Shakespeare Sunday: Goodbye For Now!

When I started “Shakespeare Sundays” I had this absurd notion that I had time to maybe read a play a week and have a constant stream of great quotes to work from.  After all, I’m an accomplished reader and have plenty of time for reading right now.  I had forgotten a few things though.

Reading an unfamiliar Shakespeare play is hard.  It is beyond time consuming because I actually want to understand the references and the arcane language, so I have to read all of the glossing and the footnotes and the commentary that might go along with a single page.

Add to that, my body, even when well-rested and upright, recognizes reading as a prelude to napping.  Even fast-paced thrillers might last for only a short chapter on a warm afternoon before I’m long gone.  Scholarly close reading?  Fuggiddaboutdit.

Add to that, I’m usually in the process of reading three books at a time.  The good news is that I’m often finding little, non-Shakespearean gems that are very worthy of commentary.  That’s why I’m opening the Sunday feature up to whatever I may stumble across over the course of my reading for the week, including my daily immersion in news reporting and opinion writing.  I still have to figure out a title for this revised feature (suggestions are welcome!).

I just finished reading the densely researched book by John Bohrer, The Revolution of Robert Kennedy.  It describes the personal transformation of Bobby Kennedy from being an often ruthless aide to the hated Joseph McCarthy to becoming a keeper of his brother’s legacy and an even more capable champion of oppressed people, not just in the U.S., but world-wide.  Even after 400 pages, I was disappointed that the work just covers the years 1963-1966.  I wanted to see how the “revolution” continued and formed his campaign for president in 1968.

Two passages stood out because they were familiar.  Many people from my generation will remember Teddy Kennedy’s simple, but eloquent summary of his brother’s life, delivered with a distinct quaver in his voice as he said, “My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life.  To be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it…saw suffering and tried to heal it…saw war, and tried to stop it.”

Not much to say about that.  Whenever I see it, or hear a recording of that mournful moment, I’m taken back to the chaos and sadness of that time, that feeling that hope itself had died along with him.

But the words he spoke on June 6, 1966 at the University of Cape Town in South Africa still recharge my faith even in this dark time:

“Each time a man stand up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lots of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Here’s wishing you a peaceful and hopeful Sunday.

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Shakespeare Sunday: Methinks, the Play Goes On A Bit Too Long

Endings are important and who am I to be an editor to Shakespeare.  However, every time I taught the play Hamlet, I found I kept wishing he had ended it about one page earlier.  I mean, the swordplay, multiple poisonings, and Hamlet’s long-awaited vengeance on Claudius are all very satisfying.  But then he ends the play with Fortinbras surveying the scene and morosely reciting the ever-so-forgettable lines:

Take up the bodies: such a sight as this

Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.

Go, bid the soldiers shoot.

C’mon, man!  “Go bid the soldiers shoot”?  That’s really the best you’ve got for maybe your very best tragedy.  I’m always disappointed. Of course at the time, he probably didn’t suspect the enduring nature of Hamlet.  Maybe he was having a bad day.  Maybe he just decided, “Ye gods, fuck it.  I’ve got to just end this sucker.”

He certainly nails it in other plays.  The Prince, in Romeo and Juliet, surveys the tragic scene and succinctly and beautifully captures the mood of the moment:

A glooming peace this morning with it brings;

The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:

Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;

Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:

For never was a story of more woe

Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

I once had the chance to play Romeo’s father in our high school’s production of Romeo and Juliet, which was perhaps the most epically awful production ever, and yet that scene and those six lines had the audience sobbing nightly.

In Hamlet, a mere 50 lines before, he’s got the death of Hamlet and Horatio’s magnificent tribute:

Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince:

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!

Boom.  Done.

Except for maybe one loose end.  The critical character known as “First Ambassador” needs to come on stage to inform us that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.”  Without that line, Tom Stoppard might not have ever had the chance to write his wonderful, absurdist play of the same name some 464 years (more or less) later.  That would have been a loss.

Happy Sunday everyone!  Don’t hesitate to leave a comment if you are so moved!

 

Checking in on “Surviving the Trump Apocalypse”

On December 4, 2016  I came out of my self-induced coma long enough to react to the election of Donald Trump with a list of 6 personal survival strategies that I thought I would need practice in order to help me get through the next four (I refuse to even think about 8) years.  I called that piece, “Surviving the Trump Apocalypse.”

The predictions I made about this wrecking ball of an administration were pretty right on, but far too generous.  It has been so much worse, in so many ways than I could have predicted.  I’m not going to catalogue all of that; it’s just too depressing.  The only saving grace so far has been that the Republican-held Congress is so fractious and inept that they just can’t get anything done especially when the boss changes course, undercuts his own people, and makes policy changes depending on what he has watched on Fox News that morning.

That is not to say that they aren’t doing great damage.  They have squandered the chance to take advantage of the robust economy they were left with and pass legislation that might further wage growth and help to rebuild critical infrastructure.  Instead, they have wasted 6 full months trying to undo the good work of the ACA, revealing the embarrassing truth that they actually have no plan to help all Americans gain the security of health care.  This, after 6 years of decrying and defaming the ACA and passing countless “repeal” bills.

OK.  I have to stop the ranting.

The six suggestions that I made for my own survival all still make sense to me now, although some have become more important to me than others.  But to review, here is what I was thinking back in December:

ISOLATE yourself from the news to protect your spirit and avoid immersing yourself in news that is going to make you feel depressed.

EXERCISE to help to lift your spirits and to join with others in communal activities like hiking and yoga.

CREATE–spend time in whatever creative endeavor lifts your spirits, engages you with others and makes you feel that you are bringing something good into the world.

PLANT SOMETHING–It feels good to watch things grow around you and especially if you have done the work to nurture new life.  I never envisioned the outright assault that the Donald was going to inflict on the environment, but now know that everyone must contribute something.

VOLUNTEER  for any organization that you know can use your help and for which you have a passion. Social services, immigration agencies, schools, and other things we have taken for granted could be devastated by potential budget cuts.  These organizations will need us.

CELEBRATE your successes, whether they are personal or collective.  We have to take joy in any sense of good we bring into the world.  We have to celebrate the light we bring into the darkness.

I have utterly failed at #1.  For the first couple of weeks when I was in deepest mourning, it was easy, but as this shitshow has developed, I simply cannot stay away from the news.  As one commentator said last night, Trump has assembled, “the most incompetent Cabinet ever” and they are creating jaw-dropping headlines daily.  Add that to the spectacular failures of Congress, the daily Trump tweet-storm, and the looming certainty that the Russian scandal may dwarf Watergate, and it has made it impossible for me to stay away from multiple news outlets.  If anything, it has increased my appetite for news because every day, sometimes every hour, brings about a new WTF moment.

I have certainly stayed true to #2 (EXERCISE) frequently spending up to three hours a day on fitness, mostly with long walks, hikes, and yoga.  I’m going bike shopping once the weather cools down.  It has been excellent tonic for my mind, body, and spirit.

Numbers 3 and 4 have combined somewhat for me.  Much of my creative endeavors over the past six months have centered on landscape design around the house.  I have planted over 30 new plants in the yard, and increased my composting capacity.  My Father’s Day gift was a kitchen scale and I began to use it to figure out just how much kitchen waste we were successfully diverting from the landfill and into our own compost.   I discovered that we have been composting close to 25 pounds of kitchen waste per month, a number that startled me since it is just the two of us.  It doesn’t make up for pulling out of the Paris accords, but every new plant, every small effort feels like the right thing to do. Also on the CREATE side, I’ve been writing more (sorry), and am considering enrolling in a drawing and/or guitar class in the fall.

Number 5 (VOLUNTEER) has not changed much for me.  I continue to deliver food for Mama’s Kitchen twice a week, and have upped the hours that I volunteer for the Solana Center, a local non-profit dedicated to teaching folks about sustainable practices (like composting).  I’d like to do more.

CELEBRATING successes has been a more quiet thing. People are afraid to talk about politics either to avoid conflict or too avoid surging down the rabbit hole of depression.  One friend has started a “First Sunday Sunrise” hiking group and sets out a monthly challenge.  She celebrates each hike on Facebook with pictures and videos and her group seems to continue to grow.  This is kind of what I had in mind.  I think about joining her group on every first Saturday night.  It’s just that being-somewhere-at-or-before-sunrise-on-ANY-given-day thing that I struggle with.  I did joyfully celebrate overcoming my fear of fun when I went both zip-lining and white-water rafting within four days on a trip to Colorado Springs.  I became so energized by the adrenaline highs that as soon as I got home, I busted out a gift certificate that had been mouldering for almost 6 months and experienced indoor sky-diving.  Anyone near me is tired of hearing me talk about it, but those three things have changed my ability to trust myself to be more open to challenging new experiences.

Make no mistake.  The nation faces dire times ahead.  This is how I’m coping right now. How about you?  Any ideas for the rest of us?

 

 

 

Shakespeare Sunday: Everyone Dies

Happy Sunday everyone!  Last week when I wrote about Sonnet 18, I mentioned the irony in how the speaker in the poem brags about the immortality that his poem gives to his loved one’s beauty, when Shakespeare spends an awful lot of time reminding us of our fragile grasp on life.  That brought me back to Sonnet 73. Go ahead and read it again if it’s been a while.  I’ll wait:

SONNET 73

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou seest the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west,

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

As the death-bed whereon it must expire

Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Just to bring a little more rigor to Shakespeare Sunday, I actually read some analysis of this poem, but what I was looking for was to see if there was any record of when each poem was written.  I was curious to see how much later 73 was written than 18.  No luck.

However, I did find lots of analysis and deep parsing of this lovely poem which would have completely ruined it for me, but I long ago quit paying much attention to literary criticism.  I enjoy reading some analysis to inform me of just how ignorant I might be when I start writing about literature, but am sometimes appalled at the nit-picking I start to find.  I sure hope that I didn’t kill the enjoyment of the poetry that I read with my students in a similar manner.  I did write about my approach to poetry as a teacher some time ago in a piece I called “I Don’t Hate Poetry.”

One analysis found the three metaphors that Shakespeare uses to be “cliched”–another writer might call them “timeless.”  Regardless, as a teacher it was great fun to play with these metaphors with students because most young people simply do not think in terms of metaphor.  They do not consider that the seasons, or that the cycle of the day, or that the burning of a fire is kind of like the progression of life from youth to death.

I particularly like the first four lines.  I’m not sure you can find a better example of iambic pentameter (just supposing you were looking for one) and they are maybe my favorite four lines of poetry to read aloud.  The image of naked branches as “bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang” seems just perfect; naked branches “where yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang.”

In the following quatrain, the speaker thinks of himself as being in the “twilight” of his life “which by and by black night doth take away.”  I was always intrigued by Shakespeare’s characterization of night as “death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.”  To think of sleep as akin to death seems totally appropriate to me.  It reaffirms my daily response to the overly-cheerful baristas at Starbucks who greet me every morning between 5 and 7 AM with the question “How is your day going?”–just a horrible question to ask me BEFORE I’ve had my twenty ounces of morning Joe.  The only thing I can think of to say is, “Well, I woke up this morning.”

In the third quatrain, the speaker admits he is no longer a bonfire, but just a collection of burning embers, soon to be extinct.

In the final couplet, we come to understand that the speaker seems to be speaking to a younger person and warning or advising him or her that one must “love that well which thou must leave ere long.”  Life is short.  Live long and prosper.

As I was warming up to write this piece (something that goes on all week!), I thought about that scene from “Dead Poet’s Society” when Robin Williams character takes his boys down to view the pictures of long-dead alumni of the fictional Welton Academy and delivers his famous “carpe diem” speech:

“Now I would like you to step forward over here and peruse some of the faces from the past. You have walked past them many times. I don’t think you’ve really looked at them. They’re not very different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their live even one iota of what they were capable? Because you see, gentlemen, these boys are now fertilising daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, Lean in. Listen… Do you hear it? (whispers) Carpe. (whispers again) Cape. Carpe Diem. Seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”

Some critics thought this speech sucked also, but I like it.  Any movie that showed a teacher teaching with mindfulness and passion was OK with me.

Hope you’ve had a great week.  I promised my mid-week piece would be a check in on “Surviving the Trump Apocalypse” and I will try, but “Retired, Not Dead” will be on the road to Seattle, WA for a well-deserved vacation,  and I may just be having too much fun to write about politics.

The Continued Relevance of “1984”

When 45 was elected there were lots of postings on Facebook about the uptick in people purchasing and reading or re-reading George Orwell’s 1984.

I did not rush out and get a copy because I was already depressed enough and revisiting what I remembered of that grim world that Orwell first wrote about in 1950 did not appeal.  I stayed away from it until a former student reached out on Facebook, and we decided to create a two-person book club. After reading The Handmaid’s Tale, we decided we would take on 1984.

As I read, I was surprised at how straightforward the narrative was, and while I could see some parallels to the political climate that we have been plunged into since the election of 2016, it wasn’t until half-way through the book that I came across some passages that really resonated.

I’m sure that some writers and thinkers have done much more work on this than I’m willing to so I will stick to a couple of parallels that were particularly striking.

Overall, I do not believe that 2016 looks like the world envisioned in 1984.  After all, we are a vibrant and diverse culture. Personal liberties are mostly still intact.  Their is robust political discussion, conversation, and protest that seems unending. The judiciary and individual states have managed to blunt some of 45’s excesses, and many of us are counting the days until the 2018 elections when some of our diffuse outrage might be turned into significant electoral action.

However, there are a few haunting similarities.  Just as Orwell envisioned the ministries of Truth, Peace, and Love that were all dedicated to their opposites, 45’s cabinet-level nominees seemed to have been hand-picked to destroy or work in opposition to the very principles of their departments.  The department of Justice under Jess Sessions is devoted to rolling back any initiative that was dedicated to advancing civil rights, and is working hard to find ways to increase voter suppression.  The Environmental Protection agency is being gutted by Scott Pruitt, and it appears as though every effort to protect our air and water that has been implemented over the past 10 years is going to be eliminated as a sop to coal and oil interests just at a time when many states are surging forward with innovations in renewable energy.  Just today, 18 states sued Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of the Department of Education, for trying to stop regulations that would protect students and parents from being defrauded by private, for-profit colleges.

The odd part for me about all of this is that the partisan divide is so deep that even though these policies hurt everyone, the polling seems to show little change since the election. 45’s base voters are as rabidly enthusiastic as ever although there has been movement among independent voters.  There continues to be a solid majority that are unalterably apposed to the man.  Of course, that was true on election day also.

The second parallel that was most striking to me was how the government of 1984 saw the power of re-writing the past and continually revising history in order to manipulate and control the masses.  Winston, of course, knows this because he works in the Ministry of Truth where he is continually making changes to history books and historical documents to make them align with the Party’s changing positions.  He tries to impress the enormity of this mass manipulation to his lover, Julia with an impassioned explanation: “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered.  And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute.  History has stopped.  Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

He is disappointed when his young lover shows little interest.  She is so jaded that Winston’s news does not surprise her, just confuses and bores her a little.  Of course the government lies. Yes, people are “disappeared.” Orwell describes her condition by saying that, [o]ften she was ready to accept the official mythology, simply because the difference between truth and falsehood did not seem important to her.”

Trump and his minions unapologetically spew out lies and contradictions at such a dizzying pace that I fear the populace has become anesthetized.  The New York Times has compiled an impressive list of lies (“President Trump’s Lies, the Definitive List”) that Trump has foisted on America since his inauguration and despite the enormity of it, or maybe because of it, the populace seems to have grown numb.  Thirty-five percent of Americans believe him or believe it doesn’t matter that he lies, and sixty-five precent have come to not believe anything that he says.  All investigative reporting is quickly branded as “fake news” and the White House is always able to present “alternative facts” if asked.  The deliberate confusing of all of the narratives surrounding the enormity of the scandals that are emanating from this administration has left many people unsure of who to believe.

Winston still has the capacity for outrage and the desire to join what he perceives as the resistance while Julia has accepted the duplicitous nature of the world she lives in and rebels through hedonism and other small defiances.

Seems like such a short time ago, we had a devout interest in protecting the environment, furthering the cause of civil rights, and working to provide for the good of all Americans.  We had a president who most Americans trusted and who seemed to be trying hard to maintain a the kind of sense of dignity and decorum that we used to expect of our presidents.

We aren’t in the world of 1984 yet, but we certainly have moved closer to it.

Shakespeare Sunday: Poet Claims, “Yes I Am That Good.”

Sonnet 18

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 was always a lot of fun to work with in the classroom because students want to view it strictly as a love poem and because so much of the poem turns on the single word “this” in the very last line.  In case you’ve forgotten all of your Shakespearean sonnets, here it is:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Easy to see why it is looked at as a love poem, yes?  I even found it listed by one website as a poem suitable for Valentine’s Day, and for the first eight lines, I could not agree more.  The poet finds his loved one more beautiful than a summer day, “more lovely and more temperate.”  After all, a summer’s day can have “rough winds” and can be too hot or perhaps obscured by clouds.  The poet recognizes that “summer’s lease has all too short a date” and as all things in nature “every fair from fair sometimes declines.”  All things natural pass through their time of youth and beauty, decline and eventually die, a theme Shakespeare returns to time and again.

But line 9 surprises us.  If all things natural (including his lover’s beauty) decline, how can he say that “thy eternal summer shall not fade”?  He spends three more lines declaring that her beauty is immune from time’s ravages or the “shade” of death.

How so?  The final couplet is the poet’s tribute to himself.  He has given her immortality because  “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see” they will be able to read his poem, the poem which has frozen her beauty in time. He assures her that “So long lives this (his poem), and this (his poem) gives life to thee.

Trying to figure out those last two lines used to drive my students crazy which was, of course, another reason I loved this poem.

Have a wonderful Sunday.  Check in later this week for some thoughts on Orwell’s 1984, and it’s also time to check in on how things are going with Surviving the Trump Apocalypse.  Cheers!