The Clothes Oft Proclaim: A Brief But Polemical History of Fashion

Grayson Perry, Agony in the Car Park

“The clothes oft proclaim the man,” Polonius to his son Laertes in Hamlet

One of the hallmarks of the Late Empire is its tendency towards hyper-hedonism, that compulsion to pleasure our palates with exquisite cuisine, pamper our bodies with Swedish massages, dance the diminishing succession of nights away.[1]

Obviously, this behavior runs counter to the work ethic of that Original American Entrepreneur of Self-Help – Mr. Ben Franklin – and also contradicts to the self-abnegation of that Oratorical Furnace of Fire and Brimstone  – Rev. Jonathan Edwards.

His sermon  “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” provoked staid Colonial New Englanders to moan aloud, not unlike a congregation of AME funeral-goers.   “What can I do to be saved,” the New Englanders hollered after hearing Edwards’ dispassionately delivered descriptions of what lay in store.

For example:

To help your conception, [Edwards says] imagine yourself to be cast into a fiery oven, or a great furnace, where your pain would be as much greater than that occasioned by accidentally touching a coal of fire, as the heat is greater. Imagine also that your body were to lie there for a quarter of an hour, full of fire, and all the while full of quick sense; what horror would you feel at the entrance of such a furnace! and how long would that quarter of an hour seem to you! And after you had endured it for one minute, how overbearing would it be to you to think that you had to endure the other fourteen! But what would be the effect on your soul, if you knew you must lie there enduring that torment to the full for twenty-four hours…for a whole year…for a thousand years!

The centuries-long backsliding of our nation from the Salem of the Puritans to the Sodom of Hollywood has been attributed by what’s left of Edwards’ followers to the Warren Court’s removal of a not-so-omnipresent God from school, leftwing college professors, etc.

However, the contemporary French philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky fingers consumerism (aided and abetted by fashion) as whatdunit in the secularization and eventual narcissism of Occidentals [2] as he traces Westerners’ relationship with their clothing (and sense of self) from the 14th Century until now.


Here’s a crystal clear methylamphetic synopsis of Part 1 of Lipovetsky’s The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy (Trans. Catherine Porter):

Before the Late Middle Ages, in what should be be called the Golden Age of Transvestism, both men and women wore traditional dresses whose cuts remained the same for thousands of years. Folk placed a “positive value on [. . .] social continuity of models inherited from the past.”


In the mid-14th, men started wearing exposed hose and short doublets instead of robes while women continued to drape their bodies much as they had before.  Before then, royalty had sported more luxurious duds as a distinguishing characteristic between them and their subjects.  However, as the styles differentiated between the sexes and commerce and banking arose, a bourgeoise developed, and uppity royal wannabes started copying the dress of their betters.  Royals had to jack up the sartorial splendor, the bourgeoise countered, and the millennial old stasis in fashion was over.  This phenomenon “democratized fashion,”  “equaliz[ed] appearance,” “undermined traditional behavior,” and “created a thirst for novelty.”


People started to be more aware of their individuality; courtly love established an overvaluation of women.[3]

God migrated from the center of Medieval consciousness to the periphery of post-Enlightenment consciousness before being gunned down by Nietzsche in the 19th Century.


Haute Couture ruled for a century and established live modeling and the fashion seasons, spring and fall, changing styles even more often than editors of  MLA manuals; however, ready to wear via manufacturing overthrew the Haute Couture hierarchy of made-to-order fashion.

1835-01 Lady's Magazine & Museum Vol. VI pdf 76

In the 50’s and 60’s the thrust of fashion shifted from concentrating on appearing wealthy to appearing young as mass-media-manipulated youths rejected their parents’ mores.  Clothes became more unisexual with girls wearing pants and boys long hair.


Now in 2017, essentially [cue Cole Porter] anything goes.  The designers can no longer dictate styles to consumers – micro minis or midis or maxis are all okay.  Both men and women would rather appear young than wealthy –  older mothers want to look like their young daughters rather than vice versa.   This cultivation of youth now extends to men who in increasing numbers dye their hair, purchase facial creams, and sport earrings.


Lipovetsky’s good news:  individualism triumphs – we’re our own masters.  Bad news: we’re narcissists (who almost by definition are incapable of happiness).


What are the odds that Mr. Patrick McDonald is easily upset?

Lipovetsky argues in Part 2 that this narcissistic self-autonomy is on the whole positive, and he makes many excellent points.  I’ve in a previous post linked Lipovetsky’s debate with a skeptical Mario Vargas Llosa.

I’m not up to determining whether the almost unlimited freedom of self-indulgence/self-determination that post-industrial capitalism has bestowed [4] is worth the concomitant loss of our not knowing history’s deep lessons and literature’s grandest moments.

Instead, I’m going to address the rightful (or wrongful) cause of the prevalent narcissism that characterizes Late Empire America.

It’s not so much that the godless left has deconstructed the religious underpinnings of American society but that amoral capitalism has usurped the glamor of certain seductive countercultural lifestyles and incorporated images of that decadence into its advertising campaigns.

Take James Dean as an early example.  His in-your-face alienation in Rebel Without a Cause preceded the prayer-in-school ban of 1962, and I doubt that the film’s director Nicholas Ray underwent a successful leftist indoctrination in his one semester at the University of Chicago. However, with young fans flocking to that movie, advertisers noting Dean’s appeal incorporated Dean’s persona into campaigns.


Why did young fans flock to the film?  Because a character “no one understands” appeals to adolescents.  In a recent post I cited Jackson Lears who has pointed out that capitalism successfully co-opts bohemianism  by installing rip machines into assembly lines at jean factories to accommodate Kurt Cobain wannabes.  When ripped jeans aren’t cool anymore because everyone is wearing them, something new takes their place and on and on till the last syllable of recorded time.  Cha-ching goes the cash register.  Zip goes the barcode scanner.

We can characterize “consumer society” empirically by listing some of its features:  a higher standard of living, an abundance of goods and services, a cult of objects and leisure, a hedonistic and materialistic morality.

Giles Lipovetsky The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy

So Don’t blame us lefty teachers, Rick Santorum, et al; it ain’t our fault.

[1] Faulkner advised writers that they needed to “kill all their darlings” in the editing process.  Imagine the tears I shed when I axed “like Maenads all hepped up on the blood of speed freaks torn asunder” from the end of the first sentence.

[2] I continue my quixotic campaign to restore Oriental and Occidental into respectability.

[3]  By the way, sisters, like Chuck Prophet, I bow down before every woman I see.

[4] E.g., my ability to share my thin understanding of fashion’s progression with anyone on the planet who has internet access.

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.


I Have Measured My Life Out with Barrooms

Juarez Muchado
“A Bar in Copacabana

The mornings, evenings, afternoons . . . 

TS Eliot, “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock

I started hanging out at bars at a very young age because whenever my mother left me alone with my old man, he’d throw me in the car and head off to some hole-in-the-wall near the Navy Base. There were no such things as kiddy car seats in those days. Come to think of it, there were no seatbelts either, at least in the cars we owned. Nor were we stowed in the backseat for safety’s sake.

Whenever Daddy hit the brakes, he’d reflexively extend his right arm as a barrier to prevent us from hurtling into the dashboard with its array of dangerous knobs, seemingly designed with poking out eyes in mind. I was only thrown into the dashboard once when my grandmother let me stand up in the front seat. I lost my front baby teeth, and one of my permanent front teeth grew in discolored and had to be capped. The cap kept falling off, and what was left of the tooth had to be drilled down to fit on another cap. Eventually, when there was hardly anything left, it had to be pulled, which made me look like Alfred E Newman until we acquired a retainer like false tooth.[1]

At any rate, sometimes, if you’re lucky, natural selection doesn’t work out the way it’s supposed to.

That grandmother, a Baptist, despised demon alcohol and considered bars dens of iniquity, though she and her sisters (Pearl and Ruby) traded pharmaceuticals like jelly beans.[2] My mother, though less severe, didn’t like to come home and discover us missing. The story is that she could mysteriously intuit what bar we were at by flipping through the Charleston phone book, which was much thinner in those days in before the Old South turned into the Sunbelt. According to the dubious story, she’d call the bar, offer a description, get the old man on the phone, and he would come dutifully home with little me in tow.

My vague memories of hanging in bars with my father in the mid-Fifties may be manufactured. They may be based more on movies I’ve seen featuring dark, small, smoky spaces. I do clearly remember him playing pinball machines, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. These were in the days before aluminum cans were equipped with pop-tops, a great invention. Back then, bartenders opened cans of beers with small metal openers [see illustrations below] and had to make two openings to create airflow to help gravity along.

That reminds me. When I was around ten, my father had this foolish idea that I needed to drink one beer a week to gain weight – as if the weight gain would be equally distributed along my skeletal frame instead of creating a stick-legged, stick-armed tween with a beer belly. I absolutely detested the taste of beer. Now that I think of it, it may have been a ruse to allow us to have beer in the house.

The next bar I visited in my youth was a roadhouse called Morris Knight’s, a one-story honky-tonk-like establishment about a half-mile from my house. It consisted of two rooms, one with a bar and stools (where they sold candy and fireworks to kids in the day time) and a back room with a vending pool table and a jukebox. One night when we were camping out, we made an excursion there to score some Squirrel Nut Zippers and encountered staggeringly drunk men and women. The fat woman bartender kicked us out, informing us it was no place for children. It seemed at once both sinful and fascinating, Felliniesque in a po-dunk sort of way.

The S & S poolroom, where I hung out in high school, wasn’t, strictly speaking, a bar, though they did sell both draughts and canned beers. They served the most delicious hot dogs ever thanks to their secret chili recipe. Sometimes my mother would have a craving for one, and Daddy would go fetch her “a poolroom hotdog” because “ladies” didn’t dare step inside.

It was tacitly understood that I was not to go into the poolroom, but I did for the first time when I was a 7th grader, the victim of peer pressure. You couldn’t get away with sneaking in there, though, because you would come home with the telltale poolroom smell, a sort of sour smoky odor laced with fried food.

The poolroom was sort of a grander Morris Knight’s and employed young black boys to rack the tables and collect the dime it cost to play a game of nine ball. When the game was over, you’d holler “Rack!” Gambling was allowed. I saw a friend of mine, Glenn Farrar, win a hundred dollars in about forty minutes one time. It was a Friday, payday.  Tensions ran high.

Anyway, my parents eventually didn’t mind my hanging out there, and in the early 70’s a couple of girls actually started frequenting, which sullied their reputations. By then, the hissing sound of the double metal can opener had been replaced by the plunk of tabs you tore off.

You had to be somewhat circumspect in the poolroom, though. Using a word like “whom” might end up getting your “ass cut,” as we locals put it. You weren’t allowed to cuss, though. A “No Profanity” sign was displayed prominently behind the bar beside prints of monkeys shooting pool and playing poker.

You could drink legally at eighteen in those days, so college was where I learned the art of making eye contact with the bartender, the advantages of busing your own tables by returning your bottles, and how leaving a tip could help you get served faster when the joint was busy.

My freshmen year I hung at a place called the Opus that served only Bush Bavarian beer, or at least that’s my memory, but they tore the Opus down to build the new Law School. There was also the Campus Club, a cool space with a wraparound scaffolding-like structure that created a sort of second story but was open to the space below, like the saloons you sometimes see in old Westerns. I liked sitting there in the afternoons after class when dust-moted sunbeams bore down on the tables like spotlights.

Here it is in its new iteration as “The Hunter Gatherer”

I never really liked the Golden Spur, the bar located in USC’s student union building, a sort of cafeteria-like soulless place where unadventurous students hung. Ironically, I ended up tending bar there along with my future wife, who had white-lied to her parents and told them that she worked at “the student center.” The bar did boast some really cool musical acts, like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. That may have been my best job ever. If we went out after work, it was to Oliver’s Pub on Devine Street, a private club where you could drink on Sundays.

Like a chip off the ol’ block, I started taking my two sons to bars early in their lives.  When then they were pre-adolescents, on nights their mother attended classes to get yet another graduate degree, we’d eat out at bars. Our favorites were the Acme Cantina on the Isle of Palms and Station 22 on Sullivan’s Island. The boys were on a first name basis with the bartender, Fronz, at the Acme, and with Cathy Coleman at Station 22. The big difference between my childhood experience and theirs is that their mother didn’t mind at all, especially on 25-cent wing night.

Now, our sons are in their 30’s, and, of course, we still enjoy venturing out to a bar when they’re home, and Folly Beach where their mother and I now live may have more bars per capita than anywhere in this side of Vegas.  Our favorites are Chico Feo and the Jack of Cups, but the Surf Bar is top-notch as well.

By the way, the worst bar I ever visited was outside of Leningrad on the Bay of Finland.  Black walls, red lights, bad vodka, the reek of Turkish cigarettes, drunken Finns looking for love. It made Morris Knight’s look like a Dairy Queen.

[1] You can read a sad, alcoholic-themed story about that very tooth here.

[2] My grandfather hid half-pints of rum in his dress shoes in his closet.

Victorian Poets Doing Trump

image by WLM3

Every spring I teach Victorian poetry, Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, and Hopkins.

Like a turreted mansion, ornamental to the max, Victorian verse can seem to us more than a little too too much.

Take Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott.“


On either side the river lie

Long fields of barley and of rye,

That clothe the wold and meet the sky;

And thro’ the field the road runs by

To many-tower’d Camelot;

The yellow-leaved waterlily

The green-sheathed daffodilly

Tremble in the water chilly

Round about Shalott.

If you recite that out loud, you want to sing it, wonder if there  might  be an accompanying melody. Not only do we have the singsong meter, but the rhymes are also laid on as thick as marmalade.

I suspect that our president, though not old-fashioned, would like Tennyson — that is, if someone were to read Lord Alfred out loud to him. President Trump has a soft spot for rococo, admires elaborate wainscoting gilded with gold. I read recently that he wants to ride in a gold carriage when he travels to the UK to meet the Queen.

Tennyson just might be Trump’s cup of tea.


At Mar-a-Lago, West Palm Beach

The nuclear code within his reach

His hair the color of a peach,

the mighty Donald Trump.

With his golf clubs by his side

In a cart he takes a ride

With a guest he can’t abide,

The mighty Donald Trump.

Robert Browning, on the other hand, is easier on our ears. Although the mad men in his gallery of monologists employ rhyme, the pauses in the middle of the lines – caesura is the technical term – and the fact that a line often tumbles without pause onto the next line – enjambment – mean that the reader swallows the rhymes, softening them.

Here is one of Browning’s characters making sure his lover will be spending the night.


That moment she was mine, mine, fair,

Perfectly pure and good: I found

A thing to do, and all her hair

In one long yellow string I wound

Three times her little throat around,

And strangled her.

As Lord Byron might put it, “So soft, so calm, yet eloquent.”

Let’s give Robert Browning a shot at the Donald:


I’ll make things so great, so great,

You’ll grow way tired of winning.

I promise, I can’t overstate

The good that I will do. Spinning

Jobs back from China. Building

A wall. We’ll have reason to celebrate!

Matthew Arnold, though a far lesser poet, is like Tennyson, depressive. If Arnold were alive today, he’d be a frequent contributor to Pantsuits Nation.


Listen! you hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,

At their return, up the high strand,

Begin, and cease, and then again begin,

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring

The eternal note of sadness in.

Published post-Darwin in 1867, “Dover Beach” describes a world where, like the pebbles flung to and fro, we are subject to elemental forces beyond our puny control.

If he were alive, Arnold might lament


Oh, progressives, let us not stay home

Or vote Green next election, for time

Is running out as the planet warms

And oceans and tensions rise.

Alas, we are here as on a hijacked plane,

Piloted by a churl devoid of shame,

Loving only his riches and his fame.

Hopkins doesn’t sound Victorian, though he is. He sounds like he’s tripping on two-way windowpane while getting sucked through a wormhole to another dimension.


My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief

Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —

Then lull, then leave off.


Warning: Hopkins is hard to imitate.


His tweets, tangerine-tinted, trumpet, tattle, boast, brood,

product of that last-saw-show, skit or pundit.

The idle swamp pump defunct, stagnant-

water, gator-crawling, serpent-rich, shit-flood flowing.

My great aunts on my father’s side were Victorians, majestic, bejeweled, sherry-sippers who considered procreation a necessary evil. So I dedicate this silly post to them – Tallulah and Lila – and to those porches upon which we sat so long ago.[1]

Down their carved names the raindrop plows.

[1] Both were grammar mavens and big on table manners.


The Joy of Twitter

joy of twitter

You hear this all the time: social media is harmful because it deprives us of authentic flesh-and-blood contact with fellow human beings. For example, yesterday I caught a piece on NPR’s “Morning Edition” about an on-line project to bring Trump and Hillary voters together for face-to-face meetings in hopes of humanizing and creating empathy.

Well, I happen to know several Trump voters and don’t need to be in their physical presence to recognize our shared humanity. Of course, they’re not Russian-Bots; of course, they’re generally decent people; of course, we agree to disagree amicably. The secret is to avoid politics in conversation, which, I concede, is more difficult nowadays given the hour-by-hour reality-television-like drama generated by the current administration. But hey, it’s baseball season, celebrities are dying daily, weekly new movies are being released, the ospreys have returned to build their nest atop the cell phone tower on Hudson Avenue. There are plenty of things other than Crooked Hillary and Deceitful Donald to bandy about.

That said, sometimes I prefer the company of the avatars I follow on Twitter to that of flesh-and-blood human beings, whether they voted for Hillary or for Trump or Stein or Johnson or Prohibition Party candidate James “Jim” Hedges. On Twitter, [name drop warning] I have traded witticisms with James Wolcott, received thanks from Frank Rich, been winkingly chided by Emily Nussbaum, and had Josh Marshall privately expand a public point for clarification’s sake.

It’s not that these fewer-than-140-character exchanges I mention are all that meaningful, but I have had one-on-one communications with Pulitzer winners, i.e., brilliant journalists with ever-so-arid senses of humor. If you follow someone on Twitter, you get to know that persona (the way you don’t on Facebook). You choose to follow personae because they are informative, interesting, witty, and compatible.

Take Matthew Yglesias, the Vox correspondent, for example. If I’m sitting at the bar at Chico Feo or the Jack of Cups Saloon taking a break from grading essays,[1] chances are I’d much rather be checking out what Matty has to say in cyberspace than shoot the shit with the man-bun sporting fellow sitting to my right, who might very well bludgeon me with tales of last night’s barhopping or descriptions of the numerous micro-breweries he’s visited in the last two years.[2]

Matty, on the other hand, will be wittily commenting on a subtweet about Potemkin villages, providing a link to one of his clearly written explanations of macroeconomics, or dropping a line from Alanis Morrisette’s “Ironic” – “like rain on your wedding day” – to troll some obtuse tweeter’s mistaking coincidence with irony. I’ve never laid eyes on Yglesias, but I feel as if I know him better than I do some of the Facebook folk I’ve conversed with in the flesh.

If cultivating shallow ego-boosting connections with minor celebrities “ain’t [your] cup of meat” (to quote the Mighty Quinn), Twitter offers a less egocentric service: it provides up-to-date information on breaking news stories. I follow almost exclusively journalists, so when important news breaks, I can get lightning fast updates instead of watching the same looping video on CNN or MSNBC. In fact, I followed the election on Twitter instead of cable and was in bed by ten knowing that I would awaken the next morning in Oceania.

So Donald Trump and I do share one characteristic. We like to hang out on Twitter. Maybe we should meet in person to try to better understand each other’s viewpoints.

[1] I grade my essays in bars. I can grade six in an hour-and-a-half in the time it takes me to nurse two delicious craft IPAs.

[2] To be fair, I could also bore him comatose if I started in on how English’s being a hybrid language means it has an enormous vocabulary that provides its speakers with the ability to express innumerable shades of meaning. Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Adventures in Kafkaland

How to define kafkaesque?  Certainly, the phrase “of, pertaining to, characteristic of, or resembling the literary work of Franz Kafka” doesn’t begin to do justice to the connotation of fuckedupness[1] the word possesses.’s number 2 definition is just a bit better: “marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity.”  Perhaps a picture is worth, at least in this case, 20 words:

Back in my glorious undergraduate days, on a Saturday just around midnight one winter, I young woman named Margaret and I were picked up hitchhiking on Main Street in Columbia, South Carolina, after the city buses had quit running. I lived in North Columbia, a seven-mile trek through the nowhere that is everywhere, that souless six-lane Shoneys-studded commercial zone that leads into every municipality in this great nation of ours.  I mention the circumstances in an attempt to mitigate somewhat the sheer anti-Darwinian stupidity of  hitchhiking at night in a capital city with an attractive coed, especially after my brush with kinghell serial killer Pee Wee Gaskins some five years earlier, but that’s another, too-oft-told story.


Donald Henry “Pee-Wee Gaskins


As we were standing on the curb, thumbs thrust out, a jacked-up Oldsmobile Toronado pulled over, and, of course, we hopped on in.  The driver, whose neck was as red as the background of a Confederate flag, was accompanied by a short black man with an eraser-like afro – an odd couple indeed, as if Early Gracye of Kalifornia and Sammy Davis, Jr. had teamed up to be best friends.  After we piled into the back seat, they said they’d take us to my place, but they needed to pick up some weed first.

Oh great.

What transpired afterwards might be classified as sort of kafkaesque: an outdoor drug transaction in which our chauffeurs purchased a tiny bag of skankass cannabis for twenty 1975-dollars. No, they weren’t ready to take us home.  We had to see the black man’s paintings, so we drove to his concrete block shack where we smoked stems and seeds of the alleged marijuana and the black fellow showed us “his art”  – crude framed caricatures that you might find painted on the outside walls of a body shop.  Essentially, we were their prisoners.   Eventually, Margaret fell asleep on the couch, and the redneck pulled out a handgun and pointed in my face.  Not knowing what to do, I sat stupidly and impassively. The black fellow told him to put the gun away, and the redneck eventually passed out. The black painter finally took us about a block from my house (I wasn’t about to let him know where I lived).

As creepy as that abbreviated narrative might be, it nevertheless lacks the absurdity of true kafkafication, though the black fellow’s paintings skirted awfully close.



an approximation (the walls were covered with abominations like this)


When he was a resident of Hungary, younger son Ned experienced something like the real thing – true Kafkaquesness – as one overnight train ride from Munich to Budapest  demonstrates.

Before I let Ned tell the story, I’ll preface it by sharing that it had been a particularly good week at work.  The first grader he teaches who had threatened to kill everyone in the school wrote him a sweet little note:  Hi, Ned.  I’m sorry I was so evil in your class.

On that bright note, Ned took off to Nuremberg for a fun-filled four-day weekend.  Take it away, Ned.

First off I’ll start by saying the Hungarian word for emergency is vészhelyzet, and the German word is Not. I think the Germans need a one-syllable word for emergency because they get upset and panicked if things don’t go exactly to regimen. I used to make fun of them for their attitude towards efficiency, but after these few months in Hungary, I appreciate it now.

The whole weekend was kind of weird. I don’t know how much I should tell you about it, but I’ll err on the side of too much for the sake of art.

The couple who had visited me in Budapest and I were there, and the girl kept hitting on me, and her boyfriend informed me she had a crush on me. We were leaving through the masses of the crowd, and she started groping me (not unlike the guy that had robbed me in Budapest) and walked away. That was the last I saw/heard from them, which was especially bad because I was supposed to stay with them the next night.

On the bus back to Rasim’s (my Turkish friend), I sat next to a guy who had dug up a five-foot tree from some sidewalk somewhere. There was a trail of dirt from the entrance of the bus to where he was sitting.

The next night I bumped into some people I sort of knew. There was this other guy with them…very drunk and aggressive and sociopathic seeming.  He went off with me to buy a drink and said “don’t worry I’m not gay,” and my alarms were raised. 5 minutes later, he asked me to blow him, and I gave him a forceful no and eventually lost him in the crowd. These situations are occurring at a higher frequency this year. Like father, like son I guess [. . . ]

When the Romanian girl came onto the train she asked if I spoke English, which I always like when foreigners ask me. We made small talk for a minute and then crashed in one of those closed compartments on the train.

Sometime later the girl started screaming.  Two thugs had come into the compartment and stolen her bag, i.e., all of her money and her passport.  We chased after them, calling for the authorities.  We caught up with one of the thieves, but when we demanded the bag back, he merely smirked, and the conductor of the train merely shrugged her shoulders as the Romanian girl screamed in English, “He stole all my stuff.  He stole all my stuff.”

At the next stop, he got off the train, but as it ended up, the girl found her bag in the restroom with nothing missing.  A few minutes later, the conductor came with paperwork and became furious when she discovered that the girl had found her purse. The conductor had wasted three minutes of her valuable time filling out paperwork in vain!

After that happened, the Romanian’s mood started improving gradually, as she had escaped the Not. She told me she had just been to Amsterdam and said she still thought she was high. She showed me the Space cakes she was bringing back and was wearing a candy bracelet and would occasionally pull out circus peanuts and other sweets. I guess maybe she was still stoned.   She was 24 but she looked and acted like she was 20. Romanians are often very petit though…

We said goodbye and off I went to work right off the train, wading in the sea of frowns just like every morning. The frowns are etched in the older people’s faces like water carves out a canyon.  I fit right in that morning. I’ve read somewhere that 6% of Hungarians say they are happy, and I always joke that number seems inflated.

I also saw a guy wearing a t-shirt with a Star of David going into a trashcan, a play on this image.


I boarded a bus with a tastefully/minimalistically drawn penis and balls on the side.

Just another routine day in Kafkaland.

A nice place to visit but . . .

[1] As they say in writing school, choose not an approximate word, but the perfect word.


Yet Another Short Treatise on Satire: In Defense of Bad Taste

[Trigger warning: scatology, smugness, over-the-top sacrilege, typos, insensitivity to disabilities, reckless employment of ALL CAPS and gratuitous exclamation points]!!!!

Look, I desitively dig The Onion, I mean BIGLY. They’re BIG LEAUGE for sure, true heirs of the great early 70’s National Lampoon, which itself was the great-great-great-great grandchild of the GREAT Jonathan Swift, who in his poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room” employs an epic simile to describe turds plopping into a chamber pot:

As mutton cutlets, prime of meat,

Which though with art you salt and beat

As laws of cookery require,

And toast them at the clearest fire;

If from adown the hopeful chops

The fat upon a cinder drops,

To stinking smoke it turns the flame

Pois’ning the flesh from whence it came,

And up exhales a greasy stench,

For which you curse the careless wench;

So things, which must not be expressed,

When plumped into the reeking chest,

Send up an excremental smell

To taint the parts from whence they fell.

The petticoats and gown perfume,

Which waft a stink round every room.

Thus finishing his grand survey,

Disgusted Strephon stole away

Repeating in his amorous fits,

Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits![1]


[Enter Horatio, Hamlet’s BFF]: There needs no ghost, [Stephron], come from the grave/ To tell us this.

Yeah, Stephron, what’s the big deal? Defecation is a necessary by product of ingestion, and in the great cyclic beauty of being, animal waste products can be used to fertilize plants.

Hey, Jonathan Smith, what’s up with this coprophobic obsession with feces?

I suspect Swift would answer that his point is not that Celia shits but that she’s a vain, frivolous woman who considers herself better than, say, the hired wench who polishes her silver, yet Celia’s upper class feces stinks just as much as her maid’s lower class shit.

Satire is a great leveler, a way for powerless wretches like I-and-I to vent our spleens upon the powerful, the foolish, i.e., politicians. Think of Mitch McConnell when you read the following:


Io venni in luogo d’ogni luce muto;

The stench of wet coal, politicians

. . . . . . . . . . e and. . . . . n, their wrists bound to

their ankles,

Standing bare bum,

Faces smeared on their rumps,

wide eye on flat buttock,

Bush hanging for beard,

Addressing crowds through their arse-holes,

Addressing the multitudes in the ooze,

newts, water-slugs, water-maggots [. . .][2]

Some satirists have defended their employment of the grotesque, cruelty, etc. on the need to shock people inured the horrors of the nightly news [punctuated every eight minutes by laxative commercials (and, later, by smiling segues into human interest stories)] into the realization of the true nature of the horror. In other words, to slap some sense into them.

Here’s a paragraph from Tony Hendra’s 1972 editorial from the infamous National Lampoon issue “Is Nothing Sacred?”

To a generation that, when it sees starving babies on the screen, knows it’s almost time for dinner, not much is sacred. All around us, the idols, ikons, and cows of 6,000 of Indo-Aryan culture lie shattered, and daily another paragon goes down to ignominy (Kissenger, Richard Speck) [and] another cherished tradition is lost (see Esquire’s stinging attack on cordovans). And now with Jim Morrison gone, there isn’t really anyone left to look up to [. . .]  it is possible that a society to whom nothing is sacred might just be a better one.

Take, Michael J O’Donoghue’s “Vietnamese Baby Book” from that issue, an affront to good taste that makes Swift’s poem seem like a Barney the Dinosaur picture book.

The Vietnamese baby in question, Ngoc, has her first couple of years, including a list of “firsts,” catalogued in her baby book:

First whimper: Two weeks

First cringe: Two-and-a-half months.

It gets worse. Baby’s first wound, baby’s first word (medic), baby’s first funeral, etc.

Hey, that’s sick, cried the bourgeoisie when the issue came out, the bourgeoisie who reelected Nixon in a landslide and whose tax dollars went to making sure our military had enough napalm to incinerate the requisite number of Cambodian villages (or to update the example, has enough drone missiles to obliterate Syrian encampments).

In this sense, as self-righteous as it sounds, O’Donoghue considered himself a sort of moralist.

The Onion has at times crossed the over from the realm of gentle, good-natured mockery into the shadows of bitter sacrilege. For example, here’s an image with something to offend virtually every one.


WASHINGTON—Following the publication of the image above, in which the most cherished figures from multiple religious faiths were depicted engaging in a lascivious sex act of considerable depravity, no one was murdered, beaten, or had their lives threatened, sources reported Thursday. The image of the Hebrew prophet Moses high-fiving Jesus Christ as both are having their erect penises vigorously masturbated by Ganesha, all while the Hindu deity anally penetrates Buddha with his fist, reportedly went online at 6:45 p.m. EDT, after which not a single bomb threat was made against the organization responsible, nor did the person who created the cartoon go home fearing for his life in any way. Though some members of the Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths were reportedly offended by the image, sources confirmed that upon seeing it, they simply shook their heads, rolled their eyes, and continued on with their day.

I admit I included that image hesitantly, knowing some of my readers would find it highly objectionable, but The Onion’s point is well taken. You don’t go off and murder satirists no matter how tasteless, offensive, mean-spirited and/or stupid their product is.  Their target here is not the great religions of the world but religious fanatics who do real, palpable harm.

What worries me more is that in the latest Onion output the satire doesn’t seem all that hyperbolic:

WASHINGTON—Amid concerns that a U.S. attack on a Syrian government air base would only escalate the ongoing conflict in the region, President Trump assured Americans Friday that his decision to order a missile strike came only after carefully considering every one of his passing whims. “I want to make it perfectly clear that the decision to launch a military intervention in Syria was the result of meticulously reviewing each fleeting impulse that I felt over the last 48 hours,” said Trump, adding that after learning of chemical weapons used by Bashar al-Assad’s forces to kill innocent Syrian civilians, he gathered his top military aides to pore over dozens of his sudden knee-jerk reactions to the situation. “I examined many different options that whirled through my mind in the moment, including authorizing drone strikes, deploying U.S. troops to Syria, sending in SEAL Team Six to take out Assad, getting up and grabbing a snack from the kitchen, doing nothing, and dropping all our nuclear bombs on Damascus at once. Ultimately, I concluded that an airstrike was the best option at that particular second.” Trump went on to say that if the Assad regime’s behavior continues, he will not hesitate to order further military action if he hasn’t already completely forgotten about Syria by then.

Except, the quotes from Trump appear in sentences far too well-crafted to have emerged from his mouth, and I doubt seriously “meticulously” isn’t in his working vocabulary.

At any rate, I say rage on Juvenal, rage on Swift, rage, rage against the stupidity of all ages, though, I suspect it does very little good when it is all said and done.

[1] Stephron had been rummaging around his girlfriend’s dressing room when she was out and stumbled upon a cleverly disguised, which he mistook of a cabinet.

[2] Ezra Pound, “Canto XIV”