Category Archives: Shakespeare

It Raineth

painting1As I write, it’s rainy—no downpour, but the sky hangs heavy, prematurely as dim as dusk… and deep gray. I have no reason to go out, thankfully.

On days like today, if anyone complained about the weather, a former colleague said, “Into each life, some rain must fall.” He taught English, and at first I assumed the quotation came from Shakespeare, but it’s actually from a poem by Longfellow that, like the weather outside (possibly), seems headed for gloom before it turns toward sunshine instead.

Here’s the last stanza:

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

The poem’s consolation—that “the common fate of all” dictates we suffer a day of rain here or there—balances against that “still shining sun” above the clouds or elsewhere. The last line, “Some days must be dark and dreary,” suggests the necessity of variation, not the prominence of rain or “dark and dreary” days. The metaphoric lesson behind the poem is that, when things look bad, you do well to remember they’re not always so and not for everyone. So “cease repining,” stop complaining, and get going.

That’s harder than it appears. Misfortune isn’t always so rationally and easily explained away. The notions “this too shall pass” and “others have it worse” may make absolute intellectual sense, but suffering people don’t excel at abstraction any more than someone concussed excels at math. Minds are much easier to change than emotions, and rarely does reprimanding someone for being unhappy—no, I’d say never—works.

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the fool Feste sings a song about life, and its reprised line, “For the rain it raineth every day” offers an alternative perspective. Recognizing rain’s frequency adjusts expectations. You would be wise, he implies, to expect rain, to keep it in mind rather than explain it away as variation because, well, it’s going to happen. His last stanza is:

A great while ago the world begun,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

But that’s all one, our play is done,

And we’ll strive to please you every day.

Compensation becomes the focus. “That’s all one,” Feste sings. It is what it is, and so perhaps it’s better to battle what’s inevitable than to live in expectation of relief or in the celebration that other people have sunshine. “We’ll strive to please you every day,” puts emphasis squarely on verbs, striving to please, efforts to answer vicissitudes, not erase them with phony affirmations or life-coaching.

As in most matters, I’m more Shakespearian than Longfellowian. Though it may seem grim to live with daily rain, I prefer an alternative acknowledging humanity and empathy. That the sun shines elsewhere promises statistical solace—well, a lot of other people are doing fine—whereas Feste speaks a blues truth, “it be’s like that sometimes.”

And not just sometimes. Someone somewhere is getting wet. Right now.

I have no reason to go out but don’t rejoice. Many people will be making their way home without umbrellas. I’ve been where they are and wouldn’t presume to remind them of those who checked the forecast or stowed a rain coat. I’d never preach, as many do, that though they are the unfortunate today, if they try harder next time, they may not possibly, if they are lucky, always be.

I’m thankful I’m dry but recall my miseries. It rains. It rains every day.


Filed under Brave New World, Chicago, Doubt, Empathy, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Metaphor, Modern Life, Rationalizations, Shakespeare, St. Thérèse, Thoughts, Worry

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.


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.


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?


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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Nothing So Familiar

Technique in art . . . has about the same value as technique in lovemaking. That is to say, heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and so does heartless skill, but what you want is passionate virtuosity.    —John Barth

The first time I was in graduate school I dreaded one classmate’s “seminar day.” Though he interpreted literature sensitively, imaginatively, and profoundly, the way he talked followed the peculiar pattern of a mantra. When he spoke, um, he would pause, um, no matter what, um, to insert the um, in the right place… um. For me, those “ums” became tarred lines on an Ohio highway after driving all night. Five minutes and I veered onto the shoulder of a coma.

This anecdote doesn’t make me proud—my classmate had something to say, he spoke as he did, and I couldn’t hear past his ums. I’d be more tolerant now because I suspect students sometimes hear me the same way. We are together nearly every day, and they must recognize, consciously or subconsciously, my rhythms and verbal ticks. Some may have worked out imitations or discussed my mantras with classmates. A few, even in October, may already pine for liberation.

The human voice possesses music quite separate from content. Robert Frost talked about “The sound of sense,” the meaning audible through a door even when you have no true idea of the conversation inside. A fingerprint of diction and syntax betrays us, communicating, “This is how this brain assembles language. Here are the pieces it makes of thinking.”

Some scholars easily identify writers’ prose and can know Henry James or Charlotte Bronte at a thousand paces. I recognize Shakespeare, Hemingway, maybe Jane Austen, but the prose I know best is my own. What I hear is what I do, what I am. My phrasing follows patterns once hidden and now apparent. And I worry that, the more I refine my style, the more my prose reaches an impossible, inaudible pitch.

As I write I sometimes feel the way I do in class when I read poems aloud and try to take them on anew. I fight what they want of me but inevitably fall back into their meter and rhyme. My voice soon follows the tide of their parallelism, settles on end words and surfs whatever wants to rise and fall. Where lies escape?

In Henry V, a boy accompanies the morally questionable Pistol to the wars in France and wonders at Pistol’s gall, concluding, “I did never know so full a voice issue from so empty a heart: but the saying is true: ‘The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.’” I hope he’s joking because I hate to think my own voice is so empty, not the sum of character or experience but the practice of echoes,  words restrained within tight sentences. I don’t want to believe style is the only greatness.

Perhaps the heartfelt overflows the vessel of its expression, and all a person needs is sincerity and desire. Maybe I’d be happier with a barbaric yawp, an inarticulate cry in the wilderness. I might say more without practice or study or pattern. I should be an amnesiac.

If my mantric-um graduate school classmate is still speaking as he did, he may not have traveled far in teaching. His words quickly became just words, and no content seemed to make his voice compelling. That I’ve made it all this way might mean I’m easier to hear, but when I hear myself speak or write, his specter rears. Every time I open my mouth, I hope for something new, a sound that will take its own form and step like a foal onto fresh ground.


Filed under Ambition, Art, Doubt, Education, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Shakespeare, Thoughts, Voice, Worry, Writing

Difficult Student

Not all teachers were good students, but most of us regard ourselves as models. Our expectations for students arise partly from our own schooling: a former shirker might anticipate students who want nothing more than to elude work, and former grinds might focus on each student’s responsibility to study relentlessly. Of course, school is complicated—intellectually we know each class is a collection of individuals—but, emotionally, we teachers start with the dubious assumption we’re normal.

I haven’t been a student in any context for ten years, and I was the age of my students thirty-five years ago. Still, as the student in an NEH Shakespeare Institute over the last couple of weeks, a question kept jumping into my brain, “What’s it like to teach a horse’s ass like me?”

My goal wasn’t to be an ass, but my teachers’ assertions invariably inspired me to amend, refine, counter, adjust, contradict. So much of what I said needed the subtitle, “Yes, but…” and I could not shut up. Every day I started by writing “QUIET,” at the top of that page of notes, and, every day, I heard myself speaking. My teachers started calling others before me. I think they hoped I’d give up. I felt that unmistakable unwelcome vibe.

And I didn’t blame them. I do talk too much and rate my perceptions too highly. In classes I’ve taught, students like me sometimes need a gentle conversation after class about ‘”giving others a chance” and “the value of hearing different voices.” Even when students have something valuable to say, sometimes they say too much. Offering too many comments seems selfish, an assertion this class is really all about me, not us.

My rationalization is that I have to handle ideas to understand them. If you tell me that most of what we know about Shakespeare’s women comes from conversations between men, I will go searching for other applications or examples. If you tell me Shakespeare presents no positive examples of lasting marriages, something in me recoils and readies itself for a dispute. When a question elicits silence, I feel an overwhelming urge to fill it. I can’t just copy interpretations because I want to participate. To me, teachers are rivals as well as guides. I envy what they do. Believe me, I know that’s hard to take.

Our instructors at the NEH program were brilliant college professors, well-versed in critical theory and the consensus about the plays we studied. They were very persuasive in presenting their thinking. They know so much more than I do, which at times made my remarks especially naïve and/or dense. And I could see their expressions and demeanor shift. They would ask me, “Really? What makes you think that?” As a teacher, I heard traps springing.

I was making a fool of myself. I wrote another “QUIET” at the top of the page.

In my classes, I’ve found ways to compensate for students like me… and my nature. I seldom walk into a class with a thesis to suggest, support, or establish, and I try instead to lead an investigation of a question that everyone, including me, can participate in equally. If what I know (that they don’t) comes in handy, I’ll use it, but I try to avoid the easy and popular game of “Guess What The Teacher Is Thinking.” I suppress questions like, “Any other ideas?” that often mean “That’s not it, try again.”

My classes don’t always cover as much as they ought, but I console myself by hoping the experience—the brain training—is plenty. I try not to worry too much about being off the subject because, I tell myself, the subject is whatever arises from our investigations.

And I sympathize with “difficult” students who won’t go along and won’t buy what I’m consciously or unconsciously selling. Though they can be annoying and occasionally get under my skin, I try not to take their objections personally. Maybe—as a student or as a teacher—I just like to be shaken. After years of leading discussions of works I’ve read so many times, I love a changed sense of what I understand and believe.

Last fall, after a particularly disputatious conversation about a passage in Macbeth, one of my students apologized for getting so emotional, and I told him, “Nothing to apologize for.” Any other response would be hypocrisy.

Let me offer a similar apology to my teachers and classmates over the last couple of weeks. I’m sorry I’m such an ass. I hope you can say, “Nothing to apologize for.” I know myself—it appears there is no better answer.


Filed under Aging, Doubt, Education, Ego, Essays, High School Teaching, Identity, Laments, life, Memory, Shakespeare, Teaching, Thoughts, Worry

Will and I

Some years ago, on the first day of a Shakespeare course, when I asked students to explain why they wanted to take the class, one person answered, “Because even a six year-old knows about Shakespeare.” As my daughter was six at the time, I decided to put my student’s theory to the test.

That night, I asked her, “Do you know who Shakespeare is?”

“Isn’t he that guy who wears pumpkin pants?” she said.

The question to my class wasn’t rhetorical or strategic. I’m curious why people still study Shakespeare. Though a few students have no justification beyond their parents’ wishes, most answer as the student above did: Shakespeare has added immeasurably to our culture, and there must be something to an author who has persisted lo these 400 years. He is Famous (capital “F”) and Important (capital “I”). Yet, while cultural literacy is a valid answer, it’s also safe. I secretly admire levelers like my daughter who refuse to take Shakespeare too seriously. I love asking, “Why Shakespeare?”

Shakespeare worshipers are called “bardolators.” I’m not sure I’d consider myself a bardolator now, and I certainly didn’t start out as one. My first attraction to Shakespeare was competitive—everyone told me how hard he is, and, seeing myself as a literary giant killer, I wanted to fell every author others couldn’t handle. I was cultivating a list of difficult books I’d finished. I never expected to find anything new in Shakespeare. At first, I didn’t, just more lyricism and subtlety. I liked reading his lines aloud—even a giant killer recognizes music—but I clung to skepticism. I bristled when anyone said, “He’s kind of a big deal.”

As my capacity to understand Shakespeare grew, so did my respect. Scholars have so many and so different thoughts about his plays and, after you’ve studied Shakespeare for a while you begin to see that, while nothing is new, everything is there. You begin to feel as philosophy majors must about Socrates. He got to just about every major question about humanity, and he got there first. Even at that stage in my appreciation, however, questions nagged me—what did I really admire, Shakespeare, or my ability to interpret his lines?

Truth is, a good deal of Shakespeare’s difficulty comes from imprecision. A line like “Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile” (LLL, I.1: 77) sounds illuminating but couldn’t be more shadowy. Like most good poetry, the sound of of Shakespeare’s lines ring as much as their sense, and it’s easy to mistake lyricism for wisdom or artistic virtuosity. When you watch or listen to Shakespeare, the current of musical language can carry you away and squelch questions like “What the hell does that mean?”

Samuel Johnson dares to suggest Shakespeare didn’t understand either. The Bard, Johnson says, sometimes finds himself, “Entangled with an unwieldy sentiment, which he cannot well express, and will not reject; he struggles with it for a while; and if it continues stubborn, comprises it in such words as occur, and leaves it to be disentangled by those who have more leisure to bestow upon it.”

In other words, Shakespeare was lazy, all-too-willing to settle for ambiguity that leaves explanation and interpretation to others.

My biggest breakthrough came from recognizing these “others” as actors. My best answer to “Why Shakespeare?” may be that his work makes literary criticism practical. To perform his lines, you must understand them… even if that means devising something more likely than true. You can talk about accurate interpretations of Shakespearian characters, and lines limit possibilities somewhat, but half the fun is renovating roles, finding what you need in them. Their expansive humanity makes re-evaluating the characters possible. In an even larger sense, producing Shakespeare means rendering it contemporary and relevant. If the plays weren’t so slippery, reinventing them might be impossible.

Not many students embrace the difficulty of Shakespeare as I did—I think I’ll cry if I hear one more freshman say the plays need to be translated into English—but most students enjoy acting out lines and putting his plays on their legs. Students are surprised to discover the difficulty of Shakespeare also makes it fun to play.

In two weeks, I’m off to New York City to study Shakespeare and, to prepare, I’m rereading the three plays we’ll cover. As always, I wince—some moments are so dated or corny or implausible or bombastic or ornate—but behind it all is something that, even after 400 years, waits to be revealed. Any mystery that survives so long, that stretches just out of our reach and still invites investigation must be good, must be worth studying.

Shakespeare is no god—he wore pumpkin pants, after all—but maybe his murkiness, his flawed effort to sing exactly what being human means is better than divinity. For me, his humanity is the best reason to keep him around.

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Dressing: An Essay in Segments

The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has yet discovered.

—Oscar Wilde, Phrases and Philosophies for the use of the Young


Just outside the doors into work, I steel myself for playing me. If the day is light on classes and commitments, I might be wearing jeans, a collarless shirt, no belt. But if I expect to meet parents, administrators, scary colleagues, or visitors from another school, I put on slacks, a dress shirt, my shiny shoes, and maybe a tie and jacket. The school declares some “Dress-up days,” and those require full armor—a suit, complete with my better black leather belt and even shinier shoes.

I try to costume myself appropriately. These clothes should cover a single personality, but, if I’m honest, I notice a difference arising from changing the way I dress. The same face, the same speech, the same posture, the same gestures, the same approaches honed by years standing or sitting in classes and, still, a difference. I am a version of a version appearing in another episode. The series can’t be cancelled, and, while I sometimes forget I’m acting for a moment, something in me knows.


Method acting assumes people can slip from self-consciousness. Exercising the appropriate will, an actor can stop behaving like him or herself and be someone else. The best performance excavates deep humanity and forms a new person from all that common human clay. You are that person elementally. You are a golem fashioned of basic stuff particular to no one particularly—sense memory, breath, movement and life, a true new human self.

Though some people link method acting and the Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavski, he urged actors to find roles in dress and movement as well as psychology. Some inspiration for Stanislavski’s approach must have come from his own experience. He originally changed his name to separate his acting life from the rest of his life and avoid shaming his upper-crust family. For someone of Stanislavski’s social station, acting was slumming, and he dabbled like a hobbyist for years before becoming professional in his mid-thirties. For Stanislavski, “living a part” required disguise. A drunk, a gypsy, or a vagrant needed proper clothes, and he dressed carefully before venturing to the train station, as he sometimes did, to pretend to be someone else.

According to Stanislavski, being in character means covering who you really are. It requires hard work and discipline—study, not liberation, and training, not magic.

I don’t know Stanislaski’s writing well enough to address its implications—perhaps I misunderstand him altogether—but I wonder what he thought a self is, whether it might be costume all the way in.


I suffer from hyperhidrosis, overactive sweat glands. It sounds comic, but it’s real. My case is not so bad—I don’t have sweaty hands, feet, back, crotch, or chest as some sufferers do—but dark circles form under my arms every workday. Though I only learned the name for my condition recently, I’ve had it since my teens.

You might think that would give me time to get used to it, but you can’t get used to it. Maybe someone else could live with people noticing (and noticing their noticing), but still it’s uncomfortable to wear a wet shirt all day. I feel so uncomfortable I’ve often wished it were socially acceptable to wear Pampers under my arms.

Stress triggers my hyperhydrosis. My hyperhydrosis triggers stress. It’s a perfectly malignant cycle. Sometimes I try to will it away and tell my body to stop sweating, but I can’t pretend past my problem. By ten, I’m soaked, and those circles say my calm is an act. My bodily malfunction announces trouble even if I’m fine, thus self-consciousness never leaves me. I’m not fine.

By eleven, I can’t wait go home to change or find somewhere I can lift my arms without worry and dry out. Even more than that, I want to stop pretending.


Thoreau warns against enterprises that require new clothes, and generally I follow his advice. The periodic trip to my favorite bargain department store creates that familiar question, “Is this something I wear?” I prefer a confident “Yes” and quick escape, but sometimes a second voice nags that being me should include taking chances, exploring, keeping up. I should try to seem fashionable.

When I was younger, I could be many me’s, dress one way on the weekends and another during the week, one way with some friends and another with others, one way for one type of event and another for another. I still make distinctions, but my choices are subtle. I’m so used to dressing like me that only I notice.


Once my brother and I argued over whether someone could be a studied eccentric. He said no because, if “eccentric” meant “unconventional, deviating from customary or usual practice” then the deliberate effort to be eccentric rendered a person anti-conventional, anti-customary, and anti-usual and therefore entirely in the thrall of those attributes. Trying to be eccentric was only switching polarities. The true eccentric, he said, couldn’t help it.

My argument was simpler—when are we not trying?


For years, I’ve been searching for an essay someone told me about. The author, an honors English teacher, kept asking his principal to reassign him to the remedial class and, each time, the principal denied the request saying, “You won’t like it.” Finally, exhausted by the teacher’s persistent request, the principal answered, “Okay, if you insist… but you won’t like it.”

And the experience was just what the principal promised, a disaster. The class couldn’t read anything worth studying and quickly became mired in whether they had pencils, where their books were, whether they could stay awake. The students did little more than tolerate the teacher, gazing at him as they might gaze at his desk.

The teacher began to see himself differently. He had thought his stature matched his skill. He believed he taught exceptional students because he was himself exceptional and discovered instead that he was incompetent, capable of teaching only those who desperately wanted to learn and did most of the work themselves.

However, he was a proud man, and, realizing the principal would soon observe and evaluate his class, he decided to instruct them to discuss Romeo and Juliet from a script. He taught them to raise their hands to established questions in an orchestrated sequence. He kept prop books and spirals on hand. He assigned insightful remarks to each student and rehearsed reading from the text. This performance soon became their main business, and they slowly gained the skill to enact this perfect class.

When evaluation day arrived, the students played their roles brilliantly, without an awkward or suspicious instant. The principal left awed by the magical transformation he’d witnessed. He shook the teacher’s hand too long and too hard. He promised a special citation in the teacher’s personnel file.

You might guess what happened next. When the principal was a sufficient distance down the hall, the class broke into cheers, congratulating the teacher and one another, full of themselves and experiencing a flood of unfamiliar accomplishment. For the first time that year, the teacher felt a success.


If someone out there knows this essay, please send me the author and title. I probably have all the details wrong. The story tunneled into me, and I’m beginning to wonder if I invented it.


Personality is performance, I’m sure of it.

Yet, I’m just as sure my believing so makes me hard to reach, hard to hold, hard to love. I know people who are much more “available,” more spontaneous and unstudied and embraceable. People hug me with trepidation… and not just because my shirt is wet.

I’m not socially awkward. I don’t have a flat affect. I’m not un-charismatic. And, occasionally, people even tell me I’m impressive. Yet, if every person were a day’s weather, my more available friends would be an invitation to sunbathe by the water, and I would be a hard-blue-skied afternoon with a temperature in the low 60’s—nice, agreeable on the street’s sunny side, but not quite warm enough to slow your step or disrobe.


In theatre an actor “breaks the fourth wall” when he or she speaks to the audience and calls attention to a play as artifice. Those moments can be tricky. What does it mean to pretend not to pretend, and what happens to empathy when you admit you’re acting? These moments create discomfort. They send an audience down a what-is-what rabbit hole.

In Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV, Sir John Falstaff feigns death to avoid a particularly savage attacker. When he rises later, he defends himself by saying he’s no different from others who have done the same. Because it’s Shakespeare and we have no stage directions, we can’t say for sure, but some scholars speculate Falstaff waves his hand during this speech to take in characters killed in the preceding battle scene. Each is really an actor playing dead as part of the performance. The moment is perfect for Falstaff. His licentiousness knows no bounds. No behavior is forbidden him, and he is just the sort to spoil the play to save himself.

I envy Falstaff. What would happen if I stood up and said, “I am an actor”?  What if I confessed unapologetically that I’m not sure what’s under the disguise or whether a real me is there at all?  I have the costumes, the props, the play—what else do I have?

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The Unhappy Spaceman

anouilh2.jpg My brother drew a flip-book cartoon in the margin of Edith Hamilton’s paperback Mythology. The rocket suddenly appeared in the lower right-hand corner about page 40, rose quickly above three trailing lines of thrust, divided into stages, then—near the top of the page—spit a tiny triangular capsule that began to tumble, quickly. A paddle appeared, which was really a parachute it turns out, and the capsule drifted left and right to a gentle landing.

A stick man much bigger than his spacecraft emerged and waved just before being run down by an ambulance. “Ouch” flashed and dissipated over his flat form.

I’m sure my ninth grade English teacher, Mr. Lockwood, wondered why I rifled through that book so incessantly as he talked. He couldn’t have thought I was reading and must have questioned if I was even listening. I heard the stories, sort of, but every book we studied was another version of that rocket journey: some tale of soaring promise that ended in muted misery or death.

If my thinking were more nimble, I might have thought my brother Zeus or one of his cronies, toying with the little astronaut, knowing just when to squash him—when he was closest to success. As far as I could tell, just like my brother’s spaceman, no character ever emerged unscathed from a book; few ambitions went unpunished.

In my ninth grade class, they are just finishing their study of Macbeth, and some of them probably feel the way I did then. I am always answering the question, “Why is everything we read so depressing?”

Sometimes I say the last thing on happy people’s mind is writing—which may be true but isn’t the real answer. The real answer is that we don’t take happy people seriously. They are too damn giddy to be believed. A happy person is liable to say anything and has very little motive to speak the truth. They have too much invested in everything staying right with the world, and they smile much too much.

A depressed person, a person like Macbeth who is screwed well past the sticking point, is a person you can trust. What, is he going to lie once they have him “tied to the stake” where he can only “bearlike…fight the course”? That sort of extremity extracts the truth from characters. Up until then, they speak in hope of future advantage or out of desperation to make sense of chaos.

Earlier in the play, Lady Macbeth tells her husband to “Look like th’ innocent flower, / But be the serpent under ‘t.” She doubts he can do so, and Macbeth can’t do it well, but it is not until the end of the play he decides to give up the attempt and be himself, whatever it is. Before then, I sometimes wonder which is the act, the flower or the serpent. Up until the concluding page, each role seems equally forced. He’s a terrible flower, and the order he tries to impose on the world by making “the very firstlings of my heart…the firstlings of my hand”—his attempt to “crown his thoughts with acts”—isn’t any more natural. Besides being cruel and barbaric, Macbeth’s behavior is experimental, an attempt to do something to combat the agony he’s created for himself by killing Duncan.

I’d never say it to my class, but I think I like the Macbeth at the end of the play better than the one at the beginning. He was a brute at the start and a brute at the end, but in his resignation to try the last prophecy and fight Macduff, he gives up on attempting to control everything and just be. And he knows what he’s doing. He is no longer ignorant.

In his version of Antigone, Jean Anouilh has the Chorus say,

In a tragedy, nothing is in doubt and everyone’s destiny is known. That makes for tranquility…There isn’t any hope. You’re trapped. The whole sky has fallen on you, and all you can do about it is to shout. Don’t mistake me: I said “shout”: I did not say groan, whimper, complain. That you cannot do. But you can shout aloud; you can get all things said that you never thought you’d be able to say—or even knew you had it in you to say. And you don’t say these things because it will do any good to say them: you know better than that. You say them for their own sake.

Anouihl’s vision doesn’t go over so well with freshmen, and it shouldn’t. I love their hope and their happiness. In Mr. Lockwood’s ninth grade English class, however, I hadn’t discovered the sort of wisdom that transcends feeling. When Macbeth stops being a king and becomes a human—when my brother’s spaceman becomes a human—they are ready to speak. Then it is no longer a matter of being happy or depressing, just telling the truths they know.

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