Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Catch and Release

I have a friend who is an amateur aerialist.  I have no idea where her fascination with circus arts originated, but every so often she’ll share a photo of herself swinging on a trapeze.  I’m not talking about the kind you see at amusement parks.  I’m talking a legitimate freaking trapeze.

I admire the hell out of her, because I’d never do it.

I don’t have a fear of heights, or even of falling.  But I’m pretty sure any non-lethal turn on the trapeze involves a rudimentary understanding of catch and release points, and I have zero concept of either.  

I’ve never caught an object with my eyes open.  When someone tosses me a football, I clamp my eyes shut, stretch out my arms in the general direction of the last place I located the object in space, and clench every muscle in my body in anticipation of impact.  I’m sharing a pic to prove what I’m talking about.  It’s quite possibly the least flattering photo of me ever taken, but it gets the point across in a way that mere words cannot.

Go ahead.  Try un-seeing that.  Oh, and here's another, in case you think the first was a fluke:

I’m no better at release points.  Most of the balls I throw end up short of their intended target, apparently because I hold onto them too long.  I once joked the chances of an object returning to me when I toss it up the stairs is 100%.  And it’s true.  There are scuff marks in the ceiling above our staircase from toiletries aimed at the landing.  I’ve toppled lamps, drilled my husband in delicate areas, and injured innocent bystanders. 

Sometimes I overcompensate and let an object go too soon.  This is the only plausible explanation for the time I rolled a bowling ball behind me. 

Letting go too soon or holding on too long:  either way, I miss a lot of targets.

And that’s what I’m thinking about on this final day of this final year of the decade.

This was a year of “letting go” in many ways, and given my aforementioned struggles, it was a challenging one for me.  The first and biggest example was releasing my son into the wild.  Winooski, Vermont, to be exact.  The timing felt too soon, and all wrong.  It’s a big effing deal to send your kid off to college.  It changes you and it changes them and changes your entire relationship…but for the better, maybe.  I don’t know.  We’re still figuring it out.  But I do know I love and appreciate him more now than ever before and I didn’t think that was possible. 

So that’s something.

I also let go of a job that wasn’t making me happy anymore.  I felt undervalued and (paradoxically) unworthy.  I suspect it was a weird midlife crisis of some kind, but I walked away from teaching for the first time in 24 years.  I walked away from a job I have always loved.  I’m in the middle of a good, deep, year-long “breath,” and I’m beginning to think I’ll be ready to return when I exhale. 

We’ll see.   

And finally, I let go of my board position at Family Promise of Central Connecticut, a nonprofit I care so deeply about.  It’s a strange feeling knowing I won’t gather around a table next month with folks I’ve gathered around a table with every single month for the last six years, but something told me it was time.  I think the “something” was the unshakable sense a successful nonprofit board requires people who understand spreadsheets. 

I have always, always fake-read the spreadsheets. 

For all the “letting go” I’ve done this year, I’m also keenly aware of a few things I’m still holding tight to…things I should have released a long time ago.  Things like doubt and fear and insecurity (so many boatloads of insecurity I am actually captain of my own fleet).  Things like not writing that book because I’m afraid my Real Author Friends will hold me in contempt.  (They would not.  Deep down I know that.)

I also know that as long as I hold onto these fears and insecurities I’m going to be stuck here, swinging above the safety net below me, and these 50-year old arms are getting awfully tired.

So on this last day of the last year of the decade I’m going to focus on letting go.  I’m going to try opening my eyes and unclenching my jaw and reaching for the next thing in front of me. 

I can’t promise my catch will be a clean one, but at least I’ll look better in pictures.  

Happy New Year, all.  xo

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Amazing Grace

I usually ask myself two* questions before I write for a public audience: 

1)  Does this need to be said?
2)  Can I do it justice?   

(*I often ask a third: Why can’t Brian remember to plug in the #&$!@ laptop charger?  But that’s a separate issue entirely.)

For the purposes of this blog entry, I’m ignoring question 2.  No matter how poorly it turns out, this entry was in the “star,” so to speak.

It all began in January, when I closed my eyes and chose a paper star from among a hundred other paper stars in a wicker basket.  It was “Star Sunday” at church; the idea being whatever word we selected would somehow guide us through the upcoming year (or something like that.)  I hoped I’d choose one that said “napping” or “Chianti.”  

I got Grace.  

I pinned the star to the bulletin board in my office and wondered, for the first few days, what it might mean. 

I’ve long been known as the klutz of the family.  I’m the daughter who spilled her milk so often my parents were convinced I did it on purpose.  In Kindergarten I once dropped the milk tray and my teacher asked me to take my seat and “never carry anything again.”  I silently blamed it on my coke-bottle glasses and eye patch; I clearly had no depth perception.  And possibly something against dairy.

I wondered, half seriously, if the star meant I should work on my coordination and balance.  A friend suggested I take a yoga class, but I’d tried that before, twice.  The first time, an older woman across the room passed gas while holding a particularly difficult pose.  I laughed out loud, because THAT’S WHAT NORMAL PEOPLE DO when someone farts in yoga class.  No one else laughed, so I never went back. 

I can’t have that kind of negativity in my life. 

More recently I tried yoga again, and my impossibly patient and cheerful instructor/friend interrupted the session four times to rearrange my limbs into something approximating an actual pose.  She learned quickly what I’ve always known:  I am not, nor will I ever be, Holy Kara, Full of Grace.  But would any God care whether I can “downward dog” or balance a lunch tray? 


I briefly considered the star a reminder that my family should say Grace…which meant we’d have to sit around the dining room table for a change.  We rarely do, and I apologize if that horrifies you. It seems whenever I confess “My family does not sit at the table to eat” people actually hear “I like setting buildings on fire,” because that’s what their faces suggest. The truth is, we raised two picky kids for whom eating wasn’t a pleasant experience, and we discovered distracting them with television made it possible for them to get through a meal (on occasion) without crying.  We picked our battles, and a bad habit formed.  (For the record, I believe a family can engage in meaningful conversation anywhere, not just around the table.  But what do I know?  I’m a serial arsonist.)

Gradually, I forgot about the star.  It faded in the sunlight on my bulletin board and caught my attention only when I periodically replaced the monthly newsletters hanging alongside it.



Then a couple of months ago I was invited to lead a discussion series on “Shakespeare and Faith.”  I’ve taken a break from college teaching, so I jumped at the chance to dust off a couple of my old lectures for a new audience.  I sat at my desk one afternoon, wondering where to start.  I know it sounds suspiciously like It’s a Wonderful Life meets Walt Disney’s Pinocchio, but I actually looked up at the star. 

I’d start with King Lear.

I’ve delivered some version of my Lear lecture at least 40 times over the course of my teaching career, and it always includes this same (true) story:

I was once about ten minutes into class when a student interrupted me to confess she couldn’t possibly follow what I was saying, because she couldn’t keep all the characters’ names straight.
I was sympathetic.  It’s a BIG play, and there are a lot of players.  So I stopped and drew a line down the center of the board.  I suggested we put Lear’s friends on one side, and his foes on the other.  Under “Foes” I listed his daughters Goneril and Regan, their husbands Albany (sort of) and Cornwall, and Edmund, obviously—.  She interrupted me a second time and said, “Ahhhhhh, I see where this is going.”

I didn’t see it.  

“The acronym!” She said, pointing to the board.  “It spells GRACE.”

I looked back at the board and winced.  Shakespeare didn’t pull cheap tricks like that.  The idea of his characters’ first initials spelling out some word pivotal to an interpretation of the play is hokey and frankly, embarrassing even to contemplate.  But there was GRACE spelled out, plain as day, and so we couldn’t avoid talking about it. 

It turned out to be a much better discussion than the one I had planned.

What is grace, we asked, in theological terms?  The Christian definition is deceptively simple:  an unmerited gift from God.


What could grace possibly mean in this depressing (and nominally pagan) play, in which no one is saved, and everyone suffers and dies?  Where is this unmerited gift?

Lear, for anyone unfamiliar with the play, suffers from a disease that affects many in positions of wealth and power:  Pomposity.  Arrogance.  Self-aggrandizement.  Call it what you will…the man thinks a great deal of himself.  When he chooses to “retire” and live out the rest of his brief life “unburdened” by the duties and responsibilities of king, he finds it not the least bit cringeworthy to demand his three daughters publicly profess HOW MUCH THEY LOVE HIM in exchange for one-third each of his kingdom.  His youngest daughter (wisely or not) refuses to play the game.  The other two over-praise their father in a sickening display of false flattery, and Lear divides the full kingdom between them.

It’s a foolish move on his part, and he suffers for it.  Those two wicked daughters immediately turn on their now powerless and penniless father and kick him out—cold and hungry—in a raging storm that ultimately drives Lear mad. 

In that punishing madness, however, Lear learns something about himself.  Stripped of his kingly garments and all the other trappings of worldly wealth and position on which he constructed a horribly inflated sense of self, he realizes he is no different from, nor better than the impoverished members of his kingdom to whom he never gave a moment’s thought when he was king.  He suffers the pangs of genuine remorse and the ache of human compassion. 

And then he is punished still more.

And more.

And more.

I’ll spare you the gruesome details of this brutal play.  The point is most critics agree Lear’s unrelenting suffering far outweighs whatever dumb mistakes he makes (“I am a man more sinned against than sinning,” he protests, and for centuries, horrified audiences have agreed).   But in his undeservedly intense suffering, Lear experiences the gift, however painfully acquired, of becoming more fully human. 

Yep, that entire class discussion was born of an accidental acronym.  It’s a good thing the initials didn’t spell “SPINACH” because we would have found a way to make that work, too.
Anyway, in the middle of prepping Lear for my “Shakespeare and Faith” series, I happened to catch the tail end of Anderson Cooper’s interview of Stephen Colbert.   I couldn’t help but hear echoes of that class discussion. 

As a child, Colbert suffered the tragic loss of his father and two older brothers in a horrific plane crash.  When asked about that punishing loss in a 2015 interview in GQ, Colbert was quoted as saying, “What punishments of God are not gifts?”

Anderson Cooper, himself mourning the recent loss of a parent, quoted Colbert’s rhetorical question back to him and asked, incredulously, “Do you really believe that?” 

What follows are Colbert’s own words:

“Yes.  It’s a gift to exist […] and with existence comes suffering. There’s no escaping that.  We’re asked to accept the world that God gives us. And to accept it with love. […]  You can’t pick and choose what you’re grateful for. So, what do you get from loss? You get awareness of other people’s loss, which allows you to connect with that other person, which allows you to love more deeply and to understand what it’s like to be a human being.”

Dammit, Stephen.  You had me at hello.  You had me at hello.

How unbelievably courageous must a person be to accept the idea that unmerited suffering and loss and pain might be construed as gifts?  King Lear, at least, had some punishment coming for his blind arrogance.  Colbert did nothing to deserve his loss.  And yet, he accepted the worst kind of suffering as an opportunity to love others more deeply.   

And that brings me to the most difficult part of this post.  The part I have no business writing because it’s so much bigger than I am, and because I cannot possibly do it justice.
But I’ll blame it on the star. 

Earlier this month I was half-paying attention to the evening news (because no one in their right mind can look directly at the news nowadays) when the anchor teased an upcoming segment on the guilty verdict in the shooting death of Botham Jean.  That got my full attention.  This was the story of an innocent 26-year old black man shot to death in his own apartment by a white woman who claimed to mistake his residence for her own. 

I’d followed the proceedings with interest, hoping first for a guilty verdict, and then for whatever sentence might bring Botham’s family some measure of justice.   

Then I saw the video.

I saw Brandt Jean, Botham’s 18-year-old brother, sitting on the stand and loosening the collar around his neck repeatedly, as if suffocating under the weight of his own grief.  I heard him forgive his brother’s murderer.  I heard him make an unthinkable request:

“I don’t know if this is possible, but can I give her a hug, please?”

Then he walked across the courtroom and hugged the killer.

There are those more “woke” than I who were sensitive to a disturbing undercurrent in Brandt Jean’s gesture, and especially in the judge’s actions that followed.  Let me be clear:  I heard those words.  I sought them out to learn from them.  And I want to be sure others hear them and learn from them, too.  Among them:

“Black people forgive because we need to survive.  We have to forgive time and time again...”  
--Shanita Hubbard

“Racism and white supremacist ideology can’t be ‘hugged out.’”
--Bernice King

“Black people repeatedly demonstrate an otherworldly beauty in the granting of grace to the undeserving.  But the question remains: where is America’s reciprocity?  When are black people, in the wrong and in the vice, granted this grace?  When are *innocent* black people granted this grace?”
--Charles M. Blow 

To them and to countless others who caution against oversimplifying Brandt Jean’s gesture, I say thank you for broadening my perspective of that courtroom video.  There is much in it for me to consider more deeply, and much that I will never fully appreciate. 

But from my own limited and imperfect perspective, I humbly offer this:

Brandt Jean is as good as we get.  

Black or white, young or old, rich or homeless, this is as fully human as any of us can ever hope to be.

Even in the midst of his brokenness, and under the crushing weight of his own suffering, Brandt Jean offered his love and forgiveness, freely given and profoundly undeserved.  He courageously received and generously bestowed the most complicated and divine of all gifts.  

I'm pretty sure I became more fully human simply for having witnessed his amazing grace.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

My Life A.D. (After Drop-off)

I’d heard the horror stories.

I’d heard about moms who sob all the way home and who drink themselves into Merlot-induced stupors every time they walk by their college freshman’s empty bedroom.    

Trust me.  No one is more surprised than this girl that I’m not one of those moms.

Our goodbye was relatively easy.  We left his dorm room for the last time under the premise of locating both the laundry and the mail rooms.  We found the laundry room in the basement, precisely where one would expect a laundry room to be.  We walked out onto the sidewalk, huddled together as “Russell-party-of-four,” and knew without speaking that we weren’t really going to traipse around campus looking for the mail room.  That was just an excuse to get outside. 

It was time.

I hugged my too tall, too thin son and tried to think of a Really Important Thing To Say.  I had nothing.  I’d said it all already.

I told him I loved him and I may have said, “Promise me you’ll eat,” because I always say that.  He hugged me back.  He probably promised, as he always does.  And I turned to go. 

In true Kara fashion, I led our Russell-party-of-three the wrong way, in the opposite direction of where we’d parked.  When Mark (or maybe it was Brian) tugged at my arm to correct me, I muttered “just keep walking” under my breath, mostly because I needed the long-dreaded moment to be over, but also because I figured Kevin did, too. 

I don’t know if he watched us leave.  If he did, I hope he had a little laugh at our expense.

When we finally circled our way around to the correct parking lot, Brian put his arm around me and told me I’d done a good job.  He didn’t mean “You raised him well and he’s ready for this.”  He meant only that I didn’t make a blubbering idiot of myself in front of the other families on the quad.  Still, I chose to accept the unintended compliment. 

I’d done a good job.  We’d done a good job. 

The ride home was also easier than I’d anticipated.  Mark drove the lead car in our diminished caravan and Brian and I rode together behind him.  I cried only when we crossed state lines.  Somehow Mark knew this, and my phone rang both times.  “Doing ok?” he asked.  “Yep,” I answered, and I was telling the truth.  Aside from the dull ache in my heart, I was alright.

It’s been almost three weeks since we left him on campus, and while I miss him terribly, I’m still doing alright. I’ve tried to follow the advice everyone has given me.  And I’d give myself decent grades overall: 

Don’t text him unless he texts first.  (A-) 

Don’t call, unless it’s an emergency.  (A-) 

Don’t ask too many questions, or give too much advice.  (C)

Ok, so there’s room for improvement on my end, but for the most part, it’s been pretty routine stuff.

What wasn’t routine was a text that floored me just a few nights ago, when Kevin asked, out of the blue, if I remembered the final line of The Great Gatsby.

He knows I know it by heart.  I texted the line back to him:

“And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

He told me he’d been thinking about it a lot lately, in a way he hadn’t when he “fake read” the book in high school.  I guess he’s decided the statute of limitations has expired on all those assignments he half-assed. 

Mind you, he’s not reading the book now.  He’s not even taking an English class (we’ll get that straightened out soon enough).  But like the true son of two English majors, he’d been turning a well-written sentence over and over in his head, and contemplating his own emerging sense of a personal past—his life B.D. (Before Drop-off).

I watched the blinking dots on my phone screen, waiting for his interpretation of the line, and I remembered my own freshman year drop off.  I remembered feeling like I’d been abandoned on a foreign planet, even though I was less than half an hour from home.  I remembered the weird smells and the unfamiliar faces.  I remembered how all the stuff I’d unpacked looked sterile and shiny and not-mine, like the new shoes I wore to school every September in elementary school.

I remembered feeling not much older than that.

I won’t betray Kevin’s confidence by quoting him directly (if you’re reading this it’s only because he has granted permission to share), but the gist of his sudden obsession with Gatsby had to do with a nagging sense that his life B.D. was rapidly receding.  Everything would be different the next time he came home.  Naturally, the idea made him a bit sad.  It made me a bit sad, too. 
So the English teacher in this mom kicked in, and we revisited Fitzgerald’s line together.  

Yes, I conceded, the past slips away.  Gatsby can’t return to 1917 any more than a college freshman can return to his senior year.  But Fitzgerald’s “past” is a paradox, I told him:  both irretrievable and inescapable.  (This should serve as a warning to anyone who texts an English teacher, especially at the end of the day.  Expect unreasonably long replies.)

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.  It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning—So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

The image is of someone reaching for their future, stretching their arms out toward a distant goal.  But even as they chase it, an invisible current pulls them back—always back—toward the past.

To Fitzgerald’s protagonists, that past is an obstacle:  a relentless undertow preventing them from paddling out toward fresh and open water.  But when your college freshman has left home and everything feels like it’s changing too quickly (for both of you), there is some solace in its stubborn inescapability. 

Irretrievable and inescapable. 

Alone as he is in upstate Vermont right now, surrounded by people who aren’t-yet-his-people and places still strange and unfamiliar, life B.D. feels to him increasingly distant.  But I know it remains a part of who he is, always.  It’s the invisible weight he carries: sometimes a trophy, sometimes an albatross.

Maybe that’s why it wasn’t all that hard for me to leave him.  He’ll change while he’s away, and I am more than OK with that.  What decent mother wouldn’t be?  But there’s a part of him that remains tethered to us.  Not in the creepy “I’ll-still-rock-you-like-a-baby-even-when-you’re-a-teenager” way (seriously, let’s agree to STOP buying Love You Forever until it fades forever out of print), but lightly tethered, just the same.  

It’s not at all what The Great Gatsby is about.  It’s a terribly botched application of the text.  The point is, Fitzgerald threw us a line that connected us in these uncharted waters of our lives A.D., and for that I am grateful.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Eulogy for a Man I Barely Knew, from the Whore He’d Never Remember

His name was David Bevington, and he died two weeks ago at the age of 88.  David (I should probably call him Dr. Bevington) was a distinguished Shakespeare scholar and Professor in the Humanities and in English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago.  He was a devoted husband and beloved father to four children.

He also taught me what it means to be fully human, which is pretty impressive given that we “met” only twice.

Our first meeting went rather poorly.

I was an undergraduate at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and I’d signed up for a course called Othello, in part because of the professor’s stellar reputation but also because it featured the shortest reading list of any course offered that semester:  a single paperback copy of the play.  (Hey, even English majors need to lighten their load every once in a while.) 

Somehow, I missed one crucial detail when registering:  the course culminated in a public performance of Othello, and every student was obliged to participate.  That scared the living hell out of me.  I was the girl who never raised her hand to speak in class.  I was the girl whose heart pounded involuntarily whenever attendance was taken, dreading my turn to croak, “Here.”  

When it came time to cast roles for this campus production, I silently resolved to help paint scenery or proofread the program.  Unfortunately, the guest director had other plans.  I hadn’t even opened my mouth yet when he pointed at me from across the room and said, “She’s our whore.” 

To this day, I refuse to believe he was typecasting.

The cast of Othello.  Bared shoulders = Venetian courtesan.
In any event, that’s how I landed the role of Bianca, the Shakespearean prostitute.  It was a bit part, but I took it very, very seriously.  By the end of the semester I had the entire play memorized.  I skipped most of my other classes.  We rehearsed until 2 am, some nights.  I fell in love with my fellow cast members, obsessed over the interpretation of every line, and dreamt in iambic pentameter.  When our professor casually mentioned that she’d invited the esteemed Dr. David Bevington to see our performance--the actual editor of the actual paperback edition I held in my sweaty hands--my heart skipped a beat.  This was the man behind the name.  This was the brain behind the footnotes.  This was g-damn Shakespearean royalty.    

We flew him in from Chicago and seated him front row center on opening night.  After my “big” scene (twelve lines of “spurned prostitute” climaxing in my toss of a strawberry-spotted handkerchief on stage), I cast a furtive glance at Dr. Bevington to gauge his reaction.  He tilted his head slightly to the side, as if thinking hard about what he’d just seen.  Then his chin lowered slowly to his chest and I realized he had nodded off.

That was encounter number one. 

Our second “meeting” was exactly 15 years later, over email.  I’d rather implausibly earned a PhD in the interim and was teaching my own Shakespeare survey course.  One evening, we were reading aloud from King Lear when a student stopped mid-line and said, “Hey, I think my book is wrong.”  He was reading the part of Lear but was sure the line belonged to Kent.  We stopped and examined his edition of the play (we were using Bevington’s original anthology, but he’d sprung for the newer 2nd edition), and sure enough, the line was misattributed.

“Well, Dr. Bevington must have nodded off while editing the text,” the still-bitter prostitute in me wanted to quip.  But instead I suggested, “Let’s send him an email!”  I remembered the nonchalant way my own professor had invited David to our performance, and I suppose I was trying to mimic that same cool confidence in front of my students.  The difference was, she and David were actual friends, and more than that, they were fellow scholars.  Even my student suggested I probably shouldn’t bother him.  But as soon as class was over, and before I could come to my senses, I composed a respectful email and sent it off. 

Three days later I received this reply, dated October 10, 2004, at 12:07 am:

Dear Kara Russell, thanks for your e-mail. You and your student are absolutely right, and I am both embarrassed and very grateful. It's a typo at 3.2.60: it should read KENT.  Somehow the printers decided to change this, and I didn't catch it. thanks, thanks. it will be corrected in the next printing.  warm best, David Bevington

I must have read it half a dozen times before I dared move.  I was afraid the screen might clear if I accidentally breathed on it.  I saved the message to my hard drive, then printed a hard copy, then checked to make sure it had saved (again).  David Bevington had written to ME.  At midnight.  He had typed my name.  He admitted a printing error.  He offered his “warm best.” 

And more than that…he was “both embarrassed and very grateful.”

Ok, so I was a fangirl, but I couldn’t get over (I still can’t get over) the humility in his response.  He was Distinguished Shakespeare Scholar and Professor in the Humanities and in English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago, and I was a first-generation college student playing the role of confident adjunct lecturer.  It was like running into Jesus in the checkout lane at Price Chopper, his arms full of loaves and fishes, and having him step aside and say, “No, no…after you.  After you with your Cheetos and Diet Coke.”   

Ok, it wasn’t exactly like that.  But you get the idea.  
So how will I remember David Bevington, occasional narcoleptic and gracious late-night emailer?

He was a man. Take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.

The line is from Hamlet, and it’s Prince Hamlet’s description of his dead father, the King. Critics often interpret the line to mean, “He was a great man, and perfect in everything,” which I’ve always felt isn’t quite right.  I think young Hamlet suspects others of falsely flattering his father in death, and isn’t that typical of human behavior?  We do tend to make more of people than they were.  We conveniently forget their imperfections;  we make heroes of our dead. 

But Prince Hamlet, never one for phoniness or hypocrisy, eulogizes his beloved father with the deceptively simple line: “He was a man.”  Implicit in those words is the totality of human existence; all that is good and all that is flawed.  Hamlet knows his father was made of that same “sullied flesh” of which he is made:  of which we all are made.  I’m sure those who actually KNEW David Bevington could attest to those imperfections.  Hell, even this prostitute knows he occasionally nodded off at novice undergraduate performances.

But also implicit in Hamlet’s reply is all that was best about his father.  And what is man, at his best?  Intelligent and thoughtful and hardworking and above all, capable of humility and gratitude.  All that David Bevington was. 

All that I might be. 

All that we all are.  

I can’t say that I will “miss” David, having not known him.  But I will remember him, and I will remember the lesson our two encounters taught me about being fully human.  It’s the same lesson I learn over and over again from studying Shakespeare’s plays, and it’s what I’ll miss most about teaching them.    

Rest in peace, Dr. David Bevington.  We shall not look upon your like again. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The One About Abortion (revisited)

I was raised Catholic and my teachers (many of them nuns) taught me abortion is a sin against God.  No nuance, no debate. 

It never sat comfortably with me that women who were raped must be doubly victimized by carrying a resultant pregnancy to term. 

It also didn’t sit comfortably with me that some women purportedly use abortion as a casual form of birth control or family planning.  (I say “purportedly” only because I’ve never personally known anyone who has.)

And 40 years later, that remains my muddy position on abortion.  Whenever the topic comes up among my friends who identify passionately with one side or the other, I begin to search furtively for the nearest exit. 

My problem is that I love and respect many women who are staunchly pro-life.  I imagine them bristling at my rape example above, because they believe every conception must be protected. 

I also love and respect many women who are staunchly pro-choice.  I imagine them cringing at my use of the word “casual,” because NO woman, they argue, ever makes that gut-wrenching and intensely personal decision casually.  And even if a woman ever did, it was her body and her decision.  Period.

The truth is, I admire any woman who holds a conviction stronger than my own.

When I taught Freshman Composition, my students were required to write 10-page research papers on a “controversial topic”.  Many chose abortion.  In their initial drafts, they submitted what I called “middle ground” thesis statements.  I’d sit down with them and try to explain why a strong thesis statement must adopt a definitive stance and a clear point-of-view.  If you can’t choose a side, I’d tell them, pick something else to write about.  

If only they knew what a hypocrite I was. And still am. 

Because despite my spineless position on the topic I’m going to offer a tentative thesis:  What troubles me most about the current debate is an increasing sense that my pro-life and my pro-choice women are screaming at one another from opposite sides of a fence, without realizing they’re all being stealthily enclosed in the same pen. 

Let me explain.

Remember the dystopian novels we read as schoolchildren, the ones that seemed so farfetched and surreal but now feel eerily prophetic? 

It’s not too difficult to imagine a dystopian future in which abortion is mandated by law. Here’s the scenario: climate change leads to decreased food production and availability, which in turn leads to a government-enforced limited-population policy.  We’ll call this Dystopia “A”:  compulsory abortions in observance with a “one child per family” mandate. 

It’s far easier to imagine a not-too-distant future when Roe v. Wade is overturned by an increasingly conservative slate of Supreme Court justices.   Dystopia “B”:  no access to legal abortion.   

Now given your own stance on the topic, one of those as-yet-fictional scenarios may strike a more chilling chord than the other.  But for a moment, consider the outcome most terrifying for someone who thinks differently than you do.  Imagine, in other words, putting yourself in your opponent’s shoes. It goes against our natural instincts, right?  But that’s the key to writing good research papers, and it turns out it’s kind of the key to being a decent human being.

As part of that composition course I used to teach, I required my students use the Rogerian strategy in their papers.  We studied Carl Rogers, a 20th century American psychologist and one of the ten people I’d want around my dining room table for that “if you could invite any ten people living or dead” dinner party.  Rogers believed the most effective means for reducing conflict and advancing civil discourse is to begin by establishing some bit of common ground with your opponent (not by abandoning your position, mind you, but by “acknowledging the partial validity of your opponent’s position”).  It sounds almost quaint nowadays to imagine two people on opposite sides of an argument acknowledging that neither is entirely wrong.  Or stupid.  Or ignorant.  Or a baby-killer or a bible-thumper.   

When it comes to civil discourse, we are woefully out of practice.

But let’s try it, anyway.  Imagine, regardless of your true convictions, that you are unfalteringly pro-life.  (My pro-choice friends whose brains involuntarily autocorrected to “anti-choice,” please work with me for a minute.)

Now, imagine you are pro-life and we are living under the one-child-per-family mandate and you find out you are pregnant.  You already have one child.  The law says you must abort.  How would you feel?

You might be terrified and angry.  You might think, “But this is MY body!” You might choose to break the law, but quickly learn no doctor will put herself at risk to help you.  You might be forced to take medical matters into your own hands and endanger your own life in the process.  And you might wonder how it EVER became the government’s right to decide something like this for you.

Now let’s shift gears.  We’re all pro-choice, for the sake of this argument.  We’re in “Dystopia B.” Roe V Wade was successfully overturned and you are raped and become pregnant.  The law states you must carry the pregnancy to term.  How would you feel?

You might be terrified and angry.  You might think, “But this is MY body!” You might choose to break the law, but quickly learn no doctor will put herself at risk to help you.  You might be forced to take medical matters into your own hands and endanger your own life in the process.  And you might wonder how it EVER became the government’s right to decide something like this for you. 


Being stripped of your consent and forced to act against your will is terrifying, no matter which side you’re on.  And no matter which way the future tilts, this will be life inside the pen as long as we keep screaming at one another over that fence and drowning out the sound of stakes being hammered into the ground around us. 

I’ll probably lose respect from some of you for my middle-ground position on abortion.  I deserve as much.  But I will say this with conviction:  I am staunchly anti-pen.  I don’t want women to become so distracted by our differences in opinion that we allow anyone to strip us of the right to have one. 

If you have convictions stronger than my own, keep shouting over the fence.  Your voice deserves to be heard.  I'll just be standing knee-deep in the mud, keeping a watchful eye on the perimeter.  

Friday, August 2, 2019

In Defense of Barry Manilow

My mother vividly recalls saving a tiny bit of our modest household income every week so she’d have enough on hand to buy Barry Manilow’s albums every time a new one was released.  Back in the mid 70’s, that was roughly every other Thursday.

I don’t remember those pilgrimages to the record store, but I can still hear his gravelly voice wafting through our little brick cape and mixing with the scent of lemon Pledge and Comet scrub.  Mom never cleaned the house without music.  And Barry Manilow got our toilets clean.

Housecleaning to sappy 70’s music (Seals and Crofts, Neil Diamond, Barry Manilow) is a tradition I’ve carried over into my own marriage. It is NOT Mark’s genre of choice, and he occasionally teases me about it, albeit good-naturedly.  Once on a road trip to upstate New York I asked him if he truly hates Seals and Crofts as much as protests he does.  He replied flatly, “Well, Seals is all right, I guess.  But Crofts…”  And then there was the time we were driving through the hill towns of Tuscany and I chose Neil Diamond’s “America” for the road trip.  He shot me his “Are you kidding me?” look.  

“Hey,” I said, “if you don’t like it maybe you can try going somewhere else in your head?”
“I’m running out of places,” he muttered back.   

But for the most part, Mark is pretty tolerant of my playlist, probably because he’s well aware we’d be living in squalor if I didn’t blast it at least once a week.  So when we were in NYC with Kevin and Brian this past Saturday afternoon and spotted a giant MANILOW marquee on 46th street, it was mostly out of gratitude to the man who’s kept Molway toilets sparkling for five decades that he suggested we check online for tickets.  The boys stumbled over one another to be first to remind us they’re old enough to stay behind in the hotel room and order room service.  

Guess which one of us is pretending to be excited?

Good enough, then, Mark and I would see the show.  And Fanilow or not, here’s why you should, too:

1.  It’s cheap.  We got our tickets just two hours before the show for $59 each.  I mean, that’s dirt cheap for a 2-hour, no-intermission performance on Broadway.

2.  He’s already had major hip surgery.  You’re probably going to want to shimmy in your seat a little, so you should see him before you need your own.  

3.  The free survival kit. (The usher called it a “goodie bag,” but even Manilow-haters have to admit the apocalypse would be fun if it included glow sticks and 3D glasses. You will be supplied with both.)  

4.  The flourishes.  My God, are they ever flourishy.   Mark observed about halfway through the concert that Barry never ends a song without a big finish, and he’s right.  Every single song builds to a crescendo pitch, with Barry’s arms fully outstretched to the audience as if to ask “What do you think about THAT!?!”  You’d expect it would get old after the dozenth time, but honestly, it only gets better.  

SPOILER ALERT:  Barry saves the most flourishy flourish for last.  I don’t care what kind of day you had outside that theater.  I don’t care if you’re anxious or exhausted or your hip hurts or your heart is breaking.  You’re going to feel NOTHING BUT JOY when the streamer cannon goes off and everyone in the Lunt-Fontanne theatre is suddenly and stunningly draped in brightly-colored strips of twirling crepe paper. (Note to my close friends who have vowed to help cheer me up when Kevin leaves for Vermont in three weeks: offers rentals.)  

5.  The costume changes.  I counted five different jackets.  You know I love me some Billy Joel, but he wears the same matte black suit at every concert.  It was fun to see a little sparkle.  Purple-sequined Barry.  Leather jacket Barry.  I won’t spoil the rest of the fashion show, but suffice to say he changed outfits more times in two hours than my youngest has since the start of summer vacation.

Costume change number...three, maybe?

6.  The “actual” home movie clip of 4-year-old Barry and his grandfather exiting the subway in downtown Manhattan.  Ok, Mark called foul on this bit of nostalgia, and he’s probably right.  (Did anyone really shoot 8 mm footage of their child from two different angles in the 1940s?) But the sweet story about Barry’s Russian-Jewish grandfather convincing him to sing “Happy Birthday” in a 25-cent recording booth gave me all the feels.  There was something undeniably authentic underneath all the fabricated schmaltz…not unlike Barry’s music.  Embellished or not, I’m glad I heard the story.  And I won’t listen to “This One’s For You” the same way ever again.

7.  The romance. Admittedly, Barry is not my type.  He’s gay and happily married and besides that, really kind of funny-looking, but his love songs (and that’s all but three of them) are romantic as hell.  So when I turned to serenade my husband in the soft light of those swaying glowsticks, he couldn’t help but give me his “I know…I love you too” smile.  Love is Love is Love is Love.  

8.  The lesson in self-acceptance.  Barry admits he’s a dork.  I, too, am one.  (Select readers know that I sliced my lip open this past week by trying to walk and sip a bottle of Propel at the same time.) But there’s this irrational confidence that comes with finally embracing the fact you’re a gawky person with a big nose and weird hair and owning it. “I’m a sex GOD!” he yelled at one point in the show.  Yes, you are, Barry.  And so am I, dammit.  So am I.    

9.  The after-show sighting. Stick around on the sidewalk outside the Lunt-Fontanne after the performance, if you can, right next to the row of NYPD cruisers.  After about an hour of sweating profusely through your undergarments and meeting some adorable teenagers from New Mexico who have no idea who Barry is but who are willing to pull up “Copacabana” on YouTube and admit he isn’t THAT bad, you’ll be rewarded with a sighting.  And He-Who-Writes-the-Songs might even give you the thumbs up.

10.  The Theory of Relativity. 
At one particularly poignant moment in the show, Barry sits down at the piano and performs a surreal duet with a 20-something-year-old version of himself projected onto a screen behind the stage.  Initially, the difference between “old Barry” and “young Barry” is shocking.  It's that same jarring feeling I get lately when I catch a sudden glimpse of my grey temples in a mirror.  But then gradually, the years in between the young Barry and the old Barry just kind of…evaporate…and all you’re aware of is the sweet, sweet harmony borne of the perfect combination of youth and a little bit of wisdom.   

So go see him.  And if you can’t afford it, go get yourself a good household cleaner and download “Mandy” on iTunes.  Your toilet will thank you for it.      

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Renting vs. Owning

Old people don’t have time for bullshit.

I remember once telling my backyard neighbor, who must have been nearing the century mark, that I was considering a much shorter hairstyle. “I wouldn’t do that,” she said matter-of-factly. “Your hair is the one thing you have going for you.”

Then there was the time my grandmother called me her “ugly duckling.” She was right; I was gangly and awkward and needed a bit longer than other girls to “come into my own” (I’m still very much in the process).

But nothing touches the afternoon I phoned my grandfather just hours after Mark and I closed on our first home. I felt so adult and accomplished when they handed me that tiny set of house-keys, and I couldn’t wait to tell Poppy. He was long retired by that time, but like many first-generation Italian-Americans he had labored much of his adult life in construction and concrete, eventually owning and operating his own string of family businesses. My mother, his only daughter, remembers waiting impatiently for him to come home in the late afternoon and watching him scrub his thick, calloused hands with a gritty paste called SKAT. At 85, he was still strong, barrel-chested and the living embodiment of Hard Work. As proud as I'm sure he was of his first-born grandchild for pursuing a PhD in Renaissance Literature, I always felt what I did must have seemed to him soft and spoiled in comparison.

Poppy and his four sons. 
(Not pictured is my mother, who was probably playing barefoot somewhere nearby.)
But buying a house meant I was finally dealing in Poppy’s currency. I knew how much he valued property.  I’d studied the focused expression with which he steered the riding mower around his 2-acre yard (to this day my sister and I call it "the Poppy face" and we catch ourselves making it whenever we're concentrating hard on something). I’d traced his confident footsteps in the dappled shade of his giant garden, which smelled of ripe tomatoes and good dirt. 

Maybe now I’d try planting my own tomatoes. Even line them up on the kitchen windowsill, as he did.

“Poppy, I'm a homeowner!” I practically yelled into the phone. “Can you believe it?!?”

“Good girl,” he said. “Now make sure you take care of it for the next person.”

Talk about deflating my ego. Mark and I hadn’t even unpacked our boxes and he was already worried I’d screw it up for the next guy.

If that’s what he was thinking, he was right to be concerned. I don’t think we’d been in the house a month when I made our first “emergency” call to the heating company. The furnace was out and the house was freezing. I told the technician our pipes were “about to burst,” though I’m not sure how one would actually know that.

“Do me a favor,” he said, somehow sensing my ineptitude over the phone. “Walk to the top of the cellar stairs. See the red switch-plate that says FURNACE? The one right next to the light switch? I’m betting you turned it off last night. Flip it back on.”

I chose not to share that story with my grandfather.

In hindsight, I don’t believe Poppy meant to suggest we'd be incompetent homeowners. At least I like to think that’s not all he meant. I think he knew what I’ve only recently begun to appreciate: nothing ever belongs to us. Everything is only rented for a time.

A year or two before he died, Poppy came over to watch a giant tree come down in our back yard. My mother suggested I invite him over for the big event, because she knew he’d be fascinated by it. I hesitated because I didn’t feel much like entertaining that day; I was surprisingly emotional about the dumb tree. I liked the late-afternoon shadow it cast over the boys’ play-set, I was resentful of the enormous price tag for having it removed, and despite the inspector's insistence it was "an accident waiting to happen," I felt a little guilty about messing with Mother Nature.

Turns out I didn’t have to worry about entertaining anyone; Poppy was content to sit on my back porch and watch. Every once in a while, he’d call me over to narrate bits of what was happening (he knew every technical name for every piece of machinery) and he seemed happier than I’d seen him in a long time. He sipped lemonade and watched until dusk fell and only a wide stump remained where the tree had stood. When my mother came to pick him up he looked tired but pleased, like someone who had spent a perfectly productive day.

I may be projecting too much, but I imagine for Poppy, the process of letting go was already familiar. He’d long ago lost his parents. He’d outlived all five of his brothers, and he’d buried his beloved wife, Rosie. To him, the day wasn’t tarnished with maudlin sentimentality; it was only about cool drinks, heavy machinery (he was back in his wheelhouse, even as an observer), and the expert dismantling of a tree whose time had come to die. Watching it go was part of the adventure.

I’d like to say Poppy approached his own death with the same degree of stoicism and spirit of adventure. I don’t think he did; I think he feared death as much as anyone else.

But there are lessons he taught me just the same, and I’ve found myself consciously rehearsing them this summer as we prepare to alter the landscape of our home once again.

Our firstborn is leaving for college in a few short weeks. And I know, IT IS NOT THAT BIG A DEAL. I swear I’m doing my best to be super nonchalant about it. But the fact sits heavy on my heart: my son won’t live here anymore.

Our firstborn.

My son.

See, I have a terrible, 17-year long habit of emphasizing ownership. And this is where I’m trying to take my cue from Poppy. Instead of saying “My son is going away,” or “Our firstborn is leaving the nest...”, I’m teaching myself to say, “We’re dropping Kevin off….” Or better yet, “Kevin is heading off...”

I’m finally coming to terms with what I always knew but didn’t want to admit: the anxious, brilliant, deeply compassionate kid who inherited so many of my nerdy quirks, but who has a distinctly Italian love of dried garbanzo beans, pepper biscuits and extra-sharp cheese just like his great-grandfather, was never mine to begin with. He was just on loan to me for a time.

I could not love any human being more than I have loved...than I will always love this young man. Screw the nonchalance.  Letting him go is so damn hard.  But I hope Poppy would agree, without bullshitting, that I took good care of him for the next person.

Kevin and Poppy, Memorial Day 2002

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Obstructed View Seats: Advice For Your Next Billy Joel Concert

Last Thursday night, my husband and I saw Billy Joel in concert at Madison Square Garden in New York. Uncharacteristically, the show featured no “special guests,” unless you count a conspicuous couple in attendance: Bill and Hillary Clinton.

I guess we've watched too many hockey games, because when the pre-show crowd jumped up and focused their cell phone cameras in a single direction, our first thought was that a fight had broken out on the floor.

Given the median age at these shows, that would have been something to see.

Instead, there they were, the former POTUS and his wife, beaming and waving as they made their way to their good-but-not-too-good seats, about eight rows back from the stage. It was pretty heady stuff seeing them up-close and personal(-ish), but except for the times Mark nudged me to check out Hillary’s dance moves, I largely forgot they were in the building once the lights dimmed.

Clintons in the house!

That is, until Billy dedicated “River of Dreams” to them about halfway through his set-list. A cameraman focused in on Bill (inexplicably overdressed in a full suit and tie) and Hillary (who Literally.Never.Stopped.Swaying). Their image was plastered on the Garden jumbotron, and despite right-wing media reports, Mark and I agree the raucous response was probably equal parts cheers and jeers.

It was a great show.

Fast forward to the following morning, when I opened Facebook to discover a backstage photo of Billy and Bill-and-Hillary and a handful of other concert VIPs. A conservative fan vowed never to listen to him again. A liberal called her a snowflake. Then the floodgates opened.

“You f—king dumb c-nt…” “You piece of trash human being…” “Child rapist despicable piece of sh-t.”

2.3k ignorant and hateful comments from fans on both sides of the aisle. Over a freaking photograph.  Things got so vicious and ugly--so quickly--it made my heart knock and my hands shake (the same cowardly "flight" response I've always had around escalating confrontation).  I kept scrolling through the posts in spite of myself.  I kept hoping a reasonable human being would suggest everyone cool it off.  Someone finally did.  He was gutted mercilessly.

Ignorance and hatred.  It made me think how often the two go hand in hand.

And it made me think of my seats on Thursday night. 

You see, I’ve been to a few Billy Joel concerts.

(Ok, more than “a few.”)

Stalking a celebrity can get expensive, so I usually settle for “obstructed view” seats. Here’s how Ticketmaster defines them:

You’ll be unable to see the entire stage from these seats. You’ll have either an incomplete view because of the position of the seats, or something will be in your line of sight—like a pole, speakers, or the sound board. 

For many fans an obstructed view is not a problem, and the tickets are clearly labeled at the time of purchase. 

That’s some deep philosophical shit, people. Buddha himself couldn’t sum up the human experience quite like the good people at Ticketmaster.  Consider:

“You’ll be unable to see the entire stage from these seats.”

A wise man (my other favorite William) once said, “All the world’s a stage.” It’s not a perfect analogy (he considers only the actors and ignores the audience), but let’s extend the metaphor. If all the world’s a stage…where are your seats? Rich or poor, gay or straight, liberal or conservative…wherever you sit, you’ve got a limited world-view.

“--because of the position of the seats.”

But wait a minute, you think. I’m not defined by binary terms! I’m sensitive to the other people’s perspectives. I HAVE A BLACK/WHITE/GAY FRIEND!  I SPENT A SEMESTER ABROAD! I’VE VOTED ACROSS PARTY LINES!

Before you think I’m getting all blame-y about your narrow worldview, recognize it’s not your fault you can’t see the entire stage. It’s the seat’s fault. Where you sit determines what you see. Don’t take it from me. Take it from Ticketmaster.

“…or something will be in your line of sight…”

Ok, so it’s not entirely the seat’s fault. There’s probably something else getting in the way of your broader perspective of that world stage. I don’t profess to understand the depths of Ticketmaster’s wisdom, but I wonder if those “somethings” may be personal blinders. What’s blocking your line of sight? Is it apathy, insecurity or pride?  Stubbornness, prejudice or fear?

“…a pole, speakers or a sound board.”

Ticketmaster knows when to rein it in. Sometimes a pole is just a pole.

“For many fans, an obstructed view is not a problem…”

Ahhh, here’s where we get into real trouble. And by “we,” I mean every jerk who commented under that pic of our former POTUS and the Piano Man. For them, “an obstructed view is not a problem” because they honestly believe they can see everything they need to see quite clearly from where they sit, and that’s about as f--king dangerous a perspective as any human being can have on this planet.

Look, you have your reasons for disliking (hating, even?) [insert political figure here]. You can bet I have my own. I’m not aiming to change anyone's perspective;  if I've learned anything from social media, I've learned that's an exercise in futility.  I’m only stating the utterly banal fact that none of us has the full picture. And yet…and yet…we insist on speaking (so hatefully and so hurtfully) as if we do.

 “…tickets are clearly labeled at the time of purchase.”

It’s true, TM stamps it right on your ticket. It’s a reminder that while you’ll be in the building, you won’t have a perfect view.

What a humbling concept.

Here’s my Swiftian proposal: we follow TM’s policy and stamp “limited view” on everyone’s forehead at birth.  Maybe we’d be gentler with one another if we were constantly reminded that everyone, even the folks sitting front-row center, operates from a limited vantage point. 

Maybe we’d even be gentler with ourselves.

I don’t expect the universal-forehead-tattoo idea will catch on, but I do encourage folks to consider purchasing obstructed view seats for their next concert. For one thing, they’re often better than the full-price tickets. But more importantly:

Once you accept you’re sitting in an obstructed view seat, the pressure kind of lifts. There’s a certain humility in acknowledging your view is obstructed. You feel genuinely grateful just to be in the building. And when everyone stands up to sing Piano Man with the house lights on, it honestly doesn’t matter if you’re the POTUS or the couple with nosebleed seats in the rafters or the lifelong fan tucked behind a light pole.

You’re all part of the song.

A glorious, out-of-tune, drunken song that gives everyone in the Garden goosebumps when they forget where they’re sitting and become one swaying mass of battered and broken but momentarily happy humanity.

It’s fleeting.  Enjoy it.

And stay off Facebook the next day. Trust me.  

Until next time, Billy.  xo