Monthly Archives: May 2014

Another Tempest 8-15

prospero-and-arielThe second part of a long lyric essay on Prospero of The Tempest. The first part appeared last Tuesday.

8.

The epilogue to The Tempest shifts strangely from triumph to resignation, even to self-abnegation. In possession of his dukedom again and pardoning everyone, Prospero asks for mercy from the audience. “Release me from my bands,” he begs, “With the help of your good hands.” The footnote tells readers “hands” means applause, but it doesn’t have to—Prospero could as easily be seeking succor, intimacy someone of his power and intimidation may be denied.

In the epilogue he says his mission has been “to please,” which is not revenge, not justice, and not his new-old job in Milan. Having given up everything to stand where he does, he says his end will be “Despair, / Unless I be relieved by prayer.” Early on, Prospero aimed for vindication but finishes with a petition for mercy that “frees all faults.” Rather than crowing over his successful tricks and traps, he asks, “As you from your crimes would pardon’d be, / Let your indulgence set me free.”

His supplication sounds nothing like victory.

9.

Who sets us free from our own feelings? Who convinces us that we’re in the right spot now, that this new balance of gains and losses is better and that we’re ourselves at last?

 10.

Writers like Jean Anouilh link tragedy and discovery, suggesting tragic figures reach self-knowledge only the hopeless can. When escape and delusion become meaningless, when alternatives whittle to one, tragic figures see themselves more honestly than other mortals might. There’s no squirming, no final evasions, subterfuge, or denial.

But Prospero is no tragic hero—he achieves his desires and undergoes no downfall. Does he share a tragic hero’s awareness?

Attaining his previous position shatters his understanding of himself and his place. His return to Duke of Milan may be the proper resolution of events, but he lost the job originally because it bored him. And his successful retribution, instead of filling him with confidence and power, illuminates his misunderstanding of himself, a new desperation, and an awareness—albeit a dim one—of his own crimes and need for mercy. He sees his own flaws in trying to make others pay for wronging him.

But he isn’t dead yet, and, I wonder—as his every third thought of death arrives—if he still has a tragic hero’s desire for relief.

11.

It’s cliché to say Shakespeare changes as you age, but I identified with Caliban the first time I read The Tempest. Caliban is acted upon, unappreciated, and distressed. As Prospero’s plaything, he relies on the fuel of resentment. He is in every way compelled, denied choices and given no proper spot on the island or anywhere else. He isn’t pretty or nice, but he burns in ways Prospero doesn’t. In comparison, Prospero’s battles seem willful, fitful, and arbitrary.

Prospero is the master and what right does he have to be unhappy?

12.

Some readers may say the epilogue of The Tempest completes Propero’s arc from anger to humility. He hasn’t enjoyed winning as much as he thought and seeks universal amnesty and calm instead.

If that’s so, he will make a lousy duke to Milan. His brother the usurper has greater initiative and confidence. His brother wants the job and looks to no one for relief.

 13.

You can grow tired of wanting, particularly when you’re unsure why you want, whether an ambition you distrust can be real, which uncertain alternative can bring joy.

14.

If, as many believe, Prospero is a surrogate for the retiring Shakespeare, the play’s grace note feels like an exhausted surrender. Prospero appears to want nothing more than to drop his instrument and walk from the orchestra unnoticed.

He is not the same person we met. The vehicle of his transformation is not killing others or harming others as a tragic hero’s might be, but he does kill—willingly—a part of himself. Maybe, in casting off his slaves, his magic, his daughter, his autonomy, and his desire for revenge, he hopes to see his raw self, the self he will be when he slips into that last powerless sleep.

I wonder if he does.

15.

Compared to Prospero, many more thoughts intervene between my thoughts of death. But I understand more now. When ambition achieved, unachieved, formed, or abandoned fails to satisfy, when ambition seems itself positively punishing, it’s natural to desire rest.

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Another Tempest 1-7

prosperoThe first part of a long lyric essay on Prospero of The Tempest. The second part will appear Saturday.

 1.

In the last act of The Tempest, Prospero describes his impending escape from his island exile and his eventual return home. He will first sail to Naples to see his daughter Miranda marry into a handy alliance and then travel to Milan where he will be restored as Duke.

It seems a joyous outcome—and one Prospero labors four acts to effect—but, thinking of his future sitting on his restored throne, Prospero reports, “Every third thought shall be my grave.”

How does success make him so unhappy?

 2.

The Rolling Stones tell us we can’t always get what we want, which is true, but we also know we should be careful what we wish for in the first place. Sometimes what we wanted isn’t what it pretended. Aspiration looks good from afar, but capture can be less fulfilling than pursuit.

I sometimes tell my students they shouldn’t take my criticism so hard because an essay without flaws might be more curse than boon. Write the perfect essay and what would you do tomorrow?

Fruition invites redefinition. Having done something means something more to do… someone else to be.

3.

Among Prospero’s final deeds is shedding his books, staff, and magic. Nothing makes that step necessary—being naked of magic isn’t a condition of his return—but he decides that, once he’s redressed all the wrongs against him, he won’t need his powers. He frees one beloved slave and another not-so-beloved one with the words, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.” He forgives deceivers who wronged him and ends twelve years of isolation.

Yet he seems melancholy. He never quite says so but swings between satisfaction or surrender. As the action of the play ends, he invites the usurpers and schemers into his cell to hear how he has lived, how he survived and thrived in the harsh island’s conditions, his glee with where he’s been more vivid than his anticipated return to civilization.

4.

Sometimes we want things because we think we ought. Envy makes us desire what others have attained because, after all, we feel just as able, or think we are. “What about me?” the greedy heart cries and incites clumsy effort to find its proper place. Getting there may promise little pleasure—quite the contrary, you may feel you cut cross-grain against deeper, more immediate and comfortable desires—but it’s not always easy to distinguish between should and ought. Should sounds gentler. Ought suggests some grander, more dubious, aim.

5.

Ariel, the slave Prospero likes best, brings dispatches—the status of the villains Prospero tests and torments. Some of them suffer. They’re ignorant of Prospero’s plan and its happy conclusion and know only their grief and torment.

“Your charm so strongly works ’em,” Ariel tells Prospero, “that if you now beheld them, your affections / would become tender,” and Prospero bristles. He replies, “shall not myself, / One of their kind, that relish all as sharply, /Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?”

Prospero is often so defensive. Part of him wonders if his unjust usurpation arose from an accurate cause. Part of him knows his plans aren’t harmless, yet he didn’t consider how others might feel. Worse, he hasn’t examined his own feelings, whether his longing is so important he can abide becoming a stranger to himself.

6.

When I came to Chicago almost ten years ago, it was as the chair of the English department. My old school had become predictable. My place there was—and appeared would always be—a younger brother, a role I know well. I’m used to being George, not Paul or John, nor even Ringo, who has the good sense to choose humor over earnestness and anarchy over hierarchy.

It took six months to recognize the person the job required and how different he was from me. I was competent in the skills and vision required but incompetent in desire. The job wasn’t beyond me, just beyond my perseverance. I played the role for a while because I refused to surrender, to give up an exalted sense of capabilities I didn’t care that much about proving.

And when I stepped down after two years, I felt no better. Whether I called it quitting or others did mattered little. For another year, I thought I should be chair and, since I should be, I ought to be too. Yet I’d sacrificed my spot and couldn’t go back.

7.

Each decision is sacrifice, one alternative dying for another. You may find a means to return but will have to confront the choice that necessitated doubling back. You won’t know whether you were right all along or right now, and, in that case, both are wrong.

 

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A Word or Two From the Complaints Department

stop-complaining-541x285People say, “Can’t complain” in response to the ubiquitous, “How’re you doing?” When I hear them, I think, “That should be my answer.”

Except I’d mean, “I have no right to complain,” which is to say, “I’d like to gripe about my petty troubles but would a. bore you and b. look unappreciative of my prosperity, good fortune, and privilege, especially compared to people who might complain and don’t.”

No one ever says, “I can complain.”

After my high school’s graduation, I begin a year-long paid sabbatical, so complaining is absolutely out. Every day, someone asks about my plans—I have it down to one sentence—and whether I’m excited, relieved, elated, grateful. Actually they say, “You must be fill-in-the-blank,” and I say “Of course I’m fill-in-the-blank,” but those emotions don’t—you know me—cover it.

Sometimes, on a short vacation, I feel that “hurry up and relax” pressure because time’s awastin’ on stress relief. I have a similarly paradoxical feeling now. “This is a once in a lifetime break,” I tell myself, “you better Get Something Done.” Then comes apprehension, fear, anxiety.

I want to confess I’m worried, but colleagues would sneer and think themselves better suited for this opportunity. They might punch me in the stomach.

My one sentence plan is to study schools that don’t give marks and alternative means of assessment that highlight intrinsic academic motivation. The next natural question is “Are you going to visit?” Yes, but have had barely a moment to contact schools that don’t give grades. Which begins my struggle:

  • Fantasy: I make amazing life-long connections with teaching professionals and hang out for days at fascinating, innovative institutions. Reality: So far, I’ve been given the dates for some open houses.
  • Fantasy: To prepare for my year, I brush up on basic psychology, read philosophy and other writing relevant to motivation (along with stuff about academic motivation), and take copious notes. Then, during my sabbatical, I contact authors to chat via Skype. Reality: I’ve read the introductions of a couple of books I got for my iPad. I don’t know how to Skype.
  • Fantasy: I begin writing a book and sending the opening and chapter outline to publishers and take up a 20-30 page daily writing habit. In my spare time, I take art lessons, enroll in workshops with a local playhouse, get certified as a personal trainer, and catalog all my creative output from the last two decades. Reality: The collection of teaching essays I wrote ten years ago are in an older version of Microsoft Word and, so far, unrecoverable. I changed my desktop picture to a doodle I made.

I imagine expressing my doubts, but people will think I’m lazy, need to “get on the stick”—whatever that means—and have stolen a sabbatical from someone worthier. I don’t want to waste my school’s money or my precious time “off.”

When I spilled these apprehensions to a colleague back from his sabbatical, he said I should take a month off to rest and clear my mind before my big plans. I felt momentary excitement, relief, elation, and gratitude. Then I realized… I’m too far behind to do anything like that.

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Choose ONE

alternativesThe toughest part of any blog, I imagine, is finding what to write. I’m off to New York this week and don’t have time for a full post, but I’m offering openings I wrote and never pursued. Which would you’d like to see developed to full length? I’ll try, I promise.

1.

Some moments seems contiguous. The final gasps and throes of the coffeemaker, unvaried, could be one song. Initials in the sidewalk announce themselves as they always have, meaning to make today into yesterday, when you also noticed them. Tires drone between steady beats of highway seams. A furze of yellowy pink clings to a familiar flat horizon. More is similar than different, all one morning.

2.

You discover who you are by failing. It’s unfortunate, but bumping against the ceiling of your abilities or unveiling how wrong you were or seeing the familiar transformed by a new understanding or feeling, or blushing with deep embarrassment and error that says, “I’m not what I seem”—that’s what matters.

3.

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but I do. My appreciation for book designers rests on their nifty solutions to unseen needs. They shirk the profound pressure to entice. They remain somehow, despite it all, playful. They innovate. They renovate what you expect from text, turning letters into objects and images into signs. You can’t say how a cover affects you, but you know which do.

4.

My people-watching grows more intense with age. Everyone, it seems, is more interesting than I am, more beautiful and/or paired with someone more beautiful than I am, off more purposefully to more interesting destinations uncolored by worry. They’re smarter, hipper, happier. They don’t care how very screwed the world is. They aren’t old.

5.

She sat on the floor and watched me cry, unmoved but interested, silently remarking and studying. You wouldn’t know she was the child and I the adult, and the power to make me cry—her influence over and exploitation of her parent didn’t seem to be her primary focus. She was shocked to see me dissolve.

6.

In my alternate lives, I travel more, draw more, talk with people much more intelligent than I am, find hidden strengths in myself, feel deeply, and make a bigger difference to myself and others. Perhaps it’s too late for redefinition at my age. Yet the futility of self-improvement does little to impede fantasy. Disappointment inspires bigger, better, bolder versions of my impossible, limited self.

7.

I don’t think often about former relationships. I’m happily married. But, if I do, the break-up scenes appear, angry accusations and bitter assessments, smolderingly indifferent verdicts, barely-beneath-the-surface hurt, resignation still tinged with faint hope, the most persistent denial. If you could collect all the people who’ve rejected me or I’ve rejected, the testimony might form a complete picture of why I’m such an ass.

8.

Why do I distrust certainty so? When someone says, “That’s just how it is,” I want to shout, “Is anything ever what we say it is? Isn’t saying what it is the same as revealing an unexpressed or unconscious wish it were and that we have no choice about it and this situation is what it must be?” I prefer those who say, “I don’t know, but intend to find out.” Do your best to reveal something closer to the truth. Don’t be sure.

9.

Maybe every child experiences being lost and approaching a stranger to ask (in some form), “Can you help me find my mommy?” You hope to be settled again and not so anchorless. More than anything else, you seek a sure sense of where you belong, what makes you feel whole and complete.

10.

When my history students ask about some time in my past—how I felt about MLK’s assassination or the end of the war in Vietnam, I stretch to reach an earlier self. Like a fly in an expansive room, it runs from me. How do you answer, “How did you feel?” when the question requires re-knowing, and re-knowing is fraught with revision, what you ought to have felt or might have felt or thought?

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Welcome to the Now

no-regretsI distribute a list of Henry David Thoreau quotations, one to a customer. Some people say, “I don’t understand” or “What’s he saying?” But one voice cries out, “Is he serious? In mine, he’s saying we should have regrets.

Can that be right?”

We often hear the opposite. Regret suggests you didn’t seize a shining opportunity. It hints you’re unhappy with your choices or don’t accept yourself—and love yourself—fully enough. In contrast, living without regret means acting as you should, boldly, resolutely, decisively. “I have no regrets,” the hero says, and the audience beams approval. “Here,” they think, “is courage and confidence I lack.”

The voice puts it less grandiloquently, “Why would someone want to beat themselves up all the time?”

Our petty regrets seem unavoidable. We all regret eating too much or arriving late or not leaving the office sooner to miss the highway rush or forgetting an appointment we shouldn’t have or blurting out what we’d like to take back. Those regrets we endure. We must endure them. On the grander scale, however, we want to be happy with our decisions and our lives. We want to be comfortable and satisfied or, at the very least, come to terms with whatever transpired—no regrets.

We want to sing, “I did it… myyyyyy way.”

The disputed quotation from Thoreau reads, “To regret deeply is to live afresh.” I try to explain, “I think he means each day is a new day. You can look back, see what you did wrong, and correct it.”

“But wouldn’t that just make you feel bad?” someone says, “you can’t spend your life looking back.”

Another truth of our time is that the past has passed, and we ought to point ever forward. Progress demands putting yesterday behind us. Newer and better things lie ahead if we direct attention to the future. There’s no sense in dwelling, no sense in mulling, no sense in revisiting. To get over it, we must forget about it, and what happened happened. It’s done.

Thoreau believed we couldn’t move on without knowing how to. We might fall into the same error, after all, if we pretend today never occurred and don’t fully acknowledge the how and why of events. He believed in studying experience, not running from it. Even carpe diem requires forethought.

That’s what I try to say. The voice replies, “Yes, but isn’t that the same as replaying the past over and over?”

“But if that’s what it takes…” I start to say. Everyone knows the old saw about history, how anyone ignorant of it is bound to repeat it. I offer that idea instead.

“You’re going to repeat it,” someone says, “I mean, look at history, we do the same stuff over and over. It’s going to happen. It’s inevitable.”

The broader context of Thoreau’s declaration is, “Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.”

I ask what—exactly—it means to “smother sorrow” but meet impatience. Perhaps it’s unhealthy to smother sorrow, the conversation runs, but should we wallow in it? What does an “integral interest” even mean, anyway? And, as far as tending and cherishing sorrow, well that’s crazy, hardly worth discussing.

Some days little seems worthy of discussion.

“Personally,” another voice says, “Thoreau is so contradictory. I’m not sure even he knew what he was saying… I think Thoreau is wrong.”

In 1839, when Thoreau wrote these sentences in his journal, perhaps he didn’t know exactly what he meant. Perhaps he was exploring, trying to examine connections between yesterday and today. Maybe he wasn’t sure and only posited an alternative to blind life, the uninterrupted and unstudied march most of us make each day. As his journals were private thoughts not clearly intended for publication, he could have uttered them only to himself, to spur the best life he could live.

I wonder, though, if that makes his ideas more or less valuable. Here is a person speaking to us from the past. Should we dismiss thinkers before us? Can we discount them so easily, without regret?

 

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Seeing Surprises

WheIannmen my son was very young, he told me he’d drawn a dragon on his play table. They weren’t his first marks there, so I needed to know what color he’d used to find this dragon amid the commotion of his earlier flailing. He held up a green marker, the color of new moss. I saw shapes in green, unclosed boxes, drunken circles, sinuous lines attached at one end.

Then I recognized what he meant. The shape was the first real, perceptible thing he’d drawn. The dragon was there, its eyes and scales and a second color—a lurid red—fanning from its mouth. They were flames, he said. I saw that.

Next week, my son graduates from college and a similar revelation lurks—funny how individual days amount to something recognizable at last. All the evenings at the kitchen table sighing over math problems or another wacky paragraph of The American Pageant or an online physics quiz led to something too, his graduation from high school four years ago.

But that I witnessed. Now I only see college pictures—he’s dressed up, standing with friends at a party, or hidden in sunglasses attending some sunny celebration. I don’t see him work or study, don’t experience the marks of knowledge and understanding amassing and something forming in the mess.

Over the phone, he sometimes tells me about a class, paper, or lecture but usually impatiently, always assuming—rightly—my limited comprehension. I like to think he believes me capable of understanding, but I’d have to be there to truly get it. Not being there sometimes seems the central quality of our new relationship, and, of course, I miss him.

And, thinking about his graduation is a little like realizing every mark on his play table is one unnoted image. When children are born, no one says you’ll discover they’re strangers. No one mentions the alien things they do and make and think on their own, quite apart from anything you give experientially or genetically. No one says they will surprise you or that, ultimately, it’s all surprise, a cascade of shock starting with the first identifiable word.

I know my son is anxious about what’s next, and in these times I don’t blame him. His mom and I are nervous too, but mostly we’re proud, happy to accept whatever credit people want to give us for who he’s become, but well aware he’s responsible. His voracious curiosity began the moment he opened his eyes and has hardly paused since. He and his sister are the brilliant lights of our lives.

Once he learned to speak he talked all day, from the moment he woke to the moment he slipped into sleep mid-sentence. Like any parent I still see that little boy when I look at him in tie or tux, but I also know everything he’s made himself. I’m sure he worries it isn’t enough, and some employer will ask for more. I hope he can put his apprehension aside and pause to celebrate his accomplishment. My wife and I care less about what others might want from him and more about what he wants, his continuing desire to learn and do and play and work and feel.

We are in awe of our beautiful stranger.

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Grubbing, Categorized

midnight_oil_SSI warn you, I may sound mean-spirited. We teachers pride ourselves on hope and, even in the inkiest darkness, look for light. You may not believe me, but there’s light here too… in the perverse hope these cynical appraisals of students arise not from their character, but from us—from me—and expectations we perpetuate.

This post started with a student in one of my first years of teaching, one of the most diligent and conscientious I’ve ever met, a model of exhaustive effort. She’d never think of merely meeting expectations and added her own requirements to whatever rubric I created. She labored as if she were digging to escape her own grave and looked at me as an acolyte might, scrutinizing each gesture and murmur, every hint of expectation.

Yet she enjoyed almost nothing. Little of her industry seemed to spring from a desire to learn. The final mark measured her achievement and stood as its solitary value. Marks—evaluations intended to affirm her successes and motivate growth—became another reckoning. If she didn’t do as well as usual, she felt worthless. If she did well, she worried about the next assignment.

Though she’s an extreme example, her perspective lurks everywhere, and I can’t help blaming grades. My experience in independent schools, schools filled with ambitious students, teaches me that grades affect every aspect of students’ lives. Some of the people I teach transcend grades—they are the rarest, most beautiful birds—but the rest fall into broad types, sometimes into more than one type depending on the term’s progress:

The Glad-Handers learn, perhaps at home, that having a warm relationship with teachers assures positive results and so hang out after class to ask another question, offer another response, check-in on the instructor’s interests. As endearing and charming as these students are, you wonder where they fall on the faking-to-making scale. And you never know.

The Shotguns seek subjugation. Enough information, verbiage, and will, they believe, will subdue a teacher. Volume, volume, volume evinces hours of elbow grease and midnight oil. Finesse doesn’t fit this student’s modus operandi nor do focus, purpose, and spirit. The aim is to be undeniable, diligent enough to be deemed worthy of an A, despite the absence of interest or curiosity.

The Accountants possess the finesse the Shotgun lacks and know exactly where they stand numerically, doling effort according to a desired result. If the situation in one class demands an 85.5 to maintain the current mark, the accountant turns to more vulnerable averages. Schooling is a zero-sum game—with only so much effort to give—so Accountants think strategically.

The Scavengers add and subtract points on a test or quiz to find mathematical errors. Catching a mistake or debating an evaluation erodes a teacher’s resolve and yields incremental advantages. And extra credit or revision or corrections are golden. Even when the original outcome is outstanding, extraordinary, impressive, Scavengers want any point available. Nothing can remain unclaimed.

The Righteous rely on emotion. Ultimately, the Righteous say, education isn’t about numbers but opportunities. “Don’t you know,” they ask (or their parents ask), “how ambitious I am, what schools I aspire to?” Only monsters deny hope, and so each situation demands reconsideration: is this mark something a Teacher can live with… because Teachers are in the business of encouragement… right?

As I said, cynical. Fortunately I’m not describing everyone, not even—on a good day—a majority. Yet few students escape altogether. At some time or another, marks lead them into one of these roles.

And I, as the point carrier, reserve the greatest censure for myself. We teachers made this game. We enforce its rules. We call scores and standards and admission—and other extrinsic rewards—the greatest goals. We offer few terms besides the numerical and alphabetical.

Marks have only abstract value, but we’re petrified of what students might do—more accurately, might not do—if we give grades up and say learning is intrinsically satisfying, fun. We state (over and over, more to ourselves than to them), “You do know, don’t you, that learning, and not a grade, is the point?”

Then we hand them a report card.

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