When I taught senior English back in the Eighties, Nineties, Aughts, and Teens, Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf played a pivotal role in the curriculum. We used the text to introduce students to psychoanalytical criticism, to show them that formalism – or “New Criticism” as it is sometimes called – is not the only avenue for analyzing literature.
If our schedules allowed a convenient free period, I’d invite colleague and Arch-Trickster Bill Slayton to engage in a short colloquy with my AP seniors on the Magic Theater sequence of Steppenwolf. One of Bill’s many talents as a teacher was to relate whatever the kids were reading to their lives, to make it relevant.
He’d begin the discussion by asking where they planned to attend college. Probably afraid they’d jinx themselves, they clamped shut and fidgeted, but Bill coaxed from them an admission that they’d narrowed their prospective lists to a finite number. Then he’d detail the inexorable winnowing that lay ahead by cataloguing the progression of self-limiting choices forced upon them – declaring a major, joining a fraternity or sorority (and its attendant conformity), specializing in a profession (divorce law, podiatry, the poetry of George Herbert).
The Podiatrist of Avon
Jungian psychology, he explained, is all about the opposite – expanding your mind by getting in touch with the hidden potentialities Jung called archetypes, cultivating the accountant within (if you’re Lord Byron) or your internal Lord Byron (if you’re Henry James). 
Bill subtly suggested that the Western Tao, i.e., mindless materialism, accompanied by a continuing narrowing of focus and interest, might not be the way to go. Of course, for most of our ambitious and high-achieving students, he might as well have been King Canute demanding that the sea desist (or, to update the allusion, Donald Trump screaming at the Coronavirus to stop spreading).
Bill didn’t mention having children, which, of course, is the ultimate wing-clipper in existential freedom flying. After my marriage to Judy, before we had children, I’d sometimes court danger, learn by going where I should not go, to echo a line from Roethhke. However, after my sons Harrison and Ned arrived, no more non-touristy Jamaican dance halls, no more high-octane chemical cocktails for I-and-I. Obviously, the responsibilities of nurturing and cultivating offspring are enormous. In my reckoning, dying foolishly before the job is done would be dereliction of duty.
Come to think of it, a Jungian analyst might deem my erstwhile adventurous Hemingway wanna-be shenanigans over-kill, an imbalance of energy. Transferring energy from oneself to others is a necessary step in mind expansion, a pebble-drop in the pond of consciousness that generates concentric circles expanding outward.
Of course, you don’t have to have children to accomplish this expansion – Mother Teresa comes to mind – and having children doesn’t necessarily accomplish it either. Selfish parents ignoring or exploiting their children is as old as the Bible and Greek mythology; Huck’s dad, Pappy Finn, is still alive, (if not well).
Teaching literature isn’t only about reading and writing and expanding vocabularies; it is also about employing literature as lens through which to observe the compressed lives of others. I think Bill’s point was despite the inevitable constrictions that the transition from childhood to adulthood entails, an open and inquiring mind is essential in a life well-lived.
 For Freud, you can’t go wrong with “Fall of the House of Usher.” For Jungian criticism, Thomas Wolfe’s “Child by Tiger” is also an effective text.
 According to The Norton Anthology of English Literature, in 1717, “Byron established himself in Venice, where he began a year and a half of debauchery that, he estimated, involved more than two hundred women.” Henry James, on the other hand, died without ever having a significant other, at least in a sexual sense.
Has there ever been an unrequited love that’s paid more poetic dividends than WB Yeats’s decades long pursuit of unyielding Maud Gonne?*
[cue Robert Johnson: “All my love’s in vain.”]
Here’s a slight sampling:
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.
“Down by the Salley Gardens”
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
“When You Are Old”
Half close your eyelids, loosen your hair,
And dream about the great and their pride;
They have spoken against you everywhere,
But weigh this song with the great and their pride;
I made it out of a mouthful of air,
Their children’s children shall say they have lied.
“He Thinks of Those Who Have Spoken Evil of His Beloved”
O Heart! O Heart, if she’d but turn her head
You’d know the folly of being comforted.
“The Folly of Being Comforted”
Never give all the heart, for love
Will hardly seem worth thinking of
To passionate women if it seem
Certain, and they never dream
That it fades out from kiss to kiss;
For everything that’s lovely is
But a brief, dreamy, kind delight.
O never give the heart outright,
For they, for all smooth lips can say,
Have given their hearts up to the play.
And who could play it well enough
If deaf and dumb and blind with love?
He that made this knows all the cost,
For he gave all his heart and lost.
“Never Give All the Heart”
I could go on and on, but allow me just one more:
We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.
I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.
Given this inspiration, perhaps I should lament I’ve never suffered unrequited love.
I have, on the other hand, suffered numerous unrequited crushes, but compared to the unstaunched hemorrhaging of Yeats’s heart, my rejections add up to so many mosquito bites scratched to the point of bleeding but fairly soon forgotten.
Not very inspiring, not the stuff of poetry, merely the stuff of doggerel.
The Lazy Muse of Unrequited Crushes
She sleeps till one each afternoon,
The lazy muse of unrequited crushes.
Never gazes at the waning moon,
Stomps around my brain on crutches,
Lisping doggerel with an interrogative lilt,
Ransacking my drafty garret,
Looking for an obscure line to lift
From Mrs. Elizabeth Barrett
Browning. Womp, womp.
*When Yeats told Gonne he wasn’t happy without her, she replied, “Oh yes, you are, because you make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and are happy in that. Marriage would be such a dull affair. Poets should never marry. The world should thank me for not marrying you.” Norman A. Jeffares, W.B. Yeats, a New Biography.
Sometimes when you hear a song for the first time that’s really catchy, you end up getting sick of it all too soon. I’m thinking of songs like “Friday on My Mind” by the Easybeats or “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, two really tasty tunes that satisfy you for a second or two, but by the third serving, you’re not even paying attention.
On the other hand, some really catchy songs never get old. The first time I heard Zevon’s “Werewolves of London,” on the radio in 1977, I hopped into my parents’ VW Bug and drove fourteen or so miles to the Record Bar, the closest record store. Despite the song’s simplicity, I’ve never gotten sick of it. Of course, the lyrics help:
Well, I saw Lon Chaney walking with the Queen
Doing the Werewolves of London
I saw Lon Chaney, Jr. walking with the Queen
Doing the Werewolves of London
I saw a werewolf drinking a piña colada at Trader Vic’s
And his hair was perfect.
Anyway, Chuck Prophet’s 2002 album No Other Love I’ve never gotten tired of. I first discovered Prophet via Salon back in the day when they’d offer free cuts you could download from just-dropped albums.
Just as in the case of ‘Werewolves,” the featured cut “I Bow Down and Worship Every Woman I See” blew me away. It’s a narrative. Here’s the first verse, which stands up remarkably well naked on the page:
Chloe was a neighbor girl
who walked round in a trance
A lot like Sissy Spacek
at that homecoming dance
Her father was religious
Mother was too
She yearned to be a model
Had issues with food
Last I heard of Chloe
someone saw her on TV
Preaching the power of hypnosis
and aroma therapy
Darby was my sister’s friend
a fashion paranoid
She wore a winter coat all summer long
and made a lot of noise
about conservites and demigods
and how we should be scared
We dropped LSD at Disneyland
She left me stranded there
I hitched back to the valley
with a Dr. Leopold
who sermonized computers
have come to steal our souls
ooh baby ooh baby
I bow down and pray to every woman I see
I bow down and pray to every woman I see
A song from the same album I like even more is “That’s How Much I Need Your Love.” Here’s a brief sonic sample:
So what you have here in LA noir music, sunny and creepy at the same time. I just discovered a new one yesterday. My wife Caroline asked if I wanted to hear “Jesus Was a Social Drinker.” The title sounded so Zevon. “Who’s it by?” I asked.
Obviously, I’d lost touch.
Now Jesus was a social drinker
He never drank alone
He never partied at a strip club
Keeping his woman up at home
Or overstayed his welcome
Or threw up in your sink
Nah, Jesus was never late to work, man
And he always pulled his weight
It’s off the album Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins, and he’s got a new one coming out in 21 August 2020. I’m planning on checking it out.
 D D (quarter note, half note, then a quarter rest), C C (quarter note, half note,
then a quarter rest), G G C G (the rest quarter notes with no rests), G G G G,
throughout the song
 BTW, I’m one of these old-fashioned cats you doesn’t stream his music. I buy the records.
I’ve decided to designate the 20th of each month as the day I’ll publish a recurring post called “Pet Peeve of the Month.”
Yes, I’m aware that the Republic is burning, that Bill Barr is making John Mitchell look like Atticus Finch, that police throughout the nation are reprising the Chicago Democratic Convention of ’68 while idiotic anarchists topple and deface statues of Ulysses S Grant because they hate the Confederacy. Not to mention a global pandemic dispatching hundreds of thousands of human beings and laying waste to world economies. Given all this, my carping about minutiae might strike some as self-indulgent, Nero picking up his Stratocaster to lay down some riffs as flames devour the nation.
Well, what do you expect? I’m a boomer, born in the waning days of the Truman Administration, the beneficiary of parents striving to provide a better life than the ones they suffered during their Depression Era childhoods when dressed in rags they scoured the Dickensian streets of their sepia-tinted cities looking for coppers, someone just a bit too young to go to Nam, someone pampered by indulgent college professors who inflated grades to the proportion of Macy Thanksgiving Parade cartoon balloons, someone who spent his working years at an posh independent school where the only fight he ever witnessed ended abruptly when a bell signaling the end of lunch rang. Of course, with a bio like that, I’m bound to be self-indulgent.
Anyway, let’s get to the main feature, the petty thing that this month irks the hell out of me.
June’s Pet Peeve
It really, really bugs me when I’m watching a PBS nature series and the narrator says stuff like the panther chameleon’s eyes have been engineered by nature to rotate independently as they stalk their prey.
Panther Chameleon (photo by Robbie Labanowski)
Really? Engineered? Does the creature depicted above seem to you to be the product of a drawing board?
Note to the science writers at Nature: check out Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species. Natural Selection ≠ Engineering. Natural Selection is a horrifically random process that includes genetic mutations, asteroids colliding with the Earth, etc. Your use of the word engineering suggests the decrepit teleological intelligent-design argument (as if having an asteroid smack into the planet is a nifty way for an engineer to facilitate the rise of mammals).
I’ll give Robert Frost the last word on this topic:
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth —
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth —
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.
Now, that’s what I call engineering: a Petrarchan sonnet that through pattern debunks the argument from design.
During the Easter Break of 1971, my senior year in high school, I accompanied my compadre Tim Miskel on a 400-mile excursion to Cocoa Beach in his red TR4 convertible. The deal was that I would provide gas with my mother’s Citco credit card, which she had generously lent me for the trip – though I had told her our destination was Myrtle, not Cocoa, Beach. Her receiving credit card bills later from exotic locations like Sebastian’s Inlet, Florida, was troubling, but that would be a month away, and back then a month was an eternity. Cocoa was a surfing mecca. It would be Kerouac, On the Road, Easy Rider, and all that be-bop.
Except for fueling in Summerville on the way out and in Walterboro on the way back, I was able to use cash for gas in Georgia and Florida and thus managed to escape detection, a feat impossible for contemporary miscreants, at least for miscreants with vigilant parents equipped with the latest technology. In 2020, moms and dads can trace in real time on computer screens blinking blips that pinpoint their offspring’s progress as they make their way to those unsupervised parties.
Perhaps because of my parents’ childrearing liberality, I, too, provided our two sons with lots of space, with such long leashes that when Ned was in high school, he accompanied his college-aged brother Harrison on a spring break trip to Munich.
Did underage Ned drink beer at the Hofbrauhaus? Did we speak only once via cellphones that weekend? Has Kellyanne Conway undergone plastic surgery?
I also remember when Ned served as a host for one of the new 9th graders of Porter-Gaud School’s class of 2008, a well-meaning woman approached me at a welcoming get-together to ask if my wife and I would like to join a group they had formed to meet regularly to discuss their children’s activities.
“Absolutely not,” I said, with perhaps too much emphasis.
She seemed truly surprised. “Why not?”
“I don’t really want to know what they’re up to.”
She seemed incredulous.
“Didn’t you sneak out of the house and drink beer and make-out in the backseats of cars in high school?” I asked.
“Things were different then,” she said. “Safer.”
Actually, I disagree about the safety factor, about the South Carolina lowcountry of the 2000s being more dangerous than it was in 1970, but I didn’t feel like describing the chain fight I witnessed outside of the stadium after a Summerville football game or my hitchhiking encounter with mass murderer Donald “Pee Wee” Gaskins or the murders committed by Richard Valenti on Folly Beach in 1973.
Unfortunately, this parental surveillance now includes 24/7 access to their children’s grades. Today, if little Mason or Madison blows off a reading assignment and gets a 0 on a pop quiz, parents Karen and Bob can log onto Net Classroom and check their weekly progress. Some of our more neurotic ambitious parents check Net Classroom as often as day-traders do stock quotes. Seasoned political junkie that I am, when I taught, I waited until Friday afternoons to post grades the way political campaigns release damaging information after the evening news on Friday nights, in their case to bypass the news cycle, in my case to make Bob and Karen less likely to contact me on the weekend.
If this system had been in place when I was in high school and my parents employed it, I would have spent those turbulent four years caged in my room. Chances are, though, they wouldn’t have. I think my father went three years without ever seeing any of our report cards, thanks to my mother’s wise discretion.
Obviously, in this age of celebrity, people don’t value their privacy as they once did, a reclusive Garbo being the exception to the full-exposure Kardashian rule. Not only are our backyards available for anyone to peek into from above via Google Maps or low flying drones, but on sidewalks and in hallways, parking lots, and supermarkets, our movements are being constantly monitored. Indeed, a restroom may – and I stress the subjunctive – may be the only place in public where we’re not being spied on with surveillance cameras.
I wonder if nowadays Tim and I would have dared to make the trip. If we had, a complicated web of lies would have been necessary, as parent and child would be linked via a cell phone, and I’ve never been good at lying and have always tried to avoid mendacity unless absolutely necessary – this trip to Cocoa an exception. As my unrelenting bad luck would have it, there happened to be a podunk rock festival in Myrtle Beach that weekend.
“How was the rock festival?” my mother asked sarcastically when I got home.
“Rock festival? What are you talking about? There wasn’t any rock festival.”
And there hadn’t been – in Cocoa Beach. She got out the paper and slapped it down on the kitchen table. On the front page screamed an above-the-fold photograph of mass cavorting.
Damn, maybe we should have gone to Myrtle Beach instead. I don’t in fact recall much about the trip to Cocoa. I remember the wind whipping our long locks as we drove with the top down through Georgia and Florida on Highway 17S. I remember our hooking up with Adam Jacobs, Robbie Summerset, and the surfing Kowalski brothers from West Ashley. We saw Gimme Shelter at a Cocoa Beach theater. I remember choppy waves breaking at low tide at Sebastian Inlet and envying the surfer asleep with a girl in a van the first night when I froze my ass off trying to lose consciousness in the uncomfortable confines of Tim’s car.
In fact, we decided to split the second night, and heroically, Tim drove through the wee hours for a predawn arrival home.
Nevertheless, I’m glad we were free enough to make the trip because it was, if not an adventure, out of the ordinary, something I can write about as opposed to the blurred repetition of the days before and after the trip, those days having tumbled through the hourglass of my life into oblivion.
Do you know the TS Eliot poem “Preludes?” It’s one of those early 20th century extended sighs where the sum of disjointed parts equals alienation. Walking through smoky London, we encounter a progression of fragmented images: “grimy scraps of withered leaves,” “broken blinds and chimney pots,” “faint stale smells of beer from the sawdust-trampled street.”
At one point, Eliot writes
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms
Oddly enough, Eliot’s lines came wafting up from the mental basement I had stashed them in as I was scrolling through my Twitter feed yesterday.
Before I wax unkind, let me say that I find Twitter a useful tool in information gathering. On election nights, it’s invaluable, providing returns much faster and more eclectically than broadcast television.
I follow mostly journalists and writers I admire, who hook me up (as we heroin addicts say) with links to The Guardian, The Economist, MotherJones, etc.
And some of the personal stuff is cool. Yesterday, Emily Nussbaum and her husband Clive were drunk on Scotch wondering if they could pay people not to do podcasts.
On the other hand, some of the people I follow retweet “fellow resistors,” as they call themselves, seem needy as they plead for more followers (“I only need 650 more to hit 10K”) or whine about their lack of a birthday party during the quarantine or announce to the world that their parent or spouse or Pekinese has just died and that they are devastated. What they want, I assume, is an astronomical number of hearts illuminating their posts, equating quantity with quality. What do you say to a stranger who’s grieving? There’s, in fact, little you can say to a loved one. Hugs help, but I doubt that virtual hugs do much good.
Still others cultivate a cult following, young cynical clever know-it-alls who consider not wearing a mask the equivalent of assault and battery, the flip side of those who consider wearing a mask an act of ovine cowardice. You rarely meet anyone in the middle who might wear a mask indoors but eschews one sitting on a park bench by himself.
Anyway, it seems that many of these people spend the majority of their days and nights on Twitter, which to me conjures the lines above, though I should probably update them:
For whatever reason, in the second half of my teaching career, the last fifteen years or so, I became much more lenient. In fact, one of the reasons I decided to retire was that I thought I was becoming too lackadaisical. When colleagues complained about slacker advisees from my homeroom, I didn’t rebuke the advisees. After asking them if everything was okay, I informed them that Mr.or Ms so-and-so was complaining to me about undone homework or subpar test performances, so they needed to talk to the teacher and rectify the situation. I rarely if ever called their parents myself.
In the olden days of the previous century, I would have warned the underachiever that in China or India youthful competitors were going to school eight hours a day year-round and would be competing with them economically on a global scale. “Why pay top dollar for an American CPA,” I would ask rhetorically, “when I can electronically send my taxes to Mumbai for a fraction of the cost?” I’d point out that their parents’ wealth (I taught at an independent school) would be divided among their siblings, that the moment they graduated from college, they’d need health insurance,that they were very likely as adults to suffer a lower standard of living than they’re accustomed unless they put their all in all into their studies. Then I might wax more spiritual by pointing out the cultural riches they were squandering – the elegance of algebraic formulae, the grand sweep of history, the thunder of Milton, the dirges of Keats. The more you know the more interesting you are, I’d tell them. “You don’t want to be an ignoramus, do you? Ignoramuses are boring.”
The older I got, though, the more I remembered what a slacker I had been in high school. I mostly read my English assignments and history assignments, scratched out my papers on time, but I hardly gave math or science the time of day (or night, to be more exact). In my last few years as a teacher, when worn out Bennington (male) or Mason (female) laid their sleepy heads on their desks, I’d let them snooze. If they were that exhausted, I figured sleep was more beneficial to them that morning than the smug, self-righteous proclamations of Henry David Thoreau. Sometimes, if students were talking in class, I’d say.”Shhhhh, Bennington’s trying to sleep.”
My classes were still challenging, my tests still demanding, but I was less draconian in grading essays.
Given that late mellowness, why then, now that I’m retired, do I find myself getting so easily irked by the petty transgressions of the people I encounter on the small bohemian barrier island I call home?
This morning, for example, as I was walking my dog, I felt the hall monitor’s self-righteousness, felt like suggesting to pedestrians they walk on the left facing traffic and to cyclists that they ride on the right with the flow of traffic. “And while you’re at it, stand up straight!” I felt like bellowing.
And, oh, these just beyond toddlers, wearing their colorful little helmets, wobbling on their tiny bikes in the middle of Hudson Street. Haven’t their parents heard of natural selection? Don’t they realize that texting teens barrel up and down these thoroughfares? Have they not noticed the memorial cross on the corner of 2nd and Cooper where some drunkard ran the stop sign and snuffed out another’s life?
But, of course, I keep my mouth shut. I don’t even bother to shake my head sadly. As Yeats put it:
I remember going to a Warren Zevon show at a bar in 1992 and overhearing some kid say, “There’s nothing but old people here.” He was talking about people like me, an overripe just turned 39. As it turns out, coincidentally, the show took place a day after Zevon’s 45th birthday, and despite his semi-elderly status, he put on one helluva show. His encore cover of Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan, Then We Take Berlin,” actually stirred for an n-second the dead embers of my long extinguished revolutionary zeal.
Of course, 39 or 45 might seem ancient to a 20-something, but to my mother, 60 at the time, or to my 92-year-old grandmother-in-law, I was only on the second leg of my TWC flight to that undiscovered country from whose bourne no tourist returns.
[montage of calendar pages flapping and tearing off in a really stiff breeze]
Yikes! Seems just yesterday being a boomer meant you were young; now it’s a term of derision, a descriptor of someone in the market for a walk-in tub, someone whose gauze-wrapped brain is incapable of gazing beyond his own limited experience. In fact, aging is such an obsession that our local paper has a weekly column on how to handle encroaching decrepitude.
I don’t usually read the column, but glancing at this week’s edition, I did a double take when I saw this headline:
Aging for Amateurs: King Lear shows how to find freedom in limitations
WTF, my inner keyboard typed. Lear as role model? He ends up In Act 3 evicted by his fiendish daughters onto a heath during a hurricane. Earlier, the doddering king had disinherited his one decent child, Cordelia, and at the end of the play (spoiler alert) he carries her corpse in his arms as he intones, “Never, never, never, never, never?”
So I read the article, and what the author cites is a brief moment in Act 5 when Lear mistakenly thinks he and soon-to-be-hanged Cordelia are headed to prison.
The author of the article on aging, Bert Keller, concludes
The old king acknowledges the reality of his inevitable imprisonment. Looking beyond the literal, we know what the deeper meaning here is for us: not dungeon or detention center but the limitations and losses of advanced age. Our bodies weaken, our minds slow down, hearing fails and we move around with effort. And on top of all that, now we’re shut in by COVID-19. Yet here is 80-year-old Lear, saying “Let’s away to prison” with a willing heart! That is the amazing thing. He interprets unavoidable withdrawal in terms of inner freedom.
Then again, on the other side of the poetic ledger, there is Dylan Thomas, who suggests “[w]e rage, rage, against the dying of the light,” like my man WB Yeats who asks:
Did all old men and women, rich and poor, Who trod upon these rocks or passed this door, Whether in public or in secret rage As I do now against old age?
Well, all of this is a long-winded way to introduce a clever music video on the subject, which features for a second or two my brother, the musician and actor Fleming Moore, playing a punk who has made it to his golden years.”  The songwriter Killjoy says, “The song is about growing old, obsolete, irrelevant, dying, nostalgia, and being OK with all of that.”
The band is Killjoy & the Cutthroats, and the song is “Golden Years for a Gutter Punk.”