I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a cage, and when the boys said to her: “Sibyl, what do you want?” she answered: “I want to die.”
Petronius, The Satyricon.
From man’s blood-sodden heart are sprung Those branches of the night and day Where the gaudy moon is hung. What’s the meaning of all song? “Let all things pass away.”
Death is the mother of beauty, mystical, Within whose burning bosom we devise Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.
Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”
In the catalogue of alienations we Late Empire citizens suffer – estrangement from nature, God, our neighbors, ourselves – our estrangement from death is often omitted. We no longer encounter death on a daily basis. Most of us don’t raise chickens to wring their necks, pluck their feathers, excise their entrails. When our loved ones die, we no longer remove their clothes, wash their corpses, and dress them for one last family photo in the parlor.
Of course, our lack of exposure to death makes it much easier to lock it away deep in the cellar of our consciousness, which might not be such a bad thing given that nothing’s more life negating than death obsession. On the other hand, our isolation from the cold hard facts our ancestors dealt with – butchering animals, infant mortality, etc. – might have contributed to a delusion many seem to suffer, i.e death is unnatural.
A few years ago, an acquaintance’s father, a man approaching ninety, was lying comatose in a hospital. Each day, on Facebook this acquaintance updated his father’s situation, which, not surprisingly, was rather uneventful – the opening and closing of an eye, a sense from a nurse that the old man experienced discomfort when bathed. My acquaintance and visitors read the Bible to him aloud as they sat and prayed for a miracle. This acquaintance battled his father’s physicians who wanted to transfer him to hospice care while the son perceived opening an eye as a harbinger of “the complete recovery” for which he so ardently prayed.
Most of the Facebook commentators were essentially enablers writing messages like “Sounds very encouraging!!! The doctors could be totally wrong……the body can heal in ways that only God knows” or “That’s great. God is in controll” (sic) or “God is the ultimate physician:-).”
A contempt for science and doctors ran through those Facebook posts, and the commentary that followed. No wonder people don’t believe in evolution or global warming if they believe a comatose man dying of an infection brought on my the removal of a cancerous lung tumor could very well attain a complete recovery and enter robustly into his ninth decade.
On the other hand, when my wife Judy Birdsong was dying, some well-meaning soul told her that she was praying for a miracle, and Judy replied, “I’m sixty-three, don’t waste a miracle on me, pray for a child instead.”
This attitude, I submit, is a healthier attitude on dying.
dead doe in a frozen pond in North Carolina
To my mind, an ever aging husk of a body doomed to live for an eternity is a much more horrible fate than passing away in one’s sixth decade. Not only did the Sibyl at Cumae consider it a drag (see above), but we also have corroborating evidence from Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale.” When a trio of churls accost an ancient man and ask him why he still has the gall to remain alive, he replies,
Not even Death, alas! my life will take;
Thus restless I my wretched way must make,
And on the ground, which is my mother’s gate,
I knock with my staff early, aye, and late,
And cry: ‘O my dear mother, let me in!
Lo, how I’m wasted, flesh and blood and skin!
Alas! When shall my bones come to their rest?
Why, I wonder, would such devout Christians as my acquaintance want to forestall the eternity of bliss that awaited that good man? And his father was a good man, a great provider devoted to his family and his God.
The answer, of course, is love. Most of us love our parents. We don’t want them to go. I miss my own father’s sardonic witticisms, my mother’s hoarse cackle of a laugh, Judy Birdsong’s gentle movements. My acquaintance devotedly loved his father and didn’t want to think of living life without him.
Is that so wrong?
[cue Evangelical voice]: Let us turn to Ecclesiastes 3:1-4.
To everything there is a season
And a time to every purpose under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die;
a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted . . .
Like I said, our aged loved ones’ passing is melancholy, and we miss them when they’re gone. I dream of Judy occasionally, and I awake missing her. Nevertheless, her time had come, and she was rather fortunate given that she didn’t have to suffer for long nor endure the feebleness that Larkin descries in “The Old Fools.”
What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It’s more grown up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there’s really been no change,
And they’ve always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching light move? If they don’t (and they can’t) it’s
strange: Why aren’t they screaming?
One of the many Mongolians who didn’t click on this site in 2015
Thanks to all of ya’ll who clicked on the blog this year, which received 20.022 hits by visitors from 110 countries. I’d like especially to thank those solo souls in Lithuania, Guadeloupe, Liechtenstein, Ethiopia, the Isle of Man, Libya, Congo-Kinshasa, not to mention whoever it was in Papua New Guinea looking for porn who got sidetracked in Hoodooland.
Of course, several countries were no-shows, including predictable sourpusses like North Korea, Mongolia, and Greenland, but come on, Botswana, Paraguay, and Fiji, where’s your sense of adventure?
Happily, except for a death-haunted January that featured a stem cell transplant, 2015 was a big improvement over 2014, so I thought I’d offer a reprise of some of the most popular posts.
Although “Endangered Lowcountry SC Locutions,” featuring my mother and written exactly a week before my her death, was by far January’s the most popular post, I prefer “Super Bowl XLIX Preview,” which I could easily update this year by merely dropping those clunky Roman Numerals designating forty-nine for the sleek – dare I call them Arabic – numerals 5 and 0.
One of the top news stories in February was an outbreak of measles at Disney World, which brought to light that luddites on both the far right and far left are not vaccinating their replicated DNA, so I produced this piece “Natural Selection at Work” that features not only a vintage photo of smiling polio victims but also a full color photo of an autistic dog.
February also brought us the Brian Williams scandal, which sent me into true confession mode. Dear Readers, believe it or not, I’m no stranger to “misremembering,” as the self-explanatory title “My Most Cherished Mismemory Debunked” testifies.
March came in like a lion with a very popular post, “Ten Literary Riddles.” If you don’t want to see the answers, don’t scroll down past number 10.”
Days dwindling into darkness, the sun slipping away, owls perched on naked boughs woo-wooing those sorrowful mating calls. It’s the very longest night of the year.
Time for a celebration!
Good News/Bad News
The winter solstice holidays fall on practically the darkest day of the year, which metaphorically suggests that now is as bad as it gets, a comforting if dubious sort of reckoning. Even though civilization has enabled junkies to sleep with the sun and rise with the moon, even though we can flood our shopping malls with fluorescent light, even though night time [might be] the right time/ to be with the one you love, our bone marrow hates predatory darkness.
It knows. It remembers the fireless cave and the terror of tooth and claw and the heart-clinching night shrieks that travel in waves through your ears and down your quivering limbs. Deep down inside, your reptilian brain knows, your bone marrow senses that dark ain’t right.
Therefore, sun worshiping makes sense to me. Godzillions of people have worshipped stupider concepts than the sun. And, let’s face it, whether you call it Christmas, Kwanzaa, or Hanukkah, what you’re really worshipping is the sun – the end of its decline and the beginning of its revival.
After the blessed event, for half a revolution, each succeeding day’s light will last [cue Maurice Williams] a little bit longer. In the deepest darkest December, it’s time to huddle near a crackling fire and celebrate solar rebirth. Hang the mistletoe and ivy . . .
And so the cycles run, both positive and negative, with always something to celebrate and rue, each year’s waxing and waning seemingly swirling faster and faster, your children transforming before your eyes in time-lapsed photography as your face in the mirror begins to melt.
The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.
WH Auden: “As I Walked Out One Evening”
Sure, in the Late Empire, Christmas has devolved into little more than a potlatch, an obscene one at that, one that hideously underscores the disparity of riches: a thumb – if you will – in the communistic Son of Man’s eye – he who divided and distributed the loaves and fishes, who warned that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, who exhorted the rich man to sell all he had and give it to the poor – we celebrate His coming by making the rich richer, yet somehow, during the holidays, the poor are so much more obviously with us.
Still, you have to admit the Christian myth offers about as elegant as a solstice symmetry as you get – the soon-to-be resurrected Son born as our sun is reborn.
Meteors flash in the clear winter sky. Orion makes his nightly journey. We breathe in and out.
A new year is rising just beyond the horizon. Time to forge resolutions. Time to celebrate, to hope.
Let’s face it, in this artificially flavored, dioxin-laden world of ours, either you or someone you dearly love is going to get cancer, especially if you manage to dodge the jihadists’ and nativists’ bullets to live long enough.
Obviously, people deal with cancer in different ways. Everyone from scientists to your Aunt Tessie will tell you to be positive, which, of course, is good advice, if not all that easy to take, especially if you’re facing chemotherapy.
For the last 17 months, my wife and I have shared our lives with a particularly rare and more-often-than-not fatal form of lymphoma known as Peripheral T-Cell Lymphoma, Not Other Specified, or for shortness sake, PTCL-NOS.
Essentially, you can deal with cancer in two ways, the Dalai Lama way or the Woody Allen way, so I thought I’d recap my wife’s journey of the last year and a half focusing on her husband’s behavior, imagining him as either the Dalai Lama or Woody Allen so you can decide for yourself which role you might play if you ever face similar challenges.
9 July 2014
Woody Allen, husband of Judy Birdsong, spends the morning cleaning the house preparing for guests, an artist friend and former colleague who’s bringing an Italian mother and her two teenaged sons to go kayaking.
Judy has gone out “to run some errands,” and Woody is getting somewhat peeved because she’s been gone so long and has left so much of the housework to him.
Finally Judy calls.
“Where have you been?’ Woody asks.
“Getting a chest x-ray.”
“A chest x-ray? What for?”
“I have this lump near my breast bone. The doctor thinks it’s probably just some bone outgrowth. No big deal.”
“Oh, my God,” Woody thinks, “she’s got lung cancer!”
* * *
Tenzin Gyatso, husband of Judy Birdsong, enjoys picking up each individual knick-knack from the shelf and gently rubbing the dust cloth over its surface. Although he knows Judy’s getting a chest x-ray, he concentrates on the task at hand, gently returning the clay statuette of the Indian mother to her place on the shelf next to the hand-painted Mexican fish.
* * *
That evening around six, the phone rings. Woody, upstairs in his study, sees on the phone’s screen that it’s the doctor’s office. He picks up the receiver just as Judy does but doesn’t hang up.
He hears: “The x-ray is inconclusive. It’s cloudy. Have you had any fever? Coughing? We don’t see a mass, but you have something called a pleural effusion, that is, fluid in your lungs, so you’ll need to come in tomorrow for a C-scan.”
Woody hangs up the phone and immediately googles “plural effusion.”
Numerous medical conditions can cause pleural effusions. Some of the more common causes are:
Woody spends a very miserable night, the worst one since his last night in jail (c. 1978), tossing and turning and speculating just what horrible type of cancer Judy has. Finally, because she’s had no symptoms, Woody becomes convinced that it’s metastatic ovarian cancer.
* * *
That evening around six, the phone rings. Tenzin, upstairs in his study, sees on the phone’s screen that it’s the doctor’s office. He waits to see if Judy picks up, and she does.
After the conversation, she comes up and tells him the x-rays weren’t clear, that she needs a C-scan.
He takes a deep cleansing breath, then exhales slowly.
The C-scan did detect a mass, “a primary cancer probably a lymphoma,” according to the radiologist. Woody and Judy arrive at Roper Hospital for Judy’s initial visit with her oncologist. When they arrive, they discover the appointment is at a different facility across town, so they rush to their car and take off. Even though the receptionist has assured them they have enough time, this soundtrack plays in Woody’s mind.
They do arrive on time, and the oncologist, an acquaintance, the husband of a colleague of Woody’s, is a calming presence. He shows them the tumor on a screen and agrees that it looks like lymphoma, and says that’s what he hopes it is because lymphomas are curable. He introduces them to the paradox that the faster a cancer grows, the easier it is to kill.
Woody goes home and googles lymphomas, which indeed are very treatable if it’s the B-cell variety. T-cell lymphomas are a different story.
While Judy’s out kayaking with Tenzin, the oncologist calls and tells Woody they need to run about a thousand new tests on Judy to find out “what type of t-cell lymphoma we’re talking about.”
“Oh no,” Woody says. “T-cells are harder to cure, aren’t they?”
“They can be,” he says tersely.
When Judy returns, she can see it on Woody’s face.
“What’s the matter?”
He tells her. For the first time they weep together.
Tenzin has put Woody in a strait jacket, jammed a sock in his mouth, and locked him in a closet so he can call his sons and tell them the bad news. He also calls his siblings and closest friends.
Judy is stoic as well, suffering through a barrage of tests without a complaint.
They nervously wait to see how far it’s spread.
Good News! It’s Stage 1, confined to that one tumor. No bone marrow involvement. The treatment will be aggressive. 96-hour continuous hospital infusion, two weeks off, then another blast. There will be 6 to 8 cycles, then perhaps a stem cell transplant and even after that radiation.
28 July – Early December
Judy on the 5th Floor Balcony of Roper
Although Tenzin can sometimes hear muffled sounds from Woody’s closet, he – Tenzin – is very much in control. During hospital weeks, he wakes up at 5, walks their doomed dog Saisy, showers, etc., and delivers the paper to Judy on the 5th floor of Roper and sits down to enjoy a cup of coffee. Then he shuffles off in his blue footies, down the hall to the elevator, hitting the first floor, greeting the staff coming on as he heads to the parking garage and to work.
After only four days of chemo, the tumor has shrunk so much that the oncologist says he wouldn’t know it were there by external inspection.
Of course, everyone loves Judy because of her courage and exquisite manners. The nurses try to see to it that she gets the rooms that look out over Charleston Harbor. She walks a lot, dragging the chemo-shit along with her. She continues her work as a school psychologist from her hospital bed, and in the third week goes to work in Berkeley County wearing a wig. In the afternoons when she’s in the hospital, Judy and Tenzin sit on the balcony and note the beauty of the light as it falls upon the steeples of the city.
In October on a Friday, Tenzin returns from work to find a voice message from the oncologist. He’s delighted to inform them that Judy’s scan has come back all clear; there’s not a trace of cancer.
Nevertheless, they’re going to continue for two more cycles of chemo, culminating in a grand total of 6.
Late December 2014 – January 2015
Tenzin’s mother has had a stroke as Judy’s preparing for a stem cell transplant. Tenzin allows Woody to come out of the closet to google stem cell transplants, but marches him right back in there afterwards.
One morning they come downstairs to find that Saisy has died during the night. Tenzin and his neighbor Jim load Saisy’s carcass in the back of Judy’s SUV (Tenzin’s Mini isn’t an option), and she drops Saisy off at the Vet’s to be cremated. She then drives on to work as Tenzin does the same.
Over the next week, Tenzin tries to make it to his hometown to see his fading mother while meanwhile Judy suffers the worst part of her treatment, bone-marrow killing doses of a different type of chemo that incapacitates her.
When Tenzin’s mother dies, Judy’s very ill; she can’t attend the funeral because she’s been hospitalized. The good news is that Judy’s sister and sister-in-law have come to help. Despite all the negativity, spirits are somewhat high.
February – March 2015
Scans again clear. Time for radiation, which is no fun, but it’s much better than chemo.
Judy’s and Tenzin’s son is getting married in June, right after another scan. Woody, who has been released from the closet but remains under house arrest, thinks the scan should be put off until after the wedding, but Tenzin and Judy disagree. How great to hear the news beforehand they say.
But they don’t hear the news. Woody is not allowed to come up to DC for the festivities (though he does text twice). The wedding week is wonderful as Judy and Tenzin reunite with loved ones and enjoy interacting with their new in-laws. All agree the ceremony and reception are a blast.
When Judy and Tenzin return to Charleston, they learn the scan was “all clear.”
17 December 2015
Judy goes in for her six-month scan. Woody has been sneaking around googling, looking for PTCL-NOS success stories, and under that heading what’s below is all he can find:
To date: 17 chemotherapeutic drugs in 8 regimens. 4 of those drugs at least twice.
Knowing the redemptive value of suffering makes all the difference.
Woody also discovers that the median time for relapse is 6.7 months after primary treatment, and it’s been seven months since Judy’s ended. Plus her SED rate is way high at 38 (20’s normal). Woody googles for possible reasons for high SED rate. “Cancers: lymphoma, leukemia.”
18 December 2015
Judy tells Woody (who’s wearing a Tenzin mask) he doesn’t need to accompany her to her 3 o’clock appointment.
As soon as she leaves for work, Woody clobbers Tenzin over the head with a walking cane and shoves him in the closet.
Woody goes to work and grades one set of exams, attends a brunch, then goes home at one-thirty and tries to take a nap.
He falls into a fitful sleep but awakens.
The clock crawls. Three finally arrives. Why didn’t meet her there? Imagine a text message. Or if it’s bad, wouldn’t she call? Imagine her driving back by herself knowing. Poor thing. 3:05. Friday’s NY Times crossword puzzle. It’s impossible. 3:15. He imagines Judy being weighed, getting her blood pressure taken. 3:30, no word. 3:35 goes down to play solitaire. 3:50. Knows Judy might get irritated but calls.
She hasn’t been seen yet!
4:05; Billie Holiday’s text ring tone “Comes Love” sounds. He sees ”scan’s all clear” on the screen. Screams Yes!! Literally dances a jig. Judy calls. “Yes!” He texts his sons “Yes!” He texts friends. “Yes!”
He rides his bike down to the Jack of Cups where he finds the owner Nick sitting at the bar with Tyler, a Chico Feo bartender, sitting next to him, and Samantha, a lovely tattoo-covered “girl next door” stationed behind the bar. He shares the good news. Larry comes in. Lesley, Nick’s wife comes in. They all high five. Nick disappears and returns with six shots.
They raise their glasses and chug.
Meanwhile, Tenzin is just coming to back home. He walks slowly up the stairs to his study and takes from the shelf The Selected Poems of WH Auden. He looks at the index of first lines, flips to the sought after page, and reads:
One phenomenon that future historians/anthropologists will cite as a contributing factor in our civilization’s decline is the polarization of our political parties, who have retreated into the echo-chambered bunkers of MSNBC and Fox News where viewers rarely hear cogent arguments that challenge their preconceptions.
Take last night’s Republican debate for example. This a priori premise was embraced, not only by every single candidate, but also by the live audience and assembled focus groups: Obama’s presidency has been unilaterally an unmitigated disaster.
That’s right. The glory days of peace and prosperity of the Bush years have darkened into an era when America is no longer great.
We need Donald or Ted or Marco or Carly to restore us to those halcyon days of 2008!
Well, here’s a non-partisan assessment:
Here’s a chart of the budget deficit:
Of course, the Obama Administration has been far less than perfect, as some of the numbers in the first chart attest; on the other hand, who in her right mind would argue that generally things are worse now than they were under George W Bush?
With the specter of terrorism, both domestic and jihadist, haunting contemporary life, it’s no wonder that yesterday’s annual Folly Beach, SC, Christmas parade seemed somewhat subdued. For example, no eardrum-shattering Shriner-produced gun battles “betwixt” Revenuers and Moonshiners terrified toddlers. Instead, we baby boomers were treated to this rather melancholy spectacle.
[For those not proficient in Southern US English, here’s a translation: “This gentleman right here is 91-years-old, still working for the burned and crippled children (not the burning crippled children)].
Compare that to this scene from four years ago when all the little Masons and Benningtons were treated to some semi-authentic street drama, a Western tradition dating back to the glorious days of the Hundred Years War and the bubonic plague.
Also conspicuous in their absence were the vintage car clubs, those MG-Bs, Triumph Spitfires, XKE Jags that ascot-wearing playboys used to tool around the countryside in with their scarf-headed mistresses headed to the Timberland Inn for a mid-afternoon tryst.
And, for me, an owner of two late departed VW microbuses, what a disappointment that nary a one puttered past belching clouds of oil-laden exhaust (as opposed to in years past when they appeared in abundance, transforming Center Street into a miniature Beijing).
Nor did the Surf Rider drill team wow us with their shenanigans.
Not that the parade was a complete bust. The James Island band was in fine form.
Plus, the Roller Derby girls are always a welcome addition.
Of course, Santa appeared, albeit with an armed guard:
And, of course, the after-party at Chico Feo never disappoints. Check out these not-exactly vestal virgins preparing to sacrifice this cloven-footed beast to Jah so Mr. Weed back in the kitchen can whip up some of his world class curried goat.
And as Solstice present to all of you wherever you be, a rare photograph of your humble narrator at Chico Feo with his bodyguards.
In the last couple of days, the insult “un-American” has been slung at Donald Trump as if xenophobia is atypical in the home of the brave and land of the free, as if historically, the sons and daughters of the nation’s original Anglican immigrants rolled out red carpets of welcome for those hordes of Irish and Italian immigrants who poured into Manhattan back in the day, as if FDR didn’t round up law-abiding Japanese-American citizens and lock them away in internment camps during WW2, as if the Supreme Court didn’t uphold that action as constitutional. Although I’m opening myself up to the charge of being one of those “hate-America-first” lefties, we should not forget that genocide and enslavement play important roles in the founding of our country. In fact, you could argue – and virtually all the neighbors who flocked to see the Donald at the Yorktown Monday would agree – it’s I-and-I who is un-American for bringing up those offputting historical blights.
In the current Harpers, Lewis H Lapham, this century’s HL Mencken, casts his satirical eye at the United States’ democratic traditions and the current presidential campaign. I encourage you to read the entire piece [found here], but in the tradition of Harper’s itself, I thought I’d share a few of its highlights, to sort of excerpt the article, and then to end with some personal observations on the Donald.
Lewis H Lapham
Lapham begins the piece by claiming that “throughout most of its history” the US has preferred “concentrated wealth” to “democracy.” He cites Plato’s contention in The Republic that “’noble falsehood’ is the stuff that binds a society together in self-preserving myth.” The myth in this case is that the god who created men “mixed gold into some of them” and that these men “are adequately equipped to rule, because they are the most valuable.” Lapham suggests that the Founding Fathers essentially agreed with Socrates’ elitist vision of leadership and so created “a government in which a privileged few would arrange the distribution of law and property to and for the less fortunate many, an enlightened oligarchy that would nurture both the private and the public good, accommodating both the motions of the heart and the movements of a market.”
These leaders, to quote Madison, possessed the “most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society.” “But not enough virtue and wisdom,” Lapham reminds us, “to free the republic of its slaves.” That task was left to men neither enlightened nor rich giving their ‘last full measure of devotion’ to consecrate ‘the proposition that all men are created equal.” In other words, common men with rifles who fought fiercely at places like Shiloh, Gettysburg, and Spotsylvania accomplished the task of emancipation.
Lapham credits Lincoln with the establishment of the myth of equality but laments that the myth has lost its power. He argues that now “presidential-election campaigns [are] designed to be seen, not heard, the viewers invited to understand government as representative in the theatrical, not the constitutional, sense of the word.” He goes on to say that “this simplified concept of politics installed Ronald Reagan in the White House in 1981 to represent the country’s preferred image of itself, uproot the democratic style of thought and feeling that underwrote Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, restore America to its rightful place where “someone can always get rich.”
Let’s just say that Lapham is immune to the Gipper’s charms.
The evening [of the welcoming ceremony produced by Frank Sinatra at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland, on the night before Reagan’s inauguration] set the tone of the incoming Republican political agenda, promising a happy return to an imaginary American past — to the amber waves of grain from sea to shining sea, the home on the range made safe from Apaches by John Wayne in John Ford’s Stagecoach. The great leap backward was billed as a bright new morning in an America once again cowboy-hatted and standing tall, risen from the ashes of defeat in Vietnam, cleansed of its Watergate impurities, outspending the Russians on weapons of mass destruction. During the whole of his eight years in office Reagan was near perfect in his lines — “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” — sure of hitting his marks on Omaha and Malibu Beach, snapping a sunny salute to a Girl Scout cookie or a nuclear submarine. The president maybe hadn’t read Plato in the ancient Greek, but myth was his métier, and he had the script by heart. Facts didn’t matter because, as he was apt to say, “facts are stupid things.” What mattered was the warmth of Reagan’s bandleader smile, his golden album of red, white, and blue sentiment instilling consumer confidence in the virtuous virtual reality of an America that wasn’t there. The television cameras loved him; so did the voters. To this day he remains up there with Abraham Lincoln in the annual polls asking who was America’s greatest president.
Nor does Lapham have a “man-crush” on Bill Clinton:
The cameras also loved Bill Clinton, who modeled his presidency on The Oprah Winfrey Show rebooted to star himself as both bighearted celebrity host and shamefaced celebrity guest, reaching out at the top of the hour for more love and more cheeseburgers, after the commercial break dealing bravely with the paternity of the stains on Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress. He was admired not only for the ease with which he told smiling and welcome lies but also for his capacity to bear insult and humiliation with the imperturbable calm of a piñata spilling forth presidential largesse as corporate subsidy and tabloid scandal.
Nowadays, “The proposition that all men are created equal no longer wins the hearts and minds of America’s downwardly mobile working classes — employed and unemployed, lower, lower-middle, middle, upper-middle, adjunct, and retired.”
Political campaigns distinguish voters “not by the fact of being American but by the ancillary characteristics that reduce them to a commodity: gun-carrying American, female American, white American, gay American, African American, Hispanic American, Native American, swing-state American, Christian American, alienated American. The subordination of the noun to the adjective makes a mockery of the democratic premise and fosters the bitter separation of private goods, not the binding together of a public good.” A handful of billionaires possess incredible leverage in determining who becomes the nominee, billionaires “said to have earmarked $900 million to be scattered like baubles from a Mardi Gras parade float among Republican hopefuls able to quote from the Constitution as well as from the Bible.”
But, hold on, wait a minute. Enter Donald Trump. He don’t need their filthy lucre:
Trump established the bona fides of his claim to the White House on the simple but all-encompassing and imperishable truth that he was really, really rich, unbought and therefore unbossed, so magnificently rich that he was free to say whatever it came into his head to say, to do whatever it took to root out the corruption and stupidity in Washington, clean up the mess in the Middle East, or wherever else in the world ungrateful foreigners were neglecting their duty to do the bidding of the United States of America, the greatest show on earth, which deserved the helping hand of Trump, the greatest name on earth, to make it worthy of his signature men’s colognes (Empire and Success) and set it free to fulfill the destiny emblazoned on his baseball cap: make America great again
Well, if Ronald Reagan’s and Bill Clinton’s prodigious charm can’t penetrate the force field Lewis H Lapham’s cynicism, how could a Vaudevillian vulgarian like Trump have a chance:
The man [is] a preposterous self-promoting clown, a vulgar lout, an unscripted canary flown from its gilded cage, a braggart in boorish violation of the political-correctness codes, referring to Mexicans (some Mexicans, not all Mexicans) as “criminals” and “rapists,” questioning John McCain’s credentials as a war hero (“I like people who weren’t captured”), telling Megyn Kelly on Fox News that if from time to time he had been heard to describe women he didn’t like as “dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals,” he meant “only Rosie O’Donnell.”
Lapham ends on this melancholy note:
The electorate over the past forty years has been taught to believe that the future can be bought instead of made, and the active presence of the citizen has given way to the passive absence of the consumer. A debased electorate asks of their rulers what the rich ask of their servants — comfort us, tell us what to do. The wish to be cared for replaces the will to act, the spirit of freedom trumped by the faith invested in a dear leader. The camera doesn’t lend itself to democracy, but if it’s blind to muddy boots on common ground, it gazes adoringly at polished boots mounted on horseback.
Lapham wrote this piece before the Paris and San Bernardino attacks and so wasn’t privy to Trump’s incendiary ideas of banning Muslims, statements that aid ISIS in propagandizing the USA as a land of Islam-loathing infidels. Some commentators have jacked up his demagogic profile from being a latter-day self-promoting PT Barnum to a Joe McCarthy and now, most recently, to a Mussolini or Hitler.
Obviously, Trump is an incredibly needy, insecure man who has somehow confused the ability to amass money with wisdom. Back in the summer I found his gargantuan self-aggrandizement amusing – like a blaring trumpeter who’s so bad, it’s funny. It’s gone on long enough. It has become tiresome — if not dangerous.
In fact, I’m getting a little bit scared – not that he’ll be elected President but that his super nationalistic rantings have generated such a following. Check out the screaming woman in the picture below. Is she a protestor who has somehow made her way to the front of the crowd or someone bellowing to keep the damn Muslims out? She certainly doesn’t look like a likely Trump supporter. Nor does the Whitman-looking fellow three people back on the left. Is this a picture of un-American Americans or merely a portrait of likely South Carolina primary voters?
Is poetry really the way into a lover’s heart? Here’s the Swan of Avon, Mr. William Shakespeare himself, having a go at it:
But no roses see I in her cheeks,
And in some perfumes there is more delight,
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
Here, Master Will is attempting to flatter his swarthy-skinned mistress by underscoring how she doesn’t conform to pale-faced Elizabethan standards of beauty while mocking poets who overstate their lovers’ charms. However, judging by the limited number of women I have courted, I don’t see this strategy working well at all.
For example, I would not have attempted to flatter my late beloved wife with these lines:
My mistress’s breasts are fairly flat
And her hair a sort of mousey brown,
Yet she makes my heart go rat-a-tat-tat
Whenever I take her out on the town.
Nor do I think John Donne’s “The Flea” would work with most women. Sure, his comparing flea bites to sexual intercourse is “imaginative” and his “a-ha” comeback at the end of the poem clever, but, really, do you think this argument has even a Casper-the-Friendly-Ghost of a chance:
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou knowst this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead.
Then there’s Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” which at least starts off on the right foot with some extravagant praise.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thine forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But then gets all morbid on us:
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity . . .
As one of my students once said when I told her that faculty members often lie around unclothed in the faculty lounge:
BAD MENTAL PICTURE!
Sir John Suckling, he of the unfortunate name, creates this sure-not-to-please image:
Her feet beneath her petticoat
Like little mice stole in and out,
As if they feared the light;
But oh, she dances such a way!
No sun upon an Easter-day
Is half so fine a sight.
Maybe chicks back then thought vermin cute, foot-fetishes adorable?
Here’s another from Sir John:
Her lips were red, and one was thin;
Compared with that was next her chin,—
Some bee had stung it newly.
No, boys and girls, I doubt seriously that poetry is capable of melting hearts. After all, the greatest of poets, William Butler Yeats, devoted god knows how many iambs in his lifelong but vain attempt to win the love of Maud Gonne.
He leaves us with this good advice:
Never give all the heart, for love Will hardly seem worth thinking of To passionate women if it seem Certain, and they never dream That it fades out from kiss to kiss; For everything that’s lovely is But a brief, dreamy, kind delight. O never give the heart outright, For they, for all smooth lips can say, Have given their hearts up to the play. And who could play it well enough If deaf and dumb and blind with love? He that made this knows all the cost, For he gave all his heart and lost.