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.

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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.

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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” 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 it applied for a job at my school.

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First Sentences, First Impressions

Ishmael

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 entitled “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

Disorder Above Key West

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Click the grey arrow above for sound

 

I lifted my head and croaked

Like a crow, and the nails

Vibrated with something like music . . .

James Dickey, “A Folk Singer of the Thirties”

1

Henry David Dobson

Out of action, losing traction,

I slid down South, a bad mistake.

Florida is flat, crawling with con men,

rattlesnakes, swamps, and tattooed

waitresses who call you “Sugar Britches.”

 

Shooting for Key West, got waylaid in Mayo,

Way down upon the Suwannee River,

A taint of a town (tain’t panhandle,

tain’t peninsula), impoverished

in more ways than one.  No fun.

 

Met Loquacia at a juke joint call’d Phas 2,

a concrete block shit hole

not far from the “Bo Gator Motel” where

I was staying – not clean, not well-lighted –

and my money was dwindling.

 

Loquacia was into iguanas, had them

inked all over her skin, crawling up

her back from butt crack to shoulder

blade and up over down betwixt her tits

crawling down under disappearing into her panties.

 

Just got one tat, the name of my dead son,

Thom, one letter from left to right

in the crotches between my fingers.

I open my hand and spread the span,

and poof! his name appears in Gothic.

 

Anyways, I spent my days scrounging,

hooked up, thanks to L, with this cat who claimed

to be from JA, Mo-Bay, but could have been

some South Carolina geechie for all I know,

but he paid me good to make a run.

 

Seems he supplied some squids

at the base up in Jacksonville.

2 kilos of what the geechie calls ganga

stowed in the trunk of my Chevy

in duffel bags. What could go wrong?

 

Long story short.  I’m writing this

from the Duval County Jail.  Loquacia

ain’t darkened the door.  Silver lining,

my rap sheet ain’t that bad: shoplifting,

public drunkenness, simple possession.

 

Working with a public defender, an

idealistic Jewish girl named Rachel.

She asked me about the tats, and sort

of teared up, she did.  Maybe she can get

me off – and by that I mean out of jail.

 

Anyways, here I sit, way

out of action, with absolutely no

traction. a semi-literate Oscar Wilde,

waiting for my upcoming trial

where I’ll sing like Joan Baez.

2

Durwood Jett

Took the back roads to Tallahassee

to avoid the monotony of mile markers,

dead armadillos, and exit signs.

Took the back roads and took my time.

 

Didn’t make it quick enough to see him die,

but my step-mama filled me in,

sucking on a Marlboro like a man,

“A horrible death, a horrible death,” she said,

over and over, shaking her head.

 

I didn’t know what to say. “Too bad.”

“He fought it hard,” she said, “screamed

‘Get that Gotdamn light out of my face,’

then up and passed.”  She’d took a picture

and showed it to me.  Looked like

all dead people look – his eyes froze,

his mouth froze open like a fish.

 

No, my daddy and me didn’t get along,

the house not big enough to hold

the two of us.  Like in that

Springsteen song.  We’d cuss each other

and sometimes come to blows.  Of course,

me 35, half his age, been able whip him

for a while.  He sure whipped me

back then before, cracking a buckled belt.

 

Can’t quite pity the poor dead bastard,

laying there waxy with his hair slicked back

in that Sears and Roebuck suit, striped tie,

his mouth glued closed, his eyes glued shut.

 

His daddy beat him, and that daddy

beat that daddy before that.  I ain’t

got no offspring, but got my own

business, mind my own business,

so I have the time to take my time,

to take the back roads, to avoid

traffic, to miss all them 18-wheelers in a hurry

to reach them warehouses they can’t abide.

3

Chuckie Brent

When Jimmy Jeffcoat’s meth lab blew,

me and Tiny Wade was smoking a joint

back behind outside the Stop and Go.

 

Boom.  One blast.  BOOM.  Tiny jumped

about a foot and a half, like a bullet or bigger

was headed his way.  “Got damn, what was that?”

I told him I reckoned a transformer blew,

or maybe a sonic boom? but then we heard a siren’s

whoop-whoop and knew that something bad was up.

 

“For sure, it ain’t no Islamic terrorist,” I joked.

“Ain’t nothing in this shitty skank ass town

worth the trouble of blowing up.”

 

* * *

 

We still ain’t recovered from that tornado

two years ago. The kids gone off to college

ain’t never coming back.  Tallahassee, Orlando,

Atlanta  – they got movie theaters and restaurants.

Their parks ain’t littered with them empty canisters

the teens been huffing on all night long.

 

* * *

 

I hear they hauled Jimmy down to Duval County.

He lost his dog and parrot, both burnt to a crisp,

that parrot that perched and shat on Jimmy’s shoulder,

like Jimmy was some long lost landlocked pirate.

“Arrggh,” Jimmy’d growl,” and the parrot’d go

“Arrggh” over and over. I swunny it got old.

 

I suspect Jimmy ain’t laughing right now,

and I know for sure the parrot ain’t,

and that dog won’t keep me up ever again

barking his chained-up ass off all night long.

 

Yep, the sun comes up, and the sun goes down,

And there’s one less loser in this podunk town.

4

Rachel Feldman

Oh, Leah, I’d resign tomorrow

if I could steel myself and endure

mom’s patronizing, smug, I-told-you-so,

but no, I’ll continue to slog my way

through this damned Despond of Despair,

continue to suffer our insufferable DA.

No, I’m good at least for one more year,

my own self-imposed sentence you might say.

 

It’s almost always drugs.  Smack, crack

meth, Ecstasy.  With the resources

we waste prosecuting weed, we could feed

so many food insecure kids.  We need

to get them out of those trailers

into pre-K if this unrelenting

cycle of poverty is ever to cease!

We’re talking Dorothea Lange like squalor here.

 

Let me tell you about these two clients of mine,

Jimmy Joshua Jeffcoat and Henry David Dobson,

as different as night and day, but in

a similar plight.  Unable to make their bail,

they share the same cell.  Jeffcoat’s a creep,

with pitted methadonic teeth.

Dobson, on the other hand, reads Oscar Wilde

and flashes a crooked grin of orthodontic white.

 

Jeffcoat’s doomed to serve at least seven,

if not more, but Dobson wants, as he says,

“a jury of my peers to decide.”  Who knows?

He’ kind of charismatic.  DOB 4/1/75.

He sports a full head of slicked back hair.

A ruddy face, creased, furrowed, but kind.

I’d say he’s suffered way too much sun,

and a few too many dark nights as well.

 

He calls me “Miss” in a formal sort of way,

and he’s practically tattooless, the only one

his dead son’s name, in between his fingers,

upside down from our perspective.

 

Yes, I guess he could be gay, though I hadn’t

thought of that.  But, yes, you’re right, the tat

is indeed a man’s name, and yes, Wilde, could be,

but if I had to bet, I’d bet he’s straight.

 

When this gig’s over, I’ll bugaloo back

to Boca, having done my time.

Might go to grad school, SCAD, get an MFA

in photography.  I’ve learned being a lawyer

is not for me.  Should have listened to my

heart instead of my mom.  Oh, sure, she’s proud

of what’s she made of me, my Ivy League degree,

her youngest brand name of a daughter.

5

Bobby Lee Thornhill

“Please help me help yourself,” my PD said.

“A little remorse could go a long, long way.

Even if you don’t really feel it,

Try feigning it, you know, like an actor in a play?”

 

“No ma’am, I can’t.  I won’t.  In fact,

I’d love to kill him all over again.

Watch him jump when I pump

them shells in place, watch his face go white,

them tiny rodent eyes terrified

as I suggest he pray –

“Boom – “before he can mutter ‘Our Father’ – boom –

bits of brain and skull splattering

sticking to the concrete block wall behind.

 

“No ma’am, remorseful I am not.”

 

Some icy thing shot up her spine,

like she was looking at Satan himself.

 

“It’s cause what he done to that

little girl,”  I said.

 

She shivered again

and crossed her hands across her chest.

6

Henry David Dobson

When I put my hand upon that bible

(its old leather cover was cracked),

I wondered how many hands, both black and white,

were as steady as mine taking that oath.

 

I slowly raised my right hand and swore

to tell the truth, the whole truth,

nothing but the truth – so help me God.

I said it as if the Lord was as real as you and me.

I looked each juror softly in the eye,

the way Jesus might, if he was on trial.

 

* * *

 

They claimed I had to know the 4  kilos

were hidden in those bags, mashed

under wads of dirty clothes.

 

“No, sir, I did not,” I said. “I swear,

I did not know, would have hid

them better if I had.”

 

The fat man snarled; his sarcasm dripped,

“We’re supposed to believe you didn’t look?”

“No sir,  I don’t believe in snooping

through other people’s property.”

The fat man lost his cool, sensing he might lose,

raised his voice, “What about the smell?

The patrolmen could smell it, the K-9s went wild.”

 

I sighed an exhausted sigh and said,

“With all due respect, sir, I’m no dog;

plus I lost me some olfactory in the Iraqi war.

You can check my records on that,” I said.

 

* * *

 

My PD, she played a role as well,

was less a Yankee, more of a good ol’ gal.

She appealed to the jury’s sense of fair play.

 

“Let us hope,” she said, hand on heart,

“we have not come to that sad day

when we’re so cynical

we ‘re incapable of

mustering a reasonable doubt

in favor of a fellow human being.

“He could be your brother or son.

Let us hope we can still manage

to muster a reasonable doubt.”

 

* * *

 

There’s nothing quite like getting out of jail.

You feel so free it’s almost worth

getting locked up to get out again.

You look up and see clouds overhead,

and in your car with the windows rolled down,

you can feel the wind blow back your hair

as you bid adieu to that goddamned town.

You’re free to take this road or that,

free to head north, south, east, or west,

free to holler a rebel yell – you’re free again –

on ’95 headed south to Key West.

I Can’t, I Won’t

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Click the grey arrow above for sound.

 

“Please help me help yourself,” my PD said.

“A little remorse could go a long, long way.

Even if you don’t really feel it,

Try feigning it, you know, like an actor in a play?”

 

“No ma’am, I can’t.  I won’t.  In fact,

I’d love to kill him all over again.

Watch him jump when I pump

them shells in place, watch his face go white,

them tiny rodent eyes terrified

as I suggest he pray –

 

“Boom – “before he can mutter ‘Our Father’ – boom –

bits of brain and skull splattering,

sticking to the concrete block behind.

 

“No ma’am, remorseful I am not.”

 

Some icy thing shot up her spine,

like she was looking at Satan himself.

 

“It’s cause what he done to that

little girl,”  I said.

 

She shivered again

and crossed her hands across her chest.

As Others See Us

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us! – Robert Burns “To a Louse”

In January and February of 2000, David Foster Wallace, hailed by AO Scott as the best mind of his generation, rode along with John McCain and Company on the Straight Talk Express as he campaigned in South Carolina for the 2000 Republican nomination.  In his essay “Up Simba,” DFW offers his analysis of the campaign and occasional descriptions of our countryside, architecture, and denizens.  Here’s a description of a trip down I-26 from Spartanburg to Charleston:

Coming back up the Bullshit 1’s starboard side, no laptops are in play and no windowshades pulled, and the cleanest set of windows is just past the fridge, and outside surely the sun is someplace up there but the February vista still seems lightless. The central-SC countryside looks blasted, lynched, the skies the color of low-grade steel, the land all dead sod and broomsedge, with scrub oak and pine leaning at angles, and you can almost hear the mosquitoes breathing in their baggy eggs awaiting spring. Winter down here is damp, both chilly and muggy, and Jay alternates the heater with the AC as various different people bitch about being hot or cold. Scraggly cabbage palms start mixing with the pine as you get farther south, and the mix of conifer and palm is dissonant in a bad-dream sort of way. A certain percentage of the passing trees are dead and hung with kudzu and a particular kind of Spanish moss that resembles a kind of drier-lint from hell, but in a very nice way. Eighteen-wheelers and weird tall pickups are the buses’ only company, and the pickups are rusted and all have gunracks and frightening bumper stickers; some of them toot their horns in support. BSl’s windows are high enough that you can see right into the big rigs’ cabs. The highway itself is colorless and the sides of it look chewed on, and there’s litter, and the median strip is dead grass with a whole lot of different tiretracks and skidmarks striping the sod for dozens of miles, as if from the mother of all multivehicle pileups sometime in I-26’s past. Everything looks dead and not happy about it. Birds fly in circles with no place to go. There are also some weird smooth-barked luminous trees that might be pecan; no one seems to know. The techs keep their shades pulled even though they have no laptops. You can tell it’s spooky down here in the summer, all moss and steam and dogs with visible ribs and everybody sweating through their hat. None of the media ever look out the window. Everyone’s used to being in motion all the time. Location is mentioned only on phones: the journalists and producers are always on their cellphones trying to reach somebody else’s cellphone and saying “South Carolina—where are you.” The other constant in most cell-calls on a moving bus is “I’m losing you, can you hear me, should I call back.” A distinctive thing about the field producers is that they all pull their cellphones’ antennae all the way out with their teeth; journalists use their fingers, or else they have headset phones, which they talk on while they type.

If you think that was a bit negative, here’s a peek at the Lobby of the Carolina Ice Palace from his perspective:

Express hauled out this morning at 0738h., and now here McCain is at 0822 almost running back and forth on the raised stage in a Carolina Ice Palace lobby so off-the-charts hideous that the press all pass up the free pastry. (The lobby’s lined with red and blue rubber—yes, rubber—and 20 feet up a green iron spiral staircase is an open mezzanine with fencing of mustard-colored pipe from which hang long purple banners for the Lowcountry Youth Hockey Association, and you can hear the rink’s organ someplace inside and a symphony of twitters and boings from an enormous video arcade just down the bright-orange hall, and on either side of the THM stage are huge monitors composed of nine identical screens arrayed 3 x 3, and the monitor on the left has nine identical McCain faces talking but the one on the right has just one big McCain face cut into nine separate squares, and every ft2of the nauseous lobby is occupied by wildly supportive South Carolinians, and it’s 95º at least, and the whole thing is so sensuously assaultive that all the media except Jim C. and the techs turn around and listen facing away, most drinking more than one cup of coffee at once).

These descriptions brought to mind Robert Burns poem “To a Louse” :

Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie?
Your impudence protects you sairly;
I canna say but ye strunt rarely,
Owre gauze and lace;
Tho’, faith! I fear ye dine but sparely
On sic a place.

Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
Detested, shunn’d by saunt an’ sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her-
Sae fine a lady?
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner
On some poor body.

Swith! in some beggar’s haffet squattle;
There ye may creep, and sprawl, and sprattle,
Wi’ ither kindred, jumping cattle,
In shoals and nations;
Whaur horn nor bane ne’er daur unsettle
Your thick plantations.

Now haud you there, ye’re out o’ sight,
Below the fatt’rels, snug and tight;
Na, faith ye yet! ye’ll no be right,
Till ye’ve got on it-
The verra tapmost, tow’rin height
O’ Miss’ bonnet.

My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out,
As plump an’ grey as ony groset:
O for some rank, mercurial rozet,
Or fell, red smeddum,
I’d gie you sic a hearty dose o’t,
Wad dress your droddum.

I wad na been surpris’d to spy
You on an auld wife’s flainen toy;
Or aiblins some bit dubbie boy,
On’s wyliecoat;
But Miss’ fine Lunardi! fye!
How daur ye do’t?

O Jeany, dinna toss your head,
An’ set your beauties a’ abread!
Ye little ken what cursed speed
The blastie’s makin:
Thae winks an’ finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!