The Sunny Side of the Abyss

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I’m not a fan of gimmicky numbered steps that lead to success, whether it be in dating, procreating, parenting, succeeding, leading, divorcing, or dying.  Following these formulae brings to mind toddlers stacking blocks in chaotic playrooms – that big bully life ain’t gonna be placated by no mumbo jumbo, kiddos, no A-B-C/1-2-3 recipes.

And O, my brothers and sisters, believe me, I’ve suffered through more than one formulaic in-service presentation in which participants broke into small groups to ponder magically numbered ladder rungs:

Make lists, plan ahead, breathe deeply, keep records, avoid heroin.

A fellow who is no stranger to making an egregious mistake (thousands of lives, millions of dollars), Colin Powell, contributed to the canon with his 2012 memoir It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership [1]

Defying Babylonian symmetry and folk superstition, General Powell offered “13 Rules” for success.

The money steps:

Step 1 assures us “It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.” [Unless as dawn arrives, you’re bobbing in a lifeboat playing scissor, rock, hammer to see who eats whom].

[zip forward]

Step 2 sez: “It can be done!” [restoring your credit rating/stealing the Mona Lisa!]

[zip forward]

Lucky Step 13 proclaims, “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.”

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Of course, there must be some unfortunate incidents that defy optimism.

Aimee Copeland—a 24-year-old Georgia woman who has spent more than two months recovering after contracting a rare flesh-eating bacteria in a zip line accident—has been released from the hospital, officials at Doctors Hospital in Augusta said Monday.

Copeland, who had one of her legs and most of both hands amputated and endured multiple skin grafts while fighting the Aeromonas hydrophila bacteria, will now spend the next several weeks in a rehab facility, her father, Andy Copeland, said.

Well, there you go.  Certainly, this tragedy seems unredeemable.

But wait!

I don’t have any regrets about what has happened,” [Aimee] said, according to her father. “I don’t focus on what I’ve lost, I would rather focus on what I’ve gained. I feel like I’ve been blessed.”

WTF!

Naysayer that I am, would harbor at least a couple of regrets.   No, I have to admit that I would feel, if not exactly cursed, desolately bitter over the tragic turn of events, the frivolous adrenaline rush of a zip line excursion costing (if not literally an arm and a leg), hands and a leg, the excruciating pain (the wound took 20 staples to close) followed by the sci-fi-like horror of bodily invasion from a zombie-like lower life form, the protracted stays in hospitals and rehab, the burden of learning to live with protheses, diminished marriage prospects, etc.

But then again, I’m a negative person. In fact, rather than scouring the wasteland for scraps of sustenance, I’d turn to master naysayers like Philip Larkin to teach me how to see in the dark.

For example, check out this little ditty of despair:

This Be the Verse

BY PHILIP LARKIN

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn

By fools in old-style hats and coats,

Who half the time were soppy-stern

And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as early as you can,

And don’t have any kids yourself.

Of course, this poem is darkly comic with its rather jaunty meter and end rhymes.

In fact, “This Be the Verse” is relatively positive compared to “Aubade.”  Here’s the last stanza of that great poem:

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Of course, it’s churlish to mock Aimee Copeland’s attempt to be positive in light of such misfortune.  You do what you gotta do.  I only hope, however, that whenever fresh horrors come a-calling on me, I will see them for what they are – not blessings – but blights to be endured.

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 the light move? If they don’t (and they can’t), it’s strange;

Why aren’t they screaming?

from “The Old Fools”


[1] To his great credit, Powell, unlike Rice, Cheney, etc., admits he was totally wrong about the Iraqi War and regrets his speech to the UN in which he presented false evidence that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons.

Gary-Kelley

Larkin, by Gary Kelly

Art Versus Life

Oscar-Wilde-2

When aesthetes like Oscar Wilde or critics like Harold Bloom proclaim that “life imitates art” or “Shakespeare invented the human,” I imagine people rolling their eyes and thinking, “Puh-leez!”

Of course, their adopting these mannerisms confirms Wilde’s and Bloom’s claims.  No doubt cinema popularized eye-rolling as a fetching way to express exasperated contempt, and “puh-leez,” as in “give me a break,” probably can trace its origins from somewhere in Sitcomland.

What Wilde meant is that artists’ rendering of what they perceive provides the inartistic with images they project onto world, and in the case of characters from literature, models for imitation.

Consider [Wilde writes] the matter from a scientific or a metaphysical point of view, and you will find that I am right.  For what is Nature?  Nature is no great mother who has borne us.  She is our creation.  It is our brain that she quickens to life.  Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us.  To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing.  One does not see anything until one sees its beauty.  Then, and only then, does it come into existence.  At present people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects.  There may have been fogs for centuries in London.  I dare say there were.  But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them.  They did not exist until Art invented them.  Now, it must be admitted, fogs are carried to excess.  They have become the mere mannerism of a clique, and the exaggerated realism of their method give dull people bronchitis.  Where the cultured catch an effect, the uncultured catch a cold.

                                               Oscar Wilde,  “The Influence of the Impressionists on Climate”

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Claude Monet: Le Parlement, effet de brouillard

To follow up on the second point, since the Renaissance, literature has provided models for imitation for playgoers and readers eager to customize their personas. For example, males for 4+ centuries have channeled Hamlet, donned black and parroted his depressive wit; clever girls, in turn, have modeled their personalities on Elizabeth Bennet, that arch, articulate social critic. Perhaps the most copied “type” for males of my generation is the Hemingway code hero. Nick Adams and Jake Barnes wannabes around the world have embraced wounded, stoic, epicureanism for going on a century.  On a less grandiose scale, Bogart as Sam Spade; John Wayne as, well, John Wayne; and Aubrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly have also offered archetypes for imitation.

Come to think of it, perhaps exotic Papa Hemingway deserves some praise/blame for our current culinary obsessions.

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In the late Victorian era, the aestheticism of Pater and Wilde reeked of decadence.  Who could take Pater’s advice “[t]o burn always with this hard gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy” if employed as a grocery boy, seamstress, coal miner, or pedagogue?

No, you had to loll your days away reading the “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” in exquisitely decorated gardenia-scented rooms  (while across town some tailor pricked his finger hand crafting the smoking jacket you had commissioned).

Nowadays, few folk perceive decoration as decadent, though decorators have been conspicuously  gay, as have been hair-dressers, fashion designers, and at least nowadays on King Street, male salesclerks in clothing stores.  The effeminacy of caring about what flowers to place perhaps only occurs in Late Empire cultures. (I don’t see Dan Boone fussing over container of black-eyed susans).  And, yes, many grandsons of D-Day GIs are now uncloseted metrosexuals, and I say this is a good thing.

Certainly, I’d prefer to imbibe my afternoon Colt 45s pinot in James T Crow’s pleasant arts-and-craft cottage overlooking the Folly River than seated upon motel-like furnishings in a condo overlooking the Mount Pleasant Bypass.

We might disagree about what is beautiful, but we can all agree that beauty beats its alternatives.

metrosexual decor

The Losers Wrote South Carolina History

In the early Sixties, South Carolina state law mandated that children in both the third and eighth grades receive instruction in the state’s history.  As randomness would have it, my first tour of the annals of the Palmetto State coincided with the centennial celebration of The War Between the States.  Lessons about Caw Caw the Indian boy competed with classroom drills in which we swiftly assumed fetal positions beneath our tiny desks.  (Charleston with its Polaris submarine base offered an inviting target for those Cuban Missiles).  Also, on the domestic side, in the background, we could detect a soft growl of discontent rising in the throats of what my family politely called colored people, who, as the ad populum argument went, were being stirred up by “outside agitators.”

Times, you might say, were a-changing.

Not South Carolina history.  Preserved in our textbook, time-honored statements “of fact” explained that the vast majority of slaves were well-treated, that unfair tariffs had sparked the Civil War, that the Ku Klux Klan had provided a public service during the dark days of Reconstruction, that Pitchfork Ben Tillman was a man of courage, and that the textile industry promised a potential economic stimulus that might propel the state back into its former glorious position as the cultural vanguard of the nation . . .

When I first started teaching high school in the Mid-Eighties, I still encountered traces of these old arguments, particularly concerning the paternalism of slavery and  the predominance of tariffs as the cause of the War. To counter the latter argument, I found  copies of Declarations of Causes of Seceding States and highlighted in blue all of the sentences that refer to slavery.  Believe me, the unhighlighted patches are about as prevalent as peanuts in Hershey bars.  However, back in the day, I, too, believed what I had read.  As an eight-year-old, I applauded the Klan of yore, those white-clad knights who had cleansed my native state of nefarious scalawags, carpetbaggers, and, yes, Negroes.

Flash forward a half century.  The descendants of Pitchfork Ben have again taken to the streets eager to “retake their country” from what they fear is a proliferation of darker-skinned usurpers. Their Confederate heroes’ statues  — Lee, Stonewall Jackson. et al — like Lenin’s after the Soviet Union’s fall – are being dismantled. Our president makes moral equivalences between klansmen, neo-Naxis and counter protestors.

Sunday, along the Battery, as I was guiding visitors from Florida around the Battery, we encountered a handful of protesters.  My friend’s children, 11 and 13, looking across the harbor, asked if “the good guys or the bad guys” occupied the fort at the beginning of the war.

As a 13-year-old in 1964, based on my indoctrination, I would have said the “bad guys.”

photo by WLM3

Total Eclipse of the Sun, Thales Edition

By far my most boring class ever dealt with pre-Socratic philosophers. The problem was not with the subject matter. Who doesn’t want to drop the adjective Heraclitean at a cocktail party? The problem lay in the presentation, a droning seated lecturer who never raised his eyes from his notes to discern that his audience wasn’t a collection of 19th century Oxford dons.

I did learn a few facts, though. Heraclitus correctly surmised that things were constantly in flux, Democritus developed an atomic theory of the universe, and Thales correctly predicted a solar eclipse circa 585 BCE.

Even back then, this prediction thrilled me with an appreciation for human ingenuity. How many hours, days, years, and decades of sky-observation did it take Thales to come up with this prediction? We’re talking with the naked eye in a slide-ruler-less world. Did he, as the Savoy Brown song says, “Sleep with the sun and rise with the moon?” He must have, had to.

Anyway, I raise my eclipse eve morning blood mary to Thales, to Heraclitus, Pythagoras, and to my professor who, despite his dry approach, devoted his life to scholarship rather than hedonism.

Thales

 

 

A Brief Model for High School Behavioral Expectations

Not surprisingly, I had no idea what I was doing when I started teaching high school 32 years ago.  I had taught at college, where I began the first day of class asking students to introduce themselves.  When I tried this technique with my first class of high school seniors, their immaturity was a revelation.  Even though I’d had an acquaintance their age killed in Nam, for the most part, these weren’t men and women I was dealing with but children seeking attention.

A couple of years later, I taught my first AP class, and the students were so negative to each other that after a couple of weeks no one commented on anything for fear of receiving a sniper wound.  When my supervisor came to visit the class, I literally started tap-dancing as a pleading ploy to get one of the students to say something, anything, even if it were wrong.

The next year, I prepared a document clearly stating my expectations, and I’ve continued to refine it each and every year.  If you’re a new teacher, I encourage you to come up with one of your own.  To offer an example, here’s the first page of the four page document I will give to each student next Tuesday.

Behavioral Expectations

We should strive to create a community of compassion, respect, openness, and seriousness of purpose in our classroom. Paradoxically, seriousness of purpose will make the class more pleasurable because we’ll learn more, and the more knowledge we acquire, the better we understand the world, and the better we understand the world, the more interesting it becomes. Developing into an excellent writer – one who can vividly and economically express ideas and images – is an enormously valuable skill in an increasingly sub-literate culture, a skill that gives you an advantage in every arena of professional life.

Here are some general guidelines. When you enter the classroom, please be on time and turn off your cell phones and place them in the basket provided. Once class begins, do not open your laptops unless I instruct you to do so. I have provided a seating chart for each class and expect you to sit in your assigned seat. Eating and drinking in the classroom are forbidden, and I, too, will adhere to that stricture.   Although I realize that Gandhi usually wore a loincloth and that Hermann Goebbels never had a hair out of place,[1] I enforce the dress code. I, myself, would rather not wear a tie; however, in the grand scheme of things, it’s certainly not important – especially compared with the privilege to teach at Porter-Gaud. By signing my contract, I have agreed to follow and enforce the rules of Porter-Gaud. If you have signed the handbook, then you have agreed to follow the rules as well. If I considered having my shirttail tucked in a grievous violation of my civil rights, I would go to another school where it is allowed.

Because much of the class is discussion, it is extremely important that we treat each member of our community with respect, even when we disagree with his ideas. Sarcasm is a particularly pernicious slayer of camaraderie and must be avoided.[2] Ultimately, we should never do or say anything that might hurt someone else’s feelings, whether it be rolling our eyes or making snide comments. This way of taking care not to hurt others I call the Bodhisattva Ideal.

To summarize, the very best classes are collaborative endeavors in which students and faculty work together to teach each other. This ideal is impossible unless each individual respects his brother and sister. Therefore, the most important rule of Room 207 is the Bodhisattva Ideal – that we will strive to be kind to each other, to respect each other, to have empathy for each other.

This classroom is a safe haven in which individuals can express their ideas, no matter how unpopular – except in the case of bigotry, whether it be racial, religious, or sexual. Bigotry is anathema to our Mission Statement and won’t be tolerated. Nor will it be in college. Bigoted statements on social media have ended many a collegiate career. Avoid it like crystal meth.

People make impressions about you according to your actions and demeanor. One day soon you will need to ask someone to write you a recommendation for college, and not only will kindness make you a happier person, but being kind to others is in your own self-interest.


[1] Ed Burrows in conversation.

[2] By the way, irony is not necessarily sarcastic. If I say, “lovely day” during a downpour, I’m being ironic. If Bennington slips entering the room and falls to the floor, and Andrea starting clapping and shouting “I give that a ten on style points,” she’s being sarcastic.

Poor Boy, Long Way from Home

 

from left to right, Charlie, I-and-I, Concha

I said “Listen brother poor boy
Don’t be worry crime
Somebody, somebody, somewhere”

Jeff Buckley version of Bukka White’s “Poor Boy Long Way from Home”


Wish I could say I taught Charlie Geer, but I can’t. I worked with him on the school magazine, but that’s about it. We’re talking mid-80’s when my boys were in diapers, and Charlie was like an undersized Atlas hauling around the sins of the South, [warning: trying to visualize this salad of mixed metaphors could trigger an acid flashback] spiking the cauldron of his tragic vision with vitriol, developing a brilliant sense of humor to ward away the absurdities of Charleston, which he was later to bring to life in his very underappreciated novel Outbound.[1]

In his early years, Charlie dabbled in various trades and professions: worked as a country schoolteacher, a circus roustabout, a carpenter, an orchard keeper, a shrimper, a college professor. Like his work, his friendships span a democratic demographic that extends from members of the St. Cecilia Society to patrons of Florida juke joints. Now he lives in Andalusia with his beautiful wife Concha, so I only get to see them in August when they come to Charleston to visit Charlie’s relatives. It’s interesting how age democratizes relationships. I consider Charlie my contemporary, and I suspect he feels the same about me.

We brothers now.

In between essays and a memoir he’s working on, Charlie has created a character called Henry Heppleworth, whom I wrote about here in October of 2016. Henry came to being after Charlie read WJ Cash’s The Mind of the South.[2] You wouldn’t call Henry, a Trump supporter, deplorable, no not at all. In fact, I find him sympathetic. Henry, like Charlie, is a sensitive soul, who laces his dialogues with “durns” instead of “damns.” And over the course of his ten-month existence, Henry is developing, become more human.  Cracks are forming in the foundation of his ideology.

With Charlie’s permission, I’m sharing three of the videos here so you can sort of chart Henry’s progress. I encourage you to hop on YouTube and check them out. If you do, you’ll get to meet Concha as well.

Okay, here’s the very first one, Henry’s background story.

Poor boy, long way from home. He takes up his guitar.

Of course, there’s obvious irony here. Henry is an immigrant-hating immigrant. In Spain, he’s living in a much more socialistic society, which, of course, is the bane of the rural Trump voter who relies on the emergency room for his wellness plan and despises them inheritance taxes them 1%ers suffer.

After his meeting a nice lady at a festival, you can detect a shift in Henry’s perspective. And in his most recent video, you can tell it’s starting to dawn on him, it’s bullshit. It’s a sort of a sigh of a song/poem. A tragic vision tempered with humor, for sure.

Henry deserves more exposure, y’all. Click away.


[1] Do yourself a favor and hit the link and check out the video on Charlie’s Amazon page.

[2] It’s a goddamned classic.

Positive Vibrations

 

Jah foot soldier circa 1982

It was the summer of ’76 when I first heard the effervescent syncopation of a Bob Marley recording:

Pop-a-top-a, pop-a-top-a, irie ites, whoa whoa.

Wit dat proto-Gullah Belafonte tone to it, mon. Wit dat religious reverberation, mon. Lyrics conflating African slave descendants’ displacement in Kingston with the biblical Babylonian captivity.  A revelation.

     The sun shall not smite I by day

     Nor the moon by night.

This mythic element provided a depth rarely encountered in pop music, which usually traffics in blooming young love or sexual swagger or the pitter patter of tear drops.  Check out these lyrics by the Melodians from the soundtrack of Jimmie Cliffs’ movie The Harder They Fall:

 

For the wicked

Carried us away captivity

    Required from us a song

    Now how can we sing King Alpha song in a strange land?

“Psalm 137” in a percolator.

I listened to a lot of reggae and ska that year and actually made it down to Jamaica a couple of times careening in a rented car along winding roads in the left lane with the car radio blasting calypso, ska, and reggae.  At Beverly’s, the record store in Mo Bay, you took LPs out of their sleeves and test ran them on a turntable before you plopped down your Jamaica currency for a Yellowman or U Roy disc.

photo by Wesley Moore (note punching discs at Volcano records was not a precise science)

At Rick’s Cafe before it got all touristy you’d see dread-locked natives who looked as if they’d been carved out of ebony hit on spliffs the size of Louisville sluggers.

Judy Birdsong all alone at Rick’s Cafe

Hertz car-rental clerks in the airport trying to sell you ganja.

Women carrying baskets of fruit on their heads trying to sell you ganja.

House bands trying to sell you ganja.

Hitchhiking entrepreneurs lean forward from the back seat offering to take you to see their plants with  “buds as big as your fist, mon”  while you skim past wrecked cars abandoned on the side of the road.  You round a bend that suddenly opens to a glinting expanse of turquoise that looks as if it just might be pirate-infested. Up ahead coming in the opposite direction a barreling Opel almost clips your right side rearview mirror.

Exotica fueled adrenaline.

And, yes, Babylon, too.

In Negril, next to the funky Sundowner Hotel where Judy Birdsong and I stayed stretched the protective barricades of Hedonism II behind which, as rumor had it, a clothing optional beach offered unlimited daiquiris and nude limbo contests.  Having paid for everything up front, these people generally stayed inside of their little compound getting to know each other while JB and I would hit the local dance hall for the two-to-six super mix dance contest.  Back then, Jamaican dancers didn’t move their feet but sort of undulated to the rub-a-dub sounds percolating from ragged PA systems.

On road trips you could buy Red Stripe beer from shanty stores just a little larger than a Port-o-let.  Lightening crackled overhead along the crests of mountains.  We were, as David Bowie put it, young Americans, young Americans, young Americans (singing in our chains like the sea).

Years later, when I found out that Bob Marley was a goner, I suffered a Don McLean-like “Bye Bye American Pie”  Buddy Holly-less-ness.  Eventually the novelty waned, and reggae faded from my own speakers as I returned to  Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the Boss, Warren Zevon, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Lester Young, and Muddy Waters.

Yet, even today, whenever I hear Reggae, my mood brightens  No matter what the singer’s chronicling – the government yard in Trench Town, a Concrete Jungle, 400 years of slavery, or Johnny Too Bad – there’s that positive vibration bubbling beneath the pain and suffering.