Past masters: John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Image from The Guardian

Image from The Guardian

Past masters: Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling

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Apologies to all my Danish friends, but this seems very timely in light of the current Republican shenanigans.


It is always a temptation to an armed and agile nation
To call upon a neighbor and to say:
“We invaded you last night – we are quite prepared to fight,
Unless you pay us cash to go away.”

And that is called asking for Dane-geld,
And the people who ask it explain
That you’ve only to pay ’em the Dane-geld
And then you’ll get rid of the Dane!
Read the rest of this entry »

Past masters: John Steinbeck

And now that you don't

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“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”

Steinbeck is one of my half-dozen favorite authors, which you probably already know about me. I first read “East Of Eden” about six years ago while in the waning days of my marriage. I badly needed a distraction from the ongoing struggles of my own tumultuous life, and what better than the ongoing struggles of other people’s tumultuous lives?! It’s a slow-moving read with many, many characters, but small bits of it like this quote seemed to seep into my consciousness. Popped into my brain again today, apropos of nothing… but who knows, maybe it was apropos of something I’ll figure out later. It does seem to go hand-in-hand with my previous posts about embracing the suck.

Bantam - East of Eden - John Steinbeck

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It’s amazing how authors can, almost nonchalantly, throw such loaded statements into dialogue… Lee, the philosophical servant china-man, is making an observation of Abra’s life. The comment struck me because, not only is it profound in the context of the book, it resonates with me and my experiences. Perfection will never be attained by any of us, not on this earth. What a frustrating endeavor, trying to attain it! It’s like climbing up an endless staircase, falling down seven steps then making it up nine. I think the futility of it all can easily result in just giving up, throwing up the hands, and returning to poor habits and choices. Perfection seems like such pressure to me. I can’t stand the idea of tiptoeing around, holding my breath, afraid to make a mistake. When that burden is removed, I feel that I can finally breathe. Like Abra, I can be good. – Legacy of Stone

“East of Eden” is all about characters discovering that they aren’t perfect, they can’t earn love, and life doesn’t always happen the way they’d like it to. In that disappointment, characters have a choice to make between grace and jealousy, forgiveness and guilt, love and bitterness, and those choices affect the rest of their lives and relationships. I think that’s why “East of Eden” is so compelling. Everyone can relate to discovering imperfection – either in ourselves or those around us – and everyone has made a choice, consciously or not, about how to live within that truth of imperfection. – (near)pandemonium

Ultimately, when we try to be perfect we find it impossible to be good. The pretense of perfection leads people to be legalistic, judgmental, proud, duplicitous, depressed, and generally screwed up from the cognitive dissonance of an expectation that is cruelly contradicted by reality. “Perfect” people cannot be good. – Brian Zahnd

As an aside, another quote from that book gained immediate usefulness during those waning marriage days. In the story, brothers Adam and Charles were discussing the recent death of their father. Charles was interrogating Adam for details about his relationship with their dad, and Adam replied:

“I won’t answer you until I know what you’re getting at.”

I quoted that while undergoing a “line of questioning” from my ex. It was surprisingly successful. Who says literature is meaningless in the modern age?

Past masters: Kurt Vonnegut

Image from Getty Images

Image from Getty Images

Past masters: Robert Frost

the-road-not-taken-robert-frostIt’s funny how the meanings of things like poems and songs can change for a person over time. This one sure has.

“The Road Not Taken” was required reading in my high school English class. I am the product of early-70s secondary education: I never was taught to conjugate a verb or when to use a semicolon (never!), but I knew about all the great American poets. It was very, very important to Get In Touch With Our Feelings about the poems we read. Like most of my peers, I had feelings of rebelliousness and rugged individuality from “The Road Not Taken.” Maybe it was an adolescent guy thing, I don’t know. He took the road less traveled by, you see: he took the unpopular path, the one less people took, he blazed his own trail, and says with a sigh of satisfaction that doing so has made all the difference in his life. Rock on, bro.

Some fifteen years later I read it again as a young adult. I got a whole different meaning from it. He kept the first path for another day, fully intending to revisit it, but doubting somewhat that would ever happen. He had to pick his path based on what he knew at the moment. The sigh became a sigh of longing and regret. He had chosen the harder way, the less-traveled way, and encountered the consequences along the path. He wondered how things would have gone if he chose the other, because his choice had made all the difference and led him to where he was that day.

Jump ahead another twenty years, and I read it as yet an older man. Again, the meaning changed. There’s a big clue in the title that I never caught before. Many people refer to the poem as “The Road Less Traveled,” but actually the title is “The Road Not Taken.” He’s describing the road he didn’t take, “the road less traveled” by him. Because there was in fact no difference between the two paths: they were worn about the same and would very likely have led to the same destination. Either choice was equally good or bad: and as an older man, reflecting on his life, he sighs with resignation and laments that he must have taken the more difficult path to where he ended up. Was he dissatisfied with where the path took him? Somewhat, probably: we all are at times. But this revisionist history is how he explains it to himself and others. His “story for the neighbors,” as an acquaintance used to say.

Sometimes I rationalize my circumstances by saying I must have reached them “the hard way,” though in reality I know better. Choosing one path over another doesn’t determine all: subsequent choices, and judgment, and good old fate and fortune’s favor and karma play a role as well.

See? No semicolons.

Past masters: E.E. Cummings

Image from wikipedia

And no, he didn’t generally sign his name in lower case. He did so now and then, often to show humility, so decades of obsessed high-school readers decided that must be the way he signed it all the time.

That said, this is my favorite poem of his. Lucy’s Football (read her blog, folks, it’s awesome) put me in mind of this today.

You are tired, (I think)

You are tired,
(I think)
Of the always puzzle of living and doing;
And so am I.

Come with me, then,
And we’ll leave it far and far away—
(Only you and I, understand!)

You have played,
(I think)
And broke the toys you were fondest of,
And are a little tired now;
Tired of things that break, and—
Just tired.
So am I.

But I come with a dream in my eyes tonight,
And knock with a rose at the hopeless gate of your heart—
Open to me!
For I will show you the places Nobody knows,
And, if you like,
The perfect places of Sleep.

Ah, come with me!
I’ll blow you that wonderful bubble, the moon,
That floats forever and a day;
I’ll sing you the jacinth song
Of the probable stars;
I will attempt the unstartled steppes of dream,
Until I find the Only Flower,
Which shall keep (I think) your little heart
While the moon comes out of the sea.

Great Scot! The Bob Marley of his time…

Image from The Vancouver Sun

From The Daily Mirror:

Robert Burns is believed to be the inspiration for many famous figures and celebrities throughout history. Abraham Lincoln had a lifelong admiration for the poet’s work, and some claim the poems helped him to win the American civil war and abolish slavery. Bob Dylan also claims Rabbie’s song “A Red, Red Rose” was his greatest source of creative inspiration. Michael Jackson was a huge fan of Robert Burns, and recorded an album with concert promoter David Gest setting the Bard’s poems to music.

From Wikipedia:

A Burns supper is a celebration of the life and poetry of the poet Robert Burns, author of many Scots poems. The suppers are normally held on or near the poet’s birthday, 25 January, sometimes also known as Robert Burns Day (or Robbie Burns Day) or Burns Night, although they may in principle be held at any time of the year.

Burns suppers may be formal or informal. Both typically include haggis (a traditional Scottish dish celebrated by Burns in “Address to a Haggis”), Scotch whisky, and the recitation of Burns’ poetry.

Ah yes, haggis. Just when you thought there was nothing worse a Scotsman could do to a sheep.

From Toad’s awesome blog To The Manner Born:

Americans hardly know and little care that today is Robert Burns Day (or Night), the anniversary of the birth of the Scottish poet and lyricist, the Bob Marley of his time, Robert Burns. We canna do the accent, and as long as 95% of us can make up the lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne” as we go and Scottish distillers remain in operation we are mostly OK giving Rabbie a miss.

On this side of the pond is a powerful fear of eating haggis, which is rather sad. True haggis is difficult to obtain. And in the US sheep lung, a key component, is considered unfit for human consumption. We canna import from the UK either.

We should know a bit about the Bard, if only to be neighborly. Rabbie took to poetry when he found it a good way to chat up birds, at which he became quite successful. His first book of verse was sold when he was 27 to raise funds so he could hightail it to Jamaica with his girlfriend, Mary Campbell. Burns hoped to escape the mother of his first daughter Elizabeth, and Miss Jean Armour who was pregnant with his twins.

Raise a glass tonight to Mr. Burns. He deserves to be remembered for his poetry, his storytelling, his love for and hopes for a republican Scotland, and his love of fine lasses. May his memory live forever.

And a part of his poem “John Barleycorn,” a tribute to one of his favorite pastimes:

John Barleycorn was a hero bold
Of noble enterprise;
For if you do but taste his blood
‘Twill make your courage rise.

‘Twill make a man forget his woe;
‘Twill heighten all his joy;
‘Twill make the widow’s heart to sing,
Tho’ the tear were in her eye.

Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand;
And may his great posterity
Ne’er fail in old Scotland!

Past masters: Mark your calendars. January 31st is National Gorilla Suit Day.

Image from

Image from

I’ve written before about how Mad Magazine shaped my early moral judgments, much to the dismay of my dear mother. And no contributor to Mad made me laugh harder than Mad’s Maddest Artist, Don Martin. He created his most memorable work for Mad, then left in a dispute over creative rights. He worked briefly for Mad’s rival humor mag Cracked, then tried his luck as an indie publisher.

Wikipedia has this to say about Martin’s work:

His characters often had ridiculous, rhyming names such as Fester Bestertester or Fonebone (which was expanded to Freenbean I. Fonebone in at least one strip), as well as Lance Parkertip, Noted Notary Public. In (his) middle period, Martin created some of his most absurdist work—for example, “National Gorilla Suit Day” – an extended narrative in which a hapless character is violently assaulted by a series of attackers in various disguises, including men dressed as gorillas and gorillas dressed as men. His unique cartooning style gave an uncanny visual depth and dimension to his hilarious scenes and off-the-wall textual sound effects.

Charles Taylor wrote the definitive description of Martin’s work in The Portland Phoenix:

Don Martin’s work for Mad…is instantly recognizable. His people are big-nosed schmoes with sleepy eyes, puffs of wiry hair, and what appear to be life preservers under the waistline of their clothes. Their hands make delicate little mincing gestures and their strangely thin, elongated feet take a 90-degree turn at the toes as they step forward. Whether they’re average Joes or headhunters, Martin’s people share the same physique: a tottering tower of obloids. Martin puts the bodies of these characters through every kind of permutation, treating them as much like gadgets as the squirting flowers and joy buzzers that populate his gags: glass eyes pop out from a pat on the back; heads are steamrollered into manhole-cover shapes. All of this accompanied by a Dadaist panoply of sound effects found nowhere else: shtoink! shklorp! fwoba-dap! It’s unlikely Samuel Beckett was aware of Don Martin, but had he been he might have recognized a kindred spirit. They both appreciate the jokes our bodies play on us; that fate is the squirting flower ready to shpritz us in the face. The difference is no one ever peed their pants watching “Waiting for Godot.”

Image from

The sound effects, definitely. Let me just say that Don Martin sound effects took on new life in my college years. My roommate Hoky and I repurposed Martin’s efforts in ways he probably never imagined. Three very specific examples are “poot” and “sprazz” and “blort,” but the less said about those the better.

No single Martin strip makes me laugh harder, though, than “National Gorilla Suit Day.” It’s almost like a Bach fugue or an Escher drawing in its brilliant repetition. From Wikipedia:

Taking their cue from one of Martin’s more celebrated stories, “National Gorilla Suit Day,” fans have celebrated National Gorilla Suit Day by wearing gorilla suits on January 31st. No specific date is given in the story, which appeared in the 1963 paperback book “Don Martin Bounces Back.”

Don Martin passed away in 2000. To say he inspired thousands of kids is a huge understatement. Here, in its entirety, is “National Gorilla Suit Day.”

Past masters: Joe South

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Sad to note the passing of Joe South. Great songwriter, singer, musician, producer. Played on Simon & Garfuukel’s “Sounds Of Silence,” Aretha Franklin’s “Chain Of Fools,” and Dylan’s “Blonde On Blonde.” Wrote “Down In The Boondocks,” “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden,” “Walk A Mile In My Shoes,” and “Hush” (first US hit for Deep Purple).

My favorite song by him is “Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home” from 1969. It’s been one of my guitar songs for years.

Oh, the whippoorwill roosts on the telephone pole
And the Georgia sun goes down
Well, it’s been a long time but I’m glad to say that I’m
Goin’ back down to my home town

Goin’ down to the Greyhound station
Gonna buy me a one-way fare
And if the good Lord’s willin’ and the creeks don’t rise
By tomorrow, I’ll be right there

Don’t it make you want to go home?
Don’t it make you want to go home?
All God’s children get weary when they roam
Don’t it make you want to go home?

But there’s a six-lane highway down by the creek
Where I went skinny-dippin’ as a child
And a drive-in show where the meadows used to grow
And the strawberries used to grow wild

There’s a drag strip down by the riverside
Where my grandma’s cow used to graze
Now the grass don’t grow and the river don’t flow
Like it did in my childhood days

Don’t it make you want to go home?
Don’t it make you want to go home?
All God’s children get weary when they roam
Don’t it make you want to go home?

Past masters: Warren Zevon

“Searching For A Heart” (1991). Certain individuals aren’t sticking to the plan.

I’ve been searching for a heart
Searching everyone
They say, love conquers all
You can’t start it like a car
You can’t stop it with a gun

Enjoy every sandwich, folks.