[Cue ‘Tara’s Theme’ from “Gone with the Wind”] or an Old Descendent of a Confederate Soldier Tells Not Much

luther's gravestone

Son of Wesley Moore, CSA, my great-grandfather’s tombstone

“Beware of using up your last forty years in being the curator of your first fifty.”
― Allan Gurganus, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All

I am –  as far as generations go –  not all that far removed from my Civil War ancestors.  I remember with cinematic precision the evening circa 1970 when my high school girlfriend dropped on the uncarpeted floor of our ranch-style house the slab of glass that held my great-great grandfather’s image.  That raw-boned, thin-lipped scowler posing in his Confederate uniform evaporated before our very eyes, the molecules constituting his outline rising through the crack in the glass like a soul vacating a corpse. Gone, those small penetrating brown eyes, the prototype of my father’s eyes, my eyes, and my son Ned’s eyes.

I, in fact, met that ghost’s son, my great grandfather, who lived past 90, and I also remember a winter night in Sumter, South Carolina, when my college roommate’s great-great aunt, a centenarian, the daughter of a Confederate general, told us long-haired hippies that we were two of the prettiest girls she’d ever seen.  She was a lovely woman, alive, engaged, this daughter of the general, a genteel wrinkled skein of a skeleton sitting, smiling before a fire, practically deaf, practically blind.

I think there might have been a painting of the general over the mantel — or perhaps he was a colonel?  —  I really can’t remember as my memories flicker and fade in the old musty museum of my mind.  I am certain, however, that “the evil that men do lives after them,” and “the good is oft interred with their bones.”

Bishopville_SC

Bishopville, SC

Empty Words on the Eve of Trump’s Acquittal

Trump King

 

 

Awfully awkward to be called a gawky geek,

Indiscrete, dontcha think? Blessed are the meek,

 

For they will inherit the national debt, all wet,

losers, unlike Richard Dawkins, though I bet

 

The medial squawking awk in his surname

Comes from the Old Norse öfug. It’s a shame

 

To have part of your name mean wrong way,

And that’s about all I got to say.

 

Note: Richard Dawkins coined the word “meme” in his 1976 bestseller The Selfish Gene. The word — which is ascribed to an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture — has since been reappropriated by the internet, with Grumpy CatSocially-Awkward Penguin and Overly-Attached Girlfriend spreading virally, leaping from IP address to IP address (and brain to brain) via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. From Wired.

 

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Richard Dawkins

 

HL Mencken on the Impeachment of Donald J Trump

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A  couple of days after the 2016 election, I posted on Facebook this bit of prophecy from HL Mencken, the acerbic early 20th Century journalist who covered Scopes trial for the Baltimore Sun:

As democracy is perfected, the office of President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

Since “brevity is the soul of wit,” as long-winded Polonius put it in Hamlet, I’ll choose only three pebbles from mountainous evidence of Trump’s moronosity™ to underscore my claim:

  1. Trump speaks on a 4th grade level according to the Flesch-Kincaid scale.[1]
  2. Trump thinks an American invented the wheel.

“Well, you have to give [Elon Musk] credit,” the president said. “He’s also doing the rockets. He likes rockets, and he does good at rockets[2] too, by the way.”

Expressing awe over the fact that Musk’s rockets don’t have wings, Trump explained that the United States needs to “protect our geniuses” like Musk.

“We have to protect Thomas Edison—we have to protect all of these people that came up with originally the light bulb, and the wheel, and all of these things, and he’s one of our very smart people,” Trump added. “We want to cherish those people. That’s very important. He’s done a very good job.”

via The Daily Beast

  1. (On Puerto Rico) “This is an island surrounded by water, big water, ocean water.”

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What brought Mencken and the Scopes Trial to mind is the so-called witness-free, evidence-free impeachment trial that is rumbling on as I type.

(By the way, the comportment of the senators — their stunted attention spans that have them reading books, fleeing the chamber, snoozing, and staring zombie-like at their Fidget Spinners — makes them ideal representatives of “the inner soul of the people.”  Furthermore, I would add that most first-year teachers have better control of their study halls than Chief Justice Roberts has over the “jurors” of the chamber.)

Anyway, I just read Mencken’s account of the Scopes’ trial and noted several similarities between that travesty and the current one transpiring in the Senate.[3]

First, the ultimate outcome in both trials was predetermined because of the prejudice of the jurors, who could not and will not be dissuaded no matter how compelling the evidence. Mencken noted “[it] was obvious after a few rounds that the jury would be unanimously hot for Genesis. The most that Mr. Darrow could hope for was to sneak in a few bold enough to declare publicly that they would have to hear the evidence against Scopes before condemning him.”  We can liken “the few bold enough to declare publicly that they would have to hear the evidence” to Susan Collins and Mitt Romney, but at this point, despite the Bolton revelations, it’s not certain that any other Republican Senator will join them.

Another similarity in the two trials is that wide gulf separating the quality of the House Managers’ case and the ineptitude and mendacity of Trump’s lawyers – and the deaf ears that both Clarence Darrow and Adam Schiff addressed.

Mencken: “The net effect of Clarence Darrow’s great speech yesterday seems to be preciously the same as if he had bawled it up a rainspout in the interior of Afghanistan [. . .] The clangtint[4] of it was as important as the logic. It rose like a wind and ended like a flourish of bugles. The very judge on the bench, toward the end of it, began to look uneasy. But the morons in the audience, when it was over, simply hissed it.”

The same goes with Schiff’s performance.  While Republican Senator James M. Inhofe was not moved enough to change his predetermined vote for acquittal, he did admit that “Schiff is very, very effective.”  Senator Inhofe’s was a minority opinion, however.  “I don’t trust Adam Schiff,” Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin,” shot back [NY Times].

More typical was Tucker Carlson who mocked Schiff as a “wild-eyed conspiracy nut” as Fox’s TV monitors proclaimed, “Amateur Thespian Schiff Tries Out Some New Lines.”

Of course, many of Trump supporters, (64% of whom aren’t college graduates, compared to 28% non-graduates for Hillary Clinton) share with the gallery of the Scopes trial, not only an animus to science, but also substandard critical thinking skills. As Mencken pointed out in another context, “The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.”  What is more galling, however, is the contempt  many of the senators have for their own constituents, complaining that there’s no new evidence in the trial when they voted ten times to block evidence and witnesses.

Of course, after the Bolton revelations, there’s an outside chance he might testify, but I wouldn’t bet even a beer on it. I would, though, wager my house that, no matter what, the Senate will not remove Trump from office, or censure him for that matter.  I am confident, however, that the truth will come to light eventually, and if I were Lamar Alexander, say, at the end of my term and nearing the end of my life, I’d consider my place in history.

As Mencken said of Williams Jennings Bryan– which certainly applies to Lindsey Graham as well  – “It is a tragedy, indeed, to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon.”


[1] The analysis assessed the first 30,000 words each president spoke in office and ranked them on the Flesch-Kincaid grade level scale and more than two dozen other common tests analyzing English-language difficulty levels. Trump clocked in around mid-fourth grade, the worst since Harry Truman, who spoke at nearly a sixth-grade level.

[2] Does the statement, “He does good at rockets” actually rise to the 4th grade level?

[3] Of course, the Scopes trial, also known as “the Scopes Monkey Trial, which took place in July of 1925, prosecuted John Thomas Scopes for teaching evolution to Tennessee public school students.  The prosecution, led by William Jennings Bryan, prevailed over the defense, led by Clarence Darrow.

[4] The quality of a complex sound, timbre

Lives of Quiet Desperation and Worse

quiet desperation

You’ve no doubt heard of the James’ Brothers – no, not Jessie and Frank – I’m talking about William and Henry, William the so-called “Father of American Psychology,” Henry the famous novelist, author of Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw.

As it turns out, William wasn’t all that fond of his younger brother’s prose style.  Here’s a snippet from a letter William wrote Henry regarding his novel The Golden Bowl, considered by many critics to be a masterpiece:

Why don’t you, just to please your Brother, sit down and write a new book, with no twilight or mustiness in the plot, with great vigor and decisiveness in the action, no fencing in the dialogue, no psychological commentaries, and absolute straightness in the style? Publish it in my name, I will acknowledge it, and give you half the proceeds.”

William went on to say in a subsequent letter concerning his brother’s elaborate style,  “Say it out, for God’s sake, and have done with it.”

He goes to suggest that Henry should write the kind of novels Finley Peter Dunne wrote in his “Mr. Dooley” series, highly popular at the time but all but forgotten today.

Henry replied, “I mean… to try to produce some uncanny form of a thing, in fiction, that will gratify you–but let me say, dear William, that I shall greatly be humiliated if you do like it, and thereby lump it, in your affection, with things of a current age, that I have heard you express admiration for and that I would sooner descend to a dishonored grave than have written.”

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Henry and William James

This encounter between the James’ brothers prompted Caroline Gordon to write How to Read a Novel because it brought home to her that high intelligence does not guarantee even competence when it comes to understanding the nature of novels.  Here’s a world renowned philosopher and psychologist who preferred Mr. Dooley to The Golden Bowl.

[William James’s] suggestion [that Henry imitate Dunne’s work] was made with the best will in the world [. . .] and could only have sprung out of ignorance – not only of the particular problems his brother was facing, but of the processes by which a novel comes into being.”  Caroline Tate from Chapter 1 of How to Read a Novel

Which brings me to David Brooks, the New York Times op-ed writer.  Over the years, I’ve come to grow somewhat fond of David Brooks.  He’s what we English teachers call a “dynamic character.”  No, not that the bespectacled, thoroughly decent, nervously head- bobbing pundit possesses a dram of charisma, not dynamic in that way, but dynamic in that over the course of the 20-plus years I’ve been reading and listening to him his consciousness has expanded.  He’s grown.  Unlike virtually most so-called conservative commentator I’ve read in the last ten years, David Brooks has dared to consider the other side of the argument without summarily dismissing it on an ideological basis.[1]

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Yet, Brooks, too, like William James, is not a very preceptive reader of novels. In his critique of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, for example, he misses a crucial point about the nature of serious American fiction in general and contemporary Late Empire America in particular.  Mr. Brooks possesses an analytical rather than a creative mind and so misunderstands, I think, how fiction comes to be.  In a very quick survey of great American novels, it’s also hard to find what Brooks claims is missing from Freedom:

Franzen ignores anything that might complicate the Quiet Desperation dogma.  There’s almost no religion.  There’s very little about the world of work and enterprise.  There’s an absence of ethnic heritage, military service, technical innovation, scientific research or anything else potentially lofty and ennobling. (my emphasis)

***

Religion?

Could it be possible! This 21st Century New York Times columnist hath not yet heard of it, that GOD IS DEAD!

Scarlet Letter

Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter

***

Work and enterprise?

Moby Dick?

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The Jungle?

the jungle

The Grapes of Wrath?

grapes-of-wrath

***

Military Service?

A Farewell to Arms?

inflandersfields 

***

Technical Innovation/Scientific Research?

White Noise?

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***

I’ll add in closing that mocking the bourgeoise is not limited to American novelists.  I defy Brooks to find anything particularly lofty and ennobling about Madame Bovary (except for the majestic artistry of Flaubert’s genius).  I’m with Caroline Gordon on the ol’ novels-of-ideas front.  Really great novels arise from the dark realms of really a powerful unconsciousness  whose taproots spring from the ancient terrors of predatory night.  Create a cast of characters who exist to prove an abstract point and you end up with Tom Wolfe – an entertaining puppet master, or worse, Ayn Rand.[2]

If Mr. Brooks is looking for happy Americans, I suggest he look towards Hollywood. After the credits have rolled, citizens seeking escape usually drive home with smiles on their faces after experiencing rosy resolutions.  On the other hand, read the novels illustrated above, and a life of quiet desperation seems practically Edenic.


[1] I should add the Never Trumpers Jennifer Rubin and Bill Kristol.

[2] Flannery O’Connor ( a close friend of Caroline Gordon’s) on Ayn Rand “I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.

The Allure of Vampires: Secret, Unfriendly, Pale, Possessed

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Sexual repression isn’t exactly a hallmark of the Late Empire, an era in which conservative moms who advocate abstinence-only sex education sit smiling in studio audiences and applaud their daughters’ sexualized performances.  This aging ethnologist purposely skipped Bristol’s Palin’s much ballyhooed tango with whomever on Dancing with the Stars a few years back*; however, I trust conservative Palin-hater Andrew Sullivan wasn’t far off the mark when he described the couple’s gyrations as “dry humping.”  


*There’s a limit to the suffering I’m willing to endure for the sake of science.


Given that so much is so out in the open nowadays (and so instantaneously available), it seems counterintuitive that vampires are all the rage.  After all, adolescents (not to mention their tween siblings) can with a white lie and a click of a mouse peep through any number of prurient holes and so forego the tiresome teasing cliche-ridden tropes of genre.  

I won’t hazard to guess how many billions of dollars these virulent bat-morphed blood sucking late sleepers (I’m talking about vampires, not teenagers) have generated in the last few decades.  The catalogue of works is Homeric – The Vampire Diaries, Buffy, Twilight, HBO’s True Blood, Crucible of the Vampire, – just to name a few – in addition to collateral consumer products like comic books, Halloween costumes, retractable fangs, etc.

dracula comic

Supposedly, Lord Byron, the most successful club-footed sexual swashbuckler on record,** served as the model for English prose’s first vampire, Lord Ruthven, a suave, insatiable, stalker. Another early bloodsucker was Carmillia, a lesbian predator who appeared in Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel of the same name.  Le Fanu’s rendering heavily influenced fellow Irishman’s Bram Stroker’s Dracula, the so called “master work” of the genre. (I’ll let some Dublin based anthropologist unravel the political/social implications of two Irishmen creating the English-speaking world’s most beloved monsters).***


** Okay, the only club-footed sexual swashbuckler on record.

*** There is also something vampiric about Irishman Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Grey.


 

220px-Carmilla

These Victorian vampires – essentially sublimated sex fiends – glide into the bedrooms of virgins, go all Freudian with their fangs, infect the innocent with their insatiable lust (for blood)  – a repressed-friendly form of eroticism for puritans. 

Less obvious sublimations lurk.  Not only is Count Dracula undead, but he’s also a foreigner, which makes his deflowering all the more menacing with its dark undertones of alien infiltration and conversion.  After all, vampires’ victims assume the (non)lifestyles of their seducers, those “outside agitators” who introduce them to alternative lifestyles. 

Mike Pence would not approve.

However, if you can detach yourself from what has become so familiar via Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Tom Cruise, etc. the concept of vampires is creepy in a way that out-creeps even that peculiar-bachelor-uncle kind of creepiness.  

No one is particularly found of mosquitoes or bats, but here’s a preposterously popular sub genre that features undead human beings transforming into flying rodents, flitting through windows (and no doubt shitting blood all over those priceless Persian floor coverings), then transforming back into fang-sporting bipeds who slip into the boudoir of a Prudence or Victoria, supine on her bed and radiant in gorgeous, semi-diaphanous lingerie.  Baring these beauties’ necks, the bloodsucker drains the victims of their blood, perhaps copping a feel as he produces the hickey that is forever and forever and forever.

kinski-nosferatu

2008 was a particularly potent year for the genre with Twilight and True Blood both making their debuts.  Once again, I can’t give you first hand knowledge, but both seemed to be more about romance than blood-thirst. 

In True Blood, from what I can gather, 1) the the sex wasn’t sublimated and 2) the series confronted the alien aspect of vampirism by having these bayou vampires seeking equal rights [a pharmaceutical company has engineered some sort of methadone-like substitute for human blood so that vampires can lead somewhat normal lives (if you consider living a deathless existence even approaching “normal”)].

At any rate, producers are still cranking them out.  The website TheCinemaholic (sic) ranks the ten best vampire movies of 2018, the best being, according to them is Vamp, a Russian film set in the 18th century; however, the one that caught my eye was With a Kiss I Die, the title an allusion to Romeo’s last words.

Here’s TheCinemaholic’s synopsis:

The tragic story of William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ ended when both the protagonists died in a romantically heart-breaking way. That was the end for Romeo, but not for Juliet. After she stabs herself with Romeo’s dagger and dies right by his side, she wakes up as a vampire. Dejected by the fact that the love of her life has been lost to her and is never coming back, she spends her days waiting for death to come to get her for good. She is a unique vampire, though. Because she has never killed anyone, because she hasn’t tasted blood yet, the limitation of the sun has not been placed upon her. Unlike others of her kind, she is free to walk about during the day with as much ease as she walks during the night. And it is on a day that she meets a woman who makes her re-evaluate her thought that true love is once in a lifetime thing. Juliet falls in love with this woman but secretly fears that like her first love, this might as well end in a tragedy. And she is not being paranoid. The other vampires are trying to bring Juliet to the dark side and they will not hesitate from using her new love to their advantage.

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Alas, I must leave you without solving the mystery of vampirism’s popularity among sexually liberated late capitalists.  Certainly, forbidden sex has always had its allure, and the genre still features plenty of that, though openly now, and the modern bias against body hair essentially rules out werewolves as desirable partners. Then there’s the idea of vampire as crazy mixed-up exotic outsider, a rebel if you will, but let’s face it, mass conformity is really the hallmark of the Late Empire with its manufactured ripped jeans, the ubiquity of tattooing, the umbilical connection of the cellphone.  

Before I go, thought I’d share with you the full version of Richard Wilbur’s “The Undead,” no doubt the best poem ever written about vampires:

The Undead

Even as children they were late sleepers,

Preferring their dreams, even when quick with monsters,

To the world with all its breakable toys,

Its compacts with the dying;

From the stretched arms of withered trees

They turned, fearing contagion of the mortal,

And even under the plums of summer

Drifted like winter moons.

Secret, unfriendly, pale, possessed

Of the one wish, the thirst for mere survival,

They came, as all extremists do

In time, to a sort of grandeur:

Now, to their Balkan battlements

Above the vulgar town of their first lives,

They rise at the moon’s rising. Strange

That their utter self-concern

Should, in the end, have left them selfless:

Mirrors fail to perceive them as they float

Through the great hall and up the staircase;

Nor are the cobwebs broken.

Into the pallid night emerging, 

Wrapped in their flapping capes, routinely maddened

By a wolf’s cry, they stand for a moment

Stoking the mind’s eye

With lewd thoughts of the pressed flowers

And bric-a-brac of rooms with something to lose,–

Of love-dismembered dolls, and children

Buried in quilted sleep.

Then they are off in a negative frenzy,

Their black shapes cropped into sudden bats

That swarm, burst, and are gone. Thinking

Of a thrush cold in the leaves

Who has sung his few summers truly,

Or an old scholar resting his eyes at last,

We cannot be much impressed with vampires,

Colorful though they are;

Nevertheless, their pain is real,

And requires our pity. Think how sad it must be

To thirst always for a scorned elixir,

The salt quotidian blood

Which, if mistrusted, has no savor;

To prey on life forever and not possess it,

As rock-hollows, tide after tide,

Glassily strand the sea.

Missing Person

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Loneliness with the World – George Grie 2009

Note:  Going through my old blog, Late Empire Ruminations, before I let it lapse and disappear from cyberspace, I ran across this narrative describing what I went through when I discovered my wife was a missing person.  Now its last sentence seems much more poignant than it did on the day I wrote it.

I’d like to think I take very little for granted.  After all, as a literature teacher, I have spent some time surveying the hellscapes of tragedy – Thebes, Elsinore, Casterbridge, Oceania, Yoknapatawpha – so I’m aware that horror is forever hovering and might descend at any moment via a drunken driver or cerebral hemorrhage or natural disaster.

As my friend Tom Evatt used to say with a wink and a smile, “I’m no stranger to heartache.”

One day he awoke with a bit of a limp.  Within a year he was dead from ALS.

Tommy at lake

Tom Evatt

In the mid-Nineties,  I myself via clinical depression descended into the underworld, a place I once pretended didn’t exist as I stupidly cajoled the despondent with banal observations about how they were living in the wealthiest, most carefree civilization in the history of the planet.  Of course, as someone who had read Hamlet, I should have known better.

I have of late [says the despondent prince]—but wherefore I know not,—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

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The Song of Ophelia, artist unknown

After dropping thirty pounds in ten days,* spending my afternoons on the floor of my study weeping, suffering nightmares that would send Alfred Hitchcock screaming out into the dark, I discovered that, no, depression is real, as real as a heart attack or a car jacking or ALS.

*Unfortunately, it wasn’t one of those weight losses when colleagues come up to you saying how good you look but instead ask, “Have you been sharing needles with your Haitian boyfriend?”

Sheptun1

If you’re lucky, if you emerge from the darkness of depression, you might come back with some secret information like Odysseus received from Tiresias in Hades, info that helped him steer between Scylla and Charybdis.  I came back up with the idea that I would try to savor my allotted moments, to try to detach myself from illusion, to attempt to follow the Golden Eighth Fold path.

Again here is Hamlet, talking to his pal Horatio regarding his misgivings about his upcoming fencing match with Laertes, a contest that unbeknownst to him is booby-trapped and will lead to his death:

If it be now,

’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: since no man has aught of what he

leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?

* * *

Last Wednesday at break as I was placing my coffee cup in the dishwasher in the small kitchen that abuts the boardroom, I heard someone softly say my name.  It was our receptionist Kyndra, as far away from her desk as it is possible for her to be in the building.  She was pale and looked disconcerted.

She asked me if I knew where Judy was.  Of course, the answer should have been no – she could have been at her rural Berkeley County school or her suburban Summerville school or driving between the two – but I said, “She’s at work.”

Kyndra gently shook her head.  She said calmly, looking me in the eyes. “She’s not at work.  The school has called.  She was supposed to be there for a meeting at 7:30.  They’ve called the other school.  She’s not there. They can’t get in touch with her.” She handed me a small blue slip of paper with a number on it. “This is the school’s number.  They want you to call.”

I don’t remember the walk from the boardroom to my classroom.  Did I run?  Did I walk quickly?  I felt a sudden – this is difficult to describe – a sort of sudden metallic sinking of my soul like a ship going down.

Did I know where Judy was?  No, but I could guess –  not likely a stalled engine or flat tire given cellphones.  A wreck seemed more likely, but she had left home at 6:30 and now at 9:50 that would mean a bad one or one in a location that had no cellular reception.  Then I thought of carjacking, kidnapping.

I now was hunched over the phone in my room dialing  Judy’s cell.  I had moved the chair from behind my desk earlier in the day, so I couldn’t sit down or stand straight up because of shelves hanging over the desk of the phone.  It occurs to me now that I could have more comfortably used my cell, not had to dial 9 for a ringtone, but I’ve been using a cell phone for only a month, and it doesn’t come naturally to me.

No ring.  Straight to voicemail.  “You’ve reached Judy; please leave a message.”  Hearing her voice was the opposite of comforting.  It occurred to me that I might never hear her voice again.

I dialed the number on the blue slip of paper.  Got through immediately.  Heard Kyndra’s delayed message first hand from a woman with a sweet Southern voice accustomed to addressing elementary students.  She told me that  it wasn’t like Judy not to show up at a meeting.  No shit, I thought, but said instead.  “No, it’s not.  I’m terrified. She left at 6:30, before I did.”

Again, I punched 9 for a dial time and dialed home, hoping to get Ned to see if there was a message on voice mail.  “Once again, I heard Judy’s voice.  “You’ve reached the Judy and Wesley.  Please leave a message.”

I turned around, and there was Kyndra sitting at the opposite end of the Harkness table.

room 101

My classroom.  Kyndra was sitting in the near end chair.  I was standing behind the black desk in the upper left.

“How can I help you?”  Kyndra asked.  “Do you have a class coming up?”

“No,”  I said.  “I’m free.  I’m going to call Ned on my cell.”

I looked at the calls I’d received.  Thought I hit “Ned.”  A  recorded stranger’s voice told me I had reached a series of numbers.  At the beep, I said, probably too loudly, “Ned, there’s been a emergency.  You need to call me.”

I really didn’t know what to do.  Get in the car, trace Judy’s route to Cross?  That’s what my body wanted to do, but my head told me to call the highway patrol, the police.  My wife was a missing person.  “Oh, this is it,” I thought, “the terrible severing.”

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As I headed towards the hall to retrieve a telephone book, Traci Miller, another staff person, walking briskly approached me and said, “Judy’s signed in at her school earlier in the morning.  She’s there.  They think she might be testing a student.”

“What?”  I was having trouble processing.

“Judy’s at work. She signed in hours ago.  She’s probably testing a student and has her cell phone off.”

I looked at her dumbfounded.

“She’s okay.”

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Portrait of Judy Birdsong on the Edge of America

I went back to my room and realized that I needed a drink.  My cell was ringing.  “Wesley, this is Jake.  Did you mean to call me?  There’s an emergency?”  Instead of Ned I had called Jake in New Orleans.  I explained the snafu.  I walked over to my laptop and wrote Judy an email.  All it said was “Are you alive?”  Almost as soon as I sent it, the land phone rang in the room.  It was Judy.  Apologetic.  No, she had been at School since 7:30.  Several people had seen her.  She was so, so sorry.

It was her live voice, music to my ears.

* * *

I’ll give you the quick Perry Mason post trial explanation like when he and Della Street and Paul Drake explain how the murder had actually gone down.

PerryMason5

There was no meeting at the rural Berkeley County School, but a mother was there looking for Judy who was in a meeting with the assistant principal.  A teacher, thinking it was a meeting, tried to find Judy.   Concerned, she called the suburban Summerville School who called my school. A series of unfortunate miscommunications.

At any rate, I hold no ill will.  The ten or so minutes of existential dread I suffered were almost worth it as I looked out of the window at the premature spring, then at the stack of graded and ungraded essays on my desk.  Thanks to my calling  Jake in error, Ned was spared.  All of the petty problems I had been stewing over took their rightful place in the basement of the pyramid of importance.

The only real after effect is that like the ancient mariner I feel compelled to tell this story to everyone.  Maybe this writing it out will expiate it.

And, of course, it’s merely a reprieve, because if it be not now, yet it will come.

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The Fates

 

Stephen Foster Is in the Cold, Cold Ground – But Then Again, Not Really

foster sitting

Now that I’m retired, I begin each morning with a leisurely stroll through the pages of  “The South’s Oldest Newspaper,” the Post and Courier.  One of my favorite features is “Today in History,” which chronologically recaps the high-and-lowlights that occurred on the day the edition appears.  For example, today, the 13th of January, we have in 1941 Puerto Ricans gaining birthright citizenship and James Joyce succumbing to an ulcer less than a month before his 59th birthday.

The aged sisters draw us into life: we wail, batten, sport, clip, clasp, sunder, dwindle, die; over us dead they bend. Joyce, from Ulysses

The 13th of January was an unlucky day for several other notables as well.  In 1962 Comedian Ernie Kovacs perished in an auto crash, and 16 years later, former Vice President Hubert H Humphrey died in Waverly, Minnesota at the age of 66.

The saddest death recorded that day, however, belongs to Stephen Foster, America’s first great songwriter, who, estranged from his wife, drunkenly slipped on a piece of glass while shaving in a flophouse in the Bowery.  In the fall, he accidentally cut his neck, was found on the floor in a pool of blood, and died at Bellevue Hospital 3 days later.  On the day of his death, his worldly possessions consisted of that razor, a comb, a few items of clothing, and a leather wallet. The wallet contained 38 cents in Civil War scrip, 3 pennies, and a scrap of paper with the words “Dear Hearts and Gentle People” scrawled on it.

fde9f7c912c359247e2c3a7c66c56e47.jpgI first heard of Stephen Foster’s music orally when my father would rock and sing me to sleep and from my Grandfather Kiki who sang  “Campton Ladies” while playing his ukulele.

‘Doo-dah, doo-dah.”

My father, a sentimentalist, told me about Foster’s sad life, often the fate of geniuses, he intimated.  Although Foster did write comic songs, the majority of them pulled on the proverbial heartstrings.

We have roamed and loved mid the bowers

When thy downy cheeks were in their bloom

Now I stand alone mid the flowers

While they mingle their perfumes o’er thy tomb.

Because he wrote for the Christy Minstrels, a Northern blackface minstrel troupe, and sentimentalized the plight of slaves, Foster is now a controversial figure. Defenders claim that Foster’s attitude was sympathetic and that he admired African American slaves.

Others, not surprisingly, disagree. In  2010 members of the Yale Glee Club refused to sing “My Old Kentucky Home” at a concert and later burned a copy of the song, according to Ken Emerson, Foster’s biographer, “[My Old Kentucky Home], he writes, “was actually inspired by “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a deeply abolitionist novel. And the sense of loss here, and the sense is because Uncle Tom is being sold down the river as he was in the famous novel.”

Ironically, Foster hailed from Pennsylvania and only travelled below the Mason-Dixon line once in his life on a honeymoon steamboat cruise to New Orleans.

Emerson, the biographer, goes on to say, “his politics were definitely not abolitionist, but his heart and his feelings were very strongly sympathetic with the African-American plight. This contradiction, I think, is – the conflict between sentimentality and self-interest is something that, I think, characterizes – has always characterized Americans.”

And the songs themselves reflect the ol’ melting pot metaphor, an amalgam of Irish, African American, Italian, German, and Czechoslovakian influences.  For example, “Oh Susanna” is rendered in a polka beat.

Again, Emerson: And I think he merged [the various musical influences] in way that appeals to the multicultural, mongrel experience of America in its history and culture.”

The bottom line is that Foster remains popular even today, a century-and-a-half after his death, a rarity for a pop artist. In fact, I own a 2004 tribute album that features such artists as Alvin Youngblood Heart, John Prine, Mavis Staples, Roger McQuinn, and Michelle Shocked.

The combination of those beautiful melodies he created and pathos he conjured can still mesmerize.