Our Own Little Worlds

Although Daddy had nothing but contempt for ”bluebloods,” Mama was ambitious for me, a shy and anxious only child, so she immediately accepted Mrs. Tillyard’s invitation to come and play with Lawson at their home.

Situated on a hill, it was an impressive two-story clapboard house with white square columns, high ceilings, faded oriental rugs, and a strange odor – musty, sweet, sad. Pathologically shy, I hadn’t wanted to come, and this strange boy was so pale that you could see blue veins running like rivers underneath his skin. He had long, curly red hair, big blue eyes, and a tiny girlish mouth. He spoke formally, like a character in a book or in an old movie. After shaking my hand, he said, “Shall we go upstairs so I can show you my toys?”

mural     I followed him, glancing back down at Mama and Mrs. Tillyard, who stood stiff-backed and whose hair was already white. I wanted to kiss Mama goodbye, but now she was out-of-sight as I followed Lawson to the end of the hall. Walking on tiptoes, leaning forward at an awkward angle, he opened the door to a room like I’d never seen before. Someone – a skilled artist – had painted on its walls a vista looking out from the battlements of a castle. Silver armored knights on horseback jousted in the distance. Across rolling green hills were dragons, fairies, faraway castles, and a forest. Puffy white clouds floated in the blue sky of the ceiling,

Lawson said matter-of-factly, “Welcome to my own little world.” Then he added, “Close the door. Quickly.”

I obeyed.

“I know they call you Trey,” he said, “but what is your Christian name?”

“Christian name?”

“Your real first name.”

“It’s John.”

“I shall call you John then. I detest nicknames. By the way, I play with dolls.”

This admission didn’t shock me. He wasn’t the first boy I’d met who played with dolls. He opened one of the hatches of a built-in cabinet that ran the length of the wall and beckoned me to look. His dolls weren’t baby dolls but miniature people, male and female, dressed in costumes from various countries – a Japanese woman, a Scotsman with kilts and a bagpipe, a dark skinned boy with a turban. They were standing in a row, about ten of them, facing sideways in the same direction as if they were waiting in line.

He reached in and retrieved a blonde pigtailed girl in a alpine outfit who had been unprofessionally painted brown. “This is my lady in waiting. Her name is Octavia.”

“Who painted her/”

“I did.”


“Because the real Octavia is brown.”

Just then the door opened, and Mrs. Tillyard and Mama stepped in. I was afraid that they would see the doll and frown, but they didn’t seem to notice. “My word,” Mama said, “this room is like a wonderland!”

“Lawson’s idea,” Mrs. Tillyard said proudly. “He’s very much the bookworm, very enamored of the Middle Ages.”

Mama smiled weakly, said goodbye and that she’d pick me up at four. I sat there, next to the longest toy chest in the world, and waved goodbye.   I felt more at ease, as if I might have fun playing with Lawson. This was a new world, a lavish world.

He asked what I liked to do, and I said to play checkers, but he suggested Parcheesi instead. He went over to a different compartment of the cabinet and brought out the game, carefully unpacking it. He plinked a pair of dice into one of the four cardboard canisters and handed it to me.

“Pick whatever color you like and go first.”

“Don’t you want to roll for it?”

“No, you’re my guest. You go first.”

So we played Parcheesi, emphatically counting out the steps of the men, tapping them in the spaces: one-two-three; one-two-three-four.

“I’m afraid I’ve gotten myself into a tragic love affair,” Lawson suddenly said. I glanced up from the board. He was sitting with his legs crossed in front of him while leaning on his right arm.

“I met her at Spells Grocery Store. Have you been to Spells? It’s a dusty, dark, old country store loaded with Mary Janes, Squirrel Nut Zippers, and Tootsie Rolls. It’s there I met Octavia. Love at first sight,but I can tell you right now it’s doomed.”

Although I secretly liked girls, you were supposed to pretend you hated them.

“Octavia is a funny name,” I said.

She’s colored. That’s not an unusual colored name. They seem to especially like old Roman names.”


“Colored as in Alston Elementary School.”

Though I didn’t look up, I could tell he was staring at me. “You shouldn’t kid like that,” I finally said.

“I’m not kidding. She’s the most beautiful girl in the entire world.”

“That’s impossible,” I said.

“Why do you say that?”

I could see that he wasn’t kidding

“Colored people aren’t allowed to be beautiful.”

“Who says?”


“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” he said.

I rattled the dice and cast them.   My stomach was tightening, beginning to cramp. Although you were supposed to be nice to colored people, loving them was unthinkable, far worse than playing with dolls. I wanted to call Mama, but I was scared to because she wouldn’t believe that my stomach really hurt. “I’m tired of playing this,” Lawton said. “Do you want to see my very favorite toy? What’s the matter with you? Are you crying?”

“I got a stomach ache,” I said. “It really, really hurts.”

“Perhaps, it is something that you ate,” he suggested. “It’ll go away.”

“I need to call my mama to come get me,” I said.

“He suddenly looked terribly concerned. “Very well, stay here. I’ll inform Mother if you make me a solemn promise.”

“What’s that?”

“That you promise to come see me again when you’re better. You’re not stupid like the boys Mother calls and brings around here. And I haven’t shown you my model castle or toy knights and damsels and dragons and ogres. Do you promise? I mean to come again? Give me your word of honor.”

“I promise,’ I said.

“Word of honor.”

“Word of honor.”

I never did go visit Lawson again. On the way home in the car, I told Mama when she started fussing how Lawson liked to play with dolls and that he was in love with a colored girl. When Mrs. Tillyard later called to invite me over, I heard Mama whisper a lie into the telephone receiver. I hadn’t known my mother was capable of lying. Eventually, Mrs. Tillyard quit calling, and after Lawson left for boarding school up north, my memory of him and his own little world faded.

On weeknights, Daddy would come home from the Shipyard, turn on the Walter Cronkite, and we would watch in black and white the belligerent Mississippi sheriffs, the policemen with fire hoses, the snarling German shepherds. Then one day, I found myself in Spells Grocery, and I remembered Lawson and Octavia, and I think I might have seen her counting out pennies on the counter, a tall, graceful, barefooted girl with cornrows and a calico dress.

Undergraduate Existentialism Circa 1973

Rick Borstelman 2003

Rick Borstelman 2003

Existentialism was all the rage in the 60’s and ‘70’s when I intermittently attended classes in high school and college. The philosophy of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus must have hit its peak then, because the authorities allowed students to smoke — in high school in certain outdoor designated areas, and in college, right there in class. If existentialism is about anything, it’s about the rights of the individual, as we shall see.

kierkSøren Kierkegaard

Where I went to college each desk in the Humanities Building had a disposable cardboard ashtray. Students bogarted their Marlboros as they took notes, scrawling as best they could the professor’s explanation of Kierkegaard’s exegesis of the Abraham and Isaac story, scrawling (in my case, illegibly) observations like

Faith is precisely the paradox that the single individual as the single individual is higher than the universal, is justified before it, not as inferior to it but superior—yet in such a way, please note, that it is the single individual who, after being subordinate as the single individual to the universal, now by means of the universal becomes the single individual who as the single individual is superior, that the single individual as the single individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute. This position cannot be mediated, for all mediation takes place only by virtue of the universal; it is and remains for all eternity a paradox, impervious to thought. And yet faith is this paradox…

The fact that you couldn’t follow the argument, that you couldn’t figure out what the fuck the subject of the third “is” was wasn’t* important because professors didn’t test you on the material; they had you write essays just as unintelligible as the texts you couldn’t understand, which represented a triumph of subjectivity over objectivity because who has the authority to tell an individual that his reading of the text is incorrect. That would have been so fascistic.

For example, here might be my undergraduate explanation of the passage I quoted above:

See, the individual smoker who is superior to the rest of the class who doesn’t smoke gets to smoke because the smoker’s subjective universe is paradoxically the only universe because if it weren’t for him, the individual smoker, there would be no universe, the way there was no universe as far as he was concerned in 1492 because he was not as yet a sentient being who possessed the autonomy to light up a Marlboro, despite that the individual who sits behind him, who, once again, would not exist for him if not for his being able to perceive her, or, in this case not perceive her, as she suffers an asthma attack because of the smoke that would not exist except for him.

You got A’s for this type of shit — at least I did.

Meanwhile, next door, in the poetry class you might have students reading this poem by Emily Dickinson:

Abraham to kill him
Was distinctly told—
Isaac was an Urchin—
Abraham was old—

Not a hesitation—
Abraham complied—
Flattered by Obeisance
Tyranny demurred—

Isaac—to his children
Lived to tell the tale—
Moral—with a mastiff
Manners may prevail.

Sacrifice_of_Isaac-Caravaggio_(Uffizi)Now, this poem, despite its implicit criticism of the All Mighty, poses dangers for the existentialist because it doesn’t exactly offer a multitude of defensible readings. The poem rather obviously suggests that Abraham agreed to kill his beloved son Isaac because Abraham was afraid God was going to sic a big ferocious dog on his ass.

These were the types of classes existentialists should avoid because the professors tended to dismiss the right of the individual to spell words whichever way he wanted. These fascist bastards took off points when you spelled “p-a-i-d” “p-a-y-ed.”

*Verbs of being rule in existentialism; the fact that I strung three in a row suggests I get it.

new-nietzscheFredrich Nietzsche

In the progression of existential philosophers, Nietzsche comes next chronologically, and back in 1973, he was a lot easier and more fun to read than Kierkegaard. Plus, Nietzsche was quotable, the king of the aphorism. You’d even heard of some of his sayings before, like

And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

All things are subject to interpretation.

That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

God is dead.

The problem with Nietzsche, though, is that these killer quotable quotes are imbedded in long, rambling essays that lack structure and sometimes seem to contradict themselves, so by the time you get to the end, you’re not sure what his main point is.

Once you got to Nietzsche in your 1973 existential survey, all that was necessary is that you kept your mouth shut if you were a Christian and not try to exercise your first amendment freedom-of-speech right because chances are your professor was an atheist who would rip you to shreds because, after all, the universe would not exist except for him.

In other words, he’d sic his rhetorical Mastiff on you.

Jean Paul Sartre

sartre-jp-728x485Although Sartre’s masterpiece On Being and Nothingness makes Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling read like a Hemingway story in comparison, the ideas themselves are not that hard to understand.

What you got is a consciousness and whatever the consciousness is perceiving, and because this consciousness has a negative power of nothingness that can create a lack of self-identity, you, the individual, need to exercise your freedom by bringing into being and acting upon your individual spontaneous choices, and if you fail to do so, if, say, you decide not to run off to Best Buy and purchase a TV monitor the size of a drive-in movie screen and instead grade those sophomore essays, you have committed “bad faith,” which leads to “nausea,” which is really stupid of you because life is meaningless, and you’ll be dead in no time and therefore kiss good-bye the universe that only exists because you perceive it be.

On on that happy note, it’s DVD time.

A Rural Funeral

Funeral ProgramWhat they call Main Street in Jackson, South Carolina, isn’t what I would call a street — it’s more like a road running through farm fields, past a row of handsome houses standing on generous lots subdivided from what was once a pecan grove. The only businesses I saw: some type of mechanical repair shop with a hand-lettered sign and a defunct “Super Market.” There appear to be more churches in Jackson than businesses, at least on Main Street. We’re talking the Deep South, the Bible Belt, country music, V-8 engines, spiritual people.

I was at Jackson to attend the funeral of my first cousin Debbie, Uncle David’s second daughter, and although as a youngster I asked God to bless Elaine, Debbie, Pamela, and Scarlet each night as I recited “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep,” we rarely got together in childhood and virtually never in adulthood, unless we were visiting the terminally ill or, like yesterday, laying a departed family member to rest.

For whatever reason, my branch of the Moore clan isn’t close — even my siblings and I don’t see each other often — so it isn’t surprising that I can count the memories of visiting my cousins on one hand. However, when we did get together, we had a blast playing pick-up sticks and softball or listening to German-born Aunt Maria play her accordion. We simply enjoyed being together because there’s something about blood, about seeing hints of your features stamped on someone else, knowing you have sprung from common roots.

Elaine Ackerman Moore

Elaine Ackerman Moore

Roots like our irascible great granddaddy Luther Moore (“I’m deaf and blind so there’s no need to come up and talk to me!”), our sweet great grandmama and great granddaddy Ackerman, whose daughter, our grandmother, the beautiful Elaine Ackerman Moore, died before we were born and for whom my father and Uncle David mourned for the rest of their lives.

Blood, like they say, is thick.

Perhaps the most memorable event of our cousinhood occurred when Mama sold Uncle David a pony my father had bought and tried to keep in our backyard in a subdivision not zoned for farm animals. This pony was the equine equivalent of Homer Jo Roberts, Summerville’s town bully, who once punched 24 different people one night at the Curve-In Pool (I was one of them) because, as he later said by way of apology, “ Whiskey and beer don’t mix.”

This pony kicked, bit, brayed. I doubt John Wayne would have the courage to put a saddle on him. More problematic was the pony’s penchant for busting out of the make-shift fencing Daddy had erected by nailing some 2x4s to trees in our backyard. This transformation of our backyard into a farm helped to solidify our status as not-ideal neighbors (we also had tied to a tree in the backyard a wingless Ryan PT-22 airplane that we had to crank once a week to keep the engine from freezing). Neighbors were particularly unhappy when the pony got out and trampled their flower beds or deposited unsought fertilizer on their lawns.

So, Uncle David to the rescue. He drove from Jackson to Summerville with a horse trailer and relieved us of the nightmare, or, if you will, night-pony, whose behavior seemed to have improved remarkably the next time I saw him in Jackson safely enclosed behind well-constructed fencing.

I learned at her funeral that my cousin Debbie was a devout animal lover and had left behind two beloved dogs, Smoky and the Bandit. I already knew of her generosity because when Daddy was dying, she took off work and stayed for days with Mama. While she was there, she fixed mama’s broken washing machine and rewired the utility room. Debbie was a first-rate mechanic who could repair anything, who could replace the floor of a trailer, who could hold her own working beside anybody.

However, until yesterday, I had no idea of the breadth and depth of Debbie’s generosity. I learned it through reminiscences delivered during the service by her nephews, a niece, and a co-worker. I learned of material gifts galore and also of the gift of time devoted to others, the gift of love bestowed.

For example, when one nephew had to sell his beloved yellow Camaro, Debbie insisted on buying it herself so she could, unknown to him, leave it to him upon her death. I learned of her extraordinary work ethic, her meticulousness, her courage in butting heads with authority figures (a Moore trait for sure), her stoicism in enduring with grace the ravages of cancer.

I also learned of her sense of humor, an attribute that she kept right up to the very end.

For example. during her last week on earth, she was helped out of bed into her wheelchair, donned a wig, and when the nurse came in, Debbie asked her what she had put in her IV bag.

“Nothing special, just the regular.”

“Well, look what it’s done,” Debbie said. “Whatever it was, It made all my hair grow back.”

What I learned most profoundly is how much I had missed by not really knowing Debbie. Watching her nephew Steven manfully deliver an eloquent, heartfelt eulogy, I felt love manifested palatably in that sanctuary. The entire funeral from start to finish underscored the power of love and faith (something I certainly lack). How moving to hear Debbie’s brother-in-law Jeff sing to the accompaniment of his own guitar a medley of “Amazing Grace” and “My Chains Are Gone.”

On the front of the program for Debbie’s funeral are the words “Love is my gift.” How fitting.

Music Quiz: Can You Identify These 1966 Haiku-Converted Hits?

Okay, first off, I’ve never been fan of haikus, no, not even in the 5th grade when a writing assignment was limited to 17 syllables.  Given that Japanese characters have a built-in visual component that the Roman alphabet lacks, I don’t think haikus work well in English.  They’re so ripe for parody:

hummingbird hovers —

basset hound lifts leg to piss —

the blind sun moves on

Nevertheless, haikus are compact and well-suited for riddles, or this little quiz for you Medicare-eligible music lovers out there.  I’ve chosen the year 1966 and written 5 haikus that represent songs from Billboard’s Top 100 of that year, the year that preceded the Summer of Love, the year when the #1 song was Sgt. Barry Sandler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets.”

So see if you can identify the song from the haiku, and to get the answer, click on the audio sample below.

Here’s Billboard’s #3 song of 1966:

digits 9 and 6

lying back to back in bed

too many teardrops


Here’s #20:

sledgehammer of hurt,

funereal organ moan

she bring misery



girls in summer clothes

walk past red doors to the tune

of sitar strum – drums!


poor Saint Stephen ain’t

alone, no, eventually,



the word calamine

don’t appear in this itch song –

he needs some scratching


slip harpo



Let’s Rebrand Ultra-Conservatives as Reactionaries

One thing I try to stress to my students is that they shouldn’t assume that technological sophistication is the equivalent spiritual, intellectual, or social sophistication. Certainly, Tibet isn’t known for its state-of-the-art infrastructure, luxury condos, or sound systems, but few First World citizens would argue that US Televangelist Joel Osteen is a higher being than the Dalai Lama or that Jacques Derrida’s intellect was superior to Aristotle’s or that Dr. Phil understands human nature better than Geoffrey Chaucer.

For example, here’s one former member of the University of South Carolina’s Law Review, a former executive director of the South Carolina’s Republican Party, and current 21st Century US citizen’s solution to the now all but forgotten Ebola crisis:

todd quote







Need I add that, of course, Mr. Kincannon is pro-life.

Imagine someone in the 1950’s suggesting euthanasia as a way to eradicate polio. I suspect if you conducted a poll of sustenance farmers throughout Asia, the vast majority would consider Mr. Kincannon’s solution to the Ebola epidemic barbaric, even though a large number of them might very well be illiterate.

This same Kincannon fellow in another tweet offers this rather un-PC assessment of the original inhabitants of the American continent:

Tood q 2







Of course, the metaphor is backwards: my ancestors, the colonists, were the infestation. Native Americans were here first. We sort of, to be crude about it, car-jacked the continent.

Unfortunately, the media brand rabble-rousers like Kincannon as conservatives, but they have about as much in common with Edmund Burke as Andrew Dice Clay does with Oscar Wilde. They are reactionaries, hipshooters, intemperate, the opposite of conservatives.

Of course, the irony is that often far right adversaries like Benjamin Netanyahu and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei often have a lot in common — monotheism, tribal intransigence and the fervent wish that the US/Irani negotiations fail.

What If Mrs Malaprop and W Had a Baby?

Kitty Balay as Mrs. Malaprop

Kitty Balay as Mrs. Malaprop

Somehow I copped an undergraduate degree in English and earned 24 graduate hours without ever running across Mrs. Malaprop, one of the great comic characters of the English stage. Nope, I didn’t make her acquaintance until I started teaching high school, specifically Richard Sheridan’s The Rivals, a 1775 play.

It is from Mrs. Malaprop, a pompous fuddy-duddy moralistic widow, that we get the word malapropism, that delightful linguistic confusion that arises when someone stretches her vocabulary just a bit too far, confuses polysyllabic words, and makes a colossal ass out of herself.

Here is Mrs. M chastising her niece Lydia:

You thought, miss! I don’t know any business you have to think at all — thought does not become a young woman. But the point we would request is, that you will promise to forget this fellow — to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory.

Through the course of the play, she reprehends true meaning, bemoans the slight affluence she has over her niece, can’t provide the perpendiculars of a murder.

Certainly, Archie Bunker can trace his line of descent through her:

“I ain’t a man of carnival instinctuals like you.”

“The hookeries and massageries…the whole world is turning into a regular Sodom and Glocca Morra.”

Off-the-boat Jews” (i.e., Orthodox).

Tim Moore portraying Kingfish Stevens

Tim Moore portraying Kingfish Stevens

Then there’s that earlier African American sitcom character, Mr. George “Kingfish” Stevens of The Amos ’n’ Andy show from the ’50’s who not only “resents the allegation’ but also “resents the alligator.”

Of course, malapropisms aren’t only the domain of fictional characters. Can you name the following real life malapropisms with their linguistically challenged flesh-and-blood originators, three of whom are politicians and two baseball hall-of-famers?

1. Republicans understand the bondage between a mother and a child.

2. Oftentimes we live in a processed world; you know, people focus on the process and not the results.

3. Alcoholics Unanimous

4. “The players returned to their respectable bases.

5. “Texas has a lot of electrical votes.”

Oh, yeah, the answer to the question — what would you get if you crossed Mrs. Malaprop  with George W Bush — is the great and beloved Yogi Berra.

Now, thet answer to that question is what Yogi once called a very close game, i.e.,  “a cliff-dweller.


It’s Story Time – Measure for Measure Edition

In 1951 in a letter to Harold Adam Innis, Marshall McLuhan claimed that “[t]he young today cannot follow narrative, but they are alert to drama. They cannot bear description, but they love landscape and action.“ It is perhaps foolish for a pedestrian blogger to dare to contradict such a colossus as McLuhan, but I beg to differ. High school students still love to hear a story told out loud, or at least my students do.

I don’t know whether their delight in hearing oral narratives stems from nostalgia for those less complicated days of kindergarten when they sat in circles on carpeted floors, or if it stems from even more profound depths, from some deep-rooted inclination that made keen listeners around ancestral fires more likely to pick up on life-enhancing lore. Whatever the case, whenever I announce to one of my classes, “It’s story time,” they slap shut their laptops and lean towards me in eager anticipation. Of course, I don a mask, assume a postmodern irony-laden patronizing narrative voice, supply dialogue in various tonalities, and gesticulate when appropriate.

For example, last Thursday, I announced it was story time, and told them a tale which I informed them is called “Measure for Measure.”

* * *

Measure for measure by by Hannah Tompkins

Measure for measure by by Hannah Tompkins

Boys and girls, once upon a time in the city of Vienna, there was a Duke named Vincentio who was sort of like a Dean of Students and Principal wrapped up in one, and because Vincentio was a kindly man, he sometimes didn’t enforce the letter of the law, or even some of the laws themselves. Human nature being what it is, the citizens of Vienna started taking advantage of this laxity, the way you do by violating the dress code with your short skirts and contraband hoodies, you know, because we teachers are too lazy or pusillanimous to enforce the dress code.

Plus, some of the Vienna’s laws were ridiculously old-fashioned and inhumanely severe. For example, boys and girls, [cue Pentecostal preacher’s voice] forn-i-CA-tion was a capital crime. If an unmarried man and an unmarried woman engaged in [cue effete professorial voice] coitus and were caught, the state beheaded the man (but let the woman live much to the chagrin of some feminist critics).

But the thing is. because laws against sex were being ignored, Vienna had become – pardon the pun – a hotbed of lechery and had been overrun by strumpets (what your hiphop heroes call hos), bawds (what your hiphop heroes call pimps), and pox (what your heath teacher calls STDs).

Well, Duke Vincentio decides enough is enough, but he doesn’t want to seem like the bad guy, so he claims to be running off to Hungary and puts his Deputy Angelo in charge to do the dirty work of cleansing Vienna of riffraff and sexual escapades. Only the Duke doesn’t really leave Vienna but disguises himself as a friar so he can keep tabs on how Angelo handles things.

The Duke chose Angelo because like his name implies, he seems to be without sin. You see, this Angelo is a rule-follower extraordinaire. He would never like you, Ashley, wear a baseball cap indoors, or you, Mason, jaywalk on King Street. And not only that, not only has he never engaged in any kind of sexual activity, he has never even had the desire to. His blood, as one of the minor characters puts it, is “like snow broth.”

So Angelo gets to work pulling down bordellos (i.e. whorehouses) in the suburbs and enforcing all of the other laws pertaining to sexual misconduct.

As it turns out, the first person to get busted for intercourse is a twenty-year-old named Claudio who impregnated his finance Juliet. Even though it has been years since anyone has been arrested, much less beheaded for this crime, Angelo not only has Claudio shackled but insists he be perp-walked through the streets to advertise that the times they are a-changing.

Claudio and Juliet are a nice couple from nice familes and were engaged at the time when weak-willed they made what our guidance counsellors call “a bad decision.”

“Claudio and Isabella” by William Holman Hunt:

Everyone else in the government is sympathetic to their plight, and luckily, for Claudio, he has a beautiful and eloquent sister named Isabella who is in the process of jumping through the hoops young women jumped through in those days to become nuns. After she visits Claudio in prison,  one of Claudio’s pals Luciano accompanies Isabella to Angelo’s house to have her plead for mercy. If anyone has the power to change anyone’s mind, it’s Isabella, who like I said, is not only beautiful but is so articulate that she makes your own modest storyteller sound by comparison like Lenny in Of Mice and Men.

And Isabella succeeds, all too well. Yes, she melts that snow broth of Angelo’s blood, all right, but raises its temperature so high it turns into a hot volcanic eruption of lust. That’s right, for the first time in his entire life, Angelo suffers what Patti Smith calls “the arrows of desire,” and even though Angelo knows it’s wrong, even though he fully understands the base hypocrisy of what he proposes, he tells Isabella that he will let her brother go if she will sleep with him, i.e., Angelo.

Isabella storms out in rage confident that her brother Claudio would prefer to die a thousand deaths rather than have her commit such an act of ignominy.

When she arrives at the prison to give Claudio the bad news, the Duke is there disguised as a friar trying to console Claudio with this killer contemptus mundi speech, cataloging all the slings and arrows that flesh is heir to, like growing old and ugly while your children “do curse the gout serpigo, and the rheum,/For ending thee no sooner.”

The Duke retreats and eavesdrops on Claudio and Isabella’s conversation, which goes like this.

“What’s the scoop, Isabella?”

“Good news. Lord Angelo has some business in heaven. He’s sending you there as his ambassador. You’ll be shipping off tomorrow.”

“You call that good news! That’s not good news!”

“Claudio, I hesitate to tell you this because it’s really going to infuriate you, but Angelo actually did say he’d let you go if I did something for him.”

Really! What is it? Tell me!”

“It will make you furious.”

“Why? C’mon tell me. What is it he wants you to do for him!”

“He said he’d let you go if I slept with him.”

“Really!?!?! What did you say?”

“Of course, I said what you would want me to say, of course not!”

“Wait, Isabella, you said no? Oh, sister, come on! If by committing such a sin you save a life, that sin becomes a virtue. You gotta do this for me. Dying sucks, it’s scary, please-please-please!”

Isabella’s not having any of it. She storms out furious but is approached by the Duke-in-Friar’s-Clothing who shares with her a plan.

“Marianna” by Małgorzata Maj

The Friar tells Isabella that Angelo has a fiancée of his own, a woebegone woman named Mariana who pines away in a “moated grange”; that’s a “farm with a ditch around it” for you lazy students who haven’t found time yet to memorize the Oxford English Dictionary. Anyway, Angelo has refused to marry Mariana because the ship carrying her brother who was transporting riches for her dowry sank drowning her brother and losing the riches.

“No way, Jose” (or the Italian equivalent) Angelo says, “I’m not marrying you because you’re no longer rich.”

This Angelo is a piece of work, don’t you think? He makes pre-conversion Ebenezer Scrooge look charitable.

Anyway, the Duke shares the plan: “Go back and tell Angelo, yes, you’ll sleep with him, but only at this certain moated grange, and in complete silence and darkness.”

So she does so, and Angelo arrives at the moated grange, enters the bedroom, and in utter darkness does the deed with – can you guess who – that’s right, Mariana!

So Angelo returns to Vienna and demands that Claudio be put death anyway because he’s afraid Claudio will find out he’s had sex with his sister and seek revenge. He demands that Claudio’s head be brought to him for proof. What a, as Sugar-Boy says in All the King’s Men, b-b-b-b-astard!

Well, there’s another prisoner to be beheaded named Bernardine, so the Duke says behead him and bring Angelo that head, but Bernardine refuses to be put to death because he’s too hungover and is so persistent that they give up. Anyway, as luck would have it, a pirate who looks more like Claudio anyway died in prison that night, so they cut off his head and take it to Angelo.

The Friar lets Isabella think, though, that her brother is dead. It seems that friars back in those days —- remember Friar Laurence from Romeo and Juliet — had no qualms having loved ones think their kinfolk were dead.

Anyway, news arrives that the Duke is returning to Vienna. He sheds his disguise and arrives at the gates where he’s met by virtually everyone in the story who’s not in jail. Isabella tells the Duke her story, and Angelo denies it, relying on the universal common knowledge that he’s never broken a rule, much less a [no, I didn’t go there].

The Duke pretends to think that Isabella is mad because what she claims is so wildly out of whack with Angelo’s reputation. How could Angelo be, as she claims, a “virgin-violater?” But again, her speech is so articulate it seems to defy the charge of insanity.

Isabella then tells what some might call a lie, others a fib. She claims she’s slept with Angelo.

No, way, Jose (or it’s Italian equivalent) the Duke says. There’s no way Angelo would put to death a man for something he himself has done unlawfully. No one could possibly be such a vile hypocrite, much less such a noble outstanding non-jaywalking citizen like Angelo!

The Duke demands his underlings to cart Isabella to jail for lying, and she moans, “Only if the Friar were here.”

The Duke calls for the Friar, but is told by another priest that he’s sick and cannot come.

They haul Isabella off, and Marianna enters hidden by a black veil. She says Isabella was lying, that it was she — Mariana — who had slept with Angelo. She takes off her veil.

Angelo admits he used to be engaged to but has never slept with Mariana. The Duke pretends to lose patience and tells the Provost to settle matters.

The Duke splits but then reenters wearing his Friar disguise.

All the while this man named Lucio has been lying to the Duke-as-Duke telling him that the Friar had been speaking out against the Duke, calling the Duke a fishmonger [what your hiphop heroes call a pimp], etc., which of course is ironic given the Duke and Friar are one in the same. He claims the Friar has put up Mariana and Isabella to slander Angelo. A Provost tells the guards to go fetch, Isabella, which they do.

Abusing the friar, Lucio yanks off his hood to discover to his horror that – uh-oh!

026635Time to wrap things up? Angelo confesses, begs to be executed, but the Duke makes him marry Mariana. Then he says the must execute Angelo because Claudio has been executed. Mariana pleads with Isabella to help save Angelo’s life, which she does on her knees in a reprise of her original pleading for Claudio’s life.

The Duke ain’t no Angelo; he pardons him, then pretends to fire the Provost who returns with — drumroll — symbol clash !!! – Claudio!!!. TA DA!

The Duke asks Isabella to marry him, but she doesn’t answer. The Duke says he’s gonna have Lucio beaten and then hanged but instead makes him marry a prostitute he had “known in the biblical sense. “ Ha Ha! Even though Lucio would rather be beaten and hanged, the Duke makes him marry anyway.

Just for a little icing, the Duke pardons Bernadine, who may be the original model for Otis Campbell in Andy of Mayberry.

So the story ends with four marriages  and a pardon — though happily ever after isn’t exactly the vibe we get when the story concludes.

And that’s, boys and girls, story time for today!

* * *

Of course, this written rendition lacks the dynamics of listening to oral stories – voices, gestures, eye-contact, the dynamic energy between audience and tale-teller, questions that the students ask, etc.

I promise, though, they virtually all pay attention and often ask when are we going to have another story time.

My reason for providing them Measure for Measure’s plot is this: we’re studying that saddest of sad sacks, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whose poem “Marianna” the students had read for homework the night before.

The epigraph of the poem, as you can see below, is “Marianna of the moated grange.” Of course, epigraphs are supposed to provide readers with a cross-reference, some insight into the meaning of the poem. After “hearing” the story of Measure for Measure what might you think the poem might be about? Justice? Hypocrisy? What Alex calls in A Clockwork Orange the “ol’ in-and-out.”

We’ll see for yourself, and if you’re not the poetry-reading type, at least check out the first and last stanzas:


“Mariana in the Moated Grange” 
(Shakespeare, Measure for Measure)

With blackest moss the flower-plots
Were thickly crusted, one and all:
The rusted nails fell from the knots
That held the pear to the gable-wall.
The broken sheds look’d sad and strange:
Unlifted was the clinking latch;
Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
Upon the lonely moated grange.
She only said, “My life is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!”

Her tears fell with the dews at even;
Her tears fell ere the dews were dried;
She could not look on the sweet heaven,
Either at morn or eventide.
After the flitting of the bats,
When thickest dark did trance the sky,
She drew her casement-curtain by,
And glanced athwart the glooming flats.
She only said, “The night is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!”

Upon the middle of the night,
Waking she heard the night-fowl crow:
The cock sung out an hour ere light:
From the dark fen the oxen’s low
Came to her: without hope of change,
In sleep she seem’d to walk forlorn,
Till cold winds woke the gray-eyed morn
About the lonely moated grange.
She only said, “The day is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!”

About a stone-cast from the wall
A sluice with blacken’d waters slept,
And o’er it many, round and small,
The cluster’d marish-mosses crept.
Hard by a poplar shook alway,
All silver-green with gnarled bark:
For leagues no other tree did mark
The level waste, the rounding gray.
She only said, “My life is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said “I am aweary, aweary
I would that I were dead!”

And ever when the moon was low,
And the shrill winds were up and away,
In the white curtain, to and fro,
She saw the gusty shadow sway.
But when the moon was very low
And wild winds bound within their cell,
The shadow of the poplar fell
Upon her bed, across her brow.
She only said, “The night is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!”

All day within the dreamy house,
The doors upon their hinges creak’d;
The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse
Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek’d,
Or from the crevice peer’d about.
Old faces glimmer’d thro’ the doors
Old footsteps trod the upper floors,
Old voices called her from without.
She only said, “My life is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!”

The sparrow’s chirrup on the roof,
The slow clock ticking, and the sound
Which to the wooing wind aloof
The poplar made, did all confound
Her sense; but most she loathed the hour
When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
Athwart the chambers, and the day
Was sloping toward his western bower.
Then said she, “I am very dreary,
He will not come,” she said;
She wept, “I am aweary, aweary,
Oh God, that I were dead!”

I declare this poem to be musically brilliant – a slow, dirge-like symphony of monotony – of fined-tuned repetitions. Of course, the danger lies in that this poem about monotony can itself become monotonous, but my students, who for the most part are conscientious, do read it, and through Socratic questioning, they ferret out imagistic patterns of dilapidation and stagnation, sonic patterns, repetitious sentence structure, etc.

But the exercise also provides another example of existentialism for them to ponder, how each individual can see the world differently. Tennyson’s melancholy cast of mind focused on the sadness of a character who engages in a bed-trick to entrap her fiancé. You have to wonder if Tennyson ever even smiled while reading the play.

In other words, for Tennyson Measure for Measure is not a comedy but a tragedy, which it very well could be if not for the contrived ending. Let’s face it, the first four acts of Romeo and Juliet with its rhyming and comical Nurse seems less like a tragedy than a comedy.

Anyway, like Hamlet says, “Nothing is neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so. Or funny or not. Or as Robert Walpole said, “Life is a comedy for those who think, a tragedy for those who feel.”


Five Quick Tips That Will Immediately Make You a Better Writer

wesely tech guru1. Avoid the overly long parenthetical side note.

For example, the sentence:

Our book club (think alpha male with brilliant and beautiful and ridiculously well-read women dropping in from time to time to remind us that males and females often perceive the world differently) last night discussed Julian Barnes’s A Sense of an End, a novel that explores the misconceptions of an insecure man exploring his past and discovering that memory can be selective and unreliable — think Brian Williams meets J Alfred Prufrock


Bet you forgot the subject is sentence.

2. Avoid the stilted, pretentious, anally-retentive compulsion to use the third person pronoun one when you want to provide a general example.

NOT: When one shops for crack cocaine, one should try to purchase the product through third party acquaintances who retrieve the crack and deliver it to one, which makes it less likely that one finds himself bleeding to death on a street in an unfriendly neighborhood of track houses.

BUT: Cop your crack from a buddy, not a dealer, or you might find yourself bleeding to death in some godforsaken lower lower middle class cul-de-sac located in Phosphate Acres.

If you find yourself incapable of committing to such shocking familiarity, you can eliminate both one and you:

Cop crack from an acquaintance, not a dealer, and avoid bleeding to death in some godforsaken lower middle class cul-de-sac located in Phosphate Acres.

Zangaki._0263._Chech_arab-23. Every time you proofread, look for nouns that could be more definitive.

For example, our English Department uses a vocabulary series called Wordly Wise. I still use my original 1985 copy for nostalgia’s sake, and believe or not, the publishers have seen fit to make various changes over the years, like dropping the word “buxom” (defined as “plump”) from its word lists.

Here’s an original sentence from my 1985 edition : “The answer to the conundrum ‘Why did the Arab starve in the desert’ is ‘because he couldn’t use the sand which was there.’”

Here’s the edited 2015 version: “The answer to the conundrum ‘Why did the man starve in the desert’ is ‘because he couldn’t use the sand which was there.’”

The first one is much superior because you get a visual clue as to what the man looks like, his native costume, etc.

Plus, when did the word “Arab” become pejorative in and of itself?

4. Be precise using the relative pronouns “who,” which,” and “that.” For example, the sentences above use the pronoun “which” imprecisely. Both sentences regarding the conundrum should read “the sand that was there,” even though it fucks up the joke, a groaner anyway.

Here are the rules.

Use “who” instead of “that” for people.

NOT: He’s one of those Rolex-wearing Saudis that only flies first class.

But: He’s one of those Rolex-wearing Saudis who only flies first class.

Most people won’t notice, but the ones who do, do.

The choice between “that” and “which” is more subtle. Use “which” only when you’re adding superfluous info to the sentence, in other words, parenthetical, i.e., non crucial, information.

For example, I totaled a car Lamborghini that I had stolen from Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Alsaud.

I totaled a Lamborghini this morning, which obviously got my day off to a less than stellar start.

5. Don’t write when you’re drunk or high on judiciously purchased crack, or if you do, proofread when sober.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, bulldogs and babies, there you have them: five quick tips that that will make you a better writer.

Let’s Get Real

A few years back, I contemplated moving to western or southern Ireland for retirement, maybe to the Beara Peninsula down in County Cork or up to County Mayo on the coast, perhaps purchasing a rustic cottage with a glimpse of distant mountains or of the sea.

3229244181_a516f6ab0d_zHave you ever witnessed a rainbow in Ireland? I don’t know if it’s the air up there or the angle of the sun, but the rainbow Judy Birdsong and I saw in ’79 mesmerized us. It was so misty-shimmering wonderful that it could almost make you believe in leprechauns, in magic, in Lir.

Beara’s and Mayo’s landscape is gorgeous, their people gregarious. The Irish and my kinsmen, folk from the South Carolina Lowcountry, share a love for the oral tradition of story-telling. We’d get along fine I think. The Irish love music and poetry and literature. For example, before the Euro, James Joyce himself appeared on Ireland’s ten-pound note, which would be like having Walt Whitman on a US fifty. We Americans might put our beloved authors on stamps, but they don’t rank high enough in our estimation to appear on legal tender. Of course, Irish currency doesn’t have “In God We Trust” printed on it, which would not go all that well thematically with Mr. Joyce’s bespectacled mug nor with Herman Melville’s otherwise presidential countenance.


melville fifty





But I digress. When I mentioned this silly romantic notion to Judy, she reminded me that my three trips to the Emerald Isle occurred in May or June, not December or February, and she reckoned that in those dark and dreary months the odor of burning peat might very well lose its allure as building a fire transitioned from exoticism to drudgery.

Miss Birdsong knows all too well that dreary weather and Wesley don’t get along. In fact, a shrink back in the day suggested that I could very well suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (which I have immortalized in a poem you can listen to me read in my golden Lowcountry baritone HERE). No, day after day of leaden skies, the sun setting by three or four, would be bad for my state of mind.

Take this winter, for example. We might as well be in Ireland — or Ingmar Bergman’s Sweden. A glance at the five-day forecast, more often than not, has yielded a succession of cartoon clouds, dark, with resiquite raindrops slanting down.

Max Von Sydow

Max Von Sydow

My neighborhood “pub,” Chico Feo, roofless as it is, has been closed for days at a time, often for rain, less often for cold, but closed nonetheless. As I have driven to work morning after morning through fog, I have half expected to see Max Von Sydow and/or Liv Ullman trudging along the side of Folly Road.

But as PB Shelley famously put it, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” Sure enough, the sun peeped out on consecutive days this week, so I popped in at Chico Feo. On the first day, I got to witness a book burning and on the second some low wattage police brutality.

Perhaps I underestimate Folly as a retirement locale.

bookiburning 2But, before I go, let me assure you that the book burning wasn’t Fahrenheit 451.1.0 but part of a very indie film noir murder mystery starring the Chico crew, my hobo hero Greg, and prolific Chris, a graphic artist and novelist who works at Bert’s.

And the “police brutality” merely consisted of a very, very, very drunk man having his arms twisted behind his back and then being slammed rather roughly to the pavement of Second Street. Alas, I had absentmindedly left my phone at work, so I didn’t get to capture the disturbance, which was quite a spectacle taking place as it did in front of the mural of Bert done up like a smiling, squinting, dismembered pirate.











Ten Literary Riddles

Hoodoo Headquarters

Hoodoo Headquarters

Back in the late 80’s, when academics were more demanding where I teach, I included a section on my exam called “Association.” Students had to match a character or work they had read that semester with an enigmatic phrase I provided — only there was nothing to match the phrase to, no list of possible choices. When they complained, I told them all they needed to do was to read my mind.

Of course, no way I get away with something like that nowadays. Parent-piloted Blackhawks would be raining rockets on my drafty garret, Hoodoo Headquarters.

Just for fun, though, I thought I’d recreate “Association” for this post. See if you can identify these novels, plays, or long poems.  Of course, it’s going to be harder for you since your choices aren’t confined to a limited number of works you’ve read in the last five months.

1. Libidinous Lydia’s Lucky Elopement

2. Doing Dublin in a Day from St Stephen’s to the Quay

3. Idiot Tale, Tick-Tock-Not, Red Neck Rambles, House in Shambles

4.  Loon River, Longer Than a Mile, Portal Through Time, Jungle Fever

5.  Un-Moored, Senator’s Daughter Couldn’t Be Any Poorer, According to O’Connor

6.  Mama’s Boy Outwits Catty Riddler, Wins Crown, Then Goes Down, Down, Down

7.  Echo Chamber: April showers, Tarot readings, Demobbed Husbands, and Neurotic Pleadings.

8.  Jake Lost His Snake in a Trench So He Drinks.

9.  The Black Cat in This Story Is, like, a HG Wells No Show.

10.  Ch-Ch-Changes: Model Son Turns Out to Be a Pest.

Hints: Two plays, five novels, two novellas, one poem. Authors’ home turfs:

Ireland, Germany, USA, Greece, England.


1.  Pride and Prejudice:  15-year-old Lydia’s elopement with Wickham provides Darcy the opportunity to save the Bennet family from ignominy and bring about the twin marriages that bow ties the novel with the very happiest of endings.

2.  Ulysses: On 16 June 1904 Joyce covers all of Dublin, from St. Stephen’s Green to the quays.

3.  The Sound and the Fury:  Part One is literally narrated by an the idiot, Maury/Benjy; Part Two features Quentin’s yanking the hands off of his great-grandfather’s pocket watch; Part 3 is a tale told by a Southern bigot; Part Four completes the Fall of the House of Compson.

4.  Heart of Darkness.

5.  Othello:  Note Moor is capitalized. Othello’s wife Desdemona is the daughter of a Senator, and Flannery O’Connor perhaps not-so-famiously said, “You can’t be any poorer than dead,”  which Othello and Desdemona are at the end of the play.

6.  Oedipus Rex:  After killing  the king his daddy in a fit of road rage, Poor Eddie answers the Sphinx’s riddle, becomes the king of Thebes, marries his mama, and goes down, down, down.

7.  The Waste Land:  It’s an echo chamber of allusions. Here are specific references in the riddle: The first line of TWL is “April is the cruelest month.”  There’s a Tarot reading in “The Burial of the Dead” section.  From “The Game of Chess:” we get “When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said.”  Also, finally there are several  lines spoken by a hysterical woman.  E.g.,   “What are you thinking,  What thinking?  Think.”.

8.  The Sun Also Rises.  Jake Barnes loses unspecified parts of his reproductive system during WWI and spends the course of the novel easing his pain via alcohol.

9.  Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man shares the same title of HG Well’s novel, only the protagonist of Ellison’s novel is black and not literally invisible.

10.  The Metamorphosis:  Gregor Samsa, a dutiful son, metamorphoses into an noxious insect (and not because he had received vaccinations),