Trumpocalypse: An Open Letter To Mike Pompeo

Dear Mr. Pompeo,

You should not be surprised that after your recent meetings with North Korea, your demands were characterized as having a “gangster” quality to them.  Clearly, the North Koreans were nice to you while you were there, made vague promises to try to fulfill the U.S. demands, and then blasted you once they stopped laughing among themselves.

It’s hard to know which label to put on the most recent U.S. government interactions because we lurch from claiming to be victims of other greedy countries to making demands of sovereign nations that they have no incentive to agree to in an attempt to look strong.  We have pulled out of the Paris climate accords and reneged on the nuclear deal with Iran, one in which Iran is doing everything it said it would do–it’s just doing things that Mr. Donald (gansta-in-chief) doesn’t like but that were never part of the agreement.

Our trade policies are incomprehensible as we veer in and out of the imposition of tariffs that all seem to be hurting American businesses more than helping them.  When Harley- Davidson motorcycles (can a company be any more MAGA than H-D?) shrugs their shoulders and claims that they will need to move their operations overseas to avoid the tariffs, the gangsta-in-chief claims that they are weak and are declaring surrender.  Rather than punish our rivals and hostile countries, we have alienated our closest allies and we are becoming increasingly isolated in the world.  The “America First” attitude is turning us into “Gangsta-Nation” because we have no respect for the treaties we have signed and no respect for the norms of diplomacy. Our word means nothing to the nations of the world.

Just within the past few days this “bully-first” attitude came to light at the United Nations as reports began to surface that the U.S. had tried to undermine a resolution promoting, of all things, breast-feeding that was being introduced by the country of Ecuador.  Despite all of the scientific evidence that breastfeeding is beneficial for infants in both developed and developing countries, we tried to sabotage the resolution to “protect the infant-formula industry.”  Our team went so far as to threaten Ecuador with trade sanctions and got them to withdraw the resolution.  At least a dozen other countries also refused to submit the resolution fearing retaliation.

It took the Russians and Uncle Vlad to save the day and put forward the proposal.  Not surprisingly, the American team stood down as soon as the Russians got involved.  The resolution was passed on a vote of 118-1 with the United States being the only dissenting vote.  Talk about isolation.

Once source said, “There is no scientific evidence behind the U.S. position.  It simply reflects the fact that corporate sales are more important to the U.S. administration that the well-being of women and children.”

So, Mr. Pompeo, get used to the characterization of yourself as a gangster for as long as you represent this rogue administration.  You can’t see it now, but every day you stay in this job you are creating a stain on your reputation that will never go away.  I know you can’t see it, but you are living in the low point of your career.

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Death By Cliche´

Even though I lived my adult life as an English teacher, I’m not usually picky about how other people use or misuse language.  I never correct people’s grammar and truth be told, was never much of a grammarian.

However, I’ve started to notice that the use of certain cliches´ has begun to wear on me, especially those that come up in political speech.

If I hear one more congressman or woman say, “We’re not going to be holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’ here ya’ know” that I may have to cancel all of my newspaper subscriptions.  Again.

First of all, I’m not sure why they are picking on “Kumbaya.”  I was going to write something here about it’s history and how it has come to be a political punching bag, but discovered that Linton Weeks of NPR already wrote a spirited history and defense of the song called “When did ‘Kumbaya’ Become Such a Bad Thing?” for the NPR website on January 13, 2012.  You should read it.

Needless to say, it is used to express a contempt for things like kindness, compassion, and compromise–certainly not the type of values that we want to encourage anymore.  We used to think that such ideas were a good thing–you know, before we elected Voldemort as our president.

Besides, if you want to bash a song with kind intentions you could always pick on the iconic 1971 jingle from the Coke commercial named “I Want To Teach The World To Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” which may deserve mockery just because of the absurd length of the title.  If you should look up the original commercial just for fun, you may cringe a bit at the collection of Stepford-like teens that they collected on a hilltop in Italy to sing that catchy little piece.  You might also accidentally stumble across a creepy anti-sugary-drink parody that shows sickly people using the same tune put to different words that try to make the link between soda and its many potentially harmful side effects.

Also, I have wondered when did everything bad become an “existential threat”?  Certainly Al Qaeda, ISIS, North Korea, and Iran have been deemed to be our enemies and they do present a threat to do bad things to our country, but having studied existentialism, I couldn’t make the bridge to the emerging use of that adjective.  When I looked it up, one scholar suggested that this new usage implies that something (or some country, or some country’s leader) presents an “existential threat” if it threatens the very existence of our country, of our way of life.  That means the phrase is being horribly overused since none of the above, while they may wish us harm, has the wherewithal to end our way of life. Hey, I watch Homeland too, I get it. But in fact, our military budget is so huge that it dwarfs the budget of the next seven closest countries combined.  Combined. There are more serious threats to worry about.

Truly, the only existential threat that I see to the United States of America is Scott Pruitt.  This is a cabinet member so corrupt and so deeply in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry that he has taken a wrecking ball to every environmental protection that he can find.  I fully expect that if he hangs around much longer the EPA will propose that the US should be doing everything possible to encourage pollution, global warming, and climate change, and that we will be be immersed in Orwellian-style propaganda that insists that melting ice caps, costal flooding, increased droughts, increasingly violent hurricanes are things we should embrace. After all, all of those disasters do create good jobs for people.

Scott Pruitt, not ISIS, is the definition of an existential threat.

Finally, it has been an inspirational ray of hope that the country seems to have turned on gun makers and the NRA.  People now openly mock the “thoughts and prayers” response that most politicians give to the latest mass shooting–lip service being given to this epidemic with no effort to make even the most common sense changes in the law.  These horrific acts are happening with such frequency that I sense that politicians who have long supported the gun industry are afraid to utter the words “thoughts and prayers” as an offer of support to devastated communities because they now know that everyone else knows that offering “thoughts and prayers” is code for “I don’t really give a shit about you and your community.  As long as no one I know personally gets hurt, I have no intention of alienating my donors.”  Or something like that.

Actually, I don’t mind a good cliche´ now and then.  It’s the ones that drip with hypocrisy and deceit that start to grind on me after a while.  I think we just need to keep an eye out for the leaders who depend on these timeworn phrases as if they were wisdom and, please, stop electing them to office.

My Community Service Project: The Trash Man Cometh

Before

Being retired not only gives me more time to become irritated over fairly mundane things (see Grumpy Old Man), but it also provides me the time and opportunity to do something about them.

So, day after day, when I saw a small, dilapidated RV parked along the frontage road that leads to the road that leads to my house, I became convinced that this eyesore was either abandoned or that even worse, someone was using it as a residence.  I contacted the local sheriffs who told me to contact the Highway Patrol whose non-emergency number is always busy.  Somehow, though, when I wasn’t paying attention, the eyesore disappeared.

However, the owners left behind a pile of refuse, and as I looked up and down the frontage road, I realized just how trashy the 150 yards or so that I drive past several times a day had become.  The dirt pathway along a fence that parallels a freeway entrance is a walkway for many middle school kids who frequent the local Starbucks and the convenience store on the corner and leads to two or three apartment buildings down the way.

Initially, I thought I was just going to clean up after the RV dwellers so I grabbed a couple of trash bags, a rake, a pair of gloves and went down to survey the damage.  What I found was that they had jettisoned two wooden valances and an enormous pile of trimmed cactus.  I’m not kidding.  Huge chunks of cacti, all cut and cleaned, were dumped in a muddy pile.  I loaded the mess into the back of my SUV and carted it home  to my trash bins.

But that wasn’t enough for me.  Spending some time down by the fence made me notice just how awful all of that trash looked and how badly it needed to be cleaned up.

I became a man on a mission.  I bought a fresh box of trash bags, spread some plastic down in the back of my vehicle and decided to go to work on the problem. It felt fun to have a project like this.  Smelly, but fun.  I spent about an hour a day for four days to get the area cleaned to my satisfaction.  The typical haul on each day was 2-3 bags of weeds and trash.

The variety of trash was impressive.  I found the kinds of things you’d expect–lots of drink containers, fast food packaging, cigarette butts, and plastic crap of all kinds.  In addition there was clothing, a pillow, many small liquor bottles, and one used condom.  My neighbors are clearly not intimidated by the single sign that threatens them with a $1000 fine for littering.  All in all, I ended up with about 10 bags of trash.

As menial as it was, the work was incredibly satisfying.  Every day as I drive by, I survey the work I have accomplished and take note of any new litter that has begun to accumulate.  I suspect I will become like the guy who purportedly used to spend his days painting the Golden Gate Bridge from one end to the other and back year after year.

And while this may be a Sisyphean task, it feels good to see the neighborhood look a little cleaner.  Today, as I was finishing up, two different strangers stopped to introduce themselves and thank me for the work that I was doing.  It was not important to me to get the recognition, but it did let me know that others had seen the problem and appreciated that someone took some action.

While it will take some continued effort to keep it clean, I now feel a sense of ownership.  I’ve started to keep my eye out for other areas nearby that are showing signs of neglect that may need a little love and attention.  If I keep this up, I may need to get a cape and a secret identity–maybe take to cleaning up only under the cover of darkness.

People will wake up in the morning to marvel and whisper, “Trash Man has been here!”

After

Paying Off The House

I thought there should have been fireworks.

Six weeks ago, my wife and I walked into our credit union late in the afternoon, waited patiently for a teller, and then told her we wanted to pay off the balance of our mortgage loan.

It was not a spontaneous decision.  I had begun planning, over a year ago, to begin making double payments and make a push to get the final payment made in November, thirty-seven years (almost to the day) after taking out our original loan.

I guess the confetti canons and bubble machines were in storage because rather than celebration what we got mostly was confusion.  The young teller had to call over a supervisor.

“He wants to pay off his mortgage.  How do we even do that?”  She was staring diligently at her computer looking for the “paying off the mortgage” icon.  It wasn’t there.

The supervisor only knew that they needed to call the loan servicing department to ask them what to do.  Apparently, this happens so seldom, they just aren’t very familiar with the process.  We finally jumped through all of the hoops and settled up with them.  They were very happy for us and offered their congratulations.  I just had one question.

“Don’t I get something that says that I now own the house–sort of like the pink slip on a car?”

There was a hesitation.  The supervisor jumped in with, “Yes. The loan department will send you something official in a few weeks.  I’m pretty sure.”

I chose not to worry about the details. I had an expensive bottle of champagne chilling at home and was anxious to get back and sip it slowly with my wife and savor the moment.  There was a feeling of satisfaction, something akin to the feeling I had in seeing each of our kids graduate from college knowing that my wife and I had found a way to make that possible without sinking them or ourselves into debt.

Our home is a modest 3-bedroom house in a suburb of San Diego.  We bought it in 1980, a spec home that was immaculate on the inside and barren of any kind of landscaping on the outside.  Getting the yard fully landscaped has been a 37-year pain in my ass that still goes on today as I tackle previously untouched areas and try to revitalize parts that need re-landscaping.

However, every day I can enjoy my three towering pine trees planted early on from one-gallon containers, mere twigs that I stuck in the soil some 35 years ago.

And there are 20 relatively new iceberg rose bushes that now rim our lawn, the same lawn that provided room for softball and soccer practice for so many years.  I visit my vegetable garden every morning, which produces year-round now that I’m retired, and marvel at the beauty of home-grown food.

The inside of the house seemed firm enough when we bought the place but turned out to have a certain elasticity to it that I could not have imagined back in 1980 when Mary and I moved in.  It seemed huge at the time–3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a living, dining and family room with a two-car garage just for the two of us?  Are you kidding me?!

Then in ’82 when Nico was born, it got a little smaller, shrunk a little, now having this tiny person sleeping across the hall from us.  When Emily came along in ’87 our study evaporated and the house continued to contract as the kids grew bigger and simply sucked more air and space out of the house.  We nearly reached critical mass and thought long and hard about moving to a bigger place, but decided to sit tight and wait for the kid’s planned exits to college to give us more space again.

And the magic happened.  Nico headed off to UCSB in 2000 and Emily departed for UCLA in 2005, and late in the night I could actually hear the house give off a sigh as it stretched and once again grew to the size it had been when we first moved in.

So yesterday, when I sat down to do the bills, for the first time since I moved out of my parents’ house in July of 1973, I had no one to whom I needed to give money so that I could continue to live in my place.  It truly was my place for the very first time.

Self Improvement? Do I Have To? Can It Wait Until Tomorrow?

I hate the idea of dieting almost as much as I hate the suggestion that I read a self-improvement book.  It’s not that I don’t need to lose a few pounds, or that I couldn’t learn somethings about my better self through the words of others.  It’s just that remaining in a state of denial and self-loathing are so much easier that the work that one needs to put in to actually make substantive life changes.

Regardless, last week, for only the second time in my life, I began a structured diet plan because I had grown tired of watching the tire grow about my waist and because I had read an article about heart health that made me think that dropping these really unattractive pounds would be good for me.

Since I’m too lazy to do any research on my own and rely heavily on recommendations of people I like and respect, I leaned on the advice of my acupuncturist to guide me into a program that she enthusiastically endorsed. I had her order the shakes, supplements, and other goodies that would see me through an initial two-week cleanse/detox/weight-loss experience.  Last Monday I jumped in.

I discovered that the claims that sold me on the program proved to be true (mostly):

The shakes taste great!

I don’t really ever get hungry!

I have more, not less, energy than ever before!

I have stopped craving the things that are bad for me!

All of the above were true for about 48 hours.  The two daily shakes, which now make up my breakfast and lunch, do not taste bad at all, but are the consistency of wall-patching compound.  I frequently feel like I’m eating the shake, not drinking it.  By the third day, I was really hungry and found the shakes weren’t holding me until I learned a bit more about how to snack effectively.

It is absolutely true that I have more energy that before I started the diet.  The big negative to this development is that it has begun to cut into my afternoon nap time. I’m having to plan more work for myself to keep busy because I’m sleeping more soundly, waking up earlier, and having trouble drifting off in the afternoon.  If this keeps up I might actually finish projects around the house that I’ve been avoiding for almost 30 years, and I find that a bit distressing. It’s always been comforting to know that I’m behind on something

My craving for beer absolutely died for exactly two days.  My enthusiastic resolve to take advantage of the diet plan killed my desire for a brew for 48 hours, and then it came back with a vengeance.  I’m cheating moderately, but it’s OK–I feel plenty guilty about it.  Please don’t tell anyone.

So, of course, given this (mostly) concerted effort, I expect the pounds to fall away precipitously, but then I remember that it took several years to attain this unsightly fat and it might just take more than a couple of weeks to burn it all off.

My highly Puritanical digital scale does not help, especially when I start checking my weight twice daily, expecting quick results.  It is either just highly sensitive or wildly inaccurate.  I swear that if I have a passing thought about eating a donut, the scale jumps a pound or two just as a warning.  However, my clothes are fitting better, I have regained a notch on my belt, and I’ve stopped weighing myself for the time being so I can just focus on how I feel more than the half-pound I might have gained or lost.

Time is another issue.  I have too much of it now.  Having a shake as a meal twice a day really cuts into the amount of time needed for grocery shopping, food preparation, and meals.  I try to take my time while chewing on my shake to really savor all 8 ounces of it, but from start to finish, it’s about a 15-minute process.  And then I stare longingly at last night’s leftovers, the delicious lunch-sized portions of healthy looking soups, stews, and other dishes that my wife so lovingly prepares for our dinners.  I check my watch to see how many hours are left until dinnertime and a real meal.

Today, I am enjoying a “cleanse” day where instead of the shakes, my food intake will be limited to four 8-ounce glasses of nutritious bliss spread out across the day, along with other supplements and a couple of snacks.  It’s easier than it sounds actually.  And, heck, it’s given me time to write this piece.  Who knows, I might even pick up one of those self-help books that people keep giving me and give it a try.

 

Doing Stuff That Women Do

I’ve written recently about my sudden lack of fear to try new and death-defying activities like indoor skydiving, zip lining, and white-water rafting, but until recently I had been far too afraid to try something as scary as a spa treatment.

Then my wife gave me a gift certificate to get a “men’s facial.”  My idea of facial skin care involves shaving every day and occasionally putting on sunscreen.  The thought of filling my drawer with creams and astringents and actually learning what is good for my skin seemed like a massive waste of time and money.

However, I had started to notice that my “laugh lines” were starting to look like fault lines, small crevasses etched around my eyes and across my forehead.  The parenthesis around my lips was starting to look like misplaced dimples growing deeper every day and being joined with other weird creases that I had never noticed before.

I figured that if I could crash through a Class V rapid, I could survive a facial with my dignity intact. So, I made the appointment.

Walking into the spa, I can immediately feel zen-like atmosphere they are trying to project.  The receptionist greets me as if I’m a long-lost friend even though we are complete strangers.  All of the people working the desk speak in smooth, hushed tones.  I appreciate the hours it must take to train oneself to talk like that.  I’m far more used to having someone greet me by flipping me a coaster and growling, “Waddaya drinkin’?’”

I’m ushered into a lounge where I can sip on tea or flavored water, and I am told that Krissy will be with me shortly.  I feel mildly aroused at the thought, but I’m pretty sure it’s just the rush that I’m getting from the flavored water.

Minutes later, I’m greeted by a pleasant young woman who takes me back to a dimly lit room featuring something like a massage table. She instructs me to take off my t-shirt and shoes and make myself comfortable on the bed.

She comes back moments later, makes sure I’m comfortable, and then extends the arm of a small machine that is hissing steam out of a small robot-head and aims it closely at my face.  “This is a steamer,” she explains, “to help open up your pores.”

Maybe it’s just me, or maybe its volume of the steamer but I find breathing the steamy air through my nose to be distinctly uncomfortable.  I feel a little like I’m being waterboarded except that I’m paying for it, and I feel like I can’t complain because I have absolutely no idea how it’s supposed to feel.

As I grow used to the hissing robot arm, Krissy goes to work.  I discover quickly that there is no chatting during a facial.  As she starts spreading the first layer of oil or cream across my forehead, down my cheeks and everywhere that is not my eyes and mouth, I realize that I need to keep my mouth shut or risk swallowing whatever product she is using.

Relieved of the need of any conversation, I begin to relax as she slathers layer after layer of creamy, oily goo over my face.  She removes each one gently with warm towels before she applies the next layer, but they all seem exactly the same to me except for some are more slightly aromatic.  I’m starting to think that they are all the same (after all, my eyes are closed) when she slips in a lotion that is tinged with Ajax or some other abrasive.  I think that maybe I’m being exfoliated although I don’t exactly know what that means.  I think of it as the light sanding that I do before I put on the finishing coats of paint on a wood project at home.  Sure enough, one or two layers later, I’m done.

She lets the warm towel rest on my face for a bit before giving me a final wipe-down and informing me that “our time is up” and that she’ll meet me in the hallway when I’m ready.  She is impersonally friendly as she asks if I enjoyed the experience, and I’m reservedly enthusiastic while I thank her and retire to the rest room to actually stare at my face and see if all that attention has made any difference.

To my surprise, it has.  It is as if she has Spackled over the worst of the cracks and crevices, and even once I remove the residual oiliness, I can feel how much smoother my skin is to the touch.  I do not look any more youthful–I’m pretty sure no amount of lotion is going to achieve that–but it is as if I have gotten a very inexpensive face lift or a Botox treatment without the nasty needles.

I start to think that this was actually a darn good investment as I walk back through the coma-inducing lounge and into the reception area.  I’m greeted once again by my new best friends who assure me that, of course they can book me with Krissy for another facial some time soon.

After all, let’s face it.  The women that I know look better, smell better, and are smarter than I am.  I’m all in on the facials.  Bring on the mani-pedis.  I’m ready.

First Kiss

It was inevitable, I suppose, that a woman would create my first moral quandary.

It was near the end of my eighth grade year when plans for a class trip to Disneyland began.  I was caught off guard when, Carmela, the girl I liked best in the class, suddenly asked me if I was going to take a “date” to the Magic Kingdom.  I had missed the memo that “dating” was now a thing, that having a girlfriend had changed from being repulsive (or at least something you kept a secret) to being desirable.  So, I answered “No,” disdainfully and with conviction.

Carmela didn’t take it personally, although in the moment she seemed disappointed in my answer, and she quickly set her sights on my soon-to-be-ex-best-friend, Mike.  Suddenly, it was clear that the boys and girls were pairing up and I was behind the curve.  Carmela was looking out for me though and let me know that Suzanne, a perfectly suitable replacement, was hoping I would ask her.  I did so, and secured my very first date.

I mean, what was not to like about Suzanne–long dark hair, turned-up nose, and somehow she managed to show off a lot of leg when sitting in class despite the lengthy, Catholic-school uniform skirt.  I didn’t know what lust was yet, but I was interested in finding out.

Some time before the trip, the girls formed a conspiracy.  They each tied a piece of string around their wrists, a string with three knots in it.  The boys were told, if you were to break your girl’s string, you would owe her a kiss.

I broke Suzanne’s string some time before Disneyland and there seemed to be an understanding that the big moment would come some time shortly after.  I agonized about it for days.  It wasn’t that I was against kissing.  I also wasn’t particularly interested in it yet, but I had no moral objections.  The problem was that I knew that Suzanne’s mom did not want her kissing anyone.  I could not have known this if Suzanne hadn’t told me.  Why she chose to torture me with this information, I have never understood.  It was clear that she had every intention of getting herself kissed, but I was an altar boy and a rule-follower.  Wouldn’t kissing her, in light of her mother’s objection be a conscious transgression?

I was sure I was in a potential sin situation and decided to consult an expert.  The easiest way to talk with a priest was to go to confession, so the following Wednesday I rode my bike down to the church.  I entered the dark confessional and went through whatever sins I could think of and then interrupted the ritual to ask if I could meet with up with him after his sin-hearing session was over.  The deep, disembodied voice told me where to wait.

I can’t remember his name and I wish that I could.  He was tall and powerfully built and his head was shaven.  I remember that he drove an expensive car and that parishioners sometimes whispered about a priest driving a nicer car than most in the parish.

I was nervous as he walked toward me near an entrance to the church, and we began a stroll around the church grounds.  To a boy of my age the aura of a priest was still magical.  They spoke with God.  They touched God.  Their word was the word of God.  I felt awed by his personal attention.

Luckily, he was kind and patient, and I told him of the conspiracy of the strings.  With a serious look on his face he asked, “And just how many of these strings have you broken?”

Mortified, I quickly assured him that I had broken only one.  Even at that age I knew better than to over-extend myself.  We walked and talked in the cool of the early evening, the priest with his hands clasped behind him and me with my hands jammed into my pockets. I can’t remember anything specific that he gave me in the way of guidance, but somehow he managed to reassure me that my intentions were pure and that a kiss wasn’t going to derail me into hell.

The Disneyland trip finally came and Suzanne and I spent the day holding hands as we went from ride to ride feeling very adult.  We ate lunch, bought gifts for our parents, and thoroughly enjoyed our day away from school.  However, the thought of kissing her later that night lurked in the back of my mind constantly.  After all, I had never done it before.  So many things could go wrong, I thought.

The bus dropped us off at the school at the end of the day and we walked from there to her house.  We turned into her tree-lined street just as it was getting dark.  I glanced toward the front of the house to make sure that her mom wasn’t peeking through the drapes or lurking on the front porch.  I tried to remain nonchalant and managed to escort her to the porch without tripping.  In those few seconds as we exchanged goodbyes important questions raced through my mind:  Would our noses get in the way?  Was it important to close my eyes?   Should I worry about mono?

Suddenly we weren’t talking anymore and I realized it was time.  In that moment I had my first experience with what Hemingway called “grace under pressure.” I leaned forward and kissed her quickly but fervently on the lips.

She seemed pleased, and I was greatly relieved.  We repeated polite goodbyes, and I began walking down the quiet sidewalk alone.

I was about three houses away when I heard my name being called, and I turned to see Suzanne walking quickly toward me. I stood in surprise as she approached me, and clearly overcome by passion, she pulled me toward her and gave me a second, lingering kiss on the cheek.  Without a word, she turned and retreated to her house.

I stood there for a long minute mystified. I’ve gotten used to associating that feeling with the behavior of women, but at the time it was new to me.  Everything was new to me.

But what filled my eighth-grade heart that night, the sensation that began on that night and which I still both crave and am surprised at every time I experience it, was feeling of being drenched by the emotion of having been chosen.  Her simple, spontaneous, and unexpected act of affection overwhelmed me.  It said, “I choose you” or “you are special to me” or “I like you better than some of the others” or something like that.

At least, standing under that street light that night, that’s what I thought it said.  And I had never felt that before.  And to this day, I think it is maybe just the best feeling ever.

 

If you enjoy stories of me being a fool for love, you might also enjoy Visiting Love: One Letter at a Time and Thank You, Paul McCartney.

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.

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!

 

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.