Past, present, and macaroni salad: Henry VIII 

Why do we make the choices we make?

“We’ve got…,” I said with a suspenseful pause as I pulled tupperware out of the reusable grocery bag, “Monte Cristo sandwiches and macaroni salad.”

“Holy shit. Thanks, man,” my friend said. 

“Thank my stepmom. We had leftovers.”

We sat in his KIA sedan parked at a Love’s off I-65. A water tower read White County. It was a clear day, seasonably cold. Everything around us was flat for miles and miles and miles. We were closing in on Chicago, where we were visiting a friend for the weekend before I finally flew back to Dublin after nearly a month in the States.

Something felt so adult about eating lunch with an old high school friend in a car off the side of the road, your hometown hundreds of miles behind you, in a few days, thousands more.

And yet something felt so childlike about forking macaroni salad out of GladWare. Packed lunches, certainly, have that effect, but this wasn’t just any macaroni salad. I must have been eating this same salad, this same exact recipe, for over 20 years.

My mind drifted out and over thousands of conversations I’ve had with my family. Out and over thousand of conversations we’ve never had. And it landed on Shakespeare.

The taste plunged me back to the honey-colored wood of the kitchen table and terra-cotta tiled floor. Back to glass bowls of grapes and strawberries, of blackberries and bananas, that made their way from plate to plate. Back to my stepmother slicing those bananas by pushing a paring knife up towards a callused thumb so a perfect little chunk would tumble right into the bowl. Back to a cutting board propping up that long Monte Cristo, my father bringing a longer-seeming serrated knife down through its many layers and divvying out neat, even wedges.

“How does your stepson, you know, handle everything?” I asked, breaking my own flashback. Stepson. The word thrust me right back into the present, to adulthood.

My friend spoke thoughtfully about shared custody, about the different roles divorced parents take on. He spoke about his own identity, negotiating new territories of parenthood and stepfatherhood. He spoke about how his six-year-old stepson grasps it all.

“How was it for you?” he asked. “Weren’t you pretty young when your parents divorced?”

I scooped up my last bite of salad. My mind drifted out and over the never-ending flatness of Indiana. Out and over countless suitcases, bedrooms, car rides. Out and over thousands of conversations I’ve had with my family. Out and over thousands of conversations we’ve never had.

And it landed on Shakespeare.

***

It had been some weeks since I finished All is True (Henry VIII). This history centers, mostly, on the fall of Cardinal Wolseley, King Henry VIII’s powerful and self-serving advisor, after he fails to secure an annulment for Henry VIII so he can marry Ann Boleyn.

I sat on this play for quite some time because I had trouble locating myself in the drama. There were obvious connections, like Henry VIII’s divorce of Queen Katherine. But this, the subject of divorce in and of itself, didn’t grab me.

For one, I have no mind to air any dirty laundry here. For another, I’m just no longer all that interested in the gritty details of my parents’ divorce. I think I processed them plenty in the reims of reflective essays I churned out for high school English and religion classes.

I’m not sure that the heart isn’t a dark and opaque organ at the end of the day, keeping itself alive with molecules and membranes we will never really understand.

About twenty-six years later, the wounds have healed. But the body is never exactly the same as it was before its injury. It works. It functions. It’s repaired. But it’s a different body, even if just by the scars it bears. Often you forget they are even there. But they are always with you, the scars. And every so often, you’ll stop and run your hands over them. You’ll stare at their shape. You’ll marvel that the body can even do it at all, this miracle work of healing, weaving together all that new skin. It’s magic, when you really think about it.

But what did grab me, in that chew-ful moment of silence before my reply, was a speech by Cardinal Wolseley right after his decline. Before heading to court to answer charges of treason, an ailing Cardinal Wolseley, who, mind you, has been an absolute bastard his entire career, has a sudden change of heart:

Farewell, a long farewell, to all my greatness!
This is the state of man. Today he puts forth
The tender leaves of hope; tomorrow blossoms,
And bears his blushing honours thick upon him;
The third day comes a frost, a killing frost,
And when he thinks, good easy, man, full surely
His greatness is a-ripening, nips his rot,
And then he falls, as I do. I have ventured,
Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders,
This many summers in a sea of  glory,
But far beyond my depth; my high-blown pride
At length broke under me, and now has left me
Weary, and old with service, to the mercy
Of a rude stream that must for ever hide me.
Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate ye!
I feel my heart new opened. O, how wretched
Is that poor man that hangs on princes’ favours!
There is betwixt that smile we would aspire to,
That sweet aspect of princes, and their ruin,
More pangs and fears than wars or women have,
And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer,
Never to hope again. (3.2.352-73)

“Well, that was quick,” as I wrote in the margins. Wolseley goes from utter villainy to complete reformation. Of course, this is drama, so, chop chop, metanoia. Still, where does he get off? Who does he think he is? What did he, do, really, to earn this epiphany?

Yet in my friend’s car, I heard the monologue differently. His repentance pointed me to the mysteries of our own psychology and behavior. Why do we make the choices we make? How do we think about our own decisions? When are we truly honest with ourselves? Why do we feel what we feel? How well can we actually know ourselves?

I went on to tell my friend, yes, about shared custody, about the different roles divorced parents take on, about my own identity, straddling two households and two sets of parents. About how I grasped the situation as a younger man, questioning its reality and aching to know why it all happened as it did. Perhaps I even wanted my parents to feel particular things, to say particular things, and those feelings and those words would make it all make sense.

Maybe there is peace in the pastness of some things, as much as its true nature haunts us.

But I ask a very different questions of my parents’ divorce now. Its reality, its objectivity, opens it up to an emotional, even epistemological, empiricism. I examine it as a curious specimen, craving knowledge without judgment, as if to satisfy a deeper curiosity, as if a stranger or alien. To understand the heart as an organ. To understand my parents as organisms. To see them as adults, as people. To understand myself no longer as child, but as grown-up and husband, who’s made mistakes, who’s made changes. Why do we make the choices we make? How well can we actually know ourselves? What really makes us behave the way do? To love and not love? To move on and not move on? To forgive and–?

“I know myself now,” Wolseley goes on, “and I feel within me / A peace above all earthly dignities, / A still and quiet conscience” (3.2.378-81).

That sounds like a sublime peace indeed. I’m not so sure we are ultimately knowable to ourselves. I’m not sure that the heart isn’t a dark and opaque organ at the end of the day, keeping itself alive with molecules and membranes we will never really understand.

But maybe there is peace, too, in the pastness of some things, as much as its true nature haunts us. For the past, in its own stubborn inertia, and one’s life, in that invisible accretion of decisions and boredoms and job applications and sleeping and fucking and eating and failures and photographs and moving boxes, takes on an inevitability, as if it could have unfolded no other way. There can be a peace in this factness, this livedness, this fixedness, this thingness, this thereness.

Or at least in the acceptance of them.

***

“But it’s just sort of what you know,” I added. “I just don’t know things any other way. You know what I mean? I don’t know any other reality.” I started into my sandwich, and it tasted it exactly as it did so many years ago.

Harrumphing Hellenes and house-hunters: Troilus and Cressida

Being a grownup? It’s easier to be a liberal Buddhist nihilist.

Me, shouting from upstairs to my wife in the kitchen: “Because African leopards are going extinct! Because facts are going extinct! Because, because…bullshit!”

Thersites, railing against Patroclus: “The common curse of mankind, folly and ignorance, be thine in great revenue!” (2.3.23-24).

Me, venting into the iPhone: “What’s the point? What’s the point? Money is a fetish. Things fall apart. Entropy. We’re all gonna die!”

Thersites, still railing against Patroclus: “Thou idle immaterial skein of sleave-silk, thou green sarsenet flap for a sore eye, thou tassel of a prodigal’s purse, thou! Ah, how the poor world is pestered with such waterflies! Diminutives of nature.” (5.1.25-28)

Me, rage-whispering to my wife during a tour: “The extra room for a yoga studio? Ludicrous! Absurd! Stupid!” I extended my arms in a broad sweep and looked up, as if indicating the universe, the totality of all that is and ever was. “It’s all stupid!” 

Thersites, quarreling with Ajax: “The plague of Greece upon thee, thou mongrel beef-witted lord!” (2.1.11-12).

If you haven’t guessed already, my wife and I have been house-hunting. Which is to say my wife has been house-hunting, and I’ve been coming to terms with it. Slowly. Bitterly. And with a philosophical vehemence I can’t help but recognize in Thersites, a Greek soldier who lambastes his fellow fighters with his crass-tongued cynicism in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.

***

Troilus and Cressida is a challenging play. Indeed, some scholars have actually called it one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” These – including All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, as well as Timon of Athens and The Merchant of Venice on some lists – are part-comic and part-tragic, leaving the reader without any real sense of thematic resolution at their close. In other words, as I said when I finished the play, “What the hell was that?”

The play takes place during the Trojan War. Troilus is madly in love with a fellow Trojan, Cressida, who gets traded to the Greeks in exchange for a captured soldier. The two pledge their fidelity to each other when she’s handed over, but, after later eavesdropping on her in the Greek camp, Troilus comes to believe Cressida has taken a new lover.

Aside: It’s not exactly clear what she does, but let’s be clear: 1) Cressida’s in enemy territory, so flirtatious appeasement may be a form of self-defense; 2) she was bartered by men like some object, so why should she keep any pledge? and 3) after they have sex, Troilus pulls away, just as she feared, like a dude who sneaks out of a girl’s apartment, leaving no note or number, before she wakes up on Saturday after a magical night on the town, in spite of all his talk about wanting “a deep and meaningful connection.” So, deal with it, Troilus.

But most of the action centers on the Greeks trying to get a too-proud Achilles out of his tent to fight, featuring to this end some very long, dense, and elaborate speeches from Ulysses about hierarchy and social order. (I jotted, brilliantly, in my margins at one point: “Difficult speeches.”) Ulysses tries to goad Achilles to action by glorifying the ox-dumb Ajax, but it’s the death of Patroclus, his comrade and likely lover, that spurs him back onto the field, where he kills, ignobly, the great Trojan warrior, Hector. The Trojans learn of their devastating loss, Troilus rallies to avenge Cressida’s apparent betrayal with Greek blood, and the play ends. Opaquely, like some modern novel or film.

And throughout all this, we have Thersites issuing his unsolicited criticisms like a snarling Greek chorus.

***

Thersites and I have a lot of differences, of course. For one thing, he’s a soldier in the ninth year of the Trojan War. I’m just pushing back against home ownership. (No easy marriage jokes here: I’ve only been married for two years. Rimshot. Dublin’s housing market is like a battlefield, however.) For another, Thersites vents his vexation through many more personal insults than I do, although my wife would surely disagree.

And yet the harrumphing Hellene and I do have a lot in common. We both speak our mind, even when we should bite our tongues. We both approach situations with negativity and pessimism. And neither of us is an immediate actor in the plot. Thersites doesn’t take up his sword in the fray, only his snark from the peanut gallery. I’m not finding the properties, setting up viewings, talking to agents, or calculating expenses. I need a coffee and a sweet just to lure me to a viewing.

But whenever my wife texts me a link to a property online or phones me up to say a new viewing window of a house has opened, I leap immediately to a strange and volatile mix of cynicism and alarmism about the world.

But where I feel most kindred to Thersites is the nature of our objections. Our complaints, ultimately, take a broader, more universal view. Thersites exposes the deeper follies of the Greek model of heroism and masculinity. I lay bare the delusions of bourgeois materialism, of capitalist teleology.

OK, these are very generous readings of our general petulance.

See, I don’t object to homeownership as a matter of cost or  on the grounds of middle-aged striving and settling. But whenever my wife texts me a link to a property online or phones me up to say a new viewing window of a house has opened, I leap immediately to aa strange and volatile mix of cynicism and alarmism about the world – about climate change, about our slaughter of wildlife, about our political and social failure to address poverty and oppression and inequality, about the burden of things, about the transience of all things, about mortality, about man’s puny place in the cosmos.

Why buy a house? I think. Our renovations are only going to add carbon to the atmosphere in one way or another. Why buy a house? Donald Trump won the presidency – we must do all we can to fight back! Why buy a house? You know, one day the sun will burn out. I’m not claiming it’s logical, but in my strange Buddhist social justice nihilism, buying a house makes me exclaim, like Thersites: “Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery! Nothing else holds fashion” (5.2.193-94).

***

Of course, there are two sides to the conversation.

Me: “The extra room for a yoga studio? Ludicrous. Absurd. Stupid.”

My wife, exasperated: “You’re being an asshole. Good Lord, let a woman daydream.”

Me: “Because African leopards are going extinct! Because facts are going extinct! Because, because…bullshit!”

My wife, shouting back: “You act like your life is so hard. You get to spend your days doing something you’re passionate about. If you care so much about leopards, do something about it.”

It’s easier to hide behind ontological abstractions and ethical high-horses, I admitted to myself.

Me: “What’s the point? What’s the point? Money is a fetish. Things fall apart. Entropy. We’re all gonna die!”

My wife, explaining herself for the final time: “Because I work really freakin’ hard and just want a place I can come home to at the end of the day and feel like myself.”

It sinks in. Slowly. Bitterly. “I know, I know, I know, I know, I know. You deserve that.”

“Then why do you act like the world’s on fire?”

“Because homeownership is just so…adult.”

It’s easier to hide behind ontological abstractions and ethical high-horses, I admitted to myself.

“I do like your ideas about herringbone tiles in the kitchen,” I continued. “And the place does have lovely old sash windows.”

I was met with a suspicious silence.

***

There were two sides to Thersites’ conversations, too. After Hector surprises Thersites on the battlefield, he asks whether he should kill him: “What are thou, Greek? Art thou for Hector’s match? Art thou of blood and honour?”

Thersites: “No, no, I am a rascal, a scurvy railing knave, a very filthy rogue.”

Hector: “I do believe thee: live.”

Thersites: “God-a-mercy, that thou wilt believe me – [Exit Hector] but a plague break thy neck for frighting me.” (5.4.22-28)