Judy Birdsong’s alive in this offhand video taken by Sue Kovacs the Monday after Easter 2011. Judy hated to be photographed, despised to be videoed, and I don’t think she was aware she was here. Very few moving images of her exist.
Judy Birdsong’s alive in this offhand video taken by Sue Kovacs the Monday after Easter 2011. Judy hated to be photographed, despised to be videoed, and I don’t think she was aware she was here. Very few moving images of her exist.
As Crass Casualty and Dicing Time would have it, in the week of my wife’s memorial service, I have to box up the contents of my classroom for a move to a brand new Upper School building.
This chore is especially taxing because when I moved into a former colleague’s room a quarter a century ago, he asked if he could keep some of his books in the room, which were housed in three enormous bookcases that belonged personally to him. I said, sure. He eventually died without heirs. His collection includes some of his late mother’s books as well. There are inscriptions. “To Catherine S____________ 1925.”
Of course, I also have books, 31 years worth, not to mention file cabinets gorged with quizzes, study guides, lecture notes, honor contracts, resumes, book order receipts, etc.
So I’m in the process of sifting through the contents, recycling, shredding, and yesterday I discovered this anti-bullying speech I gave to the Upper School during the first Clinton Administration. I don’t know the exact date, maybe 1994. At any rate, I haven’t altered the text, so some of the allusions may seem odd or anachronistic.
At any rate, I think the speech holds up fairly well, so why not expose it to a wider audience than the 300 or so who originally heard it? I doubt if it will alter the behavior of bone fide bullies (like our current president), but it could offer the victims of bullies some solace.
I’ve also included the video clips that accompanied the speech.
[Note the original movie clip went a bit longer and depicted an older nurse who delivers the food the younger nurse was incapable of providing.]
John Merrick, the Elephant Man, is, of course, an extreme example of someone being shunned because of the way he looks, but we all know that every day all types of people are excluded for all types of reasons — it might be their race, their looks, the way they talk, their sexual orientation, the way they dress. I took a poll of my classes and discovered that 100% of my students, every single individual, has been made fun of here at Porter-Gaud, and I mean maliciously. I suspect everybody in this auditorium has been shunned, been put down at one time or another, been made fun of. We all know what it feels like, and it doesn’t feel good.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw Maya Angelou, perhaps America’s most famous living poet. She was being interviewed by David Frost on PBS. Maya Angelou is black and grew up in segregated Arkansas. So like John Merrick, she knows what it’s like to be excluded. Growing up as a little girl in Arkansas, she probably wouldn’t have been able to see the movie The Elephant Man because of the color of her skin.
When Maya Angelou was only 10-years-old, she was raped. After the rape, she refused to talk for over a year. Her pain was so terrible she couldn’t give voice to it. She remained silent, mute. I guess sort of like John Merrick, she couldn’t find the words she needed.
Fortunately, she eventually did find her voice and became a poet. In a poem she read at President Clinton’s inauguration, she linked humankind to extinct species such as dinosaurs and mastodons and voiced her concern that we may follow in their footsteps and become “lost in the gloom of dust and ages.” She sees a real danger in fragmentation. She writes
[. . .] the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.
And what is the tree saying?
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
In the interview, David Frost asks Maya Angelou what the poem means, and she says, “It means we have to stop minimizing other people’s lives.”
We have to stop minimizing other people’s lives.
Look at John Merrick. The Elephant Man. An extreme case, as I said, but look how others minimized him. In the movie, the doctor Treves at first is more interested in John as a specimen than he is as human, but at least he treats him humanely. The younger nurse is so weak a person she runs like a child when she sees “the elephant man.” Runs screaming out of the room. [The following references don’t appear in the above clip]. Did you notice the second, older nurse? She never makes eye contact with Merrick. That’s what people do when they are uncomfortable; either they avoid eye contact, or they giggle, or both. This older nurse is beyond the giggling stage so instead she stays busy making the bed and talks about Merrick as if he were an idiot or weren’t there.
She is minimizing his life.
The head of the hospital is eager to get rid of Merrick. He is minimizing Merrick’s life. And not only John Merrick’s life, but his very own life. Because as it turns out, John Merrick possessed an extraordinary soul. His indomitable spirit has made him famous — the stuff of biographies, plays, movies. The head of the hospital would have been long forgotten if he had not encountered John Merrick. And how will the head of the hospital be remembered in these biographies, plays, and movies? His legacy lies in how he treated John Merrick. And I suspect that’s how we will be remembered after we leave Porter-Gaud. Others will remember us in light of how we treated them.
Now, this assembly’s not really about John Merrick. it’s about us — about you and me — and how we treat people. Do we minimize other people in the mistaken belief that we “grow” when we “put them down?”
That we grow when we exclude someone from our group?
Let’s face it. Everyone has weak points. We may be great at volleyball but lousy in math. Great in math but hopeless in history. We all have features we’re self-conscious about. Frankly, I’d just as soon not be bald, but like John Merrick, I didn’t have the luxury of choosing my parents. Nobody does.
Genetics deals us our facial features, our body types, our athletic prowess (or lack thereof), our intellectual potential, and even, according to the latest studies, our sexual orientation. We have no control over our parents’ wealth. Whether or not they’re getting divorced. Where we were born.
Of course, it’s really no mystery why people harass and pick on others. It’s obviously to compensate for low self esteem. Inevitably cowardice is also involved. Bullies rarely pick on the golden boy star quarterback who looks as if he’s stepped off the cover of Seventeen Magazine and sports 1550 SAT scores. The victims are going to be someone younger, smaller, less popular.
So when we hear somebody cutting someone else down, we ought to tell him or her to quit. We’ll be doing, not only the victim a favor, but also the bully a favor, because frankly, he’s making an ass out of himself. To those who see through the psychology, it’s embarrassing. Moreover, in doing nothing when we see unkindness occur we are abetting the creation of a climate that allows bullying to flourish.
We should be the heroes, not the villains, in the movies of our lives.
Of course, cutting people down isn’t the only way we can minimize their lives. Sometimes we shut others out because they are different. Ignoring someone is also minimizing his or her life. It’s obviously not as bad as being overtly cruel, but we do actually cheat ourselves when we hide in our little homogenous groups.
Let me give you an example.
I have a friend, Josephine Humphreys, who is a somewhat famous novelist. She wrote Rich in Love, a novel on the 9th grade reading list. You older students and faculty members might remember that her son Willy actually played Merrick in a senior play production of The Elephant Man a couple of years ago. Anyway, Jo grew up South of Broad, grew up in the Episcopal Church, attended Ashley Hall, in other words, lived a fairly typical Porter-Gaud-like life. However, she and her husband Tom are now in the process of producing records — cds that is — for local gospel groups. How did this come about? Through serendipity and the willingness to try new things.
About four years ago, Jo and Tom went to a gospel concert at Spoleto and were knocked out by this local quartet called the Brotherhood. They decided they wanted to see them again. The only thing was that back then the Brotherhood only performed in all black churches.
That didn’t stop Jo.
I asked Jo what it was like being a middle aged white woman going as a complete stranger to an all black church. She said she was nervous and that some of her white friends told her not to go, that blacks wouldn’t want her at their church, that it was intrusive. But she said to me, “You know, Wes, I’m 50 years old and that type of thing I don’t have time for.” So she and Tom went, were welcomed warmly, loved it. Over time, they became very good friends with the Brotherhood and their wives. Jo says that every time she hears them, they restore her faith in the world. She firmly believes that getting to know the Brotherhood is one of the very best things that has happened to her. And it’s been great for them, too. With Jo and Tom’s help, they’ve gained a wider audience and have toured Europe. Their European audiences loved them; they loved their European audiences.
The courage to take a chance and reach out has certainly enriched Jo’s life. The Brotherhood’s lives. And some Europeans’ lives as well.
But the thing is — integration isn’t only about mixing colors — it literally means “to make whole by bringing all parts together.” As long as we cut others off, as longs as we limit our peers by only seeing them as computer nerds, jocks, rednecks, math people, preppies, 7th graders — we too are cut off. We’re a piece of something. The stranger you see everyday at lunch sitting by himself may have an important gift to share — might possess a missing piece of your puzzle.
For example, in the film after Treves discovers that Merrick can speak, Treves leaves the hospital room and encounters Merrick’s sadistic manager, a man who exploited Merrick by exhibiting him in freak shows and who severely beat him. The manager threatens Treves by saying he will go to the authorities unless Treves does not release Merrick. The head of the hospital overhears the conversation and orders the manager out, saying he’s sure the authorities would be glad to hear of how he treated Merrick. The hospital head tells Treves he would like to meet the patient the next afternoon. Treves knows there is no chance keeping Merrick in the hospital if Merrick does not show himself to be mentally competent.
There’s no telling what wonders may exist in that person we have shut out. Merrick had already learned the “23rd Psalm” from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Where, no doubt, he also ran across these words, the wisest words I know of to be found anywhere:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Thank you for your attention. Any announcements . . .
 i.e., fate
I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never seen any of the Star Wars movies — not the blockbuster first installment of 1977 nor any of the vast array of sequels and prequels that in subsequent decades have rolled off the Lucas assembly line like so many gold-plated Model-Ts.
As a subscriber to the NY Times crossword puzzle, I have been punished for being ignorant of such worthies as Jabba the Hutt and Obi-Wan Kenobi, the same way I have punished for not having read any of the Harry Potter books.
What’s the 5 letter word for first name of the astromech droid that appears in every Star War movie?
I did try to read the first Potter novel but got about as far as I did when I attempted The Hobbit as an eighth grader. Blame my lack of interest on a leaden suspension of disbelief. I prefer Robin Hood to the Arthurian legends, the Lone Ranger to Flash Gordon, Sopwith Camels to starships. In other words, I don’t dig fantasy and most science fiction, which is not to say they’re not worthy genres. I don’t dig opera either, but I realize my lack of appreciation stems from ignorance and that I’m ultimately missing out on something truly wonderful.
But as far as Jabba the Hutt and Harry Potter go, personal predilections are no excuse for my ignorance. As a self-anointed anthropologist/social critic/prophet-of-doom, it should be my duty to study these cultural phenomena, these projections of our collective psyches, these myth-equivalents that shed light on “deep down things.” [now removing tongue from cheek]
Nevertheless, it ain’t gonna happen. I still haven’t read Proust or become closely acquainted with the films of the supposedly great Soviet director Tarkovsky so the idea of spending the ever decreasing number of my allotted Sunday afternoons matriculating into Hogwarts is way too much of a cross to bear.
What has brought these considerations to mind is that last week a candidate for a position in our English Department taught a demo class to my 9th graders as a sort of audition. Surprisingly, rather than reprising some proven boffo performance of poetic analysis from his past, something tried and true — as most aspirants do — he decided to go with what I am teaching, Orwell’s 1984.
He started the lesson by discussing Newspeak and the implications of the ruling party’s attempt to strip language of all nuance, a topic we’d already covered at length. Why complicate your life by having hundreds of words like grackle, wren, and bunting when the simple word bird would suffice? Does language play a role in helping us distinguish nuances?
Is the Jesuit Pope a communist from Argentina?
Do heavy, furry, hibernating, clawed mammals defecate in areas thickly covered with trees?
Are rhetorical questions possible in Newspeak?
Things got cracking when he shifted from language to genre. He said that he first read the novel as an undergraduate in a science fiction course. He asked the students to define science fiction and coaxed them into coming up with the idea that science fiction is a realistic depiction of the human condition featuring technology that doesn’t yet exist but is central to the plot.
He then asked if Star Wars were science fiction. One student said that no, it was fantasy, and the teacher agreed pointing out that each planet has a singular topography – desert or swamp or city or forest – so what we’re essentially dealing with is the planet earth. He added that the weapons are essentially swords, and spaceships lie well within the reality of current technology. He argued that we’re talking magic, not science here, and basically Star Wars is a Samurai movie set in outer space. As his name suggests, Obi-Wan Kenobi is in a sense a by-product of Japanese cinema, particularly Kurosawa’s 1958 samurai epic The Hidden Fortress.
The teacher then shifted back to Orwell, and the students identified telescreens as the technology that qualifies 1984 to be considered as science fiction. In 1948, the year it was written, television was in its infancy, and telescreens did not exist (nor did they in the teacher’s undergraduate days).
They do now, however. After all, when I was with my wife in Houston at MD Anderson at the beginning of the school year, I taught this very class via Skype, which is essentially a telescreen but one that allows for two-way communication. So according to this line of thinking, 1984 can no longer be considered “science fiction.”
The teacher pulled his cell phone from his pocket and said, “Unlike the citizens of Oceania, we subscribe to our telescreens, actually pay Big Brother to collect the goods on us. (Of course, these aren’t the exact words he used).
Anyway, he went off on a rift on technology and dystopia and an era in the near future (about the time they’d be graduating from college) when automation might be eliminating quaint old human orchestrated procedures like cancer surgery. He mentioned nanobots replacing surgeons, and I imagined hordes of ravenous Pac-Men seeking out and devouring malignant cells.
A rather sobering and a subtle suggestion that future competition might be, shall we say, cut-throat, and that studying might be a good strategy, especially when it’s not only coal miners and sales clerks who will be out of work but also CPAs and surgeons.
At any rate, class ended, and the actors marched off leaving me alone in my room (101, by the way) contemplating a smog-smothered future where it’s always twilight or pitch black night, a future where hordes of the unemployed have devolved into urban tribal communities, in other words, the world of Blade Runner.
But, hey, fa-la-la-la live for today, in this case Sunday, 9 a.m EST. With Kim-Jong un, Putin, and the Donald rattling their lightsabers, we might not have to worry about the future at all.
So I think I’ll have a bloody mary and look out over the real life Darwin-themed drama my back deck provides.
Or maybe scrounge up a copy of À la recherche du temps perdu.
 As far as Star Wars goes, I do know that Darth Vader is evil, Princess Leia wears white, and that Luke Skywalker is the coming of age hero.
 Telescreens are ubiquitous two-way-mirror-like devices that allow the party to spy on citizens and to broadcast propaganda.
I know this blog’s been a downer since the election – a negative screed, a longwinded lamentation, a Cassandra-like catalogue of bleak prophecies heralding the end of civilization as we know it.
But, as my ace commentator Sherman T Langston suggests I should, I’m putting on a happy face for this post by providing a heart-warming movie that boasts moving picture images of yours truly introducing Mojo Nixon’s “Santa, Get You to the Ghetto,” which serves as the soundtrack for the rest of the film, featuring Folly Beach’s Christmas Parade.
Hope you enjoy.
It’s what we used to call a “cut” when I was a kid, a playful little knife nick to the ego’s epidermis. As future biographer Thomas Boswell followed the Great Samuel Johnson around the salons of 18th Century London scribbling down his every word so Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky follows the Great David Foster Wallace around the fast food joints of Bloomington and Minneapolis scribbling down (and recording) his every word.
A major difference, though, is that Boswell worshipped Johnson, and being 30 years younger, looked up to him as you might an adored father. True, Lipsky recognizes that Wallace is a genius (and he was) and that he Lipsky is not (and he’s not); unfortunately, though, Lipsky suffers from that common young male testosteronic compulsion to see any contemporary as a rival. In his head he knows when it comes to Foster and him, it’s the literary equivalent of Bogey versus Barney Fife, but in his heart – or at least in his testes – he wants to be considered Wallace’s equal.
So the Lipsky character is both an ardent admirer and a resentful rival, and this tension provides the slight dramatic arc of the movie. Frankly, if I were you, I’d wait until the film comes out on Netflix.
Not that the film’s not well crafted and superbly acted (Segal might deserve an Oscar). However, this little movie with its appropriately washed out colors straining in winter light to render those undistinguishable commercial corridors that lead to every city in the US as soulless as possible ain’t exactly crying out to be seen on “the big screen.” The movie’s sort of claustrophobic. Our characters don’t talk about fiction, much less Infinite Jest, which could be a multi-generational novel set in Alaska for all we know. They migrate from emblematic soulless room to emblematic soulless room talking mostly about themselves, and the Wallace character’s social awkwardness doesn’t make you wish you could trade places with Lipsky.
What would have made the movie more interesting (and let me assure any Hollywood moguls out there reading this that I am available) is if we could have peeked inside of Wallace’s head on occasion. For example, when Lipsky asks Wallace why Wallace wears a head bandanna, we could have been treated to a montage from Wallace works – surreal scenes – for example, rapidly edited shots of wheelchair bound terrorists . . . a father strapping a Raquel Welch mask to his daughter before abusing her . . . a rollercoaster ride at the Indianapolis State Fair . . . dinner on a cruise ship with its Felliniesque diners, etc. etc. – all of these quick cut images gaining momentum until DFW’s head literally explodes.
The good and bad news is that this movie is very stage adaptable.
But here’s why I’m glad I went. A cartoon light bulb went off over my head as I was watching. The DFW character as Segal plays him is a lot like the Great Samuel Johnson. He’s straggly-haired, overweight, disheveled, stooped, ursine, shambling, prone to a soul’s darkest nights, pitifully self-absorbed, and, despite his genius, someone who strives as hard as he can to be a good man.
I love Boswell’s Johnson, and in my way, I love David Foster Wallace, but not Lipsky’s Wallace. In fact, in this movie, he’s not as clever or fun or witty as at least three friends I can think of – Furman Langley, Jake Williams, and Melissa DeMayo Reiss.
I’d much rather spend a couple of hours with them on a rainy Sunday.
A Finger Puppet Play in One Act
Scene One : The castle at Elsinore.
Enter Hamlet moping
Hamlet: O, would this too, too solid flesh melt
and resolve itself into a dew.
O, how weary stale and flat seem to me
All the uses of this world. Fie on it. Fie!
Goddamn it! What a rogue and peasant slave am I!
The night sky that wheels above us,
That brave o’er hanging firmament,
That majestic roof fretted with golden fire,
Why it appearth no other thing to me
than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.
O, to be or not to be that is the question.
O, to sweat and groan under a weary life.
Fie on it. Fie.
But soft! Methinks
I hear that most pernicious woman
whose name is frailty.
Gertrude: Hamlet, O Hamlet.
Hamlet: Yes, mother.
Gertrude. O Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off and
let me giveth thee a sponge bath.
Hamlet: O mother, you know I have that appointment
Today with Dr. Freud.
Gertrude: I had forgot. Cancel it, love.
Hamlet: You knoweth what a procrastinator
I be. I shall go to the appointment.
Gertrude: Well giveth your mother a little kiss,
my love, before thou leavest.
Scene Two: Dr. Freud’s Offices.
Freud and James Joyce engaging in “the talking cure.”
Freud: Keep Going, Mr. Joyce. Get it Out
Joyce: Well, you know or don’t you kennet or haven’t I told you every telling has a taling and that’s the he and the she of it. Look, look, the dusk is growing!
Freud: Very well then, Mr. Joyce I’ll see you next time.
Joyce: By the way, Doc, to say that a great genius is half-mad, while recognizing his artistic prowess, is worth as much as saying that he was rheumatic, or that he suffered from diabetes. Madness, in fact, is a medical expression to which a balanced critic should pay no more heed than he would to the accusation of heresy brought by the theologian, or to the accusation of immorality brought by the public prosecutor. Good Day
Freud: His Inflated ego is furthered pathologized by anal expulsiveness. What is that last book of his Finnegan’s Wake by a vast shit explosion? Anna!
Enter Anna Freud.
Anna: Yes, Father?
Freud: Whose next?
Anna. He calls himself Hamlet, Hamlet the Dane.
Scene Three: Hamlet and Freud’s session
(Hamlet lying on the psychiatric couch)
Freud: Enough about your mother. Tell me about this step father of yours.
Hamlet: O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain! Bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!
Freud: So I take it you do not like this man.
Hamlet: I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave’s offal.
Freud: My son, it’s quite clear that you suffer from an Oedipal complex, that you are fixated in the phallic stage. Our work is done here. That will be 500 marks.
Hamlet: You joketh. That’s it? I want another opinion.
Freud: Very well. Anna! Bring in Dr. Jung
Freud: Dr. Jung, this young man wants to kill his father.
Freud: To kill his father so he can be with alone with his mother, which obviously denotes the Oedipal complex.
Jung: I’ve been thinking, Herr Mentor, that you over-emphasize the sexual component in mental illness. I have a slightly different take.
Freud: I dare you! How dare you! Contradict me!
Scene Four: Hamlet alone on the Battlement.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
The rest is silence.
Enter Joyce doing a jig
Joyce: If others have their will Ann hath a way. By cock, she was to blame. She put the comether on him, sweet and twentysix. The greyeyed goddess who bends over the boy Adonis, stooping to conquer, as prologue to the swelling act, is a boldfaced Stratford wench who tumbles in a cornfield a lover younger than herself.
End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousandsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the
A music video in accompany the dub poem Nassau Street Song.
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