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.

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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.

“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.”

You Break It, You’ve Already Bought It

A couple of weekends ago, Holly and I visited some friends in Little Rocky. David is in med school; he and his wife live in a small and well put together house that made Holly and I rethink our beige walls. Our trip back included a conversation about the difference between “homey” and “homely” and a final word on which we atmosphere we had created. It was the last one.

There was a craft fair in the hallways of my workplace. Ozone offices out of the Jones Center, a large complex of sporting gyms and community classrooms. On Friday, we lost several half hours of productivity because a few of the Ozone directors invested five dollars in handmade marshmellow shooters. If you weren’t with them, you were against them, apparently.

During a break from work I passed by an unfinished furniture booth. My first thought was, “If I buy something, Holly will be so surprised -” but my second thought was, “-at how bad of a job I did picking out furniture.” So instead I took her the next day to pick for herself.

Holly doesn’t trust me to haggle. When we were in Turkey together, I tried to impress her by buying scarves at a discount. Unfortunately, I mixed up the terms “five lira” and “fifty lira” and ended up paying WAY too much. So on Saturday we just paid the man his money and walked away with a nice pine wood entry table.

We made it as far as the door before, in a fit of horrific miscommunication, we juggled and dropped the table. The sound of wood on concrete broke my heart – one of the table corners was smashed and a leg cracked down its length. Both of us stood there, silently cursing, as another couple passed by. They were a young married pair like ourselves and carried the exact same table; their grip tighten as they passed us and I felt their pity.

“This could happen to anybody,” I called after them. “Pine’s a very soft wood.”

The damage was discouraging. We put it in the back of the car and tried not to think about it.

I am not crafty. I spent a year on maintenance and proved that I was only useful for jobs that called for a heavy hand. Items that called for intricacy were not my forte. However, that afternoon Holly and I went about repairing the table and staining it. I used wholly too much wood glue and unnecessary zip ties to put it back together.

I had no idea what I was doing.

We took turns staining the table over a few days, recovering our mistakes. And in the end, it turned out pretty well. Now we just have to teach our cat to stay away from it.

The flowers were because there is no “I’m Sorry For Dropping Your Table” Hallmark section.

A Single Story

Every Wednesday morning, the male Ozone directors have a bible study. We’re moving through Luke at a respectable clip. This morning was Jesus as boy and John the Baptist, and we met at Wes’s house.

Like me, Wes is new this year. We’re similar in age and both married, but Wes has two kids. It amazes me that at a commensurate age, had things gone slightly different, I’m capable of having two children. There are days I barely tolerate my cat. I have puncture wounds on both my thighs. I will declaw her myself with a corkscrew, I think.

We did well for the first hour. We covered much ground, including the episode where boy Jesus is Home Alone‘d in Jerusalem during Passover, which was great because  I’ve never really understood what the story meant.

Wes and Esther

We drank something that I described as “apple cider without the apples” before Wes corrected me with, “That’s because it’s called cider.” But around eight when Wes’s two year old girl Esther came out, our efficiency plummeted.

Esther is very cute. You probably know someone like her. Wes had to define precocious for me but as it turns out, she is that. During the John the Baptist section, Scott, our boss, began to play 52 card pick up with Esther. He would drop cards, one by one, and she would pick them up and hand them back. Eventually, she said what is probably every human’s first complete sentence, “I do,” and began to drop the cards herself.

Ricky and Red Shirt

Ricky and Red Shirt

My friend Ricky took a card from her. Ricky is capable of great impressions and I think that vocal coordination is tied to his small digit dexterity. He’s great with his hands; he could be quite a magician, if he liked magic.

As a trick for Esther, he pretended to eat the card, making a loud chomping noise – “NOM NOM NOM” – and hiding it in his hand. Then, with a “BURP,” he tossed it on his lap, as if upchucked. Esther laughed and clapped and Ricky did the trick several times before she finally said, “I do.”

Esther then began to actually eat the cards, one by one, as Ricky’s goofy face melted into panic. Paralyzed, all Ricky could do was take the cards out of her mouth as she replaced the last one. They passed cards from mouth to hand several times before Ricky showed her the trick.

“You see,” he said. “I’m not really eating it. It’s in my hand.”

“I do,” she responded. Then she ate another one.

Finally Wes took Esther into her room to correct her bad behavior. She was obviously unhappy about being removed, but more so Ricky wore a face of shame and guilt. We others eyed him peripherally, not wanting to draw attention to the matter.

“I didn’t mean to,” he announced before he started picking up cards again. “She’s just so precocious.”

“That’s Not My Catchphrase”

At the office last week, my coworker Ricky stepped into the cubicle we like to call the Greenhouse (because one wall is a giant window to the outside and the temperature fluctuates wildly) and announced he had an interview with a game show.

“One of my friends won eight thousand dollars,” he said, “and he recommended me.”

I had never heard of Let’s Ask America, a gameshow whose contestants Skype in from the comfort of their living rooms. The website had some catchy graphics and a tab labeled “BE A CONTESTANT.” How hard could it be, I asked myself in a completely rhetorical manner. So I filled out the form.

Beyond the usual First Name/Last Name/Most Embarrassing Story, it asked a few questions obviously geared towards puzzling out an applicant’s personality. At one point, the form stated, “We’re looking for contestants who are very opinionated. If this is you, give an example of one such opinion.” Though I follow politics, I’m incapable of articulation and am trying to keep my write-in candidate a surprise until November. So instead, I wrote:

“I think that all children should be given imaginary swords.”

I went on to back up that assertion with cold hard facts.

Later that day I got a call from the casting agency who handled application intake. After a five minute conversation where the screener accused me of having no crazy and made me dance a cappella on Skype, I progressed to the next round.

Before my second and most important interview, I was talking to a friend about how to best display energy on camera. I tried very hard to come up with a catch phrase that would define me to the interviewer, but each one I spoke sounded either trite (“CLICK CLICK BOO YEAH”) or baffling (“GHOST CAT STRKE!”). I decided to abandon the idea.

My interview began with three Let’s Ask America style questions. The second and third I did quite well on. However, during the first I was still searching for my on-camera footing and a comfortable personality. After I answered correctly, I hesitated in celebration because I didn’t know which reaction route to go. Crazy or witty? High energy or cool guy.”

“Okay,” the interviewer cut in. “After the next question I want you to try -”

Suddenly I was gripped with inspiration and shouted with uncertainty, “BRING ON THE…MONEY!”

I quickly followed that up with, “That’s not my catchphrase. Please don’t write that down.”

A Six Word Story…At the End

In my new job description with War Eagle, I am somewhat involved in arts programing for the year round ministry. Fulfilling this role, I attended the day-long seminar, “Integrating Arts in the Classroom.”

The seminar was aimed at area artists who occasionally pinch hit in classes, teaching dance to propagate greater understanding of geology. It works, in some ways. I sat at a table with a few employees of Theater Squared, the stage company that is putting on the comedy Noises Off.

“I loved Noises Off,” I said. “Are the actors coming today?”

“I was one of the actors,” said the woman across from me.

“And you were so funny!”

To kick off the seminar, we were asked to each pick a postcard that best represented us as a Teaching Artist, the official title for all attendees. A conference table was covered in postcards featuring great and classic paintings. I picked M.C. Escher’s Castle in the Sky because it wasn’t abstract and I like the idea of a flying castle.

We were then directed to find someone with a similar postcard. I found a woman with another Escher sketching, one depicting small humans building a tower.

The seminar head said, “Now explain how the picture represents you as a teaching artist.” I said that I liked castles and didn’t like abstraction. She said, “These people represent the many facades of my teaching face.”

I was in over my head.

The day passes slowly and morphed into a long segment on classroom management, for which Camp is a surprisingly good foundation. Lunch was way too long.

After seven hours, I began to pack my bag before the seminarian announced one final activity. “Remember your postcards?” she asked. “Each of you must write a six word story that encompasses both your postcard and what you have learned today.”

Oh no, I thought. How do I turn a floating castle into arts integration? However, the seminarian said to write what you feel, so I scribbled:

“CAUTION TORTOISE: I SUMMON A CASTLE!”

To my horror, we were ordered to stand in a circle holding our postcards outward. “I’m going to play some music,” the seminarian began. “I want you to take turns reading your six word story together, building a great poem of learning.” I began to hyperventilate. “When I believe a segment of great finality has been spoken,” she continued. “Then I will stop the music.”

The woman next to me volunteered. The karaoke Enya began. “Circles twirl in the learning light.”

The movement popcorned.

“Hope truth warmth through true understanding.”

“First in darkness – now acceptance/freedom.”

“Paths straight; possibilities are a mystery.”

I tried to bleed into the background, but eventually we reached an unending silence. The seminarian had yet to find a true ending. Summoning the greatest courage, I uttered a six word story I had been slamming together in my mind.

” ‘UNIVERSES COLLIDE!’ HE SAID RIDING SIDESADDLE.”

I meant this as a reference to the figure on the tortoise. However, bewildered silence followed. Until the music stopped.

“I think we’re finished here,” the seminarian said and nodded the ending.

Happy Egg Games

Two weeks ago my mother read The Hunger Games. She called me afterward, deriding the story for it’s lack of resolution and overall happy ending. “Why didn’t they end up together?” she asked of the two protagonists. “If you ever write a story about children killing each other, make it happy.” She then asserted that she would surely forget the book ever existed.

But a few days before Easter I received this:

Holly asked, “What are the Egg Games?” Embarrassed, I lied: “I have no idea.”

Two years ago, my immediate family ate Easter lunch on the new concrete foundation of our house-in-progress. Later, my mom organized a two person Easter Egg Hunt. My brother Harlin and I begrudgingly stooped to pick up eggs, spying on one another to make sure the game was still in progress.

Until we began to compete. A few elbows later, we were wrestling in the grass over a purple plastic egg.

This year my mother decided to expand the field to all cousins. Her picture message was accompanied with the exclamation, FULL CONTACT EGG HUNT, which really raised Holly’s blood pressure. “People are going to watch this?” she asked. “Even you don’t know all your relatives. Strangers will see!”

When we got to my parents house that Sunday, dutifully wearing skirts and ties, there was already a full speed tennis matching blooming. My family breeds athletic fury like stagnant water begets insects – there’s a lot of it. My cousins had on their sleeveless shirts and basketball shorts. They came ready to hunt.

(A small reassurance was my brother Harlin, who wore a pair of Ralph Lauren slacks the color of an old avocado. They were bought off a clearance rack in an outlet mall, and he refused to change for the Egg Games. Ultimately, they were his downfall.)

After a long lunch, we were herded into the front yard where there waited eight black felt circles. We each stood on our own circle, including Harlin’s girlfriend, who was meeting the extended family for the first time. “What’s going on?” she whispered as my mom began to shout.

“WELCOME TO THE FIRST ANNUAL EGG GAMES!” she said unto the heavens. My father silently stood by, holding the original Egg Games sign on a stake. “There are two rules,” she continued. “First: everyone wins!” Holly and I nodded, encouraged. “Second: you cannot kill anyone!”

“I thought that would come first,” Holly said.

The baskets, plastic Wal-Mart sacks, were in a pile at the Cornucopia, as termed in the books. My cousins, all tall former basketball players in or out of college, leaned into a starting crouch. But as my mom yelled GO, it was Holly who made it first to the bags. And was promptly dog piled.

The next minutes are blurred. Holly later told me that her original plan was to run off with all the bags and gain an advantage. She ended up with only three, and when she saw Harlin’s shell-shocked girlfriend wandering aimlessly without a bag, she gave up her evil plan. We later teamed up to steal all of Harlin’s eggs. He wasn’t hard to find – just follow the pants.

The violence escalated when one of my cousins found a twenty dollar gas card in a big yellow egg. It was like finding out that two tributes could survive. As Holly and I raced through the playing field, pick pocketing my in-fighting cousins, I saw Harlin cradling his few eggs like a broken puppy, backpedaling in bright green dress slacks with paranoid defense. His girlfriend finally had a bag, but it looked empty.

After the final whistle and count, Holly and I made off with thirty dollars to Chick-fil-a and a Starbucks card worth a few coffees. Sadly, Harlin and his green pants sat defeated in a deck chair on the patio, with only some Reese’s candies and a few Disney bandaids, which for some reason my mother used to stuff several eggs. We gave him a Chili’s gift card with some advice – those pants were your downfall, bro.

Things That Go Bump in the Night

April is Holly’s birthday month. Funny how I just got a national holiday (Merry Groundhog’s Day!). For one of her presents, she chose for us to spend the weekend with her grandparents in Greer’s Ferry, a tiny lakeside community in central Arkansas. They have a wonderfully comfortable living room with an old rear-projection big screen and a penchant for sixties westerns and war movies. Grandaddy and Ma have been married for sixty years, and Ma can never remember which tea pitcher has been sweetened. It’s a trial and error snack.

I should preface this story with the knowledge that I used to sleepwalk as a child. And young adult. Also last night. Forget night terrors – I am a night terror, if you’re on the top bunk. That was something I failed to mention to Holly in my marriage vows.

Holly’s cousins spent the night. One brought a boyfriend. As I fell asleep on the couch, watchingMASH, apparently I offered to give cousin Carley a back massage. They woke me up to tell me it was not kosher.

Later on, when I was deeply asleep, Holly told her cousins to quiet down as she crept around my chair, planning to give me a Wet Willie. When she stuck her finger in my ear – I punched her in the face. My unconscious defense was a swift upper cut aimed straight at the irritant. As I sat up and rubbed my eyes, my wife held her forehead and shouted, “You’re a crazy person!”

Eventually I was carried to bed.

That night I had a dream where I was trapped on the outside of a skyscraper. Since I was born with an overgrown fear of heights, my natural reaction was swift horror as I tried to claw my way back through the glass windows. They were sealed shut. Eventually, Holly appeared and encouraged me to throw myself off the ledge.

I awoke the next morning to find the window sill ripped off the underlying stone and hanging at a forty-five degree angle. I gently nudged Holly and asked, “Did anything weird happen last night?”

“ARE YOU SERIOUS?” she replied. “When I woke up at 3:30 last night, you were pulling the curtains off that window! Then when I called out your name,  you spun around and jumped on the bed like a cat man. I thought you were going to tear out my throat like a human tiger.”

I pondered this with great care before replying, “So you’d say I have the agility of a cat?”

Half Marathon, Full Accomplishment

Right after we got married, Holly decided to run a half marathon. I’m not sure how it happened, but soon enough I was following her for three miles every Saturday. Mostly on foot, a few times by car. In my life I’ve frequently topped out at five kilometers but each week I found myself agreeing to a different deal and a longer mileage. Though I remained adamant that I would never run a half marathon, after my first five miler I decided that if a Greek soldier with no prior training could do 26, I could do 13.

(Tradition tells us that the Greek soldier – running with news from the battle of Marathon back to Athens – died immediately. However, health care has come a long way since then.)

I waited until Valentine’s Day to tell Holly. By then we were running eight miles every Saturday. When I came out with it, she said, “What a perfect picture of marriage – we’ll run the race together, no matter how hard it is.”

And I said, “Oh – I just thought…exactly the same thing.”

We ran last Saturday in the Bentonville Half Marathon, which followed scenic interstates and pierced through one impressively large subdivision. The race finished with the trail that runs past Crystal Bridges, the American Art Museum funded by the Walton Family Foundation. Holly and I went there a few weeks ago. Instead of saying, “That’s the famous Van Gogh!” we said, “That was a color photo in my ninth grade history book!”

The Crystal Bridges trail is a nasty bit of incline. It resurrected warm memories of feebly crawling out of a snow ditch back to the ski trail. The trail is also of indeterminate length – at the 12 mile station we took water and voted to go one more mile only. Then, three hundred yards later we passed an encouraging bystander who yelled, “One more mile!” The fourth time this happened I started crying – but wait, that was eye sweat.

With a half mile left, about to crest the despicable Gallipoli slope, Holly threw up. It looked like lemon-lime Gatorade and she was quick to recover. “Come on,” she said as we ran past an enthusiastic mom yelling, “One more mile!” As the trail leveled and the cover rock started drifting towards us from the finish line band, I began to feel very self confident. Holly had been training five times a week. I was running just once a week. And yet she was the one who threw up. I interpreted this to mean I had won.

Physically I was a zombie. Afterwards I felt like I was wearing a fever like an expensive tuxedo. I did not want to take it off. Holly tells me that we ran into one of my fraternity brothers near the end. I can’t remember that.

We crossed the finish line together, exhausted, but I managed a smile because I had retained all my liquid. As someone began to unlace my shoe to get the race chip, another volunteer handed me a water. I ripped it open and took a big gulp –

And immediately peed in my pants.

Now, several days later, I concede that if anyone won, it was Holly.