Category Archives: in memoriam

A serious post this time…

This entry is in memory of my dear friend Tony Sanders, teacher of writing and exciting, difficult poet, whom I was speaking with on the phone about snow storms and friendly neighbors a couple of weeks ago and who died, I discovered just now, a couple of days ago.

Here is a passage from a prose poem called “No Can Don’t,” in his book Subject Matters: Prose Poems. You can find all his books on

“…The older you get, the older you get. The irregular skyline, like a well-worn house key, says so. You are now the river, then the riverbed, then the river again with some remorse, since you never get used to opportunity, like a half-day of work or happenstance happening on a park bench known for drama, though you leave without so much as a faint ‘hello’ or the tip of a cap as you try to sort out the significance the line-breaks and syntax of your thoughts, while avoiding your fear of saying what was already obvious in the fingle-fangle of the moment the hero in the novel seizes upon. There would always be excuses and Acts of God you could Google like history or ask the Psychic, who saw your time was up and your wallet out.”

Back when we taught together and shared an office we would occasionally read our students’ astonishing or hilarious errors to one another. On the phone we would discuss politics, romance, favorite bands, bad jokes, late-night Law & Order reruns. On the phone he sometimes read me new poems. I remember when he read me this one.

The word’s the thing, my dear friends, and people who use it well are precious for that. And for many other things.

“Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass,’ which was…”

I think this is going to be another one of those sentences that begin all right, go on all right, and then go on a little too far and become ridiculous. And I know it’s coming because although it does begin all right, it doesn’t begin with much elegance or focus. “Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass'” is a fairly flat beginning. “Yeah, so?” asks the reader. The opening has no promise: my student was merely pushing a pawn, so to speak, as a rather unimaginative rhetorical gambit. Statement of fact.

And the adjective clause that follows offers merely to define the noun just introduced. So, fact followed by definition. (Oh, I know you’re thinking that “which was” could launch an observation rather than a definition: “which was revolutionary in form as well as content”; “which was the first truly American poem”; “which was arguably the most influential poetic work of the American nineteenth century”; and so on. But that’s not what my student had in mind; she wanted a definition, and definition she gave.)

“Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass,’ which was a collection of poems that…” she goes on. The “that” may be launching a definition of the collection or the poems—in other words, a definition of something in the current definition. Or of course she may NOW be about to make an observation or judgment (“that shook the literary establishment,” “that together defined Whitman and his world,” “that he sent to Ralph Waldo Emerson in response to Emerson’s call for a truly American voice”…).

But, at least up to the “that,” she is on solid ground, if not very interesting ground. Put a period in there, my dear, and move quickly to engage your reader with the next sentence!

Here’s what she did:

“Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass,’ which was a collection of poems that he wrote in his lifetime.”

You see? She really didn’t have anything in mind when she began the sentence, but she kept going in hopes that light would dawn. For that, I guess she didn’t go on long enough. But evidently to her the sentence had acquired some necessary gravitas, or sonority, or importance, and was enough. Where the essay went from there I do not recall. Where could it go from there?

This student is not the only one fascinated by the fact that poets tend to write while they are alive. Or perhaps I should say Whitman was not the only poet who wrote while alive: Dante did too, for example.

I honestly don’t know of any poet who wrote before birth, or after death. I once wrote something I had dreamed (Ah, Coleridge, you too?), but I don’t think any dead poets were dictating.

But certainly there are many poets whose work lives on.

Mourning the loss today of Seamus Heaney, whose lyric poems are breathtaking, alive, moving—and whose translation of Beowulf reveals all the vigor of its Old English original as well as the story and its characters. Most distinct in his work is its life. You can’t achieve that if you’re not alive yourself.

“The Puritans in that time frame are known today as Seventh Day Adventence.”

Once upon a time I was teaching remedial-level freshman comp at a Catholic Church-related university. In a class session devoted to topic development for a short (7-page) research-based argument paper, one student said he planned to write on the topic of “Protestants.” I asked him to clarify his central question, and he replied, “You know, who are they, where do they mostly live, what do they believe.” It took me nearly a minute (tick…tick…tick…) to frame a question in reply—that is to say, a question that did not too obviously express its subtext of “What the F?!?!?!?!

And I don’t mean “once upon a time” to imply that things have changed. I’m teaching now at another Catholic Church-related university, for instance, and I’m constantly amazed at how little my students (most of whom claim to be Catholic) know about major concepts and even holidays in their own religion, let alone other religions. At my “other” school, culturally more of a mixed bag, the situation is no different: most students will say that religion is important to them, but most of them are pretty hazy on the major beliefs or texts of any particular religion.

In a truly secular society this might be understandable (although, in literature classes, no less frustrating and saddening), but American society seems to become more vocally and dogmatically “religious” with each passing day—or so at least it seems in the media and in politics. The main problem with ignorance about religion, and religions, is that it is frequently accompanied by gullibility and especially a willingness to believe the worst. This is the case with ignorance of any kind; and, discouragingly enough, although most kinds of ignorance can be remedied by a little research, doing a little research seems to be the last thing that occurs to anyone.

All of this is merely prologue to today’s Horror.

Here was a student in my American Lit (first half) survey. The course is subtitled “Beginnings to Civil War,” meaning that the assigned readings cut off around 1865, or more accurately, the course closes with writers who “fl“ed around 1865. So we begin with the Puritans. (Interspersed are Native American readings, but dated according to when they were written down, not when the words or thoughts may have first been uttered.) Lately I’ve been arranging the syllabus according to themes (religion, the idea of America, slavery, women’s rights, “toward an American art”), with each theme’s readings arranged chronologically. Students are responsible for integrating the readings into a master chronology (which the anthology pretty much does for them), but reading thematically we can focus on the ways in which specific kinds of ideas emerged, evolved, battled, faded. At least my theory is that we can do that.

My student does understand that “the Puritans” flourished in a “time frame”: that is, they’re not still around—their writings and influence are time-specific, and even the changes the Puritan community underwent occurred within a specific period. But then she’s trying to associate the Puritans with today, for some reason: to make their beliefs clearer to her readers? to feel more closely related to them? to reassure herself that nothing truly disappears? to indicate to me that she understands more than she actually does?

The course never addresses Seventh Day Adventists. That sect wasn’t officially established until 1863, for one thing. (For another, the course doesn’t attempt to address all religions present in the United States at any given time.) So their presence in a paper written for the course is, shall we say, unexpected.

My suspicion that she doesn’t know much about the sect is deepened by the reasonable assumption that it’s only something she’s heard of, not something she knows anything about: how else to explain “Adventence” for “Adventists”?

What would “adventence” even be? “Advent” is arrival, the culmination of a process that leads to inevitable emergence or appearance. The advent of Spring. The Advent of Christ. Ad + venio, I come to; advenio, I arrive after a journey. Well, in English the suffix -ence or -ance adds “instance of an action or process, instance of a quality or state.” “Adventence,” then, might mean the condition of having arrived. The blooming daffodils confirmed the adventence of Spring. Would then the Seventh Day Adventence be the state of having arrived on the seventh day? Did the olden-day Puritans re-arrive in our midst seven days ago?

Yes, the Puritans were conservative and strict in their personal behavior, and so are Seventh Day Adventists supposed to be. Yes, both advocate a God-centered life, spiritual and personal humility, and the basic tenets of Christianity (and its Jewish roots). There are a few less-general beliefs they also share. But there’s no reason to think of one as an earlier (or later) version of the other…unless you’re a student with fuzzy notions about both and a desire to make something clear to readers that isn’t clear to yourself.

Verbum sap: Never claim more than you can support.

Never try to explain something you lack the means to understand. Look up what you don’t know. Think.

The late Stanley Crane, dearly beloved and deeply missed former Head Librarian of the Pequot Library in Southport, Connecticut, was once bemoaning to me students’ dependence on Cliff Notes. (This dependence has only grown, now on Spark Notes and other easily-accessed computer crutches as opposed to those yellow-and-black Caution-striped books that actually cost money.) “Why,” he asked, “do they feel they have to copy down and then parrot ideas that they don’t even understand? Why are they willing to take the Cliff version of a story rather than reading it for themselves?” And then his point: “Why don’t they have the courage to use their own beautiful minds?”

I agreed with, agree with, him. Courage, wisdom, or energy—why don’t they use their own beautiful minds? Teachers (and librarians) continue to believe in the eventual adventence of these minds, a flowering or flourishing of that Inner Student. Oh, let it be.

“Everybody looks at Beowulf as an idle figure…”

The English language is pocked with pitfalls of various sizes and danger—even the best speakers can’t get through a day without making speech errors and, unless they proofread carefully, writing errors. Almost every rule comes with its list of exceptions; dialects and idioms vary from country to country, state to state, town to town, in some cases street to street; the vocabulary shifts and morphs and burgeons; synonyms and homonyms and look-alikes confuse the eye and ear. Every native speaker is aware of some or all of these sources of frustration, and every serious speaker or writer struggles with them.

One aspect of English that we “native speakers” don’t think about much is the pronunciation of individual letters, but that’s a factor that makes the learning of English, especially by a speaker of a Romance language, even more confusing—the vowels are particularly tricky.

When I’m working with the writing of a student who is speaking English as a second (or third, or fourth—Americans are comparatively very lazy about language acquisition) language, I remind myself of these issues, spelling especially. And I try not to present an ESL error as a “Horror” because I am deeply impressed by anyone who not only ventures to speak a new language but also copes with it on an academic level of reading and writing. (I studied French for six years. I had a good accent, could converse and read with some fluency, and wasn’t afraid of it. But I never took a course in a literature other than my own—not even French—that involved reading fifty or more pages a week, sometimes in an earlier form of the language, as all my English lit students including ESL must. I can’t imagine doing so, although probably if I had moved to France while still a student I would have discovered and perhaps achieved the profound improvement necessity can spur.)

Nevertheless, I couldn’t pass up this assessment of Beowulf, the great hero of Anglo Saxon poetry, slayer of Grendel, Grendel’s mother (how’s that for the name of a monster?!), and the hoard-guarding dragon. Courteous, confident, courageous, and evidently charismatic, he was admired by foreign kings, feared by enemies, and loved and respected by his own people. Obviously an “idle figure”?

Here’s the whole sentence:

“Everybody looks at Beowulf as an idle figure because he saves the lives of his people.”

My student clearly had no intention of criticizing Beowulf as a layabout, a lollygagger, a do-nothing, a malingerer, a sloth, a laggard, an indolent otiose oaf (Wow, look at all the Ls in there! L as in LLLLLAZY!). Nobody who is any of those things is likely to save even his own life, let alone the lives of his people.

My first thought was that she had meant to call him an “idol.” Certainly he was held in high esteem, and when he died his people built a high barrow, or burial mound, over the hoard he had won, both in his honor and as a (temporary, alas) deterrent to enemies who might doubt the greatness of the tribe and its hero.

I then wondered if she had in fact meant an “ideal figure.” He was that too.

This student is Spanish-surnamed and speaks with an accent that suggests that English is probably her second language, or at least her second-acquired language. So I played with Spellcheck. I typed in “idel,” thinking “idehl” or “idayl.” The recommended change was “idle.” Choice number two was “idol”; number three was “ideal.” I then typed in “idil,” thinking “ideel” or “idill.” Choice number one was idol; then “idyll,” “idle,” “dial,” “idols,” and “ideal.” If Spellcheck could come up with “idol” and “ideal” for either of these misspellings, then I think my student might have intended “ideal” or “idol” with either of these spellings.

See what you think.

And while we’re on the subject of heroes who save the lives of their people, let us remember that today is Memorial Day in the U.S. (previously called Decoration Day, because the first celebrants of the day were decorating the graves of Union soldiers who had fallen in the Civil War). The terms “Memorial Day” and “Decoration Day” coexisted until 1967, when “Memorial Day” became the official one. In 1968 Congress, those idle figures, changed the date of this and three other holidays from a specific calendar day (Memorial Day had been May 30) to a Monday near the specific day, in order to make three-day weekends; Wikipedia is probably right to speculate that “changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.” We might also consider whether ending the draft, and consequently making war deaths less immediate in many communities, has contributed to this nonchalance.

But be that as it may, honoring those who gave their lives to protect their people is, as a phrase I recall from Responsive Readings back in my church-going days would have it, “meet and right.” Even a pacifist should be proud to say that whether or not any war was right, or any individual soldier was an idol or an ideal figure, anyone who offers to lay down life for the sake of his or her people deserves respect, appreciation, honor. While waiting for the coals to heat up in the barbecue, build a mental barrow for our noble war dead. Think of all the things you treasure; put them in the barrow, because those are the things that have been won and preserved. While you’re at it, you might also think of other heroes of this nation, all those who fought selflessly against the powers of darkness: the champions of civil rights, human rights, workers’ rights; the teachers; the scientists and physicians; the artists (Decoration Day/Memorial Day at one time was an occasion for honoring all the beloved dead and festooning their graves). Make the barrow high, to celebrate the greatness of our tribe and our heroes.

“Everything was gun ho for America.”

According to my notes, this Horror dates back to 1978, but it seems to get more and more interesting every year.

What the context is I don’t know. It could be referring to almost any moment in U.S. history when national spirit was high.

I knew perfectly well that what my student meant was that everyone was gung-ho. This phrase, for enthusiastic and active team spirit, comes from World War II Marine slang, an adaptation of a Chinese-language phrase. To read its interesting history you can go to a number of sites; most prominent is, of course, Wikipedia.

I don’t know when I first saw “gung-ho” written, but I heard it plenty of times, in plenty of contexts, while growing up, and I never thought it was anything but “gung-ho.”

My student, though, heard it differently. Again we have a case of alien sounds interpreted through the listener’s resident lexicon: “‘Gung’? How can that be a word? Must be ‘gun.’ Of course! Now, that makes sense!”

Alas, as a society we seem to be more and more gun ho. Snipers; drive-by shooters; Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., Pres. John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Texas Tower, Columbine, Virginia Tech, etc., mass attacks; domestic murders; police overreactions (Amadou Diallo); Gabrielle Giffords; Trayvon Martin. To this we answer: concealed handguns, assault weapons, gun-show purchases, armed vigilantes. Bills advocating weapons on campuses, in state houses, in bars, at public meetings.

Everything is gun ho for America. (About the word “ho” I will not comment, since I don’t want to offend the NRA….)

Funny mistake my student made, no?

This post is, among other things, in memoriam all those who have died as a consequence of being too close to someone who was gun ho.

“Some people might find it honorary to die on the Titanic.”

Here’s Webster’s: “having or conferring distinction; commemorative; conferred or elected in recognition of achievement or service without the usual prerequisites or obligations; unpaid, voluntary; dependent on honor for fulfillment.”

Obviously an “honorary” death isn’t what he meant.

To have an honorary death on the Titanic would, by most definitions, mean to die on the Titanic without having been a passenger or crew member (or orchestra member) on her, since all of those deaths came as a result of the usual prerequisite for dying on a sinking ship: i.e., having been on the ship in the first place. And while some of the lost actually did make a choice based on honor, many went down simply by chance, or as a consequence of somebody else’s dishonorable act.

Some people—the ship’s orchestra, most of the crew, John Jacob Astor IV and many of his ilk, and so on—did find it honorable to remain on the ship; we might even stretch the first definition and say that dying conferred honor on them. But my student doesn’t seem to be writing about those who did die on the Titanic; he’s talking about an unspecified hypothetical group.

He’s talking about “some” of us, some people now living. At least I believe that’s what he’s talking about. We might think of all those people who died that night (a hundred years ago last night) as honorable.

To die an honorary death on the Titanic, for those “some” people, would mean to be given a certificate, or a plaque, or a medal, and be told “I declare you an honorary victim of the sinking of the Titanic.” Or, maybe more accurately, to have the doctor proclaim, as he draws the sheet over one’s face, “Because you have faced death boldly, I now declare you to have died on the Titanic.”

There’s no way the choice of word really works, although for some reason I think most readers do know what he meant.

As an aside: At least he wrote “the Titanic,” not merely “Titanic.” Does anyone besides me cringe when people refer to “the sinking of  Titanic“? Where did the article go, lately? Listen to any sailor all the way back into time and you’ll hear “Hoist up the John B.‘s sails” “Let the Mary Ellen Carter rise again.” “On the good ship Lollipop.” “The Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.” “We came over on the Mayflower.” I certainly would never claim that I had a berth on Queen Elizabeth II“—I don’t think she’d let me climb on board of her! Why the change?

Maybe the nautical “the” ran away with the dance “the.” I went to the Prom, and so did my sisters, and my mother, and my cousin Charley, and any number of other 18-year-olds over time, twirling on the enchanted dance floor and into their adult lives. Now, though, kids go “to Prom,” sounding as if it’s a place rather than an event: last June I went to Paris, and this year I’m going to Prom.

Back from the aside: Let’s have some good writing, for a change. I want to offer everyone a reading of Thomas Hardy’s great poem in memory of those who died on the Titanic a century ago, a world ago. Let honor fall where it may.

The Convergence of the Twain

By Thomas Hardy

(Lines on the loss of the “Titanic”)

            In a solitude of the sea
            Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.
            Steel chambers, late the pyres
            Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.
            Over the mirrors meant
            To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.
            Jewels in joy designed
            To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.
            Dim moon-eyed fishes near
            Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?” …
            Well: while was fashioning
            This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything
            Prepared a sinister mate
            For her — so gaily great —
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.
            And as the smart ship grew
            In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
            Alien they seemed to be;
            No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,
            Or sign that they were bent
            By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,
            Till the Spinner of the Years
            Said “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

“If the accused pleaded innocence…”

This is a good weekend to talk about unjust trials, scapegoating, and persecution of “outsiders.”

Yesterday was, after all, Good Friday. And the investigation of the killing of Trayvon Martin goes on (still with no arrest).

It’s also a good time to celebrate Connecticut’s decision to abolish the death penalty (the Senate has voted, and the House and Governor have already announced their intentions to concur). Certainly the residents of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692-3 would have been better off without it.

And here is my student, writing about the fear of witches in New England, including the Salem Witch Trials (in history and in Cotton Mather’s accounts).

Here’s the whole thing, a remarkable piece of what may have begun as reasonable thought but staggered through some misunderstandings and partial information and finally turned into garbled prose:

“If the accused pleaded innocence they would be ruled with an iron fist and sentenced to death or trial. If they were sentenced to trial they would either be drowned or crushed by boulders because in theory a witch was able to both breathe underwater and withstand the weight.”

We begin with his impression that “trial” is a kind of ordeal, which in some contexts of course it is but not when we’re talking about legal proceedings. He means “trial by ordeal”; the alternative is not a death sentence (at least not right away), but trial by process of court—evidence, testimony, judgment. The Salem trials did not include trial by ordeal; all the accused faced their accusers, or at least faced the “evidence,” in court; no one was thrown into the horse pond to see if the devil would enable her (or him) to float. (The court did admit “spectral evidence,” though—witches’ power could be “proved” via observable phenomena.)

I’m not really sure where the “iron fist” comes into the picture. The cases seem to have been pretty much decided in advance, and the judges meted out the death penalty with inexorable virtue (there had, after all, to be some way of stopping the devil from bringing the godly down). Perhaps the fist that piled rocks on the chest of Giles Corey could be called “iron.” The pressing of Corey was not, however, a trial by ordeal: it was torture plain and simple, intended to “persuade” him to enter a plea of either Guilty or Not Guilty of Witchcraft. If he pleaded Guilty, he would be executed and his lands and goods would be confiscated, but his soul would have a chance at God’s forgiveness; if he pleaded Not Guilty and was found guilty (pretty strong odds), he would be executed and his goods would be confiscated, and his soul would probably go to hell. BUT if he refused to plead, he could not be tried and so the government could not take his property; and that was what he was fighting for, for his descendants’ sake. Anyway, my student seems to think that the “boulders” were a test to see if Corey was a witch; my student is wrong. And certainly nobody, including the devil, helped Corey “withstand the weight”: he was crushed to death, still refusing to plead.

My student’s confusion of “trial” (which in ordinary parlance can of course mean “ordeal”) with “trial by ordeal” gives his statement a nice irony that he didn’t intend, since he seems to think that someone who claimed to be innocent would automatically face one of two fates: summary execution by that iron fist, or death in water or under boulders. In his version, there is no chance at a hearing in court: sentence follows plea. I would like to think he presented the situation in this way because he realized the actual trials were, to our modern eyes, farcical exercises in “proving” foregone conclusions; but his statement doesn’t make room for or hint at any possibly tacit commentary, and the confusion in the actual statement suggests that he had a hard enough time trying to say what he meant, without grappling with subtle implications.

Well, the arc of the universe bends SLOWLY towards justice. Seeing clearly what has been done in the name of justice in the past, we should be inspired to try to bend the arc more quickly. It’s not there quite yet.


“The ethnicity of the governor’s pardon is questioned.”

This may be the last post on the “girl who cried rape” essay topic.

As an earlier post tells the story, a teenager blamed her imagined pregnancy on a randomly-chosen “rapist” to protect her boyfriend, and pursued her charge (perhaps unwillingly, especially after she realized she wasn’t pregnant) through the trial and conviction of that hapless man. After he had served eight years in prison, and she had been “born again,” she tried to undo her lie, but the judge told her a conviction that had been based solely on her testimony could not be reversed solely on her changed testimony. She turned to the press and then to the governor, and finally the governor pardoned the man. My students were to write about whether or not justice has now been done.

The student who wrote today’s Horror wanted to argue that justice had not been done, and began by challenging the pardon itself (on the grounds that the governor has no way of knowing if he’s pardoning an actual rapist). You can just feel the fire in his veins in that passive-voice sentence, can’t you? He won’t even own his own argument.

Obviously he has also confused ethics and ethnicity. I know this for sure because nothing was mentioned about race or ethnicity in the fact-sheet they were working from, and nothing in his essay suggested that he was making assumptions about that either.

So for him, it’s just a Wrong Word Choice. The words do look a lot alike: ethic and ethnic. But when they start to acquire suffixes, they part ways: ethicality, ethnicity. Was he inventing the word ethicity and “helped” by an officious Spell Check that inserted an n? Or did he confuse the words from the beginning?

He wanted to ask whether the pardon was ethical. I knew what he meant, and I just provided the correct term for him and moved on.

But, had he known it, he did have a point. There has long been a demonstrable ethnic bias in American jurisprudence and law enforcement; that this was not an element in the case he was writing about makes that fact no less factual, and no less regrettable. Ethnicity comes into play less often in pardons than in convictions, though.

The long-ago executions of Sacco and Vanzetti were linked with ethnic bias. The recent execution of Troy Davis in Georgia is another, most recent, case in point. The pardon denied these people (and others) had better not be waiting for any judges or governors up there at the Pearly Gates.

And now in Florida we have the killing of Trayvon Martin, a case where ethnicity seems to have played a role in the killing itself and in the police handling of the shooter and the victim. With the entrance of the Department of Justice into the case (after nearly a month) we have to hope that any questions of ethnicity, except where it might be motivation for crime or negligence, are set aside and justice is actually pursued.

There’s a reason the iconographical statue of Justice wears a blindfold, and it isn’t because she’s trying to ignore truth; it’s because in the rendering of justice she doesn’t care about looks, wealth, family name, or ethnicity or race; she just cares about justice. If there is “ethnicity” in some governor’s thinking, it had damned well better be questioned.

Justice. Scales for the evidence; blindfold for the lack of bias. You can't see her sword in this picture; she wields it only after weighing the evidence!

I write this in memory of all those whose racial or ethnic “identity” came between them and justice at one or many points in the process (act, arrest, trial, or execution), and especially:

In memoriam Sacco and Vanzetti.

In memoriam Troy Davis.

In memoriam Emmet Till.

In memoriam Trayvon Martin—may his killer be brought to justice.

“People thought the Titanic was going to be indestructible because it was the greatest ship they had made so far.”

I’m going to be playful in this post, but before I begin I want to say that as I write it, I am still mindful of the terrible Costa Concordia accident and the lives lost there.

My student’s sentence is somewhat awkward and probably not really exactly what he meant to say, but I think he’s put his finger on something nevertheless.

Hubris is a terrible thing, and it is waiting at every turn. Especially at the moment that we think “Well, this is the greatest thing I have ever done,” or “This is my best accomplishment,” or “Look how terrific I am,” we invite it to pounce on us and pound us on our impressive backs, shouting not “pretty good for a human being” but “You Are A God!” Thus the “people” in this sentence, who assume that a comparable (“greatest”) is the same as an absolute (“indestructible”).

My student knows more than they knew: he knows the “so far” part. The best so far isn’t the same as the best possible. My sister’s lurching baby toddle, immortalized on film to her great adult chagrin, was the best walking she had achieved so far. She was better at it even the very next day: We know this because we have all lurched and toddled, and then caught up to our feet, found our center, and gotten the walking thing right; some of us have even become ballerinas or marathon runners…who every day strive to do the best they have done so far.

Icebergs, rocks, vanity: all can bring down our towering achievements. Knowing that makes them all the lovelier, but should not make us believe the hubristic voice that urges us to think nothing can surpass them, or defeat them. When such thinking takes us over in an individual endeavor, perhaps we set only ourselves up for disaster; but those who make decisions on which multiple lives depend had better remember their own humanity, which ought to resemble humility in more than a few letters.

“Eteocles was buried with full military honors while fighting for his country.”

That’s one strange country, to bury a man (with or without full military honors) while he’s still fighting.

The “country” is Thebes, and the burial of Eteocles (and Creon-ordered NON-burial of Polynices) precipitates Antigone.

Creon’s edict hinges on his interpretation of the crown-sharing agreement between these two sons of Oedipus. Eteocles refuses to let Polynices take his turn, ejecting him from the city instead. Polynices returns with a small army, and in the ensuing battle the brothers meet in single combat and kill each other. Uncle Creon, considering Eteocles a patriot for defending the city against an invader (rather a flimsy bit of reasoning, but Creon probably always liked Eteocles best), orders a state funeral for him and orders Polynices’ body left for the carrion birds to consume. This isn’t very good for someone who believes that the dead walk in the Underworld but only if buried, and are intact in the Underworld only if all their parts get buried—which is why, incidentally, Medea was so clever to chop her brother up and cast his remains on the sea as she and Jason fled in the Argo: daddy had to pause in his hot pursuit to grapple the waves for the bits.

But back to my story, as the Nun’s Priest said so often during his tale of Chaunticleer and the fox…

Antigone is the great play that follows the boys’ two sisters and Uncle Creon in the struggle over Polynices’ corpse. It is an intense debate between the laws of man and of the gods, and on the question of human duty.

Not really addressed in the play, or in the myth for that matter, is the underlying fact that Eteocles is a promise-breaker and budding dictator. It’s the great irony of Creon’s law.

Anyway. My student meant to say this, that because Eteocles was deemed to have been fighting for his country, after his death he was buried with full military honors. She just skipped the part about dying. She might have felt that since the burial takes place before Antigone begins, the basic facts should be sketched in as quickly as possible in a discussion of the play. But here she goes a little too quickly, making the reader inevitably wonder if Eteocles fought back while the priests and mourners tried to thrust him into the ground.

Is it possible to be buried and still fight for your country?

In the case of the hero whose birth and life we honor today, I’d say Yes. He is fighting still, via the minds and bodies of those who have taken up the causes of racial equality, and equality of opportunity, and peace, and work with honor, the causes he died fighting for.

He truly fought for his country, and he is fighting still.

Eteocles? Not so much.

In memoriam Martin Luther King Jr.