Sunday Afternoon Potpourri: Anniversary Weekend Edition

Thursday and Friday of this past week were Mondoville’s Fall Break, and I’m back in the classroom tomorrow. This afternoon, however, I’m in my office, and just finished re-reading Book I of Gulliver’s Travels in preparation for discussing it with my class on Tuesday. I can take a little time to get caught up, though.

***

Yesterday marked the 28th anniversary of my wedding to Mrs. M., and the rough coincidence of Fall Break and the anniversary inspired the two of us to get out of town for the long weekend. In particular, we decided to head to Myrtle Beach, a community now considered to be in the league of other tourist-trap towns as Gatlinburg, TN, and Branson, MO.

Some of the people we know locally seem to consider Myrtle to be something declasse, an example of the sort of “Redneck Riviera” vibe, compared to more genteel locales like Edisto. I can understand it — the feel of the place is loud and sometimes even a bit vulgar. It’s hotels and motels, rather than vacation houses; mini-golf rather than craft museums; outlet malls rather than wine shops. But as I grew up, even a cheap motel was luxury compared to the usual tent, and I like the touristy cheesiness of the surroundings, even if I’m more inclined to go to a bookstore than a T-shirt shop.

Our hotel was pleasant enough — I’ve stayed in accommodations both more and less fine over the years, but it had an oceanfront balcony, comfortable furniture, and a refrigerator, so our needs were sufficiently met. The hotel restaurant was closed — a casualty of pandemic issues (whether related to customer space or staffing, I don’t know), and so we grabbed Thursday lunch (having skipped breakfast) at a nearby sub shop. Pulling into the parking garage, we noticed several vehicles with Kentucky license plates — since both Mrs. M and I lived there for much of our lives, we always seem to be on the lookout for them, and for indications that the cars might be from our particular regions of the Commonwealth. (These days, since the Spawn has moved to Terpville, we also look for Maryland plates, and we’ve had a game about spotting Ontario plates for years.)

While Mrs. M relaxed a bit on Thursday afternoon, I went down to the hotel pool. I started at the hotel’s outdoor pool, but after feeling enough sun to remind me that I’m a former redhead, I decided to adjourn to the indoor pool. But while I was reddening, an extended family showed up, with several generations in evidence, and lots of a very familiar accent. I asked one of the ladies where they were from.

“Kentucky,” she said. Glasgow, to be exact, near Bowling Green. We chatted a bit, and then I headed to the indoor pool, where I proceeded to make it an official trip by doing my traditional plummet. This time, my left foot slipped out from under me as I descended the steps into the pool, and my bum right knee took the opportunity to remind me that it needs replacement sooner rather than later by buckling. I was holding the rail with my right hand, but it wasn’t enough to keep my right leg from doubling into a full squat while my left leg extended straight ahead of me as if I were a dancing Cossack. Because my right knee hurts even under ordinary conditions, the abrupt full bend was. . . unpleasant, but I managed to keep from exposing any of the passersby to the darker regions of my vocabulary. Instead, I sat on the steps, unkinked my right leg, and satisfied myself that I could actually stand up and make my way around the pool. My right shoulder and elbow didn’t start complaining until that night, and have already settled for mere grumbles.

After I made my way back upstairs and stretched out for a bit, Mrs. M and I decided to go to one of her favorite local restaurants for dinner. Mrs. M had a go at the assorted seafood, but because shellfish allergies run in my family and I don’t want to suddenly discover that inheritance, I stuck with prime rib and such. As usual, the fare was quite good, and our server was pleasant and attentive. We — okay, mainly Mrs. M, but sometimes Your Genial Host as well — have a knack for striking up conversation with strangers. After all, other people are interesting, and why not find out about them? By the end of dinner, we got to see pictures of the server’s little girl (she’s a real cutie) and to get “to go” drinks as we left. From there, we got back to our room and watched the surf from our balcony.

Meanwhile, we noticed some cats patrolling the area around the swimming pools. Because Mrs. M is a first-grade teacher, and therefore equipped for every potential situation, she pulled a small but potent LED flashlight from one of our bags and spotlighted the cats from our position nine floors up. A few moments later, someone from another building produced their own light, and we wound up playing flashlight tag on the beach below. After some of that, we just sat and listened to the waves rolling in.

The next day, after we hit a breakfast bar at an understaffed Shoney’s and got acquainted with another server (this one a new mom of twins), Mrs. M dropped me off at the Barnes & Noble of the local upscale shopping center.

[Side note: My fondness for Shoney’s restaurants is another relic of my working-class youth. There are far fewer of then than there once were, but a parallel claim could be made about my youth as well. Even so, I’m a sucker for a breakfast buffet, and so there we were. Alas, once again the general shortage in staffing took its toll. While our tabletop was visually clean, it was as sticky as a frat-house floor, and for that matter, so was the restaurant’s floor, with my shoes making tearaway sounds with each step. But it’s hard to screw up bacon, eggs, and fried potatoes, and Mrs M and I seem to have survived. End of side note.]

I browsed around for a while, and swung by the magazines to find something to look at while I patronized the store’s frappuccino reserve. The first thing I saw was a copy of my favorite music magazine, but then I ran across a mag that mentioned not one, but two folks I count as friends. One even was the cover model.

The issue had a nice piece on Shawn’s work (including his recent best-seller, Razorblade Tears), and an excerpt from LB’s memoir (some of which was written right here in Mondoville). Moments like this remind me that I never expected to live a life where I knew people who are profiled in magazines — and that it’s cool that I have a life like that.

In commemoration of the event, I picked up a paperback copy of Shawn’s previous book, Blacktop Wasteland, which is now sitting a few feet away on my office desk. (Shawn, I’ll let you buy me a coke at the next B’con.) After a while, Mrs. M showed up and we went back to the hotel where we sent out for a pizza. Once again, we opened our balcony door to catch the breeze and listen to the surf. However, this particular sea breeze was laden with a scent I recognized from every metal show I attended in the 1980s. Apparently one of our neighbors decided that his or her stay at the seaside was best accompanied by herbal jazz cigarettes. That’s no big deal to me — just like us, that person was on vacation. But it didn’t take long for this particular secondhand skunkweed to make my throat scratchy, and we closed the door for a while. Maybe the dope in Edisto is higher quality, but I don’t know.

Mrs. M opened it again later, and stepped out on the balcony while I stretched out on the bed. She came back in after a couple of minutes and said, “I think I just saw a drug deal.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah — these two guys on the beach walked up to each other and high-fived. One of them immediately put a hand in his back pocket, and the other guy stuffed his hand in his front pocket, Then they just walked away.”

“Hm.” I paused. “You might not want to bust out the tactical flashlight tonight, then.”

“Probably not.”

Yesterday was our actual anniversary, and while it might have been nice to spend one more day there, we decided we’d benefit more from getting home and using today to rest and prep for the work week. Again, that was Mrs. M’s idea, and further proof that she’s the brains of the outfit. The drive home was uneventful, and we made it in plenty of time for me to watch my beloved Kentucky Wildcats thump LSU in football. It was a good day, and the trip was a good way to mark 28 years of marriage. I’m looking forward to the next trip — and to the years to come.

***

So we’re caught up, but what would a potpourri be without some music? As it happens, I heard Sinatra’s version of this while I was at the bookstore, but in keeping with my own quirks and the recent beach locale, I thought I’d go with this version, by Toronto-based surf/instro band Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet. Here’s “Summer Wind.”

See you soon!

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Sunday Afternoon Potpourri: Clearing My Head Edition

I’m caught up on grading until Tuesday morning, when my upper-levels take their midterm exam. I have writing to do this month, and I will, but not having those papers hanging over me lets me get my head cleared. . . I hope.

***

Monday was Birthday #56. I received good wishes from lots of good folks, and even managed to tolerate the monthly faculty meeting. Mrs. M graciously prepared my favorite dinner (hamburger steaks and fries — I’m easy), and joined me for some slices of cheesecake as well. Then it was time for gifts.

This year’s haul included five books, several T-shirts, and a couple of CDs, one of which is still in transit. I read four of the five this week, rewarding myself for each day’s grading.

The first one I tackled was William Kotzwinkle’s new novel, Felonious Monk. Reviewers at Amazon seem polarized — folks who like it really like it, and folks who don’t, well, you know. I’m in the “really like it” camp. I think the polarization makes a lot of sense, because (as even the title suggests), the novel is one of light and darkness, religious devotion and violence, humor and grimness, and I might suggest nature and nurture.

The protagonist, Tommy Martini, is a former Olympic-quality wrestler and bouncer with enormous strength and an anger management problem, which culminated when he unintentionally killed another man in the course of his night job. Trying to escape from both his guilt and legal repercussions, he retreats to a monastery in Mexico. A few years pass, and he is recalled to the world to receive an inheritance from his uncle, a priest in the American Southwest who has somehow accumulated a significant fortune while being involved in church-related real estate transactions.

As it turns out, shady transactions are a Martini family tradition as well — the family is thoroughly mobbed up, and some members would like to see Tommy claim a piece of his heritage, while others would like to see him take up a career in mixed martial arts, and still other folks would just as soon have him out of the picture altogether. Meanwhile, there’s the matter of those land deals, and the thriving New Age spirituality racket (including the beautiful high priestess and acolyte of a UFO cult) in the desert town where Tommy’s uncle had lived. Complications, as they say, ensue.

Kotzwinkle’s fictive universe is about five degrees off from our own — like one of the universes on the way to Roger Zelazny’s Amber, where the gas stations are all called Ezzo. It’s almost the one we live in. . . but not precisely. This is true throughout his corpus, and from time to time it produces moments that are simultaneously horrible and hilarious. In that tradition, Tommy Martini’s adventures become a sort of screwball noir, although never feeling whimsical or twee. There are plenty of dark underbellies and enough corruption to keep things noir, but Tommy’s seeming desire to feel a vocation — whether he actually has one or not — and for the monastic life keeps things from going entirely black.

This is Mr. Kotzwinkle’s first novel in years, and a return to the mystery genre he has visited before in books like Fata Morgana and The Game of Thirty. While both of those were more traditional detective novels (historical police procedural and private eye, respectively), that sense of things being off-kilter takes them into a realm of what I think of as Zen mystery fiction, and Felonious Monk fits squarely into that. That won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s okay. But I liked it — a lot — and I think it warrants our attention. It certainly rewarded mine.

***

The middle of the week was occupied by works from Peter S. Beagle. When he visited Mondoville some years ago, he had largely reinvented himself as a short story writer. In the intervening years, he went through an extremely unfriendly split from his manager, and accompanying issues regarding publishing rights, reversions, and such. As a result, I lost touch with him, and missed some of his publications from the time since then.

But it turns out he has remained in the game, and we all benefit from that. So on Monday, I got both The Overneath, a collection of shorts from 2017; and Summerlong, a novel from 2016. Both books demonstrate that he remains one of our greatest masters of urban fantasy/magic realism. He’s working a side of the street populated by other brilliant writers, but in a manner that is unmistakably his own. He’s less sentimental than Bradbury, less angry than Ellison, less gnomic than Borges. To summarize these books would be an injustice, and better writers than I am have already copped to the fact that he’s a stylist and storyteller in a league of his own.

I’ve said before that Beagle is a writer so gifted that I can’t even be troubled to envy him (not that I’m big on envy in any case). More sensible to envy the moon — it’s just something other than we are — we can’t be judged by the same standards. What I can also say is that in many of the shorts, and certainly in the novel, he will break your heart — repeatedly — and make you grateful for the opportunity to have it broken in that way.

We never know how long we’re going to have a writer, or how many times that writer will get to go to the well. As a consequence of that, each work we get from the writers we love is a gift, and I’m glad to show my appreciation of those gifts when I can. I hope you will as well.

***

Finally, I spent Friday night reading Matt Goldman’s Dead West, the fourth in his Nils Shapiro private eye series. In this one, the Twin Cities-based detective finds himself on unfamiliar ground in more ways than one. A fabulously wealthy local family sends Shapiro to Hollywood to figure out what their grandson may be doing with his inheritance. Meanwhile, however, Shapiro’s home life has changed. He has a daughter and a fiancee, and while such ties are often seen as hostages to fortune in this genre, Goldman reminds us that the connections of love run in two directions, and that even heroes have to learn how to deal with the meaning of the risks they take.

At the same time, Dead West is a remarkably good satire of Hollywood. While this is hardly new territory, Goldman (who knows that of which he speaks, having written for television before turning to novels) does it in an engaging and lively way. In a way, the book reminds me of Chandler’s The Little Sister, which I’ve often seen as an underrated, neglected work.

Dead West does not end with a cliffhanger, and I don’t know if or when Goldman will return to the series — his new book may be a standalone. If this is the end of the series, it’s a very solid wrapup. If it isn’t, though, I’ll be glad. The Nils Shapiro series is thoroughly entertaining, with an engaging narrative voice and strong supporting characters. He’s a character worth getting to know, and Goldman is a writer worth following.

***

Well, I think I’ve done enough damage for one afternoon, so I’ll wrap this one up with some music. In my senior year of high school, I played in a hard rock cover band — a power trio. We did some songs that pretty much all the other local bands might have done — some Sabbath, some Judas Priest, that sort of thing, all at one of our three tempos: fast, faster, and ohmygodgetoutoftheway. Ah the enthusiasm and stage fright of youth. But we dug a little deeper from time to time, and I’ve always been tickled by the fact that we found this particular not-quite-a-hit to cover as the house band at a pizza joint in Union, Kentucky.

Axe were based in Gainesville, FL, and formed in 1979. They finally called in a day in 2012 after myriad personnel changes. “Rock and Roll Party in the Streets” made it to #23 on the Billboard Rock chart, but didn’t crack the top 40 on the Hot 100. Yeah, it’s loud and kinda dumb, but I still like it from time to time, and hope you will too.

See you soon!

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Sunday Afternoon Potpourri: 55 in the Rearview Edition

Today is the last day of my 55th trip around the sun. Shortly before I wake up tomorrow morning, I’ll hit 56. Eight years ago today, I was driving home to Mondoville after the conclusion of my brother’s trial, and wondering what my new normal (a phrase that has if anything become even more overused in recent months) was going to look like. Today, it looks like the inside of my office, as I prepare for another week of teaching. It occurs to me that I’ve lived in Mondoville longer than any other place. I don’t expect to be here for the rest of my life — although I don’t necessarily get the deciding vote in such matters. Mrs. M and I figure that after retirement, we’ll head to whatever area the Spawn has made home, and with luck, we’ll go into the grandparenting business. But for now, and for the 18 years I’ve been here, this isn’t a bad place to be; it’s done right by Mrs. M, the Spawn, and Your Genial Host.

***

I have to admit, I’m a little surprised to have made it this far — on some days, more than a little surprised. It isn’t that I see 56 as impossibly old, but whether it was the death of my cousin/closest childhood friend, my mom’s debilitating illness, my dad’s bouts with cancer, or just some peculiar grimness or morbidity in my nature, I’ve spent a significant portion of my life being suspicious of my life, holding a tragic view that colors everything from my sense of humor to my politics (such as they remain).

That isn’t to say I’m in a hurry to be rid of it, though there have been times I think I could have accepted that with some equanimity. But I’ve always had a great deal of sympathy for the worldviews expressed in Housman and Hardy, E.A. Robinson and Fitzgerald’s translations of Omar Khayyam. It could also be part of what draws me to medieval literature, the grim resolve of the Old English lif laene and the Castle of Perseverance‘s reminder to “think on your last ending.” At the same time, I’ve tried (with mixed success) to enjoy the pleasures I’ve had available — books, music, conversation with people who are dear to me, IBC Root Beer and praline pecan ice cream (Ah, had Omar only known!) The result has been a tendency to take the cash and let the credit go, although the surface features of my life certainly don’t make for much of a wild biography.

Tomorrow, I’ll be ten years younger than my dad was when his life was cut short, nine years from my mom, fifteen to twenty-two years younger than the final ages of the three grandparents I knew. (My paternal grandfather died at the age of 47, four years before I was born.) Maybe I’ll catch or surpass them. I don’t know that it’s likely, but I didn’t think I’d get here either, so I guess we’ll see. In the meantime, I can read another book, talk to another friend, or have another burger. None of that will be forever, but all of it can be good while it lasts.

***

In fictioneering news, I’m pleased to note that I’ll be taking part in a Noir at the Bar reading in Real City on Wednesday, 27 October.

Let history record that listing me as “Dr.” was not my idea.

I’d love to see you there!

Well, I have a summary to write for my Freshpeeps, so I probably should wrap this up. I’ve linked to this song before, but it was more than ten years ago, so I’m okay with revisiting it. T.C. Atlantic were a mid-60s teen band from Minneapolis, but they managed to get this little mind-melter into wax during their brief run. Dating from 1966, the lads were slightly ahead of the psychedelic curve. This is “Faces,” and between the rattlesnake snare drum, mercury-tinged harmonies, and threshold-of-pain Farfisa organ, it’s a nifty little sugar cube indeed.

See you soon!

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Not the Spanish Inquisition, But…

. . . I wasn’t expecting to become a fashion influencer.

I hate shopping for clothes. Hate, hate, hate it. This is because I don’t look good in them. (That doesn’t mean I look good out of clothes, mind you, and sorry for the visual.) But I’m oddly constructed. In addition to being a really big guy to start with, nearly all my height is in my torso. Seriously — I’m 6′ 4″, with a 32-inch inseam. I believe the technical term for this is “gerbil legs.” Add to that a general talent for schlubbiness, and as my father said, “[Mondo], you could get everything bespoke from Savile Row, and you’re still gonna look like Joe Shit the Rag Man.” (On the other hand, my brother was something of a clothes horse in years gone by. That’s no longer relevant to him, I guess, but there’s more to life than nattiness.)

So anyway, since I realized a long time back that I was gonna look like JStRM regardless of what I did, and since I realized that clothes for people my size cost money I could be spending on books and music, I decided that my wardrobe choices were going to be driven by my own comfort and/or amusement. I have a sport coat, a dress shirt (short sleeved — like I said, schlub) and a couple of ties. In point of fact, I probably need a new sport coat — I was much heavier when I bought the old one — but that would involve shopping for clothes, about which see above.

Apart from that, my wardrobe generally consists of neutral-colored chinos or shorts (I live in a warm climate) and T-shirts, with the occasional polo/golf shirt as a change of pace. Fortunately, I’m a) an academic and b) at my career ceiling, which allows me room for a degree of eccentricity. (Okay, I was eccentric well before I was an academic, but now it’s expected.)

Today, though, I’m talking about the T-shirts. My T-shirt collection is long on some of the stranger recesses of popular culture, including pre-Code comic book art, pulp fiction (the genre, not the movie), exploitation cinema, and music, to go along with more standard gear showing my support for various college athletic programs. In any case, I’m comfortable in them, and if they contribute to that ethos of eccentricity I mentioned earlier, well, that’s okay too.

But an interesting thing that’s happened in the past couple of weeks is that on a few occasions, students have approached me before or after class, or in the hallways or around campus, telling me they like my shirts and in some cases asking where they can find those or similar designs. Apparently graphic T-shirts have become hip of late, but my more outré selections offer a certain je ne sais quoi that some of the students are digging.

Fear not, though — I’ve got more coming in, and hope to keep ahead of the game.

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Sunday Potpourri: I Married MacGyver Edition

It’s a mostly cloudy afternoon here in Mondoville — at least the portion I can see through my office window. I have some lesson planning to do, but thought I might as well check in here beforehand.

***

I have sleep apnea, and use a CPAP machine when I sleep. I’ve done this since the mid-Oughts, and have enjoyed its benefits (such as breathing) throughout. Occasionally, though, bits and pieces of equipment may fail.

Such was the case this morning. Because my mouth opens from time to time as I sleep, I use a mask that covers both my nose and mouth, and includes a T-shaped section that rests on my forehead and keeps the assemblage in place. Straps connect to the mask’s base and the T-section. Unfortunately, as I was adjusting the mask this morning, I heard a crack, and discovered that the T had failed, separating from the knob that allows me to adjust the force holding it in place.

This would have presented a problem, but as it happens, I live with Mrs. M. She immediately hopped out of bed and found some spare gear that we had received from one of her brothers. The gear was a nosepiece, and the size wasn’t quite right — I have a large head, with a corresponding honker, but I figured it would do for the couple of days it would take to receive the replacement gear I needed to order. Mrs. M headed to the kitchen to fix her morning coffee, while I decided to adjust to my new situation by trying to sleep in. (Ah, the sacrifices I’ll make!)

As it turned out, I underestimated Mrs. M’s resourcefulness. A few minutes later, she came back into the room. “Put this on — carefully.” It was my mask, which she had jury-rigged with rubber bands to restore a degree of structural integrity. It fit fine, and (touch wood) should hold out for the aforementioned couple of days.

“What would you do without me?” she asked.

“Buy more spare masks?” That wasn’t the best answer though, and at this point I’d like to revise and extend my remarks, as they say in Congress. Mrs. M’s dexterity and resourcefulness have made my life considerably easier and more livable over the years, from her ability to do household repairs to her support of my decision to walk away from a journalism career and return to grad school. In more ways than one, she’s been a lifesaver. Thanks, babe.

***

It looks like my Spring classes are in order. I’ll be teaching a section of Froshcomp, along with a fiction workshop, a film class, and one I haven’t previously taught — a course on the works of Edward Gorey. In addition to Gorey’s own collections, I think we’ll look at Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and perhaps selections from Neil Gaiman and Daniel “Lemony Snicket” Handler, both of whom acknowledge a debt to Gorey’s work. We’ll also use Mark Dery’s Gorey bio that I read over the summer, and that inspired me to try the course to begin with. As for the film class, I may revisit Westerns, but it’s tough for me to resist the chance to introduce the kids to films noir. In any case, I’m looking forward to it.

***

This weekend’s entertainments included a documentary about the late cartoonist Gahan Wilson. I’ve been a Wilson fan since I was a kid, and along with the late John Callahan and the abovementioned Mr. Gorey, Wilson’s work provides a key to a lot of my sense of humor.

Born Dead, Still Weird is a nice view of Wilson in his later years — the film dates from 2013, six years before Wilson’s death. While I would have liked to see more details about his life and career development, that might have meant less room for the shots of the cartoons that made him famous. I will say, however, that the film includes something far more terrifying (to me, anyway) than anything Wilson drew. That would be footage of Tuesday meetings between New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff and the various cartoonists (including Wilson) who were submitting batches of work. Mankoff wasn’t nasty, but he wasn’t terribly interested in softening the blow of rejection, either. When you do creative work, you get used to rejections — it’s part of the gig, and if you aren’t getting stuff bounced, you probably aren’t trying. However, I don’t know how long I’d be able to hack sitting across from the guy telling me that my stuff just wasn’t cutting the mustard. As I said — scary.

In any case, while the movie may be a little shallow for the hard-core fan (it doesn’t touch on Wilson’s writings, for example, and the accounts of some of his life’s events seem to lack detail), it makes a nice introduction to the man and his work, But I’d still start with the cartoons.

***

I haven’t played chess since high school, and was never all that great at it anyway, lacking the passion to give it the serious effort the game warrants. To call me a woodpusher would be an undeserved compliment. However, I do maintain something more than a passerby’s interest in the game and its world.

Consequently, I was thrilled last night as the Mighty Men of Mondoville defeated our rival Lutheran college, North Carolina’s Lenoir-Rhyne University. The intrasectarian football rivalry is marked by possession of what is called the Bishop’s Trophy, and since the LRU football program has been particularly strong for the past few years (for example, they were rated #5 in the country before last night’s game), we hadn’t seen much of the trophy — it’s been residing in Hickory, NC.

But last night, a big third quarter put us up by two touchdowns and we held on to win the game by a score of 28-21. The best part of it, though, has to do with our longtime coach, Todd Knight. I ran across a picture of the coach celebrating our reclamation of the trophy, and well, the caption writes itself.

NxB.

In other Newberry College news, the college president told the crown that construction will start very shortly on a new Nursing/Health Sciences building, and on the renovation of the school’s football stadium. (Artist’s depictions below.)

And by the way, US News and World Report lists Newberry as the #11 college in this part of the country, along with giving us high marks for value and social mobility. We do good work, and we do it at a reasonable price.

Not a bad time to be here. And if you have a kid (or know a kid) who might like what we have to offer, give me a holler, or just visit our Web site. Tell them Mondo sent you.

***

Okay, I do have work to do. But why not a bit of music before I go? Once again, it’s the Green Pajamas, whose new album, Sunlight Might Weigh Even More, came out on Friday. Here’s a track from it. Hope you like it!

See you soon!

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Triple Play

Today marks the anniversary of three very cool things.

On this date in 1977, one of my very favorite albums was released. Klaatu’s second album, Hope, was a proggy space opera, telling a story of interplanetary travel, racial hubris, and the necessity of the titular quality in life. You can hear the whole thing here.

Meanwhile, on this date in 1988, Tom Browning (whose Sears credit application I took during his rookie season) of the Cincinnati Reds pitched a perfect game against the L.A. Dodgers.

But most importantly (at least for readers of this blog), on this date in 1965, my favorite intellectual sparring partner; occasional musical collaborator; fellow fan of the Reds, Bengals, and University of Kentucky; and best friend, Todd “The Mad Dog” Frommeyer entered the world, a mere week and a half before I would do the same.

Many happy returns, man!

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Labor Day Potpourri

I’m in my office, prepping a bit for a lecture on Milton’s Areopagitica tomorrow morning and continuing my efforts to find the setting on my office fridge that doesn’t freeze randomly selected beverages while leaving others as cold as they ought to be.

***

While I’m enjoying my long weekend, I’m also enjoying getting back into the rhythm of classroom teaching. The kids seem pretty connected as well. This could be because I have three sections of frosh this term, and they’re not quite jaded yet, but I’m still enjoying it. The masks are a challenge, of course; my dinosaurian pedagogy means that I talk a lot, and that means that by the end of class I feel like I’m lecturing through a wet mop. The masks also make it a little harder for me to tell if my jokes — and more importantly, the Big Ideas — are landing as effectively as I might prefer.

Meanwhile, I’ve had several kids knocked out of class for COVID-related reasons, whether they’re actually ill or quarantined after exposure. This means that I’m doing my version of the hybrid thing, streaming/recording my lectures and such for the benefit of the kids who are hors de combat.

I think the worst part of the business is having to play mask cop. When class starts, I remind everyone to go shields up, and as I’ve noted, I’m doing my part to set a good example. Still, having to remind myself to make sure that everyone is suited up and no one is going off half-masked is a distraction from what I’m here to do, and a pain in another body part that I’m used to keeping covered up. What’s more, one of my classes takes place during a common lunch or snack time, and the kids who bring drinks or snacks into class are taking their masks down while they eat or drink. I suppose I could forbid the whole eating/drinking in class thing, but that seems like a jerk move. At the same time, there’s no damn way I’m going to interrupt my train of thought to make sure that the kids are covering back up between sips or bites.

We muddle along, and I hope through. Even so, it’s good to be back.

***

One interesting thing about teaching rhetoric these days is that we’re awfully close to a situation Richard M. Weaver considered, where potential speakers and audiences are so alienated from one another that the common ground sought by thinkers like Kenneth Burke may not be available and reasoned argument fails. In those circumstances, Weaver argues, persuasion may be more the job of the poet than the rhetorician (or the rhetorician can give up on persuading outsiders and preach to the choir instead. I would contend that this is the vast majority of public utterance these days.) If we can’t agree on the logos in Aristotle’s triangle, then we have to turn to the other corners.

Where I’m going with all this is an Atlantic article by Elizabeth Breunig I assigned to my freshpeeps last week. Entitled “Stop Death Shaming,” the article examines the phenomenon of vaccinated people grave-dancing as we learn of the illness or deaths of unvaccinated people. Yes, we may want as many people as possible to be vaccinated — while acknowledging it is not a panacea any more than the flu vaccine is — but Breunig argues that not only is jeering at COVID casualties unseemly, it is unlikely to persuade the unvaccinated and may in fact lead them either to further recalcitrance or simply to lying about their status or condition.

I understand compassion fatigue, and I do believe that given the ready availability of the vaccine for adults, the burden of protected activity needs to rest on the unvaccinated sooner rather than later. But at the same time, just as I think it’s wrong to feel smug when a smoker gets cancer or when a fat person (ahem) has health problems, I don’t think contempt for unvaccinated people who suffer from COVID is particularly useful. After all, when we get down to it, nearly all of us suffer in some way or other from the consequences of our own bad decisions. Let’s save the exultation for the moments when people make good choices, rather than for the comeuppances of the people who choose unwisely.

***

This long weekend also marked the true beginning of college football season, and I was pleased to see victories for both my graduate alma maters and my current employer. Even the Spawn’s current institution got in on the act. Mondoville’s home opener is this coming Saturday evening; I plan to be there — it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to watch a football game across a hot dog or container of nachos. Although it’s an outdoor event, masking will be encouraged, and there will be a socially distanced section at the stadium. It’ll be good to be back.

***

Speaking of the Spawn, she and the Main Squeeze are doing fine, and she’s heading into her penultimate semester. She’s really comfortable in her life up there, and things like weekend farmers’ markets have become standard parts of her routine. It’s deeply satisfying for us to see her doing well academically and still finding time to have a good time. It’s remarkable that we seem to have gotten things right on that score, even though we had very little idea of what we were doing.

***

And speaking of “No idea what I’m doing,” I’ve decided to attempt something against which my odds of success are simply astronomical. I’m not going to give details on the matter, other than to say that it’s a dream I’ve had for pretty much my entire adult life (No, not that one, you perv, nor is it the little British convertible) and as ridiculous as it is for me to attempt it, I don’t want to go to my grave knowing I didn’t at least try. Besides — I have the support of Mrs. M and the Spawn, and I’ve been a nexus of highly unlikely events for much of my life. Why not one more?

Wish me luck.

***

Well, Milton’s not getting any younger, so I’d probably better wrap this up. And why not do it with music. Scotland’s Famous Groupies are the project of Paul McCartney devotee Kircaldy McKenzie, who has chosen to let his 1970s pop freak flag fly. Dana Countryman (who recently graced these pages himself) clued me into this song earlier today, and I can’t help but pass it on. Fresh from its Friday premiere, this is “Marianne.” Caution: You may need a shot of insulin after watching.

See you soon!

Posted in Culture, Education, Family, Literature, Music, Politics, Why I Do What I Do | 2 Comments

Buying the Fake

Back in 2014, I wrote about a basketball game in which Mondoville obliterated a team from a college that may not have had the virtue of actually, well, existing, other than as a sponsor of athletic teams and as a cash cow for the coach/administrators. The folks in charge of the unaccredited “school” would assemble football and basketball teams of hapless-but-tuition-paying young men, and would send them out to get annihilated in exchange for whatever appearance money they could get. Cash for the coaches — tough break for the athlete/students. The scam was discovered eventually, and the “College of Faith — Charlotte” seems to have vanished (although at least one “coach” still seems to be out there.)

In the words (including some rough ones) of Meryn Cadell, “Well, you’ll never guess what.” Ladles and jellyspoons, meet Ohio’s “Bishop Sycamore High School,” who conned their way onto ESPN.

At least the hoax that was Plainfield Teacher’s College didn’t actually put players in a position to get mashed. Ah, for the decency of a harmless scam.

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Sunday Afternoon Potpourri: New Year’s Eve in August

Tomorrow morning at 8:50, fully vaxxed and masked, I’ll begin my nineteenth year here at Mondoville, going face to face (mask to mask, anyway) with a class full of Freshpeeps for the first time since March of 2020. I have three sections of Froshcomp on MWF, and my Age of Johnson class happens bright and early on Tuesdays and Thursdays. While the circumstances aren’t precisely what I might have hoped, I’m glad to be back. Happy New Year.

***

I made a run down to Real City yesterday in the hope of picking up a few last-minute supplies for my return to on-campus life. Alas, I was out of luck — neither the Sam’s Club nor my local groceries have my libation of choice in stock. But the trip wasn’t a total loss; I picked up some of my favorite instalunches to nuke in my office, and swung by the used media emporium, where I happened across William Goldman’s Which Lie Did I Tell? I’ve read it before, but it’s been a good 20 years or so, from my days at Ball State, and I’m always glad to read Goldman’s work.

***

During an online departmental meeting earlier in the week, one of our new faculty members asked if we have requirements for faculty, “like a dress code.”

After a moment, my chair said, “I think I’ll let Warren take this one.”

I said, “It’s generally expected that you wear something. ‘Pants-free Tuesdays’ failed to make it out of committee.” My chair went on to add that, given that our students are known to arrive in pajamas, this is generally not high on our list of concerns.

“I’ll be wearing a tie on the days I teach,” he added.

“I’ll wear pants,” I said. And I will. And who knows? I may even make it through Wednesday before I go to my T-shirts. Part of that is that I’m just more comfortable in a T-shirt and khakis to begin with — I’m hot-natured to begin with (a consequence of being, um, well insulated), and adding a mask to that, I’m likely to be sweating like Michael Vick at a PETA meeting. But that’s not all of it. I really like the stuff I wear, and I’ve dressed like that whenever I could for years.

Granted, this sometimes causes a bit of cognitive dissonance from folks. A former college classmate once told my mom, “When I met him, he was wearing a Motorhead T-shirt and jeans, and then he started talking, and I realized he was really smart. So I wondered which part was real, and then I found out they both were.” Even when I was a kid, I was big and ungainly, to the point that at least once a visitor from the Nashville school board asked my principal about “the big slow kid.” The principal called me over and asked me to talk a little about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. So I did, and he sent me on my way. Likewise, I’ve run into people who jumped to conclusions about my fondness for comic books (Note to younger readers of this blog: In the Seventies and early Eighties, comics hadn’t taken their present role in the popular culture, and were still seen by many as lunkhead material.) and loud, fast music.

Years later, as I was reading the Life of Johnson, I learned about people who would meet the Great Cham without knowing who he was. What they saw was a large, scruffily dressed man with a habit of muttering to himself, rocking side to side, and occasionally expelling great whooshes of breath. The newcomers would sometimes think Johnson was a village idiot type who was receiving the charity of shelter from the master of the house. Then, when Johnson spoke, the visitor would have to readjust his or her preconceptions. Radically.

I’m no Johnson, of course, though I can certainly find his distant echoes in myself from time to time. As I once said, “A big, ugly, smart guy from modest circumstances, in many respects an autodidact, prone to depression, who went on to be the leading intellectual of his era. Why wouldn’t I love him?” On the one hand, I suppose my general scruffiness may be a manifestation of my innate lack of protective coloration. On the other, I trust that whatever I’m wearing, I’ll be able to establish an ethos for my students soon enough.

***

I ran across an interesting article last night as I was surfing a bit. Anthony Garone is a writer who plays guitar, and he has released a book discussing his quest for his musical Holy Grail, “Fracture,” a diabolically difficult track by King Crimson. (Note: Using the terms “King Crimson” and “diabolically difficult” in the same sentence verges on redundancy — that’s sort of the point with Crimso, but even by Crimson’s standards, this track is beyond brutal.) In particular, the book focuses on a section of the song about three minutes into its eleven-minute length. Per the article:

A relentless barrage of 16th-note (four notes per beat) whole tone/tritone-driven, string-jumping rapid picking, the moto perpetuo was usually performed, back in the day, at no slower than 125 beats-per-minute and was sometimes delivered as rapidly as 138 BPM. As Garone writes in his technically in-depth yet unerringly transformational Failure to Fracture, this demands a guitarist play somewhere between 8.3 and 9.2 notes per second for a full three-and-a-half minutes. Forget about the varying dynamics and perfection of both articulation and tone, and that’s still somewhere between 1,743 and 1,923 notes, folks.

As part of his decades-long effort to learn and play the song (perhaps as much white whale as Holy Grail, now that I think about it), Garone made pilgrimages to “guitar circles” — retreats led by Crimson guitarist/mastermind Robert Fripp. (Fripp himself has a long-term connection with the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff, whose teachings seem to inform Fripp’s own.) Fripp’s reputation over the years has been for sternness and iciness. Typically the nicest term I’ve read for him has been “schoolmasterish.” Again from the article:

Garone describes the discomfort he encountered shortly after arriving at his first Guitar Circle, where drugs and alcohol are not permitted. With this particular course taking place in Mexico, attendees were responsible for keeping the location spotlessly clean, quite literally from washing dishes to cleaning toilets. And these tasks were largely done in silence, a lesson Garone learned early on when, upon trying to strike up a conversation with a fellow attendee while washing dishes, was promptly and quite abruptly told: “The work will be done faster and better if you stop talking. Please try to work in silence.”

At these retreats, guitar obsessives try to develop their craft and creativity. As the article notes, “Fripp endeavors to teach students that mastering guitar (or, really, mastering anything) is far more than mere technique.” While I’m not a guitarist, I try to do my own creative work, and some of Fripp’s ideas strike me as interesting, so I thought I’d share them with you:

1. Begin with the possible and move gradually towards the impossible.
2. Desperate doesn’t mean hopeless. Hopeless doesn’t mean impossible. Impossible doesn’t mean unnecessary.
3. Efficiency: as little as possible and as much as is necessary.
4. One measure or possible and impossible is the probable.
5. If we are to describe the characteristics of the level to which we aspire, our aspiration becomes possible.
6. It is not possible for the musician to play music. But, it is possible for the musician to be played by music.
7. Perfection is impossible. But I may choose to serve perfection.
8. Sometimes the impossible is necessary.
9. The artist is a bridge between the possible, the impossible and the actual.
10. The greater the seeming imperfection, the greater the possible transformation.
11. The necessary is possible.
The optional is expensive.
The arbitrary is unlikely.
We are asked to work honourably.
Honourably = what is possible + 10%; too hard =
Two steps beyond hard, rather than one.
When determination becomes “grim determination.”
When we lose a sense of ourselves.
12. We do what is possible and allow space for the impossible to enter.

Similarly,

“How we hold the pick is how we live our lives.
The less I try the better I play (or, in Guitar Circle terms, ‘effortless effort’).
Our approach to playing reflects how we live our lives.
Correcting and preventing mistakes is as essential a skill as playing a song.
Play with extreme diligence, patience, humility and folly.”

These strike me as the sort of thing to which I might (as I said the other day) “listen with wide-open ears.” They may interest you as well — or not. And that’s fine.

***

Since I typically close these things with music, today’s choice is a pretty obvious one. The moto perpetuo segment begins at around 2:53. Buckle up.

See you soon!

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Thursday Morning Potpourri: Arrivals and Departures

I still have a little tweaking to do on my syllabus, mostly in the form of replacing old boilerplate with new — although the underlying policies may not change a great deal, the phrasings do, and in order to placate the accreditors in whom we live and move and have our beings, we must incorporate that phraseology into the syllabi. But before that, this.

***

I spent the past two days attending the obligatory pre-service the college puts in place each year. My approach to these events is shaped by a couple of lines I’ve picked up over the years. The guy who was my creative writing guru when I was doing my M.A. used to talk about listening to readers’ comments (in workshops or whatever) “with ears wide open.” Let the words or comments in, but don’t worry about them or act on them unless they run into something that’s already in your mind. If a comment or suggestion resonates with something that’s already there, it may be worth your attention. If it doesn’t, then allow it to flow out of your head as easily as it flowed in. The other guideline is one I’ve heard from friends of mine in 12-step programs: “Take what you need, and leave the rest.” (This line is also familiar to fans of The Band, but that’s not quite where I’m coming from here.) Accordingly, when I run into stuff that resonates with me, I find something with which I may work, Otherwise, at least there’s free soda during the breaks.

Yesterday afternoon’s topic was the business of helping our students (and perhaps ourselves) explore vocation and purpose, and being open to the idea that this is not necessarily a linear process. At one point, the speaker asked those of us who were doing what we wanted to do when we were 18 to stand up. Out of a room of 60 or so faculty, two stood. I didn’t (which was likely just as well — my right knee is really jacked up this week), but as I thought of it, I kind of wondered if I should have. I knew I was interested in a career in academia. My field of study changed from the sciences to the humanities (two hemispheres — no waiting!), but that’s what I have. I wanted to write, and I do, and get paid for that sometimes. I wanted to play music, and while I’m between bands at the moment, I’ve done that, and get paid for it sometimes. I knew I wanted a life where being a non-conformist (sometimes naturally, sometimes willfully) was at least tolerable. I think I may have that.

But at the same time, there have certainly been odd left turns in my path. Institutions of higher learning on both the undergrad and graduate level offered me invitations to go elsewhere — I’m pretty sure that the U of KY saw my Masters as a terminal one, and for them, it was, as they declined to bring me into the Ph.D. program. Likewise, my six years in the magazine biz, while useful (beyond mere issues of food and shelter; I learned a lot about writing during that time, and also learned that having the almost-right job can be as disheartening as having a completely wrong one), mainly served to remind me of what I really wanted to do. And as I said, I went from studying the sciences to doing whatever the heck it is that I do now.

As part of all this, the speaker asked us if we’d be willing to talk to groups of our students about how the process of exploring one’s purpose works (or sometimes doesn’t). So I’ve volunteered, and may be doing this later in the semester. It may be interesting.

***

Lately I’ve felt a strong urge to listen to the Call, a band I’ve loved since I discovered their second album, in 1982, thanks to its minor hit, “The Walls Came Down.” I happened to notice last night that today marks the eleventh anniversary of the death of Michael Been, the band’s guitarist/bassist/vocalist/principal songwriter. As the link from this blog’s first year demonstrates, I noted the death when it happened, but I wasn’t consciously aware this week that Been’s year-day was at hand. Maybe — reasonably — it’s coincidence. But like Horatio’s philosophy, our understanding of such matters is incomplete, so maybe it’s closer to synchronicity of a sort. Whatever it is, I’ve enjoyed hearing the group’s music this week, and thinking fondly of a man who treated me well when he didn’t have to.

***

I’ve recently talked about my discovery and enjoyment of Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series of detective novels, and mentioned that I seem to share a fair amount of musical taste with the protagonist. Apparently, I have some taste in common with McKinty as well, including a liking for the poetry of Philp Larkin. McKinty recently shared Larkin’s “Aubade” on Twitter. It’s a poem I occasionally share with students, especially those who think that formal poetry has to be stilted. So here it is.

Aubade

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.   
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.   
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.   
Till then I see what’s really always there:   
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,   
Making all thought impossible but how   
And where and when I shall myself die.   
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse   
—The good not done, the love not given, time   
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because   
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;   
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,   
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,   
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,   
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,   
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill   
That slows each impulse down to indecision.   
Most things may never happen: this one will,   
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without   
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave   
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.   
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,   
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,   
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring   
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

***

I’m not teaching a creative writing workshop this term, but I often find myself thinking about them, and of course thinking about my own work as a writer. Along those lines, I found myself thinking last night about ways of forcing the mind and imagination out of routines, or at the very least, adding different components to the process.

That in turn led me to think about Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies, a deck of cards that (per St. Wiki) each provide “a challenging constraint break creative blocks by encouraging lateral thinking.” Examples of card texts include things like “What would your closest friend do?” and “Honor thy error as a hidden intention.”

I’m considering bringing these both into the classroom and into my own work. To that end, if any of y’all have used these, I’d love to hear about your experience.

***

Lunchtime draws near and I have a couple of errands to run this afternoon, so I think I’ll wrap this installment up. The Dolly Rocker Movement were an Australian psych outfit from 2002-13. This track offers a nice nod to Ennio Morricone, with enough reverb-drenching to keep everyone successfully zoned out. Here’s “The Ecstasy Once Told.”

See you soon!

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