Many Americans, like those who rant against Critical Race Theory, don’t have much patience with malcontents like me who catalogue the various and sundry crimes in our nation’s blood-drenched history – the initial genocide, the horrorshow of slavery, our third world murder rates. To even acknowledge these negatives is to “apologize for America” – in the words of Senator Mitt Romney – who beneath those corporate jeans and collared shirts enjoys the freedom to wear magic Mormon “temple garments,” a tribute to the wisdom of our Founding Fathers and the bravery of those heroes who made the supreme sacrifice, etc. And who can argue with the undeniable truth that a country in which a descendent of a Black African (or a bishop in a marginalized religion like Mormonism) can rise to the highest offices of the land is truly exceptional?
Our constitution – and this is exceptional – grants us the right to pursue happiness – whether that means spending a Saturday afternoon discharging elephant guns at a shooting range, watching Sergei Eisenstein’s, Бронено́сец «Потёмкин, or cross dressing and parading down 5th Avenue in celebration of the resurrection of our Lord.
Yet, happiness can be so elusive. Great success certainly doesn’t guarantee felicity as Tiger Woods or Amy Winehouse can/could testify. There is, I think, in the USA a misconception that having a constitutional right topursue happiness means that you’re entitled to happiness, and as my childhood hero Sportin’ Life put it so eloquently in Porgy and Bess. “It ain’t necessarily so.”
However, in Late Empire America, judging by the posts of my thousand-plus Facebook friends, trumpeting one’s happiness seems to be a borderline obsession. Certainly, there must be battalions of social scientists studying the ratio of positive to negative posts as they attempt to determine the happiness quotient of Facebook subscribers. Certainly, among the unscientific sampling of my friends, I’d say happy dominates a thousand to one.
Of course, the tendency to post positive rather than negative feelings makes sense. When one of my barmates at Chico Feo asks how I’m doing, I virtually never put into words the existential angst that shadows every waking minute of my Beckettian existence.
“Hi, Wes. How’s it going?
“Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness. No, I regret nothing, all I regret is having been born, dying is such a tiring business I always found. And when I die let me go to hell, that’s all I ask, and go on cursing there, and them look down and hear me, that might take some shine off their bliss.”
“Uh, OH-Kay. Have a good one.”
Anyway, nothing much makes sense anymore. The Trump people simultaneously long for authoritarianism while decrying the tyranny of mask mandates while the far left’s free speech intolerance is so extreme that even milquetoasty comedians like Jerry Seinfeld won’t play college campuses.
Like Kris Kristofferson once put it, “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.
 On the other hand, this isn’t the case on Twitter, which teems with death announcements and the oft repeated phrase, “I’m broken,” following. Why is Facebook so positive and Twitter so negative?
 I.e., “friends, acquaintances, former students, cousins, virtual strangers [including at one time Jerry Lee Lewis himself (thanks, Killer, for the Asian bikini model link)], Lucinda Williams, etc.
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.
WB Yeats “He Thinks of Those Who Have Spoken Evil of His Beloved”
A by-product of breathing, that mouthful of air, exhalation tracking up through the trachea, plucking the vocal c[h]ords: vowels, consonants, words, words, words. Say outloud the title of this post – the sounds of words. Dissonant, sharp, as unlovely as the scraping of a rake on gravel, echoing Juliet’s lament as Romeo vacates their marriage bed:
It is the lark that sings so out of tune, Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.
Perhaps even more discordant is Gerard Manly Hopkins postlapsarian description of industrialization:
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
Who sez that poetry’s supposed to sound pretty?
Not Alexander Pope:
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar
Nor that barbaric yawper Walt Whitman:
Nor him in the poor house tubercled by rum and the bad disorder.
Nor Ol’ Ez in St. Elizabeth’s ranting:
the drift of lice, teething,
and above it the mouthing of orators,
the arse-belching of preachers.
Thanks to its Anglo-Saxon roots, English is well-suited to screech. However, thanks to its French invaders, our language can also coo. And don’t forget the ess-cee (sc) words of the Vikings with their skalds singing of skulls and skies and scales.
English-speaking poets possess quite a synthesizer through which to sample sounds, orchestrating Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and French symphonically (Milton) or piping a simple Saxon tune in tetrameter (Anonymous).
Given global warmification/climatic alternation, the following worry may seem as trivial as the date of Alfred Tennyson’s death, but I wonder, given our beeping visual small screen secondhand exposure to actual sights and sounds, if off-the-cuff eloquence might become as rare as first edition Kafkas.
In my youth, among my compatriots, having a way with words held sway. I think of Jake the Snake Williams politely stringing together sentences to a Jehovah’s Witness in Richland Mall, and the fellow smiling, nodding his head, and saying, “Brother, you got you an excellent rap.” Or Furman Langley lamenting in a Lowcountry gumbo of gullah-echo the pain he be suffering from the “Hurry Curry Casserole Blues.”
The “like-like” syncopatations of youthful inarticulation and the ubiquitous interrogative lilt of a nation of valley girls’ declarative sentences gives me pause?
Because I suffered from rheumatic fever when I was five or so, and that malady is a nasty by-product of streptococcus, my mother overreacted whenever I had a scratchy throat. Whenever I wanted to get out of going to elementary school, all I had to do is feign a sore throat, and – presto! – there I was propped up on pillows reading The Tower Treasure or The Swiss Family Robinson. On those days I didn’t have to trudge single file to the cafeteria for a glop of canned spaghetti and mayonnaise deluged coleslaw. I’d be slurping a bowl of canned chicken noodle soup instead.
In high school whenever you missed school, the office called home to guard against truancy; however, both of my parents worked, there would be no one home to answer the phone, so I never got caught cutting school. Whenever I legitimately missed because of some ailment, my mother’s excuse always read: “Please excuse Rusty for yesterday’s absence as he was sick,” a rather awkward sentence to my ear, but a handy one, because the forged note I’d construct matched all the others, so no suspicions were raised. Anyway, I didn’t cut all that often, a couple times to go surfing at Folly and once to King Street in December with Becky Baldwin, Becky Moore, Gordon Wilson, and maybe Juli Simmons.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I detested high school, so my ending up spending most life teaching at one is, as they say, somewhat ironic. However, as far as my teaching career goes, my attendance was stellar. I doubt if I missed more than twenty days in thirty-four years (not counting the last week of my wife Judy Birdsong’s life). Even though we got two personal days a year, I only took two in all, one to attend the third game of the 1991 World Series and another to see the Stones in 1996. The horrible truth of the matter is that missing school for a teacher isn’t worth it; it’s its own punishment.
Given Porter-Gaud School’s rotating schedule, one year – it was 2010, in fact – my classes on Wednesdays ended at 10:30, but we were required to stay on campus for extra help, etc. I didn’t mind because I could get lots of grading done.
And, of course, if something came up, the administration would allow you to leave, if you informed them of your destination. That’s what happened on Wednesday 8 September 2010 when I had a flat tire. Although I usually patronized Hays Tires, I decided to go to Gerald’s Tires for the sake of frugality.
Based on their television ads, I had never liked Gerald’s. Back in the day when they went by Gerald’s Recaps, one of their ads featured an elderly black woman who said, “And they is very courtesy.” In 2010, the commercials teemed with strangely gleeful hourly employees who looked as if they might have stepped out of a Soviet propaganda film celebrating the dignity of labor. “Wheeeeee,” one says in a Mayberry drawl as he rolls a tire, “We’re having fun now.” The ads closed with a white church steeple pointing heavenward in a sky of pure blue. “It’s a great day at Gerald’s, especially on Sundays.”
With my last class over at 10:30 and nothing facing me but a department chair meeting at 3:15, I thought I’d hit Gerald’s about 1:00, grade a few journals, and return to school. When I arrived at the screeching Clemson orange of the building, there was nowhere to park. All of spaces pictured above were filled with vehicles having their tires tended to. The unshaded bench out front bore three sweating patrons. Not a good sign in that heat. On the street running perpendicular to the building, a battered line of automobiles stretched towards the horizon.
I parked illegally and entered the building. Inside, every folding chair held a patron, and a line of four patiently stood waiting their turn, an interview with the one representative who, though polite, looked as if his lean frame owed more to methamphetamines than to a rigorous workout regimen. Hoisted in the corner on a wooden platform, an early model television blared the cynical spin of a [redundancy alert] vacuous Fox newsblonde.
When I made it to the counter, the fellow (poorly peroxided black-rooted straw spilling from his baseball cap) informed me that it would be an hour-and-a-half. With nowhere to sit, I decided to hit the pavement. I told him I was parked illegally. “Park in the parking lot in the back,” he said. “Just ignore the Not for Gerald’s signs.” I did as I was told and brought back the key.
I decided to hoof in the heat the quarter mile to Steinmark’s to pick up a couple of dress shirts. This trek took me past a thrift shop, a bar, two consignment shops, a hair salon with a hand painted window, a couple of shuffling vagrants, a bank. Once I hit the acres of the heat-radiating parking lot, I passed a giant pet store that boasted “Unleashed Dogs Always Welcome Inside.”
I wouldn’t have been surprised to look up and see David Lynch shouting through a megaphone in one of those airborne director’s chairs.
Ah, Steinmark’s AC hit me like a champagne-soaked towel. The contrast between the clientele of my twin shopping experiences was akin to stepping from the boxcars of Steinbeck into the glitzy interiors of Danielle Steele. Here among the racks of brand name (albeit discounted) clothes grazed carefully coiffed matrons and Izod-sporting businessmen. Although the store wasn’t busy, I did have to stand in line, but unfortunately not long enough; only forty minutes had elapsed by the time I returned to the Bright Orange Building.
Now, I found myself in Sartre-Full-Nausea mode. Should I do what I wanted to do (slide into an obscure booth in Gene’s Haufbrau and knock down a couple while I graded journals) or what society/my superego wanted me to do (sit on an uncomfortable folding chair and listen to Fox News’ distortions among the blather of ill-informed fellow citizens?) Should I suffer Nausea by exhibiting bad faith and cave to society’s petty morality or be true to myself and risk the unlikely occurrence of the Headmaster or Board member discovering me in a seedy tavern during work hours?
Bravo Id! Superego be damned! The chances of the headmaster or a board member slumming it at Gene’s Haufbrau on a Wednesday afternoon were on par with Donald Trump getting a likeness of Noam Chomsky tattooed on his chest.
When I returned to Gerald’s, things had thinned out a bit. I took a seat next to a rotund woman in her late sixties/early seventies who had poorly dyed thin red hair and clutched her bag as if it held a dozen super Powerball winning lottery tickets. Another woman, a bit younger but with age-inappropriate Bonnie Raitt locks falling in Pentecostal splendor beneath her shoulders, sat down across from us.
The Fox anchors were all a-twitter because Hillary Clinton had announced our huge deficits made us weaker, as if that were hypercritical, as if she and Obama had single-handedly produced the sea of red they had inherited, as if Fox News hadn’t been screaming for the war with Iraq and the draconian tax cuts that had created the deficit in the first place. As luck would have it, the anchors broke away to cover Obama in Ohio delivering a speech on the economy.
“I don’t see where he’s done anything but increase our debt,” the rotund redhead said to the woman across from us.
As I held my tongue, dutifully circling misplaced modifiers and ticking active verbs, the redhead suddenly said, “I lost my youngest one last week.”
“Your youngest what?” the other said.
“My youngest child. My baby.”
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” the other said, but looking more curious than sad. “What happened?”
“She called me up and said she had an earache, and in an hour, she was gone.”
“Oh, my goodness. I’m so sorry. How old was she?”
“Do they know what it was?”
“The results from the autopsy ain’t come back yet.”
A smiling mechanic opened the door. “Mrs. So-and-So, your car’s ready.”
The woman with the long hair stood up and leaned over to the red-headed one.
“What you say your name was?”
“I’ll say a prayer for you tonight.”
(Yep, make sure to get the name right, I thought. God’s got a lot on his plate nowadays).
I looked over my shoulder to see my car parked out front. After ten more minutes, it was still there, so I went out to discover that my tire had been repaired. Going back in, I informed the cadaverous young man behind the counter.
“I’ll go get the paperwork,” he said.
In a few minutes, another smiling mechanic came in dangling my keys. “Mr. Moore, here you go. Have a nice day.”
“But I haven’t paid,” I said.
“It’s nothing,” he said, “Only a tire repair. Have a nice day.”
So, I drove back to school, hit the Department Chair meeting and have not the slightest inkling of what transpired there, don’t recall at all.
It’s the weirdness you remember, not the mundane, the days you cut, not the days you attend.
 “Nausea” is what Sartre termed that way too common situation when you forego whatever you really want to do.