Dramatic irony

Nothing makes you appreciate the hard work of professional actors and directors like getting through the drama unit in your high school English class, or running through a play written and performed by students, for that matter. All along, we thought those famous people got their roles mainly because they were good-looking and charismatic, not because they were particularly intelligent or hard-working. Then, somewhere around the time you finish Act III of Romeo & Juliet, after you’ve delegated and negotiated endlessly over roles and props, you’re looking at quiz scores and you realize what the drama unit does to people. It takes a toll on us all, and we’re not even putting on a real production.

You’ve heard of actors getting too caught up in their roles, to the point of losing it. You’ve heard of the curse of MacBeth, which is probably a related phenomenon. What’s amazing is how quickly this type of thing takes hold.

I have seen it both ways. I’ve had classes in which NO ONE wants to volunteer for a part in the play and just reading the lines out loud together is torture for everyone. “Can’t we just watch the movie?” they beg. But I have also had classes where there are five girls whose dream is to play Juliet. And don’t think for a second that it doesn’t matter who plays Romeo. It matters immensely.

So what do you do?

Switch roles every two acts, so everyone who wants a chance gets one.

Last week, right before we started reading Romeo & Juliet, I was standing in the kitchen at 5:30 a.m. drinking coffee with my husband. He has been a high school English teacher longer than me, so he’s been through R&J a few more times and has a lot of the lines memorized. Friar Laurence’s famous line, “Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast” is posted in his classroom.

Thinking about what it takes to get through a drama unit, even when it isn’t Shakespeare, I said to my husband:

“I know what I have to do, but can I do it?”

That very quote “wisely, and slow” was on an open-book quiz I gave today. You would think open-book would make things easier, but it doesn’t necessarily. Students with high As in the class came to me and said breathlessly, “I’ve been through Acts II and III and can’t find these quotes anywhere.”

That quote is, in fact, in Act II, Scene III, but this is what I mean about the toll – the price of a drama unit, especially a Shakespearean tragedy. Less serious students would have considered these quotes and their value on the quiz fairly inconsequential.

What I’m saying is that there is a little too much drama that comes with the drama unit.

Maybe if my background were in theater instead of nonfiction writing I would find the plays less taxing. Another teacher who works with me is also a director at a local theater. She seems to keep a sense of humor about it all because, of course, they’re kids, and not professionals.

I know, but.

It’s the same in my creative writing class. Writing plays and acting them out seems infinitely more challenging than, say, poetry or, my favorite, literary nonfiction, because there are no rules in poetry and you can be so figurative that it really doesn’t even have to make total sense. With literary nonfiction, people write their memoirs. I love it if they share with the class, but they don’t have to, so the writing itself is the culminating activity. That’s swell for the introverts, and I get it.

Yesterday, we were acting out a play that a kid wrote which was set in a haunted insane asylum. The stand where I kept my bathroom passes got knocked over and broken. I said, “Guys, we are pretending to be in an insane asylum, but this can not become real,” and they knew exactly what I meant. It’s amazing how thin the line can be between losing yourself in a role and just losing yourself.

My 8-year-old daughter loves scary stories, except when she wakes up in the middle of the night after a bad dream. When she woke up at 3 a.m. this morning, I asked her what her bad dream was about. She said, “Sometimes after a bad dream, I just feel scared, but not scared of the thing in the dream.”

OK, well, I have had dreams where something that happened was terrifying, but if I tried to explain it to someone, they wouldn’t understand why. Still, when you’re reading creepy stories and acting them out, you are setting the mood of your mind, which maybe you can turn on and off like a switch, but maybe not.

That tenuous division between fantasy and reality is one that you have to push for creativity, but you can’t go too far or the next thing you know you’re swilling absinthe and talking to a bird.

At the end of Act III, Juliet says, “If all else fail, myself have the power to die.”

When you say those lines, either something happens or it doesn’t. You either feel it or you don’t.

And ultimately, you want to feel it, which is why it sucks the breath right out of you.


The weekend shift

Mothers love Mondays. While everyone else is walking around Monday morning bemoaning the start of another five-day workweek, I am usually thinking about how exhausting the weekend was and how it will be nice to have a break from scrubbing scum from the shower floor, doing laundry, paying bills, and grading papers while hosting a playdate.

Weekend mornings usually begin with me making a long list of things I have to do and my kids asking me questions like, “When are we going to Jaylin’s party?”

Oh crap, I think, I still need to buy a gift for Jaylin’s party.

So then I take my kids and we go to Target, where I watch other women struggle to purchase items such as coffee and birthday gifts while their kids ask for Pokemon cards, Hello Kitty nail polish, the latest overrated blockbuster movie, etc.

Occasionally, I see a man attempting this same struggle, but not very often.

On Saturday I read this article in Harper’s Bazaar by a woman who had asked her husband to hire a housecleaning service for Mother’s Day. To summarize: he didn’t do it.

Like me, my husband has a full-time job. Because it is fall and because he has an unnatural obsession with firewood, he spends a large amount of his weekend cutting wood, some of which he keeps for our family to burn this winter, and some of which he sells.

Let me just make it clear that before he heads out to the wood pile on a weeknight or  weekend, he will interact with our children, he will vacuum the rug, and he will even go to the grocery store if I ask him. So what I am about to tell you is not about him. It is about a small meltdown I had in Old Navy recently and how I hope you can prevent something similar from happening to you.

I was already tired when we walked into the store. My kids and I had already survived the trip to Target where we acquired the week’s groceries, as well as a gift to take to the birthday party, as well as many unnecessary and unwholesome items I agreed to purchase in order to make progress and eventually exit the store.

When we get home from a trip like that, I get the kids something to eat so that I can unload the groceries. Then I throw in another load of laundry and launch a session of bill paying and paper grading before we need to leave for our next adventure.

Here is what happened at Old Navy later that day: Within 15 minutes of shopping, I had gathered up an armload of clothing that included at least one item for each member of my family. It felt like a rather heavy burden as I stood under the fluorescent lights with pop music blaring in my ears, my kids taking turns smacking each other beside a rack of bubble gum and trinkets.

Can someone tell me why retailers insist on playing obnoxious music? Or why they sell bubble gum at Old Navy? Can someone tell me why that store decides to cancel your credit card if you don’t use it on a regular basis, requiring you to reapply for the card so you can save $60 on your purchase, when you are already late for your next appointment?

The young man who was working at the store couldn’t tell me.

He could tell me that he was “sorry, ma’am,” and that I needed to give the store my address, income, and all of my personal information AGAIN, if I wanted to save $60 and leave the store, with its bad lighting, blaring dance music, and shredded chewing gum packaged to appeal to fans of baseball or chewing tobacco or something.

As far as I know, I am not autistic, but I have these moments …

I did comply with the clerk’s suggestion to apply for a new credit card, but I rolled my eyes and spoke in a hostile tone. I told him I knew this was not his fault, but that his company’s policy was stupid.

He was sorry.

I was sorry, too, for being that woman. I think a few other customers watched our awkward transaction before another employee called them to a different register. I’m not sure whether these spectators felt sorrier for me or the Old Navy clerk. Probably the Old Navy clerk.

As we went to leave, the store’s alarm went off. The young man who rang me up had forgotten to remove one of the sensors containing ink that the store puts on clothing to keep customers from stealing it.

Maybe my story should end here, but remember, I said I would tell you how to keep from having your own embarrassing miniature breakdown under the fluorescent lights of some retail establishment.

I’m not prepared to do that yet.

When we got home, I put our new clothing away in the kids’ rooms while they turned on the TV. I transferred some laundry from the washer to the dryer. I put a frozen pizza in the oven and opened up a salad kit purchased at Target earlier in the day.

My husband arrived home from his wood cutting expedition and ate dinner with us, and then I settled down to grade a few more papers until bedtime. My daughter soon became bored and informed me that she would need to invite a friend over.

I graded, and I graded, and I graded. When it was time for my daughter’s friend to go home, my husband agreed to walk her back to her house across the street. They remained gone for what seemed like an excessive period of time. My son had started asking where they were when we heard the sound of a motor racing up the cul-de-sac in front of our house.

It turned out that my husband had decided to take a spin in our neighbor’s go-kart before bed, so the sound of the motor was created by my 42-year-old husband racing through the suburban night.

That was how his Saturday ended. Meanwhile, I could have graded more papers, but I was too tired. So I went to bed.

I used to be a journalist, but I never wrote for a publication with a circulation larger than about 20,000. I suppose I should feel comforted by the fact that a woman who writes for Harper’s Bazaar struggles in a somewhat similar way as I do. I thought everyone who wrote for Harper’s Bazaar already had a regular housekeeper.

On an unrelated note, all of my family members will be wearing shirts from Old Navy today, thanks to my cardholder’s discount.