Category Archives: Lyric Essays

Another (In 12 Parts)

tesla-spacex-starman-falcon-heavy-rocket-elon-musk1.

In my backpack is a moleskin notebook containing to-do lists for the last few months. Each morning, I write the date and transfer every unaccomplished thing to another page. I add fresh imperatives—a deadline rushing up, an unexpected demand, some aspirational whims I rarely reach.

This habit doesn’t make me unusual, but sometimes, examining those pages, I regard them as others might, wondering at how repetitious my life is, how devoted I am to similar tasks.

2.

The word “another” is called a determiner, which describes words that modify nouns as adjectives do. Though grammarians classify determiners as adjectives however, they see them as different. Determiners require context. Adjectives make distinctions by differentiating one thing and another—the brown dog rather than the blue one—but determiners like “this,” “that,” “these,” “those,” and “another” rely on frames of reference understood by readers. To have another dog, you must know what a dog is. You must be sure of dogs as a species to identify another.

3.

So much of my mental energy focuses on the next few hours—tasks desired and dreaded, classes to meet, challenging colleagues and friends, presentations, tiresome meetings, and other obligations.

Expectation and experience mix like air and gasoline, and I sputter forward on my timeline, looking ahead and back, feeling the familiar in all of it.

4.

A search of “Another” on my haiku blog turns up more than fifty finds, proof I use the word frequently. When you add in work communication, personal emails, and other scribblings, it could be evidence little is new now. Maybe all I expected or didn’t has already come to pass.

5.

Elon Musk says, “If you get up in the morning and think the future is going to be better, it is a bright day. Otherwise, it’s not.” For me, most days, at my age, not.

Last week, Musk launched his Tesla roadster into orbit with a manikin bedecked in a space suit at the wheel. It’s a silly expense—he might have sent the entire senior class of several inner-city high schools to four-year colleges instead—but he must have meant to inaugurate his heavy lift rocket with a grand gesture. He’s said on multiple occasions that he wants us to be a “multi-planet species.” Any other fate, he says is “incredibly depressing.”

It occurs to me, however, that if we move to Mars, it will be us moving there, another footing but not another species. All our tragic flaws will come along for the ride. We aren’t manikins.

6.

What is hope minus surprise? Does hope necessitate believing in the unexpected?

7.

When I was eleven I found a black river stone I was sure could be magic. After soaking it in my sister’s perfume and lighting it on fire, I waited for it to cool and held it against my forehead. I pictured my thoughts moving from my brain through my skin and into igneous rock. Conceptions limit us, I believed then. Notions we didn’t question held us back, so, if you believed something could be—believed it enough—it could be.

Though my alchemy never worked (that I could tell) I carried that rock through another and another move and, even now, I think I know which plastic bin it’s in.

8.

The calendar is a strange instrument. It proceeds and circles. It originates, renews, and repeats. It contrives to describe time and does so in familiarly named days, weeks, months, and years aligned with predictable and comforting patterns.

For a teacher, the school calendar is especially rigid. People in “the real world” remind me their years have no clear demarcation of stopping or starting, no obvious moment of completion or break between one year and the next. I suppose that’s true, but the events in school year are nearly all rites and routines. When they aren’t, it’s usually bad.

9.

Once I argued with a student about social constructs. He was willing to accede we invent some distinctions we then see as real, but not everything, he said, is a social construct.

His example was progress. He couldn’t accept anyone saying we weren’t better off now than in the past. I tried pointing out parts of “primitive” societies that might be better—connections to nature, the sense of common work, lives devoted to essential needs, not material wants. While life then might be harder, harder wasn’t necessarily worse.

Truth is, I don’t really want to wrap my body in a buffalo hide or wipe my ass with a leaf, but I fought with fury for Neil Postman’s insight that every invention produces complicated and often contradictory consequences, and that every sign of “progress” is really “this and that” instead of “either-or.” But, to my student, history was a chain of skepticism like mine, the short-sighted carping about the latest invention—the steamboat or the telegraph or radio or television or computer—ruining things.

In the end, I surrendered. It isn’t my business to deny students hope. Still I heard his faith as proof humans are finite. He couldn’t believe another day wouldn’t bring us closer to perfection. From my perspective, another day couldn’t help being another day.

10.

I’m not saying humanity is like Macbeth whose “instructions… being taught, return to plague the inventor.” Some elements of the present make me happy. I delight as much as anyone in technology’s wonders. It’s just that inventions have been, and always will be, ours.

11.

Growing up in the heyday of NASA, I lived for launches and drew control panels on the underside of tables so I could pretend to run through checklists and play along with liftoffs.

You can monitor the progress of Elon Musk’s roadster online. It’s 1.8 million miles from earth, and its heading takes it beyond the orbit of Mars. Ben Pearson, an engineer who devised the site, saw that his projection of the roadster’s path didn’t match Musk’s and welcomed discovering he, and not Musk, was correct. “I was just relieved to know that I wasn’t doing anything critically wrong,” Pearson said, “Elon Musk is a visionary man, incredibly far forward, but there’s a reality distortion field when it comes to him.”

There’s something enviable in that distortion field, something experience disbelieves.

12.

It’s a point of pride with my school that it does not close, that no opportunity to learn is lost, so it was the rarest of events when, last week, I experienced a snow day. As soon as we learned we’d be off, colleagues asked each other what they’d do with this found time.

Like them, I came up with wild and mild possibilities. But I spent the day preparing and grading, barely questioning if I could do anything else.

“New,” I’m guessing, is also a determiner. Context matters. Who’s using the word, though, might matter more.

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My Silly Lament (in 15 Parts)

3DIt’s been so long that who knows who still tunes in. I felt I had to write this lyric essay. Here it is… for whomever.

1.

When no real or virtual stack of grading awaits me, when no other deadline looms, when I have time to read carefully, annotate thoroughly, and plan thoughtfully and creatively, I love class.

Question and response and further question and further response come to resemble an intricate, entirely improvised dance. There’s inference and implication and irony and laughter. There’s progress toward answers we didn’t know we wanted, and the slightest signal drops discussion into another, more consequential dimension. Even un-staged epiphanies seem meant to be.

Many teachers must feel as I do. Class time is the pounding heart of teaching that sustains the rest. For me, even after 35 years in classrooms, it’s the only part of the job that makes me feel competent. The rest is ash.

2.

My school has a curious custom. At the end of each period, after students gather up their papers, re-zip their laptop covers, and file everything away in overstuffed backpacks, they—almost all of them—stop to tell their teacher “Thank you.”

I’ve never experienced such widespread and ready thanks in any other school I’ve taught. I’ve asked students new to our school whether that was the convention where they were before, and they say no. We’re an independent school—read: a private school—and admissions people sometimes tout this thanking habit as proof of the special teacher-student relationship here. Everyone, it seems, marvels at this ritual. Most of my colleagues espouse gratitude for this gratitude. They love being thanked.

For some reason, I hate it. I’m reluctant to tell students, but I wish they wouldn’t thank me.

3.

The expression “thank you” looks outward. It includes only one second person singular pronoun “you” and thus appears selfless. It says, “you deserve thanks,” which suggests it’s all about that offering, all about approval, all about appreciation. Yet, if you listen too closely, you hear the understood “I” at the head of the clause “I thank you.” A gift can begin to sound like a contract—not clear payment for services exactly, but a transaction nonetheless. Heard from that corner, “Thank you” says, “You’ve been paid. I have paid you.”

4.

The Princess Bride begins with the backstory of Buttercup and Westley’s love. She relishes bossing the farm boy around, and he always replies “As you wish.” However, we soon learn his answer is code. The tasks grow simpler and simpler until she asks him to retrieve a pitcher well within her reach. Westley fulfills her desire with “As you wish.” “That day,” the narration reports, “she was amazed to discover when he was saying ‘as you wish,’ what he meant was, ‘I love you’.”

The moment’s indirection is beautiful because it relies on Buttercup hearing Westley say he loves her and not on his saying it. Love is in the reception and not the transmission.

5.

I wonder what I might think if my students didn’t thank me.

People who grow up as I did with the maxim, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” are prone to hear silence as censure.

6.

My emotional memory is deep enough to recall how torturous high school can be. The details of that time might have fled, but the romantic rejections, the relentless assaults on any belief in my academic, athletic, and artistic worth are still with me.

My senior year, I barely dammed tears when I received less than I expected—the score that should have been mine or indifference that, in light of my earnestness, felt like cruelty. Classmates more insulated by ego weren’t so sensitive, but we all rode waves of confirmation and doubt. I remember that.

Do my students ride the same waves? I’m not sure, but my interactions with them assume so. If their high school years are like mine, what they need is for their emotions to be noticed and, whether accurately or inaccurately, valued. I want them to feel seen.

7.

Occasionally, I try to tell my classes that I don’t like being thanked, but there’s no proper way to say so.

If I say, “Don’t thank me, it’s my job,” it sounds like I’m saying teaching is only my job.

If I say “Don’t thank me, it’s unnecessary,” it’s sounds like I’m diminishing their gratitude, that I don’t appreciate their appreciation enough.

If I say “Don’t thank me, it’s embarrassing,” I risk unprofessional confession I hate.

If I say, “Don’t thank me, I don’t deserve it,” which often comes too close to the truth, they think I’m asking them to dispute it.

8.

My latest deflection is to string together of all the forms of “You’re welcome” I know. The more people thank me, the more ridiculous it sounds.

“You’re welcome, any time, my pleasure, it’s nothing, thank you, think nothing of it, a trifle.”

9.

We’ve been studying vignettes in my senior writing elective, and, after a longer reading of six vignettes, I asked them to pretend they were determining “The Vignies,” an imaginary award for vignettes aligned with the Oscars, Grammys, or Tonys. They were to name winners in categories like “Top Vignette for Creating an Intimate Connection with a Reader” and “Greatest Mystery of What Was NOT Said (and yet WAS said, in a way… sort of).” They needed to write an awards show style speech announcing their selection and how they reached their decision.

It took some coaxing to get them to play along, but they did ultimately buy in, cooperating not just in the over-the-top fiction of those speeches but in the “we was robbed!” responses I insisted they make on behalf of spurned vignettes.

Forty minutes later, the day felt productive. I’d compelled them to scrutinize the reading, to make some thoughtful judgments, and to think about the bigger matter of how vignettes operate. Some of the speeches were funny too.

And, as they exited, several seniors thanked me.

10.

Recently at my school, students have been secretly recording teachers with cameras in their phones then posting the results online. For the faculty, this behavior creates consternation. Some recorders must mean to show how funny or engaging we are, but others are malicious, hoping to show the opposite—how inept or clueless we are.

I’m sure they’ve focused their cameras on me and can only hope that, on balance, I’ve come across well. Made aware of what they’re up to, however, I wonder how many thanked me afterwards.

11.

It occurs to me that, if thanks are transactions, both parties need to believe, the one thanking and the one being thanked.

12.

At this stage of my teaching career, I can’t look for the attention younger colleagues garner. I probably won’t be asked to give another commencement speech. The fellowships and travel grants my school awards will likely land elsewhere, and I can’t fathom what performance might be enough to add my name to the plaque that designates my school’s best teacher each year. Only a grave illness might convince students to dedicate the yearbook to me.

I’m not insensitive to praise—who could be? And sometimes I’m haunted by the last line of James Wright’s poem, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.”

“I have wasted my life,” it says.

All these thanks and still… perhaps the problem is me.

13.

Desire, the Buddha says, is suffering, but what of half desires? What about all you want and, at the same time, don’t?

In seventh grade, I was in what I thought love with Nita Stroud. She seemed to care about me when I didn’t care much for myself, and my desperation soared to quite unquiet protests of affection. When she broke up by telling me I was “too intense,” I remember feeling confused. Was I relieved, even happy? I’m still not sure.

Desiring nothing means getting everything. By that standard, a half desire can’t satisfy.

14.

One day one of my students—I’ll call him John—lingered after class. He asked me to write this essay. I was explaining, again, my misgivings about thanks, how I perhaps should (but didn’t) know what students felt when they said “thank you.” I should write something, I told him, to figure out the source of my ambivalence.

“I’d read that essay,” John said.

These close moments with students are rare. Though my colleagues tell me that I’m “respected” and that a student “had a good experience with me,” I don’t know how to read their compliments. What I want is a sure sign I’m reaching someone after all this time. Yet, that’s not something any teacher can expect. I’ve been to many conferences we teachers receive a pen, some papers, and a charge, “Write about a teacher you meant to thank and didn’t.”

I’ve found something to say and someone to say it to. I’ve recognized which teachers have made me. At the time though, the hour passed. Another class demanded I move on.

15.

Many days, I walk to school. It’s no mean distance, two miles or so, but it’s a division between home and work. This time of year, it’s dark, and I barely hear anything other than my steps, barely see anything other than threadbare traffic similarly drawn to starting earlier and better.

Teaching has been my singular devotion. I’d label it “a calling,” if I could be so melodramatic. After 35 years, I want—too much—for the financial and social sacrifice to mean something. I’d like to believe my worth on another scale. “I could have made more,” I want to say, “I could have been more.”

I think of smiles passing between students and teachers, a teacher’s spotlight of kindness illuminating and redeeming all the troubles students face. In that, somewhere, are thanks. I just don’t know where… or how to believe in it.

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Shapes: An Essay in 15 Parts (8-15)

flyer03A4_291x400The second part of a lyric essay started on Saturday, 10/11

8.

Franklin P. Adams said, “I find that a great part of the information I have was acquired by looking up something and finding something else on the way.”

9.

Where anything might have a form (the noun) and anything might, naturally or unnaturally form (the verb), a heavier shadow stretches from the adjective “formal.”

Its connotations seem revealing. Whether you enjoy gowns and jackets with tails or not, whether you respond to a slight with a demand for a written apology or not, you have to recognize the effort in being formal. It holds an elevated status, occupies a plane higher than necessity. It’s neater, more definitive, pure.

But there’s another form, the sort you fill-out for Human Resources or in a doctor’s waiting room. All those blanks direct you through specific requests, and, when you finish, you fulfill what that page (or pages) meant to do. Its emptiness and completion are equally neat and equally formal.

9.

I have a friend who loathes the sort of essay you’re reading now. She finds these “lyric essays” loose, too easy because they favor association over logic and glorify evasiveness. To her, their hints only seem functional; really they’re an excuse not to focus your thinking or to lead anyone anywhere good.

She may be right, and she’s certainly identified what I enjoy about them.

10.

“It is a very sad thing,” Oscar Wilde wrote, “nowadays there’s so little useless information.”

11.

I have a crazy rereading of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to offer, one that likely has nothing to do with the story’s actual purpose. Everyone knows the hero is the child who points out the naked Emperor. The innocent is saner and wiser than those seduced by pretense, those duped into denial because they fear standing alone. We know what it’s about.

But what if we revise it? The special state of believing a fiction may be just as impressive—maybe more?—than acknowledging plain truth. And what’s so terrible about nudity? Couldn’t clothing be more ridiculous than being our raw selves? What if the Emperor’s bare bottom is only an issue because it’s identified as bare? Is our adherence to the child’s view just as conformist as our going along with the royal tailor?

The mystery and messiness of the situation reaches a clear resolution when the child points and laughs, but the author could easily choose to leave that moment out. Then the fiction might speak to our daily uncertainty about what we’re supposed to know and do. The tale might be more interesting for eluding its obvious and commonplace function.

12.

I attended a lecture where Robert Creeley said Louis Sullivan’s “Form ever follows function” might be exactly wrong. Every poem chooses its own form—you know what you can and can’t do—and, in living with and/or strategically violating those rules, you determine what your work will and won’t be. Selection, he suggested, focuses a poem’s effect.

His theory echoed one of the most popular metaphors in my MFA classes, the poem as a machine, one with cooperative parts producing a collective effect. Discussing machine-poems sometimes confused me, however. I was unsure if I should gather fan belts and pulleys and wheels and cogs and carburetors and wings to fashion an engine or if a blueprint sent me searching for those parts. Neither process seemed particularly accurate, as my poems often felt equal parts destination and deviation. Some poems seemed to have one wing. Others were a slice of obsidian.

13.

Last night’s dream:

A regular and prolonged drone makes conversation almost impossible with my eighth grade gym coach, but that doesn’t matter too much because we are only trying to identify the sound which, come to think of it, seems evident only in our discussion and not something I’m experiencing firsthand. “He’s always like this,” I think, without examining what “like this” or “always” might mean, and, in any case, he says he has to go, and my next appointment will be arriving shortly. If it’s arriving. I may be the one traveling to meet someone for an appointment elsewhere. Coach is no help. The helicopter is driving him crazy, and he has to get out of there. No time for an answer.

Shall I interpret? Have I interpreted?

14.

“Inspiration may be a form of super-consciousness, or perhaps sub-consciousness,” Aaron Copeland said, “I wouldn’t know. But I’m sure it is the antithesis of self-consciousness.”

15.

I do believe a thesis is the backbone of every essay, even this one. I’m just not sure how much that means.

A thesis can be as rigorous as an argument with your lifelong friend or as diffuse and nonspecific as the persistent whisper three tables away. It can insist, and it can flash and fade like sunlight in a partly cloudy sky.

Someone might want me to say more, and, usually, I do too.

The compulsion to express yourself neatly, however, is hard to read. You may be getting yourself out of trouble or into it. Sometimes only the slanted truth presents itself and straightening it out feels like a violation. Other times you want that jacket with tails, the spats, top hat, and cane. The form may already exist… or it may be invented altogether.

Other people know which. I’m trying to be content not knowing.

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Shapes: An Essay in 15 Parts (1-7)

Louis+Sullivan+CarsonThe other parts will appear here on Tuesday, 10/14…

“Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless,” John Steinbeck

1.

Near here, at the back of a liquor superstore, is the section where the fussy drinkers shop, and amid the calibrated jiggers, cherry swords, and seasonal bottle stoppers, are molds for making exciting ice cubes. The forms they create—spheres, giant and perfect cubes, bars, lips, dollar signs, and zeroes—are really only frozen water, as all ice is, but these vessels sculpt what flows from the tap into something more special than industrial cubes from my freezer.

They make ice notable again, give the commonplace shape, render it visible.

2.

A certain kind of artist distrusts form. If you mean to write from a true place, they argue, you cannot impose or superimpose on expression. You cannot restrict or constrict. Once you do, you court artifice, and anything that arises from artifice will be false. Worse still is working to fill a frame or template, which is absolute chicanery.

I won’t reenter this debate because I’ve said enough already, but I think about a still life. Even the most photorealistic communicates choice. You arranged the objects as you did. You lit them as you did. You placed the edges of the painting, the proportion of its focus, your angle of attention, determined how you will represent texture, color, and shade.

Whether these decisions were conscious or not, what is art without them? When do these choices shift from representation to imposition? When is form absent? How can it be right or wrong if it is inevitable?

3.

The quotation, “Form follows function” derives from Louis Sullivan, the Chicago architect. In 1896, in An Autobiography of an Idea, he said:

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.

The quotation has always bothered me for philosophical reasons. It assumes utility is the highest standard, that each function suggests one proper form that only needs to be discovered, that only the essential belongs in any design, that surplus is never an option. I could go on.

As a Chicagoan, I’ve seen a lot of Sullivan’s work and certainly understand the statement as it applies to skyscrapers and the steel beams that simplified their form and permitted their skyward stretch. Yet the statement makes less sense when you consider Sullivan’s ironwork, especially the elaborately tangled, storms of shapes I see as I walk in the city. They seem to have no function other than ornamentation, and it’s their excess—albeit geometric, neatly symmetrical and controlled excess—that makes them impressive.

Were I channeling Sullivan, I might say arresting a viewer’s attention is their function, and something simple might not achieve it as well. Perhaps these baroque, proliferating, woven, fever-dream effusions of dramatic contours are a type of utilitarianism too, but I’d rather they weren’t. I’d rather they were born of their own necessity, reflective of Sullivan’s mind unwound, taking a form that brings his soul to light.

4.

As is often the case with creation myths, the Mayan story of the first humans is a complicated affair. It involves twins seeking to rescue their father’s severed head from the underworld and, after their success, their ascension to the heavens to become the sun and moon. Only then can men be properly formed.

What’s intriguing to me, though, are all the failures in the account. Once the gods decided they needed someone to worship them and be “keepers of the days,” they tried to shape humans from mud. These mud creatures, however, wouldn’t hold souls, and soon the gods sent a great flood to wash them away. Then the gods tried wood, which didn’t work either, though these wooden beings became monkeys.

Finally, in defeating the gods in an underworld ball game, liberating their father’s noggin, and rising to illuminate everything, the miraculous twins permitted humans’ true form. Men were made of white and yellow corn.

Which says something about corn’s importance in Mayan culture but also begs the question “Why corn?” If the Mayan gods sought a race to be “keepers of the days,” maybe organisms that germinated, grew, and died marked time in ways gods could not. Maybe the gods sought something that would rely on light, moisture, and soil to echo humans’ dependence on them. Maybe corn is more sturdy than mud and more pliable than wood.

5.

“We need poetry because names die,” John Vernon says, “because objects resist their names, because the world overflows and escapes its names.”

6.

My daughter told me a version of the Mayan creation myth as interesting as the original. The way she remembered the story, the gods first tried water (which wouldn’t hold together), then stone (which could not move), and then turned to corn.

I still wonder, “Why corn?” but more important is the linearity of her description. In offering a cleaner plot, her revision presents each stage as an important step toward the ultimate ideal, as if the earlier forms weren’t properly “mistakes” at all because they led the Mayan gods to the answer. Each had utility.

That’s very different from the narrative I’ve learned since, which bends into odd, dream-like curlicues and rises in smoke. I like my daughter’s story. I like the Mayans’ more.

7.

My son took me to a bar that served cocktails containing exotic ice. His drink arrived with a single cube so large it barely found room to move in the glass, and mine included an equally large sphere that, every time I tried to imbibe, avalanched onto my nose.

We laughed about how challenging the experience was, speculated that the bartender was playing some whimsical trick on us. But the jester bartender didn’t stop us from drinking. Or ordering another.

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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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What Your Face May Mean

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Recently, sitting across from a student who’d received bad news in the form of a lower-than-expected essay grade, I said, “Are you angry with me?”

At the bottom of the last page I’d written some variety of the “See me” message.

“No,” she said, “That’s just my regular face.”

“Really? Because, if you’re upset, that’s okay. I know I’ve been mad at teachers who didn’t value my work the way I did. I’ve been right where you are, and it was frustrating. Sometimes I wanted to scream… but I want a chance to explain my reaction, if you can listen.”

“No,” she said, “I understand what you said.” She paused, “people tell me I look angry all the time.”

I described my criticisms anyway. She nodded as I pointed out each misstep. She gave every appearance of attention, attention I never quite trusted.

2.

I ran into an online quiz recently that tested my ability to read expressions. Two Asians, one very white blond guy, and one African-American contorted faces in various exaggerated ways—a tilted head, corners of the mouth pulled up or down, forehead rippled or pinched, eyes sliding left, cast down, or opened wide—and I guessed among the four emotions offered for each.

But I missed a few, and my results were disappointing. The website said:

Your score means you’re slightly better than the average at reading expressions. And research suggests that people can improve their emotion recognition skills with practice. So keep an eye out for our forthcoming empathy-training tool, designed to boost your emotional intelligence. Sign up for our e-newsletter for updates on it.

 3.

Growing up in a fairly silent household, I believed I could read faces. Someone was miffed, disappointed, hurt, triumphant, blissful, full of themselves, or disgusted, and I thought I knew it.

4.

Your semi-smile, semi-frown tells me you’re unhappy with what I just said. I can tell you’re sure it’s wrong. You’re just not saying. You’ll put up with me because I’m a decent person… sometimes… but—right now, in regards to what I just said—I’m full of shit.

5.

Scientists say certain looks are universal. Every culture averts it eyes when another person approaches from a distance, and every culture raises its eyes as that person comes close. At the last moment, all of us look away.

We want to look. We yearn to communicate, yearn to believe in contact without words.

6.

I believe in currents beneath surfaces—the dimple of motion in an otherwise calm patch is the least sign of deep upheaval. That gentle whorl is a tidal cataclysm brewing. The moon and sun make war in an achingly slow withdrawal. Lapping waves are really seething, restraining themselves but ready to amass, to pounce.

7.

Like anyone who’s seen the Mona Lisa, I’ve stared at her, trying to answer if she’s smiling or not. I know all the art history stuff, how the perspectives of the landscapes on either side of her head don’t quite match and pull us out of kilter, how even the symmetry of her face is somehow—purposely, perhaps—off.

I try to forget what I’ve heard and look, really look, into her eyes. What’s in there, I want to know, what thought of hers might I match to my own, what sympathy will fuse us finally in absolute sympathy, perhaps love?

She always becomes a portrait again.

8.

Some years ago now, a colleague pulled me aside to ask what was wrong. “You look at me with such disgust,” she said, “I couldn’t ignore it anymore. Are you mad at me?” I wanted to answer “No” and “nothing is wrong” but sensed it was too late.

Can others see something in your expression you don’t? Maybe I felt resentment more visible to her than to me. Or maybe, as I wanted to believe, my face settled on an uneven spot, a fault at odds with circumstance, something that felt put out not by her but by everything.

I didn’t know what to do but to assure her she was wrong.

She didn’t say so, but I’m certain she didn’t believe me. She trusted my face and not words.

In her place, would I have agreed?

9.

“You can’t really know,” a friend said, “exactly what people are thinking.”

“That,” I thought, “is precisely what I’d expect you to say.”

10.

Maybe there’s no alternative to belief.

If I think something I don’t feel, the tail whips around to lash the head. Foolishness is denial and denial foolishness—do I dare distrust what seems, in the moment, so momentous? Do I dare, with the weight of conviction falling on me, say I’m above hunches, brains knowing more than hearts or hands can?

The creeping dawn starts in fog and ends in sunlight, morning more confused than the balance of the day, which settles on a hard stare of blue sky and heat.

If you’d asked me earlier, I might have said something different than now.

11.

When I met my wife, her eyes hit me first—so blue, but also so transparent, as if her blue were the color of truth.

12.

I took a second test, on the NY Times site , and discovered my score of 30/36 meant:

The average score for this test is in the range of 22 to 30 correct responses. If you scored above 30, you may be quite good at understanding someone’s mental state based on facial cues.

Hardly decisive.

13.

Telepathy is a favorite superpower, and my students also often choose it over invisibility, super speed, flight, and telekinesis. Someone, however, always mentions the potential noise of reading minds, the many voices you’d hear all the time, every day.

“Wouldn’t you learn to block it out,” someone asks, “the way you listen to just the person you’re talking to in a crowded place?”

“Yuck,” someone else will say, “I don’t want to know what people are thinking. Too much information.”

14.

Most of the time, I’m not really looking at people. Though we’ve locked eyes, I’m not aware of it, and, should I become conscious, I’m quickly self-conscious, outside whatever we’re discussing.

A strange intimacy arises when I recognize how engaged I am by someone’s eyes. I’m suddenly looking at my desperation full on. Something stirs.

“Here,” I could say to myself, “is lust, the purest sort, the kind that doesn’t want touch so much as tenderness and fixed understanding.”

15.

“So,” I said to the student at last, “do you get it?”

“Sure,” she said, “I can fix it… I guess I just wasn’t sure what you were looking for. I had the wrong idea of what you wanted.”

I tried, with my eyes, to tell her I wasn’t disappointed, that what I wanted was the best she might manage. I meant to say I believed her best was exceptional, that I had faith in her.

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