Ambivalence-upon-Avon

Shakespeare has created us, but we’ve also created him.

I should be feeling more, I thought as I strolled the cobblestone streets of Stratford-upon-Avon, four hundred years to the day after he died.

My train arrived from Oxford after the morning parade honoring Stratford’s favorite son. Confetti and sprigs of rosemary (“for remembrance,” as Ophelia says in Hamlet) still littered the streets, lined with tourists snapping photographs of the town’s half-timbered houses and now dispersing to queue up at its historic sites. Many celebrants were sporting Bard-faced masks handed out during the procession. A few locals perched their masks on windows sills, Shakespeare staring vacantly out on his town nearly a half-millennium later. Actors dressed in period costume or as characters from Shakespeare’s plays stopped to pose for selfies with tourists. Stratford-upon-Avon was busy and festive on this special day.

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A Shakespeare mask looks out on Stratford-upon-Avon.

***

For the train ride, I brought my volume of tragedies with me, thinking I’d start King Lear on the journey up. But the scenery was far too idyllic on this blue-sky Saturday – and the tray table far too small to accommodate the two notebooks I use while reading. I decided to read some background material on the Bard instead, because I don’t really know a whole lot about Shakespeare, I’m embarrassed to say.

I stared into his portrait’s eyes in a copy of the First Folio; I really have to pee, I thought.

I can recall scribbling “Anne Hathaway,” “Hamnet,” and “d. 1616” from Mrs. Smith’s introductory lectures in ninth-grade English. She explained that Shakespeare wasn’t just a writer but an actor, director, producer, businessman: a whole Hollywood studio in one. Years later, a Shakespeare course was required for my Bachelor’s degree in English. Dr. Northway fleshed out our understanding of the political, cultural, and creative world Shakespeare inhabited. We combed over Elizabethan theater inventories, debated if Shakespeare would be considered a plagiarist today, and investigated state-sponsored violence in the English Renaissance.

One visit to London, I happened upon a Shakespeare exhibit at the National Gallery: All the known documents and artifacts Shakespeare left behind, from legal papers to the Chandos portrait, where he is wearing a pirate-like earring, were gathered together in one room. I stared into his portrait’s eyes in a copy of the First Folio; I really have to pee, I thought. My dad, brother, and I had just come from a pub when we passed the museum. They went on to another while my buzz fuzzed my appreciation of the curation.

On that same trip, we stopped off in Stratford the next day or so, actually. My dad pretended he didn’t know “decompress” was my code for “cigarette” as I broke off from them again to walk through the town. I chain-smoked up and down the streets, eventually stumbling upon his birthplace and snapping a few photos of the exterior before heading into a pub. I’m not sure, exactly, why I didn’t go in.

I taught Shakespeare once, too. Romeo and Juliet, during my student-teaching. I chose to skip over most of the biographical details that typically accompanies one’s first Shakespeare unit. Those lectures are usually boring. So, we listened to an audio performance of the play as we followed in our texts and watched, of course, Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 screen adaptation, Romeo + Juliet. The students enjoyed the play quite a bit. They couldn’t get past how stupid the star-crossed lovers were in their climactic double suicide; I agreed. In my time working in public education, I’ve actually found that most students are quite taken by Shakespeare, when you pass on all the tedious note-taking and get right down to the stories – and watch a young Leo smoke a cigarette, of course.

***

I didn’t have a map, a plan, or any real knowledge of Stratford-upon-Avon other than that Shakespeare was born and lived here when he wasn’t in London. I had actually forgotten Shakespeare died and was buried here, too, at Holy Trinity Church until I followed a crowd of visitors there. In the lush churchyard along the River Avon, willow trees shaded tombstones, many of whose epitaphs had long been weathered away. The Bard was interred inside. We slowly shuffled down the aisle to the chancel, bursting with yellow flowers, cameras, parish officials managing the crowd, and light pouring in through the stained glass windows.

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Shakespeare’s funerary monument. His actual grave, beneath his famed epitaph pictured in the bottom right,  was completely covered in flowers.

Another crowd signaled a second important site: Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall. On the ground floor, Shakespeare’s father, John presided over Stratford’s municipal affairs when he earned enough money – and status – from his glove-making. John petitioned for a coat of arms, which signified gentry, but his son, having amassed enough wealth from the theater, later bought it for him. At the far end of the dark-wood walls of this low-ceilinged room was once a chapel; historians are still finding evidence of murals once painted there. I noted some roses, now a faded and faint red, bordering the moulding.

Upstairs, thick, wooden school desks, like benches with wide, angled writing surfaces, were rowed before the schoolmaster’s lectern, which sat austerely like a squat throne. Even back then, naughty students carved their names into their desks. A man in a friar-like costume discussed 16th-century education with visitors in an exaggerated, historical accent. Younger tourists tried their hand quilling out their signatures and first-conjugation verbs on worksheets.

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Visitors try their hand at the quill in Shakespeare’s schoolroom.

Stratford-upon-Avon was indeed stunning on this sunny Saturday, and the exhibits were informative without overwhelming the atmosphere of the beautiful and historic structures. The guides, too, were very cheerful and welcoming. I was grateful to be here, but I just wasn’t feeling anything above what my natural curiosity and appreciation afforded. Since mid-January, I’ve read and written about a play a week. My head is filled with Shakespeare. Shouldn’t I be feeling  more?

***

I stopped off in a pub, ducking my head under its low, exposed beams, and ordered a pint of Shakesbeer. This was the Garrick Inn. The named honored David Garrick, an 18th-century actor who organized a 1769 jubilee that helped launch a tradition of literary pilgrimages to Shakespeare’s birthplace, as I learned from a plaque tucked among other Shakespeare-y paraphernalia crammed in its old nooks.

About half a pint in, an older man sat down next to me at the communal table. After a sip or two, he left for the toilets. He was there for quite some time. When he returned, an older lady had joined the table with a half-pint. He struck up a conversation with her; I think he fancied her, in fact, if his repeated questions after the length of her stay were any indication. She had a difficult time understanding him, as he talked softly, and he her, hard of hearing as he was. Sitting in between them, I chimed in to clarify something she was saying (she shared she was German-Canadian after he remarked on her American-sounding accent) and the three of us fell into conversation. He insisted on a buying us a round.

Even in his very birthplace the Bard’s words still pose their challenges, I was relieved.

The man (Steven, his name I learned later) was local; she, Patricia, was visiting, like me, expressly for the 400th anniversary. Quiet-voiced and ramble-prone, Steven was sometimes hard to follow. He was concerned about new housing developments in the town, because that meant children, children became adolescents, and adolescents made graffiti.

But Steven did get us on the subject of Shakespeare when he mentioned that it’s rare for a person to be born and die on the same day, as he said Shakespeare was. Patricia and I quickly corrected that, while it’s traditional to celebrate his birthday on April 16, we only know he was baptized in Holy Trinity Church on April 26, likely a few days after he was born. Patricia added that Shakespeare’s mother may actually have left the village to give birth to William at her sister’s, as a pox was infecting the town in 1564. This could also account for a delay between his birth and baptism, though nulling the town’s central attraction: the house that claims the very room the Bard was brought into the world. Aloud, I mused how English literature and language – and the many things they influence – would have been so very different had an infant William fallen to a plague in his hometown.

Patricia knew a lot about Shakespeare, and was feeling a lot about Shakespeare during her visit, too, I could tell. She and I chatted a bit more about Shakespeare during gaps in the general conversation. I mentioned I had just finished Titus Andronicus and was floored by its violence. She shared that a recent performance at the Globe actually was halted because multiple theatergoers – women and men, she emphasized– had fainted, so gruesome the production was. Her favorite play, as I asked, was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I shared how my wife recited the play the night we met: Helena’s monologue, about love.

“The ‘not with the eyes’ part, you know,” I tried, “but with the, um, with the–

“–mind,” Patricia provided.

For all the Shakespeare I’ve been reading, I blushed, I struggle to quote lines like so many Bardolators seem able to do.

Steven added to our Shakespeare sharing, too. He recalled a teacher he had once took a whole term just to cover Julius Caesar. Line by line, word by word, the teacher explained the play. Even in his birthplace the Bard’s words still pose their challenges, I was relieved.

Patricia took her leave after her second half-pint and some of Steven’s friends and family joined us. They bought me another round and we talked about America’s gun problems, British crime dramas, the advantages and disadvantages of white Christmases, and Steven’s appetite for drink.

***

Three pints in, I still had three hours left before my train back to Oxford. I headed over to the main attraction: his birthplace. I hoped to start feeling some sort of special tingle about my time here – and not just from the Shakesbeer.

I tried to hear a newborn William, covered in placental blood, screaming as he took his first breaths out of the womb.

I waited in line to purchase admission to Shakespeare’s birthplace-cum-museum, a two-story timber-frame house along Henley Street, a busy pedestrian thoroughfare in the town. It was once one of the largest houses in town, I learned after I made it through another line to walk through the house. A French couple ahead of me exchanged kisses every few seconds, it seemed. Clearly, they were feeling something.

Off the side of dining room was John Shakespeare’s workshop. John Shakespeare was a glover by trade, and Elizabethan tradesmen worked out of their homes. Butterscotch-colored tannins still stained the simple white walls. A costumed guide explained glove-making in the 16th century with artifacts and replicas. Glove-related quotes from the glover’s great heir were displayed throughout the room, suggesting he was inspired by his father’s work, even if he didn’t follow in his footsteps.

Upstairs, another docent explained that the Shakespeares had beds, quite expensive – and quite the status symbol – in Shakespeare’s day. Shakespeare would have slept in a small crib on the floor next to a trundle bed pulled from under the bed. He demonstrated how an older Shakespeare would have tightened the ropes before retiring. Loose ropes could trouble one’s sleep, he continued, which is why even today we say we feel ropey if we didn’t get a good night’s rest. The man, whose vigorous expounding belied his age, explained that the family would have piled the bed with the all blankets, clothes, and fabric they owned to keep warm in the dead of winter. He then inserted two, tall pegs into slots on the side of the bed-frame; these prevented all the heavy textiles from falling on and suffocating Shakespeare, sleeping below in the trundle bed in the middle of the night.

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Inside in the room where we believe Shakespeare was born.

In a side room, the original windows in the bedroom were on display. More illustrious visitors, the likes of T.S. Eliot, once etched their names into the panes. Eliot’s “I was here” was actually written over, so crowded the panes had become. I imagined the Modernist master walking the rooms, listening to the creaks of the dark-brown floorboards, now worn smooth and shiny from so many footsteps, for some insight into the Bard’s genius.

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“I was here,” literary pilgrims etched in the windows once in Shakespeare’s birth-room.

I tried myself to hear a newborn William, covered in placental blood, screaming as he took his first breaths out of the womb. I tried to hear William the child, his head just at eye level to his father’s workbench, bombarding his father with questions about his craft. But I just wasn’t hearing anything. In the garden at the back of the house actors performed passages on request. I was able to identify a few that I caught in medias res.

The Bard’s ghost wasn’t speaking to me yet, but at least I knew my stuff.

***

My entry into Shakespeare’s house granted me admission into some other sites, including the Harvard House, an impressive three-story timber-frame that came into the hands of John Harvard, who founded Harvard University. Right before it closed, I quickly toured Hall’s Croft, the Jacobean house of Shakespeare’s oldest daughter, Susanna, though I spent most of my time there chatting with a guide. He described many of the parties subsequent owners held there over the centuries before we fell into conversation about Key West, cowboy boots he bought at the covered market in Oxford, and how the Catholic belief in transubstantiation is technically cannibalism.

I still had some time to kill before my train, so I stopped by another tavern. Here, I shared a table with a couple a few miles outside of town. They, too, missed the parade but enjoyed simply being in the town on this milestone day, shuffling through the rooms with a hushed reverence, though they didn’t have a lot of experience with Shakespeare themselves. We chatted about the husband’s former work in Denver, my move to Dublin, and our mutual love of Edinburgh, where he gained a lot of weight, he mentioned, from all the drinking he did there.

I didn’t do any reading on the train back to Oxford. I gazed, vacant-eyed like the Shakespeare masks in the window sills, as occasional sheep and church steeples passed by the rolling green countryside.

***

Back in Oxford, I met my wife for dinner and some drinks in town. “So, are you feeling inspired?” she asked.

“Um…” I bit into some pizza and chewed for a while.

I don’t think I gained many insights into Shakespeare’s genius, I realized, but I do think I learned more about his humanity. And it was Shakespeare’s own insights into humanity, I think, that was genius.

I recalled the floorboards he must have run across as a kid, the trundle bed whose ropes he tightened, the desks in his schoolroom where copied out amo amas amat, the intricately carved church ceiling he may have stared at during a boring sermon, the trail along the river where may have chased swans, the alleys he must have cut through on errands for his father. I don’t think I gained many insights into Shakespeare’s genius, I realized, but I do think I learned more about his humanity. And it was Shakespeare’s own insights into humanity, I think, that was genius.

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Shadows on the floor of Shakespeare’s birthplace.

“I really enjoyed the people I met and talked to there,” I offered. There were thousands of people in town, I’m sure, many from far outside the United Kingdom. Some knew a lot about Shakespeare and felt a personal, even magical connection as they toured the town. Others, and I think most, didn’t really know much about him. They haven’t really read much other than what was required in high school, if that. Maybe they’ve have seen the occasional play. But we were still all there for the same reason, to try to better understand this man who has wormed his way into our very literary, linguistic, and cultural consciousness. Whose verses we still quote, whose coinages we still use,  whose stories we continue to see, whose truths we still draw on, whose genius we still crave to know. Perhaps in so small part because we make these sort of pilgrimages, because we specially esteem his genius.

Shakespeare has created us, in a manner of speaking, but we’ve also created him. We put on the Bard-faced masks, as if to see the world through his eyes. Yet it’s our eyes that peer through the slots.

“Yeah, I think I really felt something.”

All photographs by me. 

A heavy lift: traveling with the Bard

Shakespeare can literally weigh you down.

I’m a bit sore today, thanks to Shakespeare.

My wife and I have made our big move at last, staying for a week or so in Oxford, England before our final destination, Dublin.

Yes, there was the sardine-canned, 10-hour flight from Los Angeles to London. The row ahead, some infrequent fliers didn’t turn off the Norwegian Air In-flight Entertainment screens on the back of the headrests as we flew into the night. The glow burned white right through the gap in the seats precisely where I could contort my neck without needing a chiropractor. The young boy in the middle seat never quite got around to watching Ace Ventura, apparently.

And engineers designed Dreamliners to be so efficient that the toilets, which we were seated by, roared liked jet engines each time someone flushed. Fortunately, the erratic howling of a very unhappy toddler drowned out the flushing in the middle of the night. I felt soothed, too, by her poor parents’ loving – and urgent – hushing when they walked her up and down the aisle.

Sleep was also fitful on our two-hour bus ride from London into Oxford. The coach was quiet, roomy, and smooth-going, but the bright sun in a cloudless sky, usually such a welcome sight in these climes, seesawed my orientation between Southern California and Southern England, between Pacific Time and British Summer Time. I was long overdue for a coffee – or a beer, whatever time it was.

Travel-wise, all of this is normal, to be sure. What’s not so normal this time is checked baggage. Luggage. It’s easy to forget that the word is rooted in the verb to lug when you’re an insistently light packer such as myself. But my wife and I aren’t traveling this trip. We’re actually moving.

One does need clothes, after all – and Shakespeare. I had to make sure I had enough room for all four volumes of my Norton Shakespeare.

Between us, we packed up our new life in eight pieces. We checked three roller suitcases of clothes – two of which which were essentially Smart cars sans engines – and my classical guitar. My wife carried on another roller, mostly clothes, and her all-purpose work purse. I carried on a backpack stuffed with notebooks, writing utensils, my laptop, laptop paraphernalia, a few books, and personal affects. I also lugged on a duffel bag.

Originally, I intended this carry-on as a book bag. I mean, quite literally, a bag of books. But when my big suitcase (the blue Smart Car) came in 10 pounds too heavy when we weighed it back home before departing, I had to repack a variety of clothes into the duffel bag.

Most of the etymological dictionaries I use for my Mashed Radish writing had to stay behind at my in-laws’. I’ll miss these friends, of course, but we can mostly keep in touch online, thankfully. One does need clothes, after all – and Shakespeare. I had to make sure I had enough room for all four volumes of my Norton Shakespeare.

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You heavy bastards. 

I suppose I could have acquired a lighter Complete Works, but I wanted to keep my reading consistent. The paperback Folger’s of Much Ado About Nothing I took down to Costa Rica already wrenched my reading enough. Plus, I’m cheap. But mostly, I rely so much on the Norton edition’s glosses, footnotes, and explanatory materials. I mean, he did write this stuff over 400 years ago.

Self-deceptively thinking I would do some writing on Titus Andronicus during the flight, I squeezed the Tragedies volume into my backpack and lined the bottom of the duffel bag with the Histories, Comedies, and Romances and Poems.  Then, I packed in some clothes and a few slimmer books, finding just enough room to squeeze in my bulky but surprisingly lightweight Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology on top , somehow without splitting the zipper.

Thank God Norwegian Air didn’t weigh my carry-ons. Even without the dictionaries I originally hoped to pack, even without the fattest volume, Tragedies, Shakespeare still really weighed this bag down.

He was a real pain in the ass – or arm and shoulder, I should say. Well, the whole upper body, actually. And legs, too, as I eventually took to shoving the duffel bag along the floor when waiting in LAX’s security line and LGW’s passport control queue.

He sliced into my shoulder as we zigzagged our way out of the airport, throwing off my balance as I steered our Smart cars ahead of me and nearly causing us to miss the last call of the Oxford-bound bus. Off the bus, as we searched, exhausted, for our Airbnb along the bumpy bricks of Headington, I swear the Bard almost dislocated my shoulder.

Shakespeare must have slowed me down enough for our Airbnb landlord to spot us out of her window just as we dragged past the property. She called out, welcomed us in, and urged us to rest our bags – and bones. “How was the journey?” she asked as she started to show us around the flat.

“Good, pretty smooth! Thank you for asking!” I cheerfully responded, now lighter.

I rubbed my right shoulder and circled my neck. I glowered at the duffel bag. I knew reading and writing about the complete works of Shakespeare would be a heavy lift, but I didn’t anticipate it being quite so literal.

Much Ado About Reading

Reading Shakespeare is hard.

I have fallen a bit behind in my reading schedule. I had planned on finishing my seventh play this year, Much Ado About Nothing, last Friday. I only just wrapped it up yesterday.

I could blame this on Costa Rica. My wife and I took a trip down to this luscious land last week. I could blame it, too, on moving to Ireland. We’ve got less than a month to sell just about everything we own and get over to Dublin, including our dog. We had friends in town, too. Plus, my mom and stepdad, who’ve been wintering in Southern California in their RV, are hitting the road again soon.

These are all valid reasons, I suppose, to take a few extra days to read this Shakespearean comedy, which many consider to be his best.

You could say I’m making, well, much ado about nothing. Travel, moving overseas, spending time with friends and family. Life’s rough, I know.

And none of this is to mention that my project is self-imposed. My deadlines are arbitrary. If I miss them, they don’t have real consequences.

Still, reading Shakespeare is hard.

Of course, Shakespeare’s words are challenging, as language and as literature. His plays, moreover, are meant for the stage; watching them aids enjoyment and understanding.

Each time I crack open a new play, I struggle to get started, as if in physical therapy, slowly, arduously moving one foot forward. Sometimes, I can find my stride and read a whole play in a few sittings, getting back that old muscle memory vitiated by the digital age. But other times, as with Much Ado, it’s a different story.

Yes, the “skirmish of wits” (1.1.61) between Benedick and Beatrice is the pinnacle of Shakespearean wordplay. The story – jealous of Claudio, who just defeated him in battle, Don John the Bastard schemes to thwart his marriage to Hero, while Don Pedro schemes to bring Benedick and Beatrice, doggedly opposed to marriage, together – is superbly crafted. The play’s thematic gender politics surrounding marriage, fidelity, and masculinity is still compelling and relevant 400 years later. As always, the Bard weaves a thick tapestry of language; I especially enjoyed the many ways he plays with the language of “horns,” a symbol of cuckoldry, a central anxiety of men in the play. And of course, the bumbling constable, Dogberry, is a legendary character.

But I have to be honest, I should probably just re-read Much Ado About Nothing.

***

Ahead of our move, I’ve been backing up old papers I’ve written, which prompted some reflections I recently shared.

I’ve also been sorting through old books, bidding farewell to lots of beloved texts I’ve read through my years, so many of them beat up with annotations, highlights, underlinings, dog-eared pages, creased bindings, the wear and tear of loving use. I’m still holding onto a good number (I’ll always keep my high school copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), but I tried to sell the rest. My writing isn’t bringing in any money after all. Just ask my wife.

This must be the first bookstore I’ve ever been to that hasn’t had a single copy of Shakespeare.

I hauled several crate-loads to a used bookstore. “We’ll call you in three hours and then make an offer,” the clerk let me know. Three hours? That sounded promising. That sounded like my trove will put them to work.

I don’t expect much from used books, especially paperbacks, in spite of the immense intellectual wealth they’ve brought me. “How much did you say again?” I asked the clerk when the bookstore called me back. “Twenty-two sixty-seven?”

$22.67.

That’s even not the rub, though. I wasn’t paying close attention when I signed the line that I agreed the bookstore would throw away – yes, throw away – the books it couldn’t sell.

I felt like Lady Macbeth, vainly washing her hands of blood for this horrible crime I committed.

They said something about store policy and stolen merchandise. I imagined a cop shows up and shouts, “Drop the book! Drop the book!” The guilty reader slowly lowers an 1818 edition of Shelley’s Frankenstein to the ground.

After accepting my blood money, I looked around the bookstore for a cheap, small copy of a Shakespeare play. I didn’t want to lug around my Norton Shakespeare in Costa Rica. It’s heavy and bulky. But, deep down, I knew I was asking myself, “Do you really think you’re going to read any Shakespeare on this trip?” Fie!

I took a couple of laps around the store. I finally spotted a small drama section. No more than 10 books, and no Shakespeare. I see Bloom’s The Invention of the Human, a seminal piece of literary criticism about Shakespeare. But no actual Shakespeare.

I suspected I was missing the Shakespeare section. I couldn’t think of a bookstore that doesn’t have a Shakespeare section. Even in non-English bookstores – in Istanbul or Bangkok, say – I’ve found Shakespeare sections. I even picked up copy of Hamlet in Spanish from a bookstore in downtown San José.

I went back to the clerk who handed me my $22.67. “Is there, um, like, a Shakespeare section in the store?” She pointed me back to those meager volumes of drama. “You’d find it there, if we have any.”

“If we have any.” This must be the first bookstore I’ve ever been to that hasn’t had a single copy of Shakespeare.

Except for the volume I just sold them. It was one of those Literary Classics complete works hardcovers designed less for reading and more for making it look like you’re a serious reader.  There was no way I was buying that back.

So, the night before we head to Costa Rica, my wife and I ran a couple of errands, including swinging by Barnes & Noble. The store, of course, has a nice section clearly marked “Shakespeare.” The section exists, no doubt, because we still assign Shakespeare in high school. Some will read Shakespeare in college, but you can get easily get a bachelor’s degree without cracking open a single play, I’m sure.

I can only remember that I had Shakespeare make a terrible joke whose punchline was “much ado about nothing.” And when Confucius said goodbye, the Bard said, “All’s well that end’s well.”

A whole shelf neatly displayed rows of No Fear Shakespeare as well as the Folger’s classic standbys.

I picked a Folger copy of Much Ado About Nothing. Why? Its titular nothing made me think of sloths. We really wanted to see some sloths in Costa Rica. And we did. Incredible. (Nothing, it turns, out, should have made me think of notes and vagina. The word was pronounced more like we might say noting today, working well with the play’s many musical, writing, gossiping, ad observational puns. It also served as Elizabethan slang for female genitalia; use your imagination.)

I knew the title well. We all do. Much Ado is headline fodder. I’ve taken advantage of it in this very piece. But I knew nothing about it other than it’s a comedy – and that I used it as a punchline in a creative writing assignment I did in fifth grade. In Mrs. Wagner’s class, the same class where I first remember reading Shakespeare.

I can’t remember the assignment’s point exactly, but, for some reason, I had Confucius meet Shakespeare at a park. They talked. For their dialogue, I looked up memorable quotes and titles of their works in books I checked out from our little school library and the old green- and cream-colored World Book Encyclopedia volumes I used to spend hours in at home – and used for research papers before the Internet changed everything.

I fashioned some sort of conversation out of my cursory findings. Mrs. Wagner loved it, I recall. I can only remember that I had Shakespeare make a terrible joke whose punchline was “much ado about nothing.” And when Confucius said goodbye, the Bard said, “All’s well that end’s well.”

The birth of a writer, my dear readers.

***

I love traveling, if our upcoming move to Dublin is any measure. My wife and I have had the privilege to travel quite a bit around the world.

We hadn’t been to Costa Rica, or Central America for that matter. We thought we’d check out its many greens (and blues) before heading over to the many greens (and grays) of the Emerald Isle.

I have no distractions, other than the wind, the clear night sky overhead, lots of beers, and leftover empanadas I got from the grocery store. Why can’t I read this?

And the more we travel, I realize, the less planning I’ve come to do. I usually do a ton of reading, research, and preparation, especially if we’re hitting a once-in-a-lifetime or culturally dense place. To make the most of it, of course.

It’s kind of like being in a museum exhibit, reading before traveling is. I try to read all the texts and labels on the wall. For one thing, they’re usually well written. For another, I like to know what’s going on in the Cezanne painting or bronze artifact so as to better appreciate it. But this often comes at the expense of actually engaging with the art or history itself. So, I end up just scanning the museum texts, but not in the same way I half-read an article online, an email, or the like. I can’t quite describe it, but I can say I walk away with an amorphous goop of dates, names, and media.

Reading ahead of visiting a new country can be like this, too. I get a variety of travel books from the library, typically later buying one to take with me for ongoing reference in situ, and walk away with a fog-like blur of history, language, sites, culture.

This trip, we mapped out a basic itinerary, booked a rental car, and made sure we had lodging the first two nights. Otherwise, we left the rest wide open. There’s something truly lovely about letting a country disclose itself to you versus planning a touristic siege, of conquering a place as if a colonizer for a week.

There’s something truly lovely about letting a country disclose itself to you versus planning a touristic siege, of conquering a place as if a colonizer for a week.

We booked an Airbnb hidden in the hills outside of San Ramón, a busy city not far from the capital. It’s not known for much, touristically speaking, though it proved to be a great launching point for Costa Rica’s volcanoes and cloud forests – and politically, I learned from reading our host’s welcome packet, a great launching point for many of the country’s presidents.

Streets aren’t really marked in Costa Rican cities, excepting the capital, though even that was like the other urban labyrinths that constantly shifted around as we drove through them. We got lost finding the place, but I did learn a bit more Spanish in our efforts to find our rental – and a few construction workers paving a road up in the winding hills learned a bit more English, too, I suppose.

The house was atop a hill, chilly and windswept, eerily spacious, overlooking the rolling greens and golds of the Costa Rican highlands. But the gusts of wind loudly rattled the house, all day and night, reminding us of the force of its nature.

There was a TV, but the wind knocked out the signal. And there was no WiFi. Perfect, I thought, for some serious reading of Much Ado About Nothing thousands of miles away from where Shakespeare originally inked the comedy. Perfect, too, for there would be no half-hearted headline reading on Twitter and news apps to distract me.

After some wine, dinner, and cards, I thought I’d sink into Much Ado, the gales howled around – through – the house, inspiring me like some sort of Romantic poet. Big, alien-like insects scurried us into the bedroom for the nights. With a can of Imperial, my notebook, and Much Ado, I read much of nothing.

Part of my struggle was just adjusting to the Folger’s format. I remembered it from high school, with its straight text on the right and notes on the left, but I had grown accustomed to Norton’s footnoting and glossing system. On the one hand, the Folger offers you the text, un-editorialized. On the other the hand, you find yourself ping-ponging your eyes – and attention.

Add to all of this that Much Ado is a comedy. Shakespearean comedies are as thick with wordplay as Costa Rica’s cloud forests are with biomass. Like the gorgeous birds in the jungle only the experienced eye can spy, this means a lot of jokes you know are there but just aren’t getting.

And add to this my note-taking. General notes, of course, but also strong language and interesting words, which for this play I tracked in a thinner, more travel-able notebook than the old-school composition notebooks I usually use.

I have no distractions, other than the wind, the clear night sky overhead, lots of beers, and leftover empanadas I got from the grocery store.

Why can’t I read this?

***

I tackled a few more pages by the trip’s end. Vacation isn’t exactly a great time to tackle literature, I suppose. Especially when the rest of your hotels are equipped with WiFi and really good happy hour specials.

One hidden treasure and pleasure of traveling is disconnecting. The world is increasing online, but you can still find those pockets (many more, of course, if you’re truly immersed in the wildernesses of the world) of quiet. Those pockets where your Facebook feed goes dark. It’s one of the few things I like about the U.S.’s cellular restrictions. Your scrolling thumb initially twitches with withdrawal, but the brain rewires. The brain rebuilds the muscles of sustained attention, observation, and thinking. But, like when a coworker brings Girl Scout Cookies into the office when you’ve just started a diet, it doesn’t take long for your synapses to binge on status updates, 140-character quips, and clickbait.

There’s something to be said about letting a text – or a painting, artifact, or the brilliant red of a quetzal’s belly emerging from the tangled greens and cloaking mists of a Costa Rican cloud forest  – disclose itself to you on its own terms, without agenda or predication

I still somehow feel defeated, though. I should be able to read the Bard in the rainforest, even if I’ve driven hundreds of miles across the country’s snaking and unsigned roads and transacted in a language I’m embarrassingly not fluent in.

So, it was a 6-hour flight back to L.A. OK, I told myself, you’re finishing this play. On the plane. No excuses.

The man seated next to me was reading José Saramago’s Blindness. “That’s a great read,” I noted. “Yeah? I’m loving it so far,” he replied. He looked at my Much Ado. I look at my Much Ado. You can do this, I told myself.

I was strong-willed at first, managing to finish Act 1 before I rewarded myself with a look, just a look, at the movie selections in the media center on the headrest in front of me. Ooh, The Martian. If I get through Act 3, I get to watch The Martian, I told myself.

I got through Act 2.

Then, a little nap, a podcast, some coffee. I was only into Act 3 by touchdown.

But, but! My wife was coming off our Costa Rica trip with a ladies’ weekend in L.A. to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I’ve got the weekend, I pep-rallied myself. I can do this. Then I remembered that Season 5 of Breaking Bad awaited me on Netflix. There was some Jameson I needed to finish before we move, too.

***

I did eventually finish the play a few days later in between tweets, workouts, dog-walking, chores, errands, and a whole bunch of Craigslist sales.

That’s OK, though.

Sure, my environment was a distracting one. Yes, attention is short and fragmented in the Internet age. But like a reading museum text or researching for travel, sometimes reading can get in the way of reading. There’s something to be said about letting a text – or a painting, artifact, or the brilliant red of quetzal’s belly emerging from the tangled greens and cloaking mists of a Costa Rican cloud forest  – disclose itself to us on its own terms, without agenda or predication.

I want to re-read Much Ado About Nothing. But not yet.