A Speech on Scholarship

Scholar by Osman Hamdi Bey

A friend recently sent me the copy of a speech that a friend of his had delivered at a Cum Laude induction at Exeter, which reminded me that I too had given a similar speech at Porter-Gaud in the 2010s, so I thought I’d pass it along, for what it’s worth.

Congratulations, inductees for embodying excellence. 

However, as John Donne famously proclaimed:  No man is an island.  These honorees did not arise on the foam of the Aegean fully formed. 

First, we need to acknowledge your parents.

Who read you bedtime stories, salved your skinned knees, said no, then sent you to time out.  

We need to acknowledge your teachers.

Especially those in the so-called lower grades who are not present to hear this praise, the ones who taught you how to read, how to form letters and Arabic numerals, how to add and subtract. 

I suspect none of us has forgotten our first grade teacher’s name.  Not you ninth graders, not you, Dr. Mac.

Mine was Mrs. Wiggins.  Who would be about 125 by now I guess, but who will live on as long as there’s one surviving student who remembers her.

And, finally, we need to acknowledge all of the friends of the inductees.

Research has shown that as far as influence goes, peers of teenagers wield by far the most potent power in high school, much more than parents and teachers.  So, thank all of you for being good friends, for providing needed support, or offering good advice.

Also, keep in mind that if you are a senior and not on this stage this morning, it does not mean that you won’t be honored when you graduate from college.   

And, likewise, your being inducted into an honor society in high school doesn’t ensure that you’re going to be inducted into a collegiate honor society.

Life is a process – we’re not seeds, nor buds, but an ever evolving becoming.

Interestingly enough, though, high grades and scholarship are not synonymous.  The student who gruntingly masters information for grades lacks the scholar’s curiosity and never comes close to experiencing the scholar’s joy.  So when I urge you to become engaged in your studies, it’s not so you’ll receive accolades or a handsome salary, it’s so that your life will be more meaningful.

The following statement is going to sound absolutely absurd to many of you, but I fervently believe it:  Being a true scholar is much more profitable than being a CEO, movie star, or hall-of-fame athlete, because if you become a true scholar, i.e., a life long learner, you will escape the nets of boredom, and boredom, as far as I am concerned, is death-in-life.

Despite the caricature of the pallid, bespectacled outsider ill-at-ease in his own body, I dare say that true scholars enjoy charmed lives because they’ve mined the kryptonite that protects them from those empty temptations of the temporal – all of those singing sirens – those manufactured products that are a lot of fun but not all that enlightening – e.g., Modern Warfare 3, or as I have rechristened it, Modern Warfare 3 Homework 0.  

The metaphorical kryptonite that scholars possess is a love of learning.

They have, as Joseph Campbell put it, found their bliss, and are following it.

What thrills a scholar is delving deeply into the profound mysteries of being. 

The scholar marvels at the truncated evolutionary transformation that takes place in the womb.  

The scholar attempts to fathom the idiocies that resulted in WWI.  

The scholar is fascinated by the metamorphosis of Jamaican dance hall toasting into rap music and then hip hop and traces the underlying musical commonalities of all three sub-genres as she conjectures how popular music reflects 21st century American society.

In short, the scholar seeks to see the immense interconnectedness of things, to rip down Maya’s veil of illusion.  

True scholars have found the elixir that is the antidote to one of Adam’s curses – labor – because for a true scholar labor and love are the same, the quest to know more and understand better.

And although Adam’s other curse – that ferry ride across the River Styx – cannot be avoided – by studying what Yeats called “monuments un-aging intellect” – the cave paintings of Lascaux,  The Tragedy of Prince Hamlet, the  3rd Law of Thermodynamics,  Beethoven’s 9th Symphony,  Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal –  our deeper understanding can be liberating and offer comfort as we contemplate our own demise.

I’d like to end by reading two quatrains of a poem that conveys this theme much more powerfully than I could ever hope to do. 

It concerns Alexander the Great who supposedly wept when he thought there was nothing left of the world for him to conquer, and Sir Isaac Newton, who took a very different view of his accomplishments.

It’s called “Worlds”

By Richard Wilbur.

For Alexander there was no Far East,

Because he thought the Asian continent

India ended. Free Cathay at least


Did not contribute to his discontent.

But Newton, who had grasped all space, was more

Serene. To him it seemed that he’d but played

With several shells and pebbles on the shore

Of that profundity he had not made.

I ask you, who would you rather be? 

Thank you, and again, congratulations.

After Life’s Fitful Fever

“Elegy: Blind Musician” by Mikhail Vasilevich (photoshopped by I-and-I)

. . . I need not rehearse
The rosebuds-theme of centuries of verse.

                                                                        Richard Wilbur, “A Late Aubade”

Although posthumous fame is essentially worthless to what Perry Mason and Hamilton Burger call the decedent,[1] humans tend to want to be remembered after their deaths, hence tombstones, epitaphs, and those memorial verses we find on obituary pages. As I have no doubt mentioned before, I actually enjoy reading the obituary page, even the obituaries of complete strangers. Perhaps it’s the poet in me who is interested in how the writer goes about compressing a life into the narrow confines of a column of newsprint.[2]  Generally, however, I skip the memorial verses, which are generally godawful jingles heavy on end rhyme.

For example, below you’ll find a bit of elegiac verse I copped from a publication called National Post. On its website, I found a page devoted to “Memorial Verses” with this option:

Choose a verse from the appropriate category. Alternatively you may want to copy and paste the verse into the place a notice order form. When placing a notice, please identify the verse by its number to your Classified Telesales Representative. You may also change any of the verses or write your own.

Conveniently, the editors have classified verses by relationships: “Mother, Sister, or Daughter; Father, Brother, or Son; Wife or Husband; Children; Friend or Kin; Armed Forces; Prayer Corner.”

Here’s the first choice listed for a mother.

A wonderful mother, woman and aide,
One who was better God never made;
A wonderful worker, so loyal and true,
One in a million, that mother was you.
Just in your judgment, always right;
Honest and liberal, ever upright;
Loved by your friends and all whom you knew
Our wonderful mother, that mother was you.

Of course, in my native state of South Carolina, not many would want to tar the woman who labored to bring them into the world with that vile word “liberal.” Last night during the debate between Nancy Mace and Joe Cunningham, the former used the word “democrat” and “liberal” as if they were synonymous with depravity.

Thank (in this case, given the diction of the verse) God that the purchaser has the option of changing the diction.

Just in your judgement, always right;

Honest and reactionary, ever upright. 

Indeed the alliteration in “right” and “reactionary” and “upright” is an auditory improvement. 

So it has occurred to me that in my retirement from teaching, I could make a few extra bucks composing memorial verses.

Let’s face it, almost anyone could do better than whoever wrote the above abomination.  I mean, the syntax of  “One who was better God never made” is so tortured it’s possibly in violation of the Geneva Convention.

Perhaps I could target sentimental agnostics and atheists who want their loved ones remembered, but less hyperbolically. 

Our mother has succumbed to a terminal disease,

A mother who taught us manners, to say “please”

And “thank you” and “may” instead of “can,”

Who raised us without the help of a man,

Our deadbeat dad who skipped town one night,

Forever disappearing in dishonorable flight.

Yet, Mom endured life’s hardships with stoic good grace,

An exemplary example for the human race.

Loved by her friends, her children, and pets,

We appreciate that she tried her very best.

Good night, deceased mother, may you rest in peace 

Safe in the cliché of death’s eternal sleep.

What do you think? Should I give it a try? Bill myself for the hours and then write it off my taxes? Anyway, if you’re in the market – fortune forbid – you know how to get in touch.

[1] This reminds me of a bit of dialogue from a WC Fields movie I ran across yesterday thanks to my pal Ballard Lesemann. A patron at a bar says to Fields, the bartender, “I understand you buried your wife a few years ago,” and Fields replies, “Yes, I had to. She was dead.”

[2] Unfortunately, I myself have become a somewhat prolific obituary writer, having composed posthumous bios for both my father and mother-in-law, my own parents, my maternal aunt and uncle, and for my beloved Judy Birdsong. The stylistic part is not easy. The memorialist needs to deftly insert introductory subordinate phrases and clauses to break the monotony of fact-filled declarative sentences.

Late and Soon: Falling out of Lockstep from the Ranks of the Conventional, Sighing, TGIF Zombie Corps

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers . . .

                                                                    Wm. Wordsworth

In his long life, Richard Wilbur has never lost his Wordsworthian sense of childlike wonder. Wilbur’s heart leaps up, not only when he behold[s] a rainbow in the sky, but also at such overlooked mundane wonders like the turbine-vent [that] natural law/ Spins on the grill-end of the diner’s roof.

Many of his poems grapple with the relationship between metaphor and perception, suggesting that poetry works its magic in casting the commonplace (by the way, that diner is located on a planet swirling around a star hurtling in concert within a galaxy spinning into the vast abyss of space/time) – [ahem] casting the commonplace in strange ways that paradoxically help us to shake off the staleness of familiarity so that we suddenly can perceive the spectacular it-ness of the whatever.

Here Wilbur in an English sonnet called “In Praise of Summer” wonders why we need the distortions of jazzy description to jar into seeing:

Obscurely yet most surely called to praise,
As sometimes summer calls us all, I said
The hills are heavens full of branching ways
Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead;
I said the trees are mines in air, I said
See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!
And then I wondered why this mad instead
Perverts our praise to uncreation, why
Such savour’s in this wrenching things awry.
Does sense so stale that it must needs derange
The world to know it? To a praiseful eye
Should it not be enough of fresh and strange
That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,
And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?

Wilbur, as it were, offers poetic language as a sort of perceptual slap in the face, awakening us to the unseen wonder right there before us while at the same time lamenting our inability to see freshly in the first place..

Closer to making than the deftest fraud
Is seeing how the catbird’s tail was made
To counterpoise, on the mock-orange spray . . .
Richard Wilbur, “Lying”

Seeing is half-creating, as Wordsworth himself puts it in “Tintern Abbey.”

Nevertheless, in Wilbur, our consciousness is both a wonder and a curse – sometimes in the same poem.  For example, in “A Question from Milton,” the poetic speaker dismisses prelapsarian consciousness as boringly 2-D:

In Eden palm and open-handed pine
Displayed to God and man their flat perfection.
Carefully coiled, the regulation vine
Submitted to our general sire’s inspection.

Yet in the very last stanza of the same poem he suggests that Adam should

Envy the gorgeous gallops of the sea,
Whose horses never know their lunar reins.

Obscurely yet most surely called to praise, As sometimes summer calls us all, I said The hills are heavens full of branching ways Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead; I said the trees are mines in air, I said See how the sparrow burrows in the sky! And then I wondered why this mad instead Perverts our praise to uncreation, why Such savour's in this wrenching things awry. Does sense so stale that it must needs derange The world to know it? To a praiseful eye Should it not be enough of fresh and strange That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay, And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?

Wilbur as a young man studied under the mighty Robert Frost, who echoes this post’s epigraph in the first line of his poem “Directive:”

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather . . .

The past, a simpler time, childhood.

All three poets – Wordsworth, Frost, and Wilbur wish we could chill, notice the glint of sunlight on that discarded aluminum soda can up ahead (rather than focusing our life force somewhere deep down in the mine shaft of self-absorbed work-based anxiety), that is, to have our childlike vision and sense of wonder restored.

However, if the office below is your workspace, good luck with those mind-forged manacles.

Chances are after 40-hour week cooped in your cubicle, you’re probably looking for something a little stronger than a shot of chiasmus and splash of synecdoche to get away from it all.  It’s going to take something stronger than Wilbur or Wordsworth to appreciate the it-ness of the StickyNote slapped on the particle board next to your computer.  But you gotta eat, right; the kids need braces; it’s the price we pay.

As one highly successful minstrel put it: They dope you with religion and sex and TV.   To evoke a cliche that the cubicles pictured in the above office suggest, contemporary corporate life is a competitive and repetitive rat maze where functionaries (what Marx called workers) glance repeatedly at digital clocks’ counting down the hours and minutes until 5 o-clock liberation and the slow creep of gridlock home.

Day after day, each missed sunset and rising moon are subtracted from the finite number of future possibilities.

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.

And, of course, the soulless dissatisfaction with getting and spending isn’t limited to the corporate world.  Stroll down the halls of any Monday-thru-Friday workplace on the fifth day PM, and you’ll hear folks murmuring psalms of praise, not to Jesus, Yahweh, or Allah, but to Odin’s wife Freya/Frigg.

Day by day our world becomes more complex, and it sometimes seems that somehow there must be some diabolical conspiracy among the top 1% – the they in Lennon’s song – who have hypnotized us and led us onto this dizzying not-so-merry-go-round of consumption.  Even in rather seemingly slow paced professions like teaching, the proliferation of voicemails, emails, committee meetings, etc. means longer school days and school years.

Yet, truth be told.  We have only ourselves to blame for falling lockstep into the ranks of the conventional, sighing TGIF zombie corps.  A brave few souls, sons and daughters of Blake, refuse to conform.

Take my former student and now friend, David Connor Jones, who for the last few years has been living out of his car roaming the North American west “like Caine in Kung Fu. meet[ing] people, get[ting] in adventures” and encountering gorgeous vistas that would raise the hair of Richard Wilbur “[l]ike quills upon the fretful porcupine.”

photo by David Connor Jones

It, of course, takes great courage to be free.  When I was in the USSR in ’89, the citizenry wasn’t digging perestroika, preferring the safe status quo.

At any rate, we should at least try to take Wilbur’s advice, to remember always the miracle of our being, to savor this very second, no matter in a cubicle, a jail cell, or worse.  We should strive to attain Buddha-consciousness in this here very life now, so as Wilbur puts it a bit more eloquently, we can find ourselves

In the same clearing where, in the old story,
A holy man discovered Vishnu sleeping,
Wrapped in his maya, dreaming by a pool
On whose calm face all images whatever
Lay clear, unfathomed, taken as they came.
Richard Wilbur, “Walking to Sleep”

David Conor Jones

My Open Letter to Teenagers

Edward Onslow Ford
Applause 1893 (detail of plinth)

Perhaps the least valid complaint coming from you teenagers is that you’re misunderstood.

No, Emerson or Madison or Grayson, lots of us old farts understand you perfectly well, understand that you’re a jambalaya of bubbling hormones and live in a culture of increasing fragmentation.

We understand that you want to break away from the constraints of reading closed heroic couplets and solving quadratic equations. We understand that peer pressure is attempting to crush you into a little container of counter-conformity.

In fact, we understand you better than you understand yourself, because we’re aware of that unconscious fear that you’re repressing: chances are you’re not going to become a ballerina or a pro bowl quarterback; chances are you’re not going to really love your job; not to mention, your looks will fade, your body will thicken, and what faith you have been granted or have summoned will be severely tested.

In other words, ultimately, if you’re lucky, one day you’re going to fall in and out of love, fall in and out of love, perhaps replicate your DNA, and eventually grow old and die.[1]

Your mind refuses to acknowledge your mortality because we’re talking a million years in your perceived future, but the OverYou — the Empire of Your Being, that Universe where unknown to the-lowercase-you armies of white blood cells are attacking a virus and your pituitary gland is spitting out somatotrophins – that OverYou knows life’s story from the inside out, and your adolescent angst is part of the story, as was your birth, as will be the getting old and dying part.

Still, as Richard Wilbur put it in his poem “The Undead,” your pain is real.[2] Perhaps it’s too easy to forget how real. When I was a teenager, my roiling hormonal stew bubbled forth in a severe case of acne; flakes of dandruff trailed from my jive strut like flung confetti. My romantic crushes felt like an earthquake had left me pinned in wreckage.  Everything seemed a matter of life or death.

I did stupid shit — stared into mirrors, cut school, mocked decent people, spent a very un-fun night in the Summerville jail. I would have been so much better off trading in my anger for curiosity, to see everything as art: the unwinding of the formula beneath my #2 lead pencil as poetry and the strict tick-tock of iambs in closed heroic couplets as formulae.

In other words, I would have been so much better off taking a sledgehammer to the claustrophobic acrylic confines of my egocentricity.

This is my advice, teenagers, impossible as it may be. Ditch the loser “lower case you” that you mistakenly perceive as yourself – get over yourself, or better yet, beyond yourself  – and delve into study. Do your homework and while doing so, look for connections. Wonder why all the big beards in the Civil War and the shaved heads in the ‘50s. If a required novel bores you, analyze why that is – is it because Holden’s a whiner or that his slang outdated? Remember it’s the lowercase you Holden doing the talking. Ask yourself what’s going on beneath the surface.[3] At movies, be stingy with your suspension of disbelief, and if the movie succeeds in making you forget about the lowercase you, ask yourself how it managed to bewitch. Not only should you read the footnotes, you should go wander off and get lost in them. Let footnotes lead you astray, not the cool kids beloved of the herd.

Houdini yourself out of Blake’s mind-forged manacles. Find fun in the mundane. In other words, power wash the doors of perception, cleanse them of preconceptions.

If you do so, hypocrisy won’t piss you off nearly as bad, and waiting rooms will become spaces of wonder.

Waiting Room by George Tooker

By the way, you gave find more of my parenting advice: here

[1] Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,

Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams

And our desires. Although she strews the leaves

Of sure obliteration on our paths,

The path sick sorrow took, the many paths

Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love

Whispered a little out of tenderness,

She makes the willow shiver in the sun

For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze

Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.

She causes boys to pile new plums and pears

On disregarded plate. The maidens taste

And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.

(Wallace Stevens, excerpt from “Sunday Morning”)

[2] [. . .]Thinking

Of a thrush cold in the leaves

Who has sung his few summers truly,

Or an old scholar resting his eyes at last,

We cannot be much impressed with vampires,

Colorful though they are;

Nevertheless, their pain is real,

And requires our pity.

(Richard Wilbur, excerpt from “The Undead”)

[3] Hat tip to David Connor Jones

Uses and Abuses of Figurative Language, Donald Trump Edition

from left to right Chris Matthews, Hillary Clinton, Edward Snowden, Vladimir Putin, Julian Assange, Donald Trump. Anderson Cooper

from left to right Chris Matthews, Hillary Clinton, Edward Snowden, Vladimir Putin, Julian Assange, Donald Trump. Anderson Cooper


“Figures of speech are spices that add zest to language,” a tired textbook author might write.

But even though the previous sentence lazily relies on a stale metaphor, it’s still more pleasurable to read than “Figures of speech are words and phrases used in other than their literal sense, or in other than their ordinary locutions, in order to suggest a picture or image or for other special effect.’”[1]

Here’s the great American poet Richard Wilbur on the subject:


Praise in Summer

by Richard Wilbur

Obscurely yet most surely called to praise,

As summer sometimes calls us all, I said

The hills are heavens full of branching ways

Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead;

I said the trees are mines in air, I said

See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!

And then I wonder why this mad instead

Perverts our praise to uncreation, why

Such savor’s in this wrenching things awry.

Does sense so stale that it must needs derange

The world to know it? To a praiseful eye

Should it not be enough of fresh and strange

That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,

And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?

In the octave of this sonnet, Wilbur, via metaphors, reverses the natural order, turning “hills” into “sky” and “moles” into “birds” that fly/burrow over the bones beneath them. He then reverses the mirror and transforms a “tree” into a “mine” and “sparrows” into “moles.”

In the sestet, he laments that even the most miraculous aspects of nature eventually bore us, so we end up through figurative language “perverting” what should by themselves fascinate us in their natural state — things of wonder like green trees, moles, and sparrows. Oddly enough, after questioning the need for figurative language, Wilbur paradoxically ends the poem with a metaphor as “sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day” — though at least the metaphor reflects the world in its correct orientation with the sky above and the ground below.

Because, as Wilbur notes, “figures of speech “wrench things awry,” their use can lead to misunderstanding. For example, if you don’t read much poetry, you might find “Praise for Summer” baffling, if not incomprehensible.

Problems can also arise when the less perceptive among us take figurative language literally, as Donald Trump claimed last week in his controversy du semaine.

In case you’re just emerging from solitary confinement, Trump made a literal accusation about the origins of ISIS and then tried to claim, post shitstorm, that he didn’t mean what he had said literally. He then cast the folks at CNN as dullards incapable of appreciating his use of irony.


Allow me to render his accusation in verse as I might if I were quizzing my high school students.

Barack and Hillary founded ISIS,

So they are to blame for our current crisis.

Identify the figure of speech found in the couplet:

A.understatement   B. verbal irony (sarcasm)   C. synecdoche   D. hyperbole

The correct answer is D. Trump wasn’t employing sarcasm; he didn’t mean to convey that Obama and Hillary didn’t create ISIS by stating the opposite. If he meant the accusation figuratively (which I doubt), he was waxing hyperbolic – exaggerating – suggesting that Obama and Clinton’s mismanagement of foreign affairs led to the rise of the so-called Islamic State, thus making them de facto founders of ISIS. That he mocks others for not getting his sarcasm when he isn’t being sarcastic is worthy of sarcasm. Like we used to say in the 7th grade, “Smooth move, X-Lax.”

[cue Alanis Morrisette’s “Ironic”]

At any rate, you Republicans out there can surely lament that Trump lacks the verbal acuity of Ronald Reagan, who as deftly as Richard Wilbur turned language topsy-turvy, calling ICBMs “peace keepers” and taxes “revenue enhancers,” but then Reagan, who hand-wrote his own letters, was a voracious reader, which Trump obviously is not.

[1] Via Dictionary.com



A Review of Punditry re. the Republican Debate

Jimmy Carter, one of the Right’s favorite punching bags, commented recently that the United States was no longer a democracy but an oligarchy. Although perhaps hyperbolic, Carter’s comments do highlight some uncomfortable facts. For example, according to the New York Times, “fewer than four hundred families are responsible for almost half the money raised in the 2016 presidential campaign, a concentration of political donors that is unprecedented in the modern era.”

Not surprisingly, one of the most pressing issues for these donor families is the abolition of estate taxes.   How many family estates pay taxes, you might wonder? In 2015, 1.2% of the population paid “death taxes” as the Koch brothers call them, or the “Paris Hilton tax” as EJ Dionne of the Washington Post labels them.

Of course, loopholes large enough for not only camels, but also elephants and asteroids to pass through are there for the exploitation, so when you get down to it, the effective tax rate for the estates of this 1.2% of the population boils down to a paltry 16.6% on average. And get this, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, only “20 [that’s 4 x 5 = 20] small business and farm estates nationwide owed any estate taxes in 2013.”

So does repealing the estate tax make any sense for a government that spends in excess of 600 billion dollars a year on defense alone?

You betcha, if you’re one the Koch brothers or the other 400 families who have raised half of the money flowing into these so-called super PACs.

Next question. How many of the Republican presidential candidates are for the abolishment of estate taxes?

[cue sarcastic laughter]

Which brings me to last Thursday’s presidential debate, which I sort of watched while checking out tweets. (Given my delicate sensibility, my enduring such a grotesque circus is tantamount to drinking that rancid pre-colonoscopy concoction).

More to my taste is reading the pundits’ “takeaways.” Who were the winners and losers?

Well, here’s Hoodoo’s run-down of the conventional wisdom.

The BIG WINNERS according to the pundits:

Carly Fiorina

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 18:  Carly Fiorina, former CEO of the Hewlett-Packard Company, speaks at the Heritage Foundation December 18, 2014 in Washington, DC. Fiorina joined a panel discussion on the topic of

As far as biography goes, Ms Fiorina, the daughter of a law school professor, dean, and federal judge father and a portrait/abstract artist mother has the advantage of growing up in relative poverty, despite the fact that her parents gave her a grand piano as a wedding gift. She touts her career arc as rising “from secretary to CEO,” and it’s no lie.

During summers while attending Stanford, she worked at Kelley services, and after dropping out of UCLA’s School of Law, she served time as a receptionist at the real estate firm Marcus and Millichap. Later, she earned an MBA from Maryland and a Masters in Management from the Sloan School of Management at MIT.

Obviously, she ain’t no dummy, and besides that, she’s articulate and quick on her feet, attributes she displayed Thursday night and a rare commodity among most of the other “contestants” on the stage of what seemed more like a gameshow than a debate.

So I agree with the CW on Fiorina. Don’t be surprised if she ends up being a vice presidential choice, despite her first ex-husband Todd Bartlem’s accusation that during their marriage she had an affair with her soon-to-be second and later ex-husband, Frank Fiorina, a senior executive at ATT. Obviously bitter, Bartlem told that paragon of journalistic excellence the Daily Mail that Fiorina “los[t] her humanity” in a “pathological” pursuit of power.

In her memoir Tough Choices, she describes the marriage’s dissolution this way: “While we were married, we weren’t peers.”


Marco Rubio

rubio_perplexed_master_0Like Carly Fiona, Rubio was also lucky enough not to be a beneficiary of great wealth. (Some people have all the luck; sorry, Jeb). In fact, Rubio’s father worked as a bartender, as Marco likes to boast.

CW went gaga over Rubio’s performance. He took on Hillary’s claim of “living from paycheck to paycheck” to great applause and spoke of the 100K of student loans he racked up and repaid in full, though he wisely didn’t mention the $80,000 boat he purchased while paying off his loans, his liquidating a $68,000 retirement account, nor did he mention his failure to make mortgage payments on his home for five months, nor the fact that he had a lease of $50,000 on a 2015 Audi Q7.

Now that’s what I call living from paycheck to paycheck in style!

I disagree with the CW that Rubio was a big winner because of his statement that he doesn’t believe in abortions even if the mother’s life is at stake.

Not to mention rape and incest.

I can see the Hillary commercial now. Female voiceover, pregnant mother with damaged fetus that threatens her life makes the excruciating decision to abort. Cut to subsequently born happy white children skipping towards a swing set to be pushed by surviving, smiling mother.

Or, how about a couple of shots of the baby in David Lynch’s Eraser Head?

John Kasich

pic_related_111014_SM_John-KasichOnce again Kasich is fortunate to come from modest means; his father was a mail carrier.

During the debate, I agree he was very effective. His response to why he had expanded Medicaid was superb, essentially, “duh,” who in her right mind wouldn’t?

Though the pundits universally adored it, I was less impressed with his non-answer on how he would explain to his hypothetically gay daughter why he doesn’t support marriage equality. Rather than saying, “because the Bible tells me so” or “I believe that sexual orientation is a choice,” he dodged the question and boasted that he had recently attended a gay wedding and added, “If one of my daughters were that, of course, I would love them.” (my italics)

Well, duh, who in his right mind wouldn’t?

Still, if you’re a rational Republican willing to compromise on your contempt for the poor, Kasich strikes me as eminently electable.


Jeb Bush

I actually think Jeb was a loser and agree with Frank Rich’s assessment that Bush speaks “with all the conviction of a robo-call.” He needed to create some sparks and didn’t.

Plus the poor bastard is a scion of one of the 1.2% of the families who will have to pay some estate taxes when #41 passes from, in Richard Wilbur’s words, “this rotten/Taxable world to a higher standard of living.”

Scott Walker

walker super durpThe conventional wisdom — too scripted — which maybe was a good thing. I can’t find to share the mean-spirited image flashing its way through cyberspace the night of the debate, a motion gif that makes Dukakis in that iconic attack ad featuring him in a tank look like Sean Connery’s James Bond in comparison.

So the picture above will have to do.

Mike Huckabee

An articulate spokesman for the 5th Century BCE, but will his message appeal to 21st Century voters?

Chris Christie, Rick Perry, et al



Rand Paul

Rand Paul

Though some have touted him a winner, most see Rand Paul as a loser, and I agree with the latter. To break out of this pack, you need charisma, and in Paul’s case, a new hairdresser.

And last but not least

Donald Trump.

ptbOh, where is HL Mencken when we need him?

Dead and gone to hell, according to all these men and woman of faith.

I so wish someone had asked Trump about his metaphysical beliefs. Perhaps he would have identified himself as the Messiah.

I would, though, if I were Fox News, not be so gung-ho in expelling him from Republic contention. As my favorite saint, Teresa of Avila, famously put it, “More tears have been shed over answered prayers than unanswered prayers.”

A Trump independent candidacy would doom the Republicans.

Bottom line: All these candidates seem to care about are rich folk and fetuses.

That may be enough if you have the 1.2% shoveling unlimited money your way. For as PT Barnum said and Donald Trump’s ascendency proves, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Half a Sin

Bells toll inside my head as I reach for my Alfred Lord Tennyson outfit. It’s Victorian black with matching cravat, mourning cape, matching hat. There’s even a beard, luxuriant and curling, that came with the costume, but I can’t find the whiskers anywhere. Been three years since I’ve donned this get-up, a Halloween present from sweet deceased Adelaide, who passed away in a Hampton’s Inn all alone in the not-so-new millennium.  Actually, she made the costume and bought the beard from Hocus Pocus.

I’m getting into character, reading “In Memoriam”:

I sometimes hold it half a sin

To put in words the grief I feel;

For words, like Nature, half reveal

And half conceal the Soul within.

I’ve taken to panhandling.

No, it’s not a lifestyle choice, but part of my thesis, a paper I’m writing on selling-and-psychology, a study in which I report on my experimentation with different modes of panhandling, comparing the hourly wage of me playing a wheel-chair bound Iraqi war veteran ($12.34) with the hourly wage of me playing a shyster hipster holding a sign that reads “Haven’t been high in two days ($4.56).[1]  I’m hoping to shed some light on what makes people part with their money in situations of charity, combining my love of acting, my interest in marketing, and my curiosity about how the human mind works.  So today I’m going out begging in the guise of Alfred Lord Tennyson.  It’s a dreary, leaden day, very Tennysonian.

I consider brain chemistry to be sort of like weather – sunny, rainy, partly cloudy, partly sunny.  Part of it, of course, is genetics — look at the Hemingways — but life events can affect brain weather, too.  Maybe if Tennyson’s best friend Arthur Henry Hallam hadn’t dropped dead Tennyson might have been a cheerier poet, like EE Cummings or Maya Angelou.  Who knows?

happyperson copy wilburlowell1 copy




I’ve decided to set up shop, so to speak, North of Calhoun in the bar district, which you might think is unsafe, but I’ve never had a problem, and anyway, I’m packing a Smith & Wesson. 22 LR Rimfire, not gun enough to kill someone but big enough to chase off a knife wielder or unarmed thug.


The one thing that’s bothering me, though, is the lack of a beard. I’m only 26 years old, and a beard would help. Of course, I wear make-up. Thanks to the College’s Theater Department’s make-up department, I’ll be sporting a gray complexion and those woeful looking, sympathy-spawning bags under my eyes that made Tennyson look like the saddest creature that ever crawled across the face of the earth:

The sparrow’s chirrup on the roof,
The slow clock ticking, and the sound
Which to the wooing wind aloof
The poplar made, did all confound
Her sense; but most she loathed the hour
When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
Athwart the chambers, and the day
Was sloping toward his western bower.
Then said she, “I am very dreary,
He will not come,” she said;
She wept, “I am aweary, aweary,
Oh God, that I were dead!”

[1] The minimum wage in South Carolina is $7.25

It was through theater I first met Adelaide, a student production of Chekov’s Three Sisters.  She played Irina, I Vassily Vasilyevich Solyony.  It wasn’t bad as student productions go.  The only problem, though, is I had this thing for Adelaide/Irina, but she had a boyfriend, a spoiled preppy entitled piece of shit, so I didn’t make it verbally known to Adelaide that I had this thing for her, though from what others tell

Chuck Norris

Chuck Norris

me it was as obvious as Cyrano’s nose or Chuck Norris’s toupee. I kept waiting for her to make the first move, but she never did.  It goes without saying neither did I.

Kristopher my make-up man has done his magic, including providing me with a real enough looking beard, so I’m walking rather self-consciously from the parking garage to King with a folding lawn chair strapped to my back, a bucket for the proceeds, a book of Tennyson’s poems, and a sign that simply says “alms.”

I find a spot on the corner of King and Morris, put my sign out and start to read Tennyson, finding snatches of verse ripe for memorization, little ditties like

Me rather all that bowery loneliness,
The brooks of Eden mazily murmuring,

and try to ignore the occasional rude comment about beggars and street performers.  Of course, I could whip out the Rimfire and cap one of them, taking my performance art to a new level, but that’s not, as Adelaide used to say, the Buddha way.

Finally, after 4 minutes and 32 seconds, I get my first score, two single dollar bills dropped.  I say,

And if ever I should forget

That I owe this debt to you

And I for your sweet sake to yours,

O, then, what shall I say? —

If ever I should forget,

May God make me more wretched

Than ever I have been yet!

At the one hour mark, I start reciting Tennyson as I see people approaching, though I avoid eye contact.

Doors, where my heart was used to beat

So quickly, not as one that weeps

I come once more: the city sleeps;

I smell the meadow in the street.

At the two hour mark, I start making eye contact before chanting the quote, straining to counterfeit that stare dogs give when they think you might have a treat for them.

Since we deserved the name of friends

And thine effect so lives in me,

A part of mine may live in thee

And move thee on the noble ends.

So here I sit in this Halloween costume, chanting Tennyson in the name of soft science.  My thoughts return to that Halloween party three years ago.  Adelaide dressed up like Emily Dickinson, hair parted in the middle, a white dress, for she was the Empress of Calvary.  No one got the joke, two depressive poets on a non-date.  Perhaps she should have worn black because that’s what people picture when they imagine Emily Dickinson.

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –

Ring out the old and all that jazz.  Adelaide OD-ed in a Hampton Inn in Conyers, Georgia, and that’s about as unromantic as it gets.

It’s time for me to move on, I guess.

Good, God, now I’m even starting to think in slant rhymes.  I get up, abandoning the role, take off the itchy beard, and look for some ragged someone I can pass the cash off to.

$14. 75.


Zen Lullaby

Morpheus and Iris, by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, 1811

Morpheus and Iris, by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, 1811

Poets for centuries have lauded the serenity that sleep can bring. From Rolfe Humphries’s gorgeous translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, here’s Alcyone in Book 11 addressing Morpheus, the God of Sleep:

O mildest of the gods, most gentle Sleep,

Rest of all things, the spirit’s comforter,

Router of care, O soother and restorer . . .

O, to be able to sneak off on a weeknight to Morpheus’s cave where

[ . .] No bird

With clarion cry ever calls out the morning,

Dogs never break the silence with their barking,

Geese never cackle, cattle never low,

No boughs move in the stir of air, no people

Talk in human voices.  Only quiet.

From under the rock’s base a little stream,

A branch of Lethe, trickles, with a murmur

over the shiny pebbles, whispering Sleep!

Before its doors great beds of poppies bloom

And other herbs, whose juices Night distills

To sprinkle slumber over the darkened earth.

There is no door to turn upon its hinge

With jarring sound, no guardian at the gate.

Me rather:

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.

We’re talking two the three a.m., brothers and sisters, the illuminated digits of the alarm clock silently progressing towards Morpheus-bereft morn and its traffic-choked slow progression to an awaiting electronic mailbox teeming with emails cajoling, demanding, chuckling, warning, applauding, joking, alerting, reminding.

What we need is a 3 a.m. surefire lullaby for adults that will allow “[t]he kind assassin Sleep” to “draw a bead and blow [our] brains out” (Richard Wilbur, “Walking to Sleep”).

However, brothers and sisters, this ain’t it:

art and lyrics by Wesley Moore

collage and lyrics by Wesley Moore


The Insomniac’s Ball

Click the grey arrow above for sound.

       As when an old film jumps in the projector,

       You will be wading a dun hallway, rounding

        A newel . . .

                             Richard Wilbur :   “Walking to Sleep”


The tick tock clanging of a mail slot

is followed by a thud.  At this ungodly hour?

A hand-written invitation lies at your feet.

The Insomniac’s Ball.  Wednesday morning, one to five,

entertainment provided by Stan Kenton’s Big Band

reproduced mono on hi-fi.  Regrets Only.

How do they know that you are one of them,

whoever they are?  How do they know that at three a.m.

you tend to be tapping out trochees on a headboard?


The building isn’t as nice as you’d hoped.  You rise to the third floor

caged in an elevator, the only passenger.  The hall’s

somewhat seedy, the carpet worn, its roses faded.

You have been given the coded knock.  The first six notes of the 2nd movement

of Beethoven’s Ninth.  KNOCK knock, KNOCK knock, KNOCK knock.

The creaking door opening sounds like Bela Lugosi’s coffin

as eyes adjust to a mazelike apartment, crowded but eerily quiet.

The Stan Kenton LP is scratched, the other guests preoccupied,

unfriendly, drifting through the rented rooms.


You peek through a door down the hall

and meet the stare of your dead grandfather,

the one whose room you used to tiptoe past,

a medicinal darkness reeking

of the Great Depression.  As you escape, his memories

trail you like a shadow down the hall darkening

the passing stream of old folks, great aunts and former teachers,

rouged and wrinkled, mumbling to themselves,

some in bedroom slippers, others in stilettos.


The library’s quite impressive. A ladder runs along a rail

to reach the volumes way over your head: a textbook

in Sanskrit on Chinese mathematics you must master

to pass that class you’ve completely forgotten about!

a course you need for graduation!

You climb to the top reaching, but then look down

dizzyingly into a snakepit, concentric circles

spiraling with antlike companions from your youth,

descending, swirling, like bloody water down a drain . . .


There is a shrine for your departed lovers.  On display

the beds where you once slept preserve the imprint of bodies.

Perhaps a long golden hair lies on the dented pillow,

but you’re not allowed to go beyond the red velvet ropes.

Where are they now – you wonder – what are they doing,

are they even alive, were they ever alive? You’re so

sleepy anything seems possible –

slants of light, cathedral tunes, leaden feet, riveted lips.

Couples waltz by mouthing one-two-three; one-two-three; one-two-three.


The oncoming day stretches out like a desert,

like the Bataan Death March, like life plus forty.

Thoughts of daytime responsibilities start to ricochet like billiard balls

without transition cold sheets, institutional whiteness, the ICU –

physicians and nurses whispering about your condition:

BEEP beep, BEEP  beep,  BEEP  beep . . .

You ride the rented hearse of sleep home

to twisted sheets, to creeping light, to the bedside’s time bomb’s

tick tock tick tock tick . . .