Ask Jean Paul: Sage Advice from a Sage

ask jean paulpsd

Dear Jean-Paul:

I don’t know why, maybe I’ve been cursed by a malevolent god or something, but every time I get in a line at a supermarket, it always ends up being the slowest line, no matter what. There can be a line like with 6 people in it and a line with 2 people in it, and if I get in the shorter line, invariably there will be a price check or the customer will pay with rolls of pennies, and sure enough, all the people in the long line, plus newcomers, get served before I do.

Any insights? Suggestions?  It’s driving bat-shit crazy.

Seething in Winton-Salem

Dear Seething,

Grow your own vegetables, raise your own livestock.  


Dear Jean-Paul:

My mother died today. Maybe it was yesterday, I don’t know. I received the telegram today. At any rate, the funeral is in a couple of days, and I don’t feel much like going. It’s so much trouble. I’d have to ask the boss for a day off and all. What would you do if you were I?

M. Meursault

Dear M. Meursault:

 I would go to the funeral and make the most of it. Relax at the wake, enjoy a cigarette or two.  After the service, try to pick up a girl, take in a movie, have a swim. May I also suggest casual sex, a seaside stroll, shooting an Arab or two?


Confused, Out of sorts?  Slightly nauseous?  Having trouble deciding what to be or to do?  Send for Jean Paul’s amazing self-help manual On Being and Nothingness.  Available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

 

Strutting, Cakewalking, Pimp Walking?

“A Man Swaggering” by Paul Standby 1760

He came up maybe to their armpits, the dudecats accompanying him, this ten-ish-year-old mannishboy strutting up King Street in Charleston swinging a watch chain and tapping a cane.

Back then, 1968, I thought naively zoot suit, not pimp outfit. The hat was cocked, the smile triumphant, the cane tapping a tattoo, the chains cycling in time with the jaunt-step.

It was like the two other older taller teens accompanying him were underlings. It was like he was royalty, had some power conferred upon him, this princeling. For what and why I had and have no clue.

I’ve squandered today’s sunlight scouring the 1s and 0s of cyberspace searching for an equivalent, i.e., of a video of a prepubescent boy strutting on a sidewalk, but guess what? There ain’t none but this lighter-shade-than-pale approximation hardly worth plopping down:

 

I wouldn’t see locomotion quite like the King-Street-Strut until I saw Dr. John take the stage for the first time at Columbia’s 3 Rivers Festival in 2002 or 3.

Hat, cane, strut.

This snippet from the 2008 Newport Jazz Festival is a mere shadow of what I witnessed that evening when I first saw the Doctor making his way to his piano.

 

Of course, males have been swaggering and females jiggling since time immemorial. Even in the Age of Reason it appears homo sapiens succumbed to the jungle beats of their pulses in attempt to enhance their chance for romance, dominance, offspring.  [See the Paul Standby illustration above]

But back to the 60s and that Mannishboy. Those moves didn’t come from nowhere:

 

John Jeremiah Sullivan has a fascinating piece in the Winter Swanee Review on the origin of the blues.   Much of the essay deals with “cakewalking,” an African American tradition dating back to plantation days but that was all the rage in the early 20th Century. a staple of minstrel shows.

 

 

Did cakewalking in some ways influence what became known as jive-ass-walking/pimp-walking?

This snippet narrated by retired pimp Bishop Don Magic features watch-chain spinning, but it’s really, really lame compared to the vertical twirling of the mannishboy I saw on King Street that day.

 

So what’s the point of all this?  Good question.  I might have to get back to you on that except to say that if you’re lucky, you might see something amazing you’ll never forget, something that goes way back, has evolved, decayed, and all that jazz.  Or maybe, given how all my memories seem to sport an enhanced version, maybe time burnishes memories?

Or maybe there’s no fool like an old fool:

Emily Dickinson, First Year Medical Student

I wrote this poem after visiting a morgue at the Medical University of South Carolina.  You can read about the visit here.

Emily Dickinson, First Year Medical Student

their nightingales and psalms

 

Far removed from vanity

The old man lies exposed,

His organs sporting flags

Like holes of a golf course.

 

Nose and Ears are hairy;

He used to be a Man

Who ate beets – burped – blinked in the Sun –

It used to be Man.

 

Now disarticulated,

The antithesis of sentimentality,

Resting in pieces

Like left over turkey.

 

Yes, I have become accustomed

To hanging out with the Dead,

Assuming a cool, ironic air,

Pulling intestines like thread,

 

But when I die, I want my Lodging

As plush as plush can be,

For I have learned this lesson

In Gross Anatomy:

 

In spite of all

The noble palaver,

It’s impossible to respect

A desiccated cadaver.

Guffawing

Girl in Pink Laughing by Claerwen James:

If you want to see human beings in society at their most animated, check out the spasmodic absurdity of a full-blown guffaw.  Here, in Late Empire America, the howler is typically overweight, if not obese, so when he begins to shudder and redden and gaspingly go har-har-har, he’s literally shaking, rattling, and rolling.  [I’m picturing ‘Bama KA pledge (pasty white complexion, dirty blonde buzzcut) who is stoned and watching Austin Powers 3 in a frat house].

If you’re an alien from a Spartan planet  – TriMinicon, let’s say – and encounter for the first time an earthling in a full-throated guffaw, you might be tempted to whip out your Zapgat and instantaneously demolecularize the brute.  (On the other hand, if you’re an extraterrestrial from enlightened Eulipia, you’ll discretely slipslide through a portal vector out of harm’s way).  Whatever the case, you don’t want anything to do with this snorting, teeth-baring biped.  Detaching yourself and viewing guffawing through alien eyes, this species of laughter appears as what-it-is: a loss of self-control, a brain seizure that results in gasping, weeping, and other heaving involuntary spasmodics.

If you think I’m exaggerating, the next time you see some knee-slapper rolling in the aisles, record it on your cell phone.  Later when you’re all alone in a quiet moment, watch the contortions of the subject as if you’re an anthropologist. As ephemeral as it might be,  guffawing is obviously a form of somatic insanity.  It’s simian.  No, check that: monkeyish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What lurks in the heart of humor that triggers the brain of a humanoid to go apeshit? Here’s a rudimentary answer from Dr. Robert Provine, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland: “Laughter,” he writes, “is an ancient, unconsciously controlled vocal relic that co-exists with modern speech—-a social, psychological and biological act which predates humor and is shared with our primate cousins, the great apes.”  His research suggests that laughter is fundamentally social behavior, a nervous reaction, a non-verbal method of communication that facilitates social cohesion.

However, we’re talking guffawing here, not the harmonious chuckling of a studio audience. And I’m not so sure that guffawing is all that socially advantageous because it makes you look brain-damaged.  Once you’re in its hairy-handed grip, the guffaw shakes you until it feels like letting go. (You’re Fay Wray; it’s King Kong). What in Darwin’s name could be the mating advantages in such a display?

If a coed unexpectedly comes sauntering into the room where my Bama fratboy is leaning back in congested high-pitched convulsions, I can’t imagine her inner E.O. Wilson Puppet Master Gene prodding her to mate with him.  The frat boy sees her, wishes he could stop the seizure, wishes drool weren’t streaming from the corner of his mouth, but the sight of this lovely, mysterious stranger revs his engine, and the poor boy starts literally howling, his mouth wide open, his beer gut a-quiver; idiotically, he’s slapping himself on the thigh, a complete and utter slave to the Imp of the Perverse.  Again, what kind of humor or situation triggers such a spastic physiological reaction? What could it be  that has thrown this 20-year-old college student to hysteria?

I’m betting nothing positive.  On the DVD, he might have seen Austin Powers take a sip of Fat Bastard’s liquefied feces and complain that the coffee’s “a bit nutty.” The horrible absurdity of unknowingly ingesting shit could very well “slay” our fratboy.   But why?  I’m afraid that when I search my memory for instances of my own personal guffawing, I can’t conjure one example that doesn’t somewhat smack of sadism.  Now, I don’t profess to be in any way typical (or normal, for that matter), and I’m hip to the existential fact that the high Roman decadence that tickled Petronius the Arbiter’s funny bone isn’t likely to prompt peals of laughter from Billy Graham.  Nevertheless, I bet that the vast majority of uncontrollable laughter has its origin in some sort of unwholesome shocking occurrence and is an involuntary response to that shock, and if it is at someone else’s expense, so much the better.

Here’s my earliest remembered guffaw.  The year is 1960 or so, because I’m in my grandmama’s apartment (where I spent the night of the Kennedy Nixon election), so I’m seven years, give or take.  The apartment takes up most of the upper floor of a ramshackle subdivided Victorian house.  It’s the type of place with glass doorknobs and twelve-foot ceilings. On this particular night, we’re getting ready to go to bed or to go home – I can’t remember which – but my brother David finds a half empty Coca-Cola bottle and taunts me with it.  I beg for a sip – to share – just one sip – but he laughingly refuses, and to torture me to the fullest, he throws his head back, lifts the bottom of the bottle to the ceiling, and starts chugging as if it’s a bottle of Champagne and he’s just won the Indianapolis 500.

Unfortunately (at least for David), my father has extinguished his most recent cigarette in the bottle, and when David tastes the butt in his mouth, he screams, spits it out, and starts vomiting as I fall to the floor in convulsions, tears gushing from my eyes, and now, he, too, is guffawing – guffawing and vomiting – though managing to keep his feet in a stagger while I’m rolling on the floor back towards the wall to escape the splattering.

This instance of boomerang karma hardly seems funny at all in retelling it, but as I was typing just now and re-visualizing the event, I actually chuckled aloud.  If my brother were here, and I reminded him of the story, we’d both share a laugh, but we wouldn’t guffaw.  You probably can’t replicate a guffaw, the way you can a maniacal mad-scientist laugh, but you can come close.

Although guffaw’s noun definition: “a burst of coarse laughter” does suggest a certain lack of sophistication, a quick scan of the OED’s quoted usages doesn’t necessarily confirm my notion that “guffawing is involuntary.” In fact, guffaw’s earliest published appearance in the language is a 1720 a quote from someone called Ramsay from his work Wealth: “Syne (sic) circling wheels the flattering guffaw.”  Of course, we lack context here, but Ramsay’s fragment implies the guffaw is artificial in that someone seems to be obsequiously guffawing to kiss-up to a superior, which runs counter to my notion that guffawing on cue is an impossibility (except for your Marlon-Brando/Meryl-Streep caliber actors/actresses).   The second OED entry is more sinister.  It comes from a 1728 translation of the Aesop Fable, “The Ant and the Caterpillar.”   You may recall that in this fable an obnoxious ant accosts a lowly caterpillar with unprovoked scorn.  “Prithee get out of way,” the ant says in Thomas Bewick’s 1813 translation,  “and do not presume to obstruct the paths of thy superiors, by wriggling along the road, and besmearing the walks appropriated to their footsteps.”  The ant continues to berate the poor caterpillar:

In the 1728 translation that the OED cites, the Ant ends his tirade with this: “The airy Ant syne turn’d awa (sic),  And left him with a loud guffa” (sic).  Although smacking of sadism, this example also doesn’t suggest that guffawing is essentially uncontrollable laughter.  A colleague, a Latin teacher and astute student of languages, disagrees with my characterization of guffaw.  He sees it as a sort of contemptuous snort, a growl of contempt.

An Illustration from Thomas Bewick’s 1813 translation of Aesop’s Fables

The OED’s definition of the verb form of guffaw reads “[t]o laugh loudly or boisterously; to laugh coarsely or harshly.”  Cited examples include 1819’s, “they guffaw and smirkle (sic) in their play”; 1853’s “M’Roy guffaw’d like a laughing hyenar” (sic); and 1860’s, “how men grin and guffaw behind her back.”  All of these, I submit, smack of a certain element of unkindness but not that sense of hysteria that I see as a defining characteristic of guffawing, so I’m off on an unscientific Yahoo image search to see if I can detect hysteria in the photographic subjects.  Of course, I’m finding the range of so-called guffaws ridiculously broad, but here are two examples deemed guffawish enough to include the a form of the word guffaw in their titles:

“Guffawed Out” by Phillygee

Sepia Guffawing by Tex Blackmart

 

 

 

 

 

Ironically, you wouldn’t be surprised to find these photographs in an image search for “keening:”  Here’s a photo from my Yahoo keening image search:

To me, it looks as if the keener on the left’s having a better time than the person in “Guffaw’d Out.”  Any competent Photoshop artist could cut and paste “Guffaw’d Out” on a fitting torso in Poussin’s The Rape of the Sabine Women, and it would fit right in.

Obviously, the Venn diagram of physiological symptoms associated with guffawing and keening has a whole lotta of shading going on.  The American Heritage Dictionary defines guffaw as “a hearty boisterous burst of laughter.”  The AHD’s definition of boisterous reads “1. Rough and stormy; violent.  2. Noisy and lacking in restraint and discipline.” The verb burst suggests explosion.   So I still maintain that essentially a guffaw is unrestrained and unpremeditated.

On the other hand, my initial hunch that some sort of sadism is involved seems less assured.  For example, what about that guffawing infant in the first photograph?  How can sadism be involved since, surely, an innocent babe isn’t going to revel in another’s misfortune?  Based on my own parental experience with infant guffawing, I’ve noticed the phenomenon usually results from some tactile buzzing-bumble-bee teasing that the little one demands you to repeat time and time again ad nauseum as if she has been frightened out of her wits, then relieved, so now she wants to relive the process as a sort of naturally-selected desensitization exercise.  In fact, it looks to me that the infant in that first photo might be getting tossed in the air, or at least being tilted way back and perhaps undergoing some carnival-ride-thrill-brain-blood displacement.  Come to think of it, what about the appearance and behavior of roller coaster riders and other adrenalin-booster junkies?  Mouths wide open, they scream and laugh and shed tears.  It’s obvious that sobbing, guffawing, and panicking seem to all produce somewhat similar bodily reactions.

So what’s the common denominator?  Fear?  Shock?  Sadism?  Let me toss one last monkey wrench in the works: religious enthusiasm.  In my web surfing for hysterical laughter, every other hit led me to a religious website documenting an epidemic of guffawing in Pentecostal sects across the Late Empire.  The phenomenon, which is known as “holy laughter,” has caused quite a stir in charismatic Christian circles.  Someone named Dr. Cathy Bates (not a fan) fingers the South African evangelist Dr. Rodney Howard-Browne as “the person most responsible for this phenomenon.”   Here’s Howard Browne himself in his book The Touch of God describing “holy laughter”:

Dr. Burns goes on to describe disapprovingly “[s]ome other phenomena that take place at these laughing revivals: shaking, jerking, loss of bodily strength, heavy breathing, eyes fluttering, lips trembling, oil on the body, changes in skin color, weeping, laughing, ‘drunkenness,’ staggering, travailing, dancing, falling” [. . .]  Obviously, we’ve really wandered into some dark, pre-human irrational sphere that might even give Tarzan’s faithful sidekick Cheetah the heebie-jeebies.

Although laugher may be good medicine, guffawing appears potentially life threatening.  The above description of the god-smitten guffawers certainly seems unhealthy.  We’re talking heart palpitations, elevated blood pressure, staggering (picture one of those raptured revival-goers crossing a busy street), etc.  Yet, guffawing must serve some purpose, because it’s instinctual.  I’m going to offer a guess here [based my noodling around the word in my lazy, unscientific (but convincingly intuitive) way].  I posit that the guffaw, a laugh that goes beyond a belly laugh but doesn’t reach the holy laughter stage, is a physiological response to a startling surprise, a startling incongruity, or a slapstick pratfall of someone who could very well be, but thankfully is not, we.  Suddenly, we, the soon-to be-guffawers, become cognizant of the hilariously horrifying danger inherent in being alive, and this realization quite literally makes us crazy.  Our brainstem short-circuits our cerebrum, and we start howling, a not unpleasant metabolic kickstart.  We’re alive! The person next to us is starting to laugh because we look so ridiculous.   The planet’s spin has gotten us dizzy.  Now she’s guffawing, and the raucous laughter has chased the terror away.  We release accumulated tension and anxiety in a comedic catharsis akin to Aristotle’s description of vicarious psychological benefits of viewing a production of Oedipus Rex.

My most recent guffaw, the last that I can recall, occurred in the morgue of the Medical University of South Carolina, an easy place to feel uneasy.  I had volunteered to chaperone a field trip for the Advanced Biology class at the high school where I teach.  I reckoned that at the morgue I’d be entering would be the Nuke-Plant-grade, mirror-chrome-gleaming medical facility like you would see on Quincy, but when the retired professor guide ushered us into the laboratory, we discovered a dimly lit disorderly space in which an elderly male corpse silently screamed, “Look at me! Look at me!”   I did.  “The old gentleman,” as our guide Dr. Mori called the carcass, lay on its back with head seemingly undisturbed but with its chest cavity open to the sight of little numbered pennant-like triangular flags rising from his various organs.  Oddly, I thought of a putt-putt course, but then I remembered the fetal pigs from Biology II, and anyway, Dr. Mori was into his falsely detached rundown of the organs and explanations of why they might appear as they do – the lungs, for example, blackish in hue from seventy-years of breathing exhaust fumes.

Of course, in various existential reactions ranging from acute curiosity to creeped-out eye-aversion, we formed a circle around the table.  “The brain,” Dr. Mori said, “what about the brain?”  He reached into the sort of white plastic pail that painters clean their brushes in and – presto! –a brain appeared in the palm of his hand, a brain presumably belonging to this former person who had “donated his body to science.”   Dr. Mori went on to add that an unpreserved freshly extracted human brain is about the consistency of jello.  The unpristine condition of this calcified pretender seemed to disgust him, so he flung it back into its plastic pail, producing a splash of liquid (brain juice? formaldehyde?) that besprinkled the shirt/blouse of a boyfriend/girlfriend adjacent pair.  The looks on their faces!  Disgust incarnate!  Revulsion embodied! Horror!

I might have been all right, but I made eye contact with a colleague, who witnessed the same stricken expressions on the faces of the young lovers.  Our guffaws started as vain attempts to smother the impending bellowing, a pursing of our lips, the air pfffff-pfffing through.   Our faces began to flush, and we started rocking back and forth in the vain attempt to throttle the animal within us that was bursting out in a heaving roar of raucous laughter.  Embarrassed, we staggered away from the dead thing, the discomfited professor, and the confused students, but we’re having the time of our lives – we were alive!

Minicuardro David Fernandez

Poor creature! thou lookest like a thing-half made, which Nature not liking threw by unfinished. I could almost pity thee, methinks; but it is beneath one of my quality to talk to such mean creatures as thou art: and so, poor crawling wretch, adieu.

Despite Death’s Persistence

Poor old dead Daddy with his poor old dead brother David outside their poor old dead grandaddy Ackerman’s drug store on Spring Street circa 1937

It’s not surprising that Thanksgiving would be somewhat death-haunted. After all, I was driving Judy’s car to see Judy’s sister and her family.

Once I arrived, I found myself staring at sister Becky because she reminds me so much of Judy. It’s as if they share/d identical metabolisms. Both move/d slowly, deliberately; their eyes blink/ed slowly.[1] Anyway, I warned Becky that if I seemed to be staring at her a lot, sisterly likeness was the reason. She smiled a slow sweet that’s-okay smile.

We enjoyed a beautiful five days weatherwise, the setting Reynolds Preserve, a residential golf resort with autumnal foliage ablaze. Companionshipwise, a beautiful five days as well, son Ned was there and brother-in-law Big Dave and my nephew Scott and his wife Jessie and their daughters, the grandnieces, Emily and Annie, six and four, lovely and smart and honest. I overheard Emily say, “[. . .] Aunt Judy, who’s already dead.”

Here’s a mandala Emily drew celebrating the gathering.

artist Emily Hudson, who calls her grandmother Becky “Beppy”

Saturday, on the way back, I stopped in Aiken for an hour and had dinner with my Aunt Maria and cousins Pamela and Scarlet and their brood: spouses, in-laws, children, and children’s children. It seems I only see these kin when someone is dying or dead — Uncle David, Daddy, Mama, Judy — so I wanted to make a point of talking with Aunt Maria, a spry, car-driving eighty-three, while she was upright and smiling. A war bride, she has been living in Aiken County going on 70 years. I especially enjoy hearing what’s left of her now Southern-smothered German accent. Her elongated vowels have unclipped the Teutonic cadences. Yet German lies underneath, like a sonic archeological lower layer.

Aunt Maria’s parents’ gravestone

I could only stay an hour because I wanted to pick up Ms L. Muldoon from the Charleston airport. She had seen the night before a production of James Joyce’s “The Dead” at the New York Irish Historical Society. She texted about the “heaviness” at the end “with the snow and all.”

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. [Gabriel] watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

So when I left Pamela’s, headed back to Charleston, I listened to Donal Donnelly’s reading Episode 6 of Ulysses, the Hades episode, when Bloom rides in a carriage to Dignam’s funeral and burial. I was on back roads, taking Highway 4 through Springfield and Neeses, (dare I say) dying Orangeburg County towns, and it seemed like every four miles I passed a cemetery in some podunk country churchyard with a chain-linked fence surrounding the graves.

Meanwhile, in his carriage Bloom reads from the obituary page of the morning paper the names of the deceased, “[i]nked characters fast fading on the frayed breaking paper.”

Through the carriage window:

White horses with white frontlet plumes came round the Rotunda corner, galloping. A tiny coffin flashed by. In a hurry to bury. A mourning coach. Unmarried. Black for the married. Piebald for bachelors. Dun for a nun.

— Sad, Martin Cunningham said. A child.

Highway 4 is a lovely road that rises and falls through horse country before flattening out near Orangeburg. I usually listen to AM gospel radio stations when passing through Orangeburg County – I dig the vocal groups, the church announcements, and especially, the high-octane iambic admonitions of preacher men– but Joyce and his medium Donnelly had me hypnotized.

Mr Bloom came last, folding his paper again into his pocket. He gazed gravely at the ground till the coffincart wheeled off to the left. The metal wheels ground the gravel with a sharp grating cry and the pack of blunt boots followed the barrow along a lane of sepulchres.

Bloom, who has lost a father to suicide and his young son Rudy to disease, sees death for what it is, inevitable and commonplace:

A pump after all, pumping thousands of gallons of blood every day. One fine day it gets bunged up and there you are. Lots of them lying around here: lungs, hearts, livers. Old rusty pumps: damn the thing else.

I was already in the town of Orangeburg by the time Dingam’s

gravediggers put on their caps and carried their earthy spades towards the barrow. Then knocked the blades lightly on the turf: clean. One bent to pluck from the haft a long tuft of grass. One, leaving his mates, walked slowly on with shouldered weapon, its blade blueglancing.

Dingam was six-feet under, and Episode 6 had run its course, so I reached over for some early Stones.

“Come On” came blasting from the speakers. I had turned the Joyce, as Lucinda Williams would say, “way up high.”

But I didn’t turn it down. I was on the Interstate doing 75 airport bound.


[1] Becky was a 10/10 match for the marrow transplant never to be.

Brief Birdsweet Cries

matisseulysses2

One of Matisse’s illustrations for the 1934 edition of Ulysses

Fleeing Folly for Thanksgiving, I spent the four-hour drive to Greensboro, Georgia, listening to Donal Donnelly reading Joyce’s Ulysses, a book that should be heard not read, or at least read aloud.

Joyce possessies the best ear of any prose writer ever.

Dig this, from Episode 1, “Telemachus”:

 I AM THE BOY

THAT CAN ENJOY

INVISIBILITY.

Phantasmal mirth, folded away: muskperfumed.

AND NO MORE TURN ASIDE AND BROOD.

And now this from Episode 3, “Proteus”:

He lay back at full stretch over the sharp rocks, cramming the scribbled note and pencil into a pocket, his hat tilted down on his eyes. That is Kevin Egan’s movement I made nodding for his nap, sabbath sleep. Et vidit Deus. Et erant valde bona. Alo! Bonjour, welcome as the flowers in May. Under its leaf he watched through peacocktwittering lashes the southing sun. I am caught in this burning scene. Pan’s hour, the faunal noon. Among gumheavy serpentplants, milkoozing fruits, where on the tawny waters leaves lie wide. Pain is far.

And no more turn aside and brood.

His gaze brooded on his broadtoed boots, a buck’s castoffs nebeneinander: He counted the creases of rucked leather wherein another’s foot had nested warm. The foot that beat the ground in tripudium, foot I dislove. But you were delighted when Esther Osvalt’s shoe went on you: girl I knew in Paris. Tiens, quel petit pied! Staunch friend, a brother soul: Wilde’s love that dare not speak its name. He now will leave me. And the blame? As I am. As I am. All or not at all.

Yeats’s “Who Goes with Fergus” is stuck in his head like a catchy tune. His mind animates the world around him.  You listen and enter that world, a world come alive, a better world.

It’s so addictive I feel like getting in the car and driving around this lovely late-autumn neighborhood to hear the lilt of the words in my failing ears.

He capered before them down towards the forty-foot hole, fluttering his winglike hands, leaping nimbly, Mercury’s hat quivering in the fresh wind that bore back to them his brief birdsweet cries.

donal donnelly

Donal Donnerly

Southern Gothic Great Aunts

“Forest Sleep” by Kelly Louise Judd

When I was a child, I spent, relatively speaking, a good bit of time with my great aunts on both sides of the family. My mother’s aunts, Pearl and Ruby, were the daughters of a god-fearing Baptist farmer from Orangeburg County, and my father’s aunts were snobbish women who valued table manners above morality. I saw Aunt Ruby the most often because she lived the closest. Here’s a snippet from a earlier post with the fetching title “Fragments from a Southern Gothic Childhood”:

Aunt Ruby lives on Warren Street near Condon’s Department store in a downstairs apartment with her daughter Zilla, who is one of the founders of the New Republican Party in South Carolina. Zilla is a Bircher, claims Lucille Ball is a communist, and entertains us with comic books depicting Khrushchev banging his shoe promising to bury us. Not only has Zilla never married; she’s never been on a date.

The house, which reminds me of a train — one room lined up after another — is Jesus haunted. Warner Sallman’s painting of Jesus hangs over the bricked in fireplace in the living room. Arts and crafts from vacation summer Bible abound.

On this particular visit, there’s an inflatable man sitting on the sofa. My brother David and I start smacking him as if he were one of those bottom heavy clowns you punch that falls over but returns to the upright position for more punishment.

We’re told to stop. As it turns out, Zilla is afraid of being raped. If she has to go out at night, she rides with the inflatable man next to her.

Sardonically, my father reassures Zilla that she needs not fear being raped.

Up the road in Sumter, where Aunt Pearl lived, things were a bit more laid back. She and my grandmother, “Mama Blanton,” spent their afternoons shelling beans, watching soap operas, and gossiping. Once, when I was seven or so, I saw Aunt Pearl naked through her cracked open door. It was by no means a pleasant sight, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away as in the clichéd horrible-wreck-on-the-freeway scenario.

Because of their Baptist upbringing Ruby, Pearl, and Hazelwood (aka Mama Blanton) considered alcohol an abomination, though once I witnessed Mama Blanton and Aunt Ruby swapping barbiturates like M&Ms.[1] So, anyway imbibing hooch in the house was banned, so my grandfather was reduced to hiding half pints in shoes stored in his closet.

Kiki, what’s this?” I asked one morning after finding a bottle of Old Crow in his tennis shoe.

“Hey, what you doing in that closet?  Get out of there!  Don’t you tell your grandmama, you hear?”

I found my daddy’s aunts to be much more interesting. Aunt Lou, who resided in Columbia, had married a Canadian shipping executive, and according to her, at one time lived at the Waldorf Astoria where she lent the actress Jean Arthur a mink for an audition and had struck up a friendship with “Tony Fokker,” the founder of the aircraft manufacturer who supplied German in WWI with their fighter planes.

Anthony Fokker

When I was in the 7th grade, David and I rode a Greyhound to Columbia to spend the weekend with her and Uncle Harry. She took us to the revolving restaurant at the top of Capstone dormitory and to a movie called The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.

Later in life, Aunt Lou and Uncle Harry would come stay with us in Summerville. Every afternoon, she would get tipsy on sherry and tell us the same stories over and over and over, like time that her in-law Sarah locked herself in a bedroom with a gun threatening to kill herself, then opened the door, put the gun to her temple, and fired. This was very same Sarah, the sister of the wife of my second cousin, who had managed to burn a hole in my sweater with her cigarette one Christmas Eve.

“I don’t think Sarah knew the gun was loaded,” Aunt Lou said with a twinkle in her eye. “I’ve never seen a person with a more surprised look on her face when that gun went off.”

Twice-widowed Aunt Lila we saw the least. Like a character out of Flannery O’Connor, she ran a 100-acre cotton and tobacco farm in Marlboro County with the help of her son Alec, who had not only a swimming pool in his backyard, but also a clay tennis court. Alec unfortunately had drinking issues and buried bottles in hades-hot tobacco barns to keep his wife Jenny from tearing into him. Daddy claimed that the only time he refused a drink was from Alec who had disinterred a bottle, unscrewed the cap, took a swig, and extended it to my father.

Aunt Lila lived in a circa-1810 plantation-like house complete with columns (see below). It hadn’t, I don’t think, ever been renovated. I remember a wagon wheel suspended from the ceiling providing light for the kitchen and a giant ship’s wheel in the foyer. Of course the house was haunted by some woman who had died there. Aunt Lila herself had seen the ghost on several occasions. She also claimed to possess the power of prophecy. Whenever she dreamed of diamonds, someone died. On the night before her daughter, Lila Moore Stanton, perished in a car/train crash with two of her friends from Winthrop College, Aunt Lila had, of course, dreamt of diamonds and had warned Lila Moore not to go out.

Mimosa Plantation

Unfortunately, I don’t see my own great nieces often, but two of them, both under seven came to the house after my wife Judy’s memorial service. Emily, the older one, with that wonderful candid openness of children, asked if she could see the bed where “Aunt Judy died.”

So I showed her – actually it was a futon – and told her a little bit about the death, and she listened wide-eyed, fascinated, so maybe I too am keeping the gothic great aunt/uncle tradition going.


[1] In fact, in grad school I actually copped a downer from Mama Blanton to settle my jangled nerves before a presentation.