A Masterful History Lesson as Reported by Henry James Foster Wallace

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Whenever anyone who discovers I’m a teacher starts in on the familiar refrain about how underpaid we are, I assure my well-meaning new acquaintance that some of us are not underpaid. For example, take my high school Spanish teacher, Senora Equis, that dour, unimaginative functionary. Her only lesson plan was punching play on a tape recorder and having us repeat parrot-like what we thought we heard. The voices on the recording were not quite human, too cheerful, the words overly annunciated, as if directed at a hard-of-hearing octogenarian in a nursing home located in Disney World.

I remember remarking to mis amiga Sharon Mallard that a trained chimp could replace Senora Equis and very little would be lost. Dress Cheetah in a poncho, have him knuckle his way into the room, hop on the metal desk, click play, and plop down as we intoned in unison, “Que lastima, lo siento” or “Tengo catarro” or “Las putas estan muy bonita” and you wouldn’t be losing a thing.

cheetah

On the other hand, if you paid teachers according to how hard they worked, the difficulty of the task, and on the quality and worth of their product, my former colleague Natalie Herford should be making more money than Jadeveon Clowney.

Since I’d given up being Department Chair a couple of years ago, I decided it was high time to discard some of my unnecessary electronic files when I ran across a narrative of an observation I had made of one of Natalie’s history classes. She had been new to the school, and the word was out that she was spectacular. I asked her if she’d mind if I hopped on the train of colleagues who had sat in on one of her classes, and she, said, “Of course. I’d love to have you.”

Part of my duties as Department Chair was observing my colleagues. Rather than using the official form for observations, I wrote narratives of what I observed, trying the best I could to render the action from the objective point-of-view, as if I were video recorder. Let the teacher and principal decide for themselves what is effective and what is not.

Natalie was in the history department, in fact, its chair, so I was not required to document my observation. However, I told her I would compose one of my narratives and share it with her and Sarah, our principal, if she liked. This time, however, for my own amusement, I created a persona I called Henry James Foster Wallace to report what happened during the class.

 

Henry James Foster Wallace’s Observations of Mrs. Natalie Herford’s AP World History Class on 6 February 2009

 

When your Semi-Omniscient Narrator (henceforth SON) arrived at Room 204 a couple of minutes before class time, it surprised him to see the students sitting upright and engaged in a group conversation with Mrs. Herford who stood before them in the center of the room.   Glancing up at the so-called atomic clock, SON was relieved to see that, no, he wasn’t (at least officially) interrupting class.

Acknowledging his presence, Mrs. Herford in her somewhat patrician precisely annunciated, but indeterminate accent welcomed him to sit anywhere.   She added, “Feel free to participate as much as you like.” Demurring, SON bombastically announced that like the novelist Flaubert he would be invisible but omnipresent, hovering like a god. Mrs. Herford offered an indulgent smile at his pomposity and addressed him henceforth as “O Invisible God.” This incident, however silly, was the first instance of a pattern SON would later discern: Mrs. Herford adroitly picks up idiosyncratic comments in the class and later echoes them to create humorous motifs that provide a sort of dramatic structure to the proceedings. Her mental agility, her profound mastery of the subject matter, combined with a brilliant, almost ballerina-like ability to embody abstractions in physical movement, make Mrs. Herford an incredibly dynamic and effective teacher. [1]

Room 204 is a bright, orderly space with yellow dominating the color scheme. A black and white photograph of the three Camelot-era Kennedy brothers counterbalances on the opposite wall a reproduction of a WW2 poster of Churchill jabbing an index finger Uncle-Sam style. On the back wall hang two large maps of the Western and Eastern hemispheres. Most interesting, however, is a series of typed sayings on 8 1/2 x 11 white paper that create a sort of intellectual wainscoting running across three walls of the room. Alas, being only a semi-omniscient narrator, SON was able to make out the content of only one of these literary ornaments, a colloquial pugilistic quote from Marx about getting kicked and kicking back. The room’s arrangement, its tidiness, suggests that this is a serious place, a place of business.

Which it is. About 30 seconds before class was to start, Chad Livingston[2], looking a bit frazzled, hurried into class, and Mrs. Herford said, “And here is Chad arriving just in time not to be counted tardy,” which SON took to be a subtle corrective, a suggestion to Mr. Livingston that he should arrive earlier so that the show can get on the road promptly the instant the second hand of the atomic clock reaches its zenith denoting 8:10 A.M. Eastern Standard Time. As it happened, Mr. Livingston probably had been rummaging in his locker searching for some lost document, a précis or AP application perhaps[3], because Mrs. Herford asked if he had said document, and Mr. Livingston asked for another.   Amusedly disgruntled, Mrs. Herford chided, “This does not bode well, does it, Chad,” and he reversed field, grinning and saying that he was hadn’t lost whatever it was he couldn’t produce, a performance that your SON found unconvincing.

As Mr. Livingston took his seat, instruction commenced. Arranged in a rectangular “semicircle,” two-desks deep, the students maintained excellent posture through the next forty minutes, an impressive feat for high-achieving, over-involved scholars, athletes, and amateur thespians, especially so early on a frigid Friday morning. In fact, throughout the entire class, the students maintained an impressive level of attentiveness, and eight of the nine scholars contributed at some point to Mrs. Herford’s Socratic questioning. The one student who didn’t contribute, the ever-taciturn Pamela Blanton[4], sat directly in front of SON preventing his being able to gauge her level of attentiveness. However, Miss Blanton not only sits on the front row, but also sits closest to the stool upon which Mrs. Herford sometimes perches[5], so it seems extremely unlikely that the bashful Miss Blanton wasn’t mentally engaged in the academic content of the lesson. Throughout the class, on at least three occasions, Mrs. Herford referred to the students as “ladies and gentlemen,” appellations that corresponded aptly to their behavior.

Mrs. Herford began by providing a rough road map of what lay ahead, a revisitation of Russia in light of the previous night’s reading. Mrs. Herford began by asking the students what had been going on the last time they visited Russia. A chorus of contradictory responses rang out, with Hendrik Kohlman harkening back to the Mongols and Angela Nielson remembering something about the Ivan tsars. Mr. Kohlman, who is 15-going-on-65, speaks with such an oddly anachronistic formality that you wouldn’t be surprised to look over and see that he’s sporting knickers and an Eton collar. He immediately recognized his error, and complained, “It’s Friday morning.”

Then, with extraordinary dexterity, Mrs. Herford in a Socratic cross-examination elicited from the students a remarkable distillation of half-a-millennium of Russian history, taking us from Mongols and princes to tsars and serfdom. In forcing the students themselves to provide the correct answers, Mrs. Herford engages in an animated artform that combines ballet and charades. When she asks a question, her face is quizzical, as if she has momentarily forgotten the answer, and when a student comes up with the correct response, her face lights up. Students want to generate that smile, so they take intellectual risks in perhaps being wrong. If they are incorrect, Mrs. Herford asks qualifying questions. To coax the answers from them, she gracefully uses her hands, pushing her palms out towards the students to suggest exile, say, or interlacing her fingers to suggest the combining of forces. Because she’s perpetually in motion and the class is so small, students don’t have the luxury to wander off into the lurid klieg-lit rooms of their imaginations.

Once Mrs. Herford had navigated her students through the ages, from the steppes of the Mongols to the marshes of St. Petersburg, she began the central focus of the day, a demonstration of a succession of Russian rulers who in subsequent administrations oscillated from reformation to reaction, a rather disheartening pingponging between liberalization and repression. To capture visually this historical movement, Mrs. Herford drew a crossgraph on her white board with “reform” and “reaction” as the twin headings. As she was hurriedly constructing her graph, Mr. Kohlman announced that “this is a little off topic” but that he reckoned, somewhat egocentrically perhaps, that there might be a fortune to be made in manufacturing loose leaf paper with vertical rather than horizontal lines, paper that would be well-suited to accommodate the graph Mrs. Herford was creating. Showing a surprising ignorance of product creation and promotion, Stephen Paddington pooh-poohed this idea by saying that you would need special binders if you manufactured vertically lined paper. Some other unidentified voice reasonably suggested that you could in fact turn your binders sideways and accomplish Mr. Kohlman’s objective. Rather than launching into a side trip to enlighten Mr. Paddington about the nefarious practices of the Lords of Capitalism and how creating products that won’t accommodate older products’ plug-ins is one of their dastardly techniques[6], Mrs. Herford, perhaps thinking of the centuries and various cultures stretching before her in the three-and-a-half months before the AP exam, quickly shut down the conjecture by assuring Mr. Gadsden that indeed if there were a market for vertically lined paper, surely some enterprising entrepreneur would have created it by now. Later in the class Mr. Kohlman– who otherwise proved a valuable contributor to providing correct answers to Mrs. Herford’s questions – tried to interject another distraction, which Mrs. Herford ignored, as she talked through his interruption. She did, later on, say that she thought it was a good idea for students to copy the graph in the notebooks, “whether on paper vertically lined, or otherwise,’’ a deft allusion to Mr. Kohlman’s original observation.

As the ping pong ball bounced from tsar to tsar, from Nicholas I to Alexander II to Alexander III, Mrs. Herford scrawled information in the Reaction column or the Reform column, switching alternatively, depending on whether the adjacent rulers were purging dissenters or liberalizing education. Whether consciously or not, she was creating a visual Hegelian historical dialectic that was particularly apropos given that Marx stood waiting just outside the present scope of the day’s lesson. In addition, as Mrs. Herford discussed the concept of Russianization, she successfully encouraged students to synthesize other similar movements in different cultures they had studied such as Sinofication in China and the persecution of Huguenots under Louis XIV. As a side note, Mrs. Hereford’s arrangement of cross-referencing various cultures during similar times (the alternating method) rather than starting with medieval China and taking it to the 2Oth century and then going to India and doing likewise (the block method) mirrors these students’ most recent essay assignment in English, a comparison-and-contrast composition in which their instructors encourage them to use the alternating method rather than the block method.

With energy that never flagged, Mrs. Herford guided her charges to the very end, stating at 9:43 that she had two minutes, “and you know that I am going to use them.” She mentioned a précis that was due Monday and some pivotal, important question that she had hoped to ask today but that would have to wait until Tuesday. Her “marketing” of this question successfully spurred the interest of SON who would have liked to be there to discover what the mysterious question entailed and how the students might respond to it. Unfortunately, however, time was up, because another set of students was filing in for their turn to learn under this extraordinary teacher.

Natalie possesses the same quality that my very best teacher Dr. Jack Ashley possessed, the ability to make students want to please him, so they do their best, revising those essays, trying to make them even better so that the teacher will be proud of them.

And talking about a role model!

Mrs. Natalie Herdford

Mrs. Natalie Herdford


[1] Mrs. Herford’s command of Russian history is phenomenal. Without so much as a note, she effortlessly rattled dates, names, movements, etc.

[2] I have changed the students’ names.

[3] cf. the modifier of “omniscient” in the author’s acronymic nom de plume.

[4] For the sake of full disclosure, it should be noted that Miss Blanton is a far-distant cousin of the author’s.

[5] Actually, all told, Mrs. Herford spent ~ 8 seconds on that stool.

[6] As your SON would be tempted to do.

David Foster Wallace and Samuel Johnson

posterAt one point in The End of the Tour, the David Foster Wallace character (Jason Segal) introduces the David Lipsky character (Jessie Eisenberg) as “Mr. Boswell.”

It’s what we used to call a “cut” when I was a kid, a playful little knife nick to the ego’s epidermis. As future biographer Thomas Boswell followed the Great Samuel Johnson around the salons of 18th Century London scribbling down his every word so Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky follows the Great David Foster Wallace around the fast food joints of Bloomington and Minneapolis scribbling down (and recording) his every word.

A major difference, though, is that Boswell worshipped Johnson, and being 30 years younger, looked up to him as you might an adored father. True, Lipsky recognizes that Wallace is a genius (and he was) and that he Lipsky is not (and he’s not); unfortunately, though, Lipsky suffers from that common young male testosteronic compulsion to see any contemporary as a rival. In his head he knows when it comes to Foster and him, it’s the literary equivalent of Bogey versus Barney Fife, but in his heart – or at least in his testes – he wants to be considered Wallace’s equal.

So the Lipsky character is both an ardent admirer and a resentful rival, and this tension provides the slight dramatic arc of the movie. Frankly, if I were you, I’d wait until the film comes out on Netflix.

Not that the film’s not well crafted and superbly acted (Segal might deserve an Oscar). However, this little movie with its appropriately washed out colors straining in winter light to render those undistinguishable commercial corridors that lead to every city in the US as soulless as possible ain’t exactly crying out to be seen on “the big screen.” The movie’s sort of claustrophobic. Our characters don’t talk about fiction, much less Infinite Jest, which could be a multi-generational novel set in Alaska for all we know. They migrate from emblematic soulless room to emblematic soulless room talking mostly about themselves, and the Wallace character’s social awkwardness doesn’t make you wish you could trade places with Lipsky.

What would have made the movie more interesting (and let me assure any Hollywood moguls out there reading this that I am available) is if we could have peeked inside of Wallace’s head on occasion. For example, when Lipsky asks Wallace why Wallace wears a head bandanna, we could have been treated to a montage from Wallace works – surreal scenes – for example, rapidly edited shots of wheelchair bound terrorists . . . a father strapping a Raquel Welch mask to his daughter before abusing her . . . a rollercoaster ride at the Indianapolis State Fair . . . dinner on a cruise ship with its Felliniesque diners, etc. etc. – all of these quick cut images gaining momentum until DFW’s head literally explodes.

The good and bad news is that this movie is very stage adaptable.

Dave and SamBut here’s why I’m glad I went. A cartoon light bulb went off over my head as I was watching. The DFW character as Segal plays him is a lot like the Great Samuel Johnson. He’s straggly-haired, overweight, disheveled, stooped, ursine, shambling, prone to a soul’s darkest nights, pitifully self-absorbed, and, despite his genius, someone who strives as hard as he can to be a good man.

I love Boswell’s Johnson, and in my way, I love David Foster Wallace, but not Lipsky’s Wallace. In fact, in this movie, he’s not as clever or fun or witty as at least three friends I can think of – Furman Langley, Jake Williams, and Melissa DeMayo Reiss.

I’d much rather spend a couple of hours with them on a rainy Sunday.

True Detective: Existential Nihilism for the Masses

In his 1996 novel Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace has a seventh grader, Hal Incandenza, write an essay contrasting Hawaii Five-O and Hill Street Blues, an essay that ponders the evolution of American television heroes.

Remarkably observant, young Incandenza underscores sociological differences in the programs. For example, Five-O’s Steve McGarrett has the luxury of working on “one case per week” in an office that resembles “the libraries of the landed gentry, hushed behind two heavy doors and wainscoted in thick, tropical oak.” On the other hand, Hill Street’s Frank Furillo, a precinct captain, juggles several cases at once in the chaotic confines of a cluttered cubicle-crammed station house teeming with clashing personalities. Essentially, “McGarrett is not weighed down by administrative State-Police-Chief chores, or by females, or friends, or emotions, or any sorts of conflicting demands on his attention” whereas Furillo “is beset by petty distractions on all sides [. . .] with suspects and snitches and investigating officers and angry community leaders and victims’ families all clamoring for redress.”

Colbert Root in his Summer of Jest, a handy on-line scene-by-scene summary and analysis of the novel, recaps the essay for us:

Where McGarrett exemplifies the modern man of action, Hal argues, Furillo typifies a man of postmodern “reaction.” Both protagonists are heroes of their own show’s culture, but both are also ill-equipped for the other’s world. McGarrett, as the modern man of action, is single-minded, acting to “refashion a truth the audience already knows into an object of law, justice, modern heroism.” Contrariwise, Furillo succeeds because he is cast within a large system; he excels at being a cog in a very large and bureaucratic machine [. . .] That Furillo comes after McGarrett as a typical US protagonist reflects a shift in US cultural preferences. Audiences, Hal says, want the stoic bureaucrat. His successes and shortfalls more closely align with their own. But, Hal ponders, what comes next? What hero will succeed Furillo?

from left Rust (McConaughey) and Marty (Harrlesson)

from left Rust (McConaughey) and Marty (Harrlesson)

Well, if we look to the current HBO crime drama True Detective, the answer is Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey), a nihilistic metaphysician, an agoraphobic detective who considers human consciousness “a tragic misstep in evolution” that enables us “to labor under the illusion of having a self” when we’re merely “accretions[s] of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.”

This cat makes Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Mike Hammer seem downright dewy in comparison. His partner Marty Hart (played by Woody Harrelson) considers Rust “the Michael Jordan of being a son-of-a-bitch,” and when Rust says shit like, “It’s all one ghetto, man, a giant gutter in outer space,” Marty virtually begs him to shut up. You see, despite having kinky handcuffed sex outside of his marriage, Marty is a family man, a Christian who holds essentially a Medieval view of the cosmos, a belief that divine reward or punishment keeps folks (though obviously not himself) in line. Rust responds, as you might expect, with scorn:

If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward then, brother, that person is a piece of shit. And I’d like to get as many of them out in the open as possible. You gotta get together and tell yourself stories that violate every law of the universe just to get through the goddamn day? What’s that say about your reality?

Set in the semi-industrialized backwoods of Louisiana, the narrative features superb characterization and brilliant acting as the two detectives try to solve a series of grisly ritualistic murders. So many symbolic crosses (e.g., aerial shots of perpendicular lines of trees) sneak into the story I can’t help but wonder if its creator, Louisiana fiction writer Nic Pizzolatto, is making some sort of statement.

Whatever the case, Rust is not the fellow you want your sons to grow up to be. He’s a bit of a throwback, a cross between Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man and a Zen Buddhist.

He’s also about as fascinating a character as television has ever produced.

Channeling David Foster Wallace and Senator Larry Grooms

Years ago, I lazily cooked up one last essay assignment for my hopelessly checked-out seniors, an essay that would force them to revisit their time at Porter-Gaud. I say lazily, because it occurred to me that I could have them deliver the essay as a speech. That way, I wouldn’t have to correct it as writing – you can’t hear the difference between a comma and a semicolon; when you’re talking from the heart, you don’t necessarily want to introduce clauses with “as” instead of “like.” Nine months of reading and commenting on inexact writing can get old.

Their last essay would be graded as they delivered it, it might force the unreflective to recollect, and the succession of speeches might reinforce a sense of sharing and camaraderie. But, actually, none of those positive student benefits figured in my thinking. I essentially assigned them a valedictory address as their last assignment for selfish reasons.

Stacks of papers versus mouthfuls of air. first-essays

Not surprisingly, given the quality of our students, I’ve amassed some beautiful speeches over the years, and when I assign the project, I include samples from their predecessors. Two years ago I included in my assignment packet a commencement speech that David Foster Wallace had delivered at Kenyon College. This week, I had to abandon one of my block classes for forty minutes to observe a candidate teach a class of sixth graders, so I prepared a short answer reading quiz on the Wallace speech and had my current seniors read it and take the quiz in class while I was gone. This inadvertence also turned out to be propitious, because when I returned, several of the students praised the speech, one saying it was the best essay that she had ever read. [You can read it here].

Essentially Wallace argues that “learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think,” which essentially means switching your mental radio station from its “default mode,” i.e., from “the constant monologue inside your own head” to a station that “[is] paying attention to what is going on right in front of [you].” He goes on to describe himself in his default mode driving home from the grocery store “disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers.” However, Wallace argues that this negative thinking is essentially unproductive. Switch stations, think about what it might be like to be the driver of the V-12 truck emblazoned with NRA stickers, etc. ZPWM4Fu Which, brings me, finally, to the subject of this posting, my least favorite person of the week, Senator Larry Grooms, (R-Daniel Island), who has topped V. Putin and Cliven Bundy in the lowness of my estimation, which, come to think of it, would not matter a jot or tittle to him if he knew, or perhaps, he might even welcome the animus of a leftist old bald-headed hippie like me.

Senator Grooms has kindled my wrath by cutting off funds for the College of Charleston because he disagreed with the College’s choosing a summer reading Fun Home, a novel with a gay protagonist. The novel has been adapted into a musical nominated for two Pulitzers. The College decided to host the show on campus for two performances last Monday, performances that didn’t expend a penny of state funds. Nevertheless, this “giant middle finger to the Statehouse” has provoked the arse-belching consternation of several legislators. This from the City Paper:

And then there’s state Rep. Bill Whitmire (R-Walhalla). Recently, a joint committee of senators and representative interviewed candidates for the CofC Board of Trustees. In a transcript of one such interview, the topic turned to Fun Home, and during that discussion, Whitmire called the book “highly offensive” and “promoting a specific lifestyle.” He even suggested that an individual could be arrested if he or she invited a 17-year-old to read it and encouraged every person interviewed for reappointment to the CofC Board of Trustees to keep something like this (meaning a book that addresses issues of non-heterosexual identity) from being a College Reads! selection ever again.

Senator Grooms, not to be outdone, offered this threat: “If lessons weren’t learned [at the College], the Senate may speak a little bit louder than the House. There would be a number of members in the Senate that would have a great interest in fixing the deficiencies at the College of Charleston.” Okay, my default mode when I encounter philistinism is Mencken-like mockery, Ezra-Pound-like intemperance of language. Here’s a snippet from the penultimate paragraph from Mencken’s obituary of William Jennings Bryan:

He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the dung-pile. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not.

Here’s Mencken’s last paragraph: “The job before democracy is to get rid of such canaille. If it fails, they will devour it.”

Senator Larry Grooms (R-Daniel Island)

Senator Larry Grooms (R-Daniel Island)

Okay, I find myself in an uncomfortable position. How can I in good conscience after making my students read DFW’s commencement speech revert to my default mode of quoting Pound’s “vice crusaders farting through silk,” splattering the self-righteous senator with vulgarities, and, by the way, am not just as self-righteous as he? Shouldn’t I imagine – as DFW does in his commencement address – what it must be like to be that person whom we hold in contempt?

On the on-line scstatehouse.gov bio site, we discover that Senator Grooms lists his occupation vaguely as businessman, graduated from Clemson University in 1987, and designates his religion as “Christian,” having been “saved by Grace in April of 1987” (which is really good timing: sow those Dionysian grapes, be forgiven, and get righteously on with the business of adulthood). Oh yeah, to slide myself into Senator Grooms’s Bass Weejuns, I would also have to imagine being a proud lifetime member of the NRA.

Okay, here goes. I’m Larry. The Bible is the greatest book ever. Here’s Leviticus 20:13: “If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltiness is upon them.”

Jesus is conspicuously silent on the subject, though it’s hard to imagine his condoning an execution of Cole Porter or Elizabeth Bishop for committing the above-described “abominations.”

But Paul isn’t silent on the subject: 1 Corinthians 6:9: “Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor homosexuals nor sodomites … will inherit the kingdom of God.”

Greg Koulkl: “Homosexual desire is unnatural because it causes a man to abandon the natural sexual compliment God has ordained for him: a woman. That was Paul’s view. If it was Paul’s view recorded in the inspired text, then it is God’s view. And if it is God’s view, it should be ours if we call ourselves Christian.”

So, the Larry Grooms I have become accepts premises and reasoning of Koulkl’s conclusion. The novel and musical Fun Home promote a sinful lifestyle (genetics be literally damned!)

Goddamnit , these Weejuns are killing my feet [author removes them and flings them out the window of his drafty garret].

But, hey, Larry – what about that separation of Church and State thing? And if you’re going to go by the Bible, what about Matthew 6:5-6 – “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.…” In other words, remove that “saved by Grace” from your website. After all, you know what Jesus said about casting stones.

At any rate, I’ll leave you with a sentence from Friday’s Post Courier editorial page, and believe me, when the editorial staff of that newspaper and I agree, the Second Coming might truly be at hand!

Sen. Grooms and his meddlesome colleagues have a misguided idea of what a college education should be. In addition to literature, science and economics, it should challenge students with new issues and different viewpoints. A college’s goal should not be indoctrination. And the “academic freedom” espoused by the school’s Board of Trustees should put curriculum decisions in the hands of administrators.

Amen!

Follow on Twitter @ragwatercat

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!