Hanging Out at the Cancer Ward

Roper Hospital and I go way back, way back to the early 50’s, back before my gestation, when my student nurse mother met my GI-Bill Clemson undergraduate father whose own mother was dying of cancer.

Smitten by a redhead in a uniform, Future Daddy asked Future Mama out.

As the story goes, Daddy’s go-to dating strategy was sympathy — not only was his mother dying, but he was so poor that he didn’t own any underwear. To prove he lacked boxers/briefs, he lifted his shirt, yanked checkered swim trunks into view. Perhaps being impoverished was sexy to children who grew up in the Depression.  Don’t think it would necessarily work today.

Anyway, this counterintuitive romantic ruse worked. Sue and Wes went out. My grandmother died. Sue and Wes eloped, dropped out school, engendered me. [1]

A bad karma kind of coming to be, if you stop and think about it.

 * * *

My beloved has been diagnosed with a difficult, rare, and therefore frightening cancer called Peripheral T-Cell Lymphoma.

I won’t burden you with the existential horrors of waiting . . . waiting . . . waiting,   . . . in the primary care physician’s outer rooms/inner rooms . . . in the West Ashley Roper Cancer Center’s outer rooms/ inner rooms . . . trying to read the faces and body language of the physicians as they enter . . .

. . . a pleural effusion . . . a mass . . . cancer . . . probably lymphoma . . . t-cell lymphoma . . . blood work . . . CT scans . . . marrow bone biopsies . . .

 * * *

We’re at the downtown Roper, my mama’s Roper, my dead grandmama’s Roper.

My beloved’s here for five days, Monday through Friday, for 96-hours of constant infusion of a chemo regimen that goes by the acronym EPOCH. She’ll go home Saturday, have two weeks off, then return to Roper for five more days and repeat this pattern for six to eight cycles.

judy walkingSo Roper has become our home away from home.

What this hospital lacks in Spa-like aesthetics it makes for in interesting walks and outdoor venues. Because it’s been added on so often, Roper’s labyrinthine hallways might give Theseus a run for his money. It’s almost as if MC Escher himself designed the building. I park in the Doughty Street parking lot, which offers a fairly straight shot through the back door to the D elevators, which I take me up to the 5th Floor, Oncology. On the other hand, reaching the cafeteria from my beloved’s room is the human equivalent of a white rat’s journey towards the cheese.

The room itself is spacious and looks out on a narrow walkway. Because the walkway is only about fifteen feet wide, it gets no sun, so when you look through the narrow slats of the Venetian blinds, it’s always 9-pm dark out there, whether it’s 7am, noon, or 3 in the afternoon, I’ve dubbed this space the Twilight Zone. As it turns out, the window’s tinted black, which accounts for the perpetual night outside.

My beloved’s oncologist wants her to walk, so she does, hauling the chemo cart as she goes. On her excursions, she has discovered an accessible deserted hallway that brings to mind the former Soviet Union.

Here they store broken beds and other non-functioning equipment. The names of dead doctors appear beneath some of the doors. I love it back there — an objective correlative for aging’s entropy. Perhaps in one of these small rooms my grandmother died — but probably not. Even this old wing probably post dates her.
empty roombalcony view







The nurse’s station on the 5th Floor looks out onto the Ashley River. The 5th Floor also boasts a balcony with a view of Charleston’s most notable steeples. This morning’s humid breeze was strong enough to blow a string of meds off my beloved’s cart.

Of course, you can’t expect residing on a cancer floor not to have its downsides, like the constant moaning of a sleeping man a twist and turn further down in the hall.

Nevertheless, this isn’t Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward. The nurses are great, and you hear a lot of laughter here.

[1] Crass Casualty and dicing Time.

There Goes Peter Cottontail

Who was the first to go?

"Tooth Fairy" by Greg Becker

“Tooth Fairy” by Greg Becker

The Tooth Fairy, that’s who, that little fetishist, sneaking into children’s bedrooms, trading money for teeth. I suppose the Tooth Fairy is the least definite of the fantasy commies who distribute goodies among the masses. I can’t even tell you if the Tooth Fairy is supposed to be male or female, old or young, corporeal or diaphanous. As it turns out, virtually every google image that comes up is female. Anyway, I’m not sure I ever believed in her.

Even more preposterous is the Easter Bunny, I remember being about five or so, and my old man telling me that the Easter Bunny wouldn’t be showing up because he’d been hit by a car. Daddy claimed to have seen the rabbit’s roadkill carcass on the side of the highway. Of course, I knew he was kidding by the bemused look on his face; however, his story made me try to visualize the dead Easter Bunny. How big was he?   Was he wearing a bow tie?

8571e424cbad2765eb1500bb3fb6e4f7How idiotic — a rabbit toting a continent’s worth of tooth-rotting chocolate and jelly beans from house to house from Maine to California.

Of course, that left Santa, whom I did believe in until I was nine or so, refusing to heed the cross-my-heart-hope-to-die sworn statements of my more sophisticated buddies. By the time Mama broke the official news, we kids had been scoping out the yuletide stash for a couple of years, sneaking up into the attic when the parents were away, or, when no one was around, peeking under the door of the vacated apartment across the hall from my grandmother’s.

And they are right: Christmas was never the same after that.

Which brings us, as James Joyce might say, past Eve and Adams, to Jesus himself, whose legitimacy as the Son of God I also started doubting at a tender age, and as far as believing goes, I’ve given it my very best — took my confirmation classes very seriously, read CS Lewis, studied the gospels — but, alas, I just can’t will myself to believe, and that is that.

So I took up Buddhism instead in the hope of achieving an equanimity with the mysterious universe that can seem so beautiful but also so cruel; however, let’s face it: you can’t pray to Siddhartha, and he certainly ain’t gonna perform any miracles for you.

How wonderful it must be to have a bedrock of faith, to be certain that you are loved and can conquer death, and certainly, in my family’s current situation, it would be particularly nice to be able to “talk” to a greater power and seek solace and strength. Some of my Christian friends have seemed a bit hesitant to share with me after hearing Judy’s diagnosis of lymphoma that they’re praying for us, but as Judy said just yesterday, “I’ll take prayers, vibrations, chi. Bring it on”

“What about sacrificial heifers?

“Those, too”

In other words, we’re not the arrogant Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins brand of non-believers, so please pray if you’re a praying person, and think good thoughts if you’re not.

We’ve been really humbled by the outpouring of love we’ve received so far. Thank you all!

Robert Cray and John Hiatt: Review 25 July 2014

You might say that last night’s concert featuring Robert Cray and John Hiatt was too much and too little of a good thing — too much of the excellent Robert Cray but too little of the brilliant and dynamic John Hiatt. promotional poster

The tour’s promotion suggests equality as if the show is a double billing, and indeed stage time for both performers and their bands is equally divided into two one-hour-and-fifteen-minute sets separated by an intermission when roadies strip down Cray’s slicker set-up with its elevated drum kit and replace it with Hiatt’s down home array of amps and instruments.

Nevertheless, someone has to go first, and that someone is Robert Cray. I’ve always admired Cray as a musician and ambassador for the Blues.  Certainly, his eloquent guitar solos come to life with an anguish that articulates the despair inherent in the genre — the lost love, poverty, betrayal, and hopelessness that the Blues uniquely expresses.  Cray’s guitar screams, moans, flashes anger — almost as if it’s on the verge of human articulation, like Benjy Compson attempting to utter the unutterable.  Certainly, Cray’s performance of “Don’t You Even Care” was killer urban blues, passionate music coupled with effective imagistic lyrics that brought to life rain-slicked city sidewalks and shitty motels.

And yet, because he performed so many of the tunes in the same rather up-beat tempo and because virtually every song was about some woman who done him wrong, a sameness seeped into the set, a repetitiveness not helped by his starting each number by saying, “This next one is called [so-and-so].”  Also, I found odd that he didn’t cover any blues standards but relied on his own songs, which, although certainly competent in every aspect, are by no means classics. How I would have loved to hear him cover some Willie Dixon tune like “The Same Thing” or “Spoonful.”I know this might sound demeaning — and I don’t mean it to — but Robert Cray is sort of like “The Peyton Manning of the Blues” — richly talented, technically perfect, but somehow mechanical.

Certainly, “mechanical” doesn’t describe John Hiatt, whom I’ve been following since his third album, 1979’s Slug Line, a punkish romp featuring songs like “Take Off Your Uniform” and “The Night That Kenny Died,” which features these lyrics:

It seemed so spooky that the nerd we all detested

Would die so gloriously and unexpected

A wonderful guy God knows

They kept the casket closed.

As Hiatt matured, so did his music, bolstered by recording with some of the finest studio musicians in the world including the incomparable Ry Cooder on guitars, Jim Keltner on drums, and Nick Lowe on bass.

Last night’s performance featured several of his best.  He kicked off the show with “Your Dad Did,” from Bring the Family, a witty song about the frustrations of the working life, in which the hapless narrator’s “seen the old man’s ghost/Come back as creamed chipped beef on toast/Now if you don’t get your slice of the roast/ You gonna flip your lid/ Just like your dad did.”  He followed that with “Detroit Made,” a paean to that classic  automobile beloved of African American males, the Electra 225, better known as “a deuce and a quarter.”

In addition to a series of his most famous songs — “Perfectly Good Guitar,”  “A Thing Called Love,” and “Memphis in the Mean Time,” e.g. — Hiatt included three excellent new ones from his current album, to wit, the title track “The Terms of My Surrender,”  plus “Long Time Comin’,” and the haunting, country-bluesy “The Wind Don’t Have to Hurry.”

Not only was the music engaging — the Combo rocked — but Hiatt is a consummate showman with an incredibly expressive mug.  As he struts loose-limbed across the stage like a modern minstrel, he grimaces, smiles, expresses disbelief, sticks out his tongue. I’d call him a kind of musical comic genius.

Then, boom.  It was over.

They came out for one encore, “Have a Little Faith in Me,” and that was it.

My son Ned commented as we were leaving that he now had a better appreciation for Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Hiatt’s hour-and-a-quarter had been much shorter than Robert Cray’s.

John Hiatt and his Combo exiting the stage last night 7/25/2014

John Hiatt and his Combo exiting the stage last night 7/25/2014


Fragments from a Southern Gothic Childhood

Fragment 1

I’m two or three swinging in a backyard swing and am attacked by an angry rooster. (Escaped cock fighter? Demented sufferer from bird fever?). I pump my legs to swing higher to escape the onslaught, though, of course, gravity sweeps me down across and up through the pecking zone. I’m screaming at the top of my little lungs. Mr. Long, a neighbor, runs over to my rescue.

Fragment 2

I’m six or seven. My mother, grandmother, and Aunt Vee (who is only six years older than I) are traveling by car through rural Dorchester County to visit my Great Aunt Creesie, my paternal grandfather’s sister. My grandfather, whom we call Kiki (short for his Christian name Kistler) is not along. According to Mama, Kiki hasn’t been “right” since a Greyhound bus door smashed closed on his head and fractured his skull. By being “not right,” they mean that Kiki gets mean as hell when drunk and spends his days under voluntary house arrest holed up in his room listening to the radio and playing his ukulele. (You can read about one of my visits to see him here).

Mama explains as she drives past corn fields that Aunt Creesie is “very poor” and that her son Trim is retarded — the word in those days preferable to the less scientific but often used “half wit.” She tells me that Trim is an epileptic and could have a seizure while we are there.

spursWe eventually arrive at Aunt Creesie’s unpainted shack. Beautiful oaks surround the house, but not a blade of grass grows from the dirt yard, which is crawling with hens and a couple of roosters. Aunt Vee informs me that roosters have spurs on their legs and that they can attack. I’m, of course, terrified. The spurs look downright lethal.

Inside the house the most conspicuous piece of furniture is a player piano on which are arranged gaudy, orange-colored pitchers and vases. Trim shambles in, a bear of a man whose mouth is always open and twitches.

He sounds like this:  

I don’t want to go outside and play as instructed. Rooster-phobia. But I do. The roosters don’t attack.

Later, I poo poo in an outhouse, my tiny butt positioned over the hole. I have no memory of wiping.

Fragment 3

I’m thirteen or fourteen and visiting with Mama, Daddy, and my brother David our Great Aunt Ruby, my mother’s mother’s sister. There is also an aunt Pearl, and my grandmother’s name is Hazelwood, but all of her people call her Saisy.

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

Sallman JesusThe house, which reminds me of a train — one room lined up after another — is Jesus haunted. Warner Sallman’s painting of Jesus (see left) hangs over the bricked in fireplace in the living room. Arts and crafts from vacation summer Bible school are displayed all over the place.

On this particular visit, there’s an inflatable man sitting on the sofa. 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.

 * * *

My own children have enjoyed essentially Gothic-less childhoods. No visits from Daddy’s aunt, my Great Aunt Lou, tipsy on sherry, telling us about the 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.

“I don’t think she knew it 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 the gun went off.”

My boys do, however, eat some holiday dinners with their Great Aunt Vee, who was once diagnosed as schizophrenic because she thought she was Queen Nefertiti.

So their childhoods haven’t been completely deprived.

Folly Beach, East Coast Macondo

chico feo in the morning 1.0

Chico Feo in the Morning, original art by Wesley Moore

A decade ago, sick of the blood-sucking capitalists at the MLA changing their research paper guidelines every other year, I decided to create my own how-to guide, something I could run off and hand out to students but also update whenever some OCD sufferer at the Modern Language Association decided that placing periods after abbreviations was so last century.

I decided that rather than writing a dry, clinical exposition, I would make this how-to-guide a narrative featuring two fictional Porter-Gaud students, Bennington Rhodes and Robert “Flip” Burger. Bennington, a good student but not particularly interested in literature, goes about the process systematically whereas poor Flip waits to the night before due dates, which, as the omniscient narrator points out, is not the way to go. Not only could I provide students with a handy guide, but I could also mock their fads and peccadilloes.

Here’s a snippet to show you what I’m talking about, the protagonist Bennington going through the process of selecting a novel for his research paper project:

macondoEven though White Noise looks interesting, Bennington is going ahead to see about Chronicle of a Death Foretold while he’s at it. He types in “garcia marquez literary criticism bibliography,” and presto, right away the number one hit is applicable: “Garcia Marquez – Criticism.” Once again this site yields a plethora of potential sources including one of those handy Harold Bloom anthologies. Although he’s leaning toward White Noise, a painting on the Garcia Marquez site catches his eye. It’s called “Macondo” and features a Latina sleeping with her hair in her hands next to two oranges that are about to be scaled by a trio of ants on a dish next to her bed.

To save time, Bennington logs onto the Porter-Gaud Library page and discovers to his delight, that not only does the library own White Noise and Chronicle of a Death Foretold, but also that both books are available. He punches the call letters into his cell phone and heads to the library before the bell rings. As he passes the back entrance to the S&T building, he sees his friends playing hackysack. One of these, Robert Burger (aka Flip) is going to wait until the last minute and choose on a whim Henry James’s The Ambassadors because he’s heard of Henry James and thinks being an ambassador would be a great job because you have diplomatic immunity and can park anywhere you like. Not until it’s too late he discovers his error as he attempts to read the fourth sentence of that novel:

“The principle I have just mentioned as operating had been, with the most newly disembarked of the two men, wholly instinctive–the fruit of a sharp sense that, delightful as it would be to find himself looking, after so much separation, into his comrade’s face, his business would be a trifle bungled should he simply arrange or this countenance to present itself to the nearing steamer as the first “note,” of Europe. “(9)

Not only is the novel virtually unreadable, the criticism might as well be rendered in Sanskrit for all of the sense it makes to Flip. Even Pink Monkey and Spark Notes summaries are way over his head. If only he had taken his sage teacher’s advice and devoted the time to select a book more to his liking!

Gabo and Clinton

Gabo and Clinton

As part of the process, I decided to have Bennington compose a high school research essay on Chronicle, which, of course, meant I actually had to do a bit of research.  I discovered a fascinating piece from Salon by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez about his first meeting Bill Clinton at a dinner party at William Styron’s on Cape Cod that also featured Carlos Fuentes.

When [Carlos and I] talked about Latin America in general, we realized that
[Clinton] was much more interested than we had supposed, although he
lacked some essential background. When the conversation seemed to
stiffen a bit, we asked him what his favorite movie was, and he
answered “High Noon,” by Fred Zinneman, whom he had recently
honored in London. When we asked him what he was reading, he
 sighed and mentioned a book on the economic wars of the future,
author and title unknown to me.

“Better to read ‘Don Quixote,’” I said to him. “Everything’s
in there.” Now, the ‘Quixote’ is a book that is not read nearly
as much as is claimed, although very few will admit to not having
read it. With two or three quotes, Clinton showed that he knew it
very well indeed. Responding, he asked us what our favorite books
were. Styron said his was Huckleberry Finn.

I would have said Oedipus Rex, which has been my bed table
book for the last 20 years, but I named The Count of Monte
Cristo,”mainly for reasons of technique, which I had some
trouble explaining.

Clinton said his was the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and Carlos Fuentes stuck loyally to Absalom, Absalom,
Faulkner’s stellar novel, no question, although others would
choose  Light in August purely personal reasons. Clinton,
in homage to Faulkner, got to his feet and, pacing around the
table, recited from memory Benji’s monologue, the most thrilling
passage, and perhaps the most hermetic, from  The Sound and the

Faulkner got us to talking about the affinities between
Caribbean writers and the cluster of great Southern novelists in
the United States. It made much more sense to us to think of the
Caribbean not as a geographical region surrounded by its sea but
as a much wider historical and cultural belt stretching from the
north of Brazil to the Mississippi Basin.

Mark Twain, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and so many
others would then be just as Caribbean as Jorge Amado and Derek
Walcott. Clinton, born and raised in Arkansas, a Southern state,
applauded the notion and professed himself happy to be a

* * *

As I was sipping on an “All -Day IPA” at Chico Feo in those amiable days before the pandemic, a polite young couple plopped down next to me at the bar. The male was unusually clean cut for the clientele, with short well-kempt hair and sporting some subdued ink on his right arm. His lovely companion spoke with a slight accent, so I asked her where she hailed from.


“Ah ha,” I said, “the homeland of the great Gabo – Gabriel Garcia-Marquez!”

“He is dead, you know,” she said with a rueful smile.

So we shot the mierda about the great man’s canon, of which she was very familiar, and that wonderful little magical village Macondo, Gabo’s Yoknapatawpha County, and I mentioned that even though Ronald Reagan wouldn’t give Gabo a visa to visit the US , he and Bill Clinton ended up being drinking buddies. I mentioned Gabo’s comment about Southerners and Caribbean folk sharing folkways and attitudes.

Given that probably most people associate Colombia with drug cartels, I suspect it was nice for her to hear praise for her homeland, and suddenly it occurred to me that Gabo was right, that the eastside of Folly was Mercondo-like. I have Folly friends with a parrot who tortures their dogs by mimicking both the owners’ accents, asking the dogs if they’d like to go for a walk, and then the parrot does a dead-on sound effect of a screen door creaking open. Magical realism right here in the Lowcountry.

“Especially this place,” she said, talking about Chico Feo. It reminds me of home.”

No roof, beers sold out of coolers, the aroma of curried goat wafting from the kitchen inside, free music, day and night . . .

Oh me oh my oh, Chico Feo.

I shook hands with them both and waved good-bye

My Colombia sister

My Colombia sister


True Detective Revisited: The Fall of American Culture

Let’s talk about Pulp fiction — not the movie — but its namesake, those lurid narratives printed on cheap paper that, to cop the cliché of their heyday, explored the “seamy underside” of American culture, publications like True Detective, which enjoyed a 71-year existence from 1924-1995.


The HBO television series of the same name follows the magazine’s tradition of exposing lurid depravity, though it does so on a much higher artistic plane with shades of David Lynch and Flannery O’Connor, and the depravity depicted in the television series is like to 10th power of the seemingly quaint pistol whippings and murders of the magazine’s beginnings. Furthermore, the series seems to me to be an indictment of American culture, its spiritual poverty embodied in the corrupt Christianity of Southern Protestantism and in the rapacious capitalism of multinational corporations.

The director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, constantly underscores these two themes with the visual motifs of crosses and industrial wastelands, which bring to  mind landscapes depicted in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosh.

Check out the opening credits, for example:

Obviously David Lynch’s influence is profound here, not only in the arid, dispassionate images but also in the soundtrack, and this landscape is populated by characters right out of Flannery O’Connor — shiftless Southern scumbags, depraved criminals, corrupt preachers. The twin protagonists Marty and Rust offer an interesting contrast with Marty embodying the hollow hypocritical Protestantism that O’Connor despised and Rust the nihilism that O’Connor, though a devout Catholic, preferred to the mealy-mouthed ignorant insincerity of many of her nominally Christian characters, as we can see in her treatment of the Grandmother and the Misfit in “A Good Man’s Hard to Find.” In fact, in the sixth episode, a grown up child whore whom Marty tried to rescue from a trailer park brothel years ago calls him “a good man” in a restaurant, echoing the Grandmother’s comment to Red Sammy Butts in a restaurant in the O’Connor story. Of course, neither are good men, as Marty clearly demonstrates when he engages in extramarital sex with the woman.

(Here’s an earlier post dealing with Marty and Rust).

goodmanhardtofindThe complex characterization in the context of the cinematic images that create surreal beauty from ugliness makes the series both intellectually and aesthetically interesting, and there’s also a subplot dealing with public education money being funneled into Christian schools to overcome what one character calls “secular, global education.”  These Christian schools lie at the center of the ritualistic Satanic murders the two detectives have spent the better part of two decades trying to unravel.

Certainly, an anthropologist studying the magazine True Detective and the series would conclude that American culture, despite great inroads in civil rights, has declined precipitously since the decades the magazine flourished, and I can’t help but wonder if the creator Pizzolatto is himself a moralist, perhaps even a Catholic in the tradition of both Bosch and O’Connor.

At any rate, the same cultural anthropologist would also have to agree that television has gotten a whole hell of a lot better in the last fifty years.


Pep Talk for Brazil

At the beginning of Budding Prospects, TC Boyle’s protagonist Felix Nasmyth confesses

I’ve always been a quitter.  I quit the Boy Scouts, the glee club, the marching band.  Gave up my paper route, turned my back on the church, stuffed the basketball team.  I dropped out of college, sidestepped the army with a 4-F on the grounds of mental instability, went back to school, made a go of it, entered a Ph.D. program in nineteenth-century British literature, sat in the front row, took notes assiduously, bought a pair of horn-rims, and quit on the eve of my comprehensive exams.  I got married, separated, divorced.  Quit smoking, quit jogging, quit eating red meat.  I quit jobs: digging graves, pumping gas, selling insurance, showing pornographic films in an art theater in Boston.  When I was nineteen I made frantic love to a pinch-faced, sack-bosomed girl I’d known from high school.  She got pregnant.  I quit town.



Pep Talk

[. . .] nor can foot feel, being shod.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

I know what it feels like to give up,
to say ‘that’s it — fuck it — I quit’.

No one over thirty can stand
blowhard braggarts like
William Ernest Henley
who bellowed

“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul”

but who lost his eleven-year-old daughter
and died of tuberculosis at fifty-three.

No, give me unromantics like Philip Larkin
who “work all day” and “get half-drunk at night,”
who lie in bed in the mornings
squandering precious existence dreading death,
contemplating what it will be like
“Not to be anywhere,
And soon.”

“Nothing more terrible, nothing more true.”

Or tortured souls like Gerard Manley Hopkins
who “pitched past pitch of grief”
birthed dissonant poems that screech like talons
scratching across blackboard slate.

* * *

That’s right, Brazil, down by seven,
quit playing defense, get the goddamn thing over,
drive past the favelas to your sturdy houses afterwards,
get into to your beds, pull the covers up over your heads,
and with a flashlight read “Terrence, This Is Stupid Stuff:”

“Therefore, since the world has still

Much good, but much less good than ill,

And while the sun and moon endure

Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,

I’d face it as a wise man would,

And train for ill and not for good.

’Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale

Is not so brisk a brew as ale:

“Out of a stem that scored the hand

I wrung it in a weary land.

But take it: if the smack is sour,

The better for the embittered hour;

It should do good to heart and head

When your soul is in my soul’s stead;

And I will friend you, if I may,

In the dark and cloudy day.


yours truly running down a street in Rio

yours truly running down a street in Rio



True Detective: Existential Nihilism for the Masses

In his 1996 novel Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace has a seventh grader, Hal Incandenza, write an essay contrasting Hawaii Five-O and Hill Street Blues, an essay that ponders the evolution of American television heroes.

Remarkably observant, young Incandenza underscores sociological differences in the programs. For example, Five-O’s Steve McGarrett has the luxury of working on “one case per week” in an office that resembles “the libraries of the landed gentry, hushed behind two heavy doors and wainscoted in thick, tropical oak.” On the other hand, Hill Street’s Frank Furillo, a precinct captain, juggles several cases at once in the chaotic confines of a cluttered cubicle-crammed station house teeming with clashing personalities. Essentially, “McGarrett is not weighed down by administrative State-Police-Chief chores, or by females, or friends, or emotions, or any sorts of conflicting demands on his attention” whereas Furillo “is beset by petty distractions on all sides [. . .] with suspects and snitches and investigating officers and angry community leaders and victims’ families all clamoring for redress.”

Colbert Root in his Summer of Jest, a handy on-line scene-by-scene summary and analysis of the novel, recaps the essay for us:

Where McGarrett exemplifies the modern man of action, Hal argues, Furillo typifies a man of postmodern “reaction.” Both protagonists are heroes of their own show’s culture, but both are also ill-equipped for the other’s world. McGarrett, as the modern man of action, is single-minded, acting to “refashion a truth the audience already knows into an object of law, justice, modern heroism.” Contrariwise, Furillo succeeds because he is cast within a large system; he excels at being a cog in a very large and bureaucratic machine [. . .] That Furillo comes after McGarrett as a typical US protagonist reflects a shift in US cultural preferences. Audiences, Hal says, want the stoic bureaucrat. His successes and shortfalls more closely align with their own. But, Hal ponders, what comes next? What hero will succeed Furillo?

from left Rust (McConaughey) and Marty (Harrlesson)

from left Rust (McConaughey) and Marty (Harrlesson)

Well, if we look to the current HBO crime drama True Detective, the answer is Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey), a nihilistic metaphysician, an agoraphobic detective who considers human consciousness “a tragic misstep in evolution” that enables us “to labor under the illusion of having a self” when we’re merely “accretions[s] of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.”

This cat makes Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Mike Hammer seem downright dewy in comparison. His partner Marty Hart (played by Woody Harrelson) considers Rust “the Michael Jordan of being a son-of-a-bitch,” and when Rust says shit like, “It’s all one ghetto, man, a giant gutter in outer space,” Marty virtually begs him to shut up. You see, despite having kinky handcuffed sex outside of his marriage, Marty is a family man, a Christian who holds essentially a Medieval view of the cosmos, a belief that divine reward or punishment keeps folks (though obviously not himself) in line. Rust responds, as you might expect, with scorn:

If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward then, brother, that person is a piece of shit. And I’d like to get as many of them out in the open as possible. You gotta get together and tell yourself stories that violate every law of the universe just to get through the goddamn day? What’s that say about your reality?

Set in the semi-industrialized backwoods of Louisiana, the narrative features superb characterization and brilliant acting as the two detectives try to solve a series of grisly ritualistic murders. So many symbolic crosses (e.g., aerial shots of perpendicular lines of trees) sneak into the story I can’t help but wonder if its creator, Louisiana fiction writer Nic Pizzolatto, is making some sort of statement.

Whatever the case, Rust is not the fellow you want your sons to grow up to be. He’s a bit of a throwback, a cross between Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man and a Zen Buddhist.

He’s also about as fascinating a character as television has ever produced.

A Pat Conroy Family Reunion of Sorts

An acquaintance, the poet Cathy Smith Bowers, once told me something that should be obvious but had never occurred to me: The adrenal glands of children who grow up in chaotic households pump Vesuvian eruptions of the hormone epinephrine when their parents (or their parents’ boyfriends/girlfriends) hurl invectives and/or furniture at each other.

In plainer English, growing up in fucked-up households tends to fuck you up, not only mentally, but physically as well — as if there is a difference anyway.

Cathy Smith Bowers

Cathy Smith Bowers

Cathy went on to say that once these children leave the war zones of their childhoods, they often develop a need for high levels of adrenaline and a hankering for jangled nerves, for that elevated heart rate, that feeling of excitement, and, of course, there’s nothing like a little snort of cocaine to replicate that bodily high, and nothing like a drug habit to create chaos, and thus, to bring the family melodrama back full circle.

Cathy, like many of us, is no stranger to the toll of growing up in an unhappy home. Here’s her poem “The Boxers” that makes manifest her point:

When my father, after twenty years, came home

to die, circling, circling, like an animal

we believed extinct, it was my crazy aunt

who took him in, who told later

how the taxi had dumped him

bleached and whimpering on her porch.

And she who had not lived with him

thought his sons and daughters cruel

not to come when he began to call our names.

He died, and soon after, a package in brown wrapping

arrived at my address. My sister, who did not

attend the funeral, kept urging me to open it

and I kept saying I would, soon. Every day

when I came home from work, there it was

sitting at my back door, the remnants

of my father’s life—years in the mill

spinning and doffing, then drinking into morning

as he railed at the walls, the cotton

still clinging to his fists. Weeks had passed

when finally my sister and I, after two stiff bourbons,

began to rip the paper, slowly in strips

like archaeologists unclothing a mummy.

And all that was there were a few plaid flannels,

the jacket to a leisure suit, and a pair of boxers,

white and baggy, Rorschached in urine—a smaller size,

my sister said, than the way she remembered him.

Then she offered to drop the things at the Salvation Army

store she passed on her way home. In July

we went shopping for swim suits and I could

see her in the curtained stall across from mine.

She was pulling her slip over her head when I saw

she was wearing them, her thighs like the pale stems

of mushrooms emerging from the boxers’ billowy

legs, whiter, softer now, washed clean. I still

can’t say why my sister, that day in the Salvation

Army store, glanced up, as I’ve imagined,

to see if anyone was watching

before she slipped those boxers from the soiled heap

of our father’s clothes. Nor why

I took so long to open that package, both wanting

and fearing whatever lay inside. Like a child

huddled by the campfire who cries out in terror

at the story someone just told

and, still weeping, begs for it again.

“The Boxers” by Cathy Smith Bowers, from The Love that Ended Yesterday in Texas. © Texas Tech University Press, 1992. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

* * *

When we look to literature for examples of dysfunctional American families, we immediately think of Faulkner’s Compsons, any number of Tennessee Williams’ people, the Tyrones of Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into the Night, and the tortured families who inhabit the pages of Pat Conroy’s novels.

Our friend Megan Conroy sometimes stays with us for a few days in July when she travels from California to visit her famous father, stepmother, and aunts and uncles at Fripp Island. Unfortunately, this year she couldn’t make it up to Charleston, so she invited us down to Fripp to her father’s beach house.

back yard

back yard

Situated on a lagoon, the Conroy beach house is the antithesis of gothic — open and airy and looking out onto a backyard where practically tame deer feed. When we arrived, Megan greeted us and introduced her uncle Mike, who bears a remarkable resemblance to his older brother and who can give him a run for his money as a raconteur. Also there were Mike’s wife Jeannie, his sister Kathy, Megan’s sisters Jessica and Melissa, their husbands, and a host of grandchildren too numerous to name.

Pat and his wife the novelist Cassandra King arrived after a midday dinner of fired chicken, macaroni and cheese, red rice, cantaloupe, and coleslaw. The older folk traded stories in typical Southern fashion in the open family room while younger members of the clan watched Germany battle Algeria in another space.

Rather than what you might expect, hanging out with Pat Conroy on that day was more like hanging out with Sam Clemens than Eugene O’Neill.

A few excerpts:

Pat: [My arch-conservative ex-father-in-law] makes Rush Limbaugh look like Chairman Mao.

Megan: I didn’t want a fancy wedding dress until I tried one on.   I didn’t want a veil until I tried one on. When they told me don’t you want to take off your veil after the ceremony, I said, “No, when do you ever get to wear a veil?”

Pat: That dress cost a million dollars. Cassandra, remember when you opened the closet door and found it standing up by itself? Horrifying!


In other words, the Conroys seemed like one big happy family and that at least the youngest have broken the dysfunctional cycle of self-generated misery that dysfunction tends to generate, which is remarkable given the scorched earth of the Great Santini’s children’s childhoods. To wit an excerpt from Pat’s memoir The Death of Santini:

When I was thirty years old, my novel The Great Santini was published, and there were many things in that book I was afraid to write or feared that no one would believe. But this year I turned sixty-five, the official starting date of old age and the beginning count down to my inevitable death. I’ve come to realize that I still carry the bruised freight of that childhood every day. I can’t run away, hide, or pretend it never happened. I wear it on my back like the carapace of a tortoise, except my shell burdens and does not protect. It weighs me down and fills me with dread.

The Conroy children were all casualties of war, conscripts in a battle we didn’t sign up for on the bloodied envelope of our birth certificates. I grew up to become the family evangelist; Michael, the vessel of anxiety; Kathy, who missed her childhood by going to sleep at six every night; Jim, who is called the dark one; Tim, the sweetest one – and can barely stand to be around any of us; and Tom, our lost and never-to-be found brother. My personal tragedy lies with my sister, Carol Ann, the poet I grew up with and adored…

I’ve got to try and make sense of it one last time, a final circling of the block, a reckoning, another dive into the caves of the coral reef where the morays wait in ambush, one more night flight into the immortal darkness to study that house of pain one final time. Then I’ll be finished with you, Mom and Dad. I’ll leave you in peace and not bother you again. And I’ll pray that your stormy spirits find peace in the house of the Lord. But I must examine the wreckage one last time.

Yet they appeared to me one big happy family!

from left to right Pat's feet, his sister Kathy, wife Cassandra, brother Mike and sister-i-law Jeannie

from left to right Pat’s feet, his sister Kathy, Cassandra King, brother Mike and sister-in-law Jeannie