Deserts of Vast Eternity

TIME.2No one’s left to answer the questions I have about my first memories, scenes that take place in the gas station/house of my maternal grandparents in the year 1954 or 1955.

World War II has been over for ten years now.

I am two, maybe three. My grandparents, my aunt, maybe my uncle, live in a building that’s part commercial enterprise, part domicile. It’s not a home — or even a house – but the Station. What should be the front yard consists of a narrowing triangle of concrete featuring an island of gas pumps, the apex of the triangle marking the fork where Highway 78 splits into West 5th North Street and Richardson Avenue.   Diesel smells hover as cars swish by night and day, day and night. Out back, a wire fence encloses a treeless dirt yard where an unfriendly German Pinscher prowls.

No nature boy, I-and-I.

It seems at the time of these first memories that my mother and father are living at the Station, too. The upstairs, if subsequent recollections are correct, consists of one ark-like bedroom that has two or three beds and a stand-alone sink. There must be a bathroom downstairs, but I don’t remember it.

My first memory ever is of my parents’ leaving each morning. I descend the steep stairs terrified I’ll fall. I lead with my right foot, step after step, right foot first, until I’m about four steps from the bottom. Then I leap into my father’s outstretched arms, and he slings me around in circles. I don’t want my parents to leave me, but they do, and I spend the rest of the sibling-less day in the domestic section of the building while my grandfather pumps gas or fixes flats and my grandmother works the counter cash register. I can remember feeling sorry for myself as I sat sideways on the bottom step with my knees up. I remember thinking that the day would never end.

Of course, it did, and the one after that, and the one after that . . .

At two-and-a-half, I’d experienced fewer than a thousand days, so in that frame of reference, a day looms large. Now, I have weathered approximately 22,630 days, 1,885 full moons, 62 Christmas Eves. Yet, even though my frame of reference of a day has shrunk 2,000-fold, the days – especially, the weekdays  — still seem long.

Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock . . .

But not the years — the years zoom past like cars on a freeway.

Blink, just like that I’m engaged to be married and attending a party with my mother during her 25th high school reunion weekend. My former classmate Emma Jo Mellard is there with her mother as well. We make small talk, comment on time’s winged chariot’s terrifying swiftness.

Blink. I’m swinging my sons in circles above my head.

Blink. I’m looking at a photograph on Facebook of members of my high school class who attended a 45th reunion last weekend (just hours ago I was at the 40th it seems).

These classmates are wizened, unfamiliar, old.

O what shall I do with this absurdity –

O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature,

Decrepit age that has been tied to me

As to a dog’s tail?

Blink.

Zen Advice for Tonight’s Top Tier Republican Debaters

swearing inDonald Trump, don’t wear a suit and tie. Opt for the casual look. Since when did you let society dictate what’s wrong and right? Quote Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now as you wave your arm in a dismissive, sweeping motion. Say, “I’m beyond their lying, petty morality.”

second-comingSpeaking of the Apocalypse, Ben Carson, if someone tries to pin you down on your recent statement that Medicare needs to be abolished, dodge the question with the phrase, “In light of the eschatological truths espoused by Seventh Day Adventism . . . ”

Go into the nuts and bolts of what will occur when Jesus returns and why Medicare won’t be necessary in the post-Apocalyptic Millennial Reign of the Saints. That should sew up Iowa.

Come out swinging, Jeb [Bush]. That is, embrace your Wasp-ness and carry a Big Bertha Driver with you on stage.   Every time Trump starts blathering about how great he is, step back and take a couple of practice swings. When the moderator asks you to comment on Trump’s insults, simply say, “New Money.”

Marco Rubio, when the moment avails itself, address Jeb in Spanish. Insist that he answer you in Spanish. We keep hearing that his Spanish is flawless, but how can it be given that his English syntax is the auditory equivalent of an unsolved Rubik’s Cube? This ploy will demonstrate to Latinos that you’re the one, hermano.

John Kasich, embrace the 2000 candidate John McCain and do some “straight talking.” Say what your said on NPR this morning, that the public (read Republican primary voters) are ill-informed fantasists when it comes to understanding how governments and societies function. In other words, they are the living embodiments of how our educational system is in desperate need of a massive overhaul.

Second Tier Debaters, tough luck. You’re doomed. Forget it. Play it cool.

The Worst Laid Schemes of Mice and Men

If a genuine Buddhist, I should have compassion for fellow sentient being Trey Gowdy, who had risen so high so quickly, but who last Thursday splatted back to earth with all of the grandeur of plugged duck.

CR9zWPkVEAAZEH4The contrasting looks on his and Hillary’s faces as he left the hearings declared winner and loser, she, hanging around, flashing smiles; his face, shellacked with sweat, wore the expression of a highway patrolman on his way to ring the doorbell of the next of kin.

Virtually no one to the left of Jennifer Rubin, including Genghis Khan Charles Krauthammer, thinks anything positive came out of last Thursday’s inquisition as far as the Republican Cause goes. In between classes during the hearing, I checked my Twitter feed to find this well-crafted 126-character tweet (complete with a dash) from former Reagan speechwriter Jon Podhoretz: “Why doesn’t Pomero just go over and swear her in as president now – if he goes on like this he’ll practically get her elected.”

In hectoring tones, Pomero demanded to know why Hillary hadn’t fired anyone in light of Benghazi attack.

“I followed the law, Congressman,”  Clinton answered. “That was my responsibility.”

“You’re telling me you had no authority to take anyone’s paycheck . . .”

“It is my position that in absence of finding dereliction or breach of duty, there could be no action taken . . . “

[Shouting]: “[The ultimate] decision was to put them back [with] full back-pay and keep them on as employees! [. . .] The folks in Kansas don’t think that is accountability.”

No, in Kansas, even if no underling is ultimately to blame, someone needs to have her paycheck taken anyway. Even if no one is really ultimately accountable, a scapegoat must be found.

How could this process of allowing intemperate, showboating backbenchers like Pomero to take turns asking questions lead anywhere but to a disjointed free-for-all contradiction of Gowdy’s claim that the hearing was not about Hillary?

roby3marytoddlincolnRepresentative Martha Roby of Alabama, the most un-Republican-looking Republican woman since Mary Todd Lincoln, asked Hillary if she’d gone home that night of the attacks and if she’d spent the night alone, which elicited laughter from both Hillary and some spectators.

“I don’t know why that’s funny [. . .] I don’t think that’s funny at all.”

If this strategy of giving everyone a chance to ask questions could have been avoided, if, say, representatives could have submitted their questions to Gowdy and he synthesized them into some kind of coherent avenue of inquiry, maybe the hearing could have been a success politically for the Republicans. I don’t know how much autonomy a select committee chairman has in piloting an investigation, but if Gowdy could have organized it differently, he is ultimately to blame for the fiasco.

But actually, the real culprit is that fan-of-the-Pope John Boehner who sanctioned the creation of the vengeful panel in the first place. After all, a bi-partisan but Republican-led committee had already conducted and completed a thorough investigation. The entire premise that the committee’s existence was based on “finding out the truth” instead of politically wounding the presumptive Democratic nominee is a lie — bad karma — and if “the best laid schemes o’ mice and men/Gang aft agley,” certainly that must be true of the worst laid schemes.

Despite Gowdy’s insistence that it “was not about” Madame Secretary, he’s the one who initiated the questions concerning the Blumenthal emails – what a few commentators have referred to as “a rabbit hole” as in [cue the Jefferson Airplane] Alice. It seemed as if the committee was ignorant of the fact that people in very high places have other more sophisticated ways of communication than email. As they kept hectoring Hillary about emails, my apolitical wife asked, “Well, what do the emails have to do with what happened in Benghazi?”

Good question, Judy Birdsong.

Does Gowdy actually truly believe that he is impartial? Does the author of this blog really consider himself a genuine Buddhist?

If so, trips to Delphi are warranted — Know thyself!

Roman-mosaic-know-thyself

A Roundabout Trip to Cuckold Landing

Joan Weston

Joan Weston

An unlovely sentence from Wikipedia: “Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease causes the brain tissue to degenerate rapidly, and as the disease destroys the brain, the brain develops holes, and the texture changes to resemble that of a kitchen sponge.”

CJD, by the way, killed Joan Weston, aka the Blonde Bomber, aka the Big Blonde Amazon, who skated her way into the Roller Derby Hall of Fame with the San Francisco Bay Area Bombers. I watched both roller derby and wrestling when I was a boy and considered Joanie, as the announcers sometimes called her, a beauty.

Again, from Wikipedia, “Weston was a mentor to many professional Roller Derby skaters that made it on a team. She was said to take rookies under her wing.”

(Not surprisingly, Weston didn’t take not-destined-to-be rookies who didn’t “make it on a team” under her wing).

The word “rookie,” by the way, was coined in the late 19th century, “perhaps as an alternation of recruit, influenced by rook, a gregarious Eurasian crow with black plumage and a bare face, nesting in colonies in treetops.”

Here’s a great stanza from a song from Love’s Labors Lost in which the word rook appears:

When shepherds pipe on oaten straws,

And merry larks are ploughmen’s clocks,

When turtles tread, and rooks, and daws,

And maidens bleach their summer smocks,

The cuckoo then, on every tree,

Mocks married men; for thus sings he,

“Cuckoo;

Cuckoo, cuckoo!” O, word of fear,

Unpleasing to a married ear!

“Cuckoo” displeases a “married ear” because it sounds like “cuckold,” a married man whose wife has, as many a bluesman has put it, “another mule kicking in his stall.”  Let Muddy Waters tell you about it.

“When I picked up the receiver,/The party said, “Another mule kicking’ in your stall.”

The following nugget comes from the Wordorigens Discussion Forum:

The allusion to the cuckoo on which the word cuckold is based may not be appreciated by those unfamiliar with the nesting habits of certain varieties of this bird. The female of some Old World cuckoos lays its eggs in the nests of other birds, leaving them to be cared for by the resident nesters. This parasitic tendency has given the female bird a figurative reputation for unfaithfulness as well. Hence in Old French we find the word cucuault, composed of cocu, cuckoo, cuckold, and the pejorative suffix ald and used to designate a husband whose wife has wandered afield like the female cuckoo. An earlier assumed form of the Old French word was borrowed into Middle English by way of Anglo-Norman. Middle English cokewold, the ancestor of Modern English cuckold, is first recorded in a work written around 1250.”

11224584_10206667078984560_762045676183454566_nEO Wilson explains that the average human ejaculation contains ~180 million sperm while women possess a scant 400 or so ova.  Why then, genetically speaking, would a man stick with one woman when he could be inseminating dozens?  Because prehistorically the chances of offspring surviving (and the man’s genes replicating) were significantly higher if the man helped protect his offspring. This state of affairs, Wilson argues, explains the male tendency to jealousy and to violence when he discovers “his woman” has been untrue.  Given all that genetic firepower, who wants to raise an unfaithful mate’s child from an interloper?

Got a wife in Chino, babe, and one in Cherokee/
The first one says she’s got my child, but it don’t look like me.

There’s a boat landing near Green Pond, SC, called Cuckold Landing. The sign used to read “Cuckholds (sic) Landing,” but it’s been corrected.

By the way, clicking on google images for “Cuckholds Landing” yields several pornographic images and this intriguing teaser:

The Magnificent Cuckold | Paul Bargetto‪

‪Paul Bargetto directed The Magnificent Cuckold in October 2007 at the Connelly Theater in New York City. The Magnificent Cuckold is a penetrating study of …

I swear the ellipses are real!

mc_front_final

Harsh Discords and Unpleasing Sharps

a rather unflattering depiction of Pope

a rather unflattering depiction of Alexander Pope

Nowadays, Alexander Pope is so unpopular that the Robin Williams character in Dead Poets Society demanded his students rip Pope’s poems from their texts.   Certainly, the polished closed heroic couplets that flowed from Pope’s quill would make an incongruous soundtrack for what Eliot called “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy that is contemporary history.” Yep, the minuet has given way to slam dancing; fixed poetic forms have followed their cousin the typewriter into obsolescence.

Adieu. Toot-a-loo. Later.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the poetic confluence of sound and sense, very few poets can equal that four-foot six-inch Colossus, Alexander Pope, that satiric terror who immortalized his enemies in his verse.

Here he is on synthesizing sound with image and movement:

Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,

The Sound must seem an Echo to the Sense.

Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,

And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;

But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,

The hoarse, rough Verse shou’d like the Torrent roar.

When Ajax strives, some Rocks’ vast Weight to throw,

The Line too labours, and the Words move slow;

Note how via spondees he slows down the first half of line six, a lesson learned by Frost in his short poem “The Span of Life”:

The old dog barks backwards without getting up.

I can remember when he was a pup.

Not only do the four consecutive stressed beats of old dog barks back echo what a bark sounds like, but their slowness also reinforces the dog’s old age, his sluggishness. On the other hand, the opening anapests of line two suggest the bounding energy of a puppy. Here the sound does indeed “seem an echo to the sense.”

Ultimately, Pope’s dictum demands that when describing ugliness, poets need to make their poems sound ugly, so I thought it might be interesting to check out a few great poets depicting unpleasant images and to see how successful they are in creating dissonance.

Let’s start with Chaucer’s description of the Summoner from “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.”

Click the arrow for sound:

A SOMONOUR was ther with us in that place,
That hadde a fyr-reed cherubynnes face,
For saucefleem he was, with eyen narwe.
As hoot he was and lecherous as a sparwe,
With scalled browes blake, and piled berd,
Of his visage children were aferd.
Ther nas quyk-silver, lytarge, ne brymstoon,
Boras, ceruce, ne oille of tartre noon,
Ne oynement, that wolde clense and byte,
That hym myghte helpen of his whelkes white,
Nor of the knobbes sittynge on his chekes.
Wel loved he garleek, oynons, and eek lekes,
And for to drynken strong wyn, reed as blood;
Thanne wolde he speke and crie as he were wood.

Fast-forwarding 200 years, here’s Edmund Spenser’s personification of Gluttony from Canto 3 of Book 1 of The Faerie Queene (I’ve modernized the spelling):

And by his side rode loathsome Gluttony,

Deformed creature, on a filthy swine,

His belly up-blown with luxury

And also with fatness swollen were his eyes

And like a Crane his neck was long and fine

With which he swallowed up excessive feast,

For want whereof poor people did pine;

And all the way, most like a brutish beast,

He spewed up his gorge, that all did him detest.

Although Spenser succeeds in creating disgusting visual images, I’m not so sure he’s completely successful in creating sonic dissonance.  On the other hand, note the dissonance of these lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins describing Industrial England.

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Now that’s brilliantly untuneful. Read it out loud. The rhyme toil/soil is deliciously dissonant, and seared/bleared/smeared ranks up there in rankness as well.

I’ll leave you with Master Will piping some appropriately sour notes:

It is the lark that sings so out of tune

Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.

That’s Juliet talking, lying in her bridal bed with Romeo, realizing that the bird singing outside her window is not, as she hoped, the nightingale.

Time to get up, star-crossed lovers, and march off to your doom.

No, that’s too dark of a way to end this post.

A Meditation on the Sound of Indecorous Words

Fellatio is a lovely word,

Operatic, in a way:

“The role of Fellatio will be sung

By Mr. Richard Cabot-Clay.”

*

Sodomy, on the other hand,

Lacks that light Italian ring:

Biblical, confessional,

A cry of pain! a serpent’s sting!

*

Cunnilingus could be a caliph,

Thundering across Arabian sands

Seeking long lost treasure troves

Guarded by Jinn in distant lands.

*

Fuck, of course, isn’t exotic.

Its harsh cough can cause vexation.

But when a car door smashes your fingers,

It sure beats fornication.

~Wesley Moore

That Time I Threatened to Hang Myself If Student Housing Didn’t Transfer Me Out of That Dorm Suite I Shared with Antithetical Monsters

the poster Bo-Syph Ruined

the poster Bo-Syph Ruined

It’s the beginning of the spring semester of 1973, and my best friend, my roommate Warren, has quit school, has split to go on tour with a band called Wormwood. My other suitemate George, who prefers to be called Bo-Syph, is a full-blown alcoholic who disapproves of pot smoking. After he first moved in, he ruined my Rolling Stones poster by peppering it with darts, which, of course, also marred the walls beneath.

All day and night George/Bo-Syph sits in his matchbox of a room drinking 16-oz. cans of Busch Bavarian beer while watching a black-and-white TV the size of a cafeteria tray. The floor of his room doubles as a closet and a depository for empty beer cans, fast food wrappers, and yellowed newspapers. His main source of exercise is walking to Burger King and emptying ashtrays in his room once they have sufficiently overflowed.

One night before Warren split, George developed the DTs, and Warren and I had to escort him, wounded-soldier style, to the infirmary. George doesn’t go to class, doesn’t purchase textbooks. In fact, he only has had one social encounter that I know of. A girl from his hometown came to visit him, and they fucked robustly for two straight days, rarely leaving the room. She could have been cast as the lead in The Mama Cass Story, though she wore elastic pants, not tied-dyed mumuus, and had an upstate South Carolina accent so caustic I was afraid it would rust the radiators.

When I arrive at my room after Christmas break, the first thing I notice is that someone has affixed a cross on the wall over Warren’s bed. There’s also an altar on a shelf with two white candles. It turns out that my new roommate is named Charlie, a graduate student working on a Masters degree in music. Short and plump, with thinning blonde hair and a pinkish completion, he could be Truman Capote’s first cousin.

Like Warren, he plays keyboards, but unlike Warren, he wears pajamas to bed. Each night before retiring, in his pale blue pajamas, he lights his altar candles and gets on his knees to pray. Five minutes later, after audible amens, he rises, snuffs out the candles, crawls into bed, and starts snoring like a bronchitis-ridden wildebeest.

The setting of the story; the downstairs window on the far left is our suite

The setting of the story; the downstairs window on the far left is our suite

Given my nocturnal habits, I rarely witness Charlie’s prayer ritual, but on the brick walkway leading to our dorm, I can sometimes hear his snoring as I return from bar hopping or studying in the library. When I open the door to the suite, both inner bedroom doors are closed. My bedroom is dark; blue light flickers from beneath George’s.

The snoring begins with a harsh, hellish, rasping intake, and then there is a slight pause that offers the false hope of cessation – only to be shattered by an exhalation that roars like a phlegm-powered flame-thrower.

This Dantean progression loops all night long, over and over and over, over and over and over.

By Valentine’s Day, I’m at the end of my rope, so desperate that despite my fear of bureaucracy, I make an appointment with University Housing. Well washed and wearing a collared shirt, I tell a nice youngish woman that I’m desperate, that I’m living the Southern Gothic with two antithetical freaks right out of Flannery O’Connor, one a 30-year-old closeted religious fanatic with no apparent friends, the other the 20-year-old a racist alcoholic gun-fetishist, the equivalent of a stereotypical Mississippi sheriff in a ‘60’s movies.

I beg. I plead. “You got to get me out of there,” I say. “Look,” I say, “if you don’t move me out of there, I’m going to hang myself, not only that, but I’ll tape a sign to my shirt that says, ‘I have hung myself because the Housing Department wouldn’t move me.”’

The attractive young woman smiles and assures me that I will be hearing from them, but I never do.

Ultimately, though, living with George and Charlie made me revaluate my place in humanities’ continuum. Maybe I wasn’t as fucked up as I had thought. Compared to Charlie and George, I was practically Wally Cleaver. Maybe there was hope for me after all.

Bad People or Bad Choices?

08c157706766b6c658696b9fb7a185b4In my youth, parents, principals, teachers, den mothers, filmstrips, and preachers taught that every action was a reflection of your character.

In fact, it probably went deeper than that: your very thoughts needed to remain pure, ideally never straying from avenues of indoctrination, but at the very worst, if you found yourself hankering to do bad, tempted to wander across the tracks to the dark side of town, that thought had to be doused, snuffed, strangled, eliminated.

Reputation was a commodity of immeasurable worth, more precious that bullion. One misstep could obliterate a lifetime of probity, sullying forever your once good name and by association tarring your otherwise innocent family with the pitch of ignominy.

The public elementary school I attended that taught these lessons blithely ignored the separation of church and state. We prayed to Jesus every morning, were served fish sticks in the cafeteria every Friday. However, the teachers weren’t so much saying that your eternal life was on the line, but that bad habits metastasize like cancers, and the progression downward could be precipitous, a lie begetting a theft, a theft begetting a life of crime, and the next thing you know, you’re wearing stripes in Sing Sing, or in my case, at the Columbia Correctional Institute.

Well, as Mr. Dylan predicted, the times have changed.

Half a century later, at the Episcopal School where I teach, we don’t condemn students’ misdeeds as character flaws but refer to them as “bad choices.” Just because you cheat on a test and get caught doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll cheat one day on your taxes. Impulsiveness is no longer the prompting of Satan but, more plausibly, the product of pubescent chemical imbalances, and even premeditated malfeasance can be attributed to immature brains still in the process of growing, a process that science now claims is not completed for most people until the age of 25.

east-of-eden-julie-harris-james-dean-1955Although I disapprove of the cliché the phrase “making bad choices” has become, I do think it wise not to declare someone ultimately a bad person for making even a serious moral mistake. If someone thinks he’s inherently bad, like Cal Trask in Elia Kazan’s film of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, he might conclude that fighting his immoral inclinations is a lost cause and use his self-assessment as an excuse to do whatever the hell he wants.

Poor Cal had adopted the persona of a self-romanticizing narcissist, a very bad choice indeed.