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Rethinking Shakespeare’s 5-act Structure

For most of my twelve years teaching high school English, I’ve taught a lesson on the 5-act structure of Shakespeare’s plays.

 

I even put it in a book.

 

But I don’t think any of it is right.

 

Two weeks ago, as we waited in a church pew for our oldest son’s preschool graduation ceremony to begin, my wife, Liz, and I got into a debate about the climax of Hamlet, said debate beginning with my above-repeated admission that what I’ve been saying to students about Shakespeare’s 5-act structure I no longer believe to be true.

 

What I’ve been saying—off and on for twelve years—and what I also included in a chapter on Taming of the Shrew in our book, Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature (co-written by Liz and me; she wrote the Hamlet chapter), is that Shakespeare’s 5-act structure can be roughly mapped onto the familiar plot diagram as follows:

 

Act I = Exposition

Act II = Rising Action/Complications

Act III = Climax

Act IV = Falling Action

Act V = Resolution/Denouement

 

I, of course, am not the first nor the only teacher to teach this. It all started with Gustav Freytag, a 19th-century German novelist and playwright, who diagrammed the five story parts above (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution) using a triangle, now known as Freytag’s Pyramid, which looks like this:

 

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As an example, Freytag mapped the 5-act structure of a Shakespeare play onto his pyramid (said mapping making its way from Freytag through generations of teachers and teacher resources to me, around twelve years ago, and on to my students, some of whom now teach, and into an additional teacher resource, co-written by me).

 

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The last couple of times that, out of habit, I drew the above diagram on my whiteboard, I knew there was something wrong with it.

 

This was perhaps because it did not square at all with the diagram I had been drawing for students during my short fiction unit.

 

About halfway through my teaching career, I figured out that Freytag’s Pyramid, as shown above, is problematic when applied to fiction writing, particularly short stories, and particularly when trying to help students draft well-plotted short stories.

 

I started drawing this, instead:

 

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The biggest difference between Freytag’s diagram and this one is the latter’s lack of symmetry (reason to follow).

 

A similarity is that they both begin and end with a flat line.

 

The flat line on the left-hand side represents the ground situation (I also discovered, about halfway through my teaching career, that I’d been teaching exposition wrong, telling students that it’s the part of the story in which the author introduces the setting, the characters, and the conflict. All of that is true, but what is more helpful to students who are drafting stories is to tell them that the exposition has two vital components: the ground situation [the state of things, often teeming with potential conflict, before the conflict is incited] and the inciting incident [just what it sounds like: an incident, often but not always the addition of a character, that incites the conflict and sends the previously flat-lined diagram angling upward]).

 

The flat line on the right-hand side represents the new state of affairs after the conflict has been resolved and the knot unraveled.

 

This post-denouement state of affairs does not/should not/cannot return to the same state of affairs represented by the ground situation. A change must have occurred, otherwise no story has been told, hence the lack of symmetry in the latter triangle (this is not original; it is a modification to Freytag’s triangle suggested by John Barth in his metafictive story, “Lost in the Funhouse” [and probably elsewhere, too, by others]).

 

The other big difference between the two triangles is the elimination, in the latter, of the falling action, one discovering when studying (or simply consuming) stories that the resolution often comes on the heels of the climax (another reason for the lack of symmetry: there is usually much more story before the climax than there is after it).

 

What I like to say to students about the above-drawn diagram is that it is a formula that allows for infinite variations. It is inexhaustible. And it is.

 

I said the same thing to a roomful of teachers at February’s CATE Conference, where Liz and I were leading a workshop on teaching contemporary short fiction.

 

After I had said the above and had used one too many Pixar movies as an illustration, a participant, as a sort of friendly challenge, asked if we could apply the same structure to “The Flowers” by Alice Walker (a one-page story describing a single incident), which we had earlier in the workshop read on the lookout for concrete details.

 

I wasn’t prepared for such a challenge, nor had I previously attempted the suggested application, but the clever teachers in the room quickly discovered, despite all of the differences between “The Flowers” and Finding Nemo, that the structure did indeed fit both. Perfectly.

 

So, then: Shakespeare.

 

Liz’s and my church pew debate came at the end of a week in which I had listened to dozens of high school juniors, during their oral examinations, explain that the Mousetrap (Hamlet’s play-within-the-play, manufactured to reveal Claudius’s guilt) is the climax of the play.

 

When, in our pew, I asked Liz what the climax of the play is, she answered that it is the Closet Scene, particularly Hamlet killing Polonius.

 

The students’ reasons were fuzzy (for many, they were unstated altogether; the reason that was the climax was that their English teacher had said so).

 

Liz’s reasoning, on the other hand, was fully- and well-articulated (she is brilliant in many many things, but particularly astute when discussing Hamlet): that, to poorly paraphrase, by killing Polonius (believing he is killing Claudius) Hamlet demonstrates the resolution that, two acts later, allows for resolution.

 

Both the students’ and Liz’s proposed climaxes occur in Act III (scenes 2 and 4, respectively) and therefore fit the Freytag map of Shakespeare’s 5-act structure.

 

Freytag supposedly leaned heavily on Aristotle, but it is precisely the lessons in Poetics that lead me to question Freytag and my own previous teaching.

 

Aristotle says that the Complication (what we often call the Rising Action) is a causal sequence of story events (or scenes) in which, scene to scene, the stakes (and thereby drama) increase and increase until we arrive at the climax (which Aristotle describes as a reversal in fortune [bad to good, good to bad, etc.]).

 

After this final reversal, Aristotle says, there is nothing but the unraveling.

 

How, then, can this causal sequence reach its peak in Act III, with two acts to go?

 

From our pew, I argued that the climax of Hamlet is the duel in Act V. It all builds to that. Hamlet dies (final reversal), after which there is only the unraveling (Fortinbras takes over, honors Hamlet, etc.).

 

Freytag, those juniors, and Liz are right about one thing, though: Act III is climactic.

 

That is because each act has a climax (or reversal, or turn [bad to good, good to bad, etc.]).

 

Aristotle says that lengthier works need at least three turns to keep the audience interested (Walker’s one-page “The Flowers” needs only one), hence the three-act structure often found in movies and plays and novels (most of the novels I’ve taught are divided into three parts, or three books, or their number of chapters is divisible by three).

 

When we map this 3-act structure onto our modified triangle, it looks like this:

 

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Three turns, probably alternating (good to bad to good, bad to good to bad, etc.).

 

Shakespeare’s structure is similar, but with more acts. Five turns, each building toward the final reversal in Act V:

 

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So, right or wrong, the above is my new way of drawing Shakespeare’s 5-act structure. It makes sense to me. At least for now.

 

In our pew, after the third time I said, “Aristotle says,” Liz said that John Green says that Aristotle got almost everything wrong. I was about to say something in response, but the ceremony began.

Funtown: A Have/Have Not Story

It’s been pretty warm lately, so yesterday we decided to take the boys to the park. We loaded up some snacks and some soccer balls and made our way to Micke Grove Park, where we played and played all morning and had a great time. It really is a nice park.

The park also has a zoo. And next to the zoo is Funtown. Funtown is a mini amusement park. A park within the park.

I remember going to Funtown when I was a kid. I remember it being fun. And being excited to go there. My kids were excited, too. And they had fun. But, as an adult, Funtown was…interesting.

Funtown resembles sort of a post-apocalyptic amusement park. Like, if, say, seventy percent of the population died in a plague, and afterwards there were still amusement parks, the amusement parks would be like this.

Or, if you’re familiar with George Saunders stories, Funtown is like an amusement park in a George Saunders story.

Micke Grove Park, and everything in it, including Funtown, is operated by the county’s Parks and Rec Department, and, when compared to, say, an amusement park that is not funded by a county but rather by a megacorporation, like, say, Disneyland, Funtown is a vivid demonstration of the haves and have-nots.

We were the first to arrive. Funtown had two employees. Later we would learn that there were three employees, but one was running late. One of the employees was a nice lady who sold us tickets. The other employee was a youngster, as was the employee who would arrive late. The youngsters were nice, too.

As we were buying tickets, Liz and I saw on a sign that Funtown had mini-golf. We’d been talking about taking the boys to play mini-golf, but the nice lady informed us that the mini-golf course was currently closed. They were having a problem with some geese.

“Geese?”

“Yeah, a bunch of geese took it over. So it’s not safe. But we think we can get it open again this weekend.”

Here’s a picture of the mini-golf course. You can’t see any geese, but you can imagine them, hiding out, ready to strike.20180330_113719

There are about nine rides at Funtown. They’re fairly typical rides: tilt-a-whirl, roller coaster, carousel, etc. But the challenge, for a Funtown employee, given that there are nine rides (plus a ticket booth, and a concession stand) but only three employees (and one is late) is that if some family is hanging around a ride looking like they want to ride it, then one employee has to drop whatever they were doing and go operate that ride.

Our first ride was the fish. It’s fish that go around an octopus, which the kids thought was great.

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But about the time we finished with the fish, two more families arrived, which made it much more complicated for the two employees. Luckily the second youngster showed up, late, but then a fourth family showed up, too, and someone needed to sell them tickets.

So we and one of the other families decided to sort of stick together, ride-wise, to make it easier.

Next was cars. Cars that go around and around. First Tom tried to pick this purple car, but, as indicated by the caution tape and the sign, it was unavailable.

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The sign says: “This car is down (sad face). Don’t ride me.” A pedantic English teacher might point out that the point of view of this sign is inconsistent.

The tilt-a-whirl, nearby, was in a similar situation: at least one tilty-car had an Out of Order sign taped to it (but no caution tape).

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Then we went for the train ride. It’s a little train that runs all around the perimeter of the park. We sat in the first car, right behind the engine. The instrument panel reminded me of the 1958 Cessna Luscombe my grandfather used to take me flying in when I was little.

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Once the passengers were all loaded, before departing, the youngster reached under the driver’s seat and pulled out a hammer. Then he crawled under the engine and banged on something a few times. Then he got up and looked at me and said, “I have to do that to start it.”

After a few tries, it started right up, and we were off.

Here’re three pictures. One picture is of the youngster banging with the hammer, another is of Liz watching the youngster bang on the engine that will next transport her entire family around the park, and the third picture is of the youngster driving the train.

And here are pictures of Tom and Sam, delighted with the train ride:

The train ride included a view of the bathroom, which you get to by going out the back gate, past the dumpster, and this fenced off area where they collect all of the broken Funtown stuff:

The train also passed the roller coaster, the theme of which is Giraffe, or perhaps Safari, and these two guys, who were working on The Scrambler, seemingly trying to figure out what was wrong with it (we didn’t ride The Scrambler):

We would encounter these two guys again later, at this airplane thing that Sam rode:

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During the ride, Liz overheard the guys talking. It turns out one guy was a (the?) manager, and the other guy was an inspector. The manager guy told the inspector guy that they could only afford to re-paint one or two rides a year. The planes were due for some paint.

As soon as Sam got off, the guys swooped in. They had been watching closely, and something apparently didn’t look right:

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Here’s the thing: when you go to Disneyland, the employees are all very nice and helpful. They seem, genuinely, to want you to have a good time.

But the employees at Funtown, all three of them, were also very nice and helpful. And they also seemed, genuinely, to have wanted our boys to have a good time (which they did; they talked about it all afternoon).

The difference is, the nice and helpful Disneyland employees have a lot more to work with. They know they have a good product, backed by a corporate machine (as opposed to a parks and rec department). The nice and helpful Disneyland employees don’t have to crawl under the train and bang it with a hammer. They don’t have to hand-crank the roller coaster to get it going. And they generally don’t have to battle geese for territory.

CATE Conference 2018

A few weeks ago, Liz and I flew down to San Diego for our second CATE (California Association of Teachers of English) Conference.

 

Last year, the conference was in Santa Clara (a not-too-long drive for us), and we gave a presentation based on a chapter of our book, Method to the Madness. The presentation was titled, Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature (which is also our book’s subtitle).

 

This year, our presentation was based on another chapter of the book and was titled, Contemporary Short Fiction: the Key to Unlocking Potential and Leveling the Playing Field for Students of All Ability Levels (long title). We had given a longer version of the presentation to Tracy Unified School District in January.

 

The presentation began with the rationale for building curriculum centered on quality literature (fiction, poetry, drama, creative nonfiction). There was (still is?) a misconception that Common Core equals less literature in the English classroom and more “informational” reading. This, of course, is a misunderstanding that the framers of the standards have addressed: “Said plainly, stories, drama, poetry, and other literature account for the majority of reading that students will do in the high school ELA classroom. […]The Standards could not be clearer: ELA classrooms must focus on literature — that is not negotiable, but a requirement of high school ELA.” (David Coleman & Susan Pimental)

 

Next, Liz gave her pitch for using contemporary short stories in the English classroom, particularly as an opening unit, such stories being accessible to a variety of students (including those with attendance issues). These high-quality stories can be taught in a single class period (or two), and they offer students the opportunity to engage with a wide variety of voices while allowing the teacher the opportunity to establish (or remediate) essential skills.

 

We had prepared to use three short stories—Sticks by George Saunders, The Flowers by Amy Walker, and How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes) by Lorrie Moore—but we only got through the first two.

 

Each of those stories (Sticks and The Flowers) fits onto a single page, but each story is very meaty. We asked our participants to read and annotate each story, and, despite (as mentioned) each story being only one page, they each led to a wide-ranging academic discussion of the significant choices being made by the author.

 

(Note: all of the above was great, great, great, and a lot of fun, because our participants were so great, and also because Liz is so great at this.)

 

We ended with a discussion of narrative structure (the traditional plot curve, which is sometimes incorrectly perceived as a restraint to creativity and voice [a view I once embarrassingly held] but that instead allows for infinite variation).

 

We were getting short of our time, there were several slides to go, and I was sort of floundering, describing the plots of Pixar movies. Liz would later say that when I gave a third such example, she knew I was in trouble.

 

But a participant saved me by asking if, when learning about this narrative structure, which is so obvious in Pixar movies, students can apply the elements (ground situation, inciting incident, conflict, complications, climax, resolution) to something like The Flowers, which is so short and describes a single event.

 

This was exactly where, despite all floundering, we were supposed to be headed, and, as a group, we tried it. It turns out, despite being only one page and describing only one incident, The Flowers “fits” the narrative structure perfectly (infinite variation).

 

So, we modeled lessons on two one-page short stories (Sticks, by the way, Liz describes as the only “magic bullet” for English teachers: a two-paragraph story that students always like and always have so much to say about). Each story is accessible to a variety of students, and each story provides the opportunity for critical reading, critical thinking, analytical writing, and academic discussion.

 

Several people came up at the end to buy books (which was very nice), and a few told us that it was the best presentation they had been to all weekend (but maybe they say that to all the presenters).

Our Two-year-old May Be Winning

Liz and I have been teachers for, collectively, over twenty years. A strength we have each developed over those years is classroom management.

 

The key to effective classroom management, we have found, is establishing crystal clear expectations (for pretty much everything) and being relentlessly consistent about those expectations, including, perhaps most importantly, the doling out of consequences for failures to meet those expectations.

 

And since becoming parents five years and forty days ago, we have periodically smugly noted to one another that those well-honed skills have made us better parents.

 

But then came Sam.

 

After thousands of students and one relatively well-behaved five-year-old, it would appear that Sam (our second) is winning.

 

Take, for example, yesterday, which ended, once they both finally passed out, with lots of red wine.

 

Sam is two. Several weeks ago, he discovered independence, and, as a result, Sam hasn’t worn his shoes on the correct feet since. When you try to help Sam, he sort of screeches: “My tuhn!” Sam says “My tuhn!” a lot. All day long, for example. But no one else ever gets a turn, ever. It’s always his tuhn.

 

Yesterday, when it was time for Sam to get dressed, I pulled out a pair of shorts, triggering a head-thrown-back fit of agony.

 

Sam’s fits of agony, in their extremity, are what to a normal fully-grown human would seem appropriate if we had tied his hands behind his back and forced him to watch as one-by-one we guillotined his favorite toys.

 

In reality, though, these fits are prompted by more pedestrian matters: that was the last cracker, or that pencil is blue.

 

Or, I chose the wrong pants.

 

I pull from the drawer another pair of pants. Wrong pants. Agony. Head-throwing. Another pair, and another, and another. All wrong. The child collapses. This is now a Greek tragedy.

 

I call for Mommy. Then I hide and listen as Liz reenacts the same scene. Pair after pair after pair of pants, all wrong.

 

Liz demanded my return, her tone implying threat of divorce. We finally offered Sam the dirty clothes he had just taken off, which he accepted.

 

We tried to help him dress, but it was his turn (information that was shrieked at us). The pants went on fine, but the shirt ended up inside-out with only one arm in its correct slot, the other arm joining the head out the head hole, so that, for the remainder of the day, Sam resembled a cross between a Go-Go Girl and a member of the Roman Senate.

 

Sam’s independence and his reactions to it being thwarted are complicated by the fact that some things, at two years old, despite it being his turn, he is just not capable of doing.

 

Take, for instance, Batman. In this house there are at least half-a-dozen anthropomorphic toys of various sizes representing the fictional character of Batman. On any given day, any of those Batmen may be the “right” Batman. The challenge, then, is finding the right Batman on the right day. [Note: it’s not always Batman. The above is also true for Superman, or Sherriff Woody. Or Harry Potter. We have two Harry Potters. At one point yesterday, I caught myself desperately pleading with my two-year-old that That is Harry Potter. That is Harry Potter!]

 

Buy yesterday, finding the right Batman wasn’t the hard part, the hard part was that the right Batman was the tiny little Lego Batman.

 

The tiny little Lego Batman has a tiny little cape. The tiny little cape is hard to put on. Even for a fully-grown daddy (or mommy) it’s a test of dexterity and focus.

 

So the four o’clock hour consisted basically of doing our best to keep Sam from injuring himself as he flailed about, unable to put on the cape but unwilling to accept help.

 

It’s not that behavior like this didn’t happen with Tom (our five-year-old). But back when Tom was on all fours banging his head against the floor, there wasn’t also a five-year-old standing there emphatically demanding that we look at the play-dough rock he made or how to spell his friend’s name.

 

Yesterday, naptime (a precious period on any Saturday) was cut short when the finally-sleeping Sam was stirred by his older brother repeatedly storming through his door to gallop down the hall and loudly announce that he’s been playing very quietly in his room. And to pee.

 

Later in the day, while Tom finished a movie he had started watching the day before, Sam and I generated pages worth of dialogue consisting of the same two lines repeated (and repeated and repeated):

 

S: I no lie iss moo-ie!

D: Well you don’t have to watch it. You can just play.

S: I no lie iss moo-ie!

D: Well you don’t have to watch it. You can just play.

S: I no lie iss moo-ie!

D: Well you don’t have to watch it. You can just play.

 

And so on.

 

But the true highlight came shortly before dinner. We were playing out front. Sam was playing in the bed of the truck. For reasons unknown, Sam began trying to lick my truck. More accurately, when I say Sam began trying to lick my truck, I mean that he first successfully licked the truck—a rather substantial helping of the dust-covered rear window—and then tried repeatedly to lick other parts of the truck, with me repeatedly stopping him.

 

Tom walked up. He asked for a napkin. There was something on his hands. We had just carved pumpkins. I couldn’t get Tom a napkin; I was busy blocking Sam from licking the running board. My pants were covered in pumpkin, from said carving. Mid-lick-block, I instructed Tom to just wipe his hands on my jeans.

 

Several minutes passed. I asked the boys who had stepped in cat poop. They were both barefoot. I pulled out the hose, then checked feet. Nothing.

 

It was another several minutes before I noticed that the pumpkin on my jeans was not at all pumpkin.

 

Come to find out, it had been Tom who had stepped in cat poop, but he had cleaned it up himself, with his hands, having then, according to his father’s instructions, wiped those hands on his father’s pants.

 

Liz drew the bath. I opened the wine, to breathe.

boys pumpkins

[Note: there are no numbers of fits or amounts of cat poop that are not worth enduring for these two (sometimes) smiling faces.]

WHICH WAY IS DISTANCE: HOW TO TAKE A CAR RIDE WITH YOUR KIDS

  1. Take the smaller car. The one that you, your wife, your four-year-old, and your two-year-old barely fit into. The one wherein whether in the passenger’s seat or the driver’s and no matter how you position your body your knees are constantly scraping plastic while in the toddler-occupied row behind you the occupants are just-as-constantly kicking the back of your seat, though in their defense despite the knee-scraping forward position of the front seats there is really nowhere else for their feet to go.

 

  1. Take the smaller car because the larger car (the truck) just smells too awful, the result of the return leg of Thursday’s trip to Costco during which the two-year-old dumped his Costco smoothie onto the floor and then screamed and screamed until one of his parents handed him their Costco smoothie, which he then dumped onto the floor.

 

The dumped smoothies having had all day Friday in the parking lot at work to cook, the truck, as stated, just smells too awful.

 

  1. Before departing, take a picture of your children, in their car seats, peacefully reading, or perhaps holding hands and smiling. Post the picture on Facebook.

 

Because you posted this picture on Facebook—no matter what follows—it is now reality. It is what happened.

 

  1. As you depart, know fully-well how this will all end: the last five-minute stretch—that long red light—you and your wife, clean out of books or toys or crackers or smoothies to pass back—attempts to pass objects back now being met with the prompt swatting away of respective object—staring straight ahead slack-jawed and defeated as two-year-old screams and screams and sobs and screams while four-year-old screams and screams for two-year-old to stop.

 

  1. The trip to (zoo/park/library/museum) won’t be bad. Passing books or toys or crackers at this point will be working. At this point, children will be well-rested, well-fed, well-watered.

 

  1. Trip back may be different.

 

  1. One child or the other (or both) will repeatedly (possibly because small, uncoordinated hands or possibly because effing with you—or both) drop book or toy or cracker. From either the passenger’s or the driver’s seat, knees scraping, you will creatively contort your body in order to retrieve the item.

 

If in the driver’s seat—now driving from the position that drivers drive from in movies in which the car being driven is being shot at—you will become rather skilled—because your life and the lives of your family are at stake—at holding your steering wheel hand perfectly steady while with the other hand sweeps the rear floor in search of Batman.

 

If in the passenger’s seat, at some point you will have completely turned around in your seat to retrieve (whatever) from the floor that you will decide to eliminate the preliminary steps in that turning by sitting in your seat sideways—knees now scraping glass, lower back scraping center-console plastic.

 

Your spouse will ask if that is comfortable. You will respond that it isn’t.

 

  1. Sometimes, when two-year-old has the thing that prevents two-year-old from screaming, four-year-old will reach across and steal the thing and then, over two-year-old’s screams, paraphrase The Rolling Stones: “You can’t always have what you want, Sam. Sometimes you just get what you need.” Which, apparently, is nothing.

 

  1. You will start to sing along with the Moana soundtrack (which isn’t your thing at all, but then you have no idea anymore what your thing is because for four years you’ve listened to nothing but Disney soundtracks), but your four-year-old will ask you to please stop singing so he can hear the music.

 

  1. Every time you make a turn, your two-year-old will point the other way and shriek “That way! That way!” at you. You’ll wonder if you can get him voice work at Google Maps.

 

  1. There will be periodic moments of silence, during which you and your spouse will very quietly laugh nervously.

 

  1. Out of nowhere, your two-year-old will demand—by screaming and screaming—that you hold his hand. Hands meeting across the divide will not do. Your hand must be in his lap, holding his. If in passenger’s seat, this will require afore-described contortive turning. If in driver’s seat, this will be physically impossible, you and two-year-old buckled into opposite corners of cabin.

 

In either case, while solving this puzzle, your brain is simultaneously reeling in an attempt to answer your four-year-old’s increasing-in-volume-and-emphasis-with-each-repetition question, “Which way is distance?”

 

“DAADDDYYY!! WHICH WAY IS DISTANCE?!!”

 

  1. You will arrive home, open up the doors, kids and parents and crackers and toys falling out into the driveway, and you will forget all of it.

Trolls, Moana, and Joseph Campbell: A Post About Why I Don’t Rope Anymore, and How I Will Again

Month before last, I read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

 

I even posted on this blog, with vague intent, a quotation from early in the book.

 

I read Hero in preparation for reading John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy (which is a re-telling of the hero cycle that takes place at a university, the university allegorically representing the entire universe [I am four books into a {project? journey? quest? errand?} of reading {or in some cases re-reading, or re-re-reading} Barth’s entire bibliography, a {p? j? q? e?} that is taking much longer than it should in part due to the fact that I tend to—as I did with H.w.a.T.F and G.G-b.—read other books in preparation for the next book {Barth book after next—Chimera—for example, will be preceded by The Thousand and One Nights <at least some of them> and a chapter or two of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology}, making the process, as stated, a slow one]). But that’s another story.

 

After reading Hero, I started to see the hero cycle, as Campbell describes it, everywhere—first, perhaps, in the movies I have the pleasure of watching over and over and over with my kids.

 

Trolls, for instance: a call to action, a refusal of the call, a helper, crossing the threshold, a herald at the threshold, trials, descent into the underworld (also described by Campbell, in an allusion to Jonah, as descent into the belly of the whale, and, in the case of Trolls, symbolized literally by being swallowed, or the threat thereof), emergence from the underworld (into, in Trolls, a tree at world’s center much like Campbell’s World Navel), and crossing back over the threshold with the elixir (in this case, love…or dancing…or something) that will save the world or the village or the family or the whatever.

 

Or, Moana: see list above, minus the parentheticals.

 

But Campbell’s purpose was not to help us see the similarities between heroes or between animated films. The purpose of Hero is to help us better understand ourselves.

 

Hero myths sprouted up in ancient civilizations all over the planet, many featuring the same characteristics, just as hero-driven films and TV shows continue to sprout up with many of the same characteristics. It’s not a coincidence. Or collusion. It’s simply that those characteristics are part of the human subconscious.

 

The story of Odysseus’s return to Ithaca, or Siddhartha’s path to enlightenment, is the story of every one of us—the subconscious journey of our psyche.

 

So the universal story mirrors the individual story.

 

In 1993, at fifteen years old, I started team roping. I high school rodeoed, but I wasn’t very good.

 

I had a good foundation, though. I’d learned to rope horns from a header who’d been to the National Finals the year before, and because of this foundation (reinforced by roping the dummy on average a hundred times a day for the next ten years), I kept getting better.

 

So from 15 years old to 30 years old I did almost nothing else other than roping (and cared about little else, too).

 

I went from high school rodeo to college rodeo. In college, I still wasn’t good enough, but I was getting better. During college, I found a sort of mentor who straightened out my roping quite a bit.

 

At around 25 years old, after lots and lots and lots of at-bats, I got to a point where I could win pretty consistently at the amateur rodeos and win a little bit at the pro rodeos in California.

 

Team roping was my life, and year-by-year life was getting better.

 

But life life—the part of life that I knew was real life but about which I couldn’t’ve cared less—life life was getting worse and worse.

 

Throughout my twenties, I had no steady job, and therefore no steady income—in fact, what jobs I had were primarily for the purpose of generating funds for future entry fees (or for paying past due entry fees [and fines]).

 

Every possession of consequence—truck, trailer, horses, etc.—was borrowed, or had been handed over. I survived thanks to family and close friends and their repeated charitable donations to what was ultimately an unworthy cause. To what, actually, was not a cause at all.

 

This, of course, was unsustainable.

 

And the life I was living was unfulfilling. I was not happy.

 

[Note: This is not in any way to say that a life of roping cannot be fulfilling; it is only to say that the life of roping that I was choosing to live was unfulfilling.]

Here’s an anecdote, to demonstrate: In 2001, I went to a college rodeo in Ogden, UT. I traveled with a friend and another friend. The rodeo performances were at night, and during the day, they had ropings. I spent all my money at the ropings. Every penny. On the way home, we stopped to eat at Boomtown. I either ordered something cheap, or I ate off of my friends’ plates. I don’t remember, but as we left, I was still hungry. On a vacated table we walked by was the uneaten half of a pastrami sandwich. I picked it up and ate it, right there on the spot. As my friends were paying, a man and woman came up to the counter. The woman asked where her husband’s sandwich was. They wanted to take it with them. The host had seen me eat it. He told on me. I went and hid behind a slot machine. The woman was angry. The husband calmed her down. He said to her: “Honey, a man’s gotta eat.”

Life was like that. Every day.

 

The changes began when I got a job. A real job. A career. I was 27. I started teaching high school English full time.

 

I had always thought I would be an English teacher, but I had always thought of it as the thing I would do after roping. But, financial necessity sped things up.

 

They were going to pay me just under $40,000 a year to teach English. The figure was mind-boggling. At the time, roping was still my life, so I of course viewed this new career through that lens: seemingly unlimited entry fee and fuel money, and lots of time off to rope (afternoons, weekends, spring break, summer break).

 

During my first year as a teacher, I still practiced three of four nights a week, and I still went to a roping (or two) every weekend. In the spring and summer, I went to two or three or four rodeos every weekend.

 

And I was still broke. And I still had nothing.

 

And I was a terrible teacher, as most first-year teachers are.

 

And then it happened: I fell in love.

 

I found my light, my love, my partner, and (in Campbellian terms) my helper.

 

I had found my life, and it was a life overflowing with joy and adventure. I was fulfilled, and I was happy.

 

Over the next eight years, that life grew and grew. There are now four of us, and it is a life of warmth and smiles and laughs and hugs.

 

Naturally, as this new life grew, that other life—roping life—diminished. I didn’t love roping any less, I just loved someone else so much more.

 

To my closest friends in that other life, the fact that I no longer rope (at all) is probably irreconcilable with the (often monomaniacal) person that they knew. They may chalk it up to: married a city girl, moved to town, quit roping. But that is not the story.

 

My crossing the threshold moment came when our first son was around one-year-old: I sold my horse.

 

More accurately, I sold my most recent horse (having, from the ages of 15 to 36, been in possession of dozens and dozens of rope horses [often two or three or four at a time], all loaned out [or, more accurately, handed over] by the aforementioned charitable parties [mostly parents and/or step-parents], including the just-mentioned most-recent).

 

At that point—though I was roping much much less then than I had been before—I became, for the first time in just over twenty years, a non-roper.

 

The hero cycle is about change. It can be represented graphically as a circle with a horizontal line running through it. Crossing the threshold of the first line, followed by descending down into the belly of the whale—the bottom of the circle—and then emerging to ascend up the circle’s other side. For the hero, this represents a rebirth, literal or figurative, and for the individual subconscious, it represents the figurative death of a former self and rebirth of a new self.

 

I sold my horse because he was twenty-years old, and I wasn’t roping enough to keep him in good shape. I was also at a crossroads, so to speak. I had one very young child, and one on the way. I could keep my horse, and/or get a new horse, and keep roping, even only occasionally. Which would’ve meant, occasionally, that A) I spent entire days away from my (pregnant) wife and very young child(ren), or B) I would drag them all along with me, and instead of spending a Saturday doing something together, like going to the zoo, they would be present while I did something. What seemed better was option C) Wait until my boys were older.

 

Added to that was the fact that my wife had decided to take leave from work and stay home to raise our kids, which she has done for the past two years. So we went from two teacher incomes (each now approaching double that mind-boggling figure dropped on me at 27) to one. So selling my horse and thereby eliminating at least significant (and recurring) source of expense seemed an appropriate sacrifice given Liz’s—Liz being a fantastic teacher and a program specialist and a published author—even greater sacrifice of her career.

 

Once reborn, the hero, or subconscious, is then equipped to discover the elixir that will lead to (resolution? victory? enlightenment? bliss?)

 

I had found my elixir. It was my (growing) family.

 

And that elixir had provided me a new life.

 

But there is an additional leap that must be made in Campbell’s cycle. Once the elixir is discovered, and the new life is being lived, the hero—or individual—must be willing to cross the second threshold—that other end of the line on the other side of the circle, beyond which is the original point of departure.

 

The hero—elixir in hand—returns to that original point of departure, but now approaches as a new, reborn person.

 

In Trolls, the only thing that will make the bad guys and the bad-guy-king happy was eating a troll. That changes thanks to the elixir (again: in this case love…or dancing), and afterwards the bad guys and their king don’t need to eat a troll to be happy. They have love. And dancing.

 

For a long time about the only thing that made me happy was winning. A distant second was spinning one off pretty fast but having my heeler miss, or rope a leg. But, for the most part, happiness came from winning.

 

Though I’m now a non-roper, the plan has never been to remain a non-roper. Two weeks ago, we officially became a two-income family again. The boys are getting older. But when I cross that second threshold and return to roping, it will be as a new man. I look forward to re-approaching my former life from a position at which my life and my happiness is not affirmed by the outcome of a roping. We’ll see.

 

Water that Smelled Like Poop: A Summer Wish List

In seven days, summer will be over. Seven weeks ago, the time seemed unlimited. At that time, we made a summer wish list. It went like this:

  • Plant a garden.
  • Read 50 new books (the kids, not us).
  • Go to aquarium.
  • Go to Santa Cruz.
  • Grow flowers.
  • Go to a National Park.
  • See the redwoods or sequoias.
  • Go camping.
  • Ride horses.
  • Go swimming.
  • Go to a beach.
  • See a Ports game.
  • Go fishing.
  • Go to Exploratorium.
  • Learn 20 new sight words (again: the kids, not us)
  • Go to Oakland Zoo.
  • See fireworks.

 

With seven days to go, the only items not crossed off are: Go to a National Park, Go fishing, and Go to Exploratorium.

 

Tom (our 4-year-old) and I are planning to fish this weekend when we go camping (for the second time—the first time having been a trial run in the backyard), so, wish-list-wise, we’ve done pretty well.

 

Here are some highlights:

 

  • We planted a garden. I made an eight-cinder-block by four-cinder-block garden and we planted seeds for carrots and peppers and green onions and transplanted a tomato plant. None of the seeds grew. Too much shade. But the tomato plant, in one corner, is doing fine.

 

  • Tom “read” well over 50 new books this summer. He doesn’t actually read read. We read to him, mostly. But then he can read some of his books, or can read them back to us, in part via memorization and in part because he knows a lot of sight words, twenty new of which he learned this summer.

 

[Note: I can claim no credit for all of the sight words that Tom knows. That is all thanks to Liz, who is a wonderful mother who diligently does homework with him, makes flashcards, games, etc. Our sliding glass door, for example, is currently covered with taped-up words which Tom can move around to make sentences.]

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I bought him a box set of Shakespeare stories for kids at Costco. It was on sale. Now he’s into Shakespeare. He likes the comedies, but his favorite is Macbeth. He recites the opening lines. He asked for a Macbeth birthday party. Asked several times, actually, but he’s since settled on a superhero birthday party and a Macbeth Halloween party. By the way, there’s less stuff on Pinterest for a Macbeth birthday party than there is for a superhero birthday party (which isn’t to say there’s nothing).

 

[Note: I don’t actually know anything about Pinterest. But Liz does, and for the past four years she has thrown one amazing birthday after another.]

 

  • Our aquarium trip was to the California Academy of Science. The California Academy of Science was awesome; the kids loved it. The problem was that we went to said academy on the day of the Warriors’ victory parade, which we thought would be okay if we avoided Oakland, which we did, but despite avoiding Oakland all veins (in the morning) to the Bay Area and (in the afternoon) all arteries out of it were clogged such that a trip that was meant to start after breakfast and end at naptime actually ended around dinner time.

 

 

  • We went to Santa Cruz—specifically the boardwalk—this past weekend. The boardwalk is sort of an interesting experiment—especially in contrast to, say, somewhere like Disneyland—of an amusement park at which there really isn’t much security—anyone can walk in and out as they please—and the park is seemingly operated by a band of high school students on their summer break (go ahead: go there and see how long it takes you to find an employee that can vote).

 

But the result of the experiment is that it all works out just fine. The place is tons of fun. Tom especially liked the log ride. And our kids are too young to notice the pot smell blended into the ocean air.

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Here’s a fun story: Near the end of our trip, Sam (the two-year-old) got into one of those moods in which he demanded to be held. Around the same time, he pooped, and the essence of said poop sort of seeped through his swim diaper and through his shorts—both wet from the salty brine—and onto my arm. I’m not saying I had poop on my arm. More like water that smelled like poop. Added to which Sam is now too big to carry on one arm for too long, so by the time we vacated the boardwalk and made our way back to the truck, where awaited the diaper bag—I having earlier been sent ahead to load all of our stuff before one more trip up and down the boardwalk—each of my forearms smelled like a septic tank. Hashtag parenting.

This is What Happens When Two English Teachers Raise a Child

THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN TWO ENGLISH TEACHERS RAISE A CHILD:

 

4-year-old, to preschool teacher, upon arrival Monday morning:  “I have a Macbeth speech.”

 

Preschool teacher: “What?”

 

4-year-old: “I have a Macbeth speech.”

 

Preschool teacher: “You have a Macbeth speech?”

 

4-year-old: “Yes.”

 

Preschool teacher: “Can I hear it?”

 

4-year-old: “When shall we thwee meet again,/In thwunder, lightning, ow in wain,/When the huwly-buwly’s done,/When the battle’s lost and won!

 

FIVE MINUTES LATER:

 

Mom, in reference to sunflower plants sprouting from small pots: “Can you tell me about these?”

 

4-year-old: “Oh. That’s science.” [Walks away]

 

Conversations with a Four-year-old

VARIOUS UNRELATED LINES OF DIALOGUE FROM CONVERSATIONS WITH A 4-YEAR-OLD:

 

4-year-old, to parents: “I read in the newspaper yesterday that children should stop taking medicine.”

 

*

 

4-year old, to Mom: “I remember everything you ever told me.”

Mom: “You do?”

4-year-old: “Yes.”

Mom: “What did I tell you on January 12th?”

4-year-old: “‘Don’t be disgruntled.’”

 

*

 

Dad (me) to 4-year-old and/or his 2-year-old brother (at least once a day): “Pants on! Pants ON!”

 

*

 

4-year-old, to Dad: “I don’t want to be brined.”

 

*

 

Dad, or Mom, to 4-year-old, and/or his 2-year-old brother, on more than one occasion: “That’s not a bludgeon!”

 

*

 

4-year-old, in car: “Everyone in America has a bottom. And everyone with a bottom is in America.” [Fact check: False.]

 

*

 

Mom: “Do you have a headache?”

4-year-old: “Yeah.”

Mom: “Where does it hurt?”

4-year-old: “Here.”

Mom: “How does it feel?”

4-year-old: “Like banana split. And poison.”

 

*

 

Mom, or Dad, to 4-year-old, weekly: “If you’re going to wrestle the baby, take your shoes off.”

 

*

 

Mom: “You will be punish-ed.”

4-year-old: “Don’t you mean banish-ed?”

[Feeling of satisfaction from parents re: Shakespeare reference made by 4-year-old.]

Mom [minutes later]: “Stop rhyming Banish-ed with Poo-poo head.”