The Reason Strings Never Break

I have been thinking a lot lately about one of my favorite plays, Six Degrees of Separation.  Written by John Guare, it examines the existential idea that everyone in the world is linked to everyone else in the world by six people, that ultimately we are all someone’s “friend of a friend of a friend”. It was first staged in 1990 and won lots of good awards, and was adapted into a movie (for which Stockard Channing received an Oscar nomination).  The play’s story explores what happens when a young con man worms his way into the lives of comfortably wealthy Upper East siders. Flan and Ouisa Kittredge are targeted by Paul, who gains the couple’s sympathy and access to their home by claiming he attends school with their college-aged son. Once Paul’s criminal intentions get him kicked out by the Kittredges, he finds a new victim and starts another con. As his life spirals into destruction, Paul returns to the Kittredges for help yet again. The play’s emotional weight rests on how Ouisa and Flan wrestle with whether or not they should save Paul.  What makes a stranger familiar? How much do we rely on the currency of who-knows-who to determine who we let into our lives? Can we recognize the humanity in those who have wronged us? It’s an amazing play, one of my favorites, and I love the concept of the connection by six degrees.

The other thing on my mind right now is Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon. It’s a party game that marries the idea of six degrees of separation – that everyone is linked by six or fewer acquaintances – with Kevin Bacon’s ubiquitous movie career. To play, name any actor, and try to link that actor back to Kevin Bacon in six or fewer connections. It elevated Kevin Bacon from famous actor to pop culture icon and created a whole generation of people who committed the cast lists from every one of his movies to memory. There are whole websites dedicated to this game, you can get an app for it, and Kevin Bacon designed his non-profit foundation around it.

It’s at the intersection of Separation and Kevin Bacon where my friend John and I dwell. John and I have been friends for a long time. When I met John, we were at one degree of separation, by way of our mutual friend Todd. Todd was my hair stylist, and he and John started working at the same salon. Our introduction was unremarkable; Todd said to me, “That’s John”, and then Todd and I spent the duration of my appointment talking nonstop and playing Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon. Other than saying “Nice to meet you”, I didn’t talk with John that day; he was with a client, and it’s hard to get a word in when Todd and I get ramped up.  I was, therefore, a little startled when back at the salon six weeks later, I walked in to John greeting me by hollering “JIM GARNER!” across the room at me. Just “JIM GARNER!” No “Hello, nice to see you again”, just eye contact and “JIM GARNER!” It took me a second to tie the threads together: this was John, I’d met him last time I was in the salon when I’d played Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, and apparently he was now was throwing a Bacon number gauntlet.

And so, in the ways that our connections to each other make new connections, I had a new friend. That first Six Degrees conversation sums up our dynamic: his agile mind is always one or two or ten steps ahead, and I enjoy playing catch-up the best I can. His intelligence is one of the things I love most about him. It manifests in his wicked sense of humor, in his business instincts, but most of all it shines through in his self-awareness. He knows who he is, and he knows what will work for him, and he stays true to himself.

The stark honesty of Six Degrees of Separation and the silliness of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon – these embody John for me. They are weighing on me now because just a few days back, John revealed that he has been battling invasive cancer for the past year and that there are no longer any effective treatment options. He’s made the decision to move back to his childhood hometown while he still can and to go into hospice there, the place where his beautiful mother and adoring sisters live. It’s all such a shock, and yet it isn’t because it’s exactly how I would expect John to handle these momentous things. Straightforwardly. Matter-of-factly. Uncompromisingly.

Of all of John’s finer qualities, the one that presents consistently is loyalty. His circle is tight, devoted, and deep.  It suits John, being attached, which is why he has gone home to be with the ones to whom he is most attached. He has left because he is leaving, ending where he began. In the production notes for Six Degrees Of Separation, John Guare says he structured the play so that the lines of dialogue flow rapidly, to mimic the feeling of time rushing by. That contradiction, of slowing down to read a play about time slipping away, feels accurate. Minutes can drag, but when something is over, all we can think about is how quickly it passed. I have known John for years. I haven’t known him long enough.

Six Degrees Of Separation concludes as Ouisa Kittredge sheds her sophisticated isolation and embraces Paul’s humanity. She recognizes her own vulnerability. It is humbling. Is finding salvation in a flawed package any less a gift? By degrees, we are bound, and by degrees, we let go. Like hand-strung pearls, tightly and expertly nestled, we are forever together and forever distinct from the people in our lives. If we are lucky, we realize that we can bask in the luster of the pearls that surround us. By degrees, our strings grow, and by degrees, they contract. Eventually, our separations are measured by a different distance.

Japanese akoya cultured pearls are pictured at Ohata pearl industry in Ise, western Japan



Photo credit Reuters

The Reason To Avoid That Bridge

There is a certain kind of personality that thrives on chaos, a personality who sees interactions with other people not as an opportunity to discover and appreciate the human experience, but as pure combat. It’s about getting a reaction, and the bigger the rise, the bigger the win. We all know these people. Like your gross uncle at Thanksgiving who can’t stop making fart jokes at dinner, these people have no sense of what’s appropriate and revel in creating discomfort, pulling out all the shitty stops to ensure that everyone pays attention to them. Scientifically speaking, these people are referred to as “jackasses”. Encountering jackasses used to be a matter of chance; you may or may not have run into one going about your day, and once identified, you could take pains to avoid them. (Unless your mom put you in the buffer seat next to your uncle at Thanksgiving. Sorry your mom did that.) However, the advent of social media provides almost daily exposure to particularly malevolent folks who practice their jackassery scorched-earth style. You see them in the comments section on YouTube, you see them shutting down conversation threads on Facebook, you see them starting flame wars on Twitter. I am talking about the trolls, and whenever I see a troll in action, I always think of Iago, that king of all trolldom from Shakespeare’s Othello.
Iago: What’s that thing?
Me: My laptop
Iago: Can I kill people with it
Me: Damn Iago not everything is a thing to kill people with

Othello tells the story of one man’s obsession with…well, obsession. Othello, an experienced soldier, is regarded highly by his peers and his superiors. As the play opens, the audience is introduced to Othello via a conversation between Othello’s fellow soldiers Iago and Roderigo, who discuss Othello’s new marriage to an adoring wife, his prowess as a soldier, and his skill as a leader. They are really happy for Othello and wish him all the best. HAHAHAHAHA just kidding. Roderigo’s pissed that Othello married the girl Roderigo wanted, and Iago’s pissed because—well, Iago’s just pissed, and he is not going to take Othello’s general success and popularity lying down. He takes some time to lay out his detailed plan to ruin Othello’s life by lying, manipulating, and generally gaslighting Othello (and everyone Othello knows and trusts). This is Iago’s show, and Othello is just living in it. While he would have been very effective behind a keyboard, Iago trolls the old-fashioned way – face to face –  but he gets it done just fine. Long held as one of the most repulsive characters in literature, Iago’s reason for wanting to destroy Othello is a disturbing and pathetic “just because”.
Iago: The means totally justified the ends
Me: That is not how that saying works
Iago: Troll big or troll home
Me: Bad. At. Sayings.

Online misbehavior makes headlines now almost weekly. Keyboard anonymity provides a safe, cushy place from which to engage in disruptive hostility. It seems generally agreed upon that trolling is a recent phenomenon, fostered by the internet, but I know better. Iago was trolling when people thought the world was flat and attending a witch trial counted as weekend plans. There’s trolling, then there’s trolling, Elizabethan style, which is infinitely more twisted courtesy Iago’s soulless pursuit of a bad time. This involves conveniently overheard conversations, conveniently planted handkerchiefs, more conveniently overheard conversations, and, of course, misinterpretations of innocuous body language. Put all that together, add Iago, and you have Othello convinced that his wife Desdemona is cheating on him with his favorite lieutenant Cassio. Spoiler alert: this play does not have a happy ending.
Iago: I have Elizabethan internet
Me: What’s that
Iago: I bribe a town crier with meat pies to improve my search engine ranking

Othello is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies – you can tell by all the stabbing and smothering – and while it’s definitely a familiar one, it isn’t as quotable as some of Shakespeare’s other work. What it does deliver, though, is a line from Iago that is one of the most famous lines from anything ever: “Beware jealousy, my lord. It is the green-eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feeds on.” As much as Iago talks in this play—and Holy Alpenhorn, he talks a LOT—this line about jealousy as close as we ever get to a true motive for Iago’s malice. And malicious jealousy is the only way to characterize Iago’s systematic deceptions that ultimately drive Othello to kill his wife Desdemona and commit suicide. Iago also manages to kill his own wife, Emilia, and his original partner in crime Roderigo. Because Iago is such an egomaniac he isn’t going to let anyone out-murder him.
Iago: All I do is win win win no matter what
Me: How do you know that song
Iago: Haters gonna hate
Me: Did someone show you the non-Elizabethan internet??
Iago: Subscribe to my YouTube channel

Troll Ave

Iago’s address, probably

Current conversations about making the internet a safer space often collide with the allowances of free speech. Can trolls be curtailed without limiting rights? It’s a complicated question, but not for Shakespeare. At the end of Othello, Iago’s machinations are revealed and he is recognized for the vile jackass that he is. I’ve always found it intriguing that Iago is not immediately killed, but instead arrested and dragged away for some Elizabethan-style questioning about his crimes. Iago isn’t deserving of the swift justice we see other Shakespeare villains get (Macbeth, I’m looking at you). Iago gets what a troll hates more than anything – rendered irrelevant, condemned to invisibility as he rots in a cell. When I feel helpless and frustrated at hearing another disgusting online trolling story, and I want to see justice done in a big way, I remember that Iago made a huge mess but he finally got his. It’s a small literary comfort, but I’ll take it.
Iago: What is Elizabethan questioning?
Me: Torture
Iago: CRAP


Action Items
If you are online trolling, stop it right now. Unless you are Kenneth McCarthy, in which case carry on with my compliments.

The Reason To Get It On The Side

Immortality is a perennial Top 3 finisher in the Literary Themes Pageant, just like Texas at Miss America. When it’s time to wrestle with the big ideas, all of your better-known Olden Days Writers pull out some form of eternity to make a point.  The Greeks had immortals descend from on high to mess around in people’s everyday business. Eighteenth century English Romantics were all “We are all immortal because nature! NATUURRREEEE!!!!” And then there are vampires, defining immortality ever since Bram Stoker decided to go all undead on our asses. In the past few years, literary vampires have been rock stars, the scourge of colonial America, and hot messes battling it out for supernatural supremacy in Southern Louisiana. There are also the curious Twilight vampires, who go all in on eternity by….going back to high school. Over and over. WTF. I don’t care how pretty Robert Pattinson is, he cannot make that idea remotely appealing.

All that being said, my favorite kind of immortality is the unintentional kind, the kind Julius Caesar achieved when a salad dressing first made in Mexico by an Italian-American during Prohibition intersected with a play that used ancient Rome to illustrate the problematic politics of transitioning from one British monarch to the next. Don’t believe me? Think about a Caesar salad right now. What comes to mind? TOGAS. You can’t buy that kind of viral marketing and brand reinforcement. Shakespeare and Julius Caesar have the Midas touch.
Me: Congrats on that whole most-famous-ruler-of-Rome thing
Caesar: K thx but I wanna be more immortal
Me: You can’t be more immortal than immortal
Caesar: I’m only immortal in Latin
Me: Yes
Caesar: I wanna be immortal in ENGLISH
Shakespeare: I’m on it

My I ♥ SHAKESPEARE list has a definite lean toward unnatural death. There is hella stabbing in all of the plays I really like. Why I prefer my Elizabethan entertainment pointy and bloody is ultimately for my court-appointed psychiatrist to determine, but since I’m not violating any of my restraining orders I’m not going to  worry too much about my subconscious. I love Julius Caesar because it meets minimal stabbing requirements and because it includes the searing, jaggedly perfect “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” eulogy. In another unintentional twist, it’s also the Shakespeare production that I have seen the most often, including one staged on a set that looked like a building construction site where all the actors wore hard hats. Yellow hard hats. The whole show. Well, I am assuming they were actors. It’s certainly possible I stumbled upon a group of extremely politically savvy Shakespeare enthusiasts renovating a theater.
Caesar: Why do I have to wear the hard hat
Me: OSHA regulations for artistic integrity zones

Julius Caesar opens with Caesar fresh off a military victory and ruling over a happy and peaceful Rome. Because no good deed goes unpunished, and because it would be a terribly short play otherwise, Caesar’s motivations come under question by Brutus and Cassius, his two closest advisors, the Kelly and Michelle to his Beyonce. Not convinced that Caesar has Rome’s best interests at heart and suspicious that he wants to crown himself as King, Brutus and Cassius decide to stab their way out of their anxiety about the future and assassinate Caesar at what may go down as the worst committee meeting ever.
Caesar: I brought doughnuts!
Everyone else: Stab stab stab
Caesar: I thought you liked Krispy Kremes!
Everyone else: We told you we are low-carb, asshole


Publicity stunt

Publicity stunt.


The delightfully capricious thing about immortality is that you can’t choose it. It has to choose you, and when it does it’s liable to be for something you couldn’t possibly anticipate. Julius Caesar was one of the greatest military strategists who ever lived, famous for his battlefield victories fought for the glory of Rome. Then Shakespeare comes along and tells his version of Caesar’s story, and Caesar becomes famous for being assassinated and for his last words that he never actually said, “Et tu, Brute?”. Three hundred years later, Chef Caesar Cardini improvises a salad on a busy night with a handful of ingredients he had on hand in his restaurant kitchen. It catches on in a big way because DELICIOUS and suddenly Julius Caesar is famous all over again because his likeness is the go-to illustration on almost every bottled version of Caesar dressing.
Caesar: Wait. What?!?
Me: I thought you knew
Caesar: Is this a joke? I hate salad
Me: Just eat the croutons. It’s what I do

Given the choice, what would Julius Caesar have preferred? Fame from what he actually did, fame from a fictionalized version of himself, or fame from aisle 3 at the grocery store? It’s his embarrassment of riches that he doesn’t have to pick. He gets it all. Over two thousand years later, we’re still talking about him. Shakespeare has done pretty well too, but he’s got work to do in the food department because I can’t remember the last time I ordered a Shakespeare salad.
Caesar: I’m not picking any of those
Me: Okay how do you want your fame
Caesar: I want to go to the New York High School For The Performing Arts
Me: …so you want to spend eternity at high school
Shakespeare: I’m changing my name to Cookie Dough Ice Cream

Action Items
You probably want Caesar salad by now.



The Reason For Date Night

Romance isn’t dead! Unless the romance in question is Romeo and Juliet in which case, yes, romance is unequivocally dead. If your version of a love story with a  happy ending is “deceased newlyweds and resolved grudges” then Romeo and Juliet is the play for you. Normally, I am completely down with a high drama forecast of 100% chance of accidental poisonings with intermittent stabbings. Who wouldn’t like that? Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare’s greatest hit, his most well-known work, and literature’s definitive tragic love story. The narrative around Romeo and Juliet is what sells-the instant love, the white-hot chemistry, the inevitability of their union and the tragic ending. I am not here for any of that, though. Nope. I do love this play, but not for why you think.
Romeo: what do you mean
Me: wait for it, damn
Romeo: tell me now
Me: ok  THIS is why you make me nuts

It’s not terribly romantic to admit it, but I don’t crush on Romeo and Juliet’s romance.  I blame myself for lacking depth and an inability to relate to human emotion. My problem begins and ends with Romeo. We meet him pre-Juliet, hanging out with his friends and mooning over the beautiful and unattainable Rosalind. He goes on and ON about her. By the time he’s done extolling her virtues, he’s convinced me to date her.  His boyishness and impulsiveness are intended to charm but because I am mostly dead inside, he seems more sulky and capricious than anything. It’s not a case of active dislike. It’s just that Romeo is so relentlessly self-absorbed as we get aquainted with his character that I want to punch him. By the time Romeo dons his disguise, sneaks into the Capulet costume ball, spots Juliet and dumps Rosalind, I am done with him. Is Romeo really in love, or does he have the earliest dramatized version of ADHD? It’s hard to tell and as it turns out I don’t particularly care. Since I am not invested in Romeo, I’m not capable of working up the energy to swoon when he goes gaga over Juliet. I just wait patiently through all the Romeo and Juliet parts of Romeo and Juliet so I can enjoy the character it feels like Shakespeare created just for me.
Romeo: not cool
Me: omg did you hear that

One of the timeless aspects of Romeo and Juliet is how Shakespeare captures the dynamics of adolescent male friendship. The comraderie, the dirty jokes, the restless energy –it’s all there and it’s perfect. It’s just like any modern group of high school students, with fewer codpieces.  I love the wordplay and the fights and the teasing, but make no mistake. I am here for Mercutio, Romeo’s best friend. Can I please get a Tiger Beat with him on the cover? Plus a bonus poster that I can hang over my bed? I also need him to have a spinoff series, endorse a line of activewear, and maybe host the Golden Globes next year. I JUST NEED HIM IN ALL THE THINGS. Mercutio is Team Montague, the solid, acerbic yin to Romeo’s boy toy yang. He is a dreamy combo of smart and smartass and I want to have all his iambic pentameter babies.
Romeo: but I’m ROMEO
Me: meh
Romeo: what do I have to do
Me: plot more stabbings?
Macbeth: totally on board with that

Mercutio is my first action hero, the guy who made brains and brawling an irresistible mix. He’s got Romeo’s back, challenging his friend’s moody ruminations on love with vulgarity and humor while trashtalking the rival Capulets whenever the opportunity presents itself. His quicksilver personality is alluring and his intelligence is just sexy. In the play’s climactic battle scene, the rival gangs from the houses of Montague and Capulet clash and Mercutio is mortally wounded. His death sets in motion the chain of events that get Romeo banished from Verona. Even while he’s bleeding to death, he’s snarky and joking, laying the groundwork for the dialogue in every single 80s action movie.
Romeo: i don’t understand what’s happening
Me: so…did Mercutio ask about me?
Romeo: what?
Me: tell him I said hi but just like, hi, not HI
Romeo: ffs

Mercutio might have stayed in the background, perennial Hot Boy #2, but for the amazingly silky Queen Mab speech. It’s just beautiful, one of my favorite things ever written. Hypnotic and foreboding, the Queen Mab speech is delivered right before Romeo enters the Capulet’s ball, meets Juliet, and changes his life forever. Using the story about the how Fairy Queen Mab delivers dreams, Mercutio ruminates on the many faces love wears. The language, the rhythms, are deceptive, seducing  while describing’s love’s worst possible outcomes. Mercutio shows his vulnerability and hints at the bad stuff coming and now I’m planning our wedding and I’m thinking bohemian with pastel colors.
Romeo: what was that sound
Me: everyone’s panties dropping
Romeo: for that?!?
Mercutio: happens every time

church flowers

These flowers will be the perfect detail at the ceremony

I’m always bummed when Mercutio dies halfway through the play, but I hang in there while everything spools out. In the perfect execution of a bad idea, Juliet fakes her death, and that’s all it takes to fool Romeo into thinking she’s really dead. One double suicide later, it’s time to flip back to page one and start over. Just let me fix my hair and lipstick first.

Action Items
For a coma lasting longer than four hours, consult your apothecary.




The Reason For A Team Meeting

I am not exactly a model of discipline or moderation or even a consistent laundry schedule, so the standard ‘Time To Make A Resolution’ does not hold a lot of appeal. It’s just not realistic. For starters, making resolutions involves making a list, and then keeping resolutions involves finding the damn list after immediately misplacing it, so we can all agree this is a system that is riddled with opportunities for failure. Besides, when focusing on my shortcomings, mere resolutions don’t begin to address what needs addressing. I need the kind of motivation that involves someone blowing a whistle in my face at 5AM and calling me a maggot. I am absolutely not going to let anyone do that, because anyone who does that is getting punched, and that judge told me the next time I punch someone I “risk incarceration”. I need solutions that don’t involve having to locate lost objects or put innocent drill sergeants in harm’s way.

I really do dream of getting my shit together, though, and what with resolutions being boring and/or violent, I need alternative inspiration avenues. When it comes time to make life improvements, it’s a better idea to look around to find people who are good at life. Why reinvent the wheel when you can mimic the best? I want iconic trendsetters, people who know how to get it done with style and panache. Like all my problems, I am solving this with books, and with those criteria, it was pretty easy to come up with a short list of candidates and choose my life coaches. Noël Coward and Shonda Rhimes, congratulations. You can start immediately.
You: two feels like overkill
Me: one to coach me
You: ok
Me: and one to look for my lost resolutions list

Noël Coward (1899-1973) was a brilliant playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, and cabaret performer. You know, because well-rounded. His sly wit and deft wordplay largely defined British theater in the period between the world wars. Blithe Spirit, Hay Fever, Design For Living-Coward’s plays are about grownups doing provocative things. In his personal life, Coward was was an enthusiastic and prolific letter writer and The Letters Of Noël Coward, edited by Barry Day, captures Coward’s correspondence in all its intimate, bitchy, blisteringly smart style. His letters are endlessly entertaining, gossipy, and loaded with Coward’s razor-sharp humor, and they give the impression that Coward was always on his way from having a great time on his way to have another great time.  In fact, he is such a good salesman that after reading this book I have a longing to be British in the 1920s. As a runner up, I would take being British in the 1890s too, but I would not want to be British in the 1980s because my hair never would have done that Princess-Diana-Simon-LeBon bang swoop that was so critical to social success.
Me: I would like to be British
England: Qualifications?
Me: I can pronounce Worchestershire sauce
England: Anything else?
Me: I’ve been drunk at Heathrow
England: pass

Shonda Rhimes creates, writes, and produces some of the most compelling television you’re probably watching. Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder, Private Practice—at some point listing all her shows out loud in one sentence became too exhausting for everyone so now her creative genius is collectively referred to as ShondaLand. In the middle of kicking ass all over Thursday night network TV, she published Year of Yes: How To Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person (2015). Wildly successful in her writing and show development, Rhimes found herself retreating by inches to hide behind her work, essentially disappearing from her own life. Year of Yes describes her epiphany about her invisibility and recounts how she methodically overcomes her inhibitions. Using the word yes as her password, she completely renegotiates how she interacts with the world. The book’s rapid-fire, staccato style captures Rhimes’ joy as she opens up and finds her place in the sun. I want to be Rhimesish almost as much as I want to be British.
Me: I would like to be Rhimesish
Shondaland: Qualifications?
Me: I know how to spell anatomy
ShondaLand: Anything else?
Me: my favorite color is grey
ShondaLand: pass


The bang game is strong.

When I get right down to it, I have gravity problems. That’s right-my issues are scientific. I will dig a rut, fall into it, and whine myself into a state of slug-izontal. Random resolutions don’t have enough in the tractor beam to break me out of my self-induced inertia. My big ideas begin with figuring out how I can sleep late and end with figuring out how I can justify cheese fries for lunch. Giving myself a pep talk doesn’t get results because I can easily buy myself off with more cheese fries. What really fires my rockets?  Cadging someone else’s gumption. It’s ultimately a question of perspective. Imagining trying to justify my slothy ass to Team Coward-Rhimes, cheese fries suddenly lose their luster.
Cheese fries: was it something I said
Me: it’s not you, it’s me
Cheese fries: I can add chili
Me: I hope we can be friends

My favorite Noël Coward play is Private Lives (1930). Private Lives is a comedy of manners about Amanda Prynne and Elyot Chase, a divorced couple married to new people and struggling with infidelity. Well, the kind of infidelity that occurs when you find yourself on your honeymoon with your new spouse in a suite next door to your old spouse who is with HIS new spouse and then you realize you really still want your old spouse so you ditch the new spouses and pull a spouseappearing act. The characters are British hot messes who suffer through their collective crises impeccably dressed and with perfect comic timing.  Amanda Prynne knows there will be fallout when she re-elopes with her first hushand on her second honeymoon, but she’s going for it. Shonda Rhimes chronicles the same philosophy (non-fiction version with 100% fewer extra spouses) in Year of Yes. You don’t get an option to stop the clock, so you might as well get off the couch, fling on a classy outfit and enjoy the ride. OOOOH and speak in a British accent while you are at it.
England: NO
Me: just a little one?
England: accent appropriation not approved
Me: English alliteration is excellent

I’m not making a list of resolutions, but I am resolute. I’ll try new stuff and try to be better at my old stuff, and when I need a good shove I’ll look to my Dream Role Model Team. I’ll read Noel Coward’s letters detailing how he worked as a British intelligence agent during WWII. (Yeah—in addition to all the other stuff, he took up intelligence work. WELL-ROUNDED). When I’m working up my nerve to do something that’s a little scary, I’ll conjure my best Shonda Rhimes-making-a-speech attitude, and suddenly I’ll start tossing my hair and screaming ‘BRING IT ON’. It’s not that I want to be my role models–I just need to borrow their brilliance every once in while. I promise to return it in original pristine condition.

Action Items
Here is a round-up of all things Noël Coward, including a link to a performance of Private Lives
Here is a round-up of all the ways you can read Year of Yes

The Reason Foul Is Fair

I could claim that I’ve read all of Shakespeare’s plays, but inevitably I would be stone cold busted by someone asking me “So what is your favorite part of Cymbeline?” and responding with “The part where the scrappy underdog rocks it in her first cymbal solo.” So, NO, Shakespeare scholars, I haven’t read them all and I’ll immediately concede everyone’s superior knowledge on the Shakespeare catalog. I’ve read a few, though, and it’s not a contest but MACBETH WINS. I’m not just saying that because I am afraid Lady MacBeth will kill me in my sleep. This play just blows my hair back. I like Macbeth so much that I automatically love anything remotely Macbeth-related, including but not limited to getting blood on my hands and/or clothing, presidential election cycles, and haggis. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA just kidding I loathe presidential election cycles.

This story of an ambitious warrior who murders his way to the throne in ancient Scotland is ubiquitous. Even if you haven’t read Macbeth, you’ve bumped into it. You have, really. You can’t help it. It’s like pumpkin spice—it gets everywhere. “Something wicked this way comes”? From Macbeth. “Out, out, damned spot”? Macbeth. “Double, double, toil and trouble”, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury” and I’ll spare you but there is much more. This play has provided some of the most fundamental ways in which we communicate in the English language and it’s an amazingly long list from a relatively short work.  Macbeth was written around 1606, is the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and is really, really murdery.

There is something so satisfying about a great ghost story, and that’s where my love affair with this work germinates. It’s so moody and dark I’m convinced Shakespeare was in his Goth teen phase when he wrote it, hanging out in his room practicing black eyeliner application and bingelistening to Morrissey. At its core, Macbeth is about how our choices and our decisions haunt us, about how consequence becomes our fate. Shakespeare illustrates the failings that result from arrogance and hubris with creepy, psychic elements like bloody visions and sleepwalking. Also trees come to life and ambush people. (The first draft had a Loch Ness Monster subplot. Probably. Because Scotland). It’s a big pile of kilt-wearing spooky greatness.

What Up, Witches Can we talk about the witches? Because they make me fangirl HARD. There are three of them. They live in a cave, they dance for hours around a cauldron (see? Shakespeare even invented raves), and they probably haven’t brushed their teeth ever. If they meet an endangered species? They’ll cut it up for spellcasting. If you won’t share your snacks with them? They’ll find your husband and screw him to death. THEY DO NOT CARE. I realize all the death and mangling is supposed to turn me off but I love them so much. For all the forwardness and enlightenment that was the Elizabethan age, women were still regulated to very specific roles, and didn’t get many chances to be in charge of their own destinies. Shakespeare wrote these weird sisters as profoundly, refreshingly powerful. They are not here for small talk, thanks. They are here to terrify people and chew bubblegum, and they are all out of bubblegum. Chief among their interests is career counseling, evidenced by telling Macbeth that they have prophesized that he seems destined to wear a crown. This is awesome because gold is SO his color. (Compliance tip: Your yearly performance review should not contain “Ensure throne appropriation via aggressive death blueprint” as a development item because regicide is a very serious HR violation.)
Witches: Dude we had a vision you will be King
Macbeth: ok gonna go kill someone so it’ll happen
Witches: well that escalated quickly

Real Housewives of Scotland If you ever get cast on any Real Housewife series, I would not look to New Jersey or California for tips on how to best conduct your privileged life of social climbing. I’d go straight to Scotland for that playbook. If any couple in the history of couples was made for reality TV, it’s the Macbeths. They’re ambitious, morally ambiguous, and fashion-forward. (Macbeth begins and ends the play in full battle armor and I don’t want to live in a world where that kind of bold choice doesn’t at least get you a shot at Vanity Fair’s Best Dressed.) Lady Macbeth is ride or die when it comes to helping her husband climb that career ladder. As soon as she hears he’s got witch juju on his side, she’s ready to take it to the mat. Some long-time married couples put some spice back in their relationship by investing in vacation real estate, and some do it by murdering a bunch of people to ensure ascension to the throne. Guess which track is more likely to land you on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live?
Disclaimer: I don’t recommend political assassinations as a joint hobby. Or as a singular hobby. What is wrong with you? But if I did, I’d point you to the Macbeths and tell you that the number one indicator of success when you are trying to murder people to be King of Scotland is a supportive partner. One who shares your dreams. Someone who can pick you up when you are feeling down. Someone who can call on the gods to surgically excise all of her humanity so that stabbing someone doesn’t feel like a bad idea.
Macbeth: Some random women from the woods said I might be King someday
Lady Macbeth: seems legit, let’s kill people to make that happen
Macbeth: well that escalated quickly

Can’t See The Forest For The Treason Call it an Elizabethan special effect or an arboreal miracle. Either way, the witches’ prophecy about Macbeth staying King until “Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane” isn’t the get out of jail free card that Macbeth thinks it is. TWIST: it’s a big Scottish loophole. Macbeth is assured by the witches that he’s King until the trees in a nearby Birnham forest can walk to his castle in Dunsinane. It never occurs to Macbeth to take this prophecy anything but literally, because Macbeth is an asshat. In fact, Macbeth’s exact line is (paraphrasing) “Pfft. Trees can’t walk. I’m hiring a contractor to renovate the throne room.” Meanwhile, back at the ranch, opposition leader MacDuff raises an army to attack Macbeth’s fortified castle. The army gets close enough to attack by disguising themselves with branches from Birnham forest. Think of it as the original manscaping. I love this scene. It’s so satisfying to see karma delivered in such a creative and decisive way. It’s also fun to imagine how the bagpipe player managed to look like a tree while playing his bagpipe. (In my version of this, there’s always a bagpipe player. Because Scotland. Sorry, Scotland.) MacDuff and his troops breach the castle, throw down some trash talk, and before you know it Macbeth’s been beheaded. Let that be a lesson-never piss off an armed tree. Malcolm, the rightful heir, takes the throne and we have our happy ending.
Malcolm: didst thou vanquish MacBeth, Thane Of Asshat?
MacDuff: totes!
Malcolm: I just can’t waaaaiiit to be King
MacDuff: I cut off his head, here ya go
Malcolm: well that…….EW.
MacDuff: not the line
Malcolm: kings make their own punchlines

Action Items
There is an interactive Macbeth HOW COOL:

The Reason For Witness Protection

Deep dark secrets are great until you confess them and risk of being held accountable. Who wouldn’t rather be ‘mysterious with a dangerous streak’ instead of ‘on parole’? But it’s time for me to come clean about bad choices made in my impulsive, reckless youth. I did things. I did bad things. I’ll tell you about it here but I am changing some details to protect the innocent (innocent = way super guilty).

I stole a book from a library.
In my defense, I really wanted the book and I was going to take it. Just hear me out before you throw away the metaphorical key to my imaginary cell. You’ll never take me alive, copper.

But first…some words about libraries. I love libraries. ALL OF THEM. The smell, the reverent hush, the solid reassurance of a multitude of filled shelves. The swagger in your step approaching the card catalog because your Dewey brings the decimals to the yard. Libraries-hands down-have always been my favorite places to go. I could, and did, spend hours in the stacks, letting looking for one book lead me to another book, another topic, another place. Sadly there was always a point at which the adult in charge would announce “Last call! You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here!” (to which my panicked reply was always “BUT MOM! I HAVE TO GO HOME WITH YOU!”)Libraries made sense to me. They were orderly. I never had to figure out which table had the cool kids, or get side-eye at how many books I was taking home. I don’t even know how many books it would take to get a librarian to give side-eye. Dude, don’t even try. You cannot flap the unflappable.

While it was deliriously thrilling to assemble a check-out pile, I also loved pulling random books off the shelf and finding a comfy chair for some reading time. (It’s VERY grown-up to read at a library. People like Katharine Hepburn did it in black and white movies so…)I would find a section I didn’t have a reason to be in and just peruse. I would grab intriguing titles and do a lap in the pages to see if I wanted to commit. My favorite place to do this was in the 800s/Literature and on the particular day that I found this particular book, I was in the 811s, American Drama. I was 9ish years old.

American Drama was always yummy and juicy and a good way to pass some time holed up in the stacks. I read plays by Arthur Miller and Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams. I’d never heard of Kaufman and Hart, but there was this little blue book with an understated title: Six Plays by Kaufman and Hart, from Random House’s Modern Library, published in 1942. There were some introductory essays that I skipped (whatever, you don’t look at them either) and I thumbed through, looking at the play titles. I settled on one in the middle of the book called “You Can’t Take It With You” and looked at the character’s names. Penelope Sycamore. HA. I was sold. Best first character name everrrrrr. That name was like a warm hug from your eccentric aunt, your dad’s sister that your mom didn’t like. I added it to my stack to go home with me.

I had strict rules for reading-can look at the description on the back, must read in order without looking ahead, never cheat by looking at the last page, always finish the book no matter what (anyone wanna hang out with me yet? Don’t I sound superfun?) but these rules didn’t apply to play collections. I started Six Plays in the middle, with the play that had so effectively grabbed my attention. To my pleasant surprise, I had me a book of comedies. “You Can’t Take It With You” was a little strange, a lot energetic, and very, very funny. Kaufman and Hart made every character interesting and dimensional and necessary-even the ingenue was more than a pretty face driving the romance plot. I read it through, then turned back to the beginning and read it again, saying random lines out loud just to delight in how they rolled off my tongue. Kaufman and Hart’s inherent genius is supporting a myriad of active, varied, explosive characters—putting SO MUCH into the script—with staccato, cascading dialogue that drives manic pace of the play with comparatively spare language. The resulting buoyancy is infectiously joyful and did I mention funny? Funny to read, fun to say out loud, fun to hear. I had to pay attention, because the good stuff flew fast and nonstop and it was all gold. (Yes, it won a Pulitzer Prize, so, you know, I’m aware that saying “This play is good!” is like saying “Water is wet!”)

When I found this book, I was unaware that George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart were kind of big deals. Like, the biggest American theater deals. George S. Kaufman was a member of the Algonquin Round Table. Moss Hart was younger than Kaufman by 15 years and was a natural storyteller encouraged into the theater by a beloved aunt. Apart, their accomplishments are mind-boggling but together they flat owned the 1930s when it came to American theatrical comedy. Six Plays spans that decade’s body of work.

I read “You Can’t Take It With You” four times in a row and finally moved on to another play. “Once In A Lifetime” was fun, but I met my new best friend, the sly and self-involved Sheridan Whiteside, in “The Man Who Came To Dinner”. I would give my right arm to play Sheridan Whiteside. (Hello, casting directors, the ultimate in stunt casting! A complete unknown with limited experience genderbending a beloved, iconic role! I’ll just sit here and wait for the avalanche of offers). The breathtaking wit, glamour, and flat hilarious intelligence of this play did me in. I knew that I could not live without this book.

I like to think that Mr. Whiteside, petty thief that he is, would approve of my next move. When it came time to return my most recent stack to the library (pay attention here because CRIMINAL MASTERMIND) , I hid Six Plays under my bed. At the library, instead of handing the books over the counter to the librarian to get checked back in, I put them in the book drop so as to not draw attention to The Missing Book. Then I constructed an underground lair and hired a bunch of henchmen.

You (not YOU, I’m sure) probably hid porn under your bed. I hid a book of comedic plays written in the 1930s. Can we agree that I’ve always been a sad, sad nerd? It took a few years, but in time I gained some maturity and a moral compass and my illegal gain started to nag at me. I possessed My Precious but I had victimized a library and thwarted who knows how many research papers. My relationship with libraries had been one way, my perspective one of “how can I be served”? When I stole the book, it was because I wanted to keep that delirious riot of an experience for myself. I had it wrong. One person does not make a riot. Riots are communal. You gotta invite everybody and make sure you have lots of confetti and silly string on hand.

I know you’re waiting for the happy ending punchline where I make good and return the book all those years later. HAHAHAHAHAHA nope. I never got found out and I still have that copy of Six Plays. I read it about once a year. The experience of finding a book that so envelops you that it becomes part of who you are, that it colors how you see the world, is an experience that I was afforded because I got to go to a library. Kaufman and Hart were there, just waiting to be found.Every so often, I’ll find a good copy of Six Plays in a used bookstore. I always buy it and take it to my local library to donate. It’s the most peaceful way I know to start a riot. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to field all those “The Man Who Came To Dinner” casting offers.

Action Items
Check out local theater companies in November/December-chances are there’s a staging of “The Man Who Came To Dinner”. You can also spend some quality time in your living rooms with the movie versions of all of the plays in this book. They will usually be in the classic movie sections of your favorite movie-obtaining service.
Support your library.