Every so often I get asked for a brief bio, or I need to send out a resumé, or a CV. It happens all the time to most of us when we have job reviews, or we apply for a new position. In the past I tended to approach such an action with anxiety - was I saying the right things? Would I appear the way I wanted to? Recently, though, I've taken to doing this every so often just as a way of keeping tabs on what I've done and where I've been. It's a bit like one of those FitBits which counts how many paces you've done each day. It's rather consoling to see that, in fact, you've been a bit more active than you thought. Even on a bad, sit-at-the-desk-and-type day I find I've done more movement than I realized. Even when a story is rejected by a magazine I can still say that I wrote it, and sent it out. The key, though, is to be positive. It's never any good to say that something simply isn't good enough or to judge oneself harshly. Instead, just choose to look at what you've managed to do, consider how you tried hard, and recognize that you are still moving forwards, even if at times slowly. Anne Tyler perhaps put it best when she described bringing up her young children and having no time, and being asked by a neighbor what she'd been doing. Was she still writing, the neighbor queried? The temptation was, I'm sure, to say that she'd not had a moment to herself -- but she didn't fall into that. Instead she simply said, "Yes, still writing". Not all triumphs are ticker-tape parades. Sometimes they're just: "Still writing".
It's something I do a fair amount of. Partly this is because as a teacher of literature there are some texts I go back to teaching moderately regularly. The good ones, the world class ones, never fail to give me something new each time I engage with them. At a certain point I also find that I've memorized the shorter pieces, and even some of the longer ones (King Lear), or at least large chunks of them. What I find is that memorizing gives me a new sense of the language, of its power, and as a result I feel a deeper ownership of what I'm reading. The words have carved themselves on my brain without me consciously sitting down to commit them to memory, and the strange alchemy of literature has begun. It has become part of me. To some extent we are the stories we tell ourselves about who we are - whether the story is of success or of failings. But we are also the stories and the emotions that we have drunk in before we know we've chosen them, when a book or poem has entered our souls, when the magic has happened before we know it.
I've been re-reading - after a gap of nearly 40 years - these contemporaries of Shakespeare, and I recall now why it was hard work the first time round. These two dramatists wrote plenty of plays that were successful in their day, yet have not withstood the tests of time. And I think it is really because of one thing - their concept of the human psyche. They revel in putting before us characters who, for one reason or another, are acting in a way that is contrary to what one might expect. Each one appears before us as a personage who is presently doing exactly the opposite of what is expected. So the valiant soldier refuses to fight; the king behaves unregally, the coward is entirely happy in his humiliation, and so on. This keeps the audience guessing. We never know quite what to expect. yet it is strangely disorienting to watch characters becoming quite unlike themselves so often, as they swing between extremes of behavior. I mention this because it highlights something about Shakespeare: his characters do not oscillate so wildly in their passions. Instead they dig deeper and deeper into who they are, often their own type of confused madness (think of King Lear). They become more of who they are, rather than veering between unexplained extremes. Macbeth doesn't change so much as grow into a shocked, desperate awareness of who he has become. That's very different. When we watch current TV offerings we can see plenty of passion and strange behaviors depicted for our entertainment. But do we ever feel we're being sucked into the same space of their obsessions? Do we ever feel that, yes, under other circumstances that could be me? Which leads us to ask: how much of who were currently are and understand ourselves to be was first articulated by Shakespeare?
Not so many years ago there used to be creatures called "travel agents". They used to sort out airlines, connections, and even currency. They charged a small commission but they usually got you a decent deal without any fuss. Today we do it all on-line, with endless confusing airline websites and special deals that may or may not then turn sour with baggage charges, food charges, ticket (!!) charges and so on. In the name of supposedly saving a few bucks we are driving ourselves nuts. This is not progress.
There's this idea we have that freedom is what it's all about. And yet - perhaps we need to look a little deeper. Freedom to some people can also mean cluelessly wandering about with no sense of responsibility: I'm free to do as I wish, even if that involves trashing the place. I don't think that works. Freedom only has value when you choose to give it away for a good reason. So in a marriage the partners trade in their freedom to date anyone for a choice to be with just the one person. Servicemen and women choose to serve their country - even if that means giving up some personal freedoms around the rest of their lives. And so on. Freedom only has value when you use it to choose and then commit to a belief. You are free to choose. Then you have to stick to your choice. Freedom does not mean you get everything for free. That's theft. Freedom means having choices and being responsible for them. If you choose to vote for a candidate who is a dud then you need to take responsibility for the aftermath, or for changing things. If you choose guns then you have to take responsibility for the way they are used. Freedom does not mean shrugging and saying, "This doesn't apply to me".
That's right. Trump's got us right where he wants us. Let me give you an example. Imagine you're giving a party and a drunk crashes it. He comes in, insults everyone he meets, grabs the women, knocks things over, makes a mess, trashes health care, the environment and so on. What do you do? Here's what NOT to do. Don't go around after him straightening the lampshades, apologizing to the guests, mopping up the spilt drinks, and so on. What you do is you get him out of your home as soon as possible. Then you tidy up.
I come from what my mother used to call "a military family". Let us honor our veterans and their sacrifices whenever we can. And let us remember that for every one who served there are likely to be several family members who have been damaged, too. Families suffer losses, live through the effects of PTSD, of crippling wounds, and of the resultant despair that leads so many veterans to kill themselves. Twenty-two every day is the current figure. Let us also never forget that all wars leave deep scars - on bodies, on society, and on cultures. Every war shatters part, if not all, of what was in place before. Sometimes what was there before had many important things in it which may be lost as a result. Great civilizations have fallen over the centuries and sometimes what took their place was neither wiser nor better. When we remember our self-less and brave veterans it would be good to remember the bigger picture, too. To some extent we are all "veterans".
Following on from my previous posts about guns I've had some cordial and pleasant conversations with many gun owners. Several things emerged. The first is that automatic and semi-automatic assault rifles fire a lot of bullets but are rather inaccurate. The laws of physics tend to be unbending at this point. You can fire a lot of bullets fast, or a very few bullets accurately. You just can't have both. What this means is that an assault rifle owner cannot guarantee to hit the targeted object or person. Such weapons are useful if you're planning to shoot up a crowd of concert goers (as we saw in Las Vegas) but you cannot be sure to get the ones you aim at! This means the gun owner is simply not safe! With hand guns the problem is even worse. Short barreled hand-held weapons are notoriously inaccurate. Again, the gun owner is not safe! There is only one clear answer. Gun owners of all kinds must be mandated to have at least 10,000 extra bullets with them at all times. This is the only way to guarantee that the bad guys will be stopped. Yes, perhaps a few innocent civilians may be hurt, but that's the price of Liberty. This amount of extra ammunition may weigh quite a lot - perhaps in excess of 100 pounds for some kinds. But isn't it worth it, for Liberty? And if you can't carry the extra weight, what kind of a Patriot are you? I'm sure there will soon be a good business developing for ammo hand-carts, or possibly small motorized trucks to follow the gun owner around. What a boon for industry! Most gun owners will already have stock-piled in excess of the minimum amount of bullets, so this legislation will not unduly impact their wallets, but a mild boost to the ammunition industry is always welcome. We really can keep our gun owners safe, and boost employment at the same time.
So this whole gun control thing is way out of hand. I modestly submit a proposal here that may solve the problem. Let us honor the Second Amendment in the true spirit our founding fathers intended! I'd suggest that anyone who carries a gun should be at all times be mandated to carry a full sized sword, which was certainly the expectation in 1776. This will let everyone know who is carrying a gun, and it would, of course, allow a person with a gun an essential back-up should the original method of self protection fail. I can see no objection to this. Or better yet, let us consider the early automobiles. Taking our lead from them we should mandate that anyone carrying a weapon must be accompanied by someone carry a red flag. This would alert the rest of us to the danger, and help solve unemployment at the same time. The red flags would help to brighten even the dullest of urban landscapes and be regarded as a boon to flag makers everywhere. These two practical suggestions should by no means be disregarded. Sword makers throughout the United States have been in a terrible slump for decades, now, and deserve a helping hand. Likewise flag makers need a break from the millions of Stars and Stripes they churn out each year to celebrate our country, and we could, in this way, reclaim a sizable portion of the flag making industry from China and other places. Personally I stand to make no profit from either of these suggestions, except for knowing that I have done the country I love a service.
No matter what one's political affiliation it is hard to claim that the current administration has had a unifying effect on this country. It has, alas, also served to alienate us from several key foreign allies whose help we may one day wish we had: NATO, the UN, the Paris Accord..... At a personal level, as I speak to my students and friends, I discover that they have increasingly given up on the idea that politics can ever be honest. The claim of "fake news" that Trump has used to deflect criticism has worked as a short term goal, but as a long term strategy it has caused much of the American voting public to doubt everything done by any branch of the administration. The challenge here is therefore very personal. How can we maintain our sense of the basic goodness of people in the light of this? Can you do it? Can you remain principled? The arrogance of unprincipled leaders will surely spill over and tempt some of us, working at other levels, to similar (if smaller) compromises with our honesty. The "if-they-can-get-away-with-it-then-so-can-I" mentality is contagious, after all. These are testing times.