Introduction to Shakespeare

Holly and I have never taken a vacation that didn’t end in family. Every road trip we’ve driven eventually intersected with parents, grandparents, uncles or cousins. So last week, we went to St. Louis as a means to simply escape for ourselves. We went to a concert. We went to the zoo. And Holly agreed to go to Shakespeare in the Park for one hour.

However, an hour is extremely relative.

St. Louis has had a blossoming Shakespeare in the Park program for fifteen years, which is amazing, because many of Shakespeare’s plays are boring. There are only six or eight that I like; there are two that I love. Luckily, they were performing Henry V, basically Shakespeare’s version of Braveheart, one that I’ve seen several times and therefore don’t really need to understand the exact words to know what’s going on. I explained it to Holly this way:

Henry V (also called Harry, also called Hal – I forgot to tell her that up front, and she began to think there were three main characters) leads a group of underdog soldiers against the mightiest football program in the state – France – and proceeds to give like eight different motivational speeches. They eventually win but Henry/Harry/Hal dies.

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The stage was at the bottom of a natural ampitheater packed with perhaps five hundred attendees. There were other plays that day, and the people we sat next to and behind had clearly been there for hours. Empty craft beer bottles and Whole Foods chip bags everywhere. The smell of hemp. Someone using a Polaroid camera instead of, I don’t know, a camera that was invented in the last two decades. Then the play began.

I realized something in the very first seen, one where religious figures try to justify this upcoming war. I knew from previous experience that it was supposed to be funny, but for Holly it would be impossible to see the humor. In Henry V, Shakespeare often made jokes by featuring characters who used non-existent words or who were overly flowery in speech – which is basically Shakespeare on a good day. For a first time watcher, there’s no way to distinguish between the humorous speeches and the true ones. When I explained this to Holly, she said, “So Shakespeare is making fun of Shakespeare?” No, I said, then immediately added, Wait – I have no idea.

Afterwards, Holly said that it was like watching a Spanish soap opera: she knew when people were mad, sad or happy, but she had no idea why. During one scene – a siege of a French town, where Henry gives another one of his halftime speeches – she leaned over and said, “I get that there’s a battle going on, but it’s like they’re speaking French.”

I looked at my phone. It had been just over an hour. “Then we better go,” I said, “because the next scene is actually in French.”

Shakespeare. Just when you think you’re getting the hang of it, he goes and writes a whole scene in a different language.

What I Believe Happened Last Night, According to My Cat

The night is my own. Others abandon the night, sleep through it. I live it. Except when I sleep during it.

I lay on the human’s chest, waving my tail over her face in a sign of dominance. I own her as well, except when she holds me by the neck. Then I can’t move. Everything is still in the dark bedroom.

You are my friend, whispers the dog from under the bed. She has been sleeping there for the past few weeks in an attempt to impress me. I am not impressed.

Cat

Something crashes outside. Something fell. My ears swivel, a reflex of a thousand years. My claws come out, a reflex of a thousand – wait, I have no claws anymore. I whack my tail against the human’s face. I own her, except that time when she had me declawed.

I venture outside and smell the air. Opossum. Or is it possum? I cannot spell –

YOU are my friend, the dog says as she follows me. She is panting loudly, too loudly for the possum. Opossum. I own the alphabet, except for –

It bolts across the yard, far below the deck. I spring into action, flowing down the wooden steps like a raging river. I own similes, as well. The opossum is a slow moving mouth breather. I catch it instantly, leading with my front paws, the claws that have evolved over thousands of years –

Wait…

I slap the opossum with my warm little paws. Curses. The opossum turns on me, latching it’s jaws onto my shoulder. The pain runs through my system like venom. I open my jaws to scream.

YOU ARE MY FRIEND! screams the dog instead, as it charges the opossum. The villain’s jaws release as it scrambles over the fence. The dog, in it’s own way, snaps at the creature playfully, never quite understanding combat.

I limp back inside, curling up into a ball on the carpet of the humans’ bedroom. I bleed on the carpet. I own the carpet.

The dog wanders in. You are my FRIEND, she breathes, and she tries to fit my head in her mouth. For once, I let her. I own this dog. Except when I’m running away from her.

OPEN WATER…swim

Over the last year, my wife has developed an addiction to sport. Initially it was running, but we all know that’s just a gateway drug. Now it’s the hard stuff: swimming, biking…running, again. Triathlons, they call it on the street.

My hobbies are less pressing. Today I bought a used paperback science fiction book for a dollar and fifty cents. Later this afternoon, I will most likely doodle in a notebook instead of writing my thousand words of the day. Perhaps I will eat lunch.

Comparatively, Holly went on a four hour bike ride. Maybe she ran for an additional hour. I’m not even sure anymore.

Like any good addict wife, she wants to bring me along. We’ve started swimming together once a week. I go at a languid halfspeed while Holly continually laps me using only her arms. I did buy a pair of jammers, though. Completing unflattering. However, I will say this for swimming: it may be the most private workout you can achieve. No one can watch you contemplate a choice between the ten and twenty-five pound barbell (I really think the gym has permanently lost the fifteen and twenty pounders). In the pool, it’s only you. And your wife, who is smoking you.

On Memorial Day, Holly participated in an open water swim. I’ve ran 5k’s, obstacle courses and even a disastrous half-marathon with her before. We had been swimming together for several weeks at this point. Thus, when she asked me to compete with her, I saw it as the shortest, most painless opportunity to join Holly in her hobby before the distances got overly complicated. Woe to him who thinks such thoughts.

The swim was early that Monday morning at an under-used beach on our lake. There were perhaps one hundred participants, an even mix of high school swim teams, triathlon clubs, and Holly’s friends. A great, inflatable green gate had been erected at the water’s edge. Beyond that, four enormous buoys floated in a straight line, each 250 meters from the next. Holly would end up swimming to the furthest and back again, for 2000 meters. Some people that day did the same loop twice, for 4000. I swam halfway and turned around for a complete kilometer.

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The group that swam my length was released last. Even then, I tried to leave the green gate last, not out of trepidation but in an effort to set a slow pace, uninfluenced by other swimmers. I had swam more than a thousand meters before, but I realized that some things were different in open water. Little did I know.

First, the obvious – there are no walls. I could not take an easy breath every twenty-five yards and reset myself before pushing – really, with my lanky legs, rocketing – myself a quarter of the pool distance simply by kicking off the wall. Add this element to the dark, murky water (I have written elsewhere about my unhealthy, adolescent fear of dark water) and the fact that this water surges occasionally as if it were alive, and you have created a lethal scenario. After my first 200 meters, it ceased to be a competition and instead became survival.

I have never before participated in an athletic event that had the potential to kill me (unless you count the egg games – man that’s like three hyperlinks in this post). The lake was angry that day, my friends. By the time I reached the 500 meter turn-around, I had used all the swim strokes I knew and then created two more. I was asked three times by volunteer kayakers if I needed to grab ahold of their boats and rest a bit. I began to be passed by different color swim caps, indicating that the other distance racers were destined to finish before I.

I made it back to shore. I didn’t throw up. Instead, I thought about all the promises I had made to God, if He allowed me to live, and if I was going to fulfill them now that I was back on dry land. I waited for Holly, who was close behind, ready to comfort her.  Because, of course, she was bound to have a similar, shocking experience. However, she came out of the water laughing, raising the roof with her hands and hugging other competitors.

Afterwards, I got third place in my age division. There were only three of us. I still got a medal.

Look at me, I’m an e-book!

The act of writing isn’t hard – well, isn’t always hard – but telling your relatives that you like to write is. Most often, the easiest way to relate with that tidbit is to come back with an acknowledgement that someone else also writes. “You know, Mary Anne also likes to write.” You have a book? they ask rhetorically. Mary Anne has five.

Or better, I also have an idea for a  book. Let me tell you the saga of its people.

I lead with this not as a complaint, but to frame my reservation to announcing my publication. Because publishing a book carries two very distinct stereotypes – that a gatekeeper in New York is FedExing me money for my young adult novel, or that I wrote a story about a dog detective in three days and haven’t yet used spell check. To most people, I am Mary Anne, an anecdote in conversation without real context.

TLLG-Cover-Draft-3I started writing my book, The Late Lord Glass, in 2011. The previous year I had written a novel for my undergraduate thesis, featuring time travel and absolutely no plot. It was atrocious and I highly doubt my thesis committee read it in it’s entirety. I would not. In fact, if time travel were possible, I would use it to stop that committee from ever forming.

After college, I was teaching English in Turkey, isolated in the southeastern part of the country. I spent several months overhauling my thesis (adding things like, say, a plot) and began fiddling with a story about someone coming home after being away a long time. You can see a connection to real life: in Turkey, part of me was becoming afraid that because of my separate, bizarre experiences – and because I was missing all the experiences shared by my old community – that I wouldn’t fit in when I came back. That’s where The Late Lord Glass came in.

Obviously, presenting only the existential experience is boring. So I added things I liked: pirates, princes, swordfights, conspiracies, more pirates. I wrote the book I wanted to read, one that stole from other books like Captain Blood and The Count of Monte Cristo and Princess Bride (it was a book first).

Over the next three years, the book came off and went back on a shelf as I learned things about life and how women think (the early version of the female lead was not very accurate). The book was also read, front to back, by a dozen people, each with grammatical and thematic suggestions. Finally, a few months ago, the book seemed whole to me.

It’s on Amazon now, for ninety-nine cents. I earn thirty-five cents for every one sold – so, this will never make me any money. However, it’s not the exercise of a whim, either. It’s just something I’m passionate about and it felt sad to never share it, like the story never existed in the first place. So judge for yourself. Don’t let yourself hear it first from your uncle.

 

Home Improvement Triage

Our Labrador Retriever is in a gangly, uncoordinated space between puppy and adult, commonly called, “What-is-that-I-will-eat-it.” We’ve lost a lot of our household to Zucca, a precious yellow lab who believes that shredding important documents is the way to a man’s heart.

ImageFor the last few weeks, my wife and I have come home each day with the dreadful expectation of another semi-valuable possession destroyed. Luckily, Zucca loves to eat junk mail. The downside to that blessing is the hour I have to spend in the yard, tweeser-pinching white confetti out of the grass. However, she’s recently graduated to objects whose destruction can be a little aggravating. Beyond socks (and Holly’s socks are a little expensive), she’s eaten part of my Turkish rug, an award-winning book, some mortgage documents, a lot of yellow gel tablets I haven’t been able to identify, and Holly’s glass nail file. She tried to eat the polish, as well, but couldn’t quite swallow.

Last week, I had to send my wife a message that read, “Remember how the rockers on our back porch used to have cushions? They don’t have cushions any more.”

Shame on us, for giving her over to this misbehavior during the winter. We hardly used our backyard, thus allowing her to shred evidence without oversight. It’s only because I’ve started mowing our .05 acres that I’ve had to clean up after her. It was through this that I discovered her greatest sin.

Zucca loves lattice work. The old, rough texture, the chemical taste, the rusty staples – it’s like her crystal meth. Our elevated porch was hemmed in on three sides by lattice last fall. When I began to mow our yard this spring, it was down to two. I did the mathematics: Zucca ate over forty-square feet of thin wood strips. And she still wasn’t satisfied.

In an effort to force her into good behavior – just as our mail now goes into a metal bucket, the Turkish rug stays locked in the guest room, and Holly’s nail polish is kept in a box – last weekend I bought a crowbar for eleven dollars and began ripping the wood off our porch. It took four hours, as the areas where the one-time builders couldn’t use staples, they chose to use screws then file the heads away. I managed to give myself a mild concussion, slamming the crowbar into my temple, and may have contracted multiple forms of tetanus from the different shades of rusty screws.

For Zucca, however, it was the greatest day of her life. She laid at my feet, between me and the wood, enjoying the shadow cast by the porch and occasionally snacking on some loose lattice. All the extra is now in our garage – we’re saving it as a reward for not eating anything else.

“Have I Told You That My Cat’s Butt Exploded?”

This past Friday was my last day of work for Camp War Eagle. I’ve been hired at Walmart Corporate to do something I don’t truly understand but hope to learn soon. At the office, they spent lunch trying to hold a roast, but ended up continuing to affirm my best attributes. I don’t think anyone really understood what a roast was.

That night, several of my (by then former) coworkers joined Holly and I for dinner and a walk around the town square, where there was a street performer competition. Most of the jugglers and magicians spent their time making terrible jokes rather than juggling or magic making. One had amazing hair though, and he made sure to highlight that fact.

At dinner, conversation began to steer away from work towards life, which I imagine will have to become the template for most of my relationships now. I began to rack my mind for any daily anecdotes to share with friends, to practice speaking about personal rather than professional life. So I lead with this:

“Have I told you that my cat’s butt exploded?”

Cat

This was a completely truthful and sincere question. For several weeks prior, our cat had become more of a demon than normal. She stopped cleaning herself. She would growl whenever touched. Holly and I once tried to hold her down and search her for broken bones or severe cuts. Her reaction terrified us into submitting to her will, to let her go.

I agreed to take her to vet alone (Holly has bad memories there). When I entered the examining room, the nurse said that she was going to search the cat for any injuries. “She hasn’t been very receptive to that,” I responded.

She picked the cat up. The cat began to growl as an idling chainsaw. Then her butt exploded.

At the time, it looked like projectile diarrhea. Reddish-brown liquid sprayed all over the nurse’s arm, shirt and the wall behind her, like a Jackson Pollock diorama. She dropped our cat, standing with locked arms, and said, “I need to go.”

I was dry heaving near the door (and the cat was purring in the corner) when the elderly veterinarian with the demeanor of a Buddhist yogi entered and explained that, “There’s nothing to worry about, this happens all the time.”

Apparently it was an abscess, like a giant zit, on the cat’s butt. In medical terms, once popped, she felt a gagillion times better. The vet kept her for the weekend and returned the cat with a shaved rear end and a jagged, six-inch long incision. We have renamed her “Frankenbutt.”

Back in the restaurant, after casually inserting this conversation starter, on of my friends spit his drink back into the glass and wiped his mouth. “Finally,” he said, “we don’t have to talk about work.”

Old Soul

I lead a reading group at a local middle school. We meet every Tuesday at lunch, or any Tuesday that the students feel like it. Sometimes it’s just one student and I, perusing the young adults section, comparing dystopian novels.

We tried to read My Side of the Mountain last semester. A story about a boy striking out on his own, befriending a weasel, living inside a tree and killing deer with huge rocks seemed like an easy win. Only one boy finished the book, and that boy wasn’t even me.

This semester, I wanted to aim for something easier (for me). But only two of the five students showed up for our meeting on Tuesday. I couldn’t even predict if there would be a reading group on future Tuesdays. Even I wanted to go play tetherball.

As we talked about meaningless anecdotes, sharing about our Christmas presents and favorite fake animals, I checked my watch, wondering where the other students were. I was bored. In an off-hand comment, I asked one student, Adam, what his favorite television show was.

Adam was the new kid in school when I started my group. He wears glasses, doesn’t exactly like sports, and is the only person at the table who actually wanted to talk about My Side of the Mountain (he finished it). He is too sweet for middle school.

In response to my question, he said, “Probably Chicago Fire.” Oh, I’ve seen that, I said. Instantly, Adam changed. His eyes widened. He began to bounce in his seat. “REALLY? What was the last thing you remember?” Um – I’m not sure. I think a mean lady was trying to shut down the fire house. “Oh boy, oh boy, you’re three episodes behind! So much has happened! Can I tell you – PLEASE?”

I nodded yes, and he proceeded to unload in a manner I had never seen from him, even when discussing how to make acorn pancakes. “Shea left! And Dawson is in fire school now. Oh, and Miles – Miles got promoted to truck squad!”

Adam watches Chicago Fire every Tuesday with his grandfather.

Afterward, I walked Adam back to his class. He asked more Chicago Fire-centric questions, and I had to confess. “I watch the show with my wife,” I said. “She’s the one who really likes it.”

My wife Holly is Adam’s P.E. coach. “Oh, Coach Trumbo, you mean?” he asked, then suddenly he began slapping his forehead. “Oh, Adam, you shouldn’t have said that!” he mumbled. “Nosy, nosy, nosy!”

Adam, what’s wrong?

“I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t pry into your business like that, I always do that, Adam how could you be so nosy!”

As I tried to comfort him, assure him that his question was well within social boundaries, I realized that he was a thirty year old man stuck in a twelve year old’s body.

Kids These Days

The summer moves on, sometimes without me. I used to have the structure of summer camp to hold my days in place – breakfast, pools, lunch, sunburn – but now things are much more free flowing. I’m never sure how to use my free time. I’ve read four books in the past two weeks, all written by a Midwestern woman in the nineties. I share them with my dad once I finish.

Most days I spend with kids. Like my mentee, Albert. He’ll be entering fifth grade in the fall. Not only is he exceptionally bright, but I’ve begun to realize that he may be as socially inept as I am. I took him to Barnes and Nobles for his birthday, offering to buy whatever book he wanted. After perusing for a half hour (and glossing over each of my suggestions), we approached the center kiosk and, without forewarning, Albert spouted, “Excuse me: do you perhaps have the Fart Book in stock?”

Following up that classy, polite query, after the worker replied with a slighly-southern tinted accent, Albert said, “Are you from France or something?”

My wife pleads with me to filter my thoughts, which I often release like beautiful doves before a climatic gun battle. I think, If he didn’t want to be asked about the origin of his tattoos, he shouldn’t wear them so prominently. I’m sure Albert thought, If he doesn’t want to be accused of being French, he should dial back his accent.

There is a family that comes to one of our summer clubs that speaks no English. They often drop their son and daughter off wordlessly, not conveying their inability to pick them up afterward. Several times, after club when all the other parents have come and gone, I’ll turn to those two kids and ask, “Do you want to call your mother?” and they’ll say, “Oh, she’s not coming. She wants you to take us home.”

One such night, the older sister climbed into the back of my Civic and let the younger brother ride shotgun. In my backseat, I keep a myriad of board games and donated dime novels, used for various, creative activities like Black Out Poetry and Mystery Novel Basketball. Angeles – a sweet, twelve-year-old Hispanic girl – picked up a novel and began reading in a slight accent:

For twenty-five years the unsolved kidnapping of two young girls has haunted Lucas Davenport. Today, two bodies have been found. He must return to a nightmare -“

“Maybe I should take that,” I said, extending my hand towards her.

“This is good,” she said, ignoring me. I watched her in the rear-view as she opened the novel. Perhaps, I thought, she’ll leave it at that. “Listen to this: The Dexedrine was beginning to fade, but Lucas was still too jacked to sleep. Instead of going home, he drove down to Kenny’s bar -“

GIVE ME THAT BOOK!”

The car swerved slightly as I took it from her.

 

Kids Who Live Between the Cracks

As a supervisor at summer camp, I mostly know two types of kids: the trouble makers and the awesome makers. Those who deserve punishment, and those who deserve to be adopted by myself and my wife. The majority of camp falls somewhere in between.

One week sessions are worse because there exists half the time for the same number of names and faces. Sometimes I don’t even catch the awesome makers. I’m too busy arbitrating a disagreement about hat stealing and shoe throwing (both received five minutes off of their free time).

Last week, I made a rounds of the cabins I supervised on Final Friday, the last day of camp. I had to encourage campers and negligent counselors to continue sweeping and to please identify and pack all pairs of underwear abandoned on the clothesline. My third time in Cabin 37, Isaac stopped me.

This particular session was a young one – those in Cabin 37 were entering the fifth grade as eleven-year-olds. Even so, Isaac was the runt. Blonde headed and bug eyed, Isaac was four inches shorter than anyone else in the cabin and he spoke like a plainsclothed policeman, whispering into a hidden microphone. Most questions aimed at Isaac echo off his stone faced but sweet visage and are answered by his cabin mates. He is slow to speak and moves quite silently. I knew him little.

*pick a card* he whispered, fanning a deck of 52 in front of me. I chose the six of diamonds entirely by accident. *now put it back* he said three times before I finally understood him.

Isaac then began to shuffle the deck thoroughly, not looking at the cards or myself, but at an unmoving shadow of light coming in from the shuttered window. Then, as abruptly as he began his trick, he ceased shuffling and handed me the deck.

I took it in one hand, expecting further instructions, but none came. Small Isaac, oblivious and quiet, still stared at the shadow. Then, without warning, he slapped the deck out of my hand with an amount of force that shocked me, compared to his tiny frame.

The cards scattered to the floor. All the cards, except the six of diamonds – somehow, I was still holding it.

In amazement, I looked at Isaac with my eyes held wide. I had only learned his name that morning, when I had to double-check whether he would ride the bus or be picked up by his parents. I opened my mouth to congratulate him on a well done trick, much like I would to any camper, but instead he walked back to his bunk and laid down.

Other campers began to pick up the cards quickly, as one shouted, “Isn’t Isaac awesome?”

I’m now in the early stages of adoption papers.

The New South

A few weeks ago, I was in New Olreans, reuniting with old friends. There’s nothing like extreme isolation and a collective language barrier to bring people together. We walked old streets, told stories of our new lives, and considered one friend who couldn’t make the trip. An idea hatched – we had to get Ed a souvenir. But what?

The city was filled with street artists. Despite my lack of visual sense, I could at least identify things that thrilled me. Oh, that tree is growing goats like fruit? How much do you want for it? Most ran from fantastic to psychedelic, and held an intense faux-French flavor.

In the midst of painters, palm readers and those creating caricatures of old married couples from Alabama, we found a young man in a tattered jacket, sitting on an old crate and working from a typewriter. For twelve dollars, he composed a piece of flash poetry for Ed. It was quite good, too – that night, my friends and I took turns reading the poem aloud, offering our own emphasis and voice to personal interpretations of the meaning. In retrospect, they were probably just pretty words strung together in sixty seconds like a gypsy necklace, but still: impressive.

Wandering alone, I found a photographer who specialized in period piece costumes and sepia. I offered it to the group, two-part humor and one-part nostalgia for similar photos my awesome family took when I was younger. My friends agreed, enthusiastically.

ImageReviewing the costumes, we quickly realized that a) we were not up to cross-dressing, b) rumrunners are for people sans imagination, and c) there were not enough Union army costumes to cover those in the group who lived in the north. Though there were four Confederate costumes, I was the only one who lived south of the Mason-Dixon.

The grey uniform and the Confederate flag are still loaded symbols. That’s understandable. However, my friends showed real hesitation at the prospect of joining a lost cause. We compromised by writing a new ending, complete with individual characters and personal motivations. After a few failed poses and an impatient photographer, we struck on our own interpretation of the divide between North and South.

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