Mathematics. We all have our personal sums and divisions. I was once 20; I am now 70. The years have added up, and what is left is now a fraction. 

When I entered college in 1966, I was just over half the age of the professor who had the most influence on me. He is now 85 and have become exactly 14/17ths his age. I am catching up. The ratio has narrowed. 

(If we both live long enough, I calculate by my birthday in 2025, I will be older than him by seven months.) 

There was once a great difference in our ages and in our wisdom; now we are roughly equal. The piling of years does that; the gathering of experience. 

I have spent my life learning. It is the basic drive, like women for Don Giovanni, or gathering corporate acquisitions for Warren Buffett. But more math: Every time I increase what I know by 2 percent, I double what I don’t know. I learn arithmetically, I become ignorant exponentially. It is as if I am splashing in an inflatable wading pool on the beach next to the ocean.

When I was young, I was a complete idiot, and my ambition in life was to know everything. Seriously: everything. I suppose underneath the surface, I understood that was impossible. But you have to have some kind of aspiration. 

But back then, being an idiot, I still thought being intelligent meant knowing a lot of stuff. And I knew a lot of stuff. Piles of facts and factoids. I could explain the Defenestration of Prague in 1618: the shifting taxonomy of lions from Felis leo to Panthera leo to Leo leo; the use of the Neopolitan sixth chord as the subdominant in a minor key. And perhaps I showed off a bit too much. But now I understand that knowing stuff is mere accumulation. Nothing to take credit for: These things stuck in my mind because my brain is gummy. 

Besides, the more you learn, the more you discover that what you once took to be fact has either been superseded by later research, or been misunderstood, or turned out to be canard and cant. I.e., Cliff Clavinism. 

I have a pile of books and music scores that keep me going, and I add to that all the things of the real, the physical world, that I observe — the seasons changing on the trees, the birds chirping, the clouds ranging over the skies.

I am hungry to take it all in. 

But there is another delusion: that being intelligent somehow means being rapid of apprehension. Quick. Sharp. Fast on the uptake. While it is true that a fast comprehension comes with intelligence, it is, as they say, necessary but not sufficient. 

People who know they are smart tend to sort things very quickly into their silos, eager like tennis pros, to volley the next shot back. C’mon, you can bring’em faster than that! But sorting isn’t intelligence. Quickness of wit is fine; it is fun, it is exhilarating, but it doesn’t get us to the core of things. 

This is something I have come to understand over many years. Two people, more than any others, more than any book or class, taught me what to value in whatever mote of intelligence I possessed. 

The first was my wife. She was the most intelligent person I ever knew, although, on first hearing her, you might be confused over that issue. She could say the most surprising things: “Andrew Wyeth is more abstract than Jackson Pollock” or “You can fall into blue.” (We once argued over that last one for three full days and nights, before I capitulated. I always gave in. She was always right, although you had to think sideways or give up long-held unreflected prejudices. Wyeth is abstract in the sense that he abstracts a visual essence from the world and flattens it into an image made of blurts and squiggles, while a Pollock painting is no abstraction: It is palpably and solely a painting; it is what it is and nothing else. As for blue, I have been drowning in it since that fight.)

What she had was complete and utter openness to input. A failure to plop input into those silos. She didn’t so much think outside the box, but was unaware there was a box. I marveled at her insight, which she was basically oblivious to. It just was. 

It led me to my doctrine of volitional ignorance. That is, to approach any subject from the point of view of complete innocence. Forget what you think you know and just take in the new experience. 

The second person, and earlier lesson came from that professor, now frail and failing, who forced me to engage with the material. 

When I first got to college, I knew I was bright, and I responded to classes by doing what I had always done: giving the teacher what he or she wanted. I was good at that. But in my class of English Romantic Poetry, I handed in my first paper, saying exactly what I knew my professor wanted me to say and he gave me back my paper with a big, red “D” on it. (Technically, it was a D-plus). I was dumbfounded. There was nothing in the paper that didn’t repeat what he had said in his lectures. It couldn’t have been that far wrong.

But what he wanted from me was not what I thought he wanted. He wanted me to engage with the material. To know something, not to know about something. There is a difference, not just in magnitude, but in kind between knowing about and knowing. 

That is where engagement comes in. Paying attention. Not sorting to be done with, but holding something between your thumb and fingers, twirling it around, seeing it from all sides, squeezing it to see how hard it is, cutting it open to see what’s inside. 

You must start from the simplest things. Looking at a painting, do not decide what the subject is or means, but first look. Long and hard. Describe everything you see, however slight. Don’t forget the corners, what is hidden in the shadows, describe the exact color of the blank parts of the background, what the fingers of the subjects left hand is doing. Get all the bits in first. Take time. I once spent seven hours in front of a single painting. It takes time and commitment. It takes engagement.

Only when you have spent all the time you need should you then essay to understand what the art might be about. Ingest it first, digest it second. 

Fifty years ago, my professor forced me to engage with the material. I wasn’t there to learn facts about Shelley, but to engage with the work and see what it might teach me. I have been attempting that ever since. It is a hard practice to keep up: so much easier to categorize and dispense and move on to the next. More efficient. Gets things done. 

But if you really want to partake in this life, be embedded in the world into which you have been dropped, it is essential to pay attention, to know in your bones how little you truly understand.  

 For the world is infinitely complex and can obey no schema you toss over it. Engage with it on any level and extract whatever you can. Savor it.  

The Swannanoa River runs in western North Carolina from the town of Black Mountain to Asheville. It is where I live now, and it is spring. 

As I drive through the valley, with the Swannanoa Mountains directly to the south and, further north, in the distance, the lofty Black Mountains — the highest east of the Mississippi — the lower slopes of the Swannanoas are green, the bright green of early spring. The mid slopes are what Robert Frost wrote about: “Nature’s first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold.” And the tops of the peaks are still the dusky grey-black of winter. You can see spring climbing up the mountains. The green-line moves fast; a few days ago, it was all grey. Tomorrow, the line will be hundreds of feet higher up the slope, chewing up the grey, until it is all consumed in green. In their half-world, the hills look almost iridescent, the way draped satin will pick up the highlights and shimmer.

And all the while, I have Mahler’s Third playing and — I didn’t plan this; it’s just what was in the CD player — the first movement culminates in a great joyous march that is meant to describe the triumphant return of spring; all the animals and plants, all the hills and rivers are marching in procession like Mummers. It was overwhelming. I almost had to pull over and stop. Luckily, I hit a traffic light. I could steal a look to the left and soak in the iridescence and the utter, unutterable beauty of it all. De Welt is schoen.

I will be heartbroken to leave it when my time comes.

It used to be that January turned to February and February turned to March — and so on. Then, as I got older, it was January-July-January-July. Now, it is January-January-January. I don’t know why time speeds us so in senescence. I think, May is so far off, I don’t have to decide anything yet, then, all of a sudden, it is May again. The earth spins around the sun like a propeller.

It never stops; it only speeds up. Existence is not a thing but a process: nature is a verb, not a noun. It is never the same river; it is always the same flow. The green climbs up the hillside; my years shrink in front of me. I have now seen countless leaves sprout, green, shrivel and fall, and countless lives. The loss builds up and each spring slightly more wistful, more sad and the joyful march of plants and animals, hills and rivers deeper and more grief-laden. All rolled up into a single procession, full to bursting. 

Die Welt ist tief; tief ist ihr Weh. 

It is the literary equivalent of “Da-da-da-Dum” from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. “2B or not 2B.” Everyone knows it, whether they have seen Hamlet or not. It would be hard to find another phrase as often quoted or as immediately recognized by a wide public. “Call me Ishmael.” “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” “In the beginning was the word.” Even these lag behind the opening of Hamlet’s soliloquy as cultural roughage. 

Because it is so deeply buried in the culture, it is hard to even hear it anymore. It glides by not as information, but as a kind of tune, hummed thoughtlessly while sanding a table top or cutting carrots in the kitchen. 

But that soliloquy, just as the play it sits in the middle of, can be performed many different ways, with very different meanings. There are Hamlets that are Oedipal, Hamlets that are schizophrenic, Hamlets that are hot-blooded, those that are indecisive, those that are crafty — and at least one Hamlet played as a stand-up comedian. Take the words the playwright wrote and you can construe them myriad ways. In Ulysses, James Joyce has his character Stephen Daedalus prove that Hamlet is his own father. Sort of. 

Likewise, the “to be or not to be” speech can be spoken theatrically, like Master Thespian — this is too often the case — or emotionally, or enunciated with clinical precision. It can be spoken to the audience, breaking the fourth wall, or whispered under the breath. It can be done as a voice-over, as if we are hearing Hamlet’s thoughts. 

Benedict Cumberbatch; Mel Gibson; Thomas Hiddleston

(The one thing that seldom changes is Hamlet holding up poor Yorick’s skull in Act 5. Everyone has to do it, and what is more, be photographed doing it. Even publicity photos for provincial productions have to feature the Dane and his moldy jester.)

Hamlet is perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest play. It certainly has his wittiest hero: Hamlet, the Dane, is in fact too smart for his own good. In part, that’s what the play is about. 

In it, Claudius has killed his brother, the king — Hamlet’s father — and usurped the throne and queen. 

When the dead king’s ghost tells Hamlet to revenge him, Hamlet enters a storm of uncertainty: How, when, why and if to kill Claudius. In the process, Hamlet alienates most of the people he knows, even killing several. 

When Claudius contrives to murder Hamlet before the young prince can kill him, the whole Danish court is thrown into violence and death. 

You can just keep turning this play around and the light will keep catching a new facet. The more you look at it, the more you see. An actor has to decide: At any moment, is what is driving the character? 

Hamlet is the single most complex, multilayered and confusing character in any play. Is he insane? Is he pretending to be insane? Is he sane at some moments and mad at others? Is he obsessed with his mother? Is his inability to act caused by fearfulness, thoughtfulness, indecision or a desire to kill Claudius only when murder will do the most harm to Claudius’ eternal soul? 

None of these versions is ruled out by the text, but none is sufficient of itself. 

“As an actor,” one Hamlet said, “I’m going to try to illuminate as many facets as I can. But you can’t do it all, or you’ll lose focus. I feel sometimes I’m trying to cover myself with too little blanket: If I cover my head and shoulders, my feet stick out.” 

Critics have argued for 400 years about Hamlet’s inaction. But the reason the character refuses to go away is that he is at least as complex as we are in the audience: Hamlet is real. 

Hamlet has a line, when he’s talking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “You would seem to pluck out the heart of my mystery,” and that is what most scholars and critics try to do.

Not only actors, but whole ages have their takes. In the 19th century, Hamlet was often played as effeminate, or at least as one easily in touch with his feminine side. 

Edwin Booth brother of Lincoln’s assassin, and considered the greatest American actor of the 19th century, himself wrote in 1882, ”I have always endeavored to make prominent the femininity of Hamlet’s character and therein lies the secret of my success — I think. I doubt if ever a robust and masculine treatment of the character will be accepted so generally as the more womanly and refined interpretation. I know that frequently I fall into effeminacy, but we can’t always hit the proper keynote.’’

Edwin Booth; Sarah Bernhardt; Asti Nielsen; John Barrymore

In fact, there were many notable actresses who took on the role then, most famously, Sarah Bernhardt, who said, ”I cannot see Hamlet as a man. The things he says, his impulses, his actions, entirely indicate to me that he was a woman.’’

The practice actually goes back further. In 1775, Hamlet was played by the young Sarah Siddons to great acclaim (she continued to play the role until she was 47). Two decades later, the role went to Elizabeth Powell in London’s Drury Lane theater. 

These women achieved great praise. The stuffy Dr. Samuel Johnson saw Kitty Clive in the play and compared her performance with that of the famous actor David Garrick. “Mrs. Clive was the best player I ever saw,” he noted. “What Clive did best, she did better than Garrick.” 

Ruth Mitchell; Frances de la Tour; Lisa Wolpe

In 1822, Julia Glover played Hamlet in London and fellow actor Walter Donaldson said, “Her noble figure, handsome and expressive face, rich and powerful voice, all contributed to rivet the attention of the elite assembled on this occasion; while continued bursts of applause greeted her finished elocution.” The greatest actor of his age, Edmund Kean, came backstage to congratulate her: “Excellent. Excellent,” he said. 

In 1820, the first American female Hamlet was Sarah Bartley, in New York. At mid-century, Charlotte Cushman took on the role in New York and Boston, wearing the costume Edwin Booth had lent her. 

The sentiment was not unanimous, however. The New York Mirror disapproved of Nellie Holbrook’s Hamlet in 1880. “This absolutely masculine character is not capable of proper presentation by a woman, however great or talented,” the reviewer wrote. “We are, however, free to say that Miss Holbrook’s Hamlet is eminently respectable.”

That is better than the patronizing review of critic William Winter in 1911. “It is difficult to understand why Hamlet should be considered feminine, seeing that he is supereminently distinguished by a characteristic rarely, if ever, discerned in women: namely that of considering consequences, of thinking too precisely on the event.” 

Christopher Eccleston

In the 20th century, Hamlet took a decidedly macho turn (say it like the British: “Match-oh”). He becomes a swashbuckler or a sadist, by turns. Olivier, Mel Gibson, Christopher Eccleston, who makes him look like a soccer hoodlum. 

Yet, there have been actresses who took the role. Maxine Peakes is available on DVD. Frances de la Tour, Ruth Mitchell and Lisa Wolpe played the Dane. In 1982, Joseph Papp produced a Hamlet with Diane Venora. 

“There are men who have played Hamlet very effeminate and there are those who played it macho; the male spectrum goes from the very tough to the effete and very delicate,” Papp said. “Most English Hamlets from the 19th century on were quite delicate, while American Hamlets were much tougher — like Barrymore. Diane is a strong Hamlet, but not a macho Hamlet; vulnerable, but not hysterical.

“For years I have wanted to do a female Hamlet,” Papp said. “I have always felt that there is a strong female side to Hamlet — not feminine so much as female. To me that has to do with an easier capacity to express emotion. The person playing Hamlet should be able to weep unabashedly and unashamedly. There are men who can do that, but they should be young; Hamlet is a very young person, an adolescent, a student.”

In 1937, it was Eva LeGallienne, who said, “I think psychologically one feels Hamlet was a youth … He’s still going to Wittenberg, to college, you know. He can’t be a mature man. The whole thing points to a very young youth, and therefore because a boy of that age might not be technically equipped to play the role, this is why many women in their thirties who can look like a youth, and had the technical skills to play this great role, have played it.”

Top row: Campbell Scott; Alan Mahon; Danforth Comins; Jonathan Douglas; Bottom row: Nathan Darrow; Rory Kenner; Tobias Fonsmark; Holder Bulow; Michael Benz

But, of course, Hamlet can be played all of these ways. The part is supremely plastic — you can stretch it this way and that and it still makes theatrical sense. 

But this divigation has gone on too long. Back to the soliloquy. To be or not. To be? That is the question. Nothing can stale its infinite variety. Let’s take a few different versions. Olivier, in his 1959 film, does it mostly as a voice-over, set on a precipice overlooking roiling surf. It is Hamlet on the edge of a breakdown. (Link here).

Gielgud was an enunciator. The clarity of his delivery overtakes the overt emotionalism that Olivier brought. (Link here).

Kevin Kline gives it the Master Thespian touch, emphasizing every word as if it were the most important. It becomes monotonous. But, soft, he doth drop a tear. (Link here). 

In the entire opposite direction, Benedict Cumberbatch speaks the lines as if they were spoken off the cuff. This is the way real people speak. I especially love the way he makes sense of the line: “to sleep. No more.” He makes it into “death is to sleep, no more than that.” His is my current favorite version. (Link here). 

One last version. John Barrymore was the great Hamlet of the early part of the 20th century. The bulk of his career was before sound film, so it was only in his decline that he filmed the speech — or part of it — in a silly comedy starring Kay Kyser as a hick bandleader attempting to learn to be an actor. He hires Barrymore, playing a parody version of himself, to be his mentor. At one point, the comedy stops and Barrymore gives his bit of the soliloquy and you can see the majesty of his talent peek through the alcoholic puffiness. The take is almost ruined by his uncontrollable eyebrows, looking like two marmots fighting over a cheese. But the words, the words, the words. (Link here). 

Papa Essiedu, Simon Russell Beale, Paul Giamatti, Grantham Coleman

As for the words, they can be difficult for modern listeners. What the hell is a fardel? Would you bear fardels with a bare bodkin? Sometimes you wonder what Shakespeare meant, although the problem isn’t as apparent when the words are spoken on stage, as when you read them in text. An actor can make the meaning clear in context. When Hamlet says, “with a bare bodkin,” he draws his dagger and the audience understands. 

But language has changed in the past 400 years and even words that are still in current usage often had different meanings then. A careful reading of Shakespeare’s work demands an attention to lexicographical detail, if we are to avoid confusion. 

And even when we know what the words mean, we are still faced with the fact that the Bard often uses the words metaphorically, as when he has Hamlet talk of “taking his quietus,” which doesn’t literally mean to kill himself, but rather means, having finished an enterprise, or having paid off a longstanding debt. Such is life, he implies.

The most famous soliloquy in Hamlet is a profound meditation on death and suicide — the question Albert Camus said is the only philosophical question that really matters. But what do the words mean?

To be, or not to be: That is the question:/ Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/ Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/ And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;/ No more; and by a sleep to say we end/ The heartache and the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation/ Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep:/ To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;/ For in that sleep of death what dreams may come/ When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/ Must give us pause: There’s the respect/ That makes calamity of so long life;/ For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,/ The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,/ The pangs of despised loved, the law’s delay,/ The insolence of office and the spurns/ That patient merit of the unworthy takes,/ When he himself might his quietus make/ With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,/ To grunt and sweat under a weary life,/ But that the dread of something after death,/ The undiscover’d country from whose bourn/ No traveler returns, puzzles the will/ And makes us rather bear those ills we have/ Than fly to others that we know not of?/ Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;/ And thus the native hue of resolution/ Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,/ And enterprises of great pitch and moment With this regard their currents turn awry,/ And lose the name of action.

Alec Guinness, Peter O’Toole, Derek Jacobi, Jonathan Pryce

A quick glossary: 

Rub – actually, an obstacle on a lawn bowling green.

Shuffled – cast off, like a snake skin

Coil – Turmoil

Respect – consideration or regard

Of so long life – long lived.

Time – The world as we know it.

Contumely – Contemptuous insults

Despised – Rejected.

Office – Office-holders; bureaucrats.

Spurns – Insults.

Quietus – the paying off of a debt; the resolution of an enterprise.

Bare – used here, “bare” may mean “mere.”

Bodkin – a sharp object, sometimes a hatpin, but here a dagger.

Fardels – Burdens, as a bindle or an army’s dunnage.

Bourn – Region; boundary.

Conscience – Used in an older sense of consciousness; thought.

Native hue – Natural color.

Cast – shade of color.

Pitch – The height of a soaring falcon’s flight; before falling on its prey. 

Moment – Importance.

Regard – Consideration.

It is poetry, in iambic pentameter, with rhythm and melody. But we can translate the whole into modern American tapwater. And so, if we take the poetry out of this soliloquy, what we are left with is the bare-bones meaning:

The only question that counts is suicide: Should one put up with the suffering of life or do something about it and end it all? Death is like sleep: And if as in sleep, the troubles go away, that would be wonderful. But when we sleep, we also dream. And if we dream after death, the way we do in sleep, well, that’d make you stop and think wouldn’t it? That’s why this disaster we call life goes on: For who would put up with life’s crap if he could end them all through suicide? Who would bear the burdens of life but that the threat of something much worse after death makes us hesitate and makes us put up with the troubles we have rather than fly to others we don’t know anything about? And so, thinking makes us cowards; And the will to action is weakened by thinking, And what mighty deeds we would perform come to exactly zip.

And that is why Shakespeare is Shakespeare. 

The Arnold, Buster Keaton, David Bowie, Weird Al Yankovich

Photo at top: Top row, L-R — Lawrence Olivier, John Gielgud, Richard Burton, Nicole Williamson; bottom row — Kenneth Branagh, David Tenant, Ethan Hawke

Click on any picture to enlarge

 

“The older I get, the more the complexities of life narrow down to simpler components,” said Stuart. “The interactions become more complex, but the basics seem fewer.”

“Yes,” I prodded.

“I’ve been thinking about emotions, or more precisely, about how emotions are manifested by our bodies in terms of muscle reactions, hormonal dumps, brain chemistry — emotions as a physical reaction to external or internal stimuli.”

“Sounds clinical.”

“Well, I’m no scientist and I can’t claim any justification for this, but I’ve spent nearly 70 years examining my self — my inner self — and trying to understand just how I’ve reacted to the many events in my life, both the good and the bad.”

Stuart and I have both been around for a long time, been through many things, some of them together. Marriages, divorces, trips, jobs, houses, friends, pets, births, and more recently, deaths. 

“And I’ve come to believe that there are really only six emotions.”

“Surely, there are an infinite number of emotions,” I said. “At least an uncounted number. ‘I am large, I contain multitudes.’ ”

“Yes, it sometimes seems that way, but I think it is more like the taste  buds on your tongue. Only a few, but the combinations of them allow us to identify a huge range of flavors.

“The six emotions I have winnowed it all down to are: sadness, anger, fear, contentment, joy, and finally, desire — erotic desire. Each of these manifests itself in a distinct part of the body, or combination of corporeal locations.”

“I know where desire is felt.”

“Well, yes, but I don’t mean this as a joke. Let’s take them one by one and examine them.

“I start with sadness, because that’s the one most proximate, at least for you.”

“You’ve got that right.”

“Sadness — and I mean sadness, I don’t mean depression, which is a lack of affect and therefore, the opposite of emotion — sadness wells up in the eyes, in the higher portions of the chest, in a pursing of lips graduating into a pulling apart of the corners of the mouth and stretching of the neck ligaments. 

“Each of these emotions is a range, not a single thing. Sadness can run from a kind of wistfulness into a full blown gnashing of teeth and rending of garments.”

“Been there.” 

“Fear hits the pit of the stomach and the back of the neck; it widens the eyes and tightens the throat. Anger tenses the whole face and focuses the eyes, tightening their orbits; it also stiffens the back of the throat and may also clench the fists. 

“Contentment is a warm feeling throughout the body, a relaxation of tightnesses. It is what we most often call happiness. And it is very different from joy, which is an inhalation, or alternately, a holding of breath, along with a swelling of chest and perhaps a throwing back of arms. You almost escape your skin. 

“And desire — and I mean specifically sexual desire, not just the inclination to acquire what one doesn’t have — desire swells the loins.”

“And what about love? Isn’t that one of the big emotions?”

“In my way of thinking about it, love is a cause of emotions, not an emotion itself.

“Think about it. When you are young, at first flush, love is a combination of joy and desire; as you age, it may become contentment and desire, then, perhaps contentment alone. Certainly it can also cause anger in one, or fear, and ultimately, love can be expressed through sadness. You know about that all too directly. These are all the pipes attached to the keys of the organs, from flute to diapason.”

“And hate?”

“Likewise, it triggers a range of notes: anger and fear mostly.”

I can never tell just how seriously to take Stuart. His enthusiasms are certainly genuine, but they are not often long lived. He gets on a topic, drives it to its logical or illogical end and than, like an infant tempted by some new shiny object, moves on to something else. Still, there is often something to be learned by looking at the world from an angle outside even the periphery. 

“I imagine some sort of sliders on a sound studio mixing panel, pull up the fear and anger, deaden the joy and contentment. Fingers constantly pushing the controls up and down.

“Again, my disclaimer: I am no scientist, this is all just self-examination, but science does seem to have correlated certain hormones and neurotransmitters with emotional reactions. Fear and adrenaline, contentment and serotonin. Endorphins and joy. Cocktails mixing them make for some astonishing complexity. We all know it’s possible to love and hate at the same time. Shaken, not stirred.”

“You have me remembering a girlfriend I had many years ago, in Seattle,” I said. “I was crazy in love at the time, but her reaction was that ‘Love is just pheromones.’ Rather knocked me down a bit.” 

“I remember her,” Stuart said. “Nothing blonder than her hair but the sun.”

“Yes, that’s her.”

“Well, it started me thinking. We almost always pit emotion against  rational thought, as if they were opposites. Bones and Spock. What if thought was the same as emotion — a physical and chemical reaction that the body washes over us? Are there peptides and purines that channel or produce reason? Is it all ‘just pheromones?’ We privilege reason over emotion in our culture, but let’s face it, reason does not always provide better outcomes than emotion. Remember Halberstam’s book with the ironic title?”

The Best and the Brightest.”

“Yes. Logic, I’ve always said, is a provincialism of our culture. I blame Plato.”

“You usually do.”

“Or maybe Zeno. His paradox only works in language, not in reality. The tortoise will always be passed by Achilles in just a couple of bounds. Yet, the logic proves that Achilles cannot possibly ever catch up. I have doubted reason ever since I thought that one through. 

“So, I’m imagining a gushing brain chemistry that makes us divide each question into ones and zeros, yes or no, black or white, salt or pepper, chocolate or vanilla. Is there a bestiary of thought as there seems to be one of emotion?  You love Beethoven’s late quartets, right?”

“Who wouldn’t?”

“And what have you always said about the ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ or the cavatina? ‘At its highest levels,’ you said, ‘thought and emotion cannot be told apart.’ Isn’t that right?”

“To quote a First Century prophet from the Levant: ‘You have said it.’ ”

“So, I’m trying to work out another mixing board, one for thought. Or, is it the same mixing board, but turned sideways? Does thinking create facial expressions or muscle contractions the way emotions do? When I’m lost in thought, I can feel me face go all flabby as I’m lost in thought — or sometimes the reverse, I screw up my lips and nose as I work through a knotty problem.

“At the very least, I’m convinced that the body and the mind are not separate entities, but rather a single thing looked at from different ends. We get all flummoxed when we divide ourselves up between thinking and feeling, between body and soul, between heaven and earth, between realism and idealism. I imagine it all as Medieval humors, only with modern, scientific names like urocortin and oxytocin. They didn’t have microscopes and magnetic resonance machines, but those Medieval people were not simple-minded idiots. Their brains were just as good as ours. It’s just their research facilities were underfunded. And they didn’t have as many giants on whose shoulders to stand.”

“So, she was right? It’s all just pheromones?”

“Perhaps. Remember, I’m no scientist, and even if it is all just pheromones, it doesn’t feel as if it is.”

“Well, I think it’s dinner time and I’m feeling hungry. Let’s go see what we can cook up. I’ve got a new pasta recipe that I think Genevieve will like.”

I will now tell you of the great and noble city of Glebe-limb. It is three days north-northwest of Akron, which I have told you of, and lies on the shore of a great sea which has no salt in it. A river empties into the saltless sea and it is navigable except in those times when the river is burning, the flames of which make great black clouds above the city. 

It is called the Forest City, but there are in it no forests. The people worship Jesus, but cannot agree on the best way to do so. There are also Jews and those who worship Muhammed. In this region of the kingdom of Ohio iron, steel and rubber tires are abundant. The water is not good, but produces an excellent beer, which the citizens consume in great quantity, which produces many fistfights, especially in the summer, when it is excessive hot.

The king is Adolf Bus, who controls the beer production and has become very wealthy. Now it happened that Marco, the son of Messer Niccolo, acquired a remarkable knowledge of the city and now I will tell you about it.  

Among its citizens there is a race of giants, twice the size of humans, who wear helmets and armor weighing at least 3 shekhims. Those of this  race are called“browns,” and despite their warlike appearance, they lose every battle they fight. 

The king has built a great stadium which can contain a million people in it. It is named for him, Bus Stadium, and is perfectly round. In it, a game is played, and I will tell you about the game. The players stay in a hole in the ground until it is their turn to perform, and then they emerge and hit a hard round ball with a stick. They are known as Indians and are the indigenous residents of the area. 

There is a food that is served during the game to those watching and I will now tell you about it. It is a small loaf of bread on which rests what looks like a swine pizzle, but without the channel for the urine. They cover this with a brown sauce that has a hot taste. The people eat this from one end. That is all I have to say about the food.

Marco Polo

There was once a great war between the residents of Glebe-limb, which sits on one side of the burning river, and Ohio City on the other. There was great animosity between the cities, and the king of Glebe-limb had a bridge built across the river to attract the caravans of merchants who came to the area and so to by-pass their rival city. The army of Ohio City tried to barricade the bridge and stop the caravans and divert them to its markets, but King Bus used his beer wagons, drawn by great horses with shaggy feet, each 25 hands high, to break through the barrier. The war ended when the rebels took axes to the wagons, opening great barrels of beer, which both sides drank until they could no longer see each other. The two cities are now one. 

This battle they commemorate each spring during which time students spend a week away from their studies and consume the bitter, fizzy bever.    

Now let us leave this city and move on to tell you about another region, which is called Toledo.

I am not a religious man, but I have a ritual that I perform every day: I wash my breakfast bowl.

It doesn’t seem like much, especially in this age of dishwashing machines and takeout food on paper plates, but my ritual has a long and meaningful history.

There was a year in my life when I didn’t have a job. I lived with friends in North Carolina and did their cooking and cleaning. Every morning, after breakfast, I washed all the dishes.

To others, dishwashing may seem a boring chore, but to me, it was a time to regain contact with the eons. I could stand at the sink with my hands in the steamy suds and stare out the kitchen window at the leaves blown from their trees.

I stared out the window as I worked, mentally walking down the path behind the house past the tin-roof barn and the wide rolling field where old Mr. Price grew beans and tobacco. On the far side, there was a brook that meandered into a small ravine about a dozen feet deep, wet on its north, sunless side, and dry on the south.

And across the granite that forms the streambed as it cascades through this ravine was a long white stripe of quartz, an igneous dike where molten lava once inched up a joint in the surrounding rock and cooled into quartz bright and shiny against the black of the basalt streambed.

And standing at the sink with my hands glossy with detergent, I could travel upstream into myself the same way, finding, eventually, the glistening evidence of my own deepest thoughts: people I had long forgotten, places I hadn’t remembered being, songs I had sung with my grandmother, and sometimes even peace.

And so I rinsed the hot soap from a dish with scalding water and left it in the drain rack. I reached for the next dish and I thought about other times I have washed dishes.

I recalled the night my son was born. I had been at the hospital for his birth, in the delivery room as he entered the world screaming and miry. After I had taken the usual photos and Annie went back to her room for some well-deserved sleep and the kid was cleaned off and sent to the nursery, I drove home and found a kitchen full of dishes, greasy and smeared, waiting to be cleaned. Annie had been in labor almost two days and, though I had been with her through most of it, I also had gone home periodically for meals.

Those dishes and the ones left over from the dinner at which she started feeling her contractions were scattered all over the house. I filled the sink with hot water and divided up the dishes from the pots and set the plates and silverware into the sink to soak. Steam rose from the suds.

I remember that night; I was in knots, loaded with the new responsibility of a child and desperate with the empty feeling that my wife and I no longer could live together. I stuck my arm into the water and my guts began to relax.

I rinsed the first plate and my mind went blank – the blankness of meditation. My belly loosened and my teeth, which had been gnashing through the nights as I slept for months, relaxed. I rinsed the next plate, and it clicked against the first as I settled it in the drain rack. Soothing.

My problems were not solved, but I could look at the dilemmas I faced without the desperation I had been feeling. My frenzy abated.

Dishwashing became my mantra.

I recall camping with the redhead who succeeded my wife. We were staying in an abandoned farmhouse in a hidden valley of the Blue Ridge. Looking out over the balustrade, we saw the cliff across the glade, the rocky stream that poured down the valley bottom, the second growth in the old farm fields, millions of black-eyed Susans swaying in the breeze. As the sun dropped behind the cliff, I took our supper dishes down to the stream and washed them, scouring them with sand from the creek bottom and rinsing them in the icy water. Billions of fireflies made Fourth of July for us. I left the cold dishes on a large rock to dry overnight.

I recall once seeing a twisting globe of blackbirds rise from the trees and stretch out like the Milky Way across the sky. Hundreds of thousands of birds roosting took flight and spanned the evening sky. I dipped the last pan into the darkened suds and scrubbed it.

When the student asked Zen master Chao-Chou for instruction, the sage answered, ”Wash your bowl.” All philosophies else try to figure out logical ultimates, leaving us, at the end, only a useless ash.

No matter if Plato be right, or Whitehead, or Sartre, the one action that we all share is ”washing our bowl.” No matter if everything Wittgenstein ever wrote is absolutely true, we must act as if he never wrote anything. We still must wash our bowls. If everything is explained, nothing is explained, and we are back on square one. Better to wash your bowl.

So, as I wiped the final grease from the stove top and wiped down the counters and cutting board, I replaced the salt and pepper in the middle of the table and wiped off the tabletop.

All that remained was to rinse the dishrag and dump the greasy suds down the drain, setting the washbasin out to dry. That completed, I dried my hands on a fresh towel and began on one of the day’s other tasks.

Once, long ago, when I visited a friend, Judy Crawford, no longer with us, at her mountain house up near the Plott Balsam mountains of North Carolina, I cooked her a giant meal of coq au vin and I made French bread. We had several friends over and feasted, making such a pile of greasy dishes that we all agreed to let the mess sit overnight. ”I can’t look at the kitchen tonight,” Crawford said.

I woke early the next morning and dressed and went downstairs to the kitchen. It was a little after 6, and the sun was hours from rising over the first peak. I filled the sink and started the dishes. Boonie, her cat, crawled around my ankle, looking up at me, squealing for milk. A few robins and a bluebird were scratching at the ground outside the kitchen window. It was quiet – calm and silent. I finished every last dish before Crawford woke up.

”Golly. You didn’t have to do that,” she said when she saw her shining kitchen. No, I didn’t have to, but I enjoyed it. I was at peace.

Most of what we do in our lives is frivolous – watching TV, fixing the car, reading books, waiting for the bus – but the washing of dishes is important: It is necessary. And it is something humans have been doing since before the days when Abraham lived in Ur. Washing dishes is part of being human.

The TV show, Seinfeld, was famously said to be “about nothing.” But that is not actually true, is it? It was about a group of self-absorbed mooks in New York City. But more than that, it was about humiliation. In every episode someone — usually George — is humiliated. Sometimes it is painful to watch.

But there really are programs about nothing, or at least, in which nothing happens. These shows are primarily British and they are a subset of English television that I find increasingly attractive.

As I have gotten old, I find my attention span increases, and I prefer to float along at 4 mph, soaking everything in, instead of racing through a frenetic plot in expectation of reaching a conclusion. Even British cop shows tend to move more slowly and proceed with less overt violence. (There may be a grisly murder, but usually we are spared the actual crime and the story opens on some unsuspecting person coming across a body. In medias res.)

But it isn’t just the police procedurals and detective shows. Many a British sitcom moves at the pace of the sun across a blue sky. More on them in a moment, but it isn’t only the comedies. There is a gentleness that pervades most British broadcasting. Just consider David Attenborough’s calm and reassuring voice.

Still, nothing could quite prepare me for Great Canal Journeys. Over eight series, actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales take us down canal after canal, from England to Venice to India. All at the aforesaid 4 mph.

Both in their 80s, they have been married for over 50 years, and for more than 40 years, they have been devoted canaliphiles, owning their own “narrow boat” and spending luxurious moments drifting down verdant waterways in a boat 8-feet wide and 60-feet long, raising a family and taking them along the way.

I doubt even the England’s Channel 4 expected the reaction to the series. Who would want to see an elderly couple navigate obscure waterways, drinking the occasional glass of chablis and discussing old plays they have been in? But the series is mystifyingly hypnotic.

A viewer commented, “Tim & Pru brilliant once again on Channel 4 — awesome adventures and dealing with real life issues.”

And another: ”Is there a more lovely and gentle programme on telly than Great Canal Journeys? Proving life never stops being an adventure.”

Can the suits at Channel 4 have ever expected the reaction to the series on first broadcast in 2014? Or that the series would continue through eight sequel series?

With each journey, you feel you have spent time with old friends you have gotten to know intimately.

That last is not an exaggeration. Because we learn in the very first episode that Scales is suffering from dementia. “A condition,” West calls it. “a slight condition.” While Scales can remember “a hundred-thousand lines of Shakespeare” and things that happened 60 years ago, she cannot always remember the morning. And what we see with astonishing tenderness is how West and Scales manage their relationship in the face of her increasing sense of being lost. We can often see it in her face.

Yet, there is nothing maudlin about the show. They two obviously love each other and their is a glint in their eyes that shows how much they enjoy each others’ company.

There is also a lot of gorgeous B-roll, featuring the green landscapes, the decayed relics of the Industrial Revolution that spawned the canals, and the cities they once made possible.

But it is West and Scales that make the show real. They speak in “real time” aboard the boat, but also in voice-over, commenting on what we just saw, and their different takes on it. So, there are three levels to every scene: the journey, the conversation on the journey, and the commentary afterwards. It gives the series texture.

This sense of enjoyment, spending time with people we come to know and feel almost as friends, is what animates several of the British shows I find myself watching.

The oldest and earliest of the “nothing happens” TV is a series called Last of the Summer Wine, which ran on the BBC for 37 years, from 1973 to 2010.

Over that stretch, the show hardly changed, and through all 295 episodes, very little happened. In every episode, three Yorkshire pensioners sit around and talk, walk through the countryside and talk, visit the cafe and talk.

They might plan a trip and we see them discuss how to manage it. They may gather supplies, but by the end, they haven’t traveled at all. Credits roll.

Last of the Summer Wine is a leisurely visit with people you enjoy spending time with. You don’t watch to see what will happen; you watch to visit friends. The cast changed over the years, with actors dropping out due to illness or death, and new pensioners added to keep the level up to three.

The half-hour series was funny, but gentle. The cast of subordinate characters eventually numbered in the scores, all of them idiosyncratic and memorable. After each episode, you felt refreshed by the quiet, if frustrated humanity of the Yorkshire village — and the sometimes impenetrable North Country accents.

A bit more conventional was the series, As Time Goes By, starring Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer, which ran on the BBC from 1992 to 2005. The premise is that in 1953, they fell in love, but were separated when he went off to the Korean War and did not see each other again for 38 years; they meet again and fall in love again, now older, with full lives — and backstories — behind them.

As Time Goes By

Again, lots of subordinate characters, all distinct and memorable, and the sense, with each episode, that you are spending time with friends you are eminently comfortable with.

Two more recent shows take this nothingness to extremes.

Michelle Terry

From 2011 to 2013, over a scant 13 episodes, The Cafe follows three generations of women who run a seaside cafe in the resort town of Weston-super-Mare on the southwest coast of England. Created by Michelle Terry and Ralf Little, and populated with a dozen or so regular characters, it follows the cafe-owner’s daughter, Sarah (Terry), who wants to leave the town and go to London to become a writer; she doesn’t pull it all together until the final episode; in the meantime, the worries and happenstances of the dozen characters play out in a complex web of relationships. Again, it is the calmness of the series, the lack of violent crises, and the three-dimensional cast that make you want to sit through the half-hour in which nothing happens. It is a kind of therapy, and all your pent-up angst drains away.

Most recently, beginning in 2015, Detectorists follows two sad-sacks in rural Essex County, just northeast of London, who spend all their leisure time with metal detectors, scouring the farm fields looking for “Saxon treasure,” but mostly finding beer-can pull tabs and buttons.

The series was created and written by Mackenzie Crook, who also stars as Andy Stone, one of the pair (with Toby Jones as Lance Stater). Stone is lean and wiry and through the first several episodes establishes himself as a true loser. He is living with a schoolteacher, Becky (Rachael Stirling), who is bright, energetic and — what the heck is she doing with this droopy hound dog?

One of the things that makes the series so compelling is that over the course of three series (the show ended in 2017), we discover that Andy has genuine substance. Beneath the fecklessness is a solid man, who earns a degree in archeology, marries Becky and raises a child.

Yet, in each episode, nothing really happens. Andy and Toby walk fields swinging their metal detectors back and forth and commenting on the weather, or asking about what happened on last night’s QI (another British TV series — and a quiz show in which panelists score points not for the right answers to questions, but the most interesting answers, answers that are “quite interesting.”)

This is so much different from standard American TV, with its roots in vaudeville, with its relentless set-up and punchline. “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer in your pants.” It is a rare sitcom that transcends the cliches of the genre, or the monotonous pace: set-up, punchline; set-up, punchline. Something has to pop every second in fear that the viewer might grab the clickerator and change channels.

But as you get older as a viewer, you don’t need the buzz so much as you need the connection.

In these British series, the viewer is drawn to empathize with the characters (or, with the canal journeys, the real people). They all become friends we enjoy spending our time with. At a pace for sipping and savoring, for taking it all in and processing it. At 4 mph.