Confessions of an Impulsive Procrastinator

 

people say I’m the life of the party

Certainly, I’m no stranger to what Eliot called “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender.”  One of my few memories of my family’s 9-month stay in Biloxi, Mississippi, is leaping from a chest-of-drawers onto a rocking horse Roy Rogers style, an act of derring-do that produced buckets of blood and pain so intense that it is pointless to even attempt to describe it.[1]

Alas, I could enumerate more recent acts of stupidity spurred by impulse rather than contemplation, whether it be driving my MG Midget down steps leading to the campus police department, an act of bravado that cost me a reckless driving fine of $200 dollars, an overnight stay in an establishment with bars (way too many in fact), and six points from my license. Even more recently, in the present century, impulsiveness has led to my machine-gunning undiplomatic emails and cc-ing everyone from the Pope to Mr. Peanut.

On the other hand, when it comes to everyday non-academic living, I’m the worst type of procrastinator. For example, my upper-story AC unit shut down last Wednesday, and I’ve just set an appointment to have it fixed tomorrow. The handle one of the doors leading to screen door has been broken longer than Barron Trump has been alive.[2]

Often when things do get repaired, it’s thanks to my neighbors. Friday, I was piddling around in my sweltering study upstairs when I heard banging below.

It was next-door neighbor Jim and his pal Gino working on the door. This morning another neighbor Whitney, whose landscaping company provided our yard maintenance before she and her husband sold Good Natured Gardening, arrived with a fellow to offer a quote for cleaning up the vine ridden back yard (think of Faulkner’s Miss Emily’s yard in Jefferson).

Asiatic jasmine, not a lawn, is hidden beneath the vines.

I did get a couple of things done. Went to my new classroom to draw it for my friend Kris who’s going to feng shui it. I contacted Judy’s life insurance company to hear the welcome news that after 12 weeks the claim is finally in the process of being processed. I also deposited Judy’s social security death benefit check, $255 dollars that I will no doubt spend unwisely.

Can you tell it hasn’t been feng-shuied yet?

However, these small victories were offset by failures.[3] I was rejected in my attempt to buy fill dirt for the almost always water-filled swale in my driveway that dips and rises like a ride at Six Flags.[4] My rejector suggested several other places to call, which I may one day. Also, I can’t find the red Chinese envelopes I need for the feng-shui-ing. Nor did I call a plumber to fix a toilet in the guest room bath, which I will get to tomorrow or the next day or the day after that. In fact, among today’s a dozen to-dos: “clean bedroom, read 50 pages, finish civil rights presentation, dispose of no-longer necessary artifacts “ all remain undone.

But I did crank out number 9 on the list – “create a blog post” — and accomplished something not even listed – boiling three pounds of peanuts.

So farewell sloth, hail gluttony.


[1] Okay, I can’t help myself.  Imagine vice-squeezed testicles (my landing on the saddle of the spring-loaded rocking horse) coupled with a bully taking you by the hair and slamming your face on the sidewalk (my face-first landing on a tiled-floor).

[2] Though Judy did get someone out to fix it 5 years ago but he fiddled with it for an hour, left, and never came back.

[3] Shut up, Microsoft word suggestion; that sentence needs to be in the passive voice.

[4] It does, however, dissuade tourists on golf carts to hang a right on my property.

Back to School, Then and Now

I never really liked school, except for kindergarten. I got lost on the second day of first grade by going to the wrong entry, the first sign of a sense of direction so challenged (i.e., damaged/unsound/defective) that a generation later I would spend over an hour looking for my car in the North Charleston Coliseum parking lot after my niece’s high school graduation.

Anyway, in the lower grades, I was mistaken for an academic superstar because of my verbal skills, but by 6th grade math, the jig was up, and when the rest of my alpha-grade-skipping group took Algebra I in the 8th grade, I was in regular classes and continued to struggle there among the not-so-gifted. Disorganized, lazy, rebellious, I always had something to dread — the lost band music, the undone homework, the choice of “suspension or three licks.”[1]

We are wonderful/We are fun/ We’re the class of ’71 (from SHS 1971 yearbook)

In the glorious summers, I was free to roam acres of undeveloped woods surrounding my neighborhood, later to pop wheelies on my banana bike under the glow of moth-crazed streetlights, and finally to sneak kisses waist-deep in Lake Murray on a weeknight with someone who signed her notes “I will love you forever.”[2]

And no matter whether it was in elementary, junior high, or high school, an established pattern developed: mental mourning on seeing back-to-school ads followed by a sense of growing anticipation about returning to check out the tans, the clothes, the new teachers.

I went to kindergarten in the school year 1957-8, the same year that the Little Rock 9 integrated Little Rock Central High. This year, I’m teaching my first history course, a semester elective called “America in the ‘60’s,” so I’ve been scouring the internet for material and ran across this remarkable film.  I invite you to enjoy its artistry and shudder at its content. Seriously, I consider this 3-minute film by Brittany VerHoef, Down Corwin, and Travis Cameron a minor masterpiece.

 

The horrible thing is that those divisions are all too alive and all too well exactly 60 years later. Do the enraged white people in the film remind you of any group today?


[1] I.e., three burning smacks on the ass with paddle or strop (I suffered both in my career as miscreant). Whoever it was delivering these blows, whether in junior or high school, was inevitably a former football coach now serving an administrative role. (If you were a girl the female basketball and golf coached did the whapping. (TMI?)

[2] And it was true! I received a sympathy call from her after my wife Judy’s death after decades of non-contact. My former girlfriend’s voice on the answering machine was choked with emotion over my loss. Maybe if you truly love someone, you continue to love him or her forever. It’s certainly true for me in regards to this caller.

A Pickpocket of a Poet Rips Off Wallace Stevens

circa 1940: A pickpocket at work in New York. (Photo by William Davis/General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

accompanied by a labored window unit

 

A motion, the sea voice fluttering, a cry

understood word for word, a summer sound,

tilting in the air, perishing, erased by rain.

 

A serenade, a night wind sigh, out of the spirit

of black waves, the virtuoso ocean

drowning out a song.

 

The wind blowing, a metaphysician

in the dark, a woman, drunk,

dancing a stumble on the shore.

 

Dee Dee Ramone, master of the mamba,

tell me in a doo wop how to get from East Erie

to the Commodore Club. All I know

it’s way above of the Crosstown.

Dee Dee Ramone

 

For That Hard-to-Buy-for Failson

 

failson boy cave

Let’s face it, there’s one in every family. The failson, flunked out, holed up in his childhood bedroom, laundry strewing the floor as if SLED had just stormed in looking for narcotics. Game cartridges with titles like “Postal 2” and “Thrill Kill” scattered around in a dystopian array of cultural decline as if some future museum curator had decided to create an emblematic space screaming Age of Trump!*

If you’re unfortunate to have a failson on a holiday or birthday shopping list, what in the hell are you supposed to do? The easiest copout, of course, is money, but that means you’re probably aiding and abetting the purchase of some illegal substance or enabling the boy’s insatiable addiction to sadistic or pornographic images. This option, especially if you’re a godmother, borders on moral dereliction.

On the other hand, you want to make him happy, which means gifting him with something that’s countercultural; however, for your conscience’s sake, you want your gift to offer some sort of practical positive attribute.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I have a suggestion.

Last Saturday, at my favorite anthropological outpost, the bartenders were playing a game of surreptitiously attaching clothespins to each other — to the tail of an untucked t-shirt, to a dreadlock, to the back brim of my signature panama fedora.

I mentioned that although clothespins seem pretty damned obsolescent, I use them in the pantry to help seal opened bags of potato chips, etc. One of the bartenders called them “the poor man’s roach clip.”

I hadn’t seen a roach clip in probably a quarter of a century. Most readers of this blog won’t need a definition, but just in case you’re a graduate of Bob Jones University, a roach clip is a small device designed to hold what might best be described to the uninitiated as “a marijuana cigarette.” The idea is to consume as much of the product as possible without burning your fingers.

I wondered aloud if in the age-of-vaping roach clips had gone the way of Blockbuster, so one of the barkeeps produced for me a piece of clothing, which, as it turns out, would be perfect for that hard to please failson on your shopping list.

Please note the image below.

Check out the cords for securing the hood of the sweatshirt. Attached to each is a roach clip.

So on the rare occasions when the failson leaves his lair to go outdoors on a chilly day to fetch from the mailbox some abomination he’s ordered from Redbubble, he can continue toking away right down to the bitter end.

Also, the sweatshirt provides a secret hiding place in the hood itself for his stash.

can’t figure out why this came out in black-and-white

And, not only that, unzip the pocket in front, and there’s a hard surface for rolling joints.

Now, let me be clear. I don’t condone the use of cannabis, which studies have shown affects the amygdala in a way that reduces your ability to experience pleasure, which means overuse might render you incapable of appreciating a glorious sunrise or a Muddy Waters groan. Why not embrace mediation to naturally enhance your perceptions of the everyday wonders we so often ignore?

However, explaining this possibility to a failson is like trying to convince a Koch brother than the destruction of the planet from global warming is more important than his personal wealth. In other words, doomed to failure.

At least with the Nugg It sweatshirt, you’re providing warmth  in the context of perhaps the most innocuous illegal substance in states where the use of cannabis is outlawed.

Hey Jude


  • Here’s a description of Postal 2 from the blog ask.men: [Postal 2]  is a game in which it is not uncommon to drop-kick grenades and whip scythes at unsuspecting civilians if they refuse to participate in your everyday life story (which is, after all, the plot behind the game). Of course, this includes using cat carcasses as silencers on your gun, hitting people with anthrax-laden cow heads and playing “fetch” with dogs using the severed heads of your dismembered victims. Postal 2 is the epitome of senseless, over-the-top video game violence.

Dom Pérignon and Reefer

 

(Clicking on the above is worth it.)

Roy Cohn, J Edgar Hoover

no doubt no approve of Muddy Waters,

amassed, I reckon, a dossier on his ass

duly noting his non-workin’ mojo,

dat black cat bone,

his association

with John the Conqueroo.

second cousin of the accused.

Accused of what?

Possession of champagne and reefer.

 

O, the Years, the Years

Jack, cat killer

33 years ago yesterday Judy Birdsong woke me up with this message: “I have some good news and some bad news.”

She was a week overdue, and I had slept in the guest room to avoid the ocean swells generated by our waterbed when she turned over or got out of bed to use the toilet.

She was smiling, so I knew the bad news couldn’t be all that bad. “Okay, let’s have it,” I said.

 

Judy in Rantowles pregnant with Harry petting Jack’s mate Sally

“The good news is that I’m in labor. The bad news is that Jack’s killed a neighbor’s cat.”

Jack was a springer spaniel, very agile, adept at killing cats, squirrels, and raccoons. This was when we lived in Rantowles off Chaplin’s Landing Road in our first bought home, a ranch style three bedroom brick house overlooking Log Bridge Creek. Judy had taken Jack for a walk through the woods, and he had bolted and snagged and dispatched a cat.

Judy explained where the crime had occurred, on the corner of the adjacent street, Burrow Pit Road. So I went to deliver the news to the cat’s owner, retracing Judy’s steps through the woods. When I reached the house, I encountered a couple of fossilized automobiles, you know, the kind with four flat tires. The good news was the place was crawling with cats.

scene of the crime as it appears on google maps today

I went up and knocked on the front door. And older lady opened up and greeted me.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but my dog killed one of your cats.”

She actually chuckled. I’m not making this up. “Oh, don’t worry about that, honey,” she said. “That’s just human nature when it comes to dogs and cats.”

So that was that. I hightailed it home and got into the Lamaze mode of timing contractions. Harrison was born the next morning in the wee hours.

Time flies, but actually it doesn’t seem like yesterday at all. It seems like a hundred years ago.

17 July 1984

 

A Thing Called Perception: A Review of “Portraits of a Marriage” by Sándor Márai

[…] all that we behold

From this green earth; of all the mighty world

Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,

And what perceive.

Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey”

 

Whether your sunglasses are off or on

You only see the world you make.

John Hiatt, “A Thing Called Love”


I’ve just finished at a former student’s strident insistence the Hungarian novelist Sándor Márai’s last work, Portraits of a Marriage. I don’t know if we lose something in the translation of the title, but the narrative might more accurately be dubbed: Satellites of Love or Chain, Chain, Chain of Partners or A Sociological Study of Class Relationships in Hungary from 1930 – 1950.[1]

The thing is that no title can do justice to the mighty compression of meaning that the novel holds. Divided into four parts, the narrative unfolds in the style of a Robert Browning dramatic monologue, with each section narrated by a different character. We are in a concrete setting, a bar or bed, and along with us there is someone listening to a monologue, but we never hear that person speak. Instead, we get remarks like: “Sorry . . . What did you say? Why I started weeping when I saw him just now?”

This auditory technique may be off-putting in a culture dominated by visual imagery where we expect cinematic quick cutting, and I admit the conceit does add a bit too much ballast to suspension of disbelief; however, the articulation of the perceptions of the first three monologists is at once meaningful and conversational.[2]

It begins in Budapest between the wars. Here is Ilonka, the first wife of Peter, an industrialist, describing to a female companion her reaction to finding a decades-old love token in her husband’s wallet, a token that predates her relationship with him:

And now I knew that whatever wonderful or terrible things were happening in the world, it was pointless to accuse myself of selfishness, lack of faith, lack of humility, pointless comparing my problems to those of the world of nations, the problems of millions suffering their various tragedies, because there was nothing I could do – selfish and petty as I was, obsessed and blind as I was – except to get out on the street and search out the woman I had to confront face-to-face, the woman I had to talk to. I had to see her, to hear her voice, look in her eyes, examine her skin, her brow, her hands.

We can’t blame Peter for fleeing such suffocating obsession, and in the second section he tells a colleague what that first marriage was like and how he fared in his second marriage to a servant girl of his household named Judit, the girl who had given him that token, a peasant who literally grew up in a ditch. In England, after she leaves the household, she transforms herself into a highly credible Pygmalion-like creature who knows which fork to pick up. Upon her return, Peter defies social convention and marries this underclassling.[3]

Here is Peter describing the object of his obsession:

It wasn’t a “lady” or a glittering socialite I yearned for. I hoped for a woman with whom I could share a lonely life. But she was terrifying ambitious [. . .] wanting to conquer and take occupation of the world.

The only things she fears is

[h]er own hypersensitivity to offense, some mortal wound to the pride glowing in the depths of her life, her very being. That was what she was afraid of, and everything she did by word, silence, and deed was a form of defense against it. It was something I could never understand.

So what we have here is the Rashomon effect, contradictory accounts of the same event. In the course of these dialogues a quarter of a century passes; we see the class stratification of Hungary before the war, Budapest’s leveling during the war, and its Soviet occupation after the war. All of our principals but Ilonka become ex-pats.

It’s Judit who devours the narrative scenery, talking to her latest lover, a jazz drummer whose stage name is Ede. They’re in Rome in a hotel bed after one of his gigs.  Judit possesses the most experience, having risen from abject poverty to enormous wealth. She’s the least socially conditioned one, and she is able to look upon the events of her life with a sort of anthropological detachment:

High culture, it seems, is not just a matter of museums but something you find in people’s bathrooms and kitchens where others cook for them. Their way of life did not change, not a bit, not even during the siege, would you believe it? While everyone was eating beans or peas, they were still opening tins of delicacies from abroad, goose liver from Strasbourg and such things. There was a woman in the cellar, who spent three weeks there […] on a diet, a diet she maintained even when the bombs were falling. She was looking after her figure, cooking some tasty something on a spirit flame using only olive oil because she feared that the fat in the beans and gristle everyone else stuffed themselves with out of fear and anxiety might lead her to put on weight! Whenever I get to thinking about it, I marvel what a strange thing this thing called culture is.

There is one other character, Lazar, who doesn’t get his own monologue but who appears in every section. He’s a writer, perhaps Márai’s alter ego. Of course, I identify with him because, not only is he bald, but he’s also a pessimist (and who wouldn’t be scrounging around a bombed out city).  He has several quotable passages throughout, but I’m going to have Judit describe him instead of having him speak for himself:

What’s that? Was he a snob? Of course, he was, among other things, a snob. He couldn’t stand being helped because he was solitary and a snob. Later I understood that there was something under this snobbish manner of his. He was protecting something, trying to preserve a culture. It’s not funny. I expect you’re thinking of those olives. That’s why you laughing? We proles, we don’t really get the idea of “culture,” sweetheart. We think it’s a matter of being able to quote things, of being fussy, of not spitting on the floor or belching when we’re eating, that kind of thing. But that’s not culture; it’s not a matter of reading and learning facts. It’s not even learning to behave. It’s something else. It was the other idea of culture he was wanting to protect. He didn’t want me to help him because he no longer believed in people.

As I was reading through the individual sections, I found myself put off by these people’s egocentricities, their obsessiveness, but once I got halfway through Judit’s monologue, the cumulative effect suddenly came upon me like revelation. What we have here is a deep meditation on love, loneliness, obsession, culture, family, and perhaps most profoundly, the limitations of personal observation.  The gulf between these people’s perceptions of themselves and others’ perceptions of them is an unbridgeable breach.

This might not be a great novel – I won’t judge until a second reading – but if you’ve reached this final sentence, you’re likely to find it worth your while.


[1] In Spanish the title translates into “The Righteous Woman”

[2] The 4th narrator Ede, a jazz drummer-cum-bartender, lives in “a pad.”

[3] Let’s not forget that Hunagry in the early part of the previous century was not L.A. I can’t come up with a good analogy. Prince Phillip marrying Billie Holiday?

Sándor Márai as a child