Culture · Shakespeare

The Time is Out of Joint

“The time is out of joint; O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!” Hamlet, Act I, Scene ii.

This quotation from Hamlet occurs to me every time we go through this ridiculous exercise of the setting back/forward of the clocks!

Now admittedly Hamlet has a more serious reason to complain than I do. He has, after all, just seen his father’s ghost, who directs him to avenge his murder!  Hamlet likens his situation to a medical emergency. Time has slipped its joint and it’s up to him to reset the bone.

On a personal note, I am nursing just such a shoulder injury. Unbelievable, right? But if it’s true, it doesn’t have to be believable, and this is true.  Now I have to set (reset if you will) the clocks. 

Why do we do this?

 “To save daylight time”


Everybody knows you cannot “save time”— daylight or otherwise. You can’t decide to save some time on a boring day and then use it on frantic day when there’s too much to do. That’s not the way it works.

Once we operated on solar time

When people lived in villages and towns and travel was by by horse and buggy and barge, each town kept its own official time, based on the sun. A prominently placed clock, perhaps in a church steeple, let people know what time it was. But during the 1840s, railroads began crossing over these local time zones. At mid-nineteenth century there were 144 official times in North America! 

The first transcontinental railroad was finished in 1869 and by then need for standard time was pressing. Railroads were using 50 different time standards. If you think traveling is hard now, imagine what it was like then. The clocks on the wall of a large railroad station displayed the current time for the different railroad lines. If you had to make a connection from one line to another, you needed to calculate the difference between the time where you were and the official time of the railroad line you were going to change to, figure out when your train would be leaving, and hope for the best!

In 1869, the time of the completion of the transcontinental railroad, Charles Dowd, a professor at Skidmore College, proposed five time zones, each varying by an hour, each zone spreading across 15 degrees of longitude leaping westward from the Greenwich meridian—essentially the same system we have today.

However, Dowd was not an expert and those who were diddled and daddled for 14 years, finally adopting the standard time zones we have today. Dowd never received credit for his idea.

IMO, daylight savings time is a bridge too far.

However, since everybody’s doing it and since I don’t want to be late/early whenever I go somewhere (or for the time being join a Zoom event) I reset the clocks. Except for the one on the kitchen stove. I don’t mess with it. Too hard. But it’s always right six months out of the year. Not a bad average.


Weirdly appropriate for 2020

Tonight there will be a blue moon. The last time a blue moon appeared coast to coast on Halloween was 1944. Just in case you didn’t know, a Blue Moon is the second full moon to appear in the same month. It rarely happens, which is why we say that a rare event only occurs once in a Blue Moon. And it’s why Frank Sinatra celebrates the sudden appearance of a true love in this song.

Childhood learning · Folklore · Holidays

“Trick or Treat, Smell My Feet, Give Me Something Good to Eat”

Halloween will be different this year. Normally this children’s holiday is an occasion not only for a lot of fun, but an opportunity for kids to learn how to interact with friendly adults whom they do not know. They get practice in having a grown-up conversation because they have something to talk about (their costume) and conversational partners who are truly interested in what they have to say. They learn with the help of a parent or concerned adult how to accept a gift with gratitude (“don’t forget to say thank you”). But this year, many people will just leave a bucket of candy on the doorstep so the children can help themselves. This is so sad. Let’s hope that next year we are no longer afraid to open our doors to the children.


From One Potato, Two Potato: The Folklore of American Children by Herb and me—here’s our take on Halloween:

“Early in the last century, Halloweeners were mainly boys who disguised themselves to conceal their identities while they played tricks on adults, removing from a house, for instance, the front-porch steps, a length of guttering, or the screen or storm doors—all in near silence.

“But most contemporary Halloweeners are not interested in tricks of any kind. They want loot. They show up at the houses of strangers dressed in costumes meant not to disguise but to be admired.

“They come to beg—well, actually to collect—since they believe they have a right to what the householder gives them. In pagan times, people offered food to the dead on Halloween. Later, people doled out soul cakes to anyone who came by, but mainly to the poor. Today, we give candy to the well fed, who arrive with shopping bags. These bagmen are often accompanied by their parents, who protect them from marauders who might make off with the loot.

“A begging holiday seems somehow appropriate for big cities. It gives children license to approach strangers and reminds  people that they live in a neighborhood, even if then don’t spend much time there.

“A shadow of the old trickster’s Halloween remains alive today in the ritual demand, ‘Trick or treat.’ But many children don’t even understand what they are threatening. They think the phrase means ‘Trick for treat,’ and that if asked, they must do a jig or something else to pay for their candy. Usually they aren’t asked. They show off their costumes, collect their loot, and march off to the next house, occasionally punctuating the night with a Halloween rhyme:

Trick or treat, Smell my feet, Give me something good to eat.

For scary stuff from One Potato, Two Potato, click here

mourning · Poetry

The Last Word on Mourning

Spring and Fall: To a Young Child

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.


Alas, Poor Yorick

I recently watched a Zoom presentation of 19th century mourning customs. Since I was an English teacher for a good part of my former life, I suppose it is not surprising that I began to think about how death and mourning are presented in literature. 

The first thing that came to my mind was Hamlet’s musing on the skull of Yorick, perhaps the most often quoted passage from Shakespeare’s works. I had the great privilege of teaching Hamlet to high school seniors for many years—five classes a day. I read the play out loud, explained the unfamiliar language and discussed the play with my students. Before I retired I practically had the play memorized—all parts. But it never got old because Hamlet is one of the great works of English literature, maybe as Kenneth Brannagh has suggested, the greatest work of art across all disciplines.

Setting the Scene

Act I, Scene v–Hamlet and his friend Horatio are walking through the cemetery when they come upon a gravedigger busy digging a fresh grave. They engage in idle conversation. Hamlet asks how long a corpse will last before it rots. The gravedigger nonchalantly holds up a skull he has recently unearthed. “Here’s a skull now. This skull has lain in the earth three and twenty years.” Hamlet asks whose it was. “This sir was Yorick’s skull, the King’s jester.”

David Tennant in the title role. Hamlet, Act V, Scene 1

The mood suddenly becomes serious as Hamlet reaches for the skull and holds it in his hands. 

Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio; a fellow 

of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath

borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how

abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at

it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know 

not how oft. Where be your jibes now? Your

gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment

that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one

now, to mock your own grinning? Quite chap-fallen.

Now get thee to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let

Her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must

come; make her laugh at that. Prithee, Horatio, tell

me one thing.

HORATIO: What’s that, my lord?

HAMLET: Dost thou think Alexander look o’ this fashion 

In the earth?

HORATIO; E’n so.

HAMLET: And smelt so? Pah!

HORATIO; E’en so, my lord.

HAMLET: To what base uses we may return, Horatio! 

Do high school seniors still study Hamlet?

Probably not. Too many triggers. But come to think of it, isn’t all great literature saturated with triggers that encourage us to think deeply about the disturbing aspects of life—like the inevitability of death? 

Which raises the question: What is the purpose of education?

Andre Tchaikowsky, brilliant composer and pianist (not to be confused with the famous Russian symphonic composer) died in 1982, having bequeathed his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company. The video above featuring David Tennant in the title role of the RSC production probably features Andre Tchaikowsky (his skull, that is) in the role of Yorick.