The Losers Wrote South Carolina History

In the early Sixties, South Carolina state law mandated that children in both the third and eighth grades receive instruction in the state’s history.  As randomness would have it, my first tour of the annals of the Palmetto State coincided with the centennial celebration of The War Between the States.  Lessons about Caw Caw the Indian boy competed with classroom drills in which we swiftly assumed fetal positions beneath our tiny desks.  (Charleston with its Polaris submarine base offered an inviting target for those Cuban Missiles).  Also, on the domestic side, in the background, we could detect a soft growl of discontent rising in the throats of what my family politely called colored people, who, as the ad populum argument went, were being stirred up by “outside agitators.”

Times, you might say, were a-changing.

Not South Carolina history.  Preserved in our textbook, time-honored statements “of fact” explained that the vast majority of slaves were well-treated, that unfair tariffs had sparked the Civil War, that the Ku Klux Klan had provided a public service during the dark days of Reconstruction, that Pitchfork Ben Tillman was a man of courage, and that the textile industry promised a potential economic stimulus that might propel the state back into its former glorious position as the cultural vanguard of the nation . . .

When I first started teaching high school in the Mid-Eighties, I still encountered traces of these old arguments, particularly concerning the paternalism of slavery and  the predominance of tariffs as the cause of the War. To counter the latter argument, I found  copies of Declarations of Causes of Seceding States and highlighted in blue all of the sentences that refer to slavery.  Believe me, the unhighlighted patches are about as prevalent as peanuts in Hershey bars.  However, back in the day, I, too, believed what I had read.  As an eight-year-old, I applauded the Klan of yore, those white-clad knights who had cleansed my native state of nefarious scalawags, carpetbaggers, and, yes, Negroes.

Flash forward a half century.  The descendants of Pitchfork Ben have again taken to the streets eager to “retake their country” from what they fear is a proliferation of darker-skinned usurpers. Their Confederate heroes’ statues  — Lee, Stonewall Jackson. et al — like Lenin’s after the Soviet Union’s fall – are being dismantled. Our president makes moral equivalences between klansmen, neo-Naxis and counter protestors.

Sunday, along the Battery, as I was guiding visitors from Florida around the Battery, we encountered a handful of protesters.  My friend’s children, 11 and 13, looking across the harbor, asked if “the good guys or the bad guys” occupied the fort at the beginning of the war.

As a 13-year-old in 1964, based on my indoctrination, I would have said the “bad guys.”

photo by WLM3

On Arrogance, Therapists, and Overweening Parents

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Over the years some have accused me of being arrogant, and when it comes to a some things, I guess it might be true, especially if you’re talking about my exquisite taste in the arts or the immense love I have of the sound of my own voice.*

And, yes, especially when it comes to choosing therapists, I’ll admit I’m as arrogant as hell.

For example, a couple of decades ago, my synapses went on the fritz. I lost about twenty pounds in three weeks, and it wasn’t the type of weight loss where people complimented you on your svelteness but wondered if you had shared a needle with the wrong Haitian. “You okay?” they’d ask.

Each afternoon, I’d come straight home from school, climb the stairs to my study where I’d lie on the floor, weep like Niobe, and listen to Peter Gabriel’s Us or the Counting Crow’s August and Everything After.

After all, if you were undergoing a dark night of the soul, what would make a better soundtrack than this:

 

Anyway, one evening after prying me out of fetal position with a tire iron, my wife Judy insisted I see a therapist. The thing is, because of my arrogance, I didn’t want to deal with a therapist who wasn’t extremely erudite. I didn’t care how empathetic, how many Ivy League degrees she had hanging on her office walls, if she and I couldn’t talk about the Compsons of Yoknapatawpha County or the Tyrones of Eugene O’Neil’s A Long Day’s Journey into the Night or Yeats’s interest in the occult, I wanted nothing to do with her.

After all, characters from literature offer a mother lode of archetypal experience in understanding the human psyche, and by my reckoning someone interested in how the psyche works should necessarily be interested in literature. No, I wanted someone like Jung, someone older than I, someone who spoke High German, not someone who rattled off stock phrases like “I think I hear you saying” in a flat Midwestern monotone.

I longed to administer tests to prospective therapists before I chose one, something quick for them to take and me to assess, like 50 multiple choice questions.

Which of the following Faulkner characters has the mind of a three year old?

A. Vardamen Burden
B. Joe Christmas
C. Homer Barron
D. Benjie Compson
E. No clue

The first therapist I tried didn’t hack it at all. Recommended by my physician, this fellow had a mere masters in social work, which meant he couldn’t prescribe meds, so instead of shoveling serotonin jump-starters my way, he’d have me close my eyes and imagine I was flying like Peter Pan from his office to my childhood home in Summerville. The idea was I could re-experience in a new light some of the unpleasant incidents from my childhood that he considered responsible for the harrowing nightmares that visited me about 3 a.m every fucking morning.

So up and off I’d go with my bad sense of direction, flying straight over the Cooper River Bridge, then just above the steeples of the peninsula, taking 61 instead of 26, checking out the plantations on the Ashley River, noting the traffic, wondering if the cars should be an earlier model since I was ostensibly going back in time — all this while the therapist’s meter was ticking, so to speak, at $75 a half-hour.

Then he’d say it’s time to fly back before I had a chance to go get inside my childhood house, before I’d had a chance to relive some wretched Christmas Eve or stumbled-across suicide note. The house didn’t have a chimney to slide in through a la Santa, nor was I, strictly speaking, a ghost who could walk through walls, etc.  I’d be on the roof trying to figure out how to get in when he’d tell me it was time to go.  So I’d take off and head back, and like in real life, the trip back was always quicker than the trip there.

Once again, Judy to the rescue. I told the therapist that my wife was displeased at my lack of progress, and he immediately referred me to the Medical University where I was triaged by a woman whom I wouldn’t have minded being my therapist because she was much older than I, a bone fide psychiatrist with a pleasantly patrician foreign accent; however, she had recently moved to Charleston from Johannesburg and couldn’t practice in the US.

Anyway, I passed the triage, got assigned with a fellow who put me on Zoloft and Klonopin, and even though he and I didn’t talk about Wittgenstein or, for that matter, Raymond Chandler, we did have interesting conversations, mostly about his life, how it felt like to tell someone he had a month to live, etc., and I started sleeping through nights and feeling like my old self again, i.e, like a somewhat angry and pessimistic middle-aged man who held most of the bourgeoise in contempt.

flight

Well, that was 21 years ago, so imagine my arrogance level now, especially when these whippersnapper parents-of-students young enough for me to have taught commence to instruct me about how I should be conducting my classes.

For example, at lunch, the other day, one of my colleagues started bitching about a parent who actually texted her after a 9th grade weekend retreat to complain that little Bartholomew or Bianca had declared the retreat was the worst trip the sweet darling had ever been on ever. My colleague texted her back photos of beaming kids looking as if they’d were being filmed in a soda pop ad.

I told her I thought that was great but added that I would have handled it somewhat differently, would have engaged in some dialogue before sending the photos.

Mom: . . . the worst trip my sweet darling has ever been on ever!

Me: You are, Mrs. X, familiar with the philosophical school of existentialism, aren’t you?

Mom: Huh?

Me: You know, the movement started by Kierkegaard, embraced by Nietzsche, espoused by Sartre and Camus.

Mom: What does this have to do with anything?

Me: Well, it has a lot to do with everything. Existentialists posit that each individual perceives the world through her own unique perspective and therefore ‘reality’ is relative. Because your Portuguese water dog lacks the optical cones and rods to perceive your sweater is red, to him the sweater is gray, but your reality is no more legitimate than his, and let’s not forget you can’t hear the high frequencies that he perceives, but that doesn’t mean his reality is more legitimate than yours.

In other words, although this may have been the worst trip ever from B’s perspective, it might have been the greatest trip C has ever been on — or as Hamlet puts it, “There’s nothing good nor bad but thinking makes it so.”

Therefore, I suggest you and B bond together by reading Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus. “ And in the mean time please enjoy these photos from the retreat.

Have a nice day!

Like, I say, I can be arrogant when it comes to some things, but I’d arrogantly like to think my arrogance is better than that mother’s arrogance.


* But, hey. I’m not arrogant about the things I suck at, like my inability to find my car in a parking garage or remembering the person’s name I was introduced to 30 seconds ago.

Idle Speculation

Denmark Vesey

Denmark Vesey

A former housemate of mine, James Paul Rice, has a historical novel coming out next year based on the 1822 Denmark Vesey uprising. Being a native of the Lowcountry of South Carolina, I was somewhat familiar with Denmark Vesey, but he came absolutely alive for me as I read Mr. Rice’s novel in manuscript.  Several pivotal scenes from the novel are set at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which Vesey helped to found in 1816.

It is at this church that last night’s horrific mass murders took place. The alleged murderer, Dylann (sic) Root, can be seen in a photograph wearing a jacket with two white supremacist patches, one from South Africa and the other from Rhodesia. Is it possible that the Vesey connection played a role in Root’s selection of settings? After all, he’s from Columbia, which has a number of more conveniently located AME churches. Why drive all the way down to Charleston?  Did Root choose Emanuel because of its historical significance? Its connection with not only Vesey but with the Civil Rights movement?  Did he know that Dr. King had preached there?

I can’t help but think of Cass Mastern’s “spider web” theory from Robert Penn Warren’s  All the King’s Men – his theory about the karmic connections of events through time:

[Mastern] learned that the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide. It does not matter whether or not you meant to brush the web of things. Your happy foot or your gay wing may have brushed it ever so lightly, but what happens always happens and there is the spider, bearded black and with his great faceted eyes glittering like mirrors in the sun, or like God’s eye, and the fangs dripping.

gunadOf course, I’m merely speculating, and it doesn’t ultimately matter. Nine God-fearing people are dead because of the pigmentation of their skin. Another young white male starved for attention has gotten it in the worst way. The Confederate battle flag is flying on our State House grounds at full staff as I type this and will continue to fly for another generation or two. In the foreseeable future, assault weapons will still be easier to obtain than driver’s permits. In fact, the awful headline in this morning’s Charleston paper was somewhat obscured by an advertising sticker from a gun shop. Intemperate souls will suggest that the worshippers should have been packing heat, and if that’s what it’s come to here, that grandmothers cannot go to church unarmed, then “American” can no longer be used as an adjective for civilization.

No, let me end with another quote from All the King’s Men:

After a great blow, or crisis, after the first shock and then after the nerves have stopped screaming and twitching, you settle down to the new condition of things and feel that all possibility of change has been used up. You adjust yourself, and are sure that the new equilibrium is for eternity. . . But if anything is certain it is that no story is ever over, for the story which we think is over is only a chapter in a story which will not be over, and it isn’t the game that is over, it is just an inning, and that game has a lot more than nine innings. When the game stops it will be called on account of darkness. But it is a long day.

You Won’t Believe These Killer, Innovative, Somewhat Offensive Halloween Costumes

[cue puppy ahhhhhhh]

[cue puppy ahhhhhhh]

As far as I’m concerned, Halloween should have an “AKA Mental Health Day” attached to it. I’m sure there are several studies out there that argue being reminded of your own mortality in a jocular way is a healthy thing. Plus, children get to transform themselves into princesses, Ninja Turtles, or adorable zombies.

Adults, too, can disguise themselves, don costumes that project their dearest archetypes (pirates) or mock creatures/institutions they despise (Jehovah Witnesses/The Chamber of Commerce).

Plus, in disguise, it’s almost like you got a license to get Dionysianly drunk but somehow forgiven for that extra-marital flirting, that making an ass of yourself in general..

So with that in mind, I thought I’d share with you five innovative, inexpensive, costumes that you can whip together in no time — just in case you get that last minute invitation (I’m still waiting for mine).

Ebola Heath Care Worker

backpack optional

backpack optional

Okay, before you start flailing away in a tizzy of outrage, remember that Halloween’s all about death and mayhem. Admit it, you don’t know anyone who has ever died of, much less contracted Ebola. If it’s okay to dress up like a hobo/homeless person, what’s so wrong about dressing up like an Ebola health worker? I bet more homeless people freeze to death on the streets of Detroit this winter will die of Ebola in the next decade.

Assembling the Costume: Go to Walmart and buy a disposable paint overalls, wading boots, rubber gloves,  goggles, and a breathing mask. Bingo!

Charlestonian

slider-21-1170x683bucksThanks to global warming, we’re no doubt looking at another sweltering Halloween, so the regulation seersucker Charlestonians sport will be not only comfortable, but, let’s face it, slimming. Fellows, a bow tie is a must; ladies, I suggest some sort of hat. Both sexes need to always have a drink in both hands.

Dr, John, the Night Tripper

If you don’t know whom I’m talking about, shame on you. Skip to the next costume. For the cognoscenti, this costume comes in two vintages, the Old Dr. John, which, though fun, is complex. See illustration.

DRJOHN11 drjohn200-341bc5b44a7808bf984e964aac6c68f09c0340a5-s2-c85

I suggest the contemporary Doctor John with pasted-on van dyke (if you’re not sporting one already), purple blazer, green shirt and matching funky fedora, necklaces, etc.

Ladies, don’t let this look be off-limits. It’s easier for you to pull off than a “Gertrude Stein.”

zurich james joyceJames Joyce

Of course, no one is going to know who James Joyce is, but that should make you feel even more superior than these bourgeois losers who decided to invite you only at the last minute..

All you need are glasses, an eye patch, a suit, some sort of a hat, and a cane. Presto.

Hassidic Jew

7e1e17e7ada66b3d8256c61cd03c2416A last minute desperation choice and in as poor taste as dressing up like Aunt Jemima but nevertheless covered by the First Amendment.

Just add a hat and braids to last year’s Hamlet costume.

Here’s a LINK where you can cop a hat with braids.  Better overnight it.

sparknotes: Bravo’s Reality Series Southern Charm

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General Info

Context

Southern Charm is a reality television show created and broadcast by Bravo, a basic cable satellite channel.  Begun in 1980 as a suscription-only platform devoted to cultural programs, Bravo originally featured a PBS-like mix of international and independent films, musical shows such as Jazz Counterpart, and stage productions like the Texaco Showcase presentation of Romeo and Juliet

Interestingly enough, the evolution of Bravo mirrors the decline of Western Civilization itself. After MGM and GE took over the channel, programming shifted from highbrow entertainment to decadent reality shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and the various Real Housewives shows.  Bravo’s shift from high to low is a microcosm of a macrocosmic degradation.  For example,  during the Elizabethan Period, educated people considered Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet pop art, middle brow entertainment that nevertheless enthralled even the rotten-tomato-toting lower classes of London.  Now almost 400 years later, even most college educated people consider Shakespeare too highbrow, and theatre goers in London would much rather sit through The Lego Movie rather than a production of Twelfth Night.

It is within this context – the decline of civilization and in this case, Late Empire American culture – that Southern Charm takes its cues.  Not unlike Petronius’s skewering of the excesses of Nero’s Rome, (e.g., the Romans’ obscene ostentatious consumption of food; their round-the-clock drunkenness; their loveless, indiscriminate sexual couplings), Southern Charm documents the decadent and extravagant lifestyles of a group of Republicans who live in the most glamorous city of a state that refuses to expand Medicaid.

Oh, yeah, there’s one significant difference: whereas Petronius mocked the excesses of decadent Roman culture, Southern Charm celebrates it.  It would appear that people’s lives are so impoverished that they would rather live vicariously through vacuities than engage with other humans in bars and restaurants.  Academics disagree as to whether Bravo’s management is cynically exploiting the “stars” of their shows in a post modern commentary on the poverty of contemporary culture or simply stuffing their pockets with money and not giving a shit.

Plot Overview

Set in the tourist and retirement mecca of Charleston, South Carolina, Southern Charm follows former South Carolina Treasurer Thomas Ravenel as he readjusts to life outside of prison after doing 10 months for buying and distributing cocaine.  Although the show purports to explore the life of Charlestonians, Ravenel is the only local featured (see characters).  Besides Ravenel, the show focuses on five other main personalities, two women, and three men, all white and seemingly a couple of decades younger than 50-year old Ravenel.  The cast also consists of minor characters: mothers, fathers, hook-ups, carriage tour horses, polo ponies, etc.

Essentially, the show explores the main characters’ interactions as they engage in tedious conversations in ever shifting scenic spots as they eat, drink, woo, reject, seduce.  As in most other “reality shows,”  the viewer peeks in on the principals’ daily routines, in this case at their plantations or town houses or out on-the-town in swanky shops, restaurants and nightclubs. In addition viewers also get to hear the characters’ personal takes on the events as they smugly backbite into the camera.

Character List

thomas-ravenel-headThomas Ravenel – the son of successful politician “Cousin” Arthur Ravenel and a graduate of the Citadel, Thomas himself aspired to be a politician, unsuccessfully running for the Republican nomination in South Carolina for the US Senate but later being elected as State Treasurer.  A backer of Rudy Giuliani in the 2008 Republican nomination battle, he supported Ron Paul in 2012.  Of course, Ravenel’s 2008 coke conviction brought his political career to a screeching halt.

A hedonist, polo player, and wealthy man about town, Ravenel feels pressure to settle down, marry, and sire male heirs. Here’s Thomas on his way to his plantation on Edisto talking to his father about what Thomas hopes to be a bourgenining romance:

cameran-eubanks-headCameron Eubanks – a native of the Palmetto state but not of Charleston, Cameron likes, according to Bravo’s website, “boating or laying (sic) on the beach with a good book.” (The Carpetbaggers perhaps?)  So far on the show, she parties with the boys and engages in non-witty repartee.  Having just turned 30, she offers subtle hints of her biological clock’s ticking as she shifts careers from cosmetics to real estate.

craig-conover-headCraig Conover – Drawn from Delaware to the College of Charleston, 25-year-old Craig has stayed on in the Holy City (don’t they all) to attend the troubled Charleston Law School.  The spawn of an incredibly athletic family, Craig seems more down-to-earth than other cast members, perhaps because he “finds meditation in diving, golfing, and shooting guns.”

“Om, Fore, Boom!”

jenna-lee-king-headJenna King – Aspiring fashion designer Jenna hails from Sumter, South Carolina and manages somehow to be simultaneously country cute and avant garde cool (see hair).  This globe trotting graduate of Trident Tech has a passion for animals, especially horses.

william-shepard-rose-iii-headShep Rose – Listing his profession as raconteur, Shep nevertheless ends each sentence with the interrogative lilt made famous by Vally Girls.  He’s a man of many diverse interests, like drinking, dressing like a preppy, talking, fornicating, listening to the Grateful Dead, and hanging out with Republicans.  Perhaps not the most perceptive of raconteurs, Shep describes his friend Whit (see below) as “an elitist hipster” despite the latter’s penchant for wearing pajama-looking shirts and silver chains around his neck.

whitney-sudler-smith-headWhitney Sudler-Smith – Self-proclaimed composer of “brilliant screenplays and ingenious independent films that few will see” (it appears that he and your humble sparksnote reporter have something in common).  Despite having directed a film about Halston that has been “screened” on Showtime, Whit lives with his hideous mother in what the producers of the show call an “urban plantation.”  He and Shep are “partnering” to open just what Charleston needs – a sophisticated rock-n-roll bar.

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes:

Not unlike The Great Gatsby, which doesn’t have a likable character in the entire novel, Southern Charm centers on the privileges and decadent lifestyles of a cast of wealthy characters; however, unlike Gatsby, not one of the characters in Southern Charm is even vaguely interesting.  A quote from the National Lampoon’s parody of “Desiderata” comes to mind:

Be assured that a walk through the ocean of most souls
Would scarcely get your feet wet.

Major themes include the tension between enjoying a hedonistic lifestyle and settling down, the difficulties of maintaining successful bromances when libidos get out of hand, and lastly, how cool everyone is because they live in Charleston.

Motifs – the need to procreate, lavish dinners, hangovers, hooking up, unresponsive women turning down swashbucklers accustomed to bodice-ripping, Ravenel’s tarnished reputation. Old buildings.  Nice things.

Symbols – Charleston = Rome.  Whiteness is also a symbol.  African Americans are virtually nonexistent. Maybe that’s why no one smokes weed.

Quotes

“I am a cunning linguist.” – Thomas Ravenel, putting the moves on Catherine.

“I don’t like Brandy [her seemingly closeted gay son’s romantic female interest].  I don’t like Brandy.  I don’t like Brandy.  Have I made myself clear?  I don’t like Brandy” – Whit’s mother.

“I often wake up drunk,”  – Shep.

Discussion  Questions:

Discuss the title.  Is it serious or ironic?  Identify elements that one might find charming.

Compare and contrast Shep and Craig.  What do they share in common?  How are they different? Which one would you murder first?

Mothers and fathers play an important role in the series.  Given how their children turned out, why do you think they’re so eager to have them replicate?

Whom do you hate least and why?