Post Retirement Projects

Now that my career’s closure lies a mere nineteen months away,[1] I’ve started thinking about how to spend the overabundance of free time that a retirement without ailing parents or wastrel children or impending lawsuits provides a relatively well-to-do Late Empire US citizen.

Some people have suggested I write a book about growing up in a small Southern town teeming with lovable oddball characters (and few mean-as-cuss rapscallions), you know, back in the days when polite whites called African Americans “colored people” or “Negros.”

Hasn’t this story already been done a time or two? Anyway, because my sensibilities run closer to the filmmaker David Lynch’s than to Ferrol Sams’, I can’t see myself pulling anything off that print publishers would touch, even with gloves, certifiably impermeable, approved for Ebola victim corpse-removal. [2]

The character Bobby Peru from David Lynch's "Wild at Heart"

The character Bobby Peru from David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart”

Thinking, as they say, outside of the container, it occurred to me that I might come up instead with a project that benefits society, something like a post-Trump etiquette manual to help citizens negotiate the shifting sands of what’s now socially acceptable while providing them with a historical context for cultural changes, a sort of map of decline in manners over time.

Excerpt from working manuscript:

On Chivalry

In the Age of Elizabeth (1558-1603), an act of chivalry might be a courtier’s removing his cloak and throwing it over a puddle so a lady wouldn’t get her dainty foot wet.

In the Age of Eisenhower (1953-1960), an act of chivalry might be a gentleman’s getting out of the driver’s side of a car, walking around to the passenger’s side, and opening that door for a lady sitting there.

In the Age of Clinton (1993 -2000), an act of chivalry might be a dude’s submitting to a chick’s request that he use a condom.

In the Age of Trump (2017- ), an act of chivalry might be a dudebro’s refraining from grabbing a bitch’s snatch even though she’s oh so fuckable.[3]

Emanuel Gottilieb Leute "Elizabeth and Raleigh"

Emanuel Gottilieb Leute “Elizabeth and Raleigh”

Or maybe I could spend my days in fantasyland, Walter Mitty style, imagining myself riding around in a backseat of chauffeur-driven Cadillac with Memphis Minnie, me in a double-breasted suit and matching fedora, she in cotton dress while playing her guitar and singing about how much she adores me.

chauffeur

 

Worse idea: Out-Milton-Milton and memorize the Holy Bible and Sartre’s On Being and Nothingness word-for-word.

Better idea: Take golf lessons. Play nine holes a day.

Even better idea, enlightened hedonism: go through the stages of Yoga’s sun salutation upon awakening each morning. Then mindfully concoct breakfast, noting the crack of eggshell on skillet rim, the rain-like sizzle of the bacon. Eat those eggs, bacon and grits deliberately, mouthful by mouthful, savoring. Go retrieve the paper and peruse it on the deck or screened porch while sipping coffee. Discuss the fall of civilization with also retired spouse. Afterwards, meditation followed by a walk on the beach or a paddle on the river or a bike ride off the island to Fort Henry. The remainder of the morning spent reading or writing. Tomato and cheese sandwiches. The NY Times crossword. Happy Hour. Preparing dinner with spouse followed by TCM or conversation. More social media. A nightcap. Yawn. Morpheus descending. Sweet dreams . . . ennui.

Okay, what was the name of the pervert in my hometown who dressed like Castro and rode his bike around town dragging behind it underwear he had traded newcomers for firecrackers?

[1] Discounting the possibility of a nuclear exchange with China

[2] As I write this, I suddenly remember a woman and severely mentally challenged grown daughter who used to patronize my granddaddy’s gas station. I can’t remember the daughter’s name, but she always carried a baby doll with her and spoke in garbled cassette-tape-getting-eaten slo-mo. My Aunt Virginia told me my grandmama forced Virginia to play with the girl/woman. Click here to see why that might not have been such a great idea.

[3] On the function of scatological language in satire, click here.

Political Correctness Academy

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Warning: Through no fault of the author’s, the following fascinating and informative piece contains language that marginalized people may or may not find offensive.

* * *

You’ve no doubt all heard the probably specious story that Eskimos have something like 300 or 600 or 300,600 different words for frozen water whereas we denizens of warmer climes only have a handful – sleet, snow, hail, slush, etc. The idea is that because they spend so much time dealing with frozen water they can distinguish subtle differences in its consistency and so it follows that —

Beep Beep Beep!

Un-oh, a new word processing app I just purchased, Offensive Connotative Terminology (OCT), has just generated a pop-up that informs me that “Eskimo” means “raw meat eater,” a pejorative name given to them by enemy tribes to the south and that E-words would rather we refer to them as Inuits, even though, as it turns out, Inuits do in fact eat raw meat. (No wonder then that there is a paucity of synonyms in the Inuit language for fire).

Fellini's "Little Person" nun from his film "Amarcord"

Fellini’s “Little Person” nun from his film “Amarcord”

I’ve lost my train of thought. Where was I? Oh yeah, that creepy obsession Fellini and David Lynch have with midgets. What’s the scoop on that?

Beep Beep Beep!

The damn thing’s gone off again. Looks like the word “midget” set it off. Let’s see, here’s a link in the pop-up that might offer an explanation.

[click]

Midget, denotation, “very small fly.” Popularized by PT Barnum and therefore associated with freak shows. Politically correct alternatives, “little person,” “dwarf,” “person with dwarfism,” or “person of short stature.”

Forget it, no way I’m going to write about Fellini and Lynch now. Try crafting a sonorous sentence with “person of short stature,” and to my sensibility “midget” conjures a less ominous image than “dwarf,” but anyway, I gotta go. I think I used “midgets” instead of “dwarves” in a piece I wrote about Folly Beach’ s freak show of a tavern, the Sand Dollar Social Club, a while back, so I better go back and edit it. [LINK TO SAND DOLLAR PIECE]

Beep! Beep! Beep!

OTC Suggestion: replace “freak show” with “side show.”

Okay, that’s it. I’m out of here.

Southern Gothic Memories, Canine Edition

I’m not aAgnolo-Bronzino--1503-1572-----Portrait-of-the-dwarf--Morgante%0D%0AItalia people person. For example, although I’m a teacher, I don’t especially like young people. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t dislike children the way WC Fields disliked children; I wouldn’t conk one on the head for laughs — but I don’t like them any better than I like twenty-somethings, middle-aged people, seniors, etc. If anything, as demographics go, I like very old cognizant people the best, octogenarians and above, widows and widowers, withered folk who have seen it all, suffered irredeemable losses, but who have managed to maintain twinkles in their eyes.

(By the way, these withered creatures both disgust and terrify high school students. For example, Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath Tale,” which describes the wedding night of a young knight and a very aged crone, sends viewable shivers of disgust up sophomores’ spines. If you don’t want your teenager to smoke, don’t try to scare her with lung cancer — she can’t relate to a death that far in the future — instead show her a photograph of WH Auden or Keith Richards. Explain that cigarettes break down collagen and lead to wrinkles.)

I feel the same way about dogs as I feel about people. I don’t like a dog just because it’s a dog, just because it’s a member of the species Canis familiaris, but I have loved certain individual dogs, especially ones that ended up living with me, even troubled ones, like psychopathic Jack (d. c.1990) and PTSD Saisy (d. 2014).

Jack and Sally  1986
Jack and Sally 1986

However, by far the best dog we ever owned was Bessie, an AKC-certified Golden retriever who was beautiful, loving, highly intelligent, and gentle.

To obtain Bessie, however, we had to venture into Flannery O’Connor territory, or if you prefer, a David Lynch movie, but before I start the narrative, I’d like to set a couple of things straight.

First, I’ve had the following account certified by fellow witness Judy Birdsong as basically accurate. In cases where our memories differ, I have deferred to her.

Second, I need also to stress that I have always sympathized with people with physical abnormalities. My father’s favorite work of literature was Cyrano de Bergerac, I identified with the protagonist of The Boy with Green Hair when I was a kid, and I consider Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, as one of the most admirable human beings who ever lived.

So don’t judge me goddamnit!

* * *

Once upon a time, our older ten-year-old son Harrison had been asking for a dog, so Judy decided to surprise him and younger brother Ned, seven, with a golden retriever puppy for Christmas. We were living in post-Hugo Isle of Palms, SC, in a patched-up Cap Cod house with a large dog-friendly fenced back yard, and unlike our previous dogs, the aforementioned blood-thirsty Jack and his severely overbred pin-headed mate Sally, Bessie was destined to be a house dog.

The only problem was that Judy couldn’t find any golden retrievers for sale. We’re talking pre-Internet 1994 when you had to blacken your hands flipping through newsprint to find pets for sale. And like in an old movie, the days of the calendar were fluttering in the winds of time, being ripped off one by one as Christmas approached. Each morning, Judy scoured the want-ads, but still, no golden retriever pups for sale.

Then almost right before it would be too late to have the puppy appear on Christmas Day – eureka – a well-written ad purporting expertise appeared. The ad stressed that these pups had not been overbred, a problem endemic to such a popular breed, as the ad writer put it. Six were left — but going fast — reddish-hued golden retriever pups for sale for 150 bucks a pop. The only negative was that you had to drive to rural Berkeley County somewhere in the vicinity of Macedonia, South Carolina, to check them out, and so on a Saturday, we dumped the boys off somewhere and made the trek.

Judy had, of course, called the breeder, who impressed her with his phone presence, his well-articulated knowledge of all things golden retriever. He offered details on ancestry, points of origin. She liked the idea of the pups being bred in the country. She envisioned the puppies’ mother running Lassie-like through fields of alfalfa beyond wooden-fences, a white-washed clapboard farmhouse way back from the rarely traveled road, an aproned June Lockhart in the kitchen flipping flapjacks.

* * *

wilcox-county-ga-sibbie-road-abandoned-ford-mustang-chevrolet-chevy-chevelle-green-rusted-southern-gothic-americana-pictures-photo-copyright-brian-brown-vanishing-south-georgia-usa-2010The actual domicile was a largish non-mobile mobile home on a half-acre lot. I guess its owners would call it a manufactured house, but it didn’t look like a house but like a boxy trailer. In the weedy yard, two fossilized automobiles, one with yellowed newspapers inside stacked almost to the ceiling, the other leaning to its starboard side because of flat tires.

Happily, for me, I hadn’t envisioned what the homestead of our future puppy might look like, so I didn’t suffer the cognitive dissonance Judy had to endure. No, this wasn’t the set of Lassie; it was more like some David Lynch movie set in the rural South. Or, to wax literary, the homestead of the Lucynell Craters of Flannery O’Connor’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” In other words, Judy’s would-be plantation had dysfunction written all over it.

After exchanging dubious glances, we clanged our way up the metal steps, and I knocked politely on the metal door, expecting a chorus of howling or barking or at least something.

Silence.

I knocked again, louder.

Not a peep.

I banged on the door, thinking of B drive-in movies featuring chainsaws.

And then I heard a sound a muffled voice, some clumping. Was someone coming or not? Finally the door opened.

Standing there to greet us, propped on one aluminum crutch, stood a one-legged midget* in a Billy Pilgrim tee-shirt and cut-off denim shorts. He hadn’t lost his leg, but something had gone awry in utero; it hadn’t fully formed. I remember another embryonic non-formation going on with one of his hands, but Judy nixes this memory. She assures me that his disabilities were limited to being a “little person” with half a leg.


*I realize that some consider “midget” a pejorative term, but to me it seems less patronizing than “little people.” Plus I’ve had it with the never ending process of euphemizing euphemisms. Trust me, one day “little people” will become pejorative and the politically correct term will be “differently scaled humans.”

When I think of midgets, I think of the wonderful Land of Oz and squeaky “we-are-the-lolly-pop-kids” voices; however, this cat possessed that deep regionless baritone I associate with commercial voiceovers. He sounded like a radio announcer, and the walls of the living area of his minimally furnished house were lined with banks of computers at a time when computers weren’t ubiquitous household possessions.

He was unusually articulate; no wonder Judy had been impressed. Plus, he possessed the self-confidence of Sean Connery playing James Bond. Why hide the phocomelic limb with long pants pinned over the appendage? Shame seemed alien to him. The only negative I’ll lay on him was that he a sort of know-it-all, the way certain mechanically gifted people can be know-it-alls.

Bessie the Pup
Bessie the Pup

With him were two boys in their early teens, hardy and hale. We followed dad and sons to another room where the puppies were skidding around in a waterless kiddy pool. I remember urine in the pool; Judy doesn’t. We both agree the puppies were adorable — maybe four were left — and we chose the cutest and made arrangements to return to pick her up.

Money exchanged hands, and we said our good-byes. I decided not to mention the oddness of the encounter to Judy. How small-minded it seemed to me to even mention the disability. So what if the fellow from whom we had purchased our puppy was short and malformed? So what if we had spent a half hour in Flannery O’Connor/David Lynchville?

We returned to the car, I started the ignition, and Judy said, “That guy seemed soooooo familiar. Where do we know him from?

My mind screamed “WTF? You gotta be kidding me!!! What in the hell are you talking about?” but I merely said, as calmly as I could, “I’m fairly certain that I’ve never laid eyes on him.”

“No, think,’ she said. “Didn’t we know him in Columbia? I know we know him.”

Now things were really getting surreal.

“I’m absolutely certain I don’t know him. I’m certain I would remember him. He is one of the most singular individuals I’ve ever laid eyes on. Indeed, he might be the only midget I’ve ever talked to. Plus, he had only one leg. Trust me. I’d remember that. He’s not a very forgettable fellow.”

Judy’s still not convinced. However, we did end up running into him again at an outdoor concert later that spring, and as it turned out, Bessie didn’t turn out to be exactly genetically sound herself. She was born without knee sockets and needed an operation, but you couldn’t have asked for a better dog.

And how remarkable that her breeder could be so confident, so self-possessed. In that regard he stands head and shoulders above me.

Bessie the Crone photograph by Jim Klein

Bessie the Crone photograph by Jim Klein

True Detective Revisited: The Fall of American Culture

Let’s talk about Pulp fiction — not the movie — but its namesake, those lurid narratives printed on cheap paper that, to cop the cliché of their heyday, explored the “seamy underside” of American culture, publications like True Detective, which enjoyed a 71-year existence from 1924-1995.

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The HBO television series of the same name follows the magazine’s tradition of exposing lurid depravity, though it does so on a much higher artistic plane with shades of David Lynch and Flannery O’Connor, and the depravity depicted in the television series is like to 10th power of the seemingly quaint pistol whippings and murders of the magazine’s beginnings. Furthermore, the series seems to me to be an indictment of American culture, its spiritual poverty embodied in the corrupt Christianity of Southern Protestantism and in the rapacious capitalism of multinational corporations.

The director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, constantly underscores these two themes with the visual motifs of crosses and industrial wastelands, which bring to  mind landscapes depicted in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosh.

Check out the opening credits, for example:

Obviously David Lynch’s influence is profound here, not only in the arid, dispassionate images but also in the soundtrack, and this landscape is populated by characters right out of Flannery O’Connor — shiftless Southern scumbags, depraved criminals, corrupt preachers. The twin protagonists Marty and Rust offer an interesting contrast with Marty embodying the hollow hypocritical Protestantism that O’Connor despised and Rust the nihilism that O’Connor, though a devout Catholic, preferred to the mealy-mouthed ignorant insincerity of many of her nominally Christian characters, as we can see in her treatment of the Grandmother and the Misfit in “A Good Man’s Hard to Find.” In fact, in the sixth episode, a grown up child whore whom Marty tried to rescue from a trailer park brothel years ago calls him “a good man” in a restaurant, echoing the Grandmother’s comment to Red Sammy Butts in a restaurant in the O’Connor story. Of course, neither are good men, as Marty clearly demonstrates when he engages in extramarital sex with the woman.

(Here’s an earlier post dealing with Marty and Rust).

goodmanhardtofindThe complex characterization in the context of the cinematic images that create surreal beauty from ugliness makes the series both intellectually and aesthetically interesting, and there’s also a subplot dealing with public education money being funneled into Christian schools to overcome what one character calls “secular, global education.”  These Christian schools lie at the center of the ritualistic Satanic murders the two detectives have spent the better part of two decades trying to unravel.

Certainly, an anthropologist studying the magazine True Detective and the series would conclude that American culture, despite great inroads in civil rights, has declined precipitously since the decades the magazine flourished, and I can’t help but wonder if the creator Pizzolatto is himself a moralist, perhaps even a Catholic in the tradition of both Bosch and O’Connor.

At any rate, the same cultural anthropologist would also have to agree that television has gotten a whole hell of a lot better in the last fifty years.

 

The Krushtones + The Sand Dollar Social Club = Federico Fellini

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The Sound Track

One of the most pleasurable rites of spring celebrated in the Lowcountry each year occurs at the Sand Dollar Social Club on Folly Beach when the Krushtones take the stage for their annual April gig.

[Cue country preacher]: We’re talking glorification, brothers and sisters, talking bout light!

Krush-tones: (krùsh’- tõns) n. a band that features high-Watt[s] drumming; a bodacious bottom; a searing, eloquent guitar; and a latter day Jerry Lee Lewis on keyboards.

Joyous!

I swear, even if they were a mediocre band, the Krushtones’ taste is so exquisite I’d pay to hear the song sets. Al Green/Talking Heads, the Beatles, Stones, Chuck Berry. But mediocre they ain’t. They exude this palatable vibe of happiness that spreads in concentric circles as if a pearl has been dropped into a pool of sound.

Make you want to dance and holler hallelujah!

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The Venue

The Sand Dollar itself is difficult to categorize. As a private social club, it offers all of the exclusiveness of a subway station. One dollar secures you a year’s membership, but you can’t actually enter the club until 24 hours after your card has been issued. A typical Friday and Saturday night offers free live music, canned beer for a buck*, and and an eclectic clientele that, depending on the vibe the night you happen to be there, ranges from Felliniesque to Lynchian.

Bikers comprise a large contingent of the revelers, parking their Harleys (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a BMW) perilously close together out front like a chorus line of internally combustive Rockettes. I dread the day some reeling rummy trips and sets them crashing domino style one after the other. Years ago, before the bikers arrived, I had parked my VW minibus just in front of the designated space. When JB and I left for home, I was horrified to see at least twenty Harleys lined up about six inches from my back bumper and another car looming about a foot from my front bumper. Luckily, the fellow pictured below, a regular, helped me successfully to negotiate the scores of gear shifts, wheel turns, and progressions/reversals that liberated me from that straitened space.

*In 2014, a Bud will cost you $1.50

2

Joining the bikers as a discernible group are the long-in-the-tooth dead-end hedonists, who can be subdivided into old hippies and old shaggers. These sybarites, who hated each other in high school (the former letting their freak flag[s] fly, the latter sliding sockless feet into their Bass Weejuns) have mellowed over the years and appreciate each other in their shared ethos of self-medication and the never ending but increasingly difficult quest of getting laid.

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A calico combination of others rounds out the squad – attractive, young preppies; South of Broad slummers; working folk shooting pool; the occasional bombastic prophet-of-doom blogger.

Lynchian vis-a-vis Felliniesque

What’s the distinction, you may wonder, between these two cinematic adjectives denoting surrealism?

fellini 2

Although baroque, Fellini’s surrealism tends towards the comic/satiric. His Satyricon, for example, counterbalances sensuous shots with grotesque images of Late Empire overindulgence. Carnivalesque might be an appropriate approximation.

lynch

Lynch’s surrealism is darker, a world of evil where the hideous co-mingle with grotesquely bland clichés of Americana, a la the image of above, where the sinister red-clad midget sits beside someone who looks like he may be employed as a hardware store clerk in a Norman Rockwell painting or the son of the couple depicted in Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Kafkalite-ish.

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If I had to choose between the hellish dilemma of spending eternity in a Fellini film or a Lynch film, I’d definitely opt for the former. Underneath all of the grotesqueness of Fellini lies a positive procreative impulse. Take “The Widow of Ephesus” segment of The Satyricon, for example, where a woman who has decided to starve herself in her husband’s tomb is seduced by a soldier guarding crucified corpses.

Now that’s what I call pro life.

Lynch, on the other hand, is anti-life. Not that his films aren’t hugely enjoyable and laugh-out-loud funny. Nevertheless, like the parents in Eraserhead, procreation begets monstrosity. You don’t want to bring a child into David Lynch’s world.

In short, a Felliniesque evening at the Sand Dollar is more pleasurable Lynchian evening,

Friday, 9 April 2010

I’m not making this up. During the Krushtones’ first set, I witnessed the departure of one of Charleston’s wealthiest septuagenarians and his seeing-eye trophy wife. She, a blonde, a head taller and thirty years younger, held his hand mommy-like as she led him through the throng. As they were leaving, three female dwarves dressed to the nines flowed past them and took their place at the corner of the stage. I repeat, I’m not making this up.

Lynchian or Felliniesque?

If Johnny Mac had been playing that night, a man deeply in love with the sound of his own guitar, or Jeannie Wiggins, trapped in the wrong gender, thumping serviceable rock to her adoring groupies, the karma might have darkened the brain chemistry that ultimately determines the existential nature of my world. However, with the Krushtones on stage, beaming, jumping, singing “Lady Madonna,” the positive vibration was infectious. Even the stern-faced bouncer who looks like the promotional US Marine of recruitment commercials cracked a smile.

Too bad the Krushtones were too young to play at Altamont.

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