On Star Wars, Samurais, and a Future So Bleak Everyone Will Wear Mining Helmets

by WLM 3 based on Zdzistaw Beksiński

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.[1]

What’s the 5 letter word for first name of the astromech droid that appears in every Star War movie?

Search me.

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[2] 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.

photo from our back deck of a wood stork

[1] 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.

[2] Telescreens are ubiquitous two-way-mirror-like devices that allow the party to spy on citizens and to broadcast propaganda.


A Guided Tour of Last Night’s Insomnia

Insomnia by ~diablozz

Insomnia by ~diablozz

On the Sunday night before the Monday morning of my return, given that I had missed seven consecutive days of school, I could have predicted that when I lay me down to sleep in my half-empty bed, I would suffer a potent spell of insomnia.

My wife and I had been on a medical junket to Houston, Texas, where she received a PET scan, an MRI, an extra-scheduled brain MRI, and subsequent “lumbar puncture” (née spinal tap). Add to that existential dread the students’ missed work, the now screwed-up syllabi, my dislike of grog-producing sleep aids, and insomnia was, as Richard Nixon once said, a foregone conclusion.

When that switch goes off in my head and those darkened corridors become suddenly illuminated and I’m instantaneously wide, wide awake, I don my imaginary Sigmund Freud mask with its glasses, white beard, and cigar. A re-visitation and evaluation of recent dreams is in order.

Dream 1: During my absence the government has constructed a road that runs through the marsh and river that are in essence my back yard. So long serenity; hail ceaseless traffic. [Interpretation: cancer invasion].


Dream 2: I’m at a family reunion where my mother and father are among the quick, and some female baby relative cousin is screaming her head off — no one can quiet her — so I pick her up to see what I can do and discover that feces is flowing lava-like from her dripping diaper onto a Persian rug, so I hand her off to my mother and grab rags and paper towels and try to sop up the diarrheic outpouring. [Interpretation: cancer has shitted on our lives].

Dream 3: I’m in some exotic location in the South Seas where a swimming pool overlooks the most pacific of Pacific seascapes. I’m having a conversation with two of my former students, Allen and Willy Hutcheson, and Allen is telling me about his life when I detect some commotion in the pool. I look down and see a dead Macaw lying at the bottom, which I know will upset Willy because he is an ornithologist, but then there’s this terrible thrashing, and low and behold, an exotically neon-hued very alive crocodile has replaced the dead parrot. [Interpretation: sigh].


Okay, perhaps a different mental activity might be in order.

This is probably stupid, but when I have these spates of insomnia, I create overly metric nonsense verse, stupid adult versions of nursery rhymes, and the following is what I came up with last night, and I share it, not because it is any good at all, or even particularly clever, but because of where it leads us next.

Dr. John and I

shared a piece of apple pie

baked by that angel grandma

Chloe of Senegal

who is as scrawny

as the doctor is brawny,

though if I weren’t

bound by rhyme

I might opine

that big-bellied would be better

to describe a waistline so unfettered.

The Great Dr. John, aka Mac Rebennack

The Great Dr. John, aka Mac Rebennack

This exercise leads me to think about English, that hybrid language with its blunt Anglo-Saxon roots, supple Norse syntax, and treasure trove of French words. We’re talking here the assimilation, not of immigrants, but of invaders, yet Anglo-Saxon girls married Vikings, their offspring married Normans, who ate poultry instead of chicken, the combination of the three languages creating such a wealth of ways to express ourselves.

Scrawny, brawny – a potent spell of insomnia . . .

[scrawny – probably from Old Norse skrælna to shrival]

[brawny – from Old French braon fleshy or muscular part, buttock]

[potent – from Latin potentem powerful]

[spell – from Old English gespelia – a substitute, shift work, continuous stretch]

[spell – from Proto German spellam “report, tale, fable. ” From c. 1200 as “an utterance, something said, a statement, remark”; meaning “set of words with supposed magical or occult powers, incantation, charm, first recorded 1570s; hence any means or cause of enchantment.” (Oxford Dictionary of Folklore via Online Etymology Dictionary)

I think of the ad in Back of the Boy’s Life magazines I read when I was a Cub Scout, the ad with the 98 pound weakling sharing a beach blanket his a buxom companion, their outing spoiled by having sand kicked in their faces.

“Hey, you pathetic emaciated excuse for a hominid,” ejaculates the muscular ruffian.

“Hey, you scrawny bitch,” spews the rock-hard bully.


And these thoughts of assimilation lead me to think of how many Muslims I saw in Houston, all the women in hijabs, both at the Galleria Mall and at MD Anderson, one woman sitting in the hospital in a black niqab but also wearing a mask beneath the veil to ward off infection, and then there was the Iraqi veteran who had worked as a translator for the US Army and who was now working as a concierge at the Wyndam Suites, and also we met with a former student and his Pakistani wife, their marriage being the first non-arranged union in the history of her family, and she told Judy and me that even as a coed at the University of Georgia her curfew at her home in the summertime was seven p.m. and, oh boy, a yawn, a good sign, my body hinting to just breathe, and maybe the mind will empty if I pay attention to inhalation and exhalation, if I just let go and allow the swirls of grey behind my eyelids to take whatever shape whatever.

The Travails of Translation

la-fg-nice-france-crash-20160714-snapNBC news perhaps has an opening for a French translator. Whoever broke the story on their website about the tragic incident of a terrorist slamming his truck into a crowd watching Bastille Day fireworks rendered the Mayor of Nice’s tweet of warning:

in English to read:

Dear nice, the driver of a truck appears to have made dozens of deaths. Stay for the moment to your home. More info to come.”

Obviously, the web workers were in a hurry.  Obviously, they fed the tweet through an on-line translator. Obviously, in light of the slaughter, complaining about a translation from French to English is petty — if not in bad taste.

However, I grew up on the National Lampoon.  I am a connoisseur of bad taste, so allow me to continue and offer this advice to anyone needing to quickly translate.  Render the awkward computer-generated translation into the vernacular.  You don’t need to know French to take the raw translation above to change the text to this:

Dear Citizens of Nice, a truck driver is reported to have inflicted dozens of deaths.  For now, stay home.  More info is to come.

Of course, the original tweet isn’t as specific as it might be.  The Major might have tweeted

It appears that someone has plowed a truck into a crowd, and he may be a terrorist, so stay home until further notice.

But for all I know the nuances of the French language would somehow subtly convey the nefariousness without having it literally spelled out, but chances are Mayor Estrosi was himself in a hurry, not weighing words, or even more likely, assigning the tweet to an underling.

[Sigh].  I fear this infectious mayhem isn’t going to cease anytime soon.  I fear that it will make us grow callous, that we’ll start to brush off the loss of individual human lives and start carping about minutia, as I have done here, albeit with half a tongue in half a cheek.

How to Talk Cool Like Zora Neale Hurston

zora-hatA while back, I posted a lament about a few endangered locutions of the Lowcountry of South Carolina, my native neck of the woods (and marshes, clay pits, swamps and beaches).

Some of the words I feared were kaput included swunny (as in I swear or I declare), reckon (as in I conjecture), right (as in it’s right hot), and whatchasaybo (as in hello, brother). The first three of these words my long dead grandmama used on a daily basis, but it’s been a coon’s age since I’ve heard somebody say, “I reckon it’s right hot.[1]

The homogenization of the language is, of course, inevitable, but do lawdy I hate to see these old words and phrases go. They add Tabasco to the day-to-day saltine of cliché after cliché – awesome, dude, this guy, that time, etc.

What brings all this to mind is that I just finished rereading Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God for school, and I can’t think of another novel besides Huck Finn that makes such exquisite use of American vernacular, so I thought I’d share with you some of her locutions, no doubt rooted in the early 20th Century black vernacular of central Florida. Of course, I encourage you to start using these phrases in your daily dealings, especially with the Man.

Monstropolous – no definition needed here. Cf., Camille, Hugo, Katrina. In TEWWG, the sentence “The Monstropolous beast had left his bed” describes the hurricane that rips through “the Muck,” i.e., the Everglades, putting a tragic end to the idyllics.

Mouth-Almighty – a noun describing a know-it-all that won’t shut the fuck up[2].  You know, Donald Trump, Chris Matthews.

Protolapsis uh de cutinary linin“  – Oscar Scott uses this phrase to describe Jane’s second husband, Joe Stark, the mayor of Eatonville. Oscar says that “you kin feel the switch in his hand when he’s talking’ to yuh [ . .] Dat chastisin feelin’ he totes sorter gives you the protolapsis uh de cutinary linin,” i.e., an unsettling feeling in your stomach.

The go-long – a phrase suggesting a long lasting relationship in the Al Green sense of “Let’s Stay Together”: “You got me in the go-long,” Tea Cake says to Janie.

Combunction – I suspect this is a combination of combustion and gumption, a positive word denoting bad-assedness. In TEWWG, Tea Cake declares himself “ a son of Combunction.”

Cuttin’ the Monkey – from its context, I suspect cuttin’ the monkey means playing “the Sambo” for white folks, engaging in self-deprecating minstrelsy to curry favor with overlords. It’s a term of derision.

In TEWWG coon dick means bootleg whiskey, but according to the Urban Dictionary, it now is “a term used for yelling insults or obscenities at pedestrians from moving vehicles “ as in let’s “go coondicking after the movies” or “Brandon is one hell of a clever coondicker.” The Urban Dictionary does credit the term to Hurston’s novel and identifies its new denotation as having been coined in Kendall, NY, by a group of teenagers.

Tsk tsk.

Well, gotta go. Hope you enjoyed this monstropolous post from the original mouth-almighty, one crazy combunnctious curator of cool-sounding colloquial jive.


[1] A coon’s age dates from the early 1800’s when folks considered raccoons to be long-lived animals.

[2] The consonant t-sounds and the three successive assonate u-sounds mandate the use of this phrase rather than the effete runs his or her mouth.

What If Mrs Malaprop and W Had a Baby?

Kitty Balay as Mrs. Malaprop

Kitty Balay as Mrs. Malaprop

Somehow I copped an undergraduate degree in English and earned 24 graduate hours without ever running across Mrs. Malaprop, one of the great comic characters of the English stage. Nope, I didn’t make her acquaintance until I started teaching high school, specifically Richard Sheridan’s The Rivals, a 1775 play.

It is from Mrs. Malaprop, a pompous fuddy-duddy moralistic widow, that we get the word malapropism, that delightful linguistic confusion that arises when someone stretches her vocabulary just a bit too far, confuses polysyllabic words, and makes a colossal ass out of herself.

Here is Mrs. M chastising her niece Lydia:

You thought, miss! I don’t know any business you have to think at all — thought does not become a young woman. But the point we would request is, that you will promise to forget this fellow — to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory.

Through the course of the play, she reprehends true meaning, bemoans the slight affluence she has over her niece, can’t provide the perpendiculars of a murder.

Certainly, Archie Bunker can trace his line of descent through her:

“I ain’t a man of carnival instinctuals like you.”

“The hookeries and massageries…the whole world is turning into a regular Sodom and Glocca Morra.”

Off-the-boat Jews” (i.e., Orthodox).

Tim Moore portraying Kingfish Stevens

Tim Moore portraying Kingfish Stevens

Then there’s that earlier African American sitcom character, Mr. George “Kingfish” Stevens of The Amos ’n’ Andy show from the ’50’s who not only “resents the allegation’ but also “resents the alligator.”

Of course, malapropisms aren’t only the domain of fictional characters. Can you name the following real life malapropisms with their linguistically challenged flesh-and-blood originators, three of whom are politicians and two baseball hall-of-famers?

1. Republicans understand the bondage between a mother and a child.

2. Oftentimes we live in a processed world; you know, people focus on the process and not the results.

3. Alcoholics Unanimous

4. “The players returned to their respectable bases.

5. “Texas has a lot of electrical votes.”

Oh, yeah, the answer to the question — what would you get if you crossed Mrs. Malaprop  with George W Bush — is the great and beloved Yogi Berra.

Now, thet answer to that question is what Yogi once called a very close game, i.e.,  “a cliff-dweller.


Endangered Lowcountry SC Locutions

Last spring, I drove my 83-year-old Mama and her 83-old-friend Jean Thrower to the funeral home for Mary Boyle Limehouse’s visitation. Afterwards, I took them out to eat, and for some reason, they were talking about all the new cars on the road and how the auto industry must be booming. Perhaps this is something you notice in a small town like Summerville, South Carolina, because I hadn’t noticed that Charleston’s roads were suddenly teeming with the latest models. Anyway, during this conversation, Jean uttered a word I hadn’t heard in decades – swanny. “I swanny,” she said, “I’ve never seen so many new ca-ahs,”  i.e., cars.

Right then and there, I promised myself I was going to video her and Mama’s having a conversation about their childhoods so I could possess an auditory keepsake of their disappearing accents and locutions, and Mama convinced Jean to agree, but I never got around to it, and, of course, now it’s too late, because Mama’s on her deathbed, though Jean is still hale and hardy.

Yesterday, I heard another word you don’t hear much any more – commotion – as in “She doesn’t need all this commotion; what she needs is peace and quiet,” so I’ve decided to start a list of old Lowcountry Southernisms and provide a definition and a sentence that shows the words in context. Of course, because I’m lazy, I’m going about it in piecemeal fashion, adding them when I hear them, but here’s a start.

South Carolina Lowcountry Locutions

Bo-Gator – n., (pronounced bo-gatah) a male, often a term of affectionate greeting. You still hear people round here call males bo, but now, it’s more often bro, which flies in the face of most linguistic evolutions because the trend is usually towards simplification. My pal Steve Smoak, the bartender at Rue de Jean, still says, bo, but I haven’t heard anyone say bo gator since high school.

Commotion, n. irritating noise and activity. This word I doubt is a Southernism, but I don’t remember hearing a person “from off” using it, nor do I nowadays hear anyone using commotion all that often, which is too bad because it sounds like what it is.

Johns Island Dah circa  1950

Johns Island Dah circa

Dah, n. African American nanny. Why so many people in Charleston developed a geechee brogue and why it’s dying out. When I first started teaching, some of my students fathers’ had the Charleston brogue, but their sons didn’t. Now you only hear the brogue in people over 65. “Doughnt-cha keep dat gay-ate open, fool.”

Near about (pronounced neahaboot), adv., almost or nearly as in “I neahraboot broke my back falling off that ladder.”

Reckon, v., suppose. I reckon he got what was coming to him.

Right, adv., somewhat to considerably. It’s right warm today.

Swanny – v., to declare, to aver. I swanny I never seen nothing like it.

Whatchasay, v., a expression of greeting, the elision of what-do-you-say, as in que pasa, what’s happening, etc. Often this greeting was followed by bo and was rendered whatchasaybo.   When my friend, Tim Miskell moved to Summerville from Croton-on-the-Hudson, he literally had no idea what people were saying. He said whatchasaybo sounded African to him, which, of course, it does. Like I said, some of us learned to talk from our dahs, though, I never had one, nor do I speak with the Charleston brogue.

Yonder, adv – in that direction.

Let’s see if I can come up with one paragraph that incorporates all of the above.

Whatchasaybo? You hear that commotion last night over yonder at the short term rental on Huron?  It was nearabout two AM, and I swanny it was loud enough to wake my dead dah. I reckoned I better go over and tell them I was about to sic the police on ’em.  Judy was right exhausted after her chemo; plus, we need to nip this shenanigans in the bud. So I pull on my pants and headed out the door. Before I got within twenty feet of their yard, one of the partiers started discharging what looked like an AK-47 into the air. Who knows, maybe they were celebrating an Afghan wedding or something. Anyway, catch you later, bo gator.  I’m headed down to Center Street to file me a complaint.