The Amazing True Adventures of Macbeth and His Best Friend, the Cereal Guy
General Mills is on a journey, and every journey needs a companion
The box of Raisin Nut Bran in front of me says, “GENERAL MILLS IS ON A JOURNEY” and so, of course, I wonder where he is going.
In smaller type, the box continues, “to always make our cereals better,” which does not seem very Homeric, though still admirable, as is. Likewise, the quest for environmentally sustainable packaging. The “General Mills” in question is a company: the company. Still, I like to imagine General Mills as an old soldier: balding like me, behind enemy lines, no troops to command and no horse to ride, but free. On a journey.
I have been teaching my ninth graders Macbeth, a play that begins with a general on a journey home.
If General Mills and Macbeth had journeyed together, they would have been less lonely.
Tonight we hold a solemn supper, sir,
And I’ll request your presence.
Macbeth, you old son of a bitch. I’ll be there.
Let every man be master of his time
Till seven at night. To make society
The sweeter welcome, we will keep ourself
Till suppertime alone.
The hell you say.
Macbeth, it’s me!
I’m here, as they say, to see you.
Speak to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favors or your hate.
Come into my office. [indicates the empty moors]
The two friends walk on the heath together. General Mills is childless like Macbeth, but because they have each other there is no tangled loneliness. Macbeth is not trapped with his wife’s poisonous thoughts, and General Mills pauses in his journey. Banquo and Fleance ride by on horseback.
I like him. A good man and brother-in-arms. His son can ride, too.
Fly, good Fleance, fly, fly, fly!
Ah, do you remember when you saved my ass in the smoke when multiplying villainies did swarm upon me? You were a monster out there. You carved a path to that slave Macdonwald and unseamed him from the nave to th’ chops. Do you remember when you fixed his head upon our battlements?
I did have a good day.
You know it. You surely did. And there are other things, which we will not speak of — horrors of war, the hurly burly, that could cause a man to break and perhaps kill some houseguests or his family — we call that PTSD, but we don’t need to talk. My former speeches have but hit your thoughts, which can interpret further. You just know that I’m here, brother; you can always find me. I don’t need or want anything from you now. The war is over. We’re just friends: side-by-side with Scotland at our feet.
It’s nice to just be appreciated, you know.
It is. It surely is.
Sometimes I feel everyone wants something from me. Like it’s impossible to make everyone happy. The king just gave my wife a huge diamond and she complained about it.
Where our desire is got without content, ’tis safer to be that which we destroy.
There is one thing that would make me happy, but it’s not in your power to grant it.
Yes. I’m on a journey. I’ll tell you at dinner.
I told another teacher that if I were King of Scotland, I would ride my horse across the heath and gallop in the rain until I was alone , then stop at country houses where the windows were lit by warm firelight. My friend is British and said I sounded as mad as King George, whoever that is.
It’s not madness to want comfort from the rain.
My friend told her students that the nurse was the character to watch in Romeo and Juliet because the nurse is the only one who speaks to everyone else. The nurse gives advice to the parents and the kids. She trades dirty jokes with Mercutio. She weeps for Tybalt. In a sense, the nurse is Shakespeare.
I think it’s kind of crazy to think that Romeo and Juliet is about the nurse.
My friend thinks I’m crazy to teach Macbeth instead.
I once read that Macbeth is best performed around a theme of childlessness, but what Shakespeare isn’t? Romeo and Juliet is about childlessness. Juliet’s nurse — like Lady Macbeth, like Shakespeare himself — has lost a child. Romeo’s mother commits suicide when her son is banished. Friar Lawrence, who has no children of his own, gives advice that is as practical as an iron lung. The two families collapse when they lose their children. There’s nothing new in that.
I tell my friend: Macbeth is about childlessness, of course, but more than that, it’s a tragedy of friendlessness. Instead of the nurse, who talks to everybody, we have the night porter, who talks to himself.
When we’d been married a little over a year, my wife and I decided to have a baby. Only we weren’t able to have a baby for some reason, and we gradually came to find the act of taking our clothes off together somewhat humiliating. We decided not to pursue fertility treatment and went to the Bahamas instead. This was the last time I ever saw my wife wear a bikini in public, and it was only because there was zero chance we would see anyone we knew. I admit it made me happy to see her sitting at a poolside bar so nearly naked. We went for a walk around a small island and I felt a bit like Adam in the garden. This was around the time we decided to adopt a child if we could. We felt good about that.
A walk down the cereal aisle at any grocery will show you that most breakfast cereals are made for children.
General Mills gives Macbeth a number of choice cereals for the banquet and these are served in golden bowls with fresh milk from highland cattle. General Mills is disturbed by his host’s face and the clammy sweat that has filled Macbeth’s hair.
You look like you’ve seen a ghost.
Did you see him too?
Yes. Of course.
So am I not mad?
Much afeared I saw
A dagger of the mind, a false creation
Proceeding from my heat-oppressèd brain.
Hell, no. That son of a bitch is named Booberry.
He’s always stirring things up.
And his friend Count Chocula, too.
Ghosts and supernatural creatures?
Not to be trusted.
You listen to me.
You listen to me.
Tell me, what would make you happy, my friend?
General Mills is not a great name for a company. It makes me think of a giant factory full of spinning looms or maybe grinding stones. What is a mill, after all? What does a miller do?
I remember the Miller’s Tale on the road to Canterbury: “Water! Water!” and a broken arm. A carpenter wakes from a dream and thinks the world is flooded. My friend Jon told me that the night he broke up with a woman I knew, she went home and cried herself to sleep. She accidentally left the bathroom faucet on because she was drunk. By morning, the floor was flooded. She called him because when she woke, she thought she had filled her house with her tears. “She was a lot like you,” Jon said.
Let us seek out some desolate shade and there
Weep our sad bosoms empty.
Let us rather
Hold fast the mortal sword and, like good men,
Bestride our downfall’n birthdom. Each new morn
New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows
Strike heaven on the face, that it resounds
As if it felt with Scotland, and yelled out
Like syllable of dolor.
One time in Timbuktu, I traded my watch for a Tuareg sword, a long knife full of grooves. On the street the next day, a man I’d never met asked me how to set the watch, which apparently he’d bought that morning. I apologized because I knew the mechanism had sand inside and couldn’t be adjusted. The metaphor was laughable. “We can’t change time,” I said. I tapped the crystal, and he made a face as though he’d like to stab me.
My son was fourteen months old when he was put into my arms. His down fall’n birthdom. We said hello through tears, which I hope struck heaven’s face.
It’s wrong to think we own anything in this world or can change the course of time.
Someday we’ll all meet again and weep our sad bosoms empty.
My friend Jon married an Asian-American woman named Cindy, and they had two boys who are half-Chinese and so they look a lot like me. I was the only half-Chinese person at my school when I was their age, but they are growing up in Shanghai, not Indiana, so their experience may be different. My son looks like a young Muhammad Ali. He’s so beautiful. I never saw him coming. I wasted so many mornings thinking I would never know this love. I could have filled my house with tears.
If you think you can see the future, you live like Macbeth.
You make mistakes.
What would make you happy, my friend?
Let us speak
Our free hearts each to other.
I have a dream.
Ah, wicked dreams abuse
The curtained sleep.
I have a dream, you might even say it’s a quest.
Or a journey I’ve been on my whole life.
So tell me.
It involves sustainable packaging.
It’s all these cardboard boxes.
I need a renewable source of wood pulp.
It seems to me that Great Birnam Wood is just sitting there.
Let’s cut it down.
We can do that. I’m Thane of Cawdor.
You mean? I can I build my box factory there?
You’re not bringing all that wood here to Dunsinane.
Think of the carbon footprint!
Just do it on site.
My friend, you’ve saved me.
That’s what friends are for.
The most read thing I’ve ever written was an essay that appeared in the “Modern Love” column of The New York Times. I wrote that my son, only five at the time, and I often made breakfast for ourselves before my wife woke up and we had a habit of opening new boxes of cereal. My wife likes to go through one box of cereal at a time to make sure it doesn’t go stale, but my son loves that moment of opening a new box. Five years later, he and I still get in trouble about this. His mother asleep in the next room, my son quietly shakes a fresh box of cereal at me. This is what we do, he whispers: Remember?
Sometimes I need someone to remind me how to be happy.
Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valor
As thou art in desire?
So much of life is like coming home from school with an undelivered valentine in your pocket and that is probably how it should be. We can’t act on everything we feel. Once I threatened a man in front of his little girl. She held onto his leg as I put the palm of my hand on his cheek. I twitched with the urge to put a fist through his eye. His forehead was damp with sweat. A stranger threatened to call the police. A friend pulled me away by the shoulder.
So, yes. I am often afeard to join my acts and desires.
I packed the long knife away and gave it to a friend, which was probably a bad idea. Unless you’re the Lady of the Lake, it’s bad luck to give knives as gifts. Macbeth followed a knife into the dark and never came out again.
My friend has the same name as me. He is Chris, too. When we were teenagers playing Dungeons and Dragons, we used to hope that we would die on the same day, in battle side-by-side. That seemed like the best kind of life — every moment up to the end with a best friend to share it. We were Macbeth and Banquo at the start of the play. We had not met witches yet. We had not yet been tried by childlessness or a war with time itself. My friend used to carry that Tuareg sword around in his car. “Just in case,” he said. But no murderers ever attacked his torch in the dark.
He is the only one of my childhood friends who never had children. In middle age, I think sometimes he feels like Banquo’s ghost, everyone with a place at the banquet but him. Chris is tender with my son in a way that breaks my heart.
Chris has been my friend for almost my entire life. Knowing him has been good for my marriage, but sometimes as an example of what I have feared most in myself. A terrible loneliness. On the other hand, one October my son and I carved pumpkins with Chris at a picnic table and my wife took a picture of us: three men, laughing. One of us was black and nine years old. I was balding, my huge head dense with worry, and Chris with the smile I’ve known since third grade, all of us suddenly wrinkled with happiness, shoulder on shoulder on shoulder and giving the camera four thumbs up. My son, in the center, used both hands, while Chris and I held him. And in all my doubt and fear, all my Macbeth, my ambitions — I know that I am not alone. I have someone to talk to and he will help me through any darkness that comes to claim me, whether it is an ownerless knife or half-forgotten dreams.
Macbeth should have been so lucky.
Certainly the tragic signifier for both plays, Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth, is not the deaths of the title characters. The climax is Act 3 in each play, when the main characters’ best friends — Mercutio, Banquo — are murdered. There is no recovering from that. Sometimes a husband or wife becomes a best friend. Why not?
What have I learned from Shakespeare?
Being married doesn’t mean we no longer need friends.
Just the opposite.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion,
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs
Against the use of nature?
I pray you, remember the porter.
My wife worries more than me. When she does, I help her wash her hands. She is my best friend. My dearest chuck.
I want to tell the friend I teach with: if Romeo and Juliet is about the nurse, then Macbeth is about the porter. He’s a drunk, stumbling into furniture, a fool full of knock-knock jokes. He asks questions that no one is going to answer. Like the nurse, he is low comedy in a play full of high drama. He is working in the middle of the night. He might be in hell for all he knows, but he is still joking around. I want to tell my friend: if the nurse is Shakespeare, then the porter is me. My friend, can you hear the knocking? The idiot at the door is me.
Sometimes I hear voices that are not there. I stay up late at my desk, which is an empty tabletop like a windless heath.
My mind is made of prose like a cheese is made of milk. I lose my place continually. I am sure the air is made of poems. The knocking I hear is my seated heart. I must answer it.
If I did not have friends, I would open that door all night. My wife calls me to bed. It’s for my own good.
I ride my bike to school in the dark. I see my co-worker keyboarding and eating toast. Seven thirty in the morning and she is already working. When she notices me, she smiles. She tells me I’m mad as King George. She has no idea how mad I am. Or would be. But friendship holds me back.
But cruel are the times when we are traitors
And do not know ourselves; when we hold rumor
From what we fear, yet know not what we fear,
But float upon a wild and violent sea
Cruel are the times when we do not know ourselves, but then again, do we ever? Our blood is full of salt and makes a wild and violent sea. It fills us and we float in it. Our dreams are incarnadine.
King Duncan himself hath said:
This castle hath a pleasant seat. The air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.
I’m just saying. You shouldn’t get too comfortable.
That castle is fine for the birds,
I can see some in your roof there,
but your throne is next to a peat fire, for Christ’s sake!
You can do better than that.
We will proceed no further in this business.
I’m just saying: life is a journey.
Consider the sea.
My friend Crunch here
has captained many a vessel
and if vessels can indeed
be made of blood
then he has sailed the seas incarnadine.
A worthy soldier!
But yet I’ll make assurance double sure
And take a bond of fate.
Is this him?
Indeed it is.
Captain, how now, what news?
I am drained as dry as hay.
What ails thee?
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon my penthouse lid.
God, I can’t sleep!
What is sleep? Macbeth hath murdered sleep.
As I said: you have the world in common.
Thane of Cawdor, the general
hath on your account poured his spirits in mine ear.
I would like to invite you
to join me on a voyage.
To a land abloom in Crunchberries
where elephants eat peanut butter for breakfast
and the corn is sweet as candy.
Is it far?
Weary sev’n nights, nine times nine,
Have I dwindled, peaked, and pined.
As far as your heart, my friend.
Life is a journey
and we must be warriors if we hope to make the trip.