A Wordly Wise Wedding Feast


Kashmir Malevich's "The Wedding"

Kashmir Malevich’s “The Wedding”



Not surprisingly, Wordly Wise, the vocabulary series we use at my school, tilts big time towards those words brought over to England from France by William the Conqueror and his various cousins, i.e., words of Latinate origin. This imbalance, of course, makes perfect sense given the College Board’s predilection for polysyllabic words and that our students will be spending not an inconsiderable amount of their adult lives chattering away at upper tier cocktail parties.

Obviously, softening “cowardly” to “pusillanimous” at a St. Cecilia Ball might be judicious, especially considering the status of the target of the aspersion, and it’s not as if all failures-of-nerve are created equal. Throwing down your weapon and turning tail at the command charge is not the same as wincing your way through a racist joke without protest.

P-EN10-1211407The problem with Latinate diction, though, is that it often comes off as stuffy, to use an Anglo Saxon word, or pretentious, to use a Latinate synonym. You might even say – I’m sure someone has – that Latin appeals to the cranium/head, Anglo-Saxon to the viscera/gut.

Anyway, if you’re a new English teacher at our school, one of your many chores is to do Wordly Wise exercises, and at the beginning of a school year, if you’re an enterprising new teacher and headed from Charleston, SC, to Rhode Island to attend a friend’s wedding, you might decide to bring Wordly Wise along in your carry-on to bang out some exercises while you wait for boarding, wait during your layover at Baltimore, fly over the Northeast corridor, etc.

This scenario describes my new English colleague Emily Neilson’s weekend. Emily did bring her Wordly Wise along, she did do the exercises, but she also wrote a letter to her students describing the weekend’s adventures and in doing so used every word in Chapter 1 of the Book 8 Edition of Wordly Wise!

The piece is downright inspired, brilliant, a tour de force, yes!so I pleaded with her to let me share it with you, which she graciously has.

(By the way, if any of my former students are reading this, I encourage you mentally to circle any Wordly Wise words you come across and see if you still remember them.)

Emily, take it away:

Emily Neilson

Emily Neilson


Musings, Off-and-Onhand: Worldy Wise Essay, Edition I

Good morning, my little English ensemble, vibrant with curiosity and intellect and Joie de vivre. As I sat at the gate of the Providence Airport yesterday watching the phalanxes of folks line up to board flight after flight, I worked on my Wordly Wise homework. Yes, people, don’t ring the tocsins and become rambunctious, refractory parolees all because you have learned that teachers must also endure the tribulations of homework. It is of tertiary importance in this moment, but it is true that the Sunday Scaries are known by all — old and young, men and boys, women and girls, large and small, short and tall — what a swamp of lyrical empathy, a paregoric that should assuage us somewhat from feeling totally disconsolate. And if you do indeed set out to break the trajectory of my story, I will corral you back with the figurative lariat I own as a teacher. I am the maestro – or is it maestra? – within this classroom, this cornucopia of learning. Anyways, there I sat at the gate, oscillating between my Wordly Wise and my phone, and I thought how you might enjoy a story from my weekend, and so I began to indite right there, at gate 19, in Providence, at 11:12 am, telling you about my weekend – a meteoric one – spent in the hinterlands of New England, witnessing the nuptials of my friend.

As you might know by now, one of my favorite maxims is to “throw kindness like it is confetti.” I am equable in that belief, steadfast in my semi-dogmatic notion that kindness is the thing that helps us mortals hold up the cosmos.

I, however, also believe that sometimes kindness is not the cure-all, and sometimes situations call for more acetic approaches and attitudes. So there I was on my flight starting the descent to Baltimore early Saturday morning when I felt a rogue hand creep onto my knee. The rogue hand was attached to the man seated beside me, and I wondered, what was he thinking? That I was an effete sort of gal? That my effeminate ensemble afforded him an itinerary for his hand to explore my knee? That when I asked him earlier, “Is that seat taken?” I had intimated some wish for his hand’s current oscillations or for some clandestine maneuvers later to come? That I, a woman, rode some kind of tame, precious, subdued palfrey? No, sir! I opt for the wild mustangs roving the Staked Plains, unbridled, beneath the biggest skies, because I am one of those wild mustangs! Desist your tactile infraction! What a stupid, insipid attempt to cultivate romance! Was I disconsolate, you wonder? Would I be his collateral in the enterprise? Some kind of feminine lien that he could use and abuse and lose? Would I devolve in my integrity and sense of self? What, no! Students, listen to me: I was vibrant in my fusillade, impeaching this scoundrel for his manual traipsing. I repelled his advance; I felt refractory to every ounce of this meretricious loser. I needed my mace, either to spray in his eyeballs, making them rheumy, or to club over his head and dash out his brains like the Roman Heroes do in scenes atop ancient, marble friezes. I refrained from asphyxiating him, but my counterattack had plenty of those motifs to do the figurative trick. I might not be a professor emeritus, but I am smart enough to believe that there’s a good kind of love out there to keep me from temporizing for such airborne garbage!

I wish to spend no more time on such filth, trenchant as I may sound now, and perhaps sometime down the road we will exhume the story and laugh about it together — I assure you we won’t have to exhume him. Or will we …

What I do wish to tell you is this: that in Little Compton, Rhode Island on Saturday afternoon, a svelte bride married a svelte groom, beneath ray upon ray of light that streamed through the big windows of a white church, sitting beneath a blue sky. But that’s not right because the sky wasn’t just made of blue that Saturday, but out of sapphire, topaz, turquoise, indigo. It was the firmament of heaven, overarching everyone who has ever lived and ever will. It was made out of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen. It was made from the Big Bang which blew all those bits at the very beginning into a trajectory which would eventually lead to him and her, and to you and me. It was a regular stone transformed into a small opulence and held, tiredly, in the hand of the lapidary who had stooped for hours at his wheel, chipping and chipping away to unleash a beauty he knew possible all along. Or maybe it was in another hand, in the quivering hand of a maestro as he holds on to the last notes in their last moments before cutting all that cornucopic, symphonic sound, creating a vast, sudden, and evanescent silence.

But in the late afternoon light on a Saturday in Little Compton, Rhode Island beneath one blue, blue, blue August sky, evanescent also means this: as the minister spoke to the couple and the congregation about love’s many forms, the man standing before the altar reached out through the air, almost imperceptibly, and without taking his eyes off the minister, and sought to find the hand of the woman beside him; and she, at the very same moment and without taking her eyes off the minister and also almost imperceptibly, let go a hand from her bouquet and reached out to hold onto his.


 Photo Credit: Jessie Small

Photo Credit: Jessie Small



Schadenfreude: A Confession

Carl_Spitzweg_-_Der_arme_Poet_Neue_Pinakothek copy

Yesterday, at the school where I work, I took a prognosticative multiple-choice test formulated to determine high school students’ strengths. I’m 63, familiar with the Delphic inscription Know Thyself, so I think I can accurately say that my strengths lie in dependability and my main weaknesses in impatience and impulsiveness – “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender” as tight-assed TS Eliot put it.[1]

However, as I clicked my way through the 70-odd questions, it slowly dawned on me that I’m not a particularly compassionate person when it comes to inconveniencing myself to actually help people. Oh, I don’t mind sending a check, but if I had the choice between writing ten thousand times in longhand I’m not a compassionate person of or spending a day with Habitat for Humanity helping to build a house for the poor, I’d opt for the writer’s cramp.

In the test I took, this question came up more than once: do you like helping people? I answered sometimes virtually every time. Of course, it’s certainly gratifying rescuing a toddler caught in a riptide (which I’ve done) but not so much joining an intervention for one of your junkie relatives. The bottom line is that, no, I don’t particularly enjoy helping people if it inconveniences me, so the test was effective in that it made me realize that in reality I’m  not all that compassionate, which I sort of considered myself to be.   Sure, I enjoyed helping the guidance department test the test, but I really had no choice. It was part of my job.

As coincidence would have it, to reinforce that self-assessment, four Team USA Olympian swimmers made a bad decision down there in Rio,. Of course, virtually every bad decision is the culmination of a series of bad decisions. E.g., lying about the robbery was a bad decision, necessitated in the mind of Lochte because someone had vandalized a restroom, which was a bad decision, precipitated by staying at a disco until 5 a.m., which was a bad decision, no doubt aided-and-abetted by the consumption of torrents of intoxicants, which was a bad decision, that over-indulgence a habit arrived at early on in their hotshot days as revered student athletes and not abandoned over the course of decades, bad decisions, ad nauseam.

A truly compassionate person, the Buddhist that I used to pretend to be, would feel compassion for the swimmers. He might recall some really stupid antics committed in the throes of drunkenness from his checkered past instead of schadenfreude.

Unfortunately, what one feels is what one feels. Let the great ax fall where it may.

[1] E.g., sending an angry email at 3 a.m., dropping down the cliff face of a wave you should know you can’t handle in a hurricane swell.

The Least Fun Deadly Sin


I say enough of Trump. Certainly, there are other things we can discuss. Not only am weary of his non-stop arse-belching, I’m tired of Hillary as well, of those eye-searing monochromatic pantsuits and that smug, self-righteous oratorical head nod.

One thing I never get tired of, however, is sinning, and as serendipity would have it, I recently received via email a request from one of my devoted readers; let’s call him or her adimmesdale@hawthorne.edu. Here’s the email.

My Dear Sir, I have over the course of a rather sheltered life wondered which is second most deadly sin. I understand that pride is the most pernicious of them all because it is the sin that toppled the Father of Lies from his exalted spot among the Heavenly Host to be hurled headlong into bottomless perdition.

However, what about the second? The third? I’m inquiring for a friend but thought that the general public might benefit from your sagacity.

Most sincerely,

~A Devoted Reader

Sure thing, DR. Although, of course, theologians disagree about the order of Seven Deadly, my go-to-cat when it comes to the nature of sin is D. Alighieri, and if you were to visit his Inferno, you’d see that not only has he ordered the sins from least to most deadly, but also has provided apt punishments for each.

But, mon, that was then – the 13th Century – and this is now – the 21st. I think a better question is which sin is the least satisfying of the Seven.

Anyway, here’s Dante’s sequential list with some commentary from yours truly on each, including my assessment of which is the least satisfying and therefore the one to most avoid.


As Woody Allen once observed, the worst orgasm he ever had was “absolutely wonderful.” Sexual desire is hard-wired into us so it follows that lust is the least deadly of the sins, and that’s why in the Inferno it receives the least horrible punishment, i.e., getting pummeled and molested by hurricane-force winds as you eternally chase banners. Here you’ll find Paris and Helen, Lancelot and Guinevere, and Bill and Monica.


bill sndf monica


Again, we’re preprogrammed to wanna eat, unlike being preprogrammed to amass vintage automobiles, so gluttony ain’t all that bad. In the Inferno, you just lie around in muck and rain, though sometimes Cerberus comes around and tears at your flesh.



Here, too, [sez Dante] I  saw a nation of lost souls,
far more than were above: they strained their chests
against enormous weights, and with mad howls
rolled them at one another. Then in haste
they rolled them back, one party shouting out:
“Why do you hoard?” and the other: “Why do you waste?


I’m surprised that Dante considers being lazy worse than being greedy. The slothful share the Fifth Circle with the angry. The slothful watch the wrathful duke it out while the slothful gurgle beneath the River Styx.

The wages of lying on the sofa all day watching Turner Classic Movies!


Righteous anger can be fun sometimes, I guess, but once again, I’d rather be pigging out on some barbecue.


Aha, Dear Reader. Here’s your answer. Not only is envy, or covetousness , the second most deadly sin, it’s also in my book the least fun. Just ask Shakespeare.

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself, and curse my fate,

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,

Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least.

I’d rather be on that couch watching TV, or better yet, on that couch whispering Ovid into the pliant ear of some sweetie pie.


As you pointed out, DR, pride is the worst even though it’s the sin people most often tell you to embrace. Go figure.

Homework assignment. Place either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton into one of Dante’s circles of hell and justify the answer.



Uses and Abuses of Figurative Language, Donald Trump Edition

from left to right Chris Matthews, Hillary Clinton, Edward Snowden, Vladimir Putin, Julian Assange, Donald Trump. Anderson Cooper

from left to right Chris Matthews, Hillary Clinton, Edward Snowden, Vladimir Putin, Julian Assange, Donald Trump. Anderson Cooper


“Figures of speech are spices that add zest to language,” a tired textbook author might write.

But even though the previous sentence lazily relies on a stale metaphor, it’s still more pleasurable to read than “Figures of speech are words and phrases used in other than their literal sense, or in other than their ordinary locutions, in order to suggest a picture or image or for other special effect.’”[1]

Here’s the great American poet Richard Wilbur on the subject:


Praise in Summer

by Richard Wilbur

Obscurely yet most surely called to praise,

As summer sometimes calls us all, I said

The hills are heavens full of branching ways

Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead;

I said the trees are mines in air, I said

See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!

And then I wonder why this mad instead

Perverts our praise to uncreation, why

Such savor’s in this wrenching things awry.

Does sense so stale that it must needs derange

The world to know it? To a praiseful eye

Should it not be enough of fresh and strange

That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,

And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?

In the octave of this sonnet, Wilbur, via metaphors, reverses the natural order, turning “hills” into “sky” and “moles” into “birds” that fly/burrow over the bones beneath them. He then reverses the mirror and transforms a “tree” into a “mine” and “sparrows” into “moles.”

In the sestet, he laments that even the most miraculous aspects of nature eventually bore us, so we end up through figurative language “perverting” what should by themselves fascinate us in their natural state — things of wonder like green trees, moles, and sparrows. Oddly enough, after questioning the need for figurative language, Wilbur paradoxically ends the poem with a metaphor as “sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day” — though at least the metaphor reflects the world in its correct orientation with the sky above and the ground below.

Because, as Wilbur notes, “figures of speech “wrench things awry,” their use can lead to misunderstanding. For example, if you don’t read much poetry, you might find “Praise for Summer” baffling, if not incomprehensible.

Problems can also arise when the less perceptive among us take figurative language literally, as Donald Trump claimed last week in his controversy du semaine.

In case you’re just emerging from solitary confinement, Trump made a literal accusation about the origins of ISIS and then tried to claim, post shitstorm, that he didn’t mean what he had said literally. He then cast the folks at CNN as dullards incapable of appreciating his use of irony.

Allow me to render his accusation in verse as I might if I were quizzing my high school students.

Barack and Hillary founded ISIS,

So they are to blame for our current crisis.

Identify the figure of speech found in the couplet:

A.understatement   B. verbal irony (sarcasm)   C. synecdoche   D. hyperbole

The correct answer is D. Trump wasn’t employing sarcasm; he didn’t mean to convey that Obama and Hillary didn’t create ISIS by stating the opposite. If he meant the accusation figuratively (which I doubt), he was waxing hyperbolic – exaggerating – suggesting that Obama and Clinton’s mismanagement of foreign affairs led to the rise of the so-called Islamic State, thus making them de facto founders of ISIS. That he mocks others for not getting his sarcasm when he isn’t being sarcastic is worthy of sarcasm. Like we used to say in the 7th grade, “Smooth move, X-Lax.”

[cue Alanis Morrisette’s “Ironic”]

At any rate, you Republicans out there can surely lament that Trump lacks the verbal acuity of Ronald Reagan, who as deftly as Richard Wilbur turned language topsy-turvy, calling ICBMs “peace keepers” and taxes “revenue enhancers,” but then Reagan, who hand-wrote his own letters, was a voracious reader, which Trump obviously is not.

[1] Via Dictionary.com



A New Generation of Emojis



I don’t know about you, but I’m not a fan of emojis because they tend to downgrade your life and emotions into the two-dimensional realm of caricature.

For example, what if you posted the following on Facebook:

It saddens me to inform my friends that I’ve contracted tuberculoid leprosy and am seeking treatment at a colony in Tichilești, Romania; therefore, I will be out of commission for at least six months. Thoughts and prayers appreciated.

Chances are you’d receive a number of these signifiers,





and because sympathy is being transmitted via a cartoon, your actual plight as a recently diagnosed leper is cheapened.

On the other hand, given that tone is sometimes difficult to gauge in texts and social media, a winking emoji can mean the difference between a LOL and a FOAD.  So I’ve come up with what I consider a middle way, and I know you entrepreneurs out there in cyberspace will want to get into this enterprise at ground zero.

Let me show you what I’m talking about.  Okay, let’s start with the two text-acronyms mentioned above, LOL and FOAD.

Rather than the typical hysterically laughing cartoon sun, you could provide this image instead:








But maybe you’re not all that amused.








Or you don’t find it amusing at all.

you twit

not amused






How about this one for FOAD








My most used emoji is the irony identifying wink.

Compare this:






with this:








Okay, let’s go back to the original premise:

It saddens me to inform my friends that I’ve contracted tuberculoid leprosy and am seeking treatment at a colony in Tichilești, Romania and therefore will be out of commission for at least six months.

so sad

so sad















feeling your pain

feeling your pain






or sending thoughts

thought transmission

thought transmission







and/or prayers

joan of arc






Of course, I’m not computer wizard.  Some one with some programming skills could do a lot better, so hey, entrepreneurs, let’s get on it.

Please click, like, if you found this post helpful.





Bachelor Party at Chico Feo’s: An Anthropological Study

chico bachelor party


Last Saturday, I had the opportunity as an anthropologist to observe a late afternoon bachelor’s party at Folly Beach’s little corner of the Caribbean, Chico Feo.

By the way, bachelor parties for centuries have been traditional components of mating and marriage rituals in the West. Whether you’re bidding “farewell to bachelorhood” in Munich at a Junggesellenabschied or in Arles marking the “burial of the life of a boy” at an enterrement de vie de jeune fill, you can be assured of one commonality: the Junges and garçons are gonna get shit-faced just like the lads in Liverpool and the dudes of Malibu.


Berlin Junggesellenabschied

Berlin Junggesellenabschied

Indeed, even though it was merely four in the afternoon at Chico Feo, a few of the entourage exhibited telltale signs of intoxication — sleepy, glazed eyes; mouths that hung open; wobbly legs. The first reveler in this condition I encountered kept bumping into the vacant bar stool adjacent to me.  Charlie, Chico’s world-class bartender, informed me with a scowl that these fellows were part of a bachelor’s party. It appeared that Charlie had already cut this fellow off.

I’d estimate these young men to be from the Northeastern United States, a section of the country in which good-natured mockery seems to be an ubiquitous social custom (see Tolerating Middle Class Northerners for Dummies). The bros bantered about slinging insults, ordering beer after beer, and slurping down in one swallow Chico’s delicious tacos as if they were oysters.

Most of these young men were large in stature, and even if they weren’t, they sported over-sized biceps and an array of body art ranging from rustic gunmetal blue barbed-wire wraparounds to high-end multicolored patterns that screamed Gauguin. It seemed, though, that some had acquired their muscular upper arms a while ago because now their abs resembled not so much washboards as loads of laundry.

It was interesting to try to determine who reigned as alphas of the cartload. One “dude” particularly seemed in charge, a vociferous twenty-something who looked as if his ancestors may have entered Ellis Island from Brindisi. He had an olive completion, aquiline beak, and jet-black short-shorn hair covered by a baseball cap worn backwards. He was conversing with some female patrons, boasting of the Adonis-like beauty of one of his friends, Paul, a ridiculously good-looking and fit fellow whose sandy hair fluttered in the on-shore breeze. Paul was sitting at the bar but looking in the opposite direction at the bacchanal taking place beneath the overarching trees that provide shade for Chico’s tables and chairs.

“These chicks want you to take off your shirt, Paul,” the alpha shouted in an accent that I’d place somewhere close to Newark.

Paul sat there passively grinning.

“C’mon Paul.   Show ‘em what you got.”

The females nodded their heads, and the ringmaster shouted, “C’mon, Paul, take off your shirt. Now! Show us your tits,” and a chant began “Show us your tits, show us your tits,” to which bartender Charlie, the real alpha, put an immediate stop. The ringleader opened his mouth and raised his arm as if he were going to continue, but Charlie’s stare short-circuited the bravado, and the erstwhile alpha dropped his hand and benignly smiled what I would call (removing my pith helmet of anthropological professionalism for a second) a stupid, shit-eating grin.

“Hey, which one’s getting married?” I asked Charlie.

“I don’t care,” he said shaking his head.

Unlike Dian Fossey or Jane Goodall, I didn’t ingratiate myself my this cartload[1] of not-so-fun-folks to follow them to their next destination, the Tides Hotel where they were wisely staying, eliminating even the need of Uber for their locomotion. However, I suspect that before the evening came to its inevitable end, these celebrants would witness some form of burlesque for hire, i.e., a stripper performing that age-old ritual.

I’ll leave you with this from Wikipedia:

In Israel, the bachelor party is called מסיבת רווקים. Such parties often feature heavy drinking and sometimes the presence of strippers.

Israeli מסיבת רווקים

Israeli מסיבת רווקים

We have so much in common with each other. Why can’t we seem to get along?

Did you know you call a group of chimps a “cartload?” It’s a troop of gorillas and baboons, a barrel of monkeys, but a cartload of chimps. Go figure.

Overcoming Writer’s Block/ Avoiding Suicide

painting by Rigney

painting by Rigney

There’s nothing worse than writer’s block. Okay, maybe famine, genocide, or a Mensa mixer is worse.

Ever been to a Mensa mixer?

Imagine it.  The space — a Quality Inn banquet room? Something more upscale? A Hyatt?

Tables, carpet patterns, windows, drapery, caterers.

Characters? Base them on people you know. One of your old high school teachers, an aging history droner with badly dyed hair (you choose the color).

Mix and unmatch outfits.

Add a recent widow with helmet-like hair and a nasal Midwestern accent, a brayer when amused.

You, the protagonist, a lonely man or woman who has joined out of desperation. There’s someone there you sort of dig, maybe.  Make him or her up yourself. Have your would-be love interest constantly checking a Tinder feed.

Or not.

It’s all up to you because I’m not going to write that short story. Writing fiction is too damned demanding.

Crucial Tip #1: One of the most effective ways to overcome writer’s block os to quit writing.


* * *

If you’re a poet and stuck, you can always come up with an image and start from there, whether it’s a memory from childhood, your alcoholic father snoring on a sofa at four PM on a Saturday, his hairy over-abundant stomach exposed beneath a too-small wifebeater, the stomach inflating and deflating while a college football game blares from the TV.

Or a tropically bright painted bunting with nervous eyes doing reconnaissance. He darts out of a thicket as he cops drops trickling from the so-called waterfall in an aquatic garden in your back yard. He flits back, disappearing into shadows.

Cf. Wordsworth and Dickinson.

water garden

Coming up with ideas for poems isn’t that taxing, but writing a good poem is almost impossible, and there’s absolutely no money in it.  Plus poets tend to commit suicide with such abnormally high rates that actuaries prefer to insure wingsuit fliers over sonneteers.

Crucial Tip # 2: One of the most effective ways to overcome writer’s block is to give up writing poetry. (It just very well could save your life).

Dead Suicide Poets Society

Dead Suicide Poets Society

* * *

Therefore, if you’re one of these self-indulgent people who must write, I suggest non-fiction, and it would seem there’s so much to write about – the homeless, McMansions, the state of the spray-on tan industry, the Death of God/the Republican Party, the history of Mensa/the fallibility inherent in IQ testing, sleep apnea, the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the evolution of intimate apparel, the problem of writing block and how to overcome it.