Friday, August 31, 2012

Macbeth, O'Sullivan's Ancestor

Macbeth is a bleak portrait of a noble man descending the road to perdition. Once the champion of Scotland and King Duncan, Macbeth lets the dark arts and a sharp-tongued wife nurture the raw ambition within him. He becomes a traitor, an assassin, and a tyrant; he knows that he will be damned for all time even before he wields a blade against a defenseless, sleeping king, revealed in an early speech:

. . . But in these cases
    We still have judgment here; that we but teach
    Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
    To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
    Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice
    To our own lips
. (1. 7. 7-12)

Macbeth knows before he commits the crime against his kin, king, and country that his actions can only return to poison him, and indeed they do.

Having gained the throne, Macbeth decries his crown because he is not safely thus. All of Scotland whispers its suspicions against Macbeth, and he reacts by spying upon his thanes, slaughtering the one man who can report what the witches said, and finally succumbing to the worst possible abuse of power: killing innocent women and children to warn others, especially Macduff, against mounting an offensive against Macbeth’s reign.

Shakespeare stages a scene wherein Lady Macduff laments her vulnerability, inspiring her son to defend his father as a hero for Scotland and inspiring the audience to care for the child more deeply. Thus, when Macbeth’s hired thugs break in to eliminate the boy and his mother, the audience recognizes that Macbeth is beyond human redemption; any court would reasonably condemn him to die, especially at the hands of Macduff, the ending that Shakespeare delivers.

Macbeth chose the road to perdition and walked it to his own damnation. So does Michael O’Sullivan, the protagonist of Max Allan Collins’s graphic novel, Road to Perdition. But O’Sullivan’s character is a killer with a conscience, one that he does not forsake, and thus he is a very different beast from Macbeth, more complex and certainly more sympathetic, especially as brought to life by Tom Hanks in the film. In the novel, Collins defines O’Sullivan through the son who remembers his father, writing, he was quiet, my father, and the most honorable man I ever knew. He was what they used to call a family man (22).

An Irish child of deprivation and discrimination, O’Sullivan welcomes the attentions and opportunities provided by crime boss, John Rooney (Looney, in the novel). Michael’s family needs a provider, and he chooses to provide by any means necessary: as a collector and if necessary, an avenger for the mob boss. The fine line that O’Sullivan walks is to coerce a man to remain loyal and pay his debts without killing the man, but if a man refuses correction, then O’Sullivan delivers the final judgment. He is, as his name hints, an archangel, but an Archangel of Death.

O’Sullivan steps upon the road to perdition and continues upon it even though the weight of his choice seems too heavy. In the film, his shoulders bow not just from a heavy coat big enough to hide a weapon, but from the solemnity of what he has done and must do after mob law destroys his family.

In the graphic novel, O’Sullivan’s hands are so steeped in blood that nothing, save God’s Grace, could wash them clean, yet he seems somehow less evil than John or Connor Looney. He has escaped decay, because, we’re told, he wears a somber, almost regretful expression (38) as he does his work.

How then is he able to kill for money? How does the character retain honor? The graphic novel explains it thus: What I do for a livin’ is not to be admired. . . . I’m like a soldier, and a soldier does his duty (44). O’Sullivan goes on to explain to his son that the Church’s commandment against killing is correct, but his duty to provide for his family supersedes all else. O’Sullivan has chosen perdition, and it is a road he wants his son to avoid.

Even as O’Sullivan takes on the role of Macduff, an avenger not for an entire nation, but for his own family, slaughtered by Connor, Michael will not let his surviving son pick up a gun for anything more than self-defense. And it is his son that he directs to take him to a church instead of a hospital when the father is near death. There he receives absolution, the sacrament of Last Rites, and is made whole once more.

His final mission to kill the killer of his wife and younger son exposes the surviving son to gunfire, theft, vengeance, and duplicity. Yet the lesson the child learns is to be the agent of redemption. In the book, he becomes a priest; in the film, he returns to good and kind childless people who raise him as their son, teaching him to work the soil rather than wield weapons.

The Looneys, Rooneys, Capones, and Corleones may be of the Macbeth school, believing that death is the best path to power, but the Macduffs and O’Sullivans choose violence, Macduff reluctantly and only in the cause of Scotland first, vengeance second. He strives to restore order and safety in a world made ugly by a tyrant. O’Sullivan, on the other hand, loyal to his own code, opens the door to anarchy and chaos, first as a soldier in the army of crime and then in pursuit of his own justice.

Macduff’s cause brings the play full circle, from strife to peace, from treason to patriotism, from injustice to justice. The final scene of Macbeth is an unambiguous triumph for man’s better nature over his dark heart.

O’Sullivan’s justice is as brutal and raw as the world of any invented by Scorsese. The closing pages or final scene in the film put to rest our dread that corruption and evil must prevail. Evil-doers end, but at what cost? The next generation has already witnessed the terrible work of men.

Reading Challenge:

Read Max Allan Collins’s graphic novel, Road to Perdition, and the film adaptation directed by Sam Mendes.

Writing Challenge:

Analyze the endings of the graphic novel and the film. Write an essay explaining why one satisfies you more than the other.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Back to School Basics

Two sets of three words that sound alike and are often confused: 1) to, two, and too and 2) there, they’re, and their. Add another to these sets, just two little words: its and it’s.

It is a puzzle to teachers that the world seems to have lost its mind about when to use an apostrophe and when not to use one. To English teachers, the use of the apostrophe is clear, but to sign-makers and the general public, apostrophes are not at all clear.

Possessive pronouns do not need an apostrophe:

·      That’s mine.
·      That is my coat.
·      Where is your coat?
·      Her coat is on the chair.
·      His coat is in the closet.
·      Their coats are on the guest bed.

Not a single apostrophe required for possession in one of those possessive pronouns above (each in bold font) so it’s only logical that the possessive form of its needs no apostrophe:

·      When did the world lose its mind about apostrophes?
·      The Corporation has changed its logo.
·      Greenland has lost much of its ice cover this summer.

Insert an apostrophe when the apostrophe replaces a letter in the phrase, it is :

·      It’s the hottest summer on record. It is the hottest summer on record.
·      It’s my opinion that sign-makers have hired people who do not know the difference between its and it’s.
·      Grammar Geeks the world over deplore the use of an apostrophe when it’s unnecessary.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Oh, Harry Potter, You Make Everything Better

… the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night

These lines concluding Matthew Arnold’s fine poem, “Dover Beach,” present a bleak world view, one that Voldemort, as created by J. K. Rowling, would like to bring about on earth. He Who Must Not Be Named wants to crush everything light and good and loving, including spunky kids and wise mentors.

Each book about Harry Potter is an unambiguous battle between good and evil, but unlike the recent Batman film and others featuring Scorched Earth villains, Harry’s saga delivers satisfying endings book after book and film after film. Why? What’s the difference? Harry, of course.

Both Bruce Wayne and Harry Potter grow from childhood trauma. Both of them lose their parents suddenly and unexpectedly. Bruce is older than Harry when an evil-doer shoots his parents on the streets of Gotham, leaving Bruce burdened with that vivid memory. But Bruce also has enormous wealth and a good and faithful servant, Alfred. Harry is just a babe in arms when Voldemort executes his parents. He may not remember the event as Bruce does, but Harry carries the memory as a lightning bolt burned into his forehead and a searing scar branded upon his heart.

Unlike Bruce, Harry has no good and faithful servant until he reaches the age when children enter Hogwarts. Then Hagrid and Dumbledore come into his life, but only after many years of isolation and deprivation in the home of Harry’s aunt and uncle. Their disdain and dislike wound Harry, perhaps teaching him empathy for sufferers and gratitude for what he receives at Hogwarts. Still Harry, like the once and future king Arthur, is slow to believe that he is lovable, worthy, and gifted.

Bruce has no such doubt to overcome. Alfred tells him every day; nevertheless, Bruce is lost, sometimes reckless, occasionally wasteful, and conflicted about his purpose. Even when Bruce becomes Batman, he struggles against despair, in part because he chooses duplicity, jeopardizing his happiness by keeping secrets.

On the other hand, Harry soldiers on. He watches the loving Weasley family with a touch of longing, but spite never finds a permanent home within him. Harry respects Hermione’s wit and intelligence; he's sometimes irritated by her interference, but always grateful for her fierce loyalty. Every day after his parents die, Harry faces loss, loneliness, and danger without becoming embittered or vindictive. He simply fights for right, following his moral compass as it points to friendship and courage and sacrifice. The world may still be in harm’s way at the end of each book and film, but Harry’s heart, his friends, and his mentor have endured to fight another day without losing their hope, without needing to retreat from this world into caves or Italy or fine mansions. In affirming man’s great triumphs: the triumph of courage, friendship, and love over self-interest, Rowling leaves readers satisfied, comfortable in the knowledge that the Dystopian dark has been kept at bay.

Nolan leaves viewers uneasy. Batman needed much more than friends, good character, and a bit of magic to turn the tide of evil. Bruce Wayne needs wicked skills, including physical prowess and technology, and the peace he makes is fragile because he himself is compromised by impulses comparable to those within his enemies. We cheer for his courage, of course, but we know that Harry is purer of heart, and this brings a more permanent sense of peace.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Dark Knight Rises, any and all of the Harry Potter books, and any and all of the films made from the Harry Potter books. Compare Bruce Wayne and/or Harry Potter to the heroes in the Star Wars saga or The Once and Future King by T. H. White.

Writing Challenge:

List the character traits that Harry Potter, King Arthur, and Luke Skywalker share. Uncover other comparable characters and list the traits they have in common. Then write a new story line set in a place other than Hogwarts, Camelot, or far, far away.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Back to School  Basics

Three more words are sound-alikes and often misused. Save your teacher’s red ink by proofreading for them. They are:

·      There, an adverb indicating a place: “Put your coat there.” Also a word used to open an English sentence pattern: “There are advantages to this health plan.”
·      They’re, a plural pronoun and state of being verb contraction for two words, they are: “They’re a happy couple.”
·      Their, a possessive plural pronoun: “I like their uniforms; in other words, I like the uniforms belonging to them.”

Friday, August 17, 2012

Scorched Earth Villains: The Dark Knight Rises

Last week, I confessed that those sinners who seek redemption are my favorites. They interest me, perhaps because my personal weltanschauung defines men and women as imperfections striving for perfection. Literature and film featuring such men and women mirror life as I know it.

For this reason, the latest Christopher Nolan brand of Batman, The Dark Knight Rises, disappoints. The villains are just too villainous. They belong to the Scorched Earth school of villains, the Osama bin Ladens, Idi Amin Dadas, and Adolph Hitlers, and although those appear throughout history, they are quite rare.

In The Dark Knight Rises, the character Miranda, also known as Talia, at first seems to possess a social conscience, but later we learn that she is a sociopath, and Bane, Miranda’s hired thug, is merely brutish, a throwback, his development arrested by disfigurement and pain. He seeks salvation in a fallen god, Miranda, apparently because she feels empathy for him and only him among all other living creatures.

Poor Batman was the instrument that killed Miranda’s biological father, the twisted guru and founder of the League of Shadows, where Bruce Wayne trained. The League’s avowed purpose is to sharpen the human weapon, giving it strength and skill to beat the strongest enemies in hand to hand combat. They also perfect the fine art of stealth.

But once a man becomes a killing machine, he may lose his way, at least under Ra’s Al Ghul’s leadership. A man begins to believes he can and should glean the guilty from the innocent with most people falling into the Guilty camp and everyone else merely collateral damage. Ra’s style is remorseless, and Batman refuses to do his bidding. In fact, Batman becomes Al Ghul’s enemy; consequently, Miranda blames Batman for her father’s death.

With the help of Bane, Miranda masterminds a plot to reduce Bruce Wayne to his most basic fear, not the bats that he faced and overcame, but his own suffering and death. She also plans to destroy Batman’s beloved city, Gotham, all undertaken to exact revenge upon the home of the man who destroyed her father.

Never mind any moral compasses. Miranda and Bane lack them. They foster, then facilitate anarchy and mob justice like that seen during the French Revolution when, according to Carlyle’s account, blood literally ran in the gutters. Men more than women, rounded up from Wall Street offices and drug from fine, palatial homes, are guilty by reason of location and must choose one of two punishments: death by hanging or death by drowning in frigid waters while trying to traverse its frozen surface, calling to mind Robert Frost’s poem, “Fire and Ice:”

. . . I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice

Most, of course, choose exile and a walk upon the ice, a somewhat crueler fate, one most laced with hate, because the condemned begin with the faintest hope that he may find the thick ice and escape. No one does, of course, except Commissioner Gordon. Someone must be left behind to restore Gotham, and it must be someone who represents law and order while embracing the occasional need for vigilantes with hearts of gold.

Miranda and Bane also will literally scorch Gotham’s earth after turning nuclear power from good to devastation, letting anarchy run until the clock runs out on the nuclear restraints. Then women, men, and children, especially orphaned boys, whom Bruce, Blake, Selina, and Fox have worked to save, will die in the searing, sickening blast, trapped in their own prison, an island cut off from escape to the mainland.

Miranda and Bane do not survive, of course. The Dark Knight Rises, like many other serial blockbusters, tries to bring the world right again by killing the soulless, demented killers. And the movie tries to give us a small point of bright light in Batman’s escape from the hell hole into which he was dropped, broken and battered, afraid and alone. There his suffering inspires sympathy from fellow sufferers who tend to Wayne’s injured body and mind. Their brotherhood allows Wayne to cast off his rope of dependency once again to rise from the depths contrived by man’s depravity and sally forth to carry away the last trace of Miranda’s madness. He flies the nuclear device over the sea where it detonates with nary a thought or subsequent headline to the eco-impact or collateral damage to dolphins, sharks and whales. After all, Gotham and all that humanity have been saved once more by the Bat.

Selina undergoes a transformation from sassy opportunist with no allegiance other than her own well-being to Batman’s sidekick and love. She redeems her sins and crimes by risking everything to save those sometimes sordid citizens of Gotham. Best of all, she saves the Bat when Bane, for a second time, beats him low. Selina eschews the high moral ground and brings a firearm to every fight; she used one to shoot Bane just when Bruce is out of options.

Selina is the only smarmy character who enjoys such a transformation. She is one of two who match my criterion: a flawed character who creates her own salvation in good works. Batman is the other. He’s sometimes cocky, sometimes frightened. He takes for granted his wealth and fails to meet the needs of orphaned boys whom he’s pledged to support. He fights and falls back, sometimes so long and so far behind the lines that people suffer more than anyone should, but in the end, he rises toward his own redemption, away from despair and duplicity. One wonders if he will succeed though.

Can he possibly save himself? Well, only if you believe that people can change when given the right soil in which to flourish. I’d like to believe. I really would. But sometimes books and films make such belief impossible. Batman, as least as Christopher Nolan imagines him, dwells in a broken world. Batman merely restores it to a delicate balance between noble and ignoble, but how many days will elapse before Dystopia returns? Few if we believe in Hollywood where Scorched Earth villains are common fare.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” one or more of the following films:

·      The Karate Kid (1984)
·      One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
·      No Country for Old Men (2007)
·      Michael Clayton (2007)
·      Flash of Genius (2008)
·      Erin Brockovich (2000)
·      Spiderman (2002)

As you watch each of these, search for the villain without any moral compass whatsoever, the one who allows innocence and innocents to die as they pursue their selfish ends, the one who has no awakening and no second-thoughts or apparent doubts about the path upon which he walks.

If you prefer to read books instead of film, then search for two books that inspired two of the films above. I recommend Cormac McCarthy’s novel, No Country for Old Men, and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Writing Challenge:

Make an argument for unease and/or sorrow resulting from works wherein a Scorched Earth villain dominates. Does such a villain make the closing tone of the movie or novel heavier, weighted more with death than life?

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

Once upon a time, movie titles earned quotation marks to signify them in text, but the movie industry has grown exponentially and grown up. Films now stand alone, not as entertainment sidebars, but as works existing to inform and entertain. In fact, films stand as equals beside novels, plays, non-fiction books, a series for television, an album or CD. All of these deserve italics or underlining.

Parts of these wholes, including chapters in novels, acts or scenes with their own titles in plays, one program in a TV series, or a song from a CD earns quotation marks.

For example:

·      Unless by Carol Shields (novel)
·      “Notwithstanding,” Unless by Carol Shields (chapter in the novel)
·      All the Devils are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera (non-fiction book)
·      “The Wizard of Fed,” All the Devils are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera (one chapter in the book)
·      Breaking Bad on AMC (TV series)
·      “Dead Freight,” Breaking Bad on AMC (recent episode in the series)
·      Abbey Road, The Beatles (CD)
·      “Come Together,” Abbey Road, The Beatles (one song recorded for the CD)

Friday, August 10, 2012

Good Guys and Bad Guys

Emily Brontë was not the first to create a monster twisted by bad winds and cold hearts. Mary Shelley made another, the creature brought forth by arrogant Dr. Franksenstein who shunned his son and set him adrift in an icy, brutal world. Hannibal Lecter is a more modern incarnation, but whether his proclivity for murder and cannibalism began in love denied is not clear; we only know that he is a textbook psychopath.

I am not the first to have written about such villains, sometimes merely to illustrate an ageless literary archetype and sometimes to explore the human experience that manifests itself in such characters from the darker regions of the human heart. Today, I wish to consider how popular such characters are in Hollywood.

First, I must admit that I am a sucker for redemption tales. I prefer to dwell, at least in fiction, among rascals, miscreants, and killers if salvation in some form is on the horizon. Having said that, I must also admit that I am a married woman; thus, I have held the hand of my sweetie while he enjoyed action movies, many of which have no redeeming value whatsoever. They are simply an exercise in bravado, weapons real and imagined, in blood, and body counts.

Now that you know a bit about me and my experience, you can place the next declaration in its proper context: I detest the current Hollywood action ilk. Here’s why.

Hollywood does not think complexly, perhaps because it underestimates its audience, perhaps because it overestimates its own appeal, perhaps because it simply relies upon tried formulaic stories and lacks imagination. I don’t know, but the result is a number of Hollywood films that rely upon simplistic good and bad character conflicts.

Movies about war take advantage of this dichotomy. Whichever side has bankrolled the film tells the story from its point of view as the good guys, the heroes beset by bad guys with foreign sounding names who nevertheless speak the Queen’s English or some version of American English, often with a backwoods twang added for good measure. I guess we believe here on this side of the pond that folks from Appalachia or Alabama are tough guys who can stand up to and overwhelm bad guys from anywhere.

Movies about the old West also take advantage of this dichotomy. Men with badges wear white ten-gallon hats, and men with larcenous impulses choose darker clothing. They also usually have smaller heads and therefore, require smaller hat sizes. The White Hats carry weapons, of course, but they do not take life lightly. They pause, often looking off into the distance, at the horizon, as if their resolve beckons and approves. Dark Hats fire guns and stick knives impulsively, instinctively, feeling as little remorse as old Macbeth who runs through Young Siward simply because he can.

These classic movie forms about war or the American West become interesting when imbued with a touch of Joseph Conrad or William Golding, both of whom considered the Heart of Darkness and Lord of the Flies within every man, woman, and child. In their worlds, a sheriff is not simply genetically predisposed to a rigid moral code any more than children are born free of temptations to behave as bullies or predilections to survive at the cost of the unfit.

In the worlds that Conrad and Golding reflect in their fiction, characters struggle as they choose one path or another. Young Marlow or younger Ralph might take something from the local candy store because it was easy to do so, but the candy fails to please. Their Superegos labor in overdrive until they confess.

The men who traffic in ivory, on the other hand, and the Jacks of this world let their freak flags fly (from Easy A). They let their Ids out in broad daylight and don't call it home for supper.

When a Jack or a Company Man decides to become anything else, when he vows to fight his Id demon, when he feels empathy for his victims, then he becomes a villain worthy of our attention. John McClane is not a nice guy until Hans Gruber forces him to realign his priorities away from a self-pity party inspired by his wife’s star eclipsing his own. McClane becomes an Everyman, the one who shows up when we need a hero. He fumbles and stumbles, even mistaking Gruber for a hostage. He literally walks on broken glass, leaving his blood-stained footprints on the page of his personal challenge to be brave and good.

So it is the war within, like the one Hamlet fought, the one wherein he doubted his purpose and his worth, that is most interesting, not the war without, featuring Fortinbras’s brass and Claudius’s sty. It is the struggle to rise above self-interest, survival instincts, and personal reward in order to serve, sacrifice, and save. That’s what Hollywood misses and glosses almost all the time, but I’ll prove that in subsequent posts, using some of the biggest box office hits from recent film history.

Reading Challenge:

Read one or more examples of war movies and Westerns as well as the one film referenced in this post: Die Hard or its two sequels. Some of the best war films include the war within the soldiers, and they include The Best Years of Our Lives and Saving Private Ryan. A movie that relies upon a somewhat two-dimensional juxtaposition of good guys and bad is The Great Escape. Complex Westerns include the novel Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry and its film adaptation. Less complex Westerns include several early John Wayne films such as The Big Trail (1930).

You may also enjoy reading or re-reading Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Macbeth and Hamlet by Shakespeare, and The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.

Writing Challenge:

Write a two-dimensional character analysis for a good guy and a bad guy. Remember not to make them complex. As you write, you should become more aware of the stereotypes employed to create such characters quickly. Television programs, confined in a tight time frame, and movies often employ these stereotypes to establish a character’s nature in the first few minutes of film.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Back to School Tips

Students, young and old, as you wield your pencils and pens, as you click and clack on your keyboards, remember some of the basic usage mistakes that teachers would love to stop circling. One basic mistake is using the wrong form of three words that sound exactly alike but have different meanings. They are to, too, and two.

As you two begin your journey to wedded bliss, remember not to dwell on your spouse’s defects for you may have too many defects of your own.

Two refers to a number greater than one and less than three.

To is a preposition indicating a direction toward.

Too is an adverb that indicates excess and can be used as a synonym for also.

Don’t rely upon spell-check to signify if you have used the wrong word in context. Re-read with your mind tuned to the different meanings of two, to and too.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Love's Healing Power

Last week, I discussed the timeless role of orphans play in love stories. This week, I wish to continue with the theme that love, freely given by someone other than mother, has the power to restore us to a state of well-being.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 is a good beginning:

    When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
    I all alone beweep my outcast state,
    And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
    And look upon myself and curse my fate,
    Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
    Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
    Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
    With what I most enjoy contented least;
    Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
    Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
    (Like to the lark at break of day arising
    From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
                   For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
                   That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Whoever Shakespeare was, he was a man with a complete lifetime of experience and Ph.D.-level insight into mankind’s greatest torment and his most restorative gift, love. Sonnet 29 is but one of 154 proofs.

The speaker of this sonnet is out of luck. Fortune has turned her back upon him, and men shun him (ll. 1-2). Heaven too ignores his plight and his pleas (l. 3), leaving the speaker forlorn (l. 4),  envying what others possess: their hopes, appearance, friends, talents, and power (ll. 5-7). Whatever the speaker has is insufficient, inadequate (l. 8).

Yet, while loathing his circumstance and even himself, (l. 9), the speaker serendipitously thinks about another (l. 10), a special someone whose existence lifts the speaker from the depths of his despair (l. 12: “sullen earth”) to soar as high as “the lark . . . at heaven’s gate” (ll. 11-12).

“Love remembered” restores the speaker. He is now whole, a man equal to others in riches, the riches of love, so well endowed that he would refuse to change places with men on high (“kings”) (ll. 13-14).

Though much less eloquent, teens across this nation live in the shadow of Sonnet 29. They doubt themselves. They doubt their futures. They are not sure if they are good enough, attractive enough, or smart enough to draw one other special someone to their sides. They want reassurance. They yearn for acceptance, then pour their energies into poetry that will make them gag in ten years--at least mine did.

But when someone other than Mom, Dad, brother, or teacher praises them, they blossom. Those forlorn teens begin to feel as if they belong, as if they have something to offer and share. Their first love, although inevitably accompanied by heart shattering pain, nudges them on to the rickety bridge that carries us from adolescence to adult, from hopeless to hopeful, from dread to delight.

Reading Challenge:

Sonnet 30, provided below, by Shakespeare develops a theme quite similar to Sonnet 29.

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
               But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
               All losses are restor'd and sorrows end.

Writing Challenge:

Write a synopsis of Sonnet 30. You may use the three short paragraphs that appear after Sonnet 29 in bold font as an example to guide your work.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

George Carlin was a master at listening to language for all its bizarre and silly meanings, then sharing his insights with us. He made me rethink the phrase “on board” a plane when he declared that he preferred to be “in” the plane.

Some silly language derives from what I describe as “babble-speak,” the sort of speech that comes from people hired to fill “dead air” or radio and television time. These folks often strive to be perfectly clear, and we are grateful, but in being so clear, they are sometimes also silly and redundant. “Armed gunman” is an example. A gunman may bring a knife to a gun fight, but he surely is armed with a gun, too.

Other silly language is time-honored and traditional. Such language includes idiomatic expressions and makes learning English very difficult because the words in combination do not mean what they mean separately. “A long row to hoe” is an example. Literally, the words mean that a person has a long garden row of soil to hoe; figuratively, the words mean that the person faces a seemingly insurmountable and certainly exhausting task.

Listen for the clever, silly, and bizarre meanings conveyed by words in combination. Make a list of them, and as you do, know that you are tuning your talent for great dialogue that sounds real and true.