Total Eclipse of the Sun, Thales Edition

By far my most boring class ever dealt with pre-Socratic philosophers. The problem was not with the subject matter. Who doesn’t want to drop the adjective Heraclitean at a cocktail party? The problem lay in the presentation, a droning seated lecturer who never raised his eyes from his notes to discern that his audience wasn’t a collection of 19th century Oxford dons.

I did learn a few facts, though. Heraclitus correctly surmised that things were constantly in flux, Democritus developed an atomic theory of the universe, and Thales correctly predicted a solar eclipse circa 585 BCE.

Even back then, this prediction thrilled me with an appreciation for human ingenuity. How many hours, days, years, and decades of sky-observation did it take Thales to come up with this prediction? We’re talking with the naked eye in a slide-ruler-less world. Did he, as the Savoy Brown song says, “Sleep with the sun and rise with the moon?” He must have, had to.

Anyway, I raise my eclipse eve morning blood mary to Thales, to Heraclitus, Pythagoras, and to my professor who, despite his dry approach, devoted his life to scholarship rather than hedonism.

Thales

 

 

A Brief Model for High School Behavioral Expectations

Not surprisingly, I had no idea what I was doing when I started teaching high school 32 years ago.  I had taught at college, where I began the first day of class asking students to introduce themselves.  When I tried this technique with my first class of high school seniors, their immaturity was a revelation.  Even though I’d had an acquaintance their age killed in Nam, for the most part, these weren’t men and women I was dealing with but children seeking attention.

A couple of years later, I taught my first AP class, and the students were so negative to each other that after a couple of weeks no one commented on anything for fear of receiving a sniper wound.  When my supervisor came to visit the class, I literally started tap-dancing as a pleading ploy to get one of the students to say something, anything, even if it were wrong.

The next year, I prepared a document clearly stating my expectations, and I’ve continued to refine it each and every year.  If you’re a new teacher, I encourage you to come up with one of your own.  To offer an example, here’s the first page of the four page document I will give to each student next Tuesday.

Behavioral Expectations

We should strive to create a community of compassion, respect, openness, and seriousness of purpose in our classroom. Paradoxically, seriousness of purpose will make the class more pleasurable because we’ll learn more, and the more knowledge we acquire, the better we understand the world, and the better we understand the world, the more interesting it becomes. Developing into an excellent writer – one who can vividly and economically express ideas and images – is an enormously valuable skill in an increasingly sub-literate culture, a skill that gives you an advantage in every arena of professional life.

Here are some general guidelines. When you enter the classroom, please be on time and turn off your cell phones and place them in the basket provided. Once class begins, do not open your laptops unless I instruct you to do so. I have provided a seating chart for each class and expect you to sit in your assigned seat. Eating and drinking in the classroom are forbidden, and I, too, will adhere to that stricture.   Although I realize that Gandhi usually wore a loincloth and that Hermann Goebbels never had a hair out of place,[1] I enforce the dress code. I, myself, would rather not wear a tie; however, in the grand scheme of things, it’s certainly not important – especially compared with the privilege to teach at Porter-Gaud. By signing my contract, I have agreed to follow and enforce the rules of Porter-Gaud. If you have signed the handbook, then you have agreed to follow the rules as well. If I considered having my shirttail tucked in a grievous violation of my civil rights, I would go to another school where it is allowed.

Because much of the class is discussion, it is extremely important that we treat each member of our community with respect, even when we disagree with his ideas. Sarcasm is a particularly pernicious slayer of camaraderie and must be avoided.[2] Ultimately, we should never do or say anything that might hurt someone else’s feelings, whether it be rolling our eyes or making snide comments. This way of taking care not to hurt others I call the Bodhisattva Ideal.

To summarize, the very best classes are collaborative endeavors in which students and faculty work together to teach each other. This ideal is impossible unless each individual respects his brother and sister. Therefore, the most important rule of Room 207 is the Bodhisattva Ideal – that we will strive to be kind to each other, to respect each other, to have empathy for each other.

This classroom is a safe haven in which individuals can express their ideas, no matter how unpopular – except in the case of bigotry, whether it be racial, religious, or sexual. Bigotry is anathema to our Mission Statement and won’t be tolerated. Nor will it be in college. Bigoted statements on social media have ended many a collegiate career. Avoid it like crystal meth.

People make impressions about you according to your actions and demeanor. One day soon you will need to ask someone to write you a recommendation for college, and not only will kindness make you a happier person, but being kind to others is in your own self-interest.


[1] Ed Burrows in conversation.

[2] By the way, irony is not necessarily sarcastic. If I say, “lovely day” during a downpour, I’m being ironic. If Bennington slips entering the room and falls to the floor, and Andrea starting clapping and shouting “I give that a ten on style points,” she’s being sarcastic.

Poor Boy, Long Way from Home

 

from left to right, Charlie, I-and-I, Concha

I said “Listen brother poor boy
Don’t be worry crime
Somebody, somebody, somewhere”

Jeff Buckley version of Bukka White’s “Poor Boy Long Way from Home”


Wish I could say I taught Charlie Geer, but I can’t. I worked with him on the school magazine, but that’s about it. We’re talking mid-80’s when my boys were in diapers, and Charlie was like an undersized Atlas hauling around the sins of the South, [warning: trying to visualize this salad of mixed metaphors could trigger an acid flashback] spiking the cauldron of his tragic vision with vitriol, developing a brilliant sense of humor to ward away the absurdities of Charleston, which he was later to bring to life in his very underappreciated novel Outbound.[1]

In his early years, Charlie dabbled in various trades and professions: worked as a country schoolteacher, a circus roustabout, a carpenter, an orchard keeper, a shrimper, a college professor. Like his work, his friendships span a democratic demographic that extends from members of the St. Cecilia Society to patrons of Florida juke joints. Now he lives in Andalusia with his beautiful wife Concha, so I only get to see them in August when they come to Charleston to visit Charlie’s relatives. It’s interesting how age democratizes relationships. I consider Charlie my contemporary, and I suspect he feels the same about me.

We brothers now.

In between essays and a memoir he’s working on, Charlie has created a character called Henry Heppleworth, whom I wrote about here in October of 2016. Henry came to being after Charlie read WJ Cash’s The Mind of the South.[2] You wouldn’t call Henry, a Trump supporter, deplorable, no not at all. In fact, I find him sympathetic. Henry, like Charlie, is a sensitive soul, who laces his dialogues with “durns” instead of “damns.” And over the course of his ten-month existence, Henry is developing, become more human.  Cracks are forming in the foundation of his ideology.

With Charlie’s permission, I’m sharing three of the videos here so you can sort of chart Henry’s progress. I encourage you to hop on YouTube and check them out. If you do, you’ll get to meet Concha as well.

Okay, here’s the very first one, Henry’s background story.

Poor boy, long way from home. He takes up his guitar.

Of course, there’s obvious irony here. Henry is an immigrant-hating immigrant. In Spain, he’s living in a much more socialistic society, which, of course, is the bane of the rural Trump voter who relies on the emergency room for his wellness plan and despises them inheritance taxes them 1%ers suffer.

After his meeting a nice lady at a festival, you can detect a shift in Henry’s perspective. And in his most recent video, you can tell it’s starting to dawn on him, it’s bullshit. It’s a sort of a sigh of a song/poem. A tragic vision tempered with humor, for sure.

Henry deserves more exposure, y’all. Click away.


[1] Do yourself a favor and hit the link and check out the video on Charlie’s Amazon page.

[2] It’s a goddamned classic.

Positive Vibrations

 

Jah foot soldier circa 1982

It was the summer of ’76 when I first heard the effervescent syncopation of a Bob Marley recording:

Pop-a-top-a, pop-a-top-a, irie ites, whoa whoa.

Wit dat proto-Gullah Belafonte tone to it, mon. Wit dat religious reverberation, mon. Lyrics conflating African slave descendants’ displacement in Kingston with the biblical Babylonian captivity.  A revelation.

     The sun shall not smite I by day

     Nor the moon by night.

This mythic element provided a depth rarely encountered in pop music, which usually traffics in blooming young love or sexual swagger or the pitter patter of tear drops.  Check out these lyrics by the Melodians from the soundtrack of Jimmie Cliffs’ movie The Harder They Fall:

 

For the wicked

Carried us away captivity

    Required from us a song

    Now how can we sing King Alpha song in a strange land?

“Psalm 137” in a percolator.

I listened to a lot of reggae and ska that year and actually made it down to Jamaica a couple of times careening in a rented car along winding roads in the left lane with the car radio blasting calypso, ska, and reggae.  At Beverly’s, the record store in Mo Bay, you took LPs out of their sleeves and test ran them on a turntable before you plopped down your Jamaica currency for a Yellowman or U Roy disc.

photo by Wesley Moore (note punching discs at Volcano records was not a precise science)

At Rick’s Cafe before it got all touristy you’d see dread-locked natives who looked as if they’d been carved out of ebony hit on spliffs the size of Louisville sluggers.

Judy Birdsong all alone at Rick’s Cafe

Hertz car-rental clerks in the airport trying to sell you ganja.

Women carrying baskets of fruit on their heads trying to sell you ganja.

House bands trying to sell you ganja.

Hitchhiking entrepreneurs lean forward from the back seat offering to take you to see their plants with  “buds as big as your fist, mon”  while you skim past wrecked cars abandoned on the side of the road.  You round a bend that suddenly opens to a glinting expanse of turquoise that looks as if it just might be pirate-infested. Up ahead coming in the opposite direction a barreling Opel almost clips your right side rearview mirror.

Exotica fueled adrenaline.

And, yes, Babylon, too.

In Negril, next to the funky Sundowner Hotel where Judy Birdsong and I stayed stretched the protective barricades of Hedonism II behind which, as rumor had it, a clothing optional beach offered unlimited daiquiris and nude limbo contests.  Having paid for everything up front, these people generally stayed inside of their little compound getting to know each other while JB and I would hit the local dance hall for the two-to-six super mix dance contest.  Back then, Jamaican dancers didn’t move their feet but sort of undulated to the rub-a-dub sounds percolating from ragged PA systems.

On road trips you could buy Red Stripe beer from shanty stores just a little larger than a Port-o-let.  Lightening crackled overhead along the crests of mountains.  We were, as David Bowie put it, young Americans, young Americans, young Americans (singing in our chains like the sea).

Years later, when I found out that Bob Marley was a goner, I suffered a Don McLean-like “Bye Bye American Pie”  Buddy Holly-less-ness.  Eventually the novelty waned, and reggae faded from my own speakers as I returned to  Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the Boss, Warren Zevon, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Lester Young, and Muddy Waters.

Yet, even today, whenever I hear Reggae, my mood brightens  No matter what the singer’s chronicling – the government yard in Trench Town, a Concrete Jungle, 400 years of slavery, or Johnny Too Bad – there’s that positive vibration bubbling beneath the pain and suffering.

 

The Death of the First Summer of Act 3

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise.

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”


Now that I’m not hanging in the Social Security office or at the estate law offices of Kuhn and Kuhn (whom I robustly recommend) or the Charleston County RMC office, I have in the last couple of weeks been able to revert to being a simple beach bum.

It’s the life of Jimmy Buffett, sans the Hawaiian shirts – it’s sandy, gritty, humid, free.

Had a great weekend just past. Gave my first surf lesson in four years on Saturday and spent part of the Sabbath promenading Walt-Whitman style up and down Center Street where I bantered with a twangy husband and wife with matching calf tattoos.

Saturday evening as I was leaving Mosquito Beach, an old black man with a walking stick stopped me, climbed onto the hood of my car and lay spread eagle with his back against the windshield.

After maybe ten seconds, he hopped off laughing.

Once on his feet, he performed the old-fashioned roll-down-the-window cranking pantomime and welcomed my companion and me with a friendly greeting laced with f-words. He was happy; we were happy.

The night was just getting started. Fun ahoy!

But now, just when the summer has become like a sort of typical summer for me (i.e., not teeming with post-mortem to-dos), it’s time to stick a fork in it. Next Thursday, I need to show up not-hungover at my school and begin my 32nd year of striking through linking verbs and offering alternate phraseology. Pontificating about the great linguistic blessing of William’s kicking Harold’s ass at Hastings. Tapping talkers in chapel on the shoulder to shut them up.

Anyway, this, my last week, I’m going to embrace it, to rage, rage against the dying of the reggae riff.

Chico Feo on a December Saturday

Around four today, I went down to Chico Feo with my 9th graders’ summer reading book and annotating pen in hand. A loudmouthed young man (i.e., early forties) smoking a cigar at the bar asked if there were any other “hidden gems” around the beach. Greg, the bartender, said, “We generally don’t like plugging the competition.”

But then Greg caved and mentioned the Jack of Cups, adding, “It’s not really hidden though.”

The cigar-chomper started talking about how cheap everything was down here compared to Ohio — even downtown Charleston in the touristy places — and just when I was getting ready to reposition myself out of earshot, Jeremy, one of the cooks, sat down beside me.

Unfortunately, you don’t get to know the cooks at Chico Feo as well as the bartenders because, duh, they’re in the kitchen rassling up Mahi tacos or a noodle bowl or a batch of curried goat.

I’d talked to Jeremy before a few times on slow nights and knew he was from Louisiana. I told him I was headed to New Orleans in early September, and he said that he’d just gotten back from there yesterday. He and his extended family had spent ten days on the southern coast fishing, eating, and drinking beer. He said that the youngest of that clan were teenagers and one of his parents had chided him for using foul language in front of them. “I try to use polite language when I’m in polite company,” he said, “but I’m never in polite company,”

We had a wide-ranging conversation in which I discovered Jeremy has a way with words, a sharp wit. He had a roll of blue tape with him, and I asked him what it was for, and he said, “labeling things in the kitchen.” He said he had been looking for the tape all day. “That’s why I like living alone,” he said, “because I know where everything is.” This reminded me that in my recent widowerhood, I had developed an incredibly efficient way to load the dishwasher.

Me: Do you have a dishwasher?

Jeremy: No, I don’t have any dishes.

We started about talking about New Orleans, and he asked me if there was anything specific I was going to do, and I said I was definitely going to hit the Rock and Bowl, which, as it turns out, was one of his favorite high school hangouts because back then the drinking age was 18, he was tall, and never carded.

“Tell me about a cool spot I should go?” (asking like the Ohioan for the inside scoop on hidden gems).

“Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge.”

Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club

I’ll leave you with one last of his witticisms. Greg was emptying ashtrays with a pair of vice grips, and I said, “Man is a toolmaker, a user of tools.”

Jeremy said, “or just a tool.”

So with that, I bid this Monday a fond farewell, will saunter downstairs (saunter’s a stupid verb, by the way) and have a chat with John Jameson.

The Swashbuckling Syphilitic and the Jolly Drill Sergeant

 

blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein

 

The swashbuckling syphilitic looks a little like

a walrus with that mustache of his.

 

The jolly drill sergeant is, of course, clean-shaven,

close-cropped, and he barks his orders like a ramrod ringmaster.

“Step right up and burnish that brass!”

 

The swashbuckling syphilitic and the jolly drill sergeant

don’t see eye-to-eye. “God is dead,” cries the former.

“I must have missed the obituary,” chuckles the latter.

 

“Gaze into the abyss,” intones the syphilitic,

“but don’t lean too far over,” warns the drill sergeant.

 

“Whoever does not have a good father . . . ”

“What’s done is done.”

 

The jolly drill sergeant

Puts his hand on the syphilitic’s shoulder.

 

“Enough of this nonsense.

The Shnapps’s on me.”

 

“Alcohol, like Christianity, intoxicates!”

“Okay, okay, forget it,” says the jolly drill sergeant.

 

And so they go their separate ways,

neither one the wiser.

Cool Runnings, Island Breezes

the porch at Island Breeze

When I was a kid, Channel 5, Charleston’s CBS affiliate, broadcast a locally produced American Bandstand-like dance show called Jump Time. Hosted by (I think) Big Bob Nichols, the show featured local African American teens dancing to the magnificent R&B and soul hits of the mid-60s. I tuned in religiously, and in between numbers, Big Bob (or whoever it was) would catalogue upcoming events in the exaggerated smoothness of his on-air radio voice. One of the most frequently mentioned party sites was Mosquito Beach.

Back then Folly was off limits for blacks, so they came up with their alternative. When I was watching Jump Time, I’d conjure images of a strand with a pavilion swarming with dancers listening to the likes of Rufus Thomas live. The name, Mosquito Beach, enhanced the air of mystery, its negative connotation for me reversed the way African American argot tends to flip negative denotations and turn them positive, like funky connoting not the odor of mullet-gone-bad but the syncopated riffs of Jimmy Nolan chopping away at “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”

Mosquito Beach back in the day (courtesy of the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History an Culture)

Truth is ain’t no ocean at Mosquito Beach, though it does front a gorgeous Lowcountry marshscape. Unfortunately, over the years, the beach became rather notorious for black-on-black violence and developed the reputation of being a place where white people weren’t welcome.

I have a pal who owns the funkiest spot on Folly, Chico-Feo. Hank had mentioned before that he used to hang out at this black roadhouse on Folly Road called Phas 2. I asked him if he’d ever been to Mosquito Beach, and he said sure. He offered to take me out there to introduce to Norman and Nora, owners of the Island Breeze, a kickass cool bar/restaurant with a huge backyard that boasts a covered stage.

I’m the kind who doesn’t like to share. I didn’t dig it when loudmouth attendants of a destination wedding party showed up at Chico, and I’m very leery of getting the word out about the Island Breeze. Like most natives of this area, I like things to remain the same. Heading down Sol Legare Road to get to Mosquito Beach is like driving through a time warp and entering the 60’s, like driving into a Jonathan Green painting. I’d really, really hate to see it ever “developed” by Charleston real estate magnates.  I’d hate to see Island Breeze overrun with tourists.

On the other hand, keeping the Island Breeze a secret borders on Scrooge-like selfishness.

Here’s yesterday’s menu. You see those prices?

Here’s what the finished product looks like.

It’s delicious!

Norman, who hails from Ocho Rios, and Norma, a James Island native, are as nice and welcoming as they can be. You got rub-a-dub reggae pulsating from the speakers, a pool table, a porch, inside dining, and very comfortable bar stools. So if you’re reading this in Charleston, you really ought to check it out. Tell Norman or Nora the Teecha with the hat sent you.