A Hint of Autumn, Tea Olive Edition

tea olive

To my mind, one of the most delicious odors encountered in the Lowcountry is tea olive, which blooms both in the spring and autumn. Whenever I run across its fragrance, though, I turn melancholy. Even as a child before all this dying started, I’d associate tea olive – my Mama called it sweet olive – with ephemera, maybe because the smell of tea olive is fleeting, unlike, say, a gardenia, which you can practically huff and get high on.

It’s that time of year, the light a little richer, a bit more golden, “the maturing sun” Keats calls it in that amazing poem of his, where “barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day.”

Well, today there is at last a hint of autumn in the air. It seems as if in these latter days of the empire, summer has encroached upon both spring and autumn, swiping a bit from both, and, of course, down here on the coast we don’t get any of the brilliant colors we associate with fall, no bright yellow or orange or red leaves strewing the brooks. Come to think of it, speaking strictly, I don’t know if we have brooks down here. At least I’m pretty sure I’ve never run across a “babbling brook.”

Speaking of babbling, I ain’t got nothing to say except, “Hello, autumn. How about hanging out for at least a couple of days?

That and to lay a little Keats on you:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

 

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?

Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,

Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook

Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep

Steady thy laden head across a brook;

Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,

Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

 

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?

Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—

While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,

And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

Among the river sallows, borne aloft

Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Judy Birdsong in Autumn

My Father Reconsidered, Sort Of

Wesley Edward Moore, Jr 1928-2010.

Grieving for my wife Judy Birdsong has somehow (I’m struggling for words here)  –   brought to mind?  –  disinterred? – conjured? – the memories of other loved ones lost. I’ve assiduously avoided self-help articles about dealing with the death of a spouse, so in the vacancy of Judy’s absence, my suddenly thinking of Mama and getting misty-eyed might be typical. I guess I ought to google it. Or not. What does it matter if it’s normal or abnormal? To use Judy’s signature line, “It is what it is.”

Even my father, whom I hold in some contempt, has sneaked up on me with his roguish grin and rattled out some fond memories. It makes me wonder if I’ve been too hard on him.

Or too hard on his demons.

If you know me well, you’ve probably heard me speak words of recrimination against my father. So I’ve decided to post here my eulogy for him delivered at St Paul’s Church in Summerville in 2010.

In a eulogy it’s mandatory you say nice things about the deceased, and in fact, many nice things can be said about Daddy. Nevertheless, writing and delivering what follows was hard for me because I didn’t want to be hypocritical. I wanted to be true to me and to him, maybe in that order. More importantly, I want to be true to him now.


Eulogy

One of the most famous poems on death in the English language is Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” In the poem, Thomas addresses his father who is dying of cancer, urging him to cling ferociously to life, even if it means merely cursing the inevitable. The poem’s only nineteen lines, and I hope you’ll indulge an old English teacher if he reads it in its entirety:

 

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.

 

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

 

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

 

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

In Thomas’s classification of men – wise men, good men, wild men, and grave men – my father would be best categorized as a “wild man.” Cyrano de Bergerac was his literary hero, that soulful swordsman with a wit as keen as his blade. My father was in his youth a street brawler and later an angry young man, and then an angry middle aged man, and eventually an angry old man.   Wesley Moore was countercultural before there was a counterculture, seeing deep within the fabric of society an underlying hypocrisy that he detested. An idealist gone sour, he didn’t just color outside of the lines, he scribbled on the desk.

A thrill seeker, my father over the years captured a baby alligator and kept it in our bathtub (my brother David clearly remembers this even though he hadn’t been born yet). On weekends, Daddy performed death-defying aerobatic stunts in an open-cockpit plane he had refurbished himself. Sometimes he would buzz our neighborhood in Kamikaze descents that sent the treetops swaying and the neighbors scurrying to their telephones to complain to the FAA. Rumor has it than on one occasion he and Lowdnes Bailey flew under the old, old Cooper River Bridge.

He wasn’t exactly a Ward Cleaver like role model. It was sort of like having James Dean for a father.

So Bob Dylan’s line, “bent out of shape by society’s pliers” didn’t apply to Daddy. One Saturday he painted a remarkable mural of the Lesesne Gates on our dining room wall with black shoe polish, and during the height of the Civil Rights movement, much to the chagrin of those FAA-calling neighbors, he invited an abused ten-year-old African American boy to come live with us until a permanent safe abode could be found for him, not only integrating the neighborhood but our home as well.

Yes, Daddy could be a man of immense compassion and generosity. I remember one Christmas Eve when a weeping mother came to our house because Santa had nothing for her daughter, Daddy, even though we had little money ourselves, headed down to Poppleton’s Dime Store and purchased a doll and some other toys for the child.

He also adhered to an unimpeachable code of personal honor. If he had ever found a million dollars in a suitcase, he would have turned it into the police without taking a dollar.

Finally, Wesley felt a special allegiance to his employees, whom he loved and fretted over, feeling a great responsibility for their well-being.

Ultimately, though, Daddy really didn’t care what other people thought, thumbing his nose at the world (well, actually, he favored a different hand gesture to express his contempt). If Dylan Thomas had had Daddy for a father, he wouldn’t need to prompt him “to rave” or “to curse.” Over the years, I’ve heard Daddy curse Northerners, Southerners, Easterners, Westerners, dogs, cats, squirrels, flying squirrels, women drivers, men drivers, Democrats, Democrats, and Democrats.   To be honest – and if there was something Daddy detested it was false piety – he was quick to take offense and could hold a grudge – in fact he could keep several of them in air at once like one of those vaudeville jugglers we used to watch on the Ed Sullivan show on Sunday nights.

As I have grown older and experienced more of the world, both in my own life and through the literature I have encountered, I have come to see Dylan Thomas’s poem, despite its heroic grandeur and marvelous compression, to be really bad advice. In old age, death should not be something to rage against but to embrace as part of the natural progression of things, or if you prefer, as part of God’s plan. My recently deceased mother-in-law Dot Birdsong had a clipping from Ephesians 4:31-2 on her refrigerator, and although the arrangement of the words lacks the poetic power and precision of Dylan Thomas’s poem, they do, I think, suggest a better path to death’s doorway. I quote

Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.

This has been the path of my mother Sue, who has remained true to the better-or-worse clause of her wedding vows and to the entire legion of friends she has amassed over the course of her courageous life. Whom do you know who is quicker with a laugh than Sue? Certainly, she was the greatest blessing in Daddy’s life.

However, the model of the West – and by that I mean the Europe and the Americas – is the model of the hero, the individual – Odysseus, Beowulf, Captain Ahab – and that’s the model my father embraced, not the model of quietism. Of course, the model of our own American West is the cowboy, and Daddy was especially found of cowboys, those lonely figures on horseback crooning sad songs like “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.”   The only sport my father really liked was boxing, and I can remember his yelling at the television on Friday nights, barking advice to Sugar Ray Robinson or Archie Moore, “Keep that left up, keep that left up.” He himself was fighter, a rooter for the underdog, and over the years, he fought many good fights, fights against schoolyard bullies and government corruption, often cast in the role of the underdog himself. In his very last battle, he remained true to form, the ultimate underdog, bravely facing the inevitable, ignoring the advice of doctors and hospice nurses alike. One of my last images of him is smoking a cigarette in the bed where within days he would die of lung cancer.  After he’d been told to eat only liquids, I witnessed him downing four fried oysters in that very same bed.

My father chose his own path, remained true to himself until the very end, and in the words of a different poet remained “bloody but unbowed.” At long last, his tumultuous breast is quiet, and he rests in peace, though certainly no one who has ever met him will ever forget him. And though he would no doubt chide me for using this cliché, my father was truly one of a kind – “ a man, take him for all in all. [We] shall not look on his like again.”

Thank all of you for coming.


So, yeah, speaking of hypocrisy, it’s probably way past time for me to take Ephesians 4:31-2 to heart.

 

Mama and Daddy

 

 

What’s Going On?

Marvin Gaye performs on stage at De Doelen, Rotterdam, Netherlands, 1st July 1980. (Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns)

Where is Marvin Gaye when you need him?

“What’s Going On,” his seminal song of 1971, begins with a cool, communal Afro-party conversational vibe. After a second or two of whatz happenings and hey brothers saxophonist Eli Fontaine’s sudden wail smothers the banter. The over all sound: percussive jazz/funk with just a hint of Caribbean percolation.

 

Marvin’s calm, reasonable voice rises above the groove.  The lyrics suggest we all turn it down a notch, to chill.  There’s too many of you crying he sings.  Don’t punish me with brutality.  Here’ a message I wouldn’t mind hearing more of nowadays: We don’t need to escalate/War is not the answer.

Fin de Siecle Seventies

The same year “What’s Going On” came out, ’71, I registered for the draft in April, donned a green graduation gown (girls wore gold) in May, attended freshman orientation in July in Columbia where I deposited a Roosevelt dime or two Jefferson nickels into a newspaper dispenser for the evening edition of The Columbia Record.  The lottery numbers were just out.  Not the lottery numbers that inform you that you haven’t won the jackpot but the lottery numbers that told you the odds of your being drafted. You eyeballed the headlines, flipped to page something-A, ran your forefinger down the columns of birthdays.

Some smiled, some scowled, some shrieked. (I danced a jig).

Viet Nam, which had been going on for as long as I could remember, appeared to be deescalating.  The zeitgeist of 60’s was late in the process of transforming from a movement into a style.  Ubiquitous bell-bottoms signaled corporate infiltration and soon-to-be triumph.  (In the good ol’ days you could distinguish someone in the Silent Majority from Bob Weir, but in ’72, you’d sometimes spot bandana-banded longhairs sporting Nixon’s the One campaign buttons).

And though Marvin’s sociological dream of equality didn’t come to pass, folks did chill, quit rioting for a while (unless some urban nightmare sports franchise happened to win a world championship). I’m not suggesting that Marvin had anything to do with these changes.  After all, he was fatally shot by his old man.

Here come the 80’s

In a mere fluttering of calendar months: Disco! Corporate supremacy! The charming Parkinsonesque head bobbing and bright billion dollar gleam of Ronald Wilson Reagan’s smile!

It had been a wild, crazy trip, but as Eric Burdon once sang to the tune of  “Mother Earth,”  “When the LSD trip is over, baby/ You got to go back to mother booze.”

The 90’s

Budget surpluses! Blue dresses!

The Oughts

Terrorism, tax cuts, wars, deep deficits.

The Narrowing Gyre

WB Yeats had this cockamamie idea that history/time coursed in gyres that looped in two thousand year cycles.  His famous poem “The Second Coming” embodies the concept with the Antichrist slouching toward Bethlehem to usher in a 2000-year cycle of post-Christian barbarity (not that the Inquisition was exactly a love-in).

Less grandiose statements like what goes around comes around and history repeats itself suggest something similar.

If history does spin in cycles, the gyres aren’t widening but narrowing.  As the pace of life picks up, it seems the cycles have taken on a crashing aircraft’s doomed trajectory.

The tribal divisions of the 60’s seem to have returned in the 2000-teens, and so has the real possibility of atomic warfare as two very inexperienced men with very bad haircuts exchange childish insults across the Pacific.

Like the 60’s, we’re living in very scary times, which means we’re living in very interesting times.

I’ll give James Baldwin the final word:

Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.

Let’s put that to music.

James Baldwin

 

Growing Old Ungracefully

What shall I do with this absurdity –

O heart, O troubled heart – this caricature,

Decrepit age that has been tied to me

As to a dog’s tail?

WB Yeats

No, you’re not only as young as you feel.  Six decades of strutting and fretting put an aesthetic hurting on you.  Cf. Ginger Rogers, her golden tresses flowing over the cottage cheese of her cleavage in her latter years.  Thinking you’re still glamorous doesn’t necessarily make it so.

 

before

 

after

Shall I Wear My Trousers Rolled?

Listening to Sandy Denny as you  gaze into an indiscrete flourescent-lit mirror as you prepare for a young couple’s first wedding can make you feel past your prime, which, of course, you are if the bride is a younger childhood friend’s 26-year-old daughter.  Nevertheless, you try to look as cool as possible; I-and-I, for example, choose a white linen suit that screams I’m-from-Charleston and/or Colonel Sanders has come back to life in a pale approximation of Tom Wolfe.

The plumage ruffling manifests itself right up there near the top of the ladder of years – the grandparents, great aunts and uncles, etc. at this wedding decked out in resort casual: Korean Conflict veterans promenading the hotel lobby sporting Polynesian flowered prints on what used to be called polyester, their wives strutting around in britches that a half-century ago went by the name of  clamdiggers but that are now marketed as capri pants.

E.O Wilson and Richard Hawkins agree: projecting attractiveness is s a biological imperative, hard-wired into our brains, a hard habit to forego.

I feel chilly and grown old!

A Qualified Yes to Trouser Rolling

Okay, to echo the Tams,  be old, be foolish, but be happy.

Who cares if you gross out the youngsters?  If they’re lucky enough, their turn’s a-coming.

On the other hand, I suspect that a certain perspective and awareness of your body’s transformations might hold you in good stead as you tone down rage-ing, rage-ing against that good night to merely flipping it off.

In that case, I suggest we forego the comb-over and cover up the cottage cheese.

Decorating Classrooms

Obviously, the décor of a room, especially if you’re stuck there for a while, can have a positive or negative effect on you. In No Exit, Sartre, for example, furnishes his room in hell in the style of the French Second Empire, i.e., too too ornately Trumpian, too floridly opulent, hence nausea-inducing.

Contemplating an eternity spent in a room like that has me reaching for my Lorazepam.

Of course, the idea of décor affecting psyches applies especially to schoolrooms. As the educational trio Dombro, Colker, and Trister Dodge (not to be confused with Emerson, Lake, and Palmer) put it in a 1997 paper: “The environment in the classroom has a profound effect on the feelings and actions of the children, their families, and the teachers. Children organize their world through the environment we provide.”

Because I generally hated school once I hit the sixth grade, I try to make my classrooms look not like laboratories of learning, but like a room in an eccentric great aunt’s house.  You know, an unconventional room that doesn’t display posters addressing comma splices or spouting chirpy optimistic blandishments but a space crammed with bookcases, knickknacks, dolls, toy trucks, finger puppets.

On the walls of my room hang a tapestry, a cool industrial expressionistic painting, Tibetan prayer flags and a Hindu decoration. I’ve also propped own Photoshop generated paintings along a white board I don’t use.

This August, the Upper School moved into a newly constructed building, which though state-of-the-art and spacious, seemed sort of antiseptic so I sought the help of my spiritual advisor KD (who had harmonized my previous room via feng-shui years ago) to refashion my new room 207.

A before picture:

All of the rooms on my side of the hall share the same configuration with the teacher’s desk being the first thing you see as you walk into the door, which is a big time feng-shui no no.

In a Herculean effort, my spiritual advisor ( a wise woman about my age) and I with the help of a colleague slid the desk on a rug into the back left-hand corner and rearranged the some bookshelves where the desk had been.

A peek of the final result:

Some of these toys come in handy, Here’s Hamlet’s ghost talking to his son on the battlements.

And, of course, no classroom could be complete without an actual human skull.

 

 

 

 

 

On the back bulletin board, I display some of my musical heroes and have included a couple of pictures of I-and-I to show that I wasn’t always this old, comfortable kind of scarecrow

IMG_0980

and that I too had pretty plumage once.

IMG_0982.jpg

Old pictures tend to humanize teachers I think.

At any rate, the college counseling office has asked if they can sometimes use Room 207 when they have an overflow of reps coming, so I the energy must be inviting.

Kudos to spiritual advisor KD!

Written the Day after I Promised Someone She’d Never Catch Me Whining

the poet wearing shades indoors

 

The doomed young envy the old, the doomed old the dead young

                                   John Berryman “Dream Song 190”

 

The wind, is moaning like John Berryman on a bad day,

and my sunglasses have sneaked away somewhere.

There’s no sun to block, but they would be handy

to hide my eyes at the Piggly Wiggly where I’m headed.

 

“Blind men and [racial epithet plurals] are the only ones

who wear dark glasses indoors,” a stranger once said

to hatless redheaded me inside a mall where I be sporting Ray Bans.

 

I’ve upscaled in my prosperous baldheaded old age to Costas,

but the stranger should have added “mourners,”

or better yet, minded his own fucking business that day.

 

John Berryman

 

Hurricane Hysteria

Escorting Ruth, Jonathan Green

Last night, I happened to catch Governor Henry McMaster, broadcasting from his Potemkin crisis center, issue a mandatory evacuation from Edisto Beach, Fripp Island, Daufuskie Island, Harbor Island, Hunting Island, Knowles Island and Tulifinny Island, all of which at the time lay outside the so-called “cone of uncertainty” drawn up by scientists at the National Hurricane Center.[1]

This morning’s prediction

Call me a curmudgeon, but I’ve never been one who believed in “an over abundance of caution.” If I did, I would have never danced in an all-local Montego Bay dance hall, surfed a hurricane swell, or placed a “Lobotomy for Republicans – It’s the Law” sticker on my back bumper during the Reagan years.[2]

The last two years have seen what I call ‘Hurricane Hysteria.” As soon as a storm wheels it way halfway across the Atlantic, panic-stricken citizens descend upon stores and gas stations, emptying shelves and draining underground tanks. The elderly seem especially prone to paranoia when it comes to weather events.

Given that Irma has averaged 13-mph hour on her westward voyage, it might be more judicious to wait until she’d left the Caribbean before suspending school for three days, especially given that predictions of landfall a week out are about as reliable as a Nigerian emails promising bank-vault-sized payouts for your cooperation.

As it happens, yesterday my younger son Ned slaved away teaching at a school outside of Orlando, which is right smack dab inside the projected cone. And as it turns out, chances are early Monday morning he’ll face sustained winds of 40-60 mph, but I suspect by then, they’ll be even less than that.

Don’t get me wrong. Although I stayed on Folly for Floyd and Matthew, we fled Hugo 48 hours before it hit. If you pay close attention over a lifetime, you can be your own meteorologist. Before Hugo, the configuration of high and low pressure systems created a metaphorical gun barrel aimed right at Charleston. So Judy, Harrison, Ned, and our dogs Jack and Sally took off in a station wagon packed with insurance policies, photos, signed autograph copies, and our Jonathan Green lithograph. Yes, and if you live in a non-Hurricane code dwelling on a barrier island in Jasper County, leaving might be a good idea the day before the storm, but the government shouldn’t make it mandatory.

I’m not suggesting to do nothing if a powerful hurricane will hit in a couple of days; I’m only saying you should do yourself a favor and wait and see.

A confederacy of doofuses


[1] With its supporting cast, including a ASL intermediary, these performances bring to mind a Monty Python skit.

[2] Nor do I have a stash of canned goods and cases of bottled water horded away in my underground bunker. Of course, on Folly, you’d need scuba gear to survive in an underground bunker.