Total Eclipse of the Sun, Thales Edition

By far my most boring class ever dealt with pre-Socratic philosophers. The problem was not with the subject matter. Who doesn’t want to drop the adjective Heraclitean at a cocktail party? The problem lay in the presentation, a droning seated lecturer who never raised his eyes from his notes to discern that his audience wasn’t a collection of 19th century Oxford dons.

I did learn a few facts, though. Heraclitus correctly surmised that things were constantly in flux, Democritus developed an atomic theory of the universe, and Thales correctly predicted a solar eclipse circa 585 BCE.

Even back then, this prediction thrilled me with an appreciation for human ingenuity. How many hours, days, years, and decades of sky-observation did it take Thales to come up with this prediction? We’re talking with the naked eye in a slide-ruler-less world. Did he, as the Savoy Brown song says, “Sleep with the sun and rise with the moon?” He must have, had to.

Anyway, I raise my eclipse eve morning blood mary to Thales, to Heraclitus, Pythagoras, and to my professor who, despite his dry approach, devoted his life to scholarship rather than hedonism.







Imagine your father at seven, at recess, down on one knee

outside the stick scrawled circumference of a marble ring.

In his drawstring bag: clambroths, corkscrews, steelies, crystals.

A cat’s eye rests on his cocked thumb, crocked in the pocket

of a curved index finger catapult. He prepares to shoot,

to run the ring, to gather lootlike handfuls.


Imagine your mother a gum machine. Round

and finite, an array of flavors in strata, waiting for

puberty’s pennies, the shiny orbs, one by one,

patiently waiting their turn

to spin clanging down the chute

battering the hinged door that dispenses.


Celebrity Calvacade

Richard Avedon's 1972 photograph of Oscar Levant

Richard Avedon’s 1972 photograph of Oscar Levant

Back in the day, I prided myself on my prowess as a popular entertainment trivia master, both in the contemporary and vintage categories, though, admittedly, I’m talking way back in the day when there was no such thing as trivia nights at bars or reality tv — not to mention personal computers or the Internet.

We’re talking the Late Fifties, Sixties and Early Seventies when they were fewer bands, movie and television stars, and gameshow hosts. Back in the day when someone might be billed as “a comic sidekick.”

One of the reasons for my encyclopedic knowledge was my grandparents’ letting me at a wee age stay up to the wee hours to watch the Tonight Show — we’re talking before the mighty Johnny Carson, we’re talking Steve Allen and Jack Paar.

Back during the live era, celebrities sometimes came on “doped up” as my grandfather put it — people like Judy Garland and Oscar Levant, whose presence both troubled and fascinated me. The quaint phrase “all hepped up on goofballs” comes to mind. Note how cavalier Paar is about Levant’s condition.

On one of his appearances Oscar Levant’s hands were shaking so badly he couldn’t light his cigarette. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.

Back then, late night television wasn’t a constant corporate Hollywood movie marketing inside joke fest. Truman Capote would show up on Johnny Carson to impugn Brando’s intelligence or Sammy Davis, Jr’s singing chops.

Also, I watched a helluva lot of old movies on weekdays during the summer in the mornings and late at night on the weekends in those pre-cable days when movies constituted a goodly chunk of broadcast television’s abbreviated 6 am to 2 am day, movies that featured George Raft, Myrna Loy, William Powell, the Marx Brothers, Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers, Micky Rooney, Humphrey Bogart — you know the TCM MGM line-up.

The game show What’s My Line was one of my favorites with its sophisticated panel that included Bennett Cerf, James Joyce’s American publisher. Each week they’d blindfold the panelists and bring out a celebrity whom the panelists would try to identify through a series of questions — celebrities like Salvador Dali or Carl Sandberg. Descendants of Oscar Wilde, these witty New York sophisticates on the panel were fun to hang out with, even for a nine-year-old.

Well, boys and girls, my days of trivia supremacy are over. When I flip through an issue of Vanity Fair, I’ve never heard of 80% of the swells captured in various parties. This morning, the imp of the perverse bade me hit the Red Carpet Met Gala LINK on the Times, and I realize that when it comes to celebrities, I don’t know a Ethan Hawke from a Shankshaw Redemption.

I recognized a few — I hadn’t realized that surfer Kelly Slater was a patron of the arts – but what really surprised me was how many of these celebrities go by just one name, like they’re walking brand names. Of course, I’ve heard of Beyonce, Rihanna, and Usher, but who in tarnation are Solange, Grimes, Common, and Miguel?

Call me a square, a crotchety old man (who else would use the word “tarnation” ) shaking his cane at these new celebrities, but something tells me I’d rather hang out with Judy Garland and Oscar Levant than Christopher Kane and FKA Twigs.

Gimme a D, Gimme a U, Gimme a H.  What does that spell?

Gimme a D, Gimme a U, Gimme a H. What does that spell?


Britt McHenry, Mistake Maker

One of the first rules of common decency when complaining about some corporate misfeasance is to preface your complaint with the acknowledgement that your audience is not truly responsible for the policy that has angered you.  The voice on the line in Bangalore isn’t the one who decided that channeling callers through a Minoan labyrinth of recorded messages is an efficient way to solve customer problems; he wasn’t the one who decided to hire as few employees as possible to bolster the bottom line so that the CEO will receive a bonus that equals the entire yearly Gross National Product of Burundi. I suspect the person on the line is facing worse problems than your current inability to connect to the world-wide web.

Until yesterday I had never heard of Britt McHenry, the ESPN reporter whose churlish tirade against a parking lot attendant got her suspended for a week from her duties, which means someone else will have to probe the profound thoughts of linebackers, point guards, and goalies. Someone else will have to engage in pleasant banter with the anchors.

McHenry as issued an apology: “In an intense and stressful moment, I allowed my emotions to get the best of me and said some insulting and regrettable things.  As frustrated as I was, I should always choose to be respectful and take the high road. I am so sorry for my actions and will learn from this mistake.”

Here’s a catalogue of some of the “regrettable things” she said to the attendant:

I have a degree and you don’t.”
“I wouldn’t work at a scumbag place like this.”
“Makes my skin crawl even being here.”
“That’s all you care about is just taking people’s money.”
“With no education, no skill set”
“Do you feel good about your job?”
“I could be a college dropout and do the same thing?”
“I have a brain and you don’t.”
“Maybe if I was missing some teeth they would hire me.”
“Oh yours? Cause they look so stunning.” (Criticizing the attendant’s teeth)
“I’m on television and you’re in a f**king trailer, honey.”
“Lose some weight, baby girl.”

Ms McHenry’s punishment is a week’s suspension from her job and the scorn being heaped on her by lesser people like me who are not on TV,  a blogger with not much of an audience.

If I were an ESPN exec, I might make her read Dickens Great Expectations or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or demand she spend her week off in Buffalo County, South Dakota, the most impoverished county in the USA.

Lessons to be learned (besides the fact that the employee at the towing yard  didn’t establish the parking statutes of the city): cameras, cameras, everywhere; also a megrims of humility is ultimately more attractive than the gorgeous smiles that orthodontics can create.  Believe it or not, some of us out here don’t hold ESPN reporters as paragons.

In fact, they, too, can offer some inviting targets for ridicule — even when they’re not bullying some poor woman doing her best to earn a living given the lot she’s inherited.

Just be thankful, Ms McHenry, that HL Mencken ain’t around to have a go at you.

Super Bowl XLIX Preview

Trimalchio burping in Fellini's Satyricon

Trimalchio burping in Fellini’s Satyricon

Nothing screams Late Empire Grotesquerie quite like the Super Bowl with its pompous Roman numerals, its pagan half-time extravaganza, its skyboxes stuffed with scores of corporate Trimalchios guzzling and gorging themselves.

Expect a trained raptor to circle the field, a phalanx of fighter jets to scorch overhead in a metaphorical flex of Uncle Sam’s biceps; expect some recording star to over-do the national anthem and several former players or coaches to move their hands robotically as they analyze an interception with all of the gravitas of professors dissecting the fall of the Soviet Union or Lee’s machinations at Gettysburg.


Expect scores of commercials (see below). Some clever, some not.   A 30 second spot costs about 4.5 million, or, if you prefer, $150K per second, which, unlike raising the minimum wage, will benefit companies, not hurt them.

Oh yeah, the game. It will be played indoors in a desert in Arizona. Expect four 15-minute quarters elongated by TV timeouts for the long-awaited commercials (see above) that will be subject of many a conversation among coffee swilling workers on one of the most depressing Mondays of the year.

At halftime, don’t count on any wardrobe malfunctions from Katy Perry or Missy Elliott, whoever they are. You can count on, however, fireworks, which cost a mere $2K per minute, and, also throughout the broadcast expect to see attention-desperate adults dressed like lizards, pirates, etc. so they can get on TV.

After touchdowns, I predict the scorer will spike the football or vogue or dance or all of the above.

After the game, expect to be battered by a barrage of clichés mumbled by players taking very shallow breaths.

Prediction: Most of the people in the skyboxes will be European Americans; most of the players on the field will be African Americans.

Oh yeah, the Final Score:

Corporate America: many millions

Average Viewer: 1 hangover.


Post Retirement Income Ideas (Installment 1)

Given my extravagant lifestyle, which includes craft beers and state of the art electronics, I suspect that making ends meet when I’m yoked to a fixed income might be problematic, so I’m entertaining ideas about how I might generate supplemental dinero after I stumble out of the ever more complicated labyrinth of teaching high school.

My latest obsession, fueled by my reading of Grant McCracken’s 2009 book Transformations: Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture, is what Jung called the persona, the public mask we present to the world.  After I googled “personae,”  I ran across this WEBSITE promoting a gallery exhibition called “Projecting Personae.”  As I read the website’s description of the ideas underlying the exhibition, it occurred to me that I could render those ideas a tad bit less pretentiously, perhaps increasing the attendance and garnering more publicity.  I’ll let you be the judge.

The original description:

One’s cultural perspective can be seen as the practice of interfacing one’s psyche with an oppositional world of irreconcilable differences. As we seek to combat historic oppressions and correct cultural assumptions, our identities take on a state of perpetual negotiation—between (sic)* one’s flesh, one’s façade and one’s functions—a convergence of activities, beliefs, costumes and customs, broadcast via the surfaces of our bodies, upon which our socio-cultural transcriptions and evolutions can be read.

My edit:

How you see shit is conditioned by the shit you see all around you — the hobo chugging a 24-oz. Bull, the Upper East Side swell in a camel hair coat. History ain’t been kind to neither black folk nor crackers nor gay queer-theorists nor womenfolk for that matter, so if you’re one of the above, you gotta pretend every now that you ain’t you, slap on a mask, figure out who you wanna look like in various certain situations. This shit depends on your DNA, what you pretending to be, and what you’re doing at the time,   It’s a mash up of what’s going down, what you believe, what you wanna wear according to the situation — whether it be an appearance before a magistrate or a invitation to a pagan Solstice party. I repeat, this display depends on your DNA, the tattoos you’ve acquired, and the life you’ve lived.

Come to think of it, I bet there ain’t much money in it.

* among, not between, goddammit!

One of the pieces from the exhibition

One of the pieces from the exhibition





The Return of the Ethnologist

As Folly Beach’s most eminent ethnologist — why mince words — I have devoted much of the last two decades living among the natives, sharing their waves, participating in their Dionysian rituals, floating in their float frenzies, watching their parades. (You can read my previous studies here: ST PATRICK’S  DAY, FOLLYPALOOZAFLOAT FRENZY, XMAS PARADE).

Today, I again don the pith helmet to participate in the Folly Porch Fest, an odd ritual. Native householders invite complete strangers to play musical compositions on their front porches. Afterwards, the participants will gather at Chico Feo as the sun sets for the so-called After Party.

I, too, will be there, having sacrificed the experience of getting to watch my beloved alma mater’s mighty eleven lose to their orange-clad rivals from that phallus-shaped state that claims the alligator as its totem.

Why? you ask. Because I place science above mere personal pleasure.

Nevertheless, as time’s winged chariot has swept me from bushy-headed youth to Gobi-domed senescence, I find myself turning my studies to more sedentary pursuits as I zoom out from the folkways of the small strip of land appropriately named Folly Island to obtain a wider purview of American culture.
images-2More specifically, I have been studying old episodes of the Lone Ranger and the Roy Rogers Show, comparing the popular entertainment of the Cold War era with the irony-surfeited popular entertainment of the new millennium.

As it turns out, the Lone Ranger series attempted by subterfuge to eradicate bigotry through the symbiotic relationship that the Lone Ranger and Tonto share, the former an alienated white man devoted to establishing law and order in the territorial West, the latter a red man whose nobility so outshines those of the rustlers, murderers, and con men he battles (between commercials for funeral insurance and orthopedic beds) that it should be plain even to Lester Maddox or George Wallace that it’s not the color of a man’s skin that determines the content of his character.

I’ve accumulated a container-ship worth of data to support this argument, but shall offer only three short examples, which appeared in 1956’s Season Five. In episode 204, “A Message from Abe,” the Lone Ranger disguises himself as Abe Lincoln and delivers the Gettysburg Address to a town foaming at the mouth to lynch an innocent.   In episode 216, “Mission for Tonto,” the “noble savage” explains to an incredulous gunshot victim why he Tonto is helping him despite the bigotry he had displayed against the “Redskin” who is now saving his life.

Tonto: All men are brothers. Some have white skin, some have red skin, some have black skin, but we all bothers.

Lastly, in episode 217, “Canuck” the Lone Ranger explains to a French Canadian émigré why the town has persecuted his family. “It’s the age old human tendency to dislike people who speak a different language,” the Masked Man explains.

03_lone_ranger_5As a pre-pubescent viewer growing up in the segregated South, these lessons didn’t consciously register with me, nor, not surprisingly, did I pick up on the obvious gayness — albeit celibate — that the Lone Ranger and Tonto embrace since I didn’t have a clue about heterosexual sex, much less homosexuality.

On the other hand, The Roy Rogers Show possesses all of the high-mindedness of a trained seal act. The setting is some odd anachronistic town in the Old West where everyone locomotes via horse except for comic sidekick Pat Brady who drives a jeep named Nellybelle.

Roy and his wife Dale Evans run a cafe where Pat Brady is chef. Although Roy and Dale are champions of justice, they do seem to take a bit of sadistic pleasure in mocking poor Pat Brady who obviously suffers from some sort of mental disability that might be termed in those politically incorrect days as “mild retardation.” Think of him as the dim-witted father of Barney Fife.

The highlight of each episode is a bare knuckled fist fight where the combatants exchange a series of jaw-crunching haymakers that might give a rhinoceros a concussion. (The Lone Ranger and Tonto augment judo moves with their fisticuffs).

As in the Lone Ranger, justice always wins over nefariousness, and irony never rears its mocking head.

Comical Sidekick Pat Brady

Comical Sidekick Pat Brady


On the Rocks

photo by Wesley Moore

photo by Wesley Moore










Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?

                                            Twelfth Night


“Right now I need a drink.”


“What do you mean by need?”

a concerned citizen asks.


“I mean

I need a drink

the way Yin needs Yang,

Apollo Daphne,

like polio-stricken FDR

after riding six hours

in an open car

through driving rain

needed a stiff bourbon

to buck him up.


“So that’s what I mean

when I say,

‘I need a drink.’


So, kind citizen,

I mean cakes and ale.


Or better yet

a scotch on the rocks.”

4.5 Rules for English Teachers Seeking Interviews in Today’s Ridiculously Overcrowded Market

I don’t know if you’ve ever paid attention to films that feature English teachers, but in the movies, English teachers tend to be charismatic intellectuals. Through their Hollywood good looks, dedication, and eloquence, they mesmerize intellectually engaged students who actually enjoy the poetry of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.

In the movies, English teachers never divide classes into pairs for group work, nor do we get to see them destroying their eyesight trying to disentangle Bennington’s Arabic-looking scrawl, as they visually transliterate groups of words to see if sentences are complete, syntactically clear, correctly punctuated, and on topic.

Parents of students in the movies tend to be worse than in real life. Generally, soulless egotists, they drive their progeny to suicide by demanding they adhere to the parents’ Waspish ways. Never do I see the more typical parent, overbearing, yes, but bearing down on the teacher to make an exception for little Sam who deserves to be AP despite abysmal PSAT scores.

Oh, yeah. I’m forgetting the movie teachers who work at inner city schools, teachers cut from Anne Sullivan/Helen Keller mold, miracle workers who somehow burrow through acres of emotional scars to rescue and then resuscitate the golden child trapped within.

Perhaps movies share some of the blame for so many of our young people going off to college and majoring in English hoping one day to find themselves teaching in idealized English classrooms.


It’s really hard getting a job as an English teacher at a prestigious school because, unlike science and math majors, who can make real money in the real world, English majors generally lack marketable skills and therefore are a dime a dozen (cliché not adjusted for inflation).

Where I teach, we get approximately 300 applications for every opening. Since one of my jobs as an English department chair is to screen resumes, I thought I’d offer some advice for English teachers seeking employment, especially given the success of my previous foray into self-help, Mining Insomnia for Gold. Click here for free copy.


Who knows, these 4.5 simple rules might rescue your CV from trash icon and land it in the interview folder.

Rule 1: Break into the front of the line

Okay, if you want a job, especially if you’re seeking a local gig, you need to target certain schools and check their websites daily. Have your CV and cover letter ready to go with Xs marking the name of the school so you can edit the letter quickly for whatever opportunity arises.

Believe me, the first twenty applicants are going to get much more attention that the last 280.

Rule 2: Create a Good First Impression

Nowadays, emails bearing attachments are the first thing hirers see. At our school, they go to the Headmaster’s Assistant who shovels them my way. Although not a deal breaker by any means, it makes a better impression if you include the Headmaster’s name in the salutation (even though he or she won’t see it) than using the cold, vaguely 1984-ish “To whom it may concern.” Knowing the headmaster’s name demonstrates familiarity with the school.

Also, this communication bears the first impression of you as a writer. You want here efficient, active prose that briskly establishes your interest.

Bad: To whom to may concern: Need a job. Would love to work at your school. By the way, I can teach history as well.

Okay-ish: To whom it may concern: I saw on your website that there’s a job opening for a 6th grade teacher and am therefore applying. Please see my attached resume. I look forward to meeting with you to discuss in person my qualifications.

Much better: Hello, Dr. Grandgrind: I’m interested in the 6th grade position posted on your website. I’ve attached my CV and cover letter. Thanks for your consideration.

Now, although the English major reading these emails might not consciously notice the deft alliteration/assonance of the po-sounds in “position” and “posted” and even less likely to notice the medial consonance of the t sounds of that pairing, sonorous sentences might register unconsciously.

Rule 2.5: Cut the “look-forward-to-meeting-with-you-to-discuss-in-person-my-qualifications” pushy salesperson shit.

Rule 3.5: Compose a brilliant, well-honed yet soulful cover letter that incorporates the job qualifications of the posting with an engaging bio.

I actually read cover letters before I even look at CVs. Even if your candidate graduated summa cum laude from Stanford that doesn’t mean she knows how to write. Academic prose generally sucks.

Rule 4.5: Make your CV aesthetically attractive but not cutsey.

Make the goddamned thing easy to read.

So there you have it, wretched reader, and by the way, if you don’t get an interview, don’t feel discouraged, keep plugging away, and if you do get an interview and not the job, you should still feel proud of yourself – you’ve demonstrated you got the credentials. Generally, life is a crapshoot. All types of contingencies arise. It’s very likely you’re superior to whoever is interviewing you.

The irony is there’s no way I would hire me-back-then if I applied for a job at my school.



First Sentences, First Impressions


We’ve all been told of the importance of first impressions, which are particularly crucial when trying to publish a piece of fiction. Stephen Corey, former editor of the Georgia Review, once told me that if a story didn’t grab him by sentence three he chunked it into the rejection pile. He said he received approximately 300 manuscripts a month, which meant that to get a story into that quarterly publication, you were going against 1200 other combatants.

I suspect with novels the pressure isn’t quite as intense; nevertheless, certainly a rollicking good first sentence has to be advantageous.

Take Jay McInerney’s first from Bright Lights, Big City, a sentence that falls beneath a chapter title that reads “It’s Six A.M. Do You Know Where You Are”

 You’re not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time in the morning.

It certainly hooked me, as I found myself all-coked-up in “either the Heartbreak or Lizard Lounge” – my second person narrator wasn’t sure which – “talking to a girl with a shaved head.”

Of course, some writers don’t opt for the old in medias res commencement but take us way back in time, as Thomas Sterne does with Tristan Shandy’s contemplatiion of the act of his procreation:

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in  duty both equally bound to it, had duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;— and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions that were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and  proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded that I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.

Others attempt to establish mood:

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

Or to encapsulate theme like this:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a good wife.

Or this:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Nor does the quality of first sentence, I might add, signify the over all quality of the work as a whole.  Certainly Joyce’s first sentence of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there wasa moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. . . .” is more arresting than the first sentence of Ulysses –  “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” – but few would rank Portrait over Ulysses in overall quality.  And certainly, George Eliot’s first sentence of Middlemarch – “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.” – though interesting, doesn’t even begin to signal the grandeur that is to follow.

Well, you wonder, what is the greatest of all first sentences written in English?  “Call me Ishmael?”  Or “A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes?”

No, by my reckoning, the greatest first sentence of any novel anywhere came from the typewriter of Nabokov.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

After reading that, would not be compelled to read on?

Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov