Strutting, Cakewalking, Pimp Walking?

“A Man Swaggering” by Paul Standby 1760

He came up maybe to their armpits, the dudecats accompanying him, this ten-ish-year-old mannishboy strutting up King Street in Charleston swinging a watch chain and tapping a cane.

Back then, 1968, I thought naively zoot suit, not pimp outfit. The hat was cocked, the smile triumphant, the cane tapping a tattoo, the chains cycling in time with the jaunt-step.

It was like the two other older taller teens accompanying him were underlings. It was like he was royalty, had some power conferred upon him, this princeling. For what and why I had and have no clue.

I’ve squandered today’s sunlight scouring the 1s and 0s of cyberspace searching for an equivalent, i.e., of a video of a prepubescent boy strutting on a sidewalk, but guess what? There ain’t none but this lighter-shade-than-pale approximation hardly worth plopping down:


I wouldn’t see locomotion quite like the King-Street-Strut until I saw Dr. John take the stage for the first time at Columbia’s 3 Rivers Festival in 2002 or 3.

Hat, cane, strut.

This snippet from the 2008 Newport Jazz Festival is a mere shadow of what I witnessed that evening when I first saw the Doctor making his way to his piano.


Of course, males have been swaggering and females jiggling since time immemorial. Even in the Age of Reason it appears homo sapiens succumbed to the jungle beats of their pulses in attempt to enhance their chance for romance, dominance, offspring.  [See the Paul Standby illustration above]

But back to the 60s and that Mannishboy. Those moves didn’t come from nowhere:


John Jeremiah Sullivan has a fascinating piece in the Winter Swanee Review on the origin of the blues.   Much of the essay deals with “cakewalking,” an African American tradition dating back to plantation days but that was all the rage in the early 20th Century. a staple of minstrel shows.



Did cakewalking in some ways influence what became known as jive-ass-walking/pimp-walking?

This snippet narrated by retired pimp Bishop Don Magic features watch-chain spinning, but it’s really, really lame compared to the vertical twirling of the mannishboy I saw on King Street that day.


So what’s the point of all this?  Good question.  I might have to get back to you on that except to say that if you’re lucky, you might see something amazing you’ll never forget, something that goes way back, has evolved, decayed, and all that jazz.  Or maybe, given how all my memories seem to sport an enhanced version, maybe time burnishes memories?

Or maybe there’s no fool like an old fool:


Girl in Pink Laughing by Claerwen James:

If you want to see human beings in society at their most animated, check out the spasmodic absurdity of a full-blown guffaw.  Here, in Late Empire America, the howler is typically overweight, if not obese, so when he begins to shudder and redden and gaspingly go har-har-har, he’s literally shaking, rattling, and rolling.  [I’m picturing ‘Bama KA pledge (pasty white complexion, dirty blonde buzzcut) who is stoned and watching Austin Powers 3 in a frat house].

If you’re an alien from a Spartan planet  – TriMinicon, let’s say – and encounter for the first time an earthling in a full-throated guffaw, you might be tempted to whip out your Zapgat and instantaneously demolecularize the brute.  (On the other hand, if you’re an extraterrestrial from enlightened Eulipia, you’ll discretely slipslide through a portal vector out of harm’s way).  Whatever the case, you don’t want anything to do with this snorting, teeth-baring biped.  Detaching yourself and viewing guffawing through alien eyes, this species of laughter appears as what-it-is: a loss of self-control, a brain seizure that results in gasping, weeping, and other heaving involuntary spasmodics.

If you think I’m exaggerating, the next time you see some knee-slapper rolling in the aisles, record it on your cell phone.  Later when you’re all alone in a quiet moment, watch the contortions of the subject as if you’re an anthropologist. As ephemeral as it might be,  guffawing is obviously a form of somatic insanity.  It’s simian.  No, check that: monkeyish.







What lurks in the heart of humor that triggers the brain of a humanoid to go apeshit? Here’s a rudimentary answer from Dr. Robert Provine, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland: “Laughter,” he writes, “is an ancient, unconsciously controlled vocal relic that co-exists with modern speech—-a social, psychological and biological act which predates humor and is shared with our primate cousins, the great apes.”  His research suggests that laughter is fundamentally social behavior, a nervous reaction, a non-verbal method of communication that facilitates social cohesion.

However, we’re talking guffawing here, not the harmonious chuckling of a studio audience. And I’m not so sure that guffawing is all that socially advantageous because it makes you look brain-damaged.  Once you’re in its hairy-handed grip, the guffaw shakes you until it feels like letting go. (You’re Fay Wray; it’s King Kong). What in Darwin’s name could be the mating advantages in such a display?

If a coed unexpectedly comes sauntering into the room where my Bama fratboy is leaning back in congested high-pitched convulsions, I can’t imagine her inner E.O. Wilson Puppet Master Gene prodding her to mate with him.  The frat boy sees her, wishes he could stop the seizure, wishes drool weren’t streaming from the corner of his mouth, but the sight of this lovely, mysterious stranger revs his engine, and the poor boy starts literally howling, his mouth wide open, his beer gut a-quiver; idiotically, he’s slapping himself on the thigh, a complete and utter slave to the Imp of the Perverse.  Again, what kind of humor or situation triggers such a spastic physiological reaction? What could it be  that has thrown this 20-year-old college student to hysteria?

I’m betting nothing positive.  On the DVD, he might have seen Austin Powers take a sip of Fat Bastard’s liquefied feces and complain that the coffee’s “a bit nutty.” The horrible absurdity of unknowingly ingesting shit could very well “slay” our fratboy.   But why?  I’m afraid that when I search my memory for instances of my own personal guffawing, I can’t conjure one example that doesn’t somewhat smack of sadism.  Now, I don’t profess to be in any way typical (or normal, for that matter), and I’m hip to the existential fact that the high Roman decadence that tickled Petronius the Arbiter’s funny bone isn’t likely to prompt peals of laughter from Billy Graham.  Nevertheless, I bet that the vast majority of uncontrollable laughter has its origin in some sort of unwholesome shocking occurrence and is an involuntary response to that shock, and if it is at someone else’s expense, so much the better.

Here’s my earliest remembered guffaw.  The year is 1960 or so, because I’m in my grandmama’s apartment (where I spent the night of the Kennedy Nixon election), so I’m seven years, give or take.  The apartment takes up most of the upper floor of a ramshackle subdivided Victorian house.  It’s the type of place with glass doorknobs and twelve-foot ceilings. On this particular night, we’re getting ready to go to bed or to go home – I can’t remember which – but my brother David finds a half empty Coca-Cola bottle and taunts me with it.  I beg for a sip – to share – just one sip – but he laughingly refuses, and to torture me to the fullest, he throws his head back, lifts the bottom of the bottle to the ceiling, and starts chugging as if it’s a bottle of Champagne and he’s just won the Indianapolis 500.

Unfortunately (at least for David), my father has extinguished his most recent cigarette in the bottle, and when David tastes the butt in his mouth, he screams, spits it out, and starts vomiting as I fall to the floor in convulsions, tears gushing from my eyes, and now, he, too, is guffawing – guffawing and vomiting – though managing to keep his feet in a stagger while I’m rolling on the floor back towards the wall to escape the splattering.

This instance of boomerang karma hardly seems funny at all in retelling it, but as I was typing just now and re-visualizing the event, I actually chuckled aloud.  If my brother were here, and I reminded him of the story, we’d both share a laugh, but we wouldn’t guffaw.  You probably can’t replicate a guffaw, the way you can a maniacal mad-scientist laugh, but you can come close.

Although guffaw’s noun definition: “a burst of coarse laughter” does suggest a certain lack of sophistication, a quick scan of the OED’s quoted usages doesn’t necessarily confirm my notion that “guffawing is involuntary.” In fact, guffaw’s earliest published appearance in the language is a 1720 a quote from someone called Ramsay from his work Wealth: “Syne (sic) circling wheels the flattering guffaw.”  Of course, we lack context here, but Ramsay’s fragment implies the guffaw is artificial in that someone seems to be obsequiously guffawing to kiss-up to a superior, which runs counter to my notion that guffawing on cue is an impossibility (except for your Marlon-Brando/Meryl-Streep caliber actors/actresses).   The second OED entry is more sinister.  It comes from a 1728 translation of the Aesop Fable, “The Ant and the Caterpillar.”   You may recall that in this fable an obnoxious ant accosts a lowly caterpillar with unprovoked scorn.  “Prithee get out of way,” the ant says in Thomas Bewick’s 1813 translation,  “and do not presume to obstruct the paths of thy superiors, by wriggling along the road, and besmearing the walks appropriated to their footsteps.”  The ant continues to berate the poor caterpillar:

In the 1728 translation that the OED cites, the Ant ends his tirade with this: “The airy Ant syne turn’d awa (sic),  And left him with a loud guffa” (sic).  Although smacking of sadism, this example also doesn’t suggest that guffawing is essentially uncontrollable laughter.  A colleague, a Latin teacher and astute student of languages, disagrees with my characterization of guffaw.  He sees it as a sort of contemptuous snort, a growl of contempt.

An Illustration from Thomas Bewick’s 1813 translation of Aesop’s Fables

The OED’s definition of the verb form of guffaw reads “[t]o laugh loudly or boisterously; to laugh coarsely or harshly.”  Cited examples include 1819’s, “they guffaw and smirkle (sic) in their play”; 1853’s “M’Roy guffaw’d like a laughing hyenar” (sic); and 1860’s, “how men grin and guffaw behind her back.”  All of these, I submit, smack of a certain element of unkindness but not that sense of hysteria that I see as a defining characteristic of guffawing, so I’m off on an unscientific Yahoo image search to see if I can detect hysteria in the photographic subjects.  Of course, I’m finding the range of so-called guffaws ridiculously broad, but here are two examples deemed guffawish enough to include the a form of the word guffaw in their titles:

“Guffawed Out” by Phillygee

Sepia Guffawing by Tex Blackmart






Ironically, you wouldn’t be surprised to find these photographs in an image search for “keening:”  Here’s a photo from my Yahoo keening image search:

To me, it looks as if the keener on the left’s having a better time than the person in “Guffaw’d Out.”  Any competent Photoshop artist could cut and paste “Guffaw’d Out” on a fitting torso in Poussin’s The Rape of the Sabine Women, and it would fit right in.

Obviously, the Venn diagram of physiological symptoms associated with guffawing and keening has a whole lotta of shading going on.  The American Heritage Dictionary defines guffaw as “a hearty boisterous burst of laughter.”  The AHD’s definition of boisterous reads “1. Rough and stormy; violent.  2. Noisy and lacking in restraint and discipline.” The verb burst suggests explosion.   So I still maintain that essentially a guffaw is unrestrained and unpremeditated.

On the other hand, my initial hunch that some sort of sadism is involved seems less assured.  For example, what about that guffawing infant in the first photograph?  How can sadism be involved since, surely, an innocent babe isn’t going to revel in another’s misfortune?  Based on my own parental experience with infant guffawing, I’ve noticed the phenomenon usually results from some tactile buzzing-bumble-bee teasing that the little one demands you to repeat time and time again ad nauseum as if she has been frightened out of her wits, then relieved, so now she wants to relive the process as a sort of naturally-selected desensitization exercise.  In fact, it looks to me that the infant in that first photo might be getting tossed in the air, or at least being tilted way back and perhaps undergoing some carnival-ride-thrill-brain-blood displacement.  Come to think of it, what about the appearance and behavior of roller coaster riders and other adrenalin-booster junkies?  Mouths wide open, they scream and laugh and shed tears.  It’s obvious that sobbing, guffawing, and panicking seem to all produce somewhat similar bodily reactions.

So what’s the common denominator?  Fear?  Shock?  Sadism?  Let me toss one last monkey wrench in the works: religious enthusiasm.  In my web surfing for hysterical laughter, every other hit led me to a religious website documenting an epidemic of guffawing in Pentecostal sects across the Late Empire.  The phenomenon, which is known as “holy laughter,” has caused quite a stir in charismatic Christian circles.  Someone named Dr. Cathy Bates (not a fan) fingers the South African evangelist Dr. Rodney Howard-Browne as “the person most responsible for this phenomenon.”   Here’s Howard Browne himself in his book The Touch of God describing “holy laughter”:

Dr. Burns goes on to describe disapprovingly “[s]ome other phenomena that take place at these laughing revivals: shaking, jerking, loss of bodily strength, heavy breathing, eyes fluttering, lips trembling, oil on the body, changes in skin color, weeping, laughing, ‘drunkenness,’ staggering, travailing, dancing, falling” [. . .]  Obviously, we’ve really wandered into some dark, pre-human irrational sphere that might even give Tarzan’s faithful sidekick Cheetah the heebie-jeebies.

Although laugher may be good medicine, guffawing appears potentially life threatening.  The above description of the god-smitten guffawers certainly seems unhealthy.  We’re talking heart palpitations, elevated blood pressure, staggering (picture one of those raptured revival-goers crossing a busy street), etc.  Yet, guffawing must serve some purpose, because it’s instinctual.  I’m going to offer a guess here [based my noodling around the word in my lazy, unscientific (but convincingly intuitive) way].  I posit that the guffaw, a laugh that goes beyond a belly laugh but doesn’t reach the holy laughter stage, is a physiological response to a startling surprise, a startling incongruity, or a slapstick pratfall of someone who could very well be, but thankfully is not, we.  Suddenly, we, the soon-to be-guffawers, become cognizant of the hilariously horrifying danger inherent in being alive, and this realization quite literally makes us crazy.  Our brainstem short-circuits our cerebrum, and we start howling, a not unpleasant metabolic kickstart.  We’re alive! The person next to us is starting to laugh because we look so ridiculous.   The planet’s spin has gotten us dizzy.  Now she’s guffawing, and the raucous laughter has chased the terror away.  We release accumulated tension and anxiety in a comedic catharsis akin to Aristotle’s description of vicarious psychological benefits of viewing a production of Oedipus Rex.

My most recent guffaw, the last that I can recall, occurred in the morgue of the Medical University of South Carolina, an easy place to feel uneasy.  I had volunteered to chaperone a field trip for the Advanced Biology class at the high school where I teach.  I reckoned that at the morgue I’d be entering would be the Nuke-Plant-grade, mirror-chrome-gleaming medical facility like you would see on Quincy, but when the retired professor guide ushered us into the laboratory, we discovered a dimly lit disorderly space in which an elderly male corpse silently screamed, “Look at me! Look at me!”   I did.  “The old gentleman,” as our guide Dr. Mori called the carcass, lay on its back with head seemingly undisturbed but with its chest cavity open to the sight of little numbered pennant-like triangular flags rising from his various organs.  Oddly, I thought of a putt-putt course, but then I remembered the fetal pigs from Biology II, and anyway, Dr. Mori was into his falsely detached rundown of the organs and explanations of why they might appear as they do – the lungs, for example, blackish in hue from seventy-years of breathing exhaust fumes.

Of course, in various existential reactions ranging from acute curiosity to creeped-out eye-aversion, we formed a circle around the table.  “The brain,” Dr. Mori said, “what about the brain?”  He reached into the sort of white plastic pail that painters clean their brushes in and – presto! –a brain appeared in the palm of his hand, a brain presumably belonging to this former person who had “donated his body to science.”   Dr. Mori went on to add that an unpreserved freshly extracted human brain is about the consistency of jello.  The unpristine condition of this calcified pretender seemed to disgust him, so he flung it back into its plastic pail, producing a splash of liquid (brain juice? formaldehyde?) that besprinkled the shirt/blouse of a boyfriend/girlfriend adjacent pair.  The looks on their faces!  Disgust incarnate!  Revulsion embodied! Horror!

I might have been all right, but I made eye contact with a colleague, who witnessed the same stricken expressions on the faces of the young lovers.  Our guffaws started as vain attempts to smother the impending bellowing, a pursing of our lips, the air pfffff-pfffing through.   Our faces began to flush, and we started rocking back and forth in the vain attempt to throttle the animal within us that was bursting out in a heaving roar of raucous laughter.  Embarrassed, we staggered away from the dead thing, the discomfited professor, and the confused students, but we’re having the time of our lives – we were alive!

Minicuardro David Fernandez

Poor creature! thou lookest like a thing-half made, which Nature not liking threw by unfinished. I could almost pity thee, methinks; but it is beneath one of my quality to talk to such mean creatures as thou art: and so, poor crawling wretch, adieu.

Despite Death’s Persistence

Poor old dead Daddy with his poor old dead brother David outside their poor old dead grandaddy Ackerman’s drug store on Spring Street circa 1937

It’s not surprising that Thanksgiving would be somewhat death-haunted. After all, I was driving Judy’s car to see Judy’s sister and her family.

Once I arrived, I found myself staring at sister Becky because she reminds me so much of Judy. It’s as if they share/d identical metabolisms. Both move/d slowly, deliberately; their eyes blink/ed slowly.[1] Anyway, I warned Becky that if I seemed to be staring at her a lot, sisterly likeness was the reason. She smiled a slow sweet that’s-okay smile.

We enjoyed a beautiful five days weatherwise, the setting Reynolds Preserve, a residential golf resort with autumnal foliage ablaze. Companionshipwise, a beautiful five days as well, son Ned was there and brother-in-law Big Dave and my nephew Scott and his wife Jessie and their daughters, the grandnieces, Emily and Annie, six and four, lovely and smart and honest. I overheard Emily say, “[. . .] Aunt Judy, who’s already dead.”

Here’s a mandala Emily drew celebrating the gathering.

artist Emily Hudson, who calls her grandmother Becky “Beppy”

Saturday, on the way back, I stopped in Aiken for an hour and had dinner with my Aunt Maria and cousins Pamela and Scarlet and their brood: spouses, in-laws, children, and children’s children. It seems I only see these kin when someone is dying or dead — Uncle David, Daddy, Mama, Judy — so I wanted to make a point of talking with Aunt Maria, a spry, car-driving eighty-three, while she was upright and smiling. A war bride, she has been living in Aiken County going on 70 years. I especially enjoy hearing what’s left of her now Southern-smothered German accent. Her elongated vowels have unclipped the Teutonic cadences. Yet German lies underneath, like a sonic archeological lower layer.

Aunt Maria’s parents’ gravestone

I could only stay an hour because I wanted to pick up Ms L. Muldoon from the Charleston airport. She had seen the night before a production of James Joyce’s “The Dead” at the New York Irish Historical Society. She texted about the “heaviness” at the end “with the snow and all.”

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. [Gabriel] watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

So when I left Pamela’s, headed back to Charleston, I listened to Donal Donnelly’s reading Episode 6 of Ulysses, the Hades episode, when Bloom rides in a carriage to Dignam’s funeral and burial. I was on back roads, taking Highway 4 through Springfield and Neeses, (dare I say) dying Orangeburg County towns, and it seemed like every four miles I passed a cemetery in some podunk country churchyard with a chain-linked fence surrounding the graves.

Meanwhile, in his carriage Bloom reads from the obituary page of the morning paper the names of the deceased, “[i]nked characters fast fading on the frayed breaking paper.”

Through the carriage window:

White horses with white frontlet plumes came round the Rotunda corner, galloping. A tiny coffin flashed by. In a hurry to bury. A mourning coach. Unmarried. Black for the married. Piebald for bachelors. Dun for a nun.

— Sad, Martin Cunningham said. A child.

Highway 4 is a lovely road that rises and falls through horse country before flattening out near Orangeburg. I usually listen to AM gospel radio stations when passing through Orangeburg County – I dig the vocal groups, the church announcements, and especially, the high-octane iambic admonitions of preacher men– but Joyce and his medium Donnelly had me hypnotized.

Mr Bloom came last, folding his paper again into his pocket. He gazed gravely at the ground till the coffincart wheeled off to the left. The metal wheels ground the gravel with a sharp grating cry and the pack of blunt boots followed the barrow along a lane of sepulchres.

Bloom, who has lost a father to suicide and his young son Rudy to disease, sees death for what it is, inevitable and commonplace:

A pump after all, pumping thousands of gallons of blood every day. One fine day it gets bunged up and there you are. Lots of them lying around here: lungs, hearts, livers. Old rusty pumps: damn the thing else.

I was already in the town of Orangeburg by the time Dingam’s

gravediggers put on their caps and carried their earthy spades towards the barrow. Then knocked the blades lightly on the turf: clean. One bent to pluck from the haft a long tuft of grass. One, leaving his mates, walked slowly on with shouldered weapon, its blade blueglancing.

Dingam was six-feet under, and Episode 6 had run its course, so I reached over for some early Stones.

“Come On” came blasting from the speakers. I had turned the Joyce, as Lucinda Williams would say, “way up high.”

But I didn’t turn it down. I was on the Interstate doing 75 airport bound.

[1] Becky was a 10/10 match for the marrow transplant never to be.

Dog Gone


Long gone Saisy (read and hear her elegy here)

When I teach poetry, I get technical, especially with meter, because to me the marriage of sound and sense is what alchemizes verse into poetry.   Over the years, trying to get students to replicate a line of iambic pentameter or anapestic trimeter, I’ve had them bopping bongos, rapping desktops with drumsticks, clapping their hands.

Frankly, rhythm doesn’t come naturally to many — if not the majority; nevertheless, I’ll continue to emphasize meter until the end of my career, which is just around the corner, almost within shouting distance.

With the six-month anniversary of Judy’s death approaching, I have been ever so slowly inventorying and eliminating. Going through some drawers yesterday, I ran across this twenty-year-old poem/parody I wrote as an answer to a student who asked after a session of metric hand clapping, “Is there such a thing as iambic monometer?” Right then and there, I composed an answer on the chalkboard (I believe it was still the age of slate and chalk, but I could be wrong).

That night in my drafty garret at the Isle of Palms, I typed the poem and went on an over-interpreting binge, which was probably bad pedagogy since most students believe that teachers read far too much into poems anyway, but I just couldn’t help myself. I had to justify the reason for anyone ever to write a poem in iambic monometer.

Without further ado, I present it to you here, the annotated version.  Read it and weep.

Yes, Preston Wendell, There Is Such a Thing as Iambic Monometer[1]

The old dog barks backward without getting up.

I can remember when he was a pup.

The fret-[2]

ful Dog

is dead

and gone.[3]

[1] Preston Wendell studied under Wesley Moore in 1996-7. Wendell’s question led to the genesis of the poem. The epigraph is from Frost’s “The Span of Life.” Obviously, the choice of iambic monometer and the resultant abbreviated lines with their clipped cadences offer a visual and auditory parallel to the relative brevity of a dog’s life.

[2] Cf. Macbeth 5.5 “Out, out brief candle/Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets (emphasis mine) his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more.”

[3] It was been pointed out that the approximate rhyme dog/gone, not only embodies the crux of the poem, but also may be taken as a minced oath bemoaning the transitory nature of life.

Now, let me remove tongue from cheek and put some whiskey there instead.

What My Horoscope Say

original painting by George Quaintance, photoshopped by I-and-I



Sagittarius, my name’s Wes. Half

Shetland pony, half man, half drunk,

Spunky, funky feetswise, street wise

Not so much. Hobbling on All Day IPA

Crutches, engaged to a duchess, a

Non bullshitter my horoscope say.


My horoscope say I promise more

than deliverable, say I so un-

diplo make Donald Trump

shiver with the faux pas machine

I be revving 24/7. A freedom craving

charming ass knave, it say.


But I know this cat born on the same day

who be ain’t at all like me, good at math,

half Chinese, don’t waste his time

pumping out faux funk, got good

teeth, non-nomadic, tactful, wrath

less, leave no mess, a Sagittarius?


Wonder what his horoscope say.



My Favorite Vulgarity

I can’t believe it’s been five years since Aaron James published Assholes, a Theory, a book that got me in trouble at school when I explained to a star student athlete breaking in the lunch line that he was an “asshole” according to a philosophical treatise I’d just read.

Much to my surprise, although a senior, the violator-of-queue-protocol told his mama, who called the higher-ups demanding an apology, which I refused to offer. “Would she rather I call him despicable?” I asked rhetorically, mentioned he was older than an acquaintance of mine killed in Nam, that I had offered the Anglo-Saxon descriptor in the context of a bone fide academic argument, etc. My bosses, to their credit, demurred. After graduation, I did, however, tell him that I was sorry calling him an asshole had upset him, but he claimed it hadn’t.

Anyway, “asshole” is an example of synecdoche, one of the gadgets poets use in their bag of tricks, a part standing for the whole, illustrated here in Eliot’s famous lines from “Prufrock”:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Synecdoche, a sort of cinematic device, focuses the mind’s eye on concrete images, renders the airy world of words in flashes of substantiality as we atomistically see the part and perceive the whole, our mental cinematographer panning out from the rugged claws to the crab itself and our imaginations morphing the symbol into meaning however our imaginations will.

In explaining this concept to students, I actually use asshole as in a despicable person to illustrate synecdoche because, flash, they immediately get it and tend not to forget it.

I have to admit I love the word [1] – almost a perfect spondee – bam-bam.  Not surprisingly, it comes to English via the Vikings [2], those juvenile delinquents with battle-axes, as one of my history professors described them.  Actually, though, according to (my OED doesn’t list asshole), its vulgar usage as a despicable person doesn’t appear until the 1950’s in of all places, the Harvard Advocate 137, March 1954.

Asshole’s popularity as a derisive term is not only evident in its broad usage but also in the number of offshoots it has spawned – assholery, assholic, etc.

But back to James’s book and his ruminations. He writes

Our theory has three main parts.  In interpersonal or cooperative relations, the asshole:

  1.  allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;
  2.  does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
  3.  is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.

I say, bravo.

Professor James is less successful, however, in classifying assholes because he doesn’t base his division on one principle; therefore, he creates categories that overlap, e.g., the boorish asshole, the smug asshole, the asshole boss, the corporate asshole, the self-aggrandizing asshole.  Obviously, it’s easy to perceive a corporate boss like Donald Trump as being smug, self-aggrandizing, and boorish all in one.

Certainly, he is by far, according to James’s theory, the ass-holiest US president in this and the last century if not the most egregious of all time.

At any rate, I enjoyed James’s book and now that it’s five years old you can probably cop it for pennies on Amazon.

[1] Cognate with Norwegian rasshøl (“asshole”), Swedish arsle (“asshole”). Compare also German Arschloch (“asshole”). Attested from the 1370s, replacing earlier Old English earsþerl (“anus”, literally “arse thirl”). First recorded in Middle English, as ers hole (Glouc. Cath. Manuscript 19. No. I. , dated 1379, cited after OED), ars-hole (Bodleian Ashmole MS. 1396, dated ca. 1400, ed. Robert Von Fleischhacker as Lanfrank’s “Science of Cirurgie”, EETS 102, 1894, cited after OED.)

[2] Check out TC Boyle’s “We Are Norsemen” for a primer on Norse assholedom: “The idiot.  The pale, puny, unhardy idiot. A rage came over me at the thought of it – I shoved [the monk] aside and snatched up the book, thick pages, dark characters, the mystery and magic.  Snatched it up, me, a poet, a Norseman, an annihilator, an illiterate.  Snatched it up and and watched the old man’s suffering features as I fed it, page by filthy page, into the fire.  Ha!”

There Is a Lounge in New Orleans

Out Back of Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge


With my pith helmet safely stowed in the overhead bin, photographer/videographer/grief counselor Loquacia Muldoon and I took our seats on a 6 a.m. Southwest flight bound for New Orleans. Jacob T Williams II, with whom I’ve been practicing anthropology going on 45 years, had invited us to his home base in the Big Easy to observe the peoples of that city doing what they do best, getting down.

As my regular readers know, when I practice ethnography, I try to blend with the people I’m observing by mimicking their garb, whether it be donning a Gamecock baseball cap to study a college football game or slithering into a silk dress and feathery boa to rub elbows with drag queens. In the case of New Orleans, though, I found I could dress pretty much normally just as long as I cocked my fedora at the appropriate angle, steeper than usual.

During the expedition, the events became more dramatic from day to day, each successive 24-hour period becoming more funktastic than the next, culminating in the patio area of the bad-ass-iest place I’ve ever set foot in, Kermit Ruffins’ Mother-in-Law Lounge up on North Claiborne in Treme.

Here is my report.

Front Door


Our flight arriving just after noon, Jake himself retrieved us from the airport, then took us to an eating establishment called the Cochon Butcher. Mostly white the clientele, this establishment could have been mistaken for a Charleston eatery except for some of its decorative touches.

After a much-needed nap, we met Jake and his assistant Susan at Jefferson Square to catch a bit of Robert Cray, who was playing for free at the Barbecue and Blues Festival. I know, I know, the following statement is going to sound hypocritical, but the place was crawling with bourgeoisie, lazy white people lolling in lawn chairs, nodding sedately to the gentlemanly blues of Mr. Cray.

As Jake and Susan announced their departure, I mentioned I wanted to check out the Rock-n-Bowl. Jake informed me the brass band the Soul Brothers were playing there, so Loquacia and I hopped a Uber and made our way to the venue, a combination bowling alley, bar, and music showcase.

We caught the tail end of Papa John Gros’s set. Here, have gander:

The Soul Rebels were, of course, great, but the infirmity of age required I leave during their very first set. Oh, how the funk be wasted on the bachelorette party participants there dressed in their kitty kat kostumes.


Jake mentioned that every Sunday various organizations sponsor a second line parade, so via google, I discovered one was happening on North Broad Street come one o’clock, so Loquacia and I, with photographic equipment in tow, tromped the two-mile, thirteen minute walk. When we arrived at the destination, the drizzle that had been falling went all downpour on us, but some friendly folk invited us to join them on a porch out of the rain.

While we were standing there, a float arrived claiming to be the Big Chief’s float, and some generous souls stood at the railing handing out half pints of some kind of clear liquor, and when those ran out, Mardi Gras beads.  Not wanting to intrude, Loquacia and I had to settle for refreshments provided by street vendors.

As we waited, a drummer in a wheelchair was playing his heart out, sounding like a full-fledged band, until finally the festivities got under way. The video below is the first line, and if you love soulfulness, you need to check it out.


Well, you might reckon that the line parade would be the apotheosis of the party, but, lo, no, on Monday afternoon Jake us took us to  Kermit’s Mother in Law Lounge, owned, obviously, by trumpeter Kermit Ruffins.  When we arrived, a trio was playing, maybe recording.  Only Jake, Loquacia, a couple of staff members, and I were inside. Here’s a peek.

An old man who seemed to be in maintenance introduced us to Spodie, aka Derrick Shezbie, who spent some time with us, pontificated, bore gifts, etc.

from left to right, humble ethnographer, Jake, and Spodie

Oh yeah, Kermit and Cyril Neville were also hanging around.  Kermit is a happy soul, smiling, generous with the fist pump, hospitable.  Loquacia played tetherball with a young teenager as ten or so adults tended to their hedonism.

Kermit in the pink hat, Cyril Neville with back facing the camera

Eventually it was nap time, and we had a farewell dinner at Mr. Ed’s Oyster Bar, watched some youtube videos of Dr John and Etta, Muddy Waters, and the Eurythmics, but alas, the night was old, and so am I.


A mournful flight home, but the memories remain.