Sunday, August 11, 2013

Of Cigarettes, Oaths & Love Stories

            A friend of mine trying to quit smoking once made a bargain to go cold turkey with another friend and hold each other accountable.  After a week, my friend broke down and slinked back into his favorite tobacconist’s shop, only to bump into—you guessed it—his partner in accountability.  Or crime, as it were.

            That’s essentially the idea behind Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare’s play about four young bachelors who swear a three-year vow of celibacy in order to devote themselves to study in brotherly fraternity—only to catch each other in the act of pining when a delegation of four ladies comes through town.

            My cold-turkey friend ended up having a good laugh with his co-conspirator, and then buying packs of American Spirits.  Likewise, there’s something so very understandable about Berowne—one of the bachelors, and the cleverest—and his rationale for breaking the sodality:

O, we have made a vow to study, lords,
And in that vow we have forsworn our books;
For when would you, my liege, or you, or you,
In leaded contemplation have found out
Such fiery numbers as the prompting eyes
Of beauty’s tutors have enriched you with?
Then fools you were these women to forswear,
Or, keeping what is sworn, you will prove fools.
Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves,
Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths.
It is religion to be thus forsworn,
For charity itself fulfills the law
And who can sever love from charity?

The vows were made in youthful ignorance; any lawyer knows a contract made by a infantile person is voidable.  Indeed, the vows were self-defeating: the end of study is to perceive the good, true and beautiful, and so it is simply foolish to forswear beauty when it comes calling. 

            I get that.  Once, in the throes of a middle school youth group retreat, I promised that I would not kiss a girl until the preacher told me to kiss my bride.  I don’t regret breaking that vow.  Q.E.D.: “Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves.”

            And yet, breaking a promise is never without consequence.  When a man takes an oath,” says Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, “he's holding his own self in his own hands.  Like water.  And if he opens his fingers then—he needn't hope to find himself again….”

            Not every broken promise dissolves an entire self.  But I do think every unkept word wounds us in some way, leaves a little nick and scar, even if healed in time.

            Perhaps that’s why, coming back to Love’s Labour’s, the ladies in question don’t yield to their reformed lovers’ suits, much as they’d like to.  When news of her father’s, the king’s, death calls the ladies’ leader away, she won’t promise herself to her wooer—not yet.

A time, methinks, too short
To make a world-without-end bargain in.
No, no my lord, you grace is perjured much,
Full of dear guiltiness…

“Dear” guiltiness, yes, but guiltiness nonetheless.  And so, to stave off a proposal, she poses a counterproposal:

If for my love (as there is no such cause)
You will do aught, this shall you do for me:
Your oath I will not trust—


—but go with speed
To some forlorn and naked hermitage,
Remote from all the pleasures of the world…

If, she continues, he can keep himself there for a full year and “If this austere insociable life / Change not your offer made in heat of blood…

Then, at the expiration of the year,
Come challenge me, challenge me by these deserts,
And, by this virgin palm now kissing thine,
I will be thine.

            Not a bad deal, thinks the young royal.  A year’s wait, and then the prize.  What’s to worry about in that?  All’s well that ends well.

            Berowne, who like the others has received similar instructions from his fancied gal, is not so sure.  In Shakespeare there are, for the most part, comedies and tragedies.  Comedies end in marriage and tragedies end in death.  The action up until now, deep into the fifth of a five-act show, has been screaming “comedy.”  A wedding should be right around the corner.  But, observes Berowne,

Our wooing doth not end like an old play:
Jack hath not Jill.  These ladies’ courtesy
Might well have made our sport a comedy…

…but they have not.  The end is postponed and therefore uncertain.  That’s the consequence of a broken vow—even a foolish one, even one that should have been broken. 

It’s worth noting, too, that the consequence really is inescapable.  If the ladies had been so overdazzled by their lovers’ shiny new words that they overlooked the older broken ones; if they had not demanded a salutary penance “to weed this wormwood from your fruitful [and so-beloved] brain,” they’d have simply bought themselves damaged goods, men whose characters they couldn’t really quite trust, with wounds that hadn’t scarred over.  Is that really a happy ending?

            And so, the final outcome is hazarded to delay.  And though the bachelor’s ringleader isn’t concerned—“Come sir,” he consoles Berowne, “it wants twelvemonth and a day, / and then ’twill end”—his shrewder friend is not so sure, and closes the couplet: “That’s too long for a play.”

            And so it is.  Shakespeare has come to the end of Act Five, and has exhausted his audience’s stamina.  The more interesting question is whether twelve months is too long for the characters’ play, the one that will play out, we suppose, over the next year.  We are story-creatures, and so often our choices are guided, knowingly or not, by the kind of narrative we perceive ourselves to be in.  “It’s a love story,” says Taylor Swift, and we know that baby should just say “yes.”  Except when we know, like Rascal Flatts, that the almost-weres, were actually northern stars pointing to someone else further down a broken road.

            Greek dramas always unfolded over the course of a single day.  Twelve months is a long time for a play.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Two short poems, influenced, I think, by Thomas Aquinas

The Water

Ohmygod, turn off the water! she said.  You'll waste it!
I can't, I said.  I'm doing something important.
What are you doing?

I was feeling the soapsuds in my fingers while listening to the sound of hot water falling into a basin.

Why Poems About Flowers Are Inexhaustible

Because they're real!
And when you come across one
you think: still?!  For me, even?
I've heard about you,
but, oh!

And so a poem is born.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Real Things (For the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas)

The huddled pigeons puffing out their chestfeathers
Bearing and squinting (in their birdy way) against the icy rainweather;
The lopped, toppled pine on a muddy curb
A month and three days past Christmas
It's green-going-brown needles gathering cold droplets
At every little needletip, to drip, to drip, to drip.

Somebody told me that God is pure act.
On a sleeting Monday morning--
With this joy in my body
These compounds in my brain
These thoughts in my mind
And these ice crystals melting against my numb cheeks--
I am gone dumb,
But I believe it to be a fact.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Before the Party

in this stillness,
by this hissing fire,
under the glowing
glorying of white lights and garland,
while cookies’ frosted pageants
rest awhile,
while royal burgundy mulls,
soaking in gold honeycomb,
cinnamon and allspice,
while the star perches above
an empty room
(save us),
save us—
save us
with these simple things
we love so simply.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Pat-Down Pen

Ever since the advent of the TSA’s 3-D body scanners—aka, the naked scan—I have been tempted to exercise my right to avoid them.  It’s not that I’m especially embarrassed by them; whether because they're just anonymous enough, or because the social context is closer to the swimming pool end of the spectrum than the fine dining end, they don't bother me per se.  And I even get the security rationale, or at least the psychological comfort the appearance of scrutiny can bring.  No, my urge to veto the scan is more like that of an eight-year-old behind a trap set, who can’t resist hitting every snare, cymbal, and tom-tom before returning to the same drum twice.  The option being there, and rights being as useless as muscles unexercised, why not use it? 

Every time I’ve dropped my bag on the conveyor belt and approached the scanner, though, I’ve chickened out.  Chalk it up to herd mentality, my Scandinavian don’t-cause-a-bother gene, or fear masquerading as prudence.  Whatever the reason, some last hitch in my step has held me back—until last weekend.

That Sunday, I had a flight out of Phoenix Sky Harbor back to my home in Washington, DC.  Maybe it was the delightful name of the place (who doesn’t want adventure in a port named Sky Harbor?) that gave me that last oomph of nerve.  All I really know is that when the blond, short-pony-tailed woman in the bright blue uniform called me down the retractable belt line toward the spinning plexi-glass chamber, I stopped short and politely enquired whether I might choose a pat-down instead.

The reaction was amazing.  A new side of the system sprung into action.  Before I even finished the question, the pony-tail had snapped to the left and shunted me down another rope line.  “We’re short staffed,” she warned me as I was sent along my way.  “That’s fine,” I said.  Of course, I had no idea if that was true.

The new path dead-ended into a kind of makeshift holding tank cordoned off from the surrounding bustle by more plexi-glass semi-walls and retractable belts.  I was not alone when I arrived.  A gangly, pock-faced young man in cargo shorts greeted me with a hey-dude grin that revealed a rainbow of rubber bands lashed onto a cargo-load of braces.  I decided I liked him.  In fact, I immediately decided I liked the whole Pat-Down Pen scene.  It reminded me of how I’ve always imagined the smokers’ corners.  Out on the loading docks behind the office buildings in downtown DC, social class and faction dissolve in the shared rebellion of burning tobacco together.  This was similar.  Our reasons for ending up here didn’t even matter.  The point was, we had said “no” together and been cast into the outer darkness.

“Not a fan of the x-ray, huh?” I asked.

“Naw,” he said in an aw-shucks way.  “I’ve been standing here in my bare feet forever it feels like.”

We chatted and I found out he was from Phoenix, but went to med school in Michigan and was on his way to Vegas for a residency interview.  “Where are you going?” he asked me.

“Washington, DC,” I said.

“So…” he let the question draw out.  “Political job or something.”

“Nope, I’m an attorney.”

That extinguished his curiosity in a hurry.  At that moment, our company was joined by a third member, an Indian man in his thirties, wearing a pressed dress shirt and nice socks.  He sidled up to us with a knowing sigh.  “They’re always running behind,” he said.  “You find that if you travel a lot.”  I found myself shaking my head sympathetically, as though I knew.

Fortunately for my new companion, but to the detriment of our fellowship, three men in blue shirts and latex gloves shortly appeared, apparently not running as far behind as promised.  My inspector was a friendly man with a blond goatee.  He asked me to point out my luggage, then hauled it over to yet another separated area where a foot-printed floor mat told me where to stand.  The goateed man explained everything that would happen, running down a list of consent questions, speaking precisely and quickly about “sensitive areas,” and rattling off the head-and-shoulders-knees-and-toes order of proceedings.  I worried I would crack up during this rehearsal, but instead I found myself zoning into the aura of professionalism he exuded, nodding with authority at just the right moments.

Then came the pat-down itself.  I’ll spare you the details.  Except to say that I got ticklish once, and it was very thorough.  Afterwards, the inspector wished me a good flight and I unbit my lip long enough to thank him for his courtesy.  Then I was alone again.

Rethreading my belt, slipping on my shoes and stuffing my quart-sized plastic baggie back into my suitcase, I felt the odd but pleasant sensation that I had achieved something.  What it was, I’m not sure.  Was it the thrill of power, exercising an option unexpectedly, forcing the gears of government to crank in a way promised but rarely used?  If so, the angels must surely have been laughing.  Getting cavity searched by an agent of the state has rarely—in any age of history—been thought of as a victory.  And yet, there it was, the unmistakable scent of winning.  I slipped back into the anonymous school of humanity flowing through concourses, hallways, food court lines, blobs at the gates, jet bridges and aisles into the sky, leaping into a hundred, a thousand different directions from the Harbor to every part of the world.  Somehow, in the midst of all this, I felt a bit more.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Drama of the Comma

There’s something delightful about commas, about placing them with precision, poise, purpose.  Commas show vigor, a clean mind, a playful spirit, like a crisply fanned bowtie in whimsical color.  Consider, for instance, this simple sentence, sans any comma:

Me too ma’am.

As it is, it reads just fine.  The point is made: Our interlocutor is affirming or informing his female counterpart, perhaps his elder, that he is of accord.  Nothing terribly the matter.  Of course not.  But now, try it a little differently:

Me too, ma’am.

Aha!  A subtle pause before footing the home stretch, and what’s more, intentionally done.  This shows refinement, and also an ear for music, for the little trip in cadence—think of glancing your boot’s toe on an unexpected crack in the pavement—brings pizzaz, pop, punch, like the syncopated lick from a saxophone fitting in just a few more notes than you thought the measure would hold.

Bravo.  But now, consider the same sentence again, just one variation further:

Me, too, ma’am.

It’s a bird; it’s a plane; it’s preposterous.  There is simply no need.  Pure show-off, pure dandy: yes, you did learn or intuit that “too” stands as its own clause and can buffer the double comma, and now you—you snot-nosed brat-of-a-grammarian—are going to flaunt that knowledge for the world.  It’s obscene.

And it’s wonderful!  No need, no need at all—you never would speak the double out loud (or, rather, out-quiet) in colloquial colloquy, but the point is, you could.  You can!  In the wonderland of language, you have these kinds of powers.

Commas should be used (one might even say must be used) in certain cases.  Lists of three or more, for instance.  Suspended clauses, particularly if you’re not fond—though who isn’t these days?—of dashes, are another example.  But pass beyond these staples, and you quickly enter a world of glorious optional-ness, in that same region where artists mix their tubes of oils and chefs pinch flakes of spices.  It’s all about what he thinks feels right, what she feels to be just so, for the service of a particular eye, palate, or ear.

Take even the most basic case, the list.  What is to be done between the ultimate and penultimate?  The Oxford comma (incidentally, not used in Oxford) or straight to the conjunction?  It depends: Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme might be just the thing; but then again, if you’re feeling ponderous and if you have a little time, perhaps it’s better to have parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.

Commas are the great reminder of the freedom which is our alphabetical birthright.  They hearken to that glorious moment in the past, meditating upon our smudgy third-grade chalkboard, when it dawned on us that the point of grammar was not to deduce what the rules required, though rules there were.  No, once the rules were in place, their beautiful insufficiency pointed beyond to new fields of creation.