Daliesque Playing Field

The cliché “level playing field’ has a pleasant lilt to it; it’s a sweet-sounding pair of trochees followed by a vowel-laden accented syllable. Fairness, it proclaims, should be a prerequisite. Unfortunately, the playing field of US politics is tilted way right – it’s warped, Daliesque, unsettling, at least for small-d democrats.  

For example, Wyoming has two senators; DC has zero, though more people reside in the District of Columbia than on the lone prairies of the Tumbleweed State. For me, it’s weird that the dispersion of a smattering of like-thinking people in the boondocks should have more say than a concentration of like-thinking people in urban areas, that folks in Albin WO (pop. 181) should have the same Senatorial representation of folks in the Bronx (pop. 1.435 million), but that’s the case, the plan from the get-go – though I doubt that a majority of the Founding Fathers would be happy with the rejection of Enlightenment thinking that characterizes the philosophies of many in the Hinterlands. 

To quote a song from the days of my youth that looped a lot on AM radio: “Something’s happening around here/ What it is ain’t exactly clear.”

I realize that Twitter is also skewed, the extremes getting more than their share of attention, but according to my Bloomsday[1] feed, many Republicans tweeters are cheering for Putin in today’s summit today over Biden. 

Gimme a C, gimme a U, gimme an L, gimme a T.  What does that spell? 

Atavism. 


[1] 16 June 2021

Say What?

Say What?

“And empty words are evil,” Odysseus to Agamemnon in Hades, Book XI, The Odyssey

They say Homer didn’t write the Odyssey
The dactyls, the plot, or the sirens’ song.
That idea doesn’t appeal to me.
Practically everything they say is wrong.

They say you can’t teach old dogs new tricks,
That years are short while days are long,
They say you can’t play cricket with a sticky wicket,
But practically everything they say is wrong.

They say you can trust conventional wisdom,
That Leos and Geminis don’t get along.
They say CEOs shun cannibalism,
But practically everything they say is wrong.

My Least Favorite Things

My Least Favorite Things

With apologies to Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rogers

Inoperable cancer and olecranon bursitis
Terrorist attacks sponsored by Isis.
Red painful blotches from jellyfish stings
These are a few of my least favorite things

Undercooked pork that triggers trichinosis
Clueless close talkers with rancid halitosis
Bulls being slaughtered in Andalusian rings
These are a few of my least favorite things

When the Braves win
When Aretha sings
When I’m feeling glad
I simply remember my least favorite things
And then once again I’m sad

Inoperable cancer and olecranon bursitis
Terrorist attacks sponsored by Isis
Red painful blotches from jellyfish stings
These are a few of my least favorite things . . .

Confessions of an Indoorsman

drafty garret claustrophobia

Back in the early 50s when I first became aware of sensations, diesel fuel was a predominant smell, and I grew to savor it. My grandfather owned a service station, and early in my life for a year or so our family lived there in a commercial building that doubled as a domicile. We called this abode “The Station.” Out front it was all concrete, though there was a grassless backyard with one lone sycamore tree standing on the edge of the property. 

A Doberman pincher named Ace roamed the desert domain of the backyard, and he was about as friendly as Cerberus, the three-headed canine guardian of the Greek Underworld. So I spent my days inside safe from traffic and attack dog, a preschooler cut off from nature. There wasn’t that much nature to see at the Station anyway. The only wildlife I remember encountering were a black snake sunning on summer pavement and bats zigzagging overhead at dusk.

At night, eighteen wheelers rushed past in swooshes, sounding somewhat like waves breaking on a beach. In fact, the Station was sort of like a barren island standing in a sea of cement. We lived in isolation.

The Station in the 50s

What a contrast to the town of Summerville itself, “Flowertown in the Pines,” a garden of earthly delights where the sweet ephemeral smell of tea olive wafted in front and back yards among the other flowering shrubs, azaleas and gardenias.

We had moved from the Station to Laurel Street across from the Playground with its swings, sliding boards, a foot-propelled merry-go-ground, and a bell-shaped contraption we called the “ocean wave.” Unfortunately, I contracted rheumatic fever at Laurel Street and spent three months confined to bed after a weeklong stay in Dorchester County Hospital. Like Ace the Doberman and highway traffic, disease also kept me inside before I started kindergarten.

Did these early experiences of mandatory house arrest contribute to my becoming “an indoorsman?”[1]

Dunno. Maybe? Whatever the case, a prefer the not-so-great indoors. I’d much rather hunker down in a dark basement bar in Asheville than hike the Appalachian Trail.

ocean wave

Now, however, I live on the Folly River, and the windows that line the outer walls of our house look out over the marsh to uninhabited Long and Morris Islands. Now I can’t avoid nature; it’s been thrust upon me, even in our air-conditioned living room. Sitting on the sofa or out on the screened porch or deck, I have witnessed owls, wood storks, ospreys, painted buntings, egrets, bats, deer, bald eagles, river otters, and minks, not to mention the frogs that inhabit our water garden and fill the night with constant croaking. Also, I’ve seen my share of Wild Kingdom carnage, hawks swooping down to snatch birds, ospreys lumbering over the house with fish in their talons.

I still spend an inordinate time cooped up in my study, which I have dubbed “the drafty garret.” Cut off from the outside word, I spend way too much time staring into an iMac screen reading depressing news stories and fiddling around with words.

However, I still savor the evocative odor of diesel and the memory-producing aroma of tea olive and the flora and fauna of the backside of the Edge of America.  In other words, I enjoy being, whether indoors or out, thanks in great part to my wife Caroline and her daughter Brooks. Oh yeah, and KitKat, whom I’ve grown very fond of, a chihuahua terrier mix that wouldn’t have been my first pick of dog crossifications. Unlike Ace, her bark is worse than her bite.

Anyway, It’s summertime, and at least for now, as the song says, “the living is easy.”


[1] I was, on the other hand, an avid surfer until my mid-60s when old age made me feel as if I’d been in a minor auto accident after each surf session.

Stop in the Name of Sleep Before I Get My Gun

Stop in the Name of Sleep before I Get My Gun

a drowsy numbness pains
John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”

My head throbs, and dyspepsia dis-mays
my corporal frame, as though I’d drunk
twelve high-gravity IPAs
and into a drunken snoring stupor had sunk.

O, give that leaf blower a rest,
neighbor, as a favor. It’s not yet eight
this balmy May morning, and over there a nest
of nightingales rests. Please shut up, okay?

Jazzy Danielle

Here’s a snippet of the great Danielle Howle from the May 31 iteration of the Singer Songwriter Soapbox at Chico Feo. She currently has a kickstarter campaign to secure funds to record her 16th studio album. You can contribute here.

A good time was had by all.

Porter-Gaud’s Stellar Class of 2021

Commencement Set-Up (image from Walton Sign and Graphics)

Surprisingly, I haven’t missed teaching much at all – until last night when I crashed Porter-Gaud’s Class of 2021’s graduation. These were the last students I had taught and wanted to see them as a group one last time.

Because of the pandemic, the ceremony took place in the stadium, not the Green, and there was no stately procession to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance.”

The candidates-for-graduation sat with their families in rows designated by blown-up images of their senior portraits printed on large cardboard placards. Large video screens straddled the temporary stage that had been set up in front of the home seats, so once it got dark enough you could see the students receive their diplomas close up.[1] Traditionally, on the Green, faculty members presenting awards share the stage with the graduates, but last night, faculty, administrators, and staff sat six feet apart on white wooden folding chairs diagonally facing the stage. 

As a non-invitee, I was not hip to the change, so after parking my car in the Lower School lot, I headed to the Green, but the gates were locked, and a weird, Twilight Zone silence prevailed. I heard the soft growl of a golf cart, and my pal Andrew of the Security Staff allowed me hop abroad with a couple of grandparents and whisked me to the stadium about five minutes before the ceremony began.

Several faculty chairs were empty, and my friend Kael Martin graciously invited me to grab one.

Truth be told, attending graduation was not one of my favorite Porter-Gaud responsibilities. In fact, I didn’t enjoy my own high school graduation with all the speeches and award presentations. However, what made last night so special for me was seeing just how grown up the sixteen-year-olds I had taught two years ago seemed. On a day-to-day basis, you don’t notice the transformation; however, twenty-four months is one-ninth of their lives, and the changes were profound. They were taller, leaner, more confident. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed them. What hadn’t changed was their openness and friendliness.

By all accounts from my colleagues – and I heartily agree – the Class of 2021 was superlative, one of the top classes ever. They were dealt a bad hand by historical forces beyond their control and made the best of it with stoicism, good humor, and grace. 

I wish every last one immense success and happiness. 


[1] You know, like an arena rock concert.

image credit, Jamie Elliott

You, Archibald MacLeish

Josee St-Amant

When we visited my late wife’s grandmothers in their assistant living facility, parked on the porch were ancient creatures in wheelchairs with mouths open like maws, their bodies gnarled in uncomfortable looking positions, and I hoped, like the old wanderer in the “Pardoner’s Tale,” that Death would be timely in my taking.

You, Archibald MacLeish

To feel how swift how secretly
The shadow of the night comes on …

Misremembering the season,
the week, the day,
whatever the reason

for this purgatoric stay,
the names of next of kin,
gone, forgotten. How to pray,

gone, forgotten. Manifold sins,
gone, forgotten. Autonomy,
long gone, forever forgotten.

Warren Moise’s “The Class of ’71”

My college roommate and later housemate Warren Moise has written an extraordinary account of the desegregation of Sumter High School in 1971. He’s given me permission to post here the congratulatory letter I sent him this morning upon finishing the book.

You can purchase it here.

Dear Warren,

Wow, man. I knew that The Class of ’71 was going to be good, but I had no idea that by the end of the book I would consider it a brilliant tour de force.[1]

The weaving of personal anecdote with impeccably researched history produces a well-paced narrative. What we have here is not only a history of desegregation in Sumter, but also a mini history of the town itself, including a vivid snapshot of the transitional year of ’71. I mean, man, your compression of historical background is beyond remarkable, whether you’re cataloguing with precision the horrors of Abe Stern’s family’s journey from ghetto to concentration camps or the series of civil law cases that ultimately led to desegregation.  I loved the mini biographies of historical figures as well. Moreover, you do a masterful job of blending second-sourced details of the segregation with your personal memories of those distant days. You compress a helluva lot in 162 pages. 

Furthermore, your account is admirably nuanced. I suspect that most younger folks don’t realize that many Blacks resented integration, hated the idea of losing their traditions, their autonomy.[2] I admire that you don’t whitewash (regrettable verb choice) such paragons as Thurgood Marshall or Judge Waring, but even as you criticize their foibles, you also laud their attributes. In short, The Class of ’71 is fair and well-balanced, non-polemical historical take on a situation fraught with internecine emotion. 

Your personal anecdotes humanize events, bring to life that we’re talking about human beings here, not abstractions, and you balance well, I think, stories of both Whites and Blacks.  Your friends and peers are brought to life with brisk physical descriptions and dramatizations. Whether you’re talking about athletics, your band, or adolescent love, your humility is ever-present. In addition, the personal reminiscences provide respite from the heavier portions. 

I’ll end this paean with a note on style. I’m by training a critical reader when it comes to diction, syntax, and fluidity. I think I can count on one hand stylistic changes I would have made. I mean what’s not to like about sentences like these: “It was as if the 1960s were burning rubber in a Chevelle V-8 Super Sport on Highway 15 leaving town toward Paxville. At the same moment, the 1970s were rollin’ into town on Highway 15 North inside a Volkswagen van painted with slogans of peace, love, and daises.”

Bravo, my friend![3] It’s truly an honor to know and to have known you, and I hope the book gets the attention it deserves. 

Let’s get together one of these days.

All the best,

Rusty

__________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Pardon the redundancy.

[2] Gamecock High, by the way, was much more liberal than Summerville High, where we kept both our mascot and school colors

[3 And thanks for dropping my name on page 148.

Warren and yours truly circa 1972

Abbreviated Pee Wee Gaskins Account

Pee Wee Gaskins

Here’s an abbreviated PG version from a longer post describing the summer afternoon when my brother and I were picked up hitchhiking by serial killer Pee Wee Gaskins. You can access the original post here; however, it’s R-rated because of language and violence.

***

I don’t remember how we — my brother David and I — ended up in the middle of the back seat on that beat-up old Buick. Did one of the boys get out and let us in? Did we crawl over the boy? We were seventeen and fourteen, and the boy maybe seven, but he had a cigarette in his mouth and a beer in his hand.

“Where y’all going?” The driver asked.

“Folly Beach,” I said.

“We’ll take you there then.”

He was a very short man chauffeuring a carload of Cub Scout-aged juvenile delinquents. There were four of them, all younger than David and I, all smoking, all drinking cans of Old Milwaukee.

For forty something minutes en route from Summerville, we had been stuck hitching on the side of St Andrews Boulevard across the street from a typewriter repair shop . It was David’s first time hitchhiking. Sure, the car looked sketchy, but we were desperate.

Once we were settled in the back seat, the seven-year-old next to me got out the empty casing of a Bic pen, loaded it with a spitball, and shot the driver in the back of the neck. He whirled around and stubbed the glowing orange tip of his cigarette into the boy’s arm, which immediately brought forth a yowl, tears, and a cacophony of spiteful laughter from the rest of the crew.

It was weird enough to witness a seven-year-old with a beer and cigarette in hand crying, but as I slouched down in my seat, I noticed that the driver had three spitballs lodged in the creases of the back of his neck.

The boys asked the driver to tell them about the [racial epithet] he had killed last week, but he wasn’t forthcoming. Then they asked him how many men he had killed in total. I assumed they were merely trying to frighten us. Throughout the twenty-minute trip, the boys liberally jettisoned trash, including empty beer cans from the moving car. I was hoping — how I was hoping — that a police car might pull us over but no such luck. Needless to say, their language was filthy.

But true to his word, the driver took us all the way to Folly. In those days, before the Holiday Inn obstructed the view, you could see the ocean itself as you crossed the bridges, and what a welcome sight it was. I told the driver to please let us out in front of the police station, that my daddy was chief of police, and he did, and then two of the boys tossed empty beer cans at us, and the car pulled away in a cloud of smoke.

Happily, we ran into some friends from Summerville at the Washout so didn’t have to hitch home; however, I can’t say that I learned my lesson and continued to hitch until I purchased my first car at age 25, thanks to Ralph Birdsong, my soon-to-be father in law. [You can read about a subsequent and in many ways scarier hitchhike encounter here].

So, I more or less thought about the incident as time spent in a Flannery O’Connor story until my late wife Judy purchased for me as a whim Pee Wee’s autobiography from the dollar bin at a Mount Pleasant book store. To my horror, I read that Pee Wee used to take his nephews and their friends down to the beach occasionally but would “never do no murders on them trips” because you couldn’t trust kids not to blab.

I can’t say for absolutely sure it was Pee Wee, but I do know this: there was evil in that car. You could sense it; it was palpable.