Monthly Archives: February 2021

What Will We Forget?


I wonder what’s going to stick with us after this is all said and done.

I mean, COVID is not going away. It spread too far, it’s in the ecosystem now, it’s mutating… it’s going to be with us basically forever. We’ll get better at mitigating and treating it, no doubt. And the vaccine will allow us to return to something like normal. And I imagine that “normal” will look pretty much like “normal” before COVID, with the exception that a lot more people will die during cold and flu season. That will be the new normal.

But it shouldn’t be, right? I mean, you look at a disaster like 9/11, and “normal” after that day was a pretty far cry from “normal” before. Society made some lasting changes as a result. Airports, to say the absolute least, have never been the same. (I remember, when I was in high school, on a boring summer day, driving to Atlanta Hartsfield airport and just playing around there all day. Roaming the terminals, getting lunch at the restaurants, riding the automated sidewalks and trams around. What a great day that was. Also? There is *so much* art and other neat stuff on display in airports, and the average person probably has occasion and access to see so little of it. One of the great invisible losses. Anyway…)

And, not to belabor a point that’s been made here and many other places, but the loss we’ve incurred from the pandemic absolutely dwarfs the horrific losses of 9/11. We’re over the half a million mark, and still going. That’s very quickly going to become 200 times as many people dead of COVID as died on 9/11.

200 times worse. There’s really no way to grapple with that.

So what will stick with us, and what will fade into “can you believe that happened” territory?

In particular, I fixate on masks. Probably because they’re the most visible sign that something is amiss in our world, and also, there was that whole thing where they became this ridiculous political symbol here in America. But we’ve learned, haven’t we, that masks are an easy way to mitigate the spread of not just COVID, but many airborne diseases, right? So will it become a normal thing to wear a mask in cold and flu season if you’re feeling symptoms?

Or how about taking a day off work? We so rarely take days off from work for the most part here, and people in my profession (teachers) are especially guilty. (In my own case, unless I’m well and truly impaired by whatever’s ailing me, I would rather go to work and suffer than deal with missing a day of school. Getting a sub, making lesson plans, dealing with discipline issues that come up because kids are awful to subs… it’s a whole hassle.) Will we relax a little bit about missing a day at the office in the interest of public health?

What will we learn, and what will we forget?


What I Learned from Hamilton


Okay, so I’m five years late to the party. I put off watching Hamilton because it blew up, it became this huge thing, and I figured it was so big, it had to be some lowest common denominator action happening, something that was mindless and appealed to all. Big spectacle, catchy music, no substance. So I didn’t get involved. Didn’t listen to the soundtrack (inasmuch as I could avoid it), didn’t watch video clips of it.

Well, we finally watched it this past week. It’s on Disney Plus. Big Mouse. Big House. Much Exposure. I couldn’t put it off any longer. We watched it.

And at first watch? It’s exactly as expected. Big, catchy numbers. Wonderful choreography and storytelling. A thoroughly enjoyable musical theatre experience. Substance? More than expected. (It’s a historical dramatization, after all.) But then we listened to the soundtrack again on a long drive, and it got under my skin. If music has an infectious quality, this was that, exactly. My wife started reading articles, then ordered a book on Hamilton. I found myself searching for podcasts on American history (I always need more material for my morning runs).

But the more I thought about the story from a literary perspective, the more I felt hollow. See, from the theatrical perspective, the show is absolutely lights out. A rap musical? A stage full of performers at the top of their game? Multicultural cast appropriating a bunch of crusty old white dudes? Yes. This is the jam. Turn your brain off and drink it in. But from the perspective of actual story?

Man.

It hurts.

Because we like arcs. And we like themes. And we like characters that grow and mature and overcome their faults and save the world.

And Hamilton? Well, here’s where the spoilers set in. There’s none of that.

He starts as this brash, talk-too-much unstoppable force and … well, he’s that way for his whole life, never really gets that in check. It gets him killed.

He has all this incredible potential — a mind like none other, the wit to put his ideas into words and to convince people, but he blows up his political career (and in fact his whole life) because he can’t keep it in his pants. He’s a superman brought down, not by the nefarious dealings of foes who conspire against him, but by perfectly ordinary means: his own failure to master his impulses.

Even his death. He dies “throwing away his shot” — that is, wasting his opportunity to fire upon his opponent in a duel, believing that his opponent will also do the honorable thing as well. But he overestimates his opponent’s good will and takes a bullet in the chest. Of course, that’s tragic — until you remember the same thing happened to his son years before. The son had a duel, came to the father for advice, Hamilton advised him to do the honorable thing and throw away his shot … and his son gets killed by a less-than-honorable opponent. He learns nothing!

So he has this incredible life, creates (apparently out of whole cloth) the economic structure of a new nation, and dies because he can’t keep his mouth shut and trusts to the better nature of a man he believes to be a scoundrel.

I suppose it fits the mold of a Greek Tragedy more than anything else, but even in a Greek Tragedy the hero has that moment of recognition, where he realizes he was wrong all along. Hamilton doesn’t get that. He stays who he is until the last.

And while in real life that may be something worth boasting about, in a story, it’s unsatisfying.

So I find myself going round and round with this. What do I take away from this story, when the main character is so frustrating, and his end so abrupt and needless?

But that’s the answer. The play is very concerned with Hamilton operating like he’s on a timer: he writes “like he’s running out of time”, he can’t wait to assume command in battle and prove himself; heck, the closing number for the first act is titled “Non-Stop”. What stands out in the story, for me, is the fact that none of us knows how much time we have, that the timer is counting down for all of us. That death waits for all of us. And like Burr, the villain of the play, most of us seem to be waiting for something. Hamilton may do a lot of things, but waiting is not one of them.

We don’t know what history will say about us. We don’t get to decide who will tell our stories. All we can do is make the most of the time we get.

That’s the core message of Hamilton, I think.

As frustrated as I am with the rest of it, I can be moved by that.


Self-Delusion


You ever notice how much we lie to ourselves?

We lie to ourselves *a lot*.

It’s this weird, insidious thing that we do to let ourselves off the hook for the things we know we should be doing.

And the thing is, we lie to ourselves knowing that the lies are exactly that: lies. We hope that those lies become the truth.

But lies don’t become truth just because you hope they will become truth, or just because you keep telling them to yourself as if they are truth.

How are you lying to yourself?

And are you brave enough to tell yourself the truth?


Creating Should Be Fun


We all have that image in our mind, right? The haggard writer, stooped with their spine bent over the keys, tumbler of coffee (or something stronger) clutched in spindly fingers, red-rimmed raccoon eyes staring at the page.

Tortured. Tormented.

And you know the thing about stereotypes: there’s always a grain of truth. Sometimes more than a grain. We think of that because we’ve all been there — as you fight to get the story just right, as you push and pull and strive and struggle, you smile less, you agonize more. You hate the work some days and other days it feels like the work hates you right back.

But creating can’t be like that *all* the time. I mean, if the writing is like that *all* the time, why are you doing it?

On a good day, the writing is like turning on the hose on a hot summer day — it’s crisp and it’s clear and it flows without end. It’s almost like magic.

I haven’t had enough good days with my writing lately, and I wonder if it’s not because I was trying to make the wrong project happen. I switched gears today and I recaptured a little of that magic. So if you’re like me — struggling for days, weeks, months with your writing — maybe do yourself a favor and give that project a break. A *little* one, at least. And let your brain work on a project it wants to work on. Let it stretch its legs.

Find that magic again. And if you can’t?

Create new magic.


Eyes Without Faces


We’ve been back at school since August here in my part of Georgia, and say what you will about whether we should or should not be, and whether we’re doing enough to protect these kids and their families (to say nothing of teachers and their families) from COVID (in my not-so-humble opinion, we are not), but it’s been good to see the students again.

I mean, last year ended so abruptly and catastrophically that it was hardly an ending at all; it was like going to a movie theater, and having the film cut off just past the 1 hour mark — and then the manager comes in and says the film is totally borked, it can’t be fixed, and they’re just going to have to refund your money. And you’re like — what??

Anyway. I started out thinking about masks and who wears them in schools (they aren’t mandatory, here), and what that says about them… but I figure that’s too cliched, and it’s also not entirely a useful examination. I mean, kids are hardly reliable narrators of their own stories, let alone the stories that get told through them. A kid not wearing a mask isn’t indicative that the kid thinks COVID is a government conspiracy, for example, the way an adult not wearing one is. It could be that the kid just forgot to wear a mask. Or that they lost it. Or that they just got tired of wearing it and took it off. Or that (I had one kid tell me this was the case) their parents forbid them to wear it. Or any number of other permutations. So while it’s interesting to see which kids wear masks, it’s not particularly instructive.

No, I want to mention a very strange phenomenon in this era of mask-wearing, which is: I am forgetting what my students look like.

Not in a broad sense, of course. But a student of mine pulled her mask down in class to have a sip of water and it struck me that I hadn’t seen her mouth in a year.

Okay, so that’s a pretty odd observation to make, but I made it, and there we are. Then I started thinking about it, and I realized that there is no small number of students whose mouths I haven’t seen since February of last year.

And your mouth is half of your face!

And, okay, I teach theater, so I’m sort of hyper-aware of the amount of information that gets conveyed between people through the use of the face, and … we’re covering our faces up (those of us who are attempting to help, in our own little way, our society to get through this mess OKAY NO MORE SOAPBOX), and it’s doing this strange thing to our interactions.

I mean, we can see each other’s eyes, and that’s not nothing, but you take away facial expressions, and you suddenly have a lot less information when you’re talking to somebody.

It’s just a very strange phenomenon, to have that strange moment of “oh, right, *that’s* what you look like” with people you’ve seen every weekday for six months.

It’s just one more way that this pandemic has made us feel alien to each other.

I’ve always thought that Billy Idol song, “Eyes Without a Face” was sort of creepy and beautiful. (I can’t claim to have ever paid attention to the lyrics.) I heard it the other day and I realized… so many of us, now, are eyes without a face to each other.

These are strange times.

P.S. I learned that after shooting the video for “Eyes Without a Face”, Billy Idol’s contact lenses had fused to his corneas, and he had to have surgery to have them removed, so THAT’S HORRIFYING.

P.P.S. I also learned that “Eyes Without a Face” was first a film, and the images from it are …unsettling. Do a google search. Or better yet, don’t.

P.P.P.S. I’ve also decided, after thinking about mouths for the past couple days, that “mouth” is one of the worst words in the English language.


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