Sunday, April 27, 2014


I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.
Richard II, Act V, scene 5

Do you ever get the urge in the middle of the night to dig up a copy of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land because you are haunted by a phrase that you just can’t quite remember?

No, not really?

Okay. Maybe you can’t understand why, at 3:00 a.m., I suddenly woke up and felt compelled to know what the rest of the opening line of that poem is—a line that, not long ago, I could not imagine not knowing. Surely, you don’t care that this urgency seemed to have something to do with this being the month of April and that famous first line notes that “April is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of a dead land.” Indisputably, you are indifferent to my realization that this line had probably leapt to the forefront of my consciousness as I slept because, the night before, I had watched a DVR-ed segment of the terrific remake of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, starting Neil deGrasse Tyson, which included a scene depicting a boy picking lilacs. Despite this indifference I share with you the line that I could not conjure up on my own last night:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Specifically, it was that bit about “stirring dull roots with spring rain” that I could not remember. Ugh.

Interestingly—at least to me—this memory failure (with respect to a line about memory) reminded me of yet another famous literary line. In Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, “Irina,” the youngest of the three Sergeyevich-Prozorov sisters, weeps over her inability to remember “the Italian word for window or ceiling.” This failure symbolizes how time is slipping away from these gals who have spent much of their days convinced that life will really get started for them once they finally relocate to Moscow.

This panic over losing trivial bits of knowledge is a proxy for the much bigger things we lose—our youth, our optimism, our sense that we have time-a-plenty to accomplish all that we hoped to accomplish in this life. You’d think that all lawyers of a certain age could relate to that phenomenon if not to its specific manifestation in my lost grip on the opening line of The Waste Land or how my panic was underscored by how aptly it resonated with Irina’s panic in The Three Sisters. But perhaps all of those years I squandered reading things like Modernist Poetry and acting in plays like The Three Sisters are worth something after all. Because, unlike those type-A, straight-A folks who muscled there way straight from pre-K through law school and right into law practice without ever pausing to catch their breath, I at least still command a decent arsenal of literary allusions to lend color and context to moments of existential despair. “Here’s my comfort,” as Stephano in Shakespeare’s The Tempest would say. The “comfort” to which he refers is actually a sack of wine but nevertheless. . . . Having once known stuff that allows a person to know that her angst over what she no longer knows or has failed yet to do is at least a reminder that all is never lost; we are connected to a larger narrative involving rather “old verities” that at least feel less common when rendered in evocative, poetic language. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” as Mr. Eliot concluded.

I fear that I have come to see this blog as one of those things that keeps me from writing other things that I have long intended to write. Then again, the writer-qua-lawyer’s life is a constant struggle to make time for writing (or other pleasures) above and beyond the writing (and other work) that a law job demands. Learning to persevere in the face of this persistent anxiety may be a blog’s principal value. In any case, I again thank Mr. Andy for his lyrical, cyber suggestion that all is not wasted. Shantih shantih shantih.

Friday, April 25, 2014

“Enough with the g-d Shakespeare already”

April 23, 2014 was the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare, the man who may well be responsible for Shakespeare’s incomparable oeuvre of plays, sonnets, and narrative poems. It was also the second anniversary of this blawg. I failed to mark the occasion because I was busy doing things of no particular importance to the world at large. But the good news is that Will’s celebration is going to continue for some time. The Globe Theatre, for instance, will be engaged in a year-long audacious tribute that will involve performing Hamlet in every country!

Meanwhile, a Seattle-based theater critic recently garnered considerable attention with an article that argues, among other things, that undue reverence for/reliance on The Bard is one of the things killing theater itself. See Ten Things Theaters Need to Do Right Now to Save Themselves In No Particular Order by Brendan Kiley. Kiley’s ten recommendations start with the entreaty that gives this post its name: “Enough with the goddamned Shakespeare already.” While Kiley accepts that Shakespeare was indeed the greatest playwright ever, he argues that Shakespeare’s work has become a crutch, something theater companies turn to when they have no fresh ideas. He insists that a five-year ban on “high schoolers pecking at Romeo and Juliet,” “NEA funding for Shakespeare in the heartland,” and “fringe companies trying to ennoble themselves with Hamlet” would do the entire art form a world of good.

I tend to agree that Shakespeare often seems to be a “crutch” for theaters—a means to ensure that at least one show in their season will result in substantial ticket sales because educators and parents can be counted on to step up and bus in the kids for the latter’s edification. Shakespeare in such instances is often served up like over-cooked collard greens or dry bran muffins. Which is probably not the most effective means to transform picky eaters into adventurous, passionate gourmands. . . . But there you have it. Theater is, as Kiley notes, on life support.
Among Kiley’s other recommendations, however, lies a hint about how a Shakespearean approach, at its best, could enliven a languishing medium. Kiley suggests that theaters should offer “Boors' night out”—at least one performance of each run when the audience is encouraged to participate on its own terms. This practice was routine in Elizabethan theater—where groundlings drank, heckled, hurled vegetables, barked directives and encouragement to the actors, sang along, and otherwise insisted on being a dynamic part of the action. A work of theater cannot feel like an ossified museum piece when the atmosphere is more like a day at Woodstock then a night at The Metropolitan Opera.

As originally realized, productions of Shakespeare’s plays involved vivid, immediate feedback and audiences entirely invested in the unfolding drama. Now? Much of the audience goes primarily for the picnic in the park beforehand and then the nice snooze that follows.

And maybe that is the problem with this blawg. Maybe I have been relying on Shakespeare as a “crutch” when Shakespeare per se just does not resonate with my intended readership (whoever that might be). Maybe my efforts to build bridges between Shakespearean themes and contemporary law practice smacks of esoteria. Good blogs, including the blawgs, which garner a loyal readership seem (1) to feature a compelling or at least accessible and trustworthy voice and (2) to provide either (a) really helpful information on a discrete topic or (b) solid entertainment. Putting aside the first prong, which no writers can fairly judge for themselves, I feel concerned that my efforts have not consistently satisfied either of the prong-two alternatives. To elevate my game, perhaps I need to commit fully to (2a) or (2b). Doing so may mean adopting a far more flexible approach so as to invite the kind of invigorating dialogue on display during “Boors’ Night Out” at Shakespeare-in-the-Elizabethan-Park instead of “Bores’ Night In” with three members of Academe.

Let me hear from you--but not all five of you at the same time.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Make ‘Em Laugh

The one show tune guaranteed to make even the most recalcitrant cynic crack a non-sneering smile is Donald O’Connor’s comedic tour de force in Singing in the Rain. Go on: I dare you to clink on the hyperlink and go one full minute without smiling.

And no one could possibly disagree with the song’s thesis: the most reliable way to win people over is by making them laugh. Accomplishing this feat, however, is no joke.

Sure, there are some who sound so funny that it hardly matters what they’re saying. I am thinking of Gilbert Gottfried reading a certain trashy bestseller (to which I dare not provide a link lest I risk losing this blog’s PG rating.) But when it comes to comedic writing, that is serious business.

As Shakespeare well knew, writing in an authentically funny voice requires special skill. To be “wise enough to play the fool”—“to do that well”—“craves a kind of wit,” as Viola notes in Twelfth Night, III.1. To be seriously funny, a person . . .

. . . must observe their mood on whom he jests,
The quality of persons, and the time,
And, like the haggard, cheque at every feather
That comes before his eye. This is a practise
As full of labour as a wise man's art
For folly that he wisely shows is fit;
But wise men, folly-fall'n, quite taint their wit.

There is a lawyer here in Austin, a core member of the local bar, who manages routinely to be wise enough to play the fool while writing about law practice. His name is Claude Ducloux. He doesn’t know it yet, but I recently decided to claim him as a kindred spirit in hopes that his ability to grind out seemingly effortless sallies of wit about lawyering will somehow rub off on me.

I have not yet plummeted Claude’s secret. Maybe it has something to do with laboring as a lawyer in Central Texas while bearing a super fancy-sounding Gallic name. Certainly, the man does not shy away from his French roots; the column of his that I admire is called “Entre Nous.” Who knows? Perhaps one key to being funny is being burdened from birth—and then refusing to be broken by that condition. I, for instance, was given a name that suggests a German milkmaid although I am neither German nor fond of milk. But it is what people do with these burdens that decide whether they will be Fate’s hostage or turn their bondage into daisy chains.

As I said, I have not yet ascertained the source of Claude’s comedic power, but I have eked out an admission that resonates with the theme of this post. Claude agrees: “It’s hard to be funny on purpose." Each of his columns goes through at least 8 drafts—all to ensure a voice that sounds entirely spontaneous. Claude also admits that he took comfort recently when his hero, comedic writer Dave Barry, made a certain confession during an NPR interview with respect to the arduous nature of producing breezy prose. When Barry was asked why he had abandoned a weekly humor column that he had kept going for nearly 25 years, Claude says that Barry said: "because my accountant said I don't have to anymore.” In other words, being consistently funny on command was really hard—even for that guy. And that is why so many must rely on cats to do their funny business for them (and skip the writing part altogether). See, e.g.,

It might be tempting to conclude that this is good news for lawyers, because no one really expects legal writers to be all that funny—at least not when they are producing actual legal writing. Indeed, some lawyers find the very notion of “humor” and “law” incompatible. And that is a shame. Humor does not suggest a lack of respect for the subject matter or context. Au contraire! It only seems that way to the chronically humorless. Most truly effective humor has an edge to it because the subject matter is so serious—and then the form succeeds in transcending unbridled irreverence, disdain, or resentment. (See last post on “Shakespeare as a Weapon.”) Humor is a way of letting light into the darkness; for light is the only way darkness itself becomes something a person can see.

Because most judges are people too, I suspect they prefer a dash of levity instead of relentlessly angry screeds about the opposing party’s boneheaded arguments or opposing counsel’s unprincipled behavior—no matter how poorly reasoned or badly behaved the other side/lawyer has been. Judges, as smart people, value wit; therefore, when wielded appropriately, wit can be among the most valuable persuasive tools around. Just ask the fans of Claude, Shakespeare, or Donald O’Connor.