“The Progressive Shifting of the Social”


On Saturday nights in the little living rooms of my youth, my family huddled around our black and white television to watch Sheriff Matt Dillion engage in gunplay so civilized that it seemed as if the Marquis of Queensberry presided over Matt’s confrontations with that neverending stream of cold-blooded killers. In each episode, the two antagonists would politely pace like duelists to settle questions of good and evil according to who possessed the better reflexes and aim.

Would the avatar of law-and-order prevail over the sadistic child slayer, or would the sociopath triumph and therefore enjoy the freedom to continue his chosen lifestyle of plunder and mayhem?

If we weren’t watching television, we listened to my mother and father tell the tales of their youth, the old man regaling us with Depression era stories of Spring Street when the Jenkins Orphanage band was in full swing. We learned about some woebegone junkie called Paregoric Annie who haunted my great-grandfather’s pharmacy on the Corner of Spring and Ashley. She periodically visited peninsula drugstores begging for opiates, which Great Grandaddy generously donated, like the rest of his competitors, on a rotating basis. Despite the entertainment Charleston’s two channels provided, the old oral Southern tradition remained dominant.

Jenkins Orphanage Band, date unknown

Jenkins Orphanage Band, date unknown

The public school I attended generally reinforced these prejudices. Our South Carolina History text blamed the “War Between the States” on unfair tariffs and sympathetically portrayed the rise of the Klan as a sort of necessary reaction to the injustices of Reconstruction.

Thus, the inculcation of culture was passed from generation to generation without very much outside influence.

The times, however, have changed, as Dylan prophesied they would a half a century ago.


As any adolescent psychiatrist worth her weight in Adderall knows, once a child reaches middle school, his peers influence him much more than his parents. The same might be said of the media with college-aged kids, young adults, and couples with young children – media influence them more than traditional family mores.

Grandaddy’s biblically based view of homosexuality gives way to Oprah’s open-mindedness. What my mother once derisively termed “shacking up” is more and a more a sanctioned step on the pathway to matrimony.

Our choices are directed less and less by traditional knowledge and more and more by elements captured here and there in the media [:] How to eat properly, how to stay young and healthy, how to bring up children [. . .] The present governs our relationship with the past. We keep only that part of the past that is convenient for us, only what is not in flagrant contradiction to modern values, personal taste, conscience. No collective rule has value in itself any longer if it is not expressly recognized by the will of the individual.

Gilles Lipovetsky: The Empire of Fashion

I’m not arguing that abandoning the deep roots of tradition for the ephemeral cartoon bubbles of sitcom morality is necessarily a great thing, nor does Lipovetsky:

A preference for provisional arrangements is winning out over fidelity, superficial commitment over motivation based on belief. We are embarked on an interminable process of desacralization and desubstantialization of meaning that defines the reign of consummate fashion. This is how the gods die, not in a nihilist demoralization of the West and anguish over the loss of values, but in small jolts of meaning. Not in the morosity of Europe, but in the euphoria of fleeting ideas and actions. Not in passive disillusionment, but in hyperanimation and temporary highs. There is no point in weeping over “the Death of God” : God is getting a technicolor, fast-forward funeral. Far from engendering a will to nothingness, the death of God carries the desire for the new and its excitement to extremes.

What I will argue is that among America’s youth that the old ways are not their ways, and ubiquity of internet access bodes poorly for the traditional Republican Party as the majority of their constituency shuffles off to their appointments in Samara.  Also, changes are afoot on the Democratic side as the young Sanders’ Brocialists push the Democratic ever more leftward.

Or as Springsteen put it in “Independence Day,”

Because there’s just different people coming down here now and they see things in different ways
And soon everything we’ve known will just be swept away.


On Going Deaf


In the early ’60’s, as preadolescents (alas there were no “tweens” back then), we’d play a game in which our 11-year-old-selves would pose questions that featured awful binary alternatives: “Which would you rather do: slide down a razor blade into a pool of carbolic acid or kiss [insert name][1]?

Sometimes someone might pose a less silly question like “Would you rather be blind or deaf?” We’d seriously contemplate the awful alternatives, argue back and forth, weigh the good cons versus the bad cons.

Now that I’m practically deaf, I can assure you blindness is preferable. The sounds “deaf” and “death” are indistinguishable to someone losing her hearing.  Once it is altogether gone, you’re trapped in a silent wilderness of mirrors.

Bedrich Smetana

Bedrich Smetana

In September of 1874, the Czech composer Bedrock Smetana’s ears started ringing.  It worsened, crescendoed, went from high-pitched shriek to ocean roar, which eventually led to total trapped-in-a-mirror deafness, a sort of horrible relief.

Here he describes the process in a letter.

That ringing in my head! That noise! … that is worst of all. Deafness would be a relatively decent condition, if only all was quiet in my head. But the greatest torture is caused me by the almost continuous internal noise which goes on in my head and sometimes rises to a thunderous crashing. This dark turmoil is pierced by the shrieking of voices, from strident whistles to ghastly shrieks as though furies and demons were bearing down on me in furious rage.

In his late autobiographical composition String Quartet NO. 1 (aka “From My Life”), Smetana dramatizes this phenomenon with a sudden intrusion of a high E into the melody late in the 4th movement a couple a minutes before the end.

Here is the musical notation in his own hand:


Listen.  Can you hear it? :

* * *

Even though my paternal great aunts suffered hearing loss — Aunt Polly was known to blast drapery rippling farts that she seemed unaware of — I prefer to blame my disability on Bruce Springsteen.  On 1 August 1978 we saw the Boss from the first row at Gaillard Auditorium in Charleston, a terrific concert from the first chords of the Bobby Fuller Four cover of “I Fought the Law” to the encore cover of Gary US Bonds “Quarter to Three.”  However, after the show and for two days afterwards I suffered a milder case of Smetana-like ringing in my ears accompanied by ear-canal itching.

Eventually, however, the ringing and itching stopped, but alas, ever since then my hearing has been in a state of decline.

* * *

In the late summer 2004, when I was visiting for the last time my ALS-stricken bosom friend[2] Tom Evatt, I couldn’t make out some of his whispery rasp, so I nodded stupidly as if I could understand what he was saying.

As I leaned towards him, his face darkened into displeasure.

“What did I just say?”

“Um, I’m not quite sure.”


That was the first time I was caught out, and I can’t tell you how bad I felt deceiving Tom, but now it’s been another dozen years, and I often find myself nodding stupidly as I attempt to become a lip reader.  The good news, I guess, is that for 6 grand I might be able to get some help via a hearing aid, and the time has come for me to check out that possibility. Otherwise, I fear that among this generation of my students, my legacy will be that of the old deaf coot you could insult right in front of his face, and he would smile and sagely nod his head.

So then I can retire and become the old man in Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”:

It was very late and everyone had left the cafe Chico-Feo except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the cafe knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him.

11th January 1963: A man demonstrating a long distance ear trumpet, at an exhibition of custom-made 19th century hearing aids in London. It is one of the many 19th Century hearing aids owned by Amplivox-Ultratone, and was originally made by F.C. & C.V. Rein & Sons. (Photo by John Franklin/BIPs/Getty Images)

[1] E.g., Phyllis Diller’s daughter Loquacia Quasimodo

[2] Wait along enough and antiquated clichés can come again to life.

The Past’s Future


Fritz Lang's Metropolis

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

In the early Sixties, my maternal grandparents stayed in a subdivided Victorian house, the upstairs having been split into two apartments, the bottom story uninhabited and warehousing a portion of some wealthy family’s estate: furniture, rugs, an extensive library. We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of books. In the side yard there was a well.  You could remove the cinder block and then the plywood and look down at your reflection in water.

Although not an adventurous child, somehow I gained entrance into those off-limit rooms downstairs, the furniture sheeted, the air stale. I’d sneak down there and explore. After repeated visitations and investigating some of the books I could reach on the lower shelves, I started secretly “borrowing” individual volumes of the Complete Works of Edgar Alan Poe.

Each slender volume, bound in red, featured sheer paper sandwiching occasional engravings of ravens, subterranean crypts, rats gnawing on ropes of a prisoner contemplating a pendulum. I’d take one volume at a time, terrified I’d get caught. Into the forbidden first-story space I’d sneak, carefully replace last week’s purloined octavo, surreptitiously flip through other volumes, and choose another based solely on the luridness of the illustrations. I was only nine or so, so most of the prose lay beyond my reckoning, but I could manage lots of the poetry and some of the stories (“The Tell Tale Heart,” for example). Unable to distinguish bathos from profundity, I became completely enamored of the singsong silliness of “The Raven,” devoting several stanzas to memory. “Annabelle Lee” could bring tears to my eyes. Something sinister lay beneath those works, so the whole enterprise smacked of trafficking in pornography – though pornography would not have been in my early Sixties vocabulary.

I’d smuggle the forbidden text and read it surreptitiously in bed because I knew my parents/ grandparents wouldn’t approve of my trespassing and borrowing without asking. I liked the musty smell of the books, the way the pages whispered when I turned them, the way the illustrations lay perversely beneath diaphanous paper. Despite the buxom space sirens who cavorted on the covers of pulpy paperbacks, Sixties sci-fi couldn’t compete with the deep purple sublimations of diseased consciousness that I found in Poe.

As a child, the musty past interested me much more than the disinfected future.



* * *

In those days, at my grandparents’ apartment, in the afternoons, we’d watch The Micky Mouse Club and Flash Gordon reruns. Flash Gordon appealed to me, not because it was futuristic, but because it was old-fashioned, serials my mother had watched as a redheaded girl at matinees during the Great Depression, the stories more or less Medieval, Ming the Merciless versus Buster Crabbe of the hyacinthine locks, a hero who could probably trace his lineage back to Perseus.

Occasionally, on the Mouse Club, we’d visit Tommowland for a glimpse at the wonders that the future might hold – if there was going to be a future. With Kruschev banging his shoe on the table at the UN and third grade atomic detonation drills, you weren’t so sure. Nevertheless, we would sometimes wonder what it would be like to live in the year 2000, calculating our ages when that distant day would arrive with its flying automobiles and uniform-like clothing.

The Future circa 1955

The Future circa 1955

Accurately imagining the future is not an easy task. I’ve written elsewhere about Huxley and Orwell and their relative prowess at prognostication. On the cinematic side, Fritz Lang and Kubrick deserve a nod. However, in my limited exposure to old-fashioned sci-fi and its forays into the future, I can’t recall anyone predicting the vast availability of information we now enjoy, which strikes me as the most meaningful aspect of the difference between yesteryear and now.

For example, if I were a bit wealthier, for a mere $6500 I could purchase that edition of Poe’s Complete Works I described above. Here’s a description:

New York. George D. Sproul Company. 1902. Lavishly bound in Publisher’s Deluxe custom, 3/4 burgundy crushed morocco and marbled boards. Gilt-tooled spine compartments with fleural motifs.Gilt-tooled raised bands. Marbled endsheets. t.e.g. 8vo. 5.5″ x *.25″. The Monticello Edition. This Edition Limited to only 1000 numbered sets of which this is #330. Illustrated throughout with delightful, tissue-guarded monochrome plates Editied by renowned Poe scholar James A. Harrison, the Monticello Edition of Poe’s Works is one of the scarcest of early compilations, with no complete set appearing at auction in more than thirty years.The 17 Volumes are comprised of: (truncated).

The wonder of it all! My cobwebbed memories come to life, a few keystrokes away! Yes, the volumes were red (okay, burgundy crushed morocco) and, yes, illustrated with tissue-guarded monochrome plates. (Looking for suitable illustrations for this topic, I discovered these volumes in a Google search after I had begun this post – the very volumes that I had treasured as a boy). In a sense, the past is at my fingertips because I can conjure its images.

In 2016, if I have a hankering to view a complete set of Flash Gordon serials, I can have Dale Arden and Ming the Merciless streaming through my computer in virtually no time. World classics of the public domain await plundering – in Latin for the scholar, SparkNotes for the slacker.

O, my baby boomer brothers and sisters, the future is now! Water pours automatically as your hand nears the faucet head; toilets flush, somehow knowing you’ve finished. I can talk to my son in real time and watch him sip a beer in Nuremberg as I languish six hours behind in the States awaiting our own cocktail hour. Somehow, the triumph of capitalism has enabled us to get stuff for free – whether it be the Aeneid or Skype.

Yet, the past still strikes me as more seductive, more fecund, as the future both expands and shrinks us, offering us worlds of information and entertainment, but distracting us from the glories of the natural world, the sunlight illuminating in steps your bedroom wall as you lie there not wanting to get up.


A Wordly Wise Wedding Feast


Kashmir Malevich's "The Wedding"

Kashmir Malevich’s “The Wedding”



Not surprisingly, Wordly Wise, the vocabulary series we use at my school, tilts big time towards those words brought over to England from France by William the Conqueror and his various cousins, i.e., words of Latinate origin. This imbalance, of course, makes perfect sense given the College Board’s predilection for polysyllabic words and that our students will be spending not an inconsiderable amount of their adult lives chattering away at upper tier cocktail parties.

Obviously, softening “cowardly” to “pusillanimous” at a St. Cecilia Ball might be judicious, especially considering the status of the target of the aspersion, and it’s not as if all failures-of-nerve are created equal. Throwing down your weapon and turning tail at the command charge is not the same as wincing your way through a racist joke without protest.

P-EN10-1211407The problem with Latinate diction, though, is that it often comes off as stuffy, to use an Anglo Saxon word, or pretentious, to use a Latinate synonym. You might even say – I’m sure someone has – that Latin appeals to the cranium/head, Anglo-Saxon to the viscera/gut.

Anyway, if you’re a new English teacher at our school, one of your many chores is to do Wordly Wise exercises, and at the beginning of a school year, if you’re an enterprising new teacher and headed from Charleston, SC, to Rhode Island to attend a friend’s wedding, you might decide to bring Wordly Wise along in your carry-on to bang out some exercises while you wait for boarding, wait during your layover at Baltimore, fly over the Northeast corridor, etc.

This scenario describes my new English colleague Emily Neilson’s weekend. Emily did bring her Wordly Wise along, she did do the exercises, but she also wrote a letter to her students describing the weekend’s adventures and in doing so used every word in Chapter 1 of the Book 8 Edition of Wordly Wise!

The piece is downright inspired, brilliant, a tour de force, yes!so I pleaded with her to let me share it with you, which she graciously has.

(By the way, if any of my former students are reading this, I encourage you mentally to circle any Wordly Wise words you come across and see if you still remember them.)

Emily, take it away:

Emily Neilson

Emily Neilson


Musings, Off-and-Onhand: Worldy Wise Essay, Edition I

Good morning, my little English ensemble, vibrant with curiosity and intellect and Joie de vivre. As I sat at the gate of the Providence Airport yesterday watching the phalanxes of folks line up to board flight after flight, I worked on my Wordly Wise homework. Yes, people, don’t ring the tocsins and become rambunctious, refractory parolees all because you have learned that teachers must also endure the tribulations of homework. It is of tertiary importance in this moment, but it is true that the Sunday Scaries are known by all — old and young, men and boys, women and girls, large and small, short and tall — what a swamp of lyrical empathy, a paregoric that should assuage us somewhat from feeling totally disconsolate. And if you do indeed set out to break the trajectory of my story, I will corral you back with the figurative lariat I own as a teacher. I am the maestro – or is it maestra? – within this classroom, this cornucopia of learning. Anyways, there I sat at the gate, oscillating between my Wordly Wise and my phone, and I thought how you might enjoy a story from my weekend, and so I began to indite right there, at gate 19, in Providence, at 11:12 am, telling you about my weekend – a meteoric one – spent in the hinterlands of New England, witnessing the nuptials of my friend.

As you might know by now, one of my favorite maxims is to “throw kindness like it is confetti.” I am equable in that belief, steadfast in my semi-dogmatic notion that kindness is the thing that helps us mortals hold up the cosmos.

I, however, also believe that sometimes kindness is not the cure-all, and sometimes situations call for more acetic approaches and attitudes. So there I was on my flight starting the descent to Baltimore early Saturday morning when I felt a rogue hand creep onto my knee. The rogue hand was attached to the man seated beside me, and I wondered, what was he thinking? That I was an effete sort of gal? That my effeminate ensemble afforded him an itinerary for his hand to explore my knee? That when I asked him earlier, “Is that seat taken?” I had intimated some wish for his hand’s current oscillations or for some clandestine maneuvers later to come? That I, a woman, rode some kind of tame, precious, subdued palfrey? No, sir! I opt for the wild mustangs roving the Staked Plains, unbridled, beneath the biggest skies, because I am one of those wild mustangs! Desist your tactile infraction! What a stupid, insipid attempt to cultivate romance! Was I disconsolate, you wonder? Would I be his collateral in the enterprise? Some kind of feminine lien that he could use and abuse and lose? Would I devolve in my integrity and sense of self? What, no! Students, listen to me: I was vibrant in my fusillade, impeaching this scoundrel for his manual traipsing. I repelled his advance; I felt refractory to every ounce of this meretricious loser. I needed my mace, either to spray in his eyeballs, making them rheumy, or to club over his head and dash out his brains like the Roman Heroes do in scenes atop ancient, marble friezes. I refrained from asphyxiating him, but my counterattack had plenty of those motifs to do the figurative trick. I might not be a professor emeritus, but I am smart enough to believe that there’s a good kind of love out there to keep me from temporizing for such airborne garbage!

I wish to spend no more time on such filth, trenchant as I may sound now, and perhaps sometime down the road we will exhume the story and laugh about it together — I assure you we won’t have to exhume him. Or will we …

What I do wish to tell you is this: that in Little Compton, Rhode Island on Saturday afternoon, a svelte bride married a svelte groom, beneath ray upon ray of light that streamed through the big windows of a white church, sitting beneath a blue sky. But that’s not right because the sky wasn’t just made of blue that Saturday, but out of sapphire, topaz, turquoise, indigo. It was the firmament of heaven, overarching everyone who has ever lived and ever will. It was made out of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen. It was made from the Big Bang which blew all those bits at the very beginning into a trajectory which would eventually lead to him and her, and to you and me. It was a regular stone transformed into a small opulence and held, tiredly, in the hand of the lapidary who had stooped for hours at his wheel, chipping and chipping away to unleash a beauty he knew possible all along. Or maybe it was in another hand, in the quivering hand of a maestro as he holds on to the last notes in their last moments before cutting all that cornucopic, symphonic sound, creating a vast, sudden, and evanescent silence.

But in the late afternoon light on a Saturday in Little Compton, Rhode Island beneath one blue, blue, blue August sky, evanescent also means this: as the minister spoke to the couple and the congregation about love’s many forms, the man standing before the altar reached out through the air, almost imperceptibly, and without taking his eyes off the minister, and sought to find the hand of the woman beside him; and she, at the very same moment and without taking her eyes off the minister and also almost imperceptibly, let go a hand from her bouquet and reached out to hold onto his.


 Photo Credit: Jessie Small

Photo Credit: Jessie Small



Schadenfreude: A Confession

Carl_Spitzweg_-_Der_arme_Poet_Neue_Pinakothek copy

Yesterday, at the school where I work, I took a prognosticative multiple-choice test formulated to determine high school students’ strengths. I’m 63, familiar with the Delphic inscription Know Thyself, so I think I can accurately say that my strengths lie in dependability and my main weaknesses in impatience and impulsiveness – “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender” as tight-assed TS Eliot put it.[1]

However, as I clicked my way through the 70-odd questions, it slowly dawned on me that I’m not a particularly compassionate person when it comes to inconveniencing myself to actually help people. Oh, I don’t mind sending a check, but if I had the choice between writing ten thousand times in longhand I’m not a compassionate person of or spending a day with Habitat for Humanity helping to build a house for the poor, I’d opt for the writer’s cramp.

In the test I took, this question came up more than once: do you like helping people? I answered sometimes virtually every time. Of course, it’s certainly gratifying rescuing a toddler caught in a riptide (which I’ve done) but not so much joining an intervention for one of your junkie relatives. The bottom line is that, no, I don’t particularly enjoy helping people if it inconveniences me, so the test was effective in that it made me realize that in reality I’m  not all that compassionate, which I sort of considered myself to be.   Sure, I enjoyed helping the guidance department test the test, but I really had no choice. It was part of my job.

As coincidence would have it, to reinforce that self-assessment, four Team USA Olympian swimmers made a bad decision down there in Rio,. Of course, virtually every bad decision is the culmination of a series of bad decisions. E.g., lying about the robbery was a bad decision, necessitated in the mind of Lochte because someone had vandalized a restroom, which was a bad decision, precipitated by staying at a disco until 5 a.m., which was a bad decision, no doubt aided-and-abetted by the consumption of torrents of intoxicants, which was a bad decision, that over-indulgence a habit arrived at early on in their hotshot days as revered student athletes and not abandoned over the course of decades, bad decisions, ad nauseam.

A truly compassionate person, the Buddhist that I used to pretend to be, would feel compassion for the swimmers. He might recall some really stupid antics committed in the throes of drunkenness from his checkered past instead of schadenfreude.

Unfortunately, what one feels is what one feels. Let the great ax fall where it may.

[1] E.g., sending an angry email at 3 a.m., dropping down the cliff face of a wave you should know you can’t handle in a hurricane swell.

The Least Fun Deadly Sin


I’ve grown weary of so many things, of misinformed conspiracy mongers, of waiting on hold listening to manufactured music, of the ever-changing troop of short-term renters invading what used to be a neighborhood but now resembles more a spring break party strip.

One thing I never get tired of, however, is sinning, and as serendipity would have it, I recently received via email a request from one of my devoted readers; let’s call him or her adimmesdale@hawthorne.edu. Here’s the email.

My Dear Sir, I have over the course of a rather sheltered life wondered which is second most deadly sin. I understand that pride is the most pernicious of them all because it is the sin that toppled the Father of Lies from his exalted place among the Heavenly Host to be hurled headlong into bottomless perdition.

However, what about the second? The third? I’m inquiring for a friend but thought that the general public might benefit from your sagacity.

Most sincerely,

~A Devoted Reader

Sure thing, DR. Although, of course, theologians disagree about the ultimate order of Seven Deadly, my go-to-source when it comes to the nature of sin is D. Alighieri, and if you were to visit his Inferno, you’d see that not only has he ordered the sins from least to most deadly, but he also has provided apt punishments for each.

But, sir or madam, that was then – the 13th Century – and this is now – the 21st. I think a better question is “Which sin is the least satisfying of the Seven.”

Anyway, here’s Dante’s sequential list with some commentary from yours truly on each, including my assessment of which is the least satisfying and therefore the sin to most avoid.


As the Woody Allen character in Annie Hall observed, the worst orgasm he ever had was “absolutely wonderful.” Sexual desire is hard-wired into us so it follows that lust is the least deadly of the sins, and that’s why in the Inferno it receives the least horrible punishment, i.e., getting pummeled and molested by hurricane-force winds as you eternally chase banners. Here you’ll find Paris and Helen, Lancelot and Guinevere, and Bill and Monica.

bill sndf monica


Again, we’re preprogrammed to wanna eat, unlike being preprogrammed to amass vintage automobiles, so gluttony ain’t all that bad. In the Inferno, you just lie around in muck and rain, though sometimes Cerberus comes around and tears at your flesh.



Here, too, [sez Dante] I  saw a nation of lost souls,
far more than were above: they strained their chests
against enormous weights, and with mad howls
rolled them at one another. Then in haste
they rolled them back, one party shouting out:
“Why do you hoard?” and the other: “Why do you waste?


I’m surprised that Dante considers being lazy worse than being greedy. The slothful share the Fifth Circle with the angry. There, gurgling beneath the River Styx, the Slothful watch the wrathful duke it out.

The wages of lying on the sofa all day watching Turner Classic Movies!


Righteous anger can be fun sometimes, I guess, but once again, I’d rather be pigging out on some barbecue than throwing a conniption fit in a Walmart.


Aha, Dear Reader. Here’s your answer. Not only is envy, or covetousness , the second most deadly sin, it’s also in my book the least fun. Just ask Shakespeare.

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself, and curse my fate,

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,

Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least.

I’d rather be on that couch watching TV, or better yet, on that couch whispering Ovid into a pliant ear.


As you pointed out, DR, pride is the worst even though it’s the sin people most often tell you to embrace. Go figure.

Homework assignment. Place either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton into one of Dante’s circles of hell and justify the answer.



Giotto’s Charity and Envy

Uses and Abuses of Figurative Language, Donald Trump Edition

from left to right Chris Matthews, Hillary Clinton, Edward Snowden, Vladimir Putin, Julian Assange, Donald Trump. Anderson Cooper

from left to right Chris Matthews, Hillary Clinton, Edward Snowden, Vladimir Putin, Julian Assange, Donald Trump. Anderson Cooper


“Figures of speech are spices that add zest to language,” a tired textbook author might write.

But even though the previous sentence lazily relies on a stale metaphor, it’s still more pleasurable to read than “Figures of speech are words and phrases used in other than their literal sense, or in other than their ordinary locutions, in order to suggest a picture or image or for other special effect.’”[1]

Here’s the great American poet Richard Wilbur on the subject:


Praise in Summer

by Richard Wilbur

Obscurely yet most surely called to praise,

As summer sometimes calls us all, I said

The hills are heavens full of branching ways

Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead;

I said the trees are mines in air, I said

See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!

And then I wonder why this mad instead

Perverts our praise to uncreation, why

Such savor’s in this wrenching things awry.

Does sense so stale that it must needs derange

The world to know it? To a praiseful eye

Should it not be enough of fresh and strange

That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,

And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?

In the octave of this sonnet, Wilbur, via metaphors, reverses the natural order, turning “hills” into “sky” and “moles” into “birds” that fly/burrow over the bones beneath them. He then reverses the mirror and transforms a “tree” into a “mine” and “sparrows” into “moles.”

In the sestet, he laments that even the most miraculous aspects of nature eventually bore us, so we end up through figurative language “perverting” what should by themselves fascinate us in their natural state — things of wonder like green trees, moles, and sparrows. Oddly enough, after questioning the need for figurative language, Wilbur paradoxically ends the poem with a metaphor as “sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day” — though at least the metaphor reflects the world in its correct orientation with the sky above and the ground below.

Because, as Wilbur notes, “figures of speech “wrench things awry,” their use can lead to misunderstanding. For example, if you don’t read much poetry, you might find “Praise for Summer” baffling, if not incomprehensible.

Problems can also arise when the less perceptive among us take figurative language literally, as Donald Trump claimed last week in his controversy du semaine.

In case you’re just emerging from solitary confinement, Trump made a literal accusation about the origins of ISIS and then tried to claim, post shitstorm, that he didn’t mean what he had said literally. He then cast the folks at CNN as dullards incapable of appreciating his use of irony.


Allow me to render his accusation in verse as I might if I were quizzing my high school students.

Barack and Hillary founded ISIS,

So they are to blame for our current crisis.

Identify the figure of speech found in the couplet:

A.understatement   B. verbal irony (sarcasm)   C. synecdoche   D. hyperbole

The correct answer is D. Trump wasn’t employing sarcasm; he didn’t mean to convey that Obama and Hillary didn’t create ISIS by stating the opposite. If he meant the accusation figuratively (which I doubt), he was waxing hyperbolic – exaggerating – suggesting that Obama and Clinton’s mismanagement of foreign affairs led to the rise of the so-called Islamic State, thus making them de facto founders of ISIS. That he mocks others for not getting his sarcasm when he isn’t being sarcastic is worthy of sarcasm. Like we used to say in the 7th grade, “Smooth move, X-Lax.”

[cue Alanis Morrisette’s “Ironic”]

At any rate, you Republicans out there can surely lament that Trump lacks the verbal acuity of Ronald Reagan, who as deftly as Richard Wilbur turned language topsy-turvy, calling ICBMs “peace keepers” and taxes “revenue enhancers,” but then Reagan, who hand-wrote his own letters, was a voracious reader, which Trump obviously is not.

[1] Via Dictionary.com



Bachelor Party at Chico Feo’s: An Anthropological Study

chico bachelor party


Last Saturday, I had the opportunity as an anthropologist to observe a late afternoon bachelor’s party at Folly Beach’s little corner of the Caribbean, Chico Feo.

By the way, bachelor parties for centuries have been traditional components of mating and marriage rituals in the West. Whether you’re bidding “farewell to bachelorhood” in Munich at a Junggesellenabschied or in Arles marking the “burial of the life of a boy” at an enterrement de vie de jeune fill, you can be assured of one commonality: the Junges and garçons are gonna get shit-faced just like the lads in Liverpool and the dudes of Malibu.


Berlin Junggesellenabschied

Berlin Junggesellenabschied

Indeed, even though it was merely four in the afternoon at Chico Feo, a few of the entourage exhibited telltale signs of intoxication — sleepy, glazed eyes; mouths that hung open; wobbly legs. The first reveler in this condition I encountered kept bumping into the vacant bar stool adjacent to me.  Charlie, Chico’s world-class bartender, informed me with a scowl that these fellows were part of a bachelor’s party. It appeared that Charlie had already cut this fellow off.

I’d estimate these young men to be from the Northeastern United States, a section of the country in which good-natured mockery seems to be an ubiquitous social custom (see Tolerating Middle Class Northerners for Dummies). The bros bantered about slinging insults, ordering beer after beer, and slurping down in one swallow Chico’s delicious tacos as if they were oysters.

Most of these young men were large in stature, and even if they weren’t, they sported over-sized biceps and an array of body art ranging from rustic gunmetal blue barbed-wire wraparounds to high-end multicolored patterns that screamed Gauguin. It seemed, though, that some had acquired their muscular upper arms a while ago because now their abs resembled not so much washboards as loads of laundry.

It was interesting to try to determine who reigned as alphas of the cartload. One “dude” particularly seemed in charge, a vociferous twenty-something who looked as if his ancestors may have entered Ellis Island from Brindisi. He had an olive completion, aquiline beak, and jet-black short-shorn hair covered by a baseball cap worn backwards. He was conversing with some female patrons, boasting of the Adonis-like beauty of one of his friends, Paul, a ridiculously good-looking and fit fellow whose sandy hair fluttered in the on-shore breeze. Paul was sitting at the bar but looking in the opposite direction at the bacchanal taking place beneath the overarching trees that provide shade for Chico’s tables and chairs.

“These chicks want you to take off your shirt, Paul,” the alpha shouted in an accent that I’d place somewhere close to Newark.

Paul sat there passively grinning.

“C’mon Paul.   Show ‘em what you got.”

The females nodded their heads, and the ringmaster shouted, “C’mon, Paul, take off your shirt. Now! Show us your tits,” and a chant began “Show us your tits, show us your tits,” to which bartender Charlie, the real alpha, put an immediate stop. The ringleader opened his mouth and raised his arm as if he were going to continue, but Charlie’s stare short-circuited the bravado, and the erstwhile alpha dropped his hand and benignly smiled what I would call (removing my pith helmet of anthropological professionalism for a second) a stupid, shit-eating grin.

“Hey, which one’s getting married?” I asked Charlie.

“I don’t care,” he said shaking his head.

Unlike Dian Fossey or Jane Goodall, I didn’t ingratiate myself my this cartload[1] of not-so-fun-folks to follow them to their next destination, the Tides Hotel where they were wisely staying, eliminating even the need of Uber for their locomotion. However, I suspect that before the evening came to its inevitable end, these celebrants would witness some form of burlesque for hire, i.e., a stripper performing that age-old ritual.

I’ll leave you with this from Wikipedia:

In Israel, the bachelor party is called מסיבת רווקים. Such parties often feature heavy drinking and sometimes the presence of strippers.

Israeli מסיבת רווקים

Israeli מסיבת רווקים

Seems like a pattern, huh.


[1] Did you know you call a group of chimps a “cartload?” It’s a troop of gorillas and baboons, a barrel of monkeys, but a cartload of chimps. Go figure.

Overcoming Writer’s Block/ Avoiding Suicide

painting by Rigney
painting by Rigney

There’s nothing worse than writer’s block. Okay, maybe famine, genocide, or a Mensa mixer is worse.

Ever been to a Mensa mixer?

Imagine it.  The space — a Quality Inn banquet room? Something more upscale? A Hyatt?

Tables, carpet patterns, windows, drapery, caterers.

Characters? Base them on people you know. One of your old high school teachers, an aging history droner with badly dyed hair (you choose the color).

Mix and unmatch outfits.

Add a recent widow with helmet-like hair and a nasal Midwestern accent, a brayer when amused.

You, the protagonist, a lonely man or woman who has joined out of desperation. There’s someone there you sort of dig, maybe.  Make him or her up yourself. Have your would-be love interest constantly checking a Tinder feed.

Or not.

It’s all up to you because I’m not going to write that short story. Writing fiction is too damned demanding.

Crucial Tip #1: One of the most effective ways to overcome writer’s block is to give up writing.


* * *

If you’re a poet and stuck, you can always come up with an image and start from there, whether it’s a memory from childhood, your alcoholic father snoring on a sofa at four PM on a Saturday, his hairy over-abundant stomach exposed beneath a too-small wifebeater, the stomach inflating and deflating while a college football game blares from the TV.

Or a tropically bright painted bunting with nervous eyes doing reconnaissance. He darts out of a thicket as he cops drops trickling from the so-called waterfall in an aquatic garden in your back yard. He flits back, disappearing into shadows.

Cf. Wordsworth and Dickinson.

water garden

Coming up with ideas for poems isn’t that taxing, but writing a good poem is almost impossible, and there’s absolutely no money in it.  Plus poets tend to commit suicide with such abnormally high rates that actuaries prefer to insure wingsuit fliers over sonneteers.

Crucial Tip # 2: One of the most effective ways to overcome writer’s block is to give up writing poetry. (It just very well could save your life).

Dead Suicide Poets Society
Dead Suicide Poets Society

* * *

Therefore, if you’re one of these self-indulgent people who must write, I suggest non-fiction, and it would seem there’s so much to write about – the homeless, McMansions, the state of the spray-on tan industry, the Death of God/the Republican Party, the history of Mensa/the fallibility inherent in IQ testing, sleep apnea, the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the evolution of intimate apparel, the problem of writing block and how to overcome it.

Fox News Gumbo: A Poem (with apologies to Master Will)

Fox news gumbo


Conjuration, mumbo jumbo,

Let’s make a pot of FOX News gumbo.


Wink of Palin, PAC ad break

In a black maw boil and bake;


Grumble, grumble, moil and mumble;

broadcast shit and stir up trouble.


Eye of Newt, toe of Santorum,

Copies of the Penthouse Forum.


Newscasts rife with stirred-up trouble,

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.


Grumble, grumble, moil and mumble;

broadcast shit and stir up trouble.


Admin fuck-up – Benghazee!!!

Carnage worse than Wounded Knee!!!


Ersatz outrage, squawking heads,

looped forever in endless threads.


Rush Limbaugh: misogyny;

Xenophobic: Sean Hannity.


Israel, the Middle East?

Love the war but hate the peace.


Debunk science, evolution,

global warming, air pollution.


Grumble, grumble, moil and mumble;

Broadcast shit and stir up trouble.


Cool it with some David Frum




Something wicked this way comes . . .

Roger Ailes as Bacchus

Roger Ailes as Bacchus