Sunday, April 25, 2010

2000: The Christmas of Our Discontent

My first full-time job after I graduated college was as a third shift security guard at Kenosha Memorial Hospital. Job responsibilities included monitoring the ER, ushering newly-deceased bodies to the morgue, and securing leather restraints on combative patients.

When you work third shift you feel like an incredibly boring vampire. There were days when I would go to sleep in the morning and not wake up until 9pm. Seasonal Affective Disorder in the house.

We had some serious characters come into that ER. One morning a drunk woman crashed her car into a public school and was brought in crying for shame, thinking she had hurt some children and that it was her son's school. She was too hysterical to hear us repeatedly tell her that it was Sunday and the only thing she’d hurt was her ‘85 AMC Eagle.

One night there was a head-on collision. In one car there were three illegal immigrants hopped up on coke and in the other car – I swear this is true – a neo-nazi and his girlfriend. He was covered in swastika tattoos and he was the only one involved in the crash without a scratch on him.

But Christmas Eve was the worst.

I have a large family and between divorces and other sporadic dramas, we're sometimes required to attend five separate Christmas celebrations. So that year, I went straight from the Christmas party with my extended family at the Grandpa Llanas house to work and then it was on to my mom’s right afterward for a quiet Christmas morning with my brother and sisters.

I was running on 2 hours of sleep in 32 hours when at around 3 AM Christmas morning a drunk woman came in to the ER. She’d fallen off her bartstool repeatedly in one of Kenosha’s hundreds of bars, so they called an ambulance for her, and she was pissed. We strapped her wrists and legs to the cart to stop her from punching the doctor, and then took turns standing guard over her. Here's a small sampling of the pleasantries that came out of her mouth for the next four hours:

“You f*%#$*g nerd, I know you want to f*@# me, you virgin c*#$%*@*ing f#*#%t.”

Her mascara and eyeliner were smeared into glops and blurs, but they seemed poorly applied in the first place, almost like stage make-up. I tried to imagine what kind of mood she had been in when she’d made herself up the night before. What did she think was going to happen when she got ready to get sloshed on Christmas Eve? Was it her plan to wreak havoc on the lives of innocent hospital security guards?

Maybe she meant to be a villain.

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover

To entertain these fair well-spoken days,

I am determined to prove a villain

And hate the idle pleasures of these days. (1:1)

Richard III is a villain. Exhausted by the frivolities that his recently elevated brother enjoys as King Edward IV. Richard opens the play with the infamous declaration: “Now is the winter of our discontent” (1:1) and then lays bear his grievances. He’s a hunchback and ugly and everyone else has got lovers with which to frolic except for him. So to pass the time he's going to get his brothers to kill one another so that he can be king.

What’s amazing is that he talks like this about himself:

But I, that am not shap’d for sportive tricks,

Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;

I that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty

To strut before a wanton ambling nymph; (1:1)

As if he has no skills with the ladies. But in the very next scene he manages to win over the Lady Anne with nothing more than pretty words.

Your beauty, that did haunt me in my sleep

To undertake the death of all the world,

So I might live one hour in your sweet bosom. (1:2)

In Henry VI part 3, Richard kills Anne’s husband the Prince Edward. And then kills Henry VI, her father-in-law. But he tells her if she can’t forgive him that she should stab him in the chest. She presses the sword to his skin.

Nay, do not pause: for I did kill King Henry –

But ‘twas thy beauty that provoked me.

Nay now dispatch: ‘twas I that stabb’d young Edward –

But ‘twas thy heavenly face that set me on. (1:2)

She drops the sword and marries him.

Richard can spit some mad game. If he dedicated himself to amorous endeavors instead of bloody thoughts, things might have worked out for the house of York. A major misallocation of skills on his part. Overlooked talents.

The Tudors eventually emerge as the power in England, and as the victors they write the history. It’s widely believed that they slandered Richard’s character and that they were the ones who generated the image of him being a hunchback and a machievel. Portraits of Richard III were actually altered to make him seem ugly (one eye narrowed and his shoulder raised). 

Shakespeare based his character of Richard on the Tudor account, but it’s almost more interesting to think of him as being an attractive young man, a normal guy who just suffers from terribly low self-esteem. He thinks he’s deformed and inadequate, like the 40 Year-Old Virgin. He doesn’t know what he’s capable of until he applies himself. If only someone had kicked him in the ass before he started down the path to the dark side.

After I left the hospital that Christmas morning I stopped for a moment at Simmon’s Island. Lake Michigan was frozen and glazed with powdery snow. I walked out a little ways onto the ice. Never in my life have I trusted ice. Every year in Wisconsin or Minnesota someone falls through on some lake or river and drowns in freezing agony. And Lake Michigan is a wild body of water with a will of its own. When I was young its undertow regularly pulled unsuspecting kids out to sea in the summer months, leaving abandoned Huffy bikes on the shore near Pike's Creek like so much well-preserved flotsam. But still I walked out to what I deemed the precipice of security and stared at the sunrise.

Richard III's villainy may have been cosmically necessary. The houses of Lancaster and York feuded and killed one another for decades. It began with the unnatural murder of a king, and the imbalance in the universe (the winter of discontent) had to be righted. Richard was the final balancing factor. He finished off his traitorous, usurping bloodline by being traitorous and usurping, making way for the better men of the House of Tudor to rule over more peaceful days.

Villains emerge to kick us in the ass, to call into action the better angels of our nature. When we know what must be done, but are unable to progress, they secede, they rebel, they terrorize. They drive us out onto the thin ice, farther over the freezing water than we ever thought we should go. Because it's only there -- on the very edge of safety -- when all things are at risk, that we can see the empty dangers of the future. And we know that it's time to quit our crappy security job and write a damn play. 

Cause there's always going to be a drunken Tudor slut falling off a barstool who shows up to hurl insults at you. So you might as well let her insult something you're proud of, otherwise what the hell's the point of being out on the thin ice anyway?

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