An Embarrassment of Riches: Pat Conroy, Log-Heaving Lowcountry Highlanders, and/or James T Crow?

If I were a decent human being, someone who cared about his unborn grandchildren, I would be out canvassing, ringing doorbells door-to-door and begging voters to cast their ballots because, if Republicans control Congress and the Presidency, we’re up the River Styx for sure.

But, the thing is, I sort of look like a homeless person.  My hair, though scant, is unruly, like my beard, and my clothes, no matter how hard I try, always look like I’ve slept in them.

I’d be afraid that when I rang a doorbell and the working mom checked me out through the peephole, she’d call the cops.[1]  I’m a suspicious looking person.  Salespeople stalk me at department stores.

And anyway, hey! [Cue the Beach Boys] I wanna have fun fun fun, /Till my sons take the car keys away!

Too much with too little time.

Caroline and I drove down to Beaufort Friday afternoon for the Pat Conroy Literary Festival. There, we got to see Megan and sit at the same table with her and her Uncle Tim and meet her mother Barbara for the first time.  I absolutely adore Megan, whom I consider the funniest woman I know outside of showbiz. There were speeches I couldn’t hear, but it’s not the PA’s fault.  The folks at my table laughed at words that to me were less than whispers.  Maybe I need to go do something about my hearing?  Afterwards, you could buy books and get them signed.  A tribute volume for Pat has just come out, Our Prince of Scribes.

Megan Conroy, Caroline, and I-and-I

The B and B where we stayed was .6 of a mile from the dinner at Tabby Place, so we walked Saturday morning to retrieve Caroline’s car. We had expectantly bumped into a couple of former students at a bar and took an Uber “home” to the B and B.  The inn itself I’d call Southern-Gothic Lite, with the proprietor a California transplant taking over dead mama’s mansion. He blinked very slowly a good bit, but he didn’t resemble Anthony Perkins, and the bath wasn’t equipped with a stand-alone shower.

Oh yeah, the walk.  What a beautiful day.  What a beautiful city.

IMG_3039.jpg

So we left Beaufort without breakfast or coffee to pick up Brooks and meet Caroline’s dad at the Scottish Games on the grounds of Drayton Hall.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay long enough to enjoy the complete array of contests and parades. We had to catch some of Porch Fest, Jim Crow’s set at three followed by Brother Fleming’s at four.

Too much with too little time.

For me, Porch Fest ranks right up there with the X-mas parade as Folly’s premiere parties  This year marks its 5th anniversary. It’s a community-enhancing exercise; musicians are booked to perform at various houses on Folly Beach simultaneously.  Luckily, Jim and Fleming were playing at different times and only a couple of blocks apart. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to catch Danielle Howle because she was playing at the same time as Fleming.

You just wander into the someone’s yard, meet some new neighbors maybe, open a beer, and listen.

Here’s a peek.  First Jim, accompanied by Timmy Morris, and then Fleming.

Like I said, Too much with too little time.


[1]Of course, my Joe Cunningham for Congress sweat shirt might have made me look more legit.

A Year Most of Us Would Like to Forget

Gebhard Fuge: An den Wassern Babylons

Gebhard Fuge: An den Wassern Babylons

A couple of posts ago, I stated that I wasn’t going to do my annual review because I lacked the courage; however, I’ve changed my mind hoping that the exercise might provide some catharsis, serve as a purgative to wash away pity and terror, as I rent my sackcloth and tear out my few remaining  strands of hair.

January

Prophetically setting the tone for horror over the horizon, my very first post this year was a New Year’s Day comparison of Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt, two doomed cool rocking daddies who both died on New Year’s Day 44 years apart.  Click Here.

hank and townes

Of course, David Bowie would die later that month while those undelightful Bundry Boys, who later would be acquitted, occupied federal property in Montana.  Instead of going there, I’ve linked the cautionary tale of my first acquaintance with alcohol.  Read it and weep. Click Here.

Folly Beach Tales of Intoxication

February

In February my Aunt Virginia died, which led to musing on mortality as my siblings and I scattered her remains to the Folly River.  Click Here.

ashes to ashes

Here’s also a review of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which I listened to driving to a funeral home after a stranger in a bar the previous evening showed me photographs of her husband’s severed finger stumps, which he had acquired a couple of hours earlier. Click here.

March

patPat Conroy, the father of a close friend, died.  She and her sister stayed with us during his hospitalization. Click here.

In addition, March brought us the news of the return of Judy Birdsong’s T-Cell Lymphoma, which, of course, was profoundly disheartening.

This post was created on Good Friday right after finding out the news.  Click here.

April

Teaching Keats while in despair proved quite difficult but do-able.  Click here.

And, of course, Prince, whom I dubbed “the Lord Byron of Pop, died.  Click here.

screen-shot-2015-12-08-at-7-58-05-am

 

May

Yet another death, this time a student’s.  Click here.

And I review Don DeLillo’s just released not-exactly-upbeat novel, Zero K.

 

Edward Hopper: "Morning Sun"

Edward Hopper: “Morning Sun”

June

dylan-ali-2-300x201June brought us a mass shooting in an Orlando Nightclub.  Click here.

Ali, a sort of boyhood hero died, which took me back to the early 60’s when my father tried to teach me how to box.  Click here.

So I decided to cheer myself up by reading the Brothers Karamazov.  Click here.

the author fleeing from an ant attack

the author fleeing from an ant attack

July

Trump + Putin = Love. Click here.

Also, there was that festival of bad taste known as the Republican convention. Click here.

Adelson's luxury suite

Adelson’s luxury suite

August

Okay, how about a little sunshine.  I donned my anthropological pith helmet and crashed a bachelor’s party at Chico Feo (click here) and talked a colleague into letting me publish a brilliant letter she wrote to her students (click here).

September

Snazell, Sarah; Doppelganger; Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/doppelganger-178168

Snazell, Sarah; Doppelganger; Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/doppelganger-178168

In September we travelled to Houston for treatment, and my Judy Birdsong met the other Judy Birdsong, a bright light in a year of darkness (click here).

October

Before Leonard Cohen died, I published this piece after reading David Remick’s splendid New Yorker article.  Click here.

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Blow Hurricane Matthew, break your checks, rage blow. Click here.

November 

Oh my God NO! Click here.

melania-libertyDecember

So here we are.  On the edge.  Waiting.  But, hey, thanks to all for reading, especially my regular crew.  Happy New Year!
.

 

Open-Eyed, Laughing: In Memory of Pat Conroy

patAlthough I didn’t know Pat Conroy well at all – maybe five close encounters (including one at our house on Folly Beach) – I was, however, privy to his condition during his last days because while Pat received treatment at MUSC, I met his daughters Megan and Jessica Sunday night for a drink downtown, and they ended up staying with us Monday night at the beach before heading back to Beaufort on Tuesday where Pat passed away.

Even though I only hung with Pat a view times, I could detect the hurt beneath his quick smile and alert eyes. Like many who have suffered bleak childhoods, he viewed life through the blackest of shades and attempted to illuminate that darkness through flashes of sardonic humor. If he hadn’t been a novelist, he could have made a fortune doing stand-up. I certainly hope somebody somewhere has recorded his story about not taking Barbra Streisand’s calls because he thought she was his pal Bernie playing a practical joke.

Pat remembered and cared about you. A year and a half ago when we were visiting Megan at his house at Fripp, Pat told me that I had a good life, that teaching English was a good life. A couple of weeks ago at his house in Beaufort, the first time I’d seen him since, he again asked me about my teaching, if I had retired. He insisted on getting up as Judy and I were leaving.

He knew he was a goner but was stoic and flashed that quick smile throughout our conversation. Monday night, Megan told me that he had said good-bye to her and her sisters at ICU, and as they were leaving in tears, he added, “Damn, I’m going to be so embarrassed if I don’t die tonight.”

Bingo.

Yeats wrote in his poem “Vacillation” that he tested “everything his [own] hands [had] wrought” according to whether or not it was “suited for such men as come/ Proud, open-eyed, and laughing to the tomb.”

Pat Conroy was such a man.

May he rest in peace and the family he has left behind thrive.

A Pat Conroy Family Reunion of Sorts

An acquaintance, the poet Cathy Smith Bowers, once told me something that should be obvious but had never occurred to me: The adrenal glands of children who grow up in chaotic households pump Vesuvian eruptions of the hormone epinephrine when their parents (or their parents’ boyfriends/girlfriends) hurl invectives and/or furniture at each other.

In plainer English, growing up in fucked-up households tends to fuck you up, not only mentally, but physically as well — as if there is a difference anyway.

Cathy Smith Bowers

Cathy Smith Bowers

Cathy went on to say that once these children leave the war zones of their childhoods, they often develop a need for high levels of adrenaline and a hankering for jangled nerves, for that elevated heart rate, that feeling of excitement, and, of course, there’s nothing like a little snort of cocaine to replicate that bodily high, and nothing like a drug habit to create chaos, and thus, to bring the family melodrama back full circle.

Cathy, like many of us, is no stranger to the toll of growing up in an unhappy home. Here’s her poem “The Boxers” that makes manifest her point:

When my father, after twenty years, came home

to die, circling, circling, like an animal

we believed extinct, it was my crazy aunt

who took him in, who told later

how the taxi had dumped him

bleached and whimpering on her porch.

And she who had not lived with him

thought his sons and daughters cruel

not to come when he began to call our names.

He died, and soon after, a package in brown wrapping

arrived at my address. My sister, who did not

attend the funeral, kept urging me to open it

and I kept saying I would, soon. Every day

when I came home from work, there it was

sitting at my back door, the remnants

of my father’s life—years in the mill

spinning and doffing, then drinking into morning

as he railed at the walls, the cotton

still clinging to his fists. Weeks had passed

when finally my sister and I, after two stiff bourbons,

began to rip the paper, slowly in strips

like archaeologists unclothing a mummy.

And all that was there were a few plaid flannels,

the jacket to a leisure suit, and a pair of boxers,

white and baggy, Rorschached in urine—a smaller size,

my sister said, than the way she remembered him.

Then she offered to drop the things at the Salvation Army

store she passed on her way home. In July

we went shopping for swim suits and I could

see her in the curtained stall across from mine.

She was pulling her slip over her head when I saw

she was wearing them, her thighs like the pale stems

of mushrooms emerging from the boxers’ billowy

legs, whiter, softer now, washed clean. I still

can’t say why my sister, that day in the Salvation

Army store, glanced up, as I’ve imagined,

to see if anyone was watching

before she slipped those boxers from the soiled heap

of our father’s clothes. Nor why

I took so long to open that package, both wanting

and fearing whatever lay inside. Like a child

huddled by the campfire who cries out in terror

at the story someone just told

and, still weeping, begs for it again.

“The Boxers” by Cathy Smith Bowers, from The Love that Ended Yesterday in Texas. © Texas Tech University Press, 1992. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

* * *

When we look to literature for examples of dysfunctional American families, we immediately think of Faulkner’s Compsons, any number of Tennessee Williams’ people, the Tyrones of Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into the Night, and the tortured families who inhabit the pages of Pat Conroy’s novels.

Our friend Megan Conroy sometimes stays with us for a few days in July when she travels from California to visit her famous father, stepmother, and aunts and uncles at Fripp Island. Unfortunately, this year she couldn’t make it up to Charleston, so she invited us down to Fripp to her father’s beach house.

back yard

back yard

Situated on a lagoon, the Conroy beach house is the antithesis of gothic — open and airy and looking out onto a backyard where practically tame deer feed. When we arrived, Megan greeted us and introduced her uncle Mike, who bears a remarkable resemblance to his older brother and who can give him a run for his money as a raconteur. Also there were Mike’s wife Jeannie, his sister Kathy, Megan’s sisters Jessica and Melissa, their husbands, and a host of grandchildren too numerous to name.

Pat and his wife the novelist Cassandra King arrived after a midday dinner of fired chicken, macaroni and cheese, red rice, cantaloupe, and coleslaw. The older folk traded stories in typical Southern fashion in the open family room while younger members of the clan watched Germany battle Algeria in another space.

Rather than what you might expect, hanging out with Pat Conroy on that day was more like hanging out with Sam Clemens than Eugene O’Neill.

A few excerpts:

Pat: [My arch-conservative ex-father-in-law] makes Rush Limbaugh look like Chairman Mao.

Megan: I didn’t want a fancy wedding dress until I tried one on.   I didn’t want a veil until I tried one on. When they told me don’t you want to take off your veil after the ceremony, I said, “No, when do you ever get to wear a veil?”

Pat: That dress cost a million dollars. Cassandra, remember when you opened the closet door and found it standing up by itself? Horrifying!

***

In other words, the Conroys seemed like one big happy family and that at least the youngest have broken the dysfunctional cycle of self-generated misery that dysfunction tends to generate, which is remarkable given the scorched earth of the Great Santini’s children’s childhoods. To wit an excerpt from Pat’s memoir The Death of Santini:

When I was thirty years old, my novel The Great Santini was published, and there were many things in that book I was afraid to write or feared that no one would believe. But this year I turned sixty-five, the official starting date of old age and the beginning count down to my inevitable death. I’ve come to realize that I still carry the bruised freight of that childhood every day. I can’t run away, hide, or pretend it never happened. I wear it on my back like the carapace of a tortoise, except my shell burdens and does not protect. It weighs me down and fills me with dread.

The Conroy children were all casualties of war, conscripts in a battle we didn’t sign up for on the bloodied envelope of our birth certificates. I grew up to become the family evangelist; Michael, the vessel of anxiety; Kathy, who missed her childhood by going to sleep at six every night; Jim, who is called the dark one; Tim, the sweetest one – and can barely stand to be around any of us; and Tom, our lost and never-to-be found brother. My personal tragedy lies with my sister, Carol Ann, the poet I grew up with and adored…

I’ve got to try and make sense of it one last time, a final circling of the block, a reckoning, another dive into the caves of the coral reef where the morays wait in ambush, one more night flight into the immortal darkness to study that house of pain one final time. Then I’ll be finished with you, Mom and Dad. I’ll leave you in peace and not bother you again. And I’ll pray that your stormy spirits find peace in the house of the Lord. But I must examine the wreckage one last time.

Yet they appeared to me one big happy family!

Pat Conroy and his daughters

Pat Conroy and his daughters, from left to right Melissa, Megan, and Jessica

from left to right Pat's feet, his sister Kathy, wife Cassandra, brother Mike and sister-i-law Jeannie

from left to right Pat’s feet, his sister Kathy, Cassandra King, brother Mike and sister-in-law Jeannie

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