The Reluctant Juror, the Dowager, and Dr. Betty

This week I have been summoned to jury duty.

I arrived at the courthouse yesterday with my wife’s death certificate in hand figuring I’d play the grief card to attempt to weasel out of my civic obligation. Once through security and ushered by a bailiff to the seat next to the man in front of me, I looked around the room, which was nicely appointed, official-looking but not ominous. There were four rows of benches holding five potential jurors per bench. I’d say maybe 200 people had been summoned.

Eventually (it seems a traffic incident on the Ravenel Bridge delayed the start), an assistant clerk, a tall, slender man who appeared around 30, welcomed us and made a few opening remarks. I had seen him milling around with his buzzcut temples, spiky crown, and angular beard, all of which created a sort of villainous vibe, like he could have been cast as an undercover Stasi agent in a coldwar movie. However, his voice was warm, friendly. He thanked us for our service, acknowledged the inconvenience. He mentioned that this was a propitious week to have been chosen (randomly from voter registration and DMV data bases) because there were only two trials on the docket, both civil litigation cases, whereas a typical week would feature 3 criminal and 3 civil cases.

Once the judge arrived, each of us had to stand when called and give our juror number, age, occupation, marital status, and if married, the occupation of our spouse.

This procedure seemed somewhat intrusive. Age, I can see, occupation okay, but why marital status?

Juror 147.   My name’s Bottom. I’m 25 years old, a weaver. My wife is a charwoman.

This occasion marked the first time I had to officially acknowledge that now I’m single, and I hated it. Although many proudly shared specifics about where they worked – “I’m a third grade teacher for Berkeley Counter Schools and my husband an electrical engineer at Folsom Manufacturing” – I decided to give as little info as possible.

“Juror 238. Wesley Moore, 64, a teacher, a widower.” [1]

As the preliminaries moved slowly along, it became apparent even if I could be excused this go around, I’d be transferred to a future term. The last time I had served on a jury was in 1978 when Judy and I were newlyweds and I could walk from our apartment on Limehouse Street to the Courthouse on Broad.  Even though I had brought along Kaufman’s translation of The Portable Nietzsche to give the false impression to lawyers that I believed “[i]n the last analysis, even the best man is evil: in the last analysis, even the best woman is bad,” I was chosen for 3 trials, the last right out Flannery O’Connor.

***

As it turned out, I served as the foreman of that jury, the only non-African American
represented. I don’t remember the official name of the case, but it might have well be dubbed Rich Dowager Whose Address Contains the Word Plantation vs. Dr. Betty, doll surgeon.

The Dowager was represented by her son-in-law whose day job was assisting Senator Strom Thurmond in Washington DC, and Dr. Betty’s counsel was a public defender, a young dark-haired woman who looked as if she might have been Joyce Carol Oates’s first cousin.

Here’s the gist: The Dowager had brought an 18th century doll that had been in the family since – um – the 18th century.  Somehow the doll’s nose had been knocked off, and Dr. Betty was to replace the nose so no one would know the difference.

Dr. Betty, who referred herself in the third person (“Dr. Betty would never do a thing like that”) was probably in her 60’s with poorly dyed unkempt blonde hair. She wore a thin dress with a white cardigan even though it was in the summer. Essentially she looked like the type who might take care of thirty cats roaming around a yard strewn with inoperable automobiles and cast away washing machines.

The Dowager was seeking $5,000 in real damages and $5,000 in punitive damages because, as it turned out, when the Dowager had come 2 years later to retrieve the doll, it was gone, allegedly sold by Dr. Betty to someone in a town near Columbia for what she claimed was $5.

Judge Stoney: So you don’t remember the name of the town. Could it have been Cayce?

Dr. Betty: Yes, yes, that was the name of the man I sold it to. His name was Casey.

Oh, if I only could create a gif of Judge Stoney’s expression.

Through the course of the trial it came to light that an 18th century doll who has had a nose job possesses only sentimental value, that Dr. Betty’s phone records showed she had called So-and-So Plantation in Beaufort trying to get the Dowager to pick up the doll, which Dr. Betty had repaired.  It had been two years, and she had not received any remuneration.   However, in South Carolina you can’t lawfully sell another’s unclaimed property unless you announce that intention in the newspaper.

At one point the Dowager told of visiting Dr. Betty’s shop, peeking in one of the windows,  and described its squalor in tones of obvious disgust.

Dr. Betty: That’s not my shop. That’s where I live.

Dowager: My God, you poor woman!

I swear, I’m not making this up.

Once we went into our deliberations, my colleagues, who had taken to calling me “Professor” [2] unanimously wanted to find Dr. Betty innocent, but I explained to them we shouldn’t do that because according to the law she was guilty because she hadn’t published her intent to sell the Dowager’s unclaimed property.

“Look, I said, “we can award her one penny in real damages and nothing in punitive damages,” but we have to find her guilty.”

“No, 5 dollars,” one of the jurors said, “that’s what she sold it for.”

We all agreed. The deliberations may have taken ten minutes.

When I had to stand and deliver our verdict, the Dowager smiled, and Dr. Betty looked incensed, the opposite reactions of what I would have imagined.

***

A clerk’s announcement of who were being selected for the pool ended my reverie of long dead Dr. Betty and the Dowager, and sure enough I was selected to join the pool of potential jurors.

Several of the chosen got out of it by approaching the judge and telling her their sad stories, but I didn’t try.

Charleston  County Courtroom

The Bailiff ushered us upstairs to the courtroom pictured above where a different judge, an older bald-pated white-haired fellow from Edisto Beach presided. He announced the case and asked a series of questions: for example, were we kin to any of these people, had we ever received their professional services, etc.

Finally, the judge asked if there were any other issues that might prejudice us, and I approached the bench.

Huddled there with the judge and the attorneys, I disclosed that I had taught one of the parties’ son and daughter. The judge asked me if he thought this might prejudice me. I said in a perfect, rational, Euclidian world it would not but that in this messier world I had a great deal of affection for both of this person’s children. The judge seemed sympathetic.

Of course, I was struck and set free, and here I sit hoping against hope that when I call in this evening at six, the message will be to call in Wednesday at 6.  At the very worst, I’ll only be involved in one trial.


[1] As it turned out, I was the oldest person there; the youngest was 18 but looked all of 12.

[2] I was an adjunct at Trident Technical College at the time teaching composition, Business English, and Technical Report Writing.

A Failson, Trustafarian, and Jared Kushner Walk into a Bar

I approve of the way James Joyce combined English words as if he were writing in German.

He especially liked fusing adjectives as in “snotgreen” or “chalkscrawled” or “sanguineflowered.”

Dig this: “bluesilver razorshells.”

Unfortunately, if you’re dumbassspeller like me and need your spellchecker to autocorrect, you’re not likely to follow Joyce’s lead because of those goddamn redunderlinings. Undoing them by doublechecking every possible error results in tedious timewasting.

Anyway, sometimes a fusedword will sneak into the language. Today, I learned a new one: failson.

Here’s the Urban Dictionary’s ungrammatical definition:

White, middle-class, male, useless people—who have just enough family context to not be crushed by poverty.

Felix, the failson of the family, goes downstairs at Thanksgiving, briefly mumbles, ‘Hi,’ everyone asks him how community college is going, he mumbles something about a 2.0 average, goes back upstairs with a loaf of bread and some peanut butter, and gets back to gaming and masturbating.

 A failson is not to be confused with a trustafarian, which is gender neutral:

Privileged white kids who subscribe to the hippie lifestyle (because they can) since they have no worries about money, a job etc. They can then devote their lives to eating organic, following Phish, and wearing dreadlocks (no need for job interviews).

 Sarah is a trustafarian. It’s totally evidenced by the combination of her brand new car[1] and nice digs with her “earthy” clothes and dreadlocks.

I suspect failsons tend to hole themselves up in their rooms and suffer from an EmilyDickinsonian/EdgarAllanPoeish pallor whereas the tanned Trustafarian I know who lives on Folly Beach frequently appears in public and is a ubiquitous source of putoff. When he’s not tripping on shrooms, he’s smugly pontificating in a hauterladen voice.

Him, me no dig.

But what about Jared Kushner? What’s the word for him?

How about nepotistickleptocrat?

 

In English, a hybrid language, there’s almost a word for everything.


[1] Or, as Joyce would put it brandnewcar.

 

Multiple Guess, the Carpe Diem Solution in Test Construction

 

Black Jug and Skull 1946 Pablo Picasso 1881-1973

Occasionally, when I head up to the science office to run my Scantron multiple choice sheets through the automatic grading machine, I detect among my colleagues looks of subtle disapproval, the facial equivalents of “tsk-tsk,” as if English teachers should use only short answer or essay questions to test their students.

Of course, any teacher worth the magnificent salary she receives knows that well-crafted multiple choice questions can test, not only factual information, but also provide a chance for students to employ critical thinking skills.

For example, there are 4 types of irony.

Verbal: Words convey the opposite of their literal meaning. E.g., “I can’t think of a mentor better suited to instill integrity than Roy Cohn.”

Dramatic: The reader knows more than the characters. E.g., “Darling, I have a wonderful surprise. I’ve just booked passage for two on the maiden voyage of the Titanic!”

Situational: Matters turn out the opposite of what one would imagine. E.g., You get fired from your teaching position and on the way home buy your very first lottery ticket that ends up being the Super Jackpot Powerball winner.

Morrisettean: (named for pop singer Alanis Morrisette) E.g., It rains on your wedding day. In other words, it isn’t ironic, any more ironic than a “fly in your chardonnay” or discovering the “man of your dreams,” whom you’ve just met, is already married.

Okay, I concede that if I constructed a multiple-choice test and merely provided those definitions of irony with the possible answers A. verbal, B. dramatic, etc., it would be pretty lame.

What you want is your students to recognize irony when they encounter it, not merely to be able to define it.

Here’s how I’d tackle a multiple-choice question on irony.

Rising junior Bennington has been obsessed with WWI aviation since he was ten. It’s always been his dream to see a Sopwith Camel in flight. For his 16th birthday, his father takes Bennington to the prestigious Paris Air Show.

Guess what?

Bennington actually sees a Sopwith Camel take off and land!

What type of irony does this example represent?

A. Verbal   B.   Dramatic     C. Situational         D. Morrisettean

The answer, of course, is D. There’s nothing unusual about seeing an antique airplane at a prestigious airshow.

You do, however, have to be careful and not have any shaded areas in the Venn diagram of your answers.

For example, which of these artists most obviously doesn’t fit.

A. Gertrude Stein

B. Hemingway

C. James Joyce

D. Picasso

Now this question is fraught with problems. All four were expatriates who hung out together in Paris during the Twenties. So who doesn’t most obviously fit?

Student (thinking): Stein was a novelist, Hemingway was a novelist, Joyce was a novelist, but Picasso was a painter, so it must be Picasso, but wait a minute, Dr. Crabapple might be trying to trick me because he’s led a barren, lonely existence.

Okay, Stein was an American, Hemingway was an American, Joyce was Irish, and Picasso Spanish, so that doesn’t work. Hey, English was the native language for all but Picasso. That seals it – D. Picasso!

[cue jarring game show buzzer]

Teacher: Dammit, fool. It’s Gertrude Stein. She’s a woman, the most obvious difference among the four is gender, not genre or nationality or language.

Student: She doesn’t look like a woman. Obviously, she identifies as a man! That’s not fair! That’s tricky!

Teacher: It might be unreasonable, but it’s not unfair. Every student got the identical question. If you had been the only person to get it, it would have been unfair.

Student (bursting into tears): Now I’ll never get into Harvard!

This absurd situation could have been avoided with a simple introductory phrase:

As far as genres go, which of these artists most obviously doesn’t fit.

As far as language goes, which of these artists most obviously doesn’t fit.

As far as gender sex goes, which of these artists most obviously doesn’t fit.

So don’t let your colleagues guilt you into punishing yourself by assessing long, rambling incoherent paragraphs that attempt to present the jumble of facts students remember about a topic.

Gather ye rosebuds, time’s winged chariot, down their carved names the raindrop plows, etc.

“Twelfth-Night (The King Drinks)” 1634-40 by David the Younger Teniers

Grief Counseling Noir

Five weeks ago my wife Ellie died of pancreatic cancer. We did the hospice thing, and the dying went fairly smoothly, thanks to the morphine. There were no eyes popping open and arms reaching upwards to invisible loved ones hovering around the bed, just a slow diminishing of breathing in the midst of a coma-like unconsciousness. She, unlike Dylan Thomas, went gently into that good night, which suited the both of us.

Our two girls are grown, 25 and 26, both in med school, so they were there with us, but now they’re back doing their residencies, one in DC, the other in Chicago. They both insisted I get some grief counseling, but I was resistant, that is, until about a week ago.

I had my reasons for not wanting to go to grief counseling. For one thing, I hate group activities. I’d rather watch 96 hours of consecutive Brady Bunch reruns than experience again that Lamaze class we went to when Ellie was pregnant with Lillian.

The girls informed me that you didn’t have to go group; you could go one-on-one.

I told them I didn’t want to go one-on-one either. “Look”, I said, “I’m a literature professor. My master’s thesis was Death and Dying in Yoknapatawpha County: Faulkner and that Undiscovered Country. I know all about death and dying. I was right there with Emma Bovary when she passed, right there with Lear as he carried dead Cordelia in his arms.”

“Plus, your mother was a psychologist,” I added. “Believe me, I know the drill. I’ve read pro Kubler-Ross and anti-Kubler-Ross. “

I did, though, promise that if I thought I needed help, I’d seek it.

Once the girls left and I was all-alone in the house with Ellie’s tops and skirts hanging in our walk-in closet, her jewelry in a jumble on her dresser, I started feeling more down than I had. Waves of sorrow would sometimes wash over me, and I would occasionally weep out loud with sobs that sounded like sardonic laughing. Right after one of those episodes when I was washing my face and lamenting the revival that my long-gone adolescent acne was restaging on the ruined contours of my already pocked-marked face, the phone rang.

It was a woman from the hospice following up to see how I was doing. Talking to her, my voice went wobbly, like a retiring coach’s voice as he blinks back tears in an interview after his final game. She mentioned that they offered grief counseling, but I resisted offering a less arrogant and pretentious reprise I had given my daughters.

I told her I had a lot of support from friends, colleagues, and former students, which was true.

She said, “Okay, bye sweetie.”

That sealed the deal. I wasn’t going with anyone who called me sweetie, anyone who was going to infantilize my suffering. So I went on google to check out counselors in the area and frankly didn’t like what I saw, mostly younger, attractive women with bleached teeth who “empower” and “help resolve” a laundry list of personal issues like anxiety, self-esteem, family issues, and grief.

Then I ran across this ad.

 

I did some snooping on my own with Marlowe.  His degree was legit, but he had been fired from MUSC after only two years for insubordination.  He had lost his wife Linda Loring early in his marriage (steeple chase, broken neck) so he’s been around grief’s mournful block of consignment shops, hole-in-the-wall bars, pawnshops, and laundromats. His office/apartment is located on Folly Beach over an outdoor bar called Chico Feo on the corner of Second Street and Ashley, you know, right across from that mural of the pirate painted on the side of Berts.  I went ahead and made the appointment.  A secretary with one of those irritating interrogative lilting voices hit me up for Friday at 11:30.

You go up some rickety outdoor stairs to get up to his office. Two beautifully hand-painted signs hang next to the door. The top one reads: “Philip Marlowe, Psy.D.” The one below: “Yes, smoking, a lot of smoking in here, unfiltered Pell Mells. If you don’t like cigarette smoke, turn around. I wish you the best of luck. Otherwise, come on in.”

The door has a small set of wind chimes attached that tinkle/jingle. Inside there’s an old oak desk in desperate need of refinishing with a neat stack of forms on top, a jar with a variety of pens and pencils, and an ashtray in bad need of emptying.  Behind the desk a wooden slatted office chair on rollers.

On the other side of the room a green corduroy sofa and two chairs around a coffee table.  On that table a neat stack of New Yorkers diagonally situated in its center. No framed diplomas on the wall, only a strange, amateurishish painting (pictured below). A black curtain whose rod runs along the length of the room separates this office space from the living quarters. In a word, this joint is seedy and reeks of stale smoke.[1]

 

When I entered, there was no sign of Marlowe. I went back to the door, opened it, and waggled it back and forth creating a tintinnabulation. Marlowe’s head appeared between the curtains. An ocean breeze billowing them in and out. “McNully, right? I’ll be right with you. Grab one of the forms on the desk, a pencil, and have a seat. My girl called in sick with a hangover.”

The head disappeared but reappeared. “By the way, nice fedora.”

I sat down in one of the chairs, picked up a New Yorker to to support the form.  What you would expect.  Date of birth.  Date and cause of death.  Occupations.  Your medical history.

In three or four minutes, Marlowe returned dressed in a retro double-breasted coat and tie. The picture on the ad wasn’t current.  He’d aged since then. Here’s what he looks like today:

He grabbed the ashtray, emptied it in the metal trashcan next to his desk, and placed it on the coffee table next to me. After shaking my hand, he plopped down on the sofa, offered me a Pell Mell from his pack. “No thanks,” I said.

He placed a cigarette directly from the pack to his lips, retrieved a box of matches, and lit one from the bottom of his shoe.  He ignited the cig, took a deep drag, tilted his head back, and then expelled the smoke through his nostrils as he dropped the match into the ashtray..

“How about a drink?” he said. “A shot of rye? I could make a new pot of coffee.”

“No thanks, a little early for whiskey and a little late for coffee.”

A tic messed with his mouth. “Mind if I do?”

“Help yourself,” I said.

He produced a pint bottle from his side coat pocket, unscrewed the cap, and took a long slug. Then a short one. Then another long one.

He screwed the top back on and placed the bottle on the table. The label read “Templeton Rye, aged 4 years.”  He then picked up the form I filled out and gave it a cursory once over.

“Mr. McNully, sorry about your loss. I read your wife’s obituary. Remarkable woman. Even though now you feel like shit, you’re a lucky man, if you know what I mean.“

“Yeah, I think I know what you mean. I feel the same way, sort of.”

“Some days you feel okay; some days you feel like, Niobe, all tears, right?

He paused to cough, a dry hoarse smoker’s cough.

“Not so much the latter,”  I said when he had finished,  “But feeling ‘like shit is fairly accurate.’”

“You’re an English teacher, right.”

‘A professor,”  I said.

“Then you know different people are going to react differently to grief. Faulkner’s Caroline Compson isn’t Hemingway’s Frederick Henry. On one extreme, you got your Niobes, your Caroline Compsons, your basketcases, weeping unceasingly or taking to bed, doping up with camphor, and on the other extreme you got your tough cookies like Frederick Henry in A Farewell to Arms. You’ve read that, right.”

“Coincidentally, I did my thesis on Faulkner, on death and dying in Faulkner,”  I threw in, rather awkwardly, which seemed to throw his rhythm off a tad.

“A hopeless rummy.  Anyway, you know Hemingway?”

“Better than most,”  I said, almost wishing I had opted for the hospice counselor.

Remember the ending of A Farewell to Arms?”

“Yeah, the nurse dies in childbirth.”

“Here’s the last paragraph. I’ve memorized it:

But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying goodbye to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.

“Yipes. I’d forgotten that.”

“I’m guessing you fall somewhere in between Niobe and ol’ Frederick. Am I right?”

“Happy to say, closer to Fred than Ny.”

“Okay, Prof, I want you to study that painting over there on that wall. It’s an allegory of grieving.”

I thought but managed not to say, “You gotta to be kidding me,” but instead “Okay?” in that tone my students use when trying to express incredulity.

I stood up, walked over, and looked at the painting, which I only had glanced coming in. I stared at it for about a minute. “You say it’s an allegory on grieving?”

“Look, Prof, I’m going to save you some money, cut to the chase and explain the symbolism rather than pulling it out of you with Socratic questions.”

“Suits me.” We hadn’t discussed remuneration, but I assumed it charged by the half-hour.

Now he was standing next to me, pointing with his cigarette. “Okay, the Lighthouse represents the earth’s axis; it’s centered, phallic, pointing upwards. The ocean represents the female, suffering, the unconscious, you name it.”

I inwardly rolled my eyes.  This was simplistic, sophomoric analysis.

“You see those whitecaps; the ocean is rough. Did you notice those legs sticking out of the water?”

“What legs? Where?”

He pointed. “Those are Icarus’s legs from the Breughel painting.”

“You mean Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, the painting Auden alludes to in his poem,”  I said as if I were a character in a B movie.

He was supposed to say “precisely,” but instead,  replied, “You got it, prof.”

 

 

Cupping the cigarette in his hand, he took one last drag, leaned over, and crushed it into the ashtray.

”Okay, follow the diagonal line from Icarus’s legs, to the man battling the rabid weasel, up to the dame running towards shore, to the mermaid sitting on the rocks.

“Yes?”

“That’s grief’s progression, simplified.  It immerses you; eventually you stick your head out of the water, only to be attacked by whatever you want those weasels to stand for, guilt, depression, numbness.  But note he’s battling those weasels.  Has one by the tail.  Soon as he dispatches that one, he’ll reach for the one gnawing on his neck.  He’s gonna have scars, for sure, but scars heal and eventually fade, even though, they never really go away.”

He reached for another cig and offered the pack almost reflexively.

“No thanks.  But I have a question.  I’m assuming the woman on shore is part of the progression.”

“Right.”

“Why not make her a man and the mermaid a merman?

“I’ve got female clients, too. It doesn’t mean that grief makes you change genders, though it might make you take on some of the traits of the other gender.  Of course, you got grief going with sons and dads, moms and daughters, queer couples.  As it turns out, most of my clients are queer.”

He rubbed his hand across his chin.

“So, you probably realize that it’s not linear like this, but it’s eventually the progression.  What you’ll become with time is the mermaid on the rock – or, in your case, a merman on the rocks — a creature of both worlds.  Note her expression of detached interest.”

“I see,”  I said.

“Good, That’s it. I could waste your time and money by going on about this shit, but this is really all you need to know.”  Once again his tic jerked the corner of his mouth.

“That’s it?

“That’s it.

“How much do I owe you?”

“Fifty bucks.”

“Do you take credit cards?”

“No but Charlie or Hank can accept on my behalf at the bar below. Seems like nobody carries cash or checks nowadays.”

“I could write a check.”

“Perfect.”

As I descended the steps, I looked over my shoulder at the ocean across the street. It was gray with a nasty riptide. It occurred to me that Marlowe wasn’t exactly the perfect role model for recovery.

It was noon, so I went over to the bar and sat down on a stool and grabbed a menu, ordered a Pabst on draft and a Mahi taco. The lager and taco were good, as Hemingway might say. I asked the bartender, a thirty-something sporting a lumberjack’s beard and a shaved head, the scoop on Marlowe. He rolled his eyes. “He’s okay when he’s sober but a pain in the ass when he’s drunk. He can be a mean drunk.”

“Does he get drunk a lot?

“The bartender grinned. “Is the pope a commie from Argentina?”

“Yes, I reckon he is,” I said.

“Hey,”  he said.  “Sorry about your loss.  I lost my brother in Afghanistan.  I’m still not over it. ”

As I left, I glanced up at the porch, and there sat Marlowe with his coat off, his pants supported by suspenders, his retro 40’s tie loosened at the collar. Smoking one of his Pell Mells, he was staring out at the ocean, his eyes hidden by wrap around shades.


[1] Marlowe would probably point out that’s six words.

 

 

The Sky Flashes, the Great Sea Yearns

 

I can remember as a boy lying on a pile of leaves I had raked the day before, bored, staring up at the clouds. For whatever reason, years later, I recalled this incident (if you can call it that) and told my mother, “Some of my best memories are of being bored.” For whatever reason, this nonsense delighted her, and over the decades she would sometimes remind me that I had uttered those syllables, as if they embodied some great truth about the human condition.

Balderdash. Poppycock.

Truth be told, my best memories do not include that time our broken-down train sat motionless for four hours somewhere between Edinburg and Inverness nor those hours spent sitting through seemingly interminable high school productions nor glancing up every three minutes at the slow clock ticking in Mrs. Waltrip’s Algebra class (even if she did occasionally enliven things by pointing at integers on the chalk board with her middle finger).

Of course, there’s a distinction to be made between mere boredom (languishing in a waiting room) and ennui, which might be best embodied by John Berryman’s poem “Dream Song 14.”

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.

After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,

we ourselves flash and yearn,

and moreover my mother told me as a boy

(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored

means you have no

 

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no

inner resources, because I am heavy bored.

Peoples bore me,

literature bores me, especially great literature,

Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes

as bad as achilles,

 

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.

And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag

and somehow a dog

has taken itself & its tail considerably away

into mountains or sea or sky, leaving

behind: me, wag.

Ennui is malaise, enduring, beyond the cure of looking up the etymology of “balderdash” (originally a weird mixture of liquids like beer, milk, Nu-Grape soda, etc.) or “poppycock” [which comes from the Dutch pap (soft) and kak (dung), so poppycock = soft-poop].

No for ennui, we need something stronger, maybe a serotonin enhancer, a love affair with Oscar Wilde or Dorothy Parker, something more substantial than watching PW Pabst’s 1929 masterpiece Diary of a Lost Girl (my morning’s entertainment).

The fact is I wasn’t really bored when I was lying in that pile of leaves looking at the clouds. I was using my imagination. I was happy.

 

 

The Art of Grieving

Perhaps Elizabeth Bishop’s most frequently anthologized poem is her villanelle “One Art.

The poem begins calmly, the speaker stating matter-of-factly, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”

In the second stanza, she adopts the imperative mood as if she’s conducting a training session on how to lose. She instructs the reader to

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

As the poem continues through its strict regimen of repeated lines and restrictive rhymes, each item in the catalogue of what she’s lost becomes increasingly more significant: her mother’s watch, a house, two cities, a continent. She misses them, “but it wasn’t a disaster.”

There’s a pivot in the last stanza that belies all that comes before it:

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

What we have in the last two lines is a breakdown, nervous and otherwise  — of rhythm, of the pattern of diction, even of syntax.

As it turns out, the art of losing isn’t all that easy to master. Nor, I might add, is the art of grieving.

In light of – or should I say through the clouded lens of – my wife’s death, I have been trying to come to grips with the reality of her not being a tangible, breathing human being. In other words, coming “to grips” with the immaterial, with vacancy, with losing her.

Of course, she still exists in memory. I get that, but it is difficult to accept that I will never again see her softly nodding her head or slowly blinking her eyes or her hesitant smile exploding into a wide, orthodontically impressive grin.

Never again encounter in the flesh her manifest serenity.

I grew up reading Hemingway and watching Bogart movies, modeling my persona on stoics, on realists, tough guys unafraid to tell it how it is; “Time hath, me lord,” Ulysses says to pouting tent-bound Achilles, “a wallet at his back wherein he puts alms to oblivion.

I remind myself my wife’s fate was Shakespeare’s fate and Madame Curie’s fate, Amy Winehouse’s fate and your first pet’s fate.

It’s the fate of that adorable baby cackling and crawling towards you in the Facebook video.

“If it be now,” Hamlet says,
“’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.

But how in the hell do you get ready? Especially if it’s not you doing the leaving?

* * *

Here’s how Robert Grudin begins his Time & The Art of Living:

In a railroad car at nightfall, when the natural light outside has diminished until it is even with the artificial light inside, the passenger facing forward sees in his window two images at once: the dim landscape rushing toward him out of a pit of darkness, and the interior of the car, reflected with its more or less motionless occupants. At this hour most passengers unconsciously give allegiance to one of these two polarities of vision; and the individual momentarily aware of both may be struck by the profound, almost tragic duality between outer and inner worlds, between the rush of experience and the immobility of awareness. The uneasy contrast implied by this image is to my mind one of the special marks of our condition, one of the tragic divorces between our lonely humanity and the pulse of nature.

My wife, I think, created equilibrium between these two states – observation and contemplation. I can’t remember ever catching her staring into space. Maybe it’s because she had virtually no ego, no need to impress, no need to blast fanfares of her own importance that she died more or less happy, a little sad to be leaving but not at all dreading death, which she saw as a dreamless sleep. She had lived a life distinguished by integrity and died without regrets.

Unlike, Dr. Igor Borg, the protagonist of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 masterpiece Wild Strawberries, which my younger son and I watched last night, thanks to the genius of science.

In the movie, Borg, a very old man, is traveling by car with his daughter-in-law on a 400-mile trip for him to receive an honorary degree. Throughout the journey, he finds himself traveling back and forth between the inner and outer worlds that Grudin describes above.

 

Here’s Bergman remembering his inspiration for writing the screenplay:

Then it struck me: supposing I make a film of someone coming along, perfectly realistically, and suddenly opening a door and walking into his childhood? And then opening another door and walking out into reality again? And then walking round the corner of the street and coming into some other period of his life, and everything still alive and going on as before? That was the real starting point of Wild Strawberries.

What Professor Borg discovers as he shuttles back and forth between his memories[1] is that although he is revered publicly, the people he knows privately don’t like him, not his incredibly ancient mother, not his would-be fiancé back in the day, not his brother who steals that fiancé, not his dead wife, not his son, nor the daughter-in-law who accompanies him in the close quarters of his automobile.

However, by floating back and forth through time, he realizes his shortcomings and at this late date begins to emend them, asking his housekeeper if he can call her by her first name after 30 years of working together (no), forgiving a debt of his son and daughter-in-law that had been a bone of contention. Near the end, the daughter-in-law has grown fond of him and kisses him goodnight, in essence tucking him in.

If I could, like Borg, open doors to the past of our lives and renter those scenes, these images would come to mind: our inventing a dance on the floor of Captain Harry’s un-air-conditioned warehouse bar while the Killer Whales play “Johnny Too Bad,” my losing the bet that she won’t shed her bikini as we lie on straw mats at Paradise Beach in Mykonos, her toothpick legs shaking violently as she gives birth to our older son, her hacking with a machete to the top of a ridge to contemplate where to build our house on the river, watching our second son get the winning hit in his little league championship, eating in a restaurant with a dirt floor in Mexico, graduations, graduations, walking the dog, enjoying the Soul Rebels at the Leaf Festival, wrapping the dead dog’s carcass in a blanket, walking with my wife as she drags her chemo-on-rollers through the halls of Roper Hospital, enjoying a beer at the bar in one of the hospitals at MD Anderson Cancer Center, eating al fresco in a bar at Houston. These, even the last images are good memories because we had each other and a modicum of hope.

 

This life was a good life, and it ended as lives tend to, in sickness. Therefore, I can look back and savor these memories, not in tears because they’re gone, but with smiles knowing that they were good.

Also, I’m embracing great movies and drama. I wrote recently about the live performance of Godot I saw, and in addition to Wild Strawberries, I recently watched Bergman’s The Hour of the Wolf. Great movies take you away from yourself and deal with life’s most profound problems. They point to the universality of suffering, which points to the fruitlessness of self-pity. That all the actors and actresses of Wild Strawberries are now dead, except for 88-year old Max Von Sydow and 82-year old Bibi Andersson, underscores the brevity of time and the inevitability of not being. My contemplation of time and these old movies has underscored to me that losing my wife is no way a tragedy and that neither she nor I have “been robbed” of anything.

Hit it, Marcus Aurelius: “No one can lose either the past or the future – how could anyone be deprived of what he does not possess? … It is only the present moment of which either stands to be deprived: and if this is all he has, he cannot lose what he does not have.”

My advice to the bereaved is to replay your happy memories without a thought of the non-existent future. Hang with your friends when you feel like it and talk freely about the person you’ve lost. Sometimes, a tsunami of sadness will wash over you. You can throw yourself on your bed (my equivalent of donning sackcloth) and sob. When I sob, it seems too much like laughing, which always makes me stop, as if a switch has been flipped. Anyway, though sometimes impelled to don the ol’ sackcloth, for me sobbing isn’t all that cathartic, not as productive as going to see Godot or watching old movies or reliving old memories or having a couple of beers with my sons and daughter-in-law or friends or former students who have become dear friends.

Like Lou Gehrig said at his last appearance at Yankee Stadium, I feel fortunate, maybe not as “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” but now I can look back with love and forward with nothing to dread.


[1] He’s always his decrepit self in his reveries although the people he remembers are their younger selves.

Trump Channels Lear and Caesar in Summer Stock

image via NY Times of Central Park performance of Julius Caesar

About a month ago, I posted a piece imagining Shakespeare writing a play about Trump’s presidency.

In that post, I suggested that Shakespeare would begin his Trump play with the inauguration speech, jazzing up clunkers like “for many decades we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry;/ Subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military” with some thumping blank verse that foreshadows an upcoming shitshow.

Interestingly enough – call it synchronicity or cultural convergence – Shakespeare’s and Trump’s names have been linked at least twice this week. First, the Public Theater’s Central Park production has spray-painted, as it were, the tragic protagonist of Julius Caesar an obvious shade of Trumpian orange.

Via Jesse Green of the Times:

The line “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers, they would have done no less” has been updated by the insertion of the words “on Fifth Avenue” before the comma.

This production, not surprisingly, has generated controversy. Some on the right, people ignorant of the play, suggest that this version endorsees the assassination of Trump.[1] However, Shakespeare’s staging a pro-regicide play in Elizabethan England would be the equivalent of someone painting an obscene mural of Mohammad and Salman Rushdie in flagrante delicto on the side of a building in Tehran.

In other words, not a good idea for the non-suicidal.

In fact, Julius Caesar dramatizes the disastrous effects of the assassination, not only for the conspirators themselves, but also, more significantly, for the state of Rome.

Even though I’m no fan of violence, it is sort of fun imagining Republican cabinet plotting and carrying out an assassination on stage.

Et Tu, Jeff Sessions?

Speaking of Trump’s cabinet, no doubt you’ve read about or seen the cringe-worthy abasement Trump subjected his minions to in his first cabinet meeting when he forced them to utter what an honor it was to serve him, what a privilege, etc.

In other words, he reconstructed the opening scene of King Lear, the greatest and most awful of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

Compare these two clips.

It’s even more fun – at least for me – casting a Trumpian Lear – with Ivanka as Goneril, Eric Trump as Regan, and poor Tiffany as Cordelia. Maybe Dennis Miller or PJ O’Rourke as the Fool? Jared as Edmund?

PaulScholfieldAlecMcCowen

Bring it on, Chris Marino.


[1] Delta and the Bank of America have withdrawn financial backing. However, no one seemed to mind that Bob Melrose staged an Obama as Caesar production in 2012 that you nor I ever heard about at all.