tick tock tick
Here’s a kickass poem by a friend of mine, Jason Chambers, a cat who every morning clambers out of bed in the dark to encounter the dawn in a marsh or on a beach or some other natural setting unsullied by humankind. Afterwards, he posts a photo on Facebook, an appropriate quote from his wide reading, and usually a link to a song he deems appropriate. Once the plague is done, you can catch him at the Pour House when it hosts one of its poetry readings.
A poem by Jason Chambers, read by Wesley Moore
In the first month of this year
I saw a thing as pure and true as any
but did not then know what it meant.
I stood behind the Kings on the deck,
and though I could not see it,
Liz knew without looking that
Brian’s head hung for a
moment just a little too heavy,
his shoulders had dropped, just so,
wounded by the world in
some invisible way.
She reached her arm up and
around him to squeeze for a
moment one shoulder, just so,
and let her head fall on the other.
Four months later our neighbors
up the creek shoot day and night
at paper silhouettes on which they
can never quite find their fear.
The report hangs over the water
like a foretaste of despair,
and we are all the time being
urged to temper our hopes,
to be realistic, and practical.
But I have met enough dogs,
low, shimmying, tail-waggers,
squirming back-layers, and
all manner of face-lickers, to
know there is no upper limit
to bliss, and the line between
heaven and earth was never there,
and I ignore their advice.
Finally it is clear why God,
however perfect, chose not
to exist alone for even
one whole second.
Listen: everywhere musicians
sit in empty rooms yet play
and sing to thousands.
And my friend is for the first time
planting every inch of his farm,
the low field, the far field,
even the wet field.
He says, I’m going right up
to the house.
Whatever else happens,
we will all eat.
When Liz let go, they both stood
up straight, taller than before,
determined as only those
deeply in love can be.
We start from a place of joy,
and quiet astonishment.
We do not end anywhere.
We do not end at all.
Now is the barefoot season.
It cannot be taken away.
In Germany, where my younger son Ned has been suffering from the coronavirus for nine days, Chancellor Angela Merkel has “barred groups of more than two people from gathering” and has herself gone into isolation after learning her doctor had tested positive. Ned, who is fluent in German, listened intently to a speech she gave a few days ago on how her government planned to combat the contagion.
He described her as calm, straightforward — a well-educated, unemotional, yet empathetic grandmother telling her brood that matters were serious, the greatest challenge the country had faced since reunification, but that by coming together and following her advice that they would overcome the disease.
Ned said that he felt fortunate to be living, as he put it, “in a first world country.” He might have added in a country not so horribly polarized by political divisions. Although I voted against Ronald Regan twice, I think he’d be an excellent spokesman in a time like this because he possessed a sort of serene confidence. He did not require a coterie of toadies to preface their technical expertise with praise for his unmatched leadership. He would not have lied in ways that could be so easily refuted, nor make statements like “the world has never seen anything like this before.” He would have projected a calming presence and have reassured the populace.
I’m not going into what might have been done differently to mitigate the virus’s rapid spread here in the States. I’m pleased to see a sort of a sort of un-self-pitying camaraderie developing, virtual get togethers, musicians performing virtual concerts. We’re all in the same boat, more or less, stuck at home with worries galore, but it’s not like we’re in London during the Blitz. Nevertheless, war is an apt metaphor, and we all certainly owe much gratitude to the men and women on the front lines, the health care workers who are battling this pernicious disease.
Today, Ned says he feels much better, that his breathing is almost back to normal. He and his housemates are making the best of a bad situation. Here’s a photo of a Corona Cake they made for a birthday party they couldn’t go to, and it ended up that the birthday boy or girl only had three rolls left.
I’m not much of a silver-lining sort of person, but at the very least, this experience should remind us not to take life for granted, and while forced to forego televised sports, we now have a chance to notice the “birds in the trees/ — those dying generations — at their song.”
 In the mid-14th century, the bubonic plague killed ~20 million people, roughly a third of Europe’s population.
Glad I was when I reached the other bank,
a love of freedom rarely felt.
Man to be poor, man to be prodigal,
the half-man searching for an ever-fleeing other half,
and the countryside not caring,
a shadow of cloud on the stream.
A cento, sometimes referred to as a “collage poem,” consists of lines from other poems cut out and reassembled.
Poems sampled Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” Michael Field’s “O Eros of the mountains, of the earth,” AK Ramanujan’s, “Elements of Composition,” Philip Larkin’s “MCMVI,” Yeats’s “Easter 1916”
Note: Michael Field was the pseudonym of Katharine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper, pictured below.
Of course, whenever there’s a celebration on Folly Beach, I shed the fedora and don my pith helmet to study the folkways of the island’s men and women, whether they be our ancient, reptilian residents who seem to make up the majority of the population; the younger year-round renters who often work in the food and beverage industry; the bourgeois house-renting vacationers; or the daytrippers, which include surfer dudes and dudettes, but mostly consist of young people eager to ditch their sobriety. The question arose: what type of person (besides intrepid anthropologists) seeks out crowds during a pandemic?
I began my foray early, keeping at least six feet away from those as foolhardy to brave the great outdoors as I walked to Center Street via the beach. The strand itself was wind-swept, and the few cloud-bathers who braved the beach had placed their chairs and blankets on the leeward side of the concrete groins where they huddled and shivered. Most of the other beach strollers consisted of dog worshipers, who barely outnumber the host of young females who have chosen The Edge of America as the destination for their bachelorette parties.
Over the course of the day, I counted six different groups engaged in celebrating the waning days of some betrothed female’s singledom. Depending on the socio-economic situation, the attire of the ladies ranges from civvies to tee-shirts printed for the occasion. Although anthropologists are not supposed to let ethnocentric emotions like pity come into play, I felt sort of sorry for these chilly, less-than-festive seeming young women in short sleeves hugging themselves. Who can blame them, having planned the events months ago not knowing it was going to be a Masque-of-the-Red Death weekend?
Indeed, the numbers of revelers who decided to come out was scant. It was like, as Caroline noted, living in Charleston thirty years ago when parking spaces were plentiful and sidewalks easily traversed. I began and ended my fieldwork at Chico Feo with brief stops at the rooftop of Snapper Jack’s, St. James Island Pub, and the Sand Dollar Social Club (cash only). Here’s a virtual visit for my social-distancing readers.
On a typical St Patrick’s Saturday on Folly, these venues would have been packed to, as they say, the gills.
 The overall median age of Folly residents is 49.7 years, 43.7 years for males, and 58.4 years for females.