1.MODERN WISDOM PRESENTS: THE MODERN WISDOM DYSLEXICON
BONSAI TREES. Invented so dwarves can live in treehouses.
BOULDER. Town in Colorado full of Californians too dull-witted to live in San Francisco.
BRANDY. Judging from how easily you can set it on fire, it is a drink not for Heroes but for Neros.
BUDDHA. Pretty chubby for a guy who never ate breakfast.
BUDGET DEFICITS: Half-asset backwards financing.
BURMA. A country where most of the roads look like my large intestine.
BUTANE. Smells worse than Phosphorus.
BUTTER. Did you ever pick up a hitchhiker because butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth–and you were eating corn on the cob?
CAMEL. A sensible animal who stores water and spits when annoyed. As opposed to people who store ammo and mow down perfect strangers on the slightest pretext.
CANADIANS. Americans who have been strained through the Union Jack.
2. NOIR MISFORTUNE COOKIES
- a) You will work harder, until you are broken.
b) An ungrateful child will break your lonely heart.
c) They are close to finding and crushing you.
d) Secret foemen industriously plot your destruction.
e) They will no longer tolerate your feckless shenanigans.
f) Why are you rushing–when disaster is around the corner?
g) You have good reason to be paranoid, crazy one.
h) They all have good reason to stare at you.
i) Your foolish eagerness to please them will prove catastrophic.
j) One more mistake and you are doomed.
k) They no longer even pretend to believe your excuses.
l) Secret cameras have recorded all your crimes.
m) Your “friends” do not have your best interests at heart.
n) The police detective needs to ask just one more question.
o) Your secret shame is obvious to all.
p) It is your son who is murdering the neighborhood pets.
q) That little monkey on your back is now a gorilla.
r) They will find you no matter how far away you run.
s) Remember–a stool pigeon can sing but he can’t fly.
t) You will be disarmed by Hoboes and beaten senseless.
u) Your youngest daughter has run off with a Chili Pimp.
v) You can’t go to the police–they’re in on it too.
w) Flophouse tramps will steal your only shoes.
x) You will never convince them it was an accident.
y) Your influential friends are of little no help to you now.
z) Degenerate companions lure you into abject drug slavery.
- THE DONUT KING
Ah ha, my lard, this prince is not an Edward!
He is not lolling on a lewd love-bed,
But on his knees at meditation–K. Richard III: 6, vii. I’m wondering about the Donut King. What are his private thoughts, right after June 5th, celebrated in the far-off United States as National Donut Day?
While his minions sweep up the debris following all the deep-frying and powdered sugar, does he muse?
What are his hopes and fears for his Australian kingdom?
Does he brood, Macbeth-like, over his rivalry with Dunkin Donuts, a possible pretender to his throne?
Does he fear Mister Donut, the likely interloper from far-flung Japan?
And what of the arrivistes from Krispy Kreme? Does he not spend many a sleepless night fearing their potential encroachments; the potential that someday, once more, their star shill overshadow his?
Does he dream?
And in his dreams, does he mingle in a swell embassy ballroom in the Sydney Opera House with the fried dough monarchs of other lands?
Senor Factura, from Argentina?
Senor Sonhos, from Brazil?
Canada’s Tim Horton (another potential rival)?
Herr Berliner, from Germany?
Citizen Kleinuhringur, from Iceland?
Indonesia’s Donat Kentang?
Mr. Bomboloni, from Italy?
Dona Donas, from Mexico?
Mr. Paczki, from Poland?
Sir Gravy Ring, from the Republic of Northern Ireland?
Vetkoek Koeksuster, from South Africa?
Mullah Yoyo, from Tunisia?
Do they quarrel along factional lines?
Cake vs, Yeast?
Jelly filling vs. cream?
The proper role of donut holes?
The place in their world for crypto-donuts such as Long Johns, Yum Yums, Funnel Cakes, Crullers, and Biegnets?
And do their wild disputes erupt into insensate sectarian violence, during which the floors become slippery with lard and glaze, and no footing is secure?
Surely Donut King must fidget upon his shaky throne as he contemplates his disparate matters of State, such as physical fitness drives among policemen, the growing popularity of Churros, and the sullying of his name and reputation among adolescent Australian Hooners who delight in creating burnouts on virgin roads.
Heavy indeed is the head that wears the Krown!
Forbear to judge, for we are sinkers all.
Close up his eyes, and draw the curtain close;
And let us all to meditation.–King Henry VI 2: 3, iii.
4. THE PROUD LAND
Well Sir, you might have heard of our little community of Somesuch in the newspaper, or maybe not. Fact is, I no longer subscribe to the newspaper. Too busy to read it. Got the lambin’ to oversee, and the cows won’t put up with no fool who sleeps away the day until the unholy hour of six a.m.
I have my own private name for our town beautiful. I call it The Proud Land. Folks here don’t tend to toot their own horn, but I’m mighty well chuffed about all the accomplishments of the fine folks of our fair community, and I’ll tell the world. It’s God’s Country out hereabouts, and make no mistake about it.
Sure, there are some snarling backbiters who will say we ain’t such big stuff, but they’re the same types of Gloomy Guses who look at French postcards and make lewd drawings in their boudoirs with the lifted pinky finger set. The same kind of loafers who know how to tie a four-in-hand but ain’t never changed a tire ner milked a cow and never seen how they can kick, and who sit around smokin’ smelly French cigareets and drinkin’ too much espresso coffee in that newfangled fancy shop they just opened there on Webster Street. Who are these people? So they think in French and act like they’re special. They call us “provincial”. I could not care less. Coming from them, it’s a badge of honor. So maybe our local store doesn’t have fifty types of cheese like some of them blim-blammed supermarkets they got over in big towns like Mudville and Grundy. What of it? The General Store—where I now work part time—is good enough for folks hereabouts. Has been for fifty years.
Here in Somesuch, we don’t have much truck with such folderol. This is not the place to be if you have a hankerin’ for hanging around with a load of biggity city dubs, card-sharpers, swell-headed so-called intellectual types, confirmed bachelors, incorrigible backsliders, mackerel-snappers, jibber-jabbering foreigners, and uppity black folk. Sure, change is coming to our fair community and we just had put in a gas station pump which takes a credit card, of all the fool notions. And we did admit a negro fella to our local high school, but he keeps his trap shut and he sure can play basketball, and he don’t seem too inclined to getting in razor fights or stealing watermelons, so I guess he’s OK. And I’ll admit, we do have a weekly card game over at the Elks Club—it’s a way to get away from the hens for one night a week—and I don’t mean the chickens. But I, personally, see to it that we play nothing but penny poker. I’ll see and raise you a nickel! Can’t nobody say we’re any sort of degenerate gamblers like they have at that high-stakes casino they just opened up there in Brownfield.
Well, us’uns, we like to have a laugh or two. Sure, we believe in being a good Samaritan and like that, but when push comes to shove, we’re always ready to put on a pretty good act in order to trip up some wiseacre who’s gotten a leetle too bigheaded for his own good, if you don’t mind my sayin’. Usually, it’s some insolent whippersnapper who thinks he hung the moon, just because he has a letter sweater and a little sweetheart who lets him steal a red-hot kiss. Like, we’ll ask Lem Tuohy (‘cause that’s who I’m talking about) if he’d care to play a little game of 52 Pickup. When he says he would, I throw the cards on the floor and I says to him, “Now pick ‘em up.” That’s how we deal with youngsters who’ve grown so big that we can’t still dust their britches for ‘em! Lots of them Irish fellas is oversexed anyway. They need to learn the value of hard work so they can get their minds off of spoonin’ and skylarkin’. A good hitch in the Marines would set them straight in nothing flat, but you just try to appeal to their patriotism and they’ll laugh in your face. It’s enough to make a sturdy man want to break out the horsewhip. Though I reckon the Sheriff, he wouldn’t understand. He’s a new fella—not from around here—and he still thinks in terms of habeas corpus and like that.
I just don’t know what it is about the younger generation.
For instance, there’s our Community College, the finest in four counties, if I do say so myself. Well, every so often we get one of them longhair radical professor types who says he believes in the theory of evolution and secular humanism, and like that. These are the types we shut down in a big hurry. I don’t send my youngest daughter there to get her higher education at the cost of nearly one thousand dollars a year in order to take up with biggety notions like those. We ran that feller out of town—not on a rail—but we gave him a pretty good indication that we wanted him gone, and so he packed up his rags and he vamoosed. Pronto! (Say—maybe I should get a job there—teachin’ Spanish!)
I am glad of it, too. Some folks just don’t know when they’re not wanted. You sort of got to push them off’n a cliff before they get the message.
I may not use a lot of big words and know a whole bunch of Latin, other than E Pluribus Unum, but I got what a lot of these over-educated fools has not got—mainly, good, manly horse sense.
No, I don’t think in ancient Greek and I don’t act psychotic—I guess that means I’m over the hill.
That Perfesser feller still bothers me, though. He was just a sawed-off little runt who took it into his twisted head that we were all a bunch of hicks just because one or two of the students liked to spit t’baccy juice in the drinkin’ fountains. He thought we was all a bunch of primitive cavemen just because we all came out in force for the big high school game, instead of going to some ladies’ sewing circle and eatin’ zwieback crumbs off’n the floor. Well, I say scratch one of them doubledomes and, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you’ll find a sissy.
I hear tell in the big city they got unspeakable orgies where people sit around and hock on the flag, but that kind of behavior by them kind of sumbitches is simply not countenanced in Somesuch.
Down at the General Store there, which is really changed from what it used to be, now it’s a convenience store, I’ve been working there to make some cash money ever since we nearly lost the farm—down at the store a bunch of the boys was settin’ ‘round chewin’ the fat and we decided that th runty perfesser needed a lesson in how we do things around here. It didn’t improve my temperament none that my daughter—she’s nineteen—had kind o’ taken a shine to him. We even had him over for dinner one day. My wife was mortified. And I’ll tell you why. I decided to have a little fun with the little feller. So when he came in smellin’ like a French whorehouse, just before he sat down t’ dinner, I showed him my shotgun. Cracked it open, asked him if he’d like to handle it. He looked at me like I was offerin’ him a pisen snake and said, “Uhhr—no thank you.” You’ll notice that he didn’t say “Sir”. These young pups is got no respect for their elders.
Anyway, it seems as though the little feller couldn’t take a hint, so we really gave it to him. Went up to his room at about 4am—me, and a few of my husky boys—and throwed a sack over his head and gave him a few well-earned thumps. He reported it to the Sheriff and like that, and the Sheriff came by and questioned me and the boys, but my wife done told him we was here the whole night long tendin’ to a sick horse.
Wife can’t testify agin her husband in court. Not that I’m a lawyer or like that.
Well, the little perfesser didn’t take the hint, so the next thing we done was that one or the other of us’uns managed to detain him on some pretext, and young to break into his room and young Lem Tuohy, who turned out to be good for something’ after all, besides being on the football team and his red hot kisses and like that—well, he went up into the perfesser’s room and played around on his computer until it looked like the runt had committed every sin in the book, including ordering up underaged hookers from overseas and the like. Well, of course the college couldn’t keep him, and I don’t hold with deprivin’ a man of his livelihood, but he should of never come nosin’ around my daughter. That is all.
Looks like Mrs. Miller comin’ in for some flour. Say, Lousia—put aside one of them pies of yourn for ME!
- OWEN THE POET
It was long ago that I encountered Owen the Poet: close to thirty years have gone by. I do not recall now if that was his first name or his last, and it scarcely matters now. I had heard my frat brothers mention his name–often, no, always, with derision.
I would walk the college campus in the fall–always the best time; a cool breeze blew but the sun shone staunchly; and the memories of the snows of winter were far off and yet were occasionally felt in the air. Nor was the heat of summer forgotten. In any event, springtime seemed a long way off. I would walk the campus and see him seated on his accustomed bench; The Pigeon Bench, some of the cruder students called it. It stood near the statue of the College Founder, and near it were the granite stairs which led to the principle library; a truly imposing edifice.
As I have said, I think it was an autumn day, but it may have been spring. No; it was definitely the fall; I recall with great clarity that there was a certain mustiness in the air, as of over-ripened apples; that the stately oaks were not yet barren but, rather, were ablaze with early color; that it was the winter wind to come which stirred the breeze.
On a sudden impulse, I sat down upon the bench next to Owen, who, among the students, was a mysterious and aloof figure, even in his bearing. Except for being a little taller than the average–about six foot two–his appearance was not utterly nondescript–that in itself would have been a distinction–but, rather, merely undistinguished. He was thin; he had a pale, lacklustre face which, however, was not pasty in the way that so many students with difficult concentrations grew pallid by studying by night and avoiding the fall sunlight. I used to call them Lamplighters. Owen was no Lamplighter. He was, however, what you might call a beanpole, with carelessly groomed dark hair which hung over his ears, which was somewhat the fashion of five years ago; he was somewhat disheveled, but he was too clean to be a bohemian, or what the more conservative professors might call a bum.
I sat next to him–he, a senior; I, a lowly sophomore, and I was suddenly struck as dumb as though I were seated next to the prettiest girl in the class. Not that I felt any attraction to him, other than the awestruck feeling one gets when in close proximity to a celebrity, howsoever minor.
Finally, I managed to break the silence. “You’re the Poet.” As though there were only one. Indeed, I had read his work in the college literary journal; it was, unlike most undergraduate effusions, both fresh and good. Particularly compelling, I thought, was his description of “a wee squirrel” which “turns over a nut as though his heart would break.” I must admit that, at my impressionable age, I found that banal image both wonderfully wild and mysterious.
Owen said nothing.
“How do you so it?” was my next question.
He looked at me as though I were an ogre come to steal his hoarded bags of gold. It was a long, appraising look; I noticed he had a lazy eye. Finally, I suppose, he decided that I meant him no harm; that I, in my sloppy shirt and trousers, was too innocent of guile in general and meant no harm to anyone. He spoke:
“You see that maple over there?”
I peered through the reddening foliage–yes, it was the fall–and could see no maple tree. “All I see are oak trees,” I said.
“A poet sees a maple tree.”
I decided that this was some kind of Zen Koan, and though I did not humor him, exactly, I proceeded rather cautiously to play along.
“What else does a poet see?”
“A poet sees what a poet knows. There’s no imagination without knowledge. A poet knows his butterflies and rivers. Every poet knows his Shakespeare, his Milton. Even our Professors–those highly practical men–you don’t get to be a Professor for nothing–even they agree.”
“A poet,” he went on, as though he were a hermit who was glad of an audience–which in some sense he was–“A poet knows the names of all the trees in the forest. Even the ones which aren’t there. Nuts and berries. How to build a fire.”
I said nothing to discourage him, and, as though I had unleashed a flood tide, he continued, his words flowing as if a torrent. “Bees, geological features and how they got that way, and mushrooms. A poet needs to take drugs every so often to achieve that ordered derangement of the senses, but not so often as to fall into mere dissipation, which is not an end in itself but only a means to an end. How men live and how they die. Why are we even here? Mostly, I think, to observe, and to set down our evanescent impressions. We must all die–that alone is what makes life worth living.”
I said nothing to stop his speech. Perhaps I should have. Still the words came. Counterpointed by the rustling of the leaves and grasses in the autumn wind as the sun began to set at the long end of the college yard.
In truth, I was fairly enraptured. What would he say next?
“Baseball is poetic; football is not. Good posture is always necessary, even when you’re hunched over a desk and lost in thought. You must always honor your mother, but it is your duty to disagree with your father. As you grow old you will become just like him in ways which will astonish you. You don’t want to be a young old man. You want to be an old young man.”
He was beginning to lose me, but, by now, he scarcely seemed to notice I was there as his words continued to stream by me in a low monotone, yet with each word precisely enunciated as though he were reciting one of his own verses.
“So many things to know about. Great historical figures, and yet the insight to penetrate into the concerns of everyday people. Life, after all, is mostly a process of wearing us down. We want to aim for the eagles on their mountaintops, but mostly we are left to grub for roots. Ordinary people can never leave their jobs behind. Only the truly talented can make poetry their life’s work. It comes at a great price, though. It’s a pact with the devil. I think Kafka said as much. Look at “Faust”. You haven’t read it yet? Do it. That will tell you all you need to know. So many people need comforting. Don’t you know that living is a lonely business, even at its best? Accounts in, accounts out. My father is a lawyer. He doesn’t…”believe” in poetry. My mother is a saint. What can I say? It’s sentimental, it’s mawkish, it’s trite, it’s unembellished…but it happens to be true. But what people like my father fail to realize is that the poet is the true Existential Man. Earthly rewards mean nothing to him, which is a good thing, too, because, except in rare instances, they are unlikely to be forthcoming. It all depends in the end on what crowd you manage to get yourself lumped in with. Same as anywhere. That’s why, by the way, a poet should grow a beard. Sooner, rather than later. I plan to grow one this winter. Anyway, I’ve been turning it over in my mind. My father says that beards are out of fashion. A lot he knows! I think he’s afraid that I’ll turn out to be some kind of Hippie, and turn my back on material things. He doesn’t realize that I’m a poet, and a poet really has very little use for anything except books, and poetry. He doesn’t realize the infinite number of skills a poet needs to justify…’the mantle’. How to comfort a crying woman. How to draw out a stranger at a party and introduce him to people. Don’t you hate that hesitant interlude–between the time that you introduce them to somebody…and the time that that somebody finally responds? It’s always the same. ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Where are you from?’ And finally, and this is the clincher, ‘What do you “do”?’ I always tell them I’m a student. ‘Oh? And what do you study?’ ‘English.’ ‘Oh, then your father must be rich!’ My father….” he paused.
“My father is an accomplished man in his own right, it wouldn’t be fair to deny him that, but I’d hardly say he was rich. Comfortable, maybe. Only he hates his job, my mother bores him, his daughter spends too much money, and he doesn’t even know what to make of me. ‘T’was ever thus!'”
By now the sun was halfway down the horizon, and that stillness which comes over the earth in the rustling fall was beginning to make me feel uncomfortable. But Owen, oblivious to the lateness of the hour and my growing discomfort and–it shames me now to admit it–my growing agitation, went right on talking as though, as in The 1001 Nights, to talk was to save his life.
“A poet should be able to describe the smell of frying bacon. Meaty, but sweet and burnt. To build a fire. I already said that. To harness the wind. My father has a peculiar misapprehension about the world. I that that…he…thinks that man can subdue the forces of nature. It’s a crock. Bet on nature every time. Hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards–a poet should know about these. How to chop wood, how to sew a button. A poet doesn’t need to count his money, because he never has any. I can see a future stretch before me where my mother gives me nice things and I go and sell them so I can afford to buy a jug of sweet wine. I’ve already sold my coat so I can afford to eat out every now and then. It’s no good to eat alone. Companionship is the best sauce.”
“It’s getting late, I see. Let me think for a moment.”
We sat, in utter silence, interrupted only by the tolling of a far-off chapel bell. the lamps in the college yard suddenly glowed yellow and the red and yellow sun slipped inexorably past below the treeline, which glowed in old green and burnished orange.
“So much to say, so little time! A poet should know fine art, decorative art, bugs. The tracks of animals, how to clean a fish, how to tie a knot. That’s one thing the Boy Scouts are good for. I hated the Scouts. My father made me go. Sent me off to Scout camp in the summers. Anything to get me out of his hair. Which is funny, because he’s as bald as a peach. My mother didn’t mind it if I lay around the house. Mothers are funny that way. Homebodies. Fathers have to go out into the world. Nature red in tooth and claw. Engagement with…’the people’. I call it a bloody mess. Each individual male in this society is bred to love war. To worship it. It’s almost too obvious to say. Thank God we’re at peace now. Only–how long will it last? Anyway. A poet needs to be on his knees a good deal of the time. A poet knows that God is a very real thing, even if He doesn’t exist. It’s like the IDEA of the maple tree. His absence is His presence. All the true mystics take this as their fact. Now I’m just rambling. A poet…ahh, a poet doesn’t amount to much, and yet…in that he is everything. Who but a nut would say he was a poet? You ask me how I do it. I study the ways of man and nature. Both are inescapable things. Poets should spend a lot of time with dogs and cats. I like cats, but I prefer dogs. I just do. I can’t account for it. Poets should know the habits of squirrels and mice and snakes. All the creeping things. Poets should know God…and Satan. Poets should know how to dance. By God, that’s as important as knowing how to kiss and make love! Poets should have an imagination, but, really, when it comes right down to it, knowledge IS imagination, and if you KNOW something–really KNOW it–I can’t explain it–then imagination will always follow.”
By now the sun had completely set, and the yard was illumined almost solely by the yellow lamps and the white fleecy clouds scudding slowly overhead. I glanced at my watch, not wanting to be rude, but not wishing to miss my dinner. The Dining hall stopped serving at 7:00.
But Owen seemed inexhaustible.
“Poets should know something about chemistry, physics, weather patterns, sickness, musculature, flowers–did I mention flowers?–friendship, similes, metaphors, geometry, meditation, migration patterns, rivers, pond life, the gathering of people in large groups, and how they behave. A poet should read the newspaper. It’s all there–fighting, killing, human interest stories. The wisdom of the ages, yesterday’s heroes, dreams of tomorrow. A poet should watch people as they laugh–sometimes they look so uncomfortable. As if they had run the two-mile. I used to do that myself. Not anymore. Exercise–who needs it? From now on, I’m not going to do anything I don’t have to do. Listen: here’s what’s going to happen to me. I’m going to simply drift along for about five or ten years, like an open boat with no rudder. Then I’m going to find a job of some kind that I like to do–something that doesn’t cause too much strain–I have no idea what that might be. Then I’ll get married. I’ll settle down, have a child or two, and continue to write until I’m really good at it. And then–we’ll see.”
He was crying now.
“Metonymy. synechtode–mere rhetorical…’devices’. Do away with them. A poet should hold a crying baby in his arms. That’s the truest art. That’s all there really is.” He wiped away his tears.
“Words fail me,” he said.
I bade him good-bye and moved away slowly, almost reluctantly. I concluded he was quite mad. I gave up my own dreams of poetry and took up squash, and drinking beer with my frat bothers. I never saw Owen again. I heard that he had dropped out of school, but I never learned of his whereabouts, and from that time to this I have not thought of him more than once. Until I decided to tell his story. And my own.