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.