Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Viva President Hamlet!

There is a moment in the 1999 high school film Election in which student Tracy Flick comments on the life of her social studies teacher, Mr. McAllister. As she speculates about what it must be like to teach the same material year after year, we see a series of shots of him drawing the same balance of powers triangle on the chalkboard (legislative, judicial, executive), each time wearing a different tie-and-short-sleeve-shirt ensemble. Perfect. When people think about what can make teaching a drag at times, discipline problems and low pay may come to mind first, but there’s a certain mental repetitive motion syndrome that can plague teachers too.

But repetition has its rewards. In English, if you read a layered text enough times, it starts to reveal things to you that aren’t evident upon a first reading. Last month my Obama’s reading list class read Hamlet. It was my first time teaching it in several years, but I’d taught it five or six times before, so the text is quite familiar to me. The timing was good from a current events standpoint: just as we were reading it, the President was being accused of Hamletesque irresolution on the question of what to do about Afghanistan. You know – just as the Prince paralyzes himself with angst and delays avenging his father’s murder, so Obama uses endless deliberation to put off a tough choice as long as he can. But when Obama’s opponents use Hamlet to criticize him, they’re just revealing how poorly they understand the character and the story.

Because Hamlet chastises himself repeatedly for not getting revenge in a timely fashion (“I do not know / why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do.’”), it is easy for the reader conclude that he really has dawdled. But has he? There is powerful evidence that his self-imposed guilt trip is undeserved. To be sure, Hamlet does plenty that is blameworthy - his abusive treatment of his girlfriend comes to mind - but his reluctance to go off half cocked and kill his uncle just makes sense. After the ghost of his father first charges him with avenging the murder, Hamlet prudently decides to confirm the story before proceeding. After all, he's not a natural-born killer, and “A ghost told me to do it” won’t stand up in court as justification for a murder. He needs corroboration. Claudius’ guilty behavior during a play recreating the alleged murder serves as a smoking gun. Now Hamlet just needs an opportunity. One emerges promptly, but Hamlet thinks his revenge would be poorly served by killing the villain while he’s at prayer. That same evening he stabs viciously at what he hopes is the king, but it turns out to be the king’s adviser, Polonius, spying on him. Before he gets another chance, Claudius has Hamlet hustled aboard a boat for England, presumably never to be seen again. So where’s the delay? He’s got blood on his hands, but up until he saw conclusive evidence of Claudius’ guilt he wasn’t delaying: he was just making sure.

And Shakespeare does provide us with an example of what happens when we act rashly. Laertes, son of the murdered Polonius, comes back to Denmark sword drawn, an action hero ready to take his father's killer. Unfortunately, he’s so rage-crazed that his reason fails him: he allows Claudius to lure him into a murder plot that ultimately means ruin for everybody. Laertes may be decisive, but he perfectly illustrates the perils of decisiveness untempered with judgment (Laertes would have been right at home on the White House national security team in 2003). As Hamlet says

Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unus’d.

Hell yeah. Time will tell whether President Obama made the right choice about Afghanistan, but I'm glad we have a leader now who makes thorough use of his "large discourse." If Obama was being like Hamlet in his deliberations, that ought to be a compliment. As another great Shakespearean character tells us, “The better part of valor is discretion.” I’ll take discretion in my President, even if some mistakenly see it as irresolution.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Just Barely a Child of the Sixties

Today is Becki’s 40th birthday.

What can I say today about my answered prayer?

Just this, something that is not news to her friends and family, but it's worth saying anyway: To know her is to love her.

In other news, in the family competition for most blog traffic, Josie’s “Doggy Daily” is killing “FDR Jones.” What gives? Clearly, the reading public is more interested in her dog polls than in my sophisticated ruminations on Gerald Ford, Louis Rukeyser, and Oscar Peterson. Fine. Whatever.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Of Cabbage Patch Kids and Hail Marys

“Turn that off. We have to go.”

It was the day after Thanksgiving, 1984. We were watching a football game, me and my brother our cousins Bill and Ben. We were resuming a custom, the four of us, visiting our Grandmother Grace at her home in Chester, S.C. for Thanksgiving. I don’t remember how we spent most of the day – probably helping her rake leaves – but now we had settled in to watch a football game, a good one, too, a real barn-burner between Boston College and Miami. The Hurricanes had just taken the lead with about a minute left. What would the Eagles do?

Thanks to Grandmother Grace, we weren’t going to find out. She had made us turn the game off, and we were off to the Rose’s store on the bypass. They had obtained a shipment of Cabbage Patch kids and were going to raffle one off every half hour. This was the year that Cabbage Patch kids had become a phenomenon and were practically unobtainable. One raffle ticket per customer, so Grandmother Grace was making us all come along with her to get more tickets. It wasn’t that Grandmother Grace herself was obsessed with getting a Cabbage Patch kid. She wanted one for her only granddaughter, our six-year-old cousin Jessica, who had requested one for – was it for her birthday or for Christmas? I forget. They happen to be the same day.

I cannot speak for my brother or my cousins, but the idea of participating in Grandmother Grace’s scheme stuck in my craw, and not just because I was having to miss the end of a football game. Though Grandmother Grace was always more than generous when it counted, she appeared to put as much thought into our birthday gifts as she did into the radio settings on her LTD. She was especially big on pen and pencil sets. Why the favoritism for Jessica? How was it that she rated a special trip to Rose’s instead of a last minute trip to the drugstore? Bill had theorized that we could discern our place in the grandchild pecking order by checking out the contents of a clear plastic cube Grandmother Grace had for displaying family pictures. When we visited, Bill liked to make a big show of seeing whether he had “made the cube.” Thanks to her cuteness and our Uncle Tom’s enthusiasm for photography, Jessica was dominating the cube. We boys strongly suspected that our age and gender were actually detriments to our image in Grandmother Grace’s eyes. Jessica was small and cute and sweet and – above all – a girl. As her less-exalted kin, we simply had to accept the fact that our chief value to Grandmother Grace at this particular point was that we increased the odds of her being able to deliver a Cabbage Patch kid to her angelic granddaughter.

That such a devout Presbyterian could gamble so calculatingly was impressive, I suppose. And her plan worked. We only had to mosey around Rose’s for an hour before my ticket number was called. Grandmother Grace exploded with the same kind of joy I used to see when she had a winning hand at Shang Hai. She gave me a bone-crunching hug and took the ticket off to claim the prize for Jessica. I have always felt that in that moment my worthiness in her eyes took a dramatic leap, almost compensating for my failure to play golf or take Latin.

It had been a mildly amusing evening, I suppose. No real inconvenience, and Grandmother Grace was happy. No skin off anybody’s nose. Or so we thought.

While Grandmother Grace and Ben and Rob went off to play golf the next day, Bill and I went out for pizza. We stopped to get a newspaper on the way back to the house. He got dibs on the sports section, and we retreated to opposite parts of the house to relax for a while.

The relaxation did not last long. Bill began bellowing profanely from downstairs, as though something truly horrible had happened. I thought he had injured himself.

“What is it? What is it?” I yelled.

“BOSTON COLLEGE WON!” he yelled back, shaking the sports page angrily.

It was true. While chasing down a Cabbage Patch Kid for Jessica, we had missed the greatest play in college football history.

It has been 25 years since Flutie's miracle pass. Our last Thanksgiving visit to Grandmother Grace's house was a long time ago - I miss those trips every year. Jessica is all grown-up now, a successful photographer, and she has taken our abuse about this incident over the years with more good humor than we deserve. It would be hard to argue at this point that Grandmother Grace did not exhibit good taste in choosing her favorite.