“Dish Bitch”

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This started way back.  Way back when apparently our dishwasher began to emit nearly lethal amounts of radioactivity.  I was the only member of our family unaware of it, and apparently the only one immune from it.

We all liked having a dishwasher.  We would have felt deprived with out one.  No one minded putting dishes into it, and I think there was a kind of satisfaction to be the one who would declare, “I think it’s time to run the dishwasher!”  No one, except me, seemed to understand that the appliance became essentially useless once it was sitting there full of clean dishes.

However no one, and I mean no one, would voluntarily empty the dishwasher. Except me.

I accept the idea that there are certain things that are “dad” jobs.  I understand the division of labor.  I knew that I maintained the outside of the house, and that it was my role to fix things (or make them worse at my discretion), to build walls, and dig up pipes.  As a modern guy, I didn’t mind splitting the household chores as well, and the whole family agreed that we were all better off with me not being the head cook.  For some reason though, bags of trash never made it farther than the middle of the garage, as if my two kids and my wife were incapable of the 7 extra steps it would take to go through the garage door and actually deposit them in a trash can.

And there was emptying the dishwasher.

On a Friday afternoon when my teaching friends were gathered at the local pub, celebrating the end of the week with a few beers, I launched into my lament, the unfairness of it all.  Stephanie, ever able to turn the phrase declared, “Oh honey, you’re just the dish bitch.”  Along with everybody else, I burst out laughing at the label.  “Damn,” I said, “you’re right!  I am the dish bitch.”

I went home determined to ditch my new-found title.  At this time the kids were still in their teens, and therefore basically indentured servants.  Chores around kitchen clean-up seemed to be split between “washing” and “drying” only.  Everyone was long gone by the time the dishwasher shut itself off.  It just so happened that we filled it that night and as I fired it up, I declared “Just so you know, when this gets done, I am not going to empty it.”

The kids (and my wife, I think) rolled their eyes, saying silently to each other, “Ah, dad’s having a thing” and went about their business.  The dishwasher sat full, the dishes cleaned, for another two days.  After all, we had other dishes.  If someone had a favorite glass, you could always pull it out.  Eventually, once I had reiterated my stand loudly and repeatedly enough, the kids broke down and split up the task.

And then things went right back to normal.  Every now and then, I’d try the silent, passive-aggressive approach.  After a week or so, the kids might notice.  “Oh, “ my son would say, “gone on strike with the dishwasher again, dad?” and then he would do the responsible thing.  He’d figure out a way to manipulate his sister into doing it.

Now the kids are grown, and it is just my wife and I and the appliance.  For some reason, she takes great care in making sure the dishes are positioned properly, frequently reorganizing them once I have put them in and occasionally pulling some things out and informing me that “these don’t go in the dishwasher!” although the rules about this always seem to be changing.

I knew I had finally lost the war when I returned from a 10-day visit to my sister in Hawaii and in the morning began to clean up my breakfast dishes and put them in the dishwasher.  “Hey,” she said, “the stuff in the dishwasher is clean.  I ran it right after you left.”

I was speechless.   She was busy getting ready for work, and said it so matter-of-factly that I checked myself from saying what seemed so obvious to me.  In fact, to save time, I just ran the dialogue through my head.

Me:  So, you ran the dishwasher and let clean dishes sit in the dishwasher for 9 days until I would return to empty it?

Her:  Look, when you’re gone, I barely cook, I use paper plates. I never needed anything from it.  I don’t even think about it.

Me:  (long silence, since I have no idea how to respond—this happens a lot)

 Game, set, match.  After all, what if Mary insisted we split up the cooking responsibilities 50/50?  She is nearly a professional chef, and I get confused when the recipe says words like “bake for 30 minutes”.  We would live in a culinary wasteland for half of each week.

So now, I embrace my inner dish bitch.  I am one with the dishwasher. I will make sure that it is cared for and well tended, like my vegetable garden.  Putting away the dishes will no longer be a chore, but my spiritual communion with the kitchen gods.  I will hear Rodney Yee’s voice coaching me as he does in my yoga videos. “Feel your sidebody stretch as both arms extend to put the big plates on the second shelf. Breathe…”

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“Just the Facts, Ma’am”–The Top 5 TV Detectives

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I was brainstorming writing topics with the family, when I told them I wanted to do a “Top 5” list of television detectives, a genre that I love.  The questions and debating began immediately.  “Well, how far are you going to go back?” asked Greg who has recently become fan of Jack Webb and Dragnet, watching that 1950’s show on Netflix.  Pretty soon we were all immersed in a challenge just to pick out the top 5 Dick Wolf characters from the Law and Order franchise.  Just for background, I skimmed a few “Top TV Detective” lists that I Googled and discovered passionate devotion to shows and characters that I had never even heard of.

So, my blog, my rules.  I decided to stick with shows that are reasonably current and with which I am familiar.  I decided that there would be no attempt at gender balance, so my apologies to SVU’s Olivia Benson, The Killing’s Sarah Linden, and Prime Suspect’s Jane Timoney, all tough, wonderful characters.

That does not mean that I did not establish some criteria.  All of my chosen detectives have some or all of the following characteristics.  I am a sucker for redemption tales, so I’m drawn toward wounded, tortured souls who are often edgy and unafraid of violence.  I like non-conformists whose quirkiness makes them endearing and who frequently frustrate the more straight-laced “suits” around them.  I favor characters who are driven, often by their own demons, to pursue a case that others might give up on and who have that inherent knack of knowing when an investigation is going in the wrong direction and who will doggedly pursue their instincts even when no one else may believe in them.

So, in reverse order we have:

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5.  Stephen Holder (The Killing)

For me and the three other fans who got hooked on AMC’s The Killing, the character Stephen Holder is worth every excruciating minute of some of the flawed elements of the show.

There are times where this show becomes maddeningly distracted by it’s multiple story lines and psychodramas, but the story is anchored by Holder (played by Joel Kinnaman) and his partner Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and their developing relationship.  Holder is a recovering drug addict, a tall gangly white guy who talks, at times, as if he thinks he is black.  However, his street sensibility and ability to relate to everyday people shows a sensitivity, and at times vulnerability, that is almost entirely absent in his partner’s character. In season 3 he gains entrance to the hangout of a hellish street gang by knowing their slang and despite their taunts, calmly approaches and dominates the gang’s hysterical pet pit bull, giving him a chance to try to glean some information from the thugs.

What makes Holder most endearing are his goofy one-liners and his use of language and metaphor.  He tells Sarah in one scene, “Think of me as your sensei in the bloodsport of life.” Even in the context of the scene, I’m not sure what that means.  Near the end of a scene in a hospital ward, an old man in a ratty robe pushing his way down the dingy hallway in a wheel chair, oxygen tank and all, approaches Holder who greets him with, “Yo, ancient player, got a smoke?”  To the delight of the viewer, the old man pulls out a pack and offers it to Holder. “Don’t mind if I do, thank you sir,” Holder says as he extracts one from the pack.  The old man rolls on down the hallway.

Holder also shows off flashes of insight as he stares at the board full of pictures of missing girls, victims of season 3’s serial killer.  He suddenly realizes that he and Linden are getting nowhere studying victimology, but should be trying to get into the head of the killer.  He blurts out to Linden, “See we been goin’ all Copernicus on this bitch (the case), when we should be Galileo; you feel me?  He gets nothing but a skeptical stare from Linden (“What’s wrong with your face, Linden.  Don’t stroke out on me.”), but explains that they need to become more like Galileo, adopt a more global perspective.  “It’s not about what these girls see; It’s about what he (the killer) sees.”

You won’t see Holder chasing down a bad guy, or flashing a gun, or engaging in a car chase on a weekly basis.  He’s a cerebral guy whose scars, humanity, and ability to turn a phrase push him into my top 5.  Word is that AMC has dropped The Killing, but that Netflix has picked it up and will produce a season 4.

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4.  Detective John Munch (Law and Order SVU)

Watching re-runs of SVU remains a guilty pleasure for me especially when I come across an older episode that somehow slipped past me.  However, even when I reach the point in an episode where I remember clearly what the outcome will be, I still enjoy the twists and turns and the fine ensemble cast.

I have to admit, though, that I dropped out of watching new episodes a few seasons ago.  The show lost too many critical characters, particularly Stabler (Christopher Meloni), and the cases got creepier.  So in reading up on Munch, it was news to me that he had “retired” and left the show.  I think I can hear the sucking sound of a very good series going down the drain.

Richard Belzer’s Munch, is a grouchy, cynical detective who entertains the rest of the department with his rants against authority and bureaucracy and his encyclopedic knowledge of conspiracy theories.  He created the character originally for the show Homicide: Life on the Streets (set in Baltimore) in 1993 and then made his way over to SVU as the same character in 1999. According to Wikipedia, “Munch has become the only fictional character, played by a single actor, to appear on 10 different television shows” including shows as disparate as 30 Rock, Arrested Development, and The X-Files.

Like Holder (The Killing), Munch provides contrast with his partners in part because of his crusty personality, but also because he is an intellectual who will frequently reference philosophy, history, literature and art, mostly to the quizzical stares of his partners or antagonists.  In one episode, faced by a government official who refuses to give him information related to an investigation, patiently explaining repeatedly that what Munch wants is “classified”, Munch finally yells at him, “What are the odds you have a picture of Joseph McCarthy tattooed to your ass!”

Munch has the world-weariness that I see in a lot of detective characters, but it’s not just that he has seen too much, but rather that he has a Sisyphus-like nature; while his efforts will never stem the tide of crime and abuse, he has to try.  He knows he is uniquely suited to the task so he continues to try to succeed in a broken system, working to solve the case in front of him, knowing that the cases will never end.  One senses an abiding sadness in him although we know little about his background. Sometimes the sadness flares into fury as it does in a famous scene where he rails against a judge that he views as being too soft on a man they have arrested, gets slapped with a hefty fine, gets declared that he is in contempt of the court, assures the judge that he does have contempt for his court, and ends up in jail.

Well, Detective Munch, I’m sorry to hear you have retired.  I will miss you. You certainly have earned a spot in the Law and Order Hall of Fame.  Maybe you’ll finally have time to nail down just who it was on the grassy knoll in Dallas in 1963.

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#3  Rust Cohle (True Detective)

I was pretty much hooked by this series from the moment I saw the opening montage of dark and moody images backed by the dusty, mournful lyrics of the Handsome Family’s song “Far From Any Road.”  The setting is in Louisiana in 2012 but the fractured timeline challenges the viewer to constantly pay attention to where the storyteller is in the narrative which stretches back to the original, haunting case in 1995 and even further back into Cohle’s (played brilliantly by Matthew McConaughey) tragic past.

Cohle just happens to fit every criterion I set out in the beginning.  He is tortured by the memory of a marriage and a child that he has lost and then by his descent into a long stint as a deep undercover agent, an experience that eventually lands him in a mental hospital wracked by drug abuse, PTSD, and insomnia.  He rebuilds his life as a homicide detective teamed with Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson).

McConaughey’s dual portrayal of Cohle, as both the tightly wound 1995 detective that his colleagues call “The Taxman” because he carries about a ledger in which he keeps copious case notes, and as the 2012 chain-smoking apparent burn-out case, is truly remarkable.

As the narrative bounces between his initial investigation of a gruesome, ritualistic murder of a young prostitute in 1995 to an interrogation regarding that investigation being done by two newly assigned detectives in 2012, his deep cynicism, misanthropy, and fatalism remain consistent. Repeatedly, both his captain and his partner beg him to stop spewing out his nihilistic viewpoint, especially in front of other detectives and their superiors.   During one point in the interrogation, when he reflects on the death of his daughter, he almost smiles, telling the detectives that he is happy that she did not suffer, and happy that she did not have to live in the world that he views as a morass of cruelty and evil.

The younger Cohle is comfortable chatting with a prostitute who not only gives him some vital information but also trusts him enough to sell him the Quaaludes, which he needs for sleep. When she appears ready to seduce him for free, he seems entirely detached and uninterested, driven on, it seems, more by the investigation than by any kind of moral code.  Sex, at that moment, would just have been a distraction, a waste of time that he needs for the case.  Likewise, he has no qualms about suddenly and viciously attacking two locals who he feels are withholding information from him that he needs.  He extracts it quickly from them, returns to the car, slips on his jacket and continues on.

The older Cohle convinces the two new detectives that he is just a guy, living behind a bar who is willing to come in for a chat about an old case of his (the 1995 murder of Dora Lange), an interrogation that becomes an extended game of chess.  He pulls out a cigarette and when told he cannot smoke gives them the choice. He gets to smoke, or he leaves.  When the conversation reaches mid-day, he informs them that, “It’s Thursday and it’s past noon.  Thursday is one of my days off. My days off I start drinking around noon.  You don’t get to interrupt that” and sends them off to bring him a supply of beer that will get him through the afternoon.

The chess game is not just the perks that he is able to extort as he takes them through the case but Cohle’s efforts to determine the renewed interest in a case that had supposedly been solved long ago.  He quickly deduces that they believe the true killer is still out there, something he has believed all along, something that eventually he must convince his old partner, Marty, to help him finally finish.

When Marty and Cohle are finally reunited, years seem to drop away from Rust as he reveals that he has never truly given up on the case, that he knew all along that they had never truly stopped the killer.  He infects his partner with their former passion for justice, something that has been smothered by the corruption of Louisiana politics in this case.

After the creepy and dramatic resolution, when justice is finally served, Cohle, for the first time expresses a bit of hope for the universe in a final conversation with Marty.  As they are walking away from the scene of the final showdown in the dark, they both look to the stars.  As they compare light and dark to good and evil, Marty concludes that the darkness must be ascendant.  Cohle, for once, sees it differently: “Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning.”

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 #2 Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock)

How could anyone not like this show?

Certainly, Sherlock Holmes (played by Benedict Cumberpatch) whips through some of his monologues in lightening style that defies my Americanized ears to catch every word, but the show’s clever use of graphics, and the knowledge that I don’t need to catch every word as Holmes verbally dissects a scene or an individual leads me now to shrug my shoulders,not unlike Watson and Lestrade, who simply stand by while Holmes is “at it again.”

Holmes is not the tortured soul seeking redemption as many other detective characters; in fact he is maddeningly self-absorbed.  He is, however exceedingly high on the quirkiness scale and driven completely by any case that he does not find “boring.”

The producers have taken an iconic character and brought him into the 21st century unharmed.  They have made dramatic changes from the characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle, and it seems that every one of them works.  Watson (Martin Freeman) is not a blustering and often clueless accomplice, but rather a tested war veteran, anxious to be a part of the hunt.  Lestrade (Rupert Grave), generally portrayed by Doyle as a bumbling antagonist, is instead Holmes’s defender and ally.  Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs) provides both wise support and comic relief as she gently chides her unruly renter about shooting his gun into the walls to allay his boredom and helps to keep alive the running joke that Watson is gay.

Holmes himself remains quite intact. While they have softened Doyle’s character’s cocaine addiction into an overuse of nicotine patches presumably to quit smoking, Cumberpatch’s Holmes is still brilliantly observant, oblivious to many social niceties, and at turns both insufferably insensitive and surprisingly charming and thoughtful. That thoughtful side is always a surprise, but it comes through repeatedly with his fondness for Watson, his protectiveness of Mrs. Hudson, and his (eventual) tenderness toward Molly Cooper (Louise Brealey).  The writers had planned for Cooper to be in only one episode, but viewers responded so positively to her character and her hopeless crush on Holmes that they continued writing her into subsequent episodes.

The writers have even studied Doyle’s stories and culled key elements while being unafraid to change them dramatically and artfully weave in the modern use of cell phones, texting, and computer hacking.  Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia becomes A Scandal in Belgravia, but some key elements of the original–the introduction of Irene Adler, the royal family, scandalous documents—remain, as the 21st century challenges Sherlock to find the pictures locked in a cell phone, investigate “the woman” through a website that portrays her as a dominatrix, and eventually to swoop in and save her in response to her timely, almost final, text.

One particular element that separates Holmes from other TV detectives is that he is only interested in solving crimes for the intellectual stimulation and to fight off boredom and the depression that comes with it.  He feels little or no sense that he is he is serving justice and doing a service to society.  He feels no moral imperative to right wrongs.  In fact, in A Study in Pink, he becomes giddy as evidence mounts that London is being plagued by serial suicides.  He celebrates when visited by Lestrade in his role as “consulting detective” and wait for Lestrade’s departure before leaping into the air at the joy of the coming challenge:  “Brilliant!  Yes!!  Ah!  Four serial suicides and now a note! Ah, it’s Christmas!”  Mrs. Hudson tries to rein in his enthusiasm to no avail:  “Look at you, all happy: it’s not decent.”  Sherlock replies, “Who cares about decent. The game, Mrs. Hudson, is on!

In re-watching Cumberpatch at work, I’m not sure there is another actor alive who could pull off the character they have created for this wonderful series.  He is positively brilliant with his deadpan humor and pitch-perfect comic timing.

As a long-time fan of Sherlock Holmes, it is great to have him back, more clever, more complex, and more fun than ever.

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 #1 DCI John Luther (Luther)

Detective Chief Inspector John Luther (Idris Elba) does not walk.  He stalks and swaggers his way though the grim streets of London often with his hands jammed into his pockets, moving from crime scenes, to interrogations with criminals, to prison cells, to the police headquarters often cloaked in grey shirt or grey overcoat.

In truth, Luther lives in a grey world.  The cinematography seems to continually project these dingy tones, and I suspect if London ever were to have a sunny day, that filming of the show would be cancelled.

It is established early on that Luther is a man driven by absolute conviction and plagued by moral ambiguity.  In the first scene of the first episode, he allows a truly heinous pedophile to dangle from a beam inside a warehouse until he gives up the location of a kidnapped child.  Instead of rescuing him immediately, Luther, clearly in anguish, questions him about the other children he has tortured and killed and tries to extract even more information, until the man (Henry Madsen) finally can hold on no longer and plunges to the floor, critically injured.

Even though Luther is cleared of any wrongdoing, the next episode finds him on the roof of the police station standing at the very edge and contemplating the street far below.  A fellow detective finds him and begins to talk him down, reassuring him that no one would shed a tear over the injuries to Madsen.  Luther responds, “Doesn’t make it right” to which his colleague replies, “It does make it a little less wrong.”

And this is Luther’s world.  He is surrounded by unsavory criminals with whom he must work, and sometimes negotiate, in order to solve a case or protect a loved one.  In one of the most bizarre and chilling twists, he finds himself initially threatened by the psychopathic Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) who eventually turns into a trusted ally.  She has committed a double murder that he cannot prove her guilty of and over time comes to think of herself as John’s protector.

Because he is unafraid to work outside the law and occasionally to defy authority in his search for justice, he is, like some superheroes (Batman and Spiderman come to mind) thought to possibly be criminal himself.  Up on the rooftop, he even questions his own actions as he talks with his colleague asking, “Do you not worry you’re on the devil’s side without even knowing it?”  As time goes on he comes under the active scrutiny of a female investigator, DS (Detective Sergeant) Gray (Nikki Amula-Bird) who actively suspects him of wrongdoing.  She turns to Luther’s loyal protégé DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) to confide in him and share her suspicions and observations that Luther is a “dirty” cop.  Ripley tries to explain to her that, “there’s a difference between getting your hands dirty, and being dirty.” (Note: all of the quotations sound much cooler with a British accent.)

As he stalks though the world, Luther appears alternately weary, disgusted by the humans he must deal with, and confident that somehow he can make a difference.  He confides at one point that, “I’ve been a police officer since God was a boy.”  When in one scene, Alice confronts Luther’s estranged wife, Zoe, and asks why John pursues his work when it has cost him so much including his wife.  Zoe answers evenly, “He believes that one life is all we have, life and love.  Whoever takes life, steals everything.”  In defending the lives of others, he seems to care little about his own; he lives not expecting love or hope.  In a conversation with one soul whom he has saved, she tells him, “You should be married, be happy and everything.” He quietly replies, “No one will have me.”

Zoe’s assessment of him gives us the clue to his obsessive dedication to the work. He never seems to sleep and never pursues a relationship once he has lost his wife.  In a crime scene, he has Sherlock-like instincts, observing the evidence of a double homicide, analyzing the probable sequence of events, and then confronting his partner, Ripley.  “Am I missing something?  Does that seem right to you?”  Ripley replies, “None of it seems right to me.” Luther then states, “’Cause it’s not right, is it? It’s not right.”  Luther is not someone who breezes in with all the answers, but as the team struggles to put the pieces together, he repeatedly uses variations of the phrases above:  “What am I missing?”  “Something is missing.”  “This isn’t right. “  However, the questions frequently bring on the insights he needs, and he bolts off on his own, confident that he has found the key to unlock the case.

Viewers will either find Luther as a man looking to die or a man so confident in his way of doing things that he has a kind of bravery that borders on the foolhardy.  In the jaw-dropping finale of series 2, a case where the team must track down and stop a pair of psychopathic twins playing a game of murder and mayhem, Luther offers himself up as a sacrifice.  As he approaches one of the twins, unarmed, facing off against the young man who is holding a “deadman” switch connected to a suicide vest with enough explosives to destroy a city block, Luther soaks himself in gasoline, tosses the man a lighter, and encourages him to roll the dice with which he and his brother have been creating havoc.  Either the man will give up, or he gets to immolate Luther.  Luther’s ploy ends up being a brilliant move in a chess game where he ends up being just one move ahead of the suspect.

Luther ends up being my #1 because of the magnificent work of Idris Elba.  With many of the other characters, I marveled at the skill of the actors.  I never felt Elba was acting.  He becomes Luther. According to my reading on this show, it was never meant to be more than one series.  However, plans are in the works for a full-length feature film.

Conclusion

 Whew!  This was a lot of work!!  I’ve gotten so many great comments and suggestions, and I know that I could do this all over again and come up with 5 other great detective characters.  Someone should absolutely do the 5 best female detectives, just to balance out my lack of gender equity.  Maybe I will take that on later, but this has been so consuming that I have not fed my wild birds in the back yard for 3 days and have barely looked at my vegetable garden.  The massive up-side is that I have been able to re-watch hours of these great shows in the name of research.  Labor of love!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I Am The Eggman”

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When asked what led me into teaching high-school English as a career, I have several ready answers–I wanted to dedicate myself to helping young people; I loved reading and writing and was happy that I could make a career out of it; I liked the idea of having summers off—the usual.  And while all of those things were true, I always left out one key factor because I didn’t want to admit it.  I wanted to go back to high school.  I wanted to go back to high school to see if I could achieve a level of “coolness” that had always eluded me as a student.  I’m not proud of it, but there it is.

There were two teachers that most influenced my thinking about this because they provided models for how someone could be well liked and also be a powerful teacher.

Vic Player, geography teacher at Saint Augustine High School, was a man with a bold and playful sense of humor.  I was a painfully shy freshman who just wanted hide behind a large person in class and go unnoticed.  As he was taking roll one day early in the semester, he called out “Waldron?  Waldron?  You mean like walrus?  You are the eggman, you are the walrus?”  I sat in silent horror as I raised my hand to acknowledge my presence and my new connection to the popular Beatles’ song of the time.  “Yeah, Waldron,” he said smiling, “from now on, you are the Eggman.”

And from then on, I was the Eggman.  All of a sudden, I had an identity in the class.  I was someone, and I could no longer hide, no longer wanted to hide.  This man, with one silly nickname, transformed my first year experience in high school by giving me an identity that I could never have carved out for myself.  He refused to call me by any other name from that point on, and I marveled as I watched his easy confidence in the classroom, how he teased, and taught, and cajoled, and nurtured his ninth grade class.  He was by far, the coolest person in the room.  I wanted to be like that.

Three years later I faced the terrors inflicted by John Bowman, my senior English teacher.  The year before I had been in a class next door to his, and we frequently heard pounding, yelling, and then laughter coming from the class.  We were terrified.  All we could imagine was that someone in his class had said something stupid and had been thrown up against the wall, maybe pinned to a cork-board like an impaled butterfly, to be ridiculed by the entire class.  We entered his room, already cowed by the legend and his fierce reputation, the knowledge that he did not suffer fools, and that he did not spare criticism.

To our relief, we quickly discovered that the pounding came from Mr. Bowman slamming his hand on his desk for emphasis, as frequently in praise for a good comment as in disgust for one that didn’t please him.  Our written work was treated with contempt for most of the first quarter, but we quickly learned how to write and how to please the great man.  There was no better day, no greater compliment, than the moment when he called on me and I ventured an answer to a question and he slammed his hand on his desk with satisfaction.  “Mr. Waldron!” he shouted. “Say that again!”

It took most of the year to figure out how much he loved his class.  We knew he loved literature.  His passion swept us away—Sophocles, Shakespeare, Thoreau, Hemingway—all of them were heroes, giants.  However, he was a consummate actor and hid his affection for us as long as he could.  By the end of the year, when he handed out his own home-made awards for excellence, we were allies with him in his secret.   The incoming juniors would never know.  But I knew.  And I wanted to be like that.

As it turned out, I could never “be” either one of those two exemplary teachers.  However, I learned some of my key values from them—passion, humor, a dedication to excellence, and a commitment to making every student feel included, honored, respected.

If students remember anything from my classroom it will be the fact that for the last 15 years or so, I greeted every student, every day, with a handshake.  It provided a short, personal moment of acknowledgement for every one of my kids.  It became so ingrained as a classroom ritual that if I forgot and started class without having made the rounds, students would cry out in protest. One student described it this way in an end-of-the-year note to me: “Taking those few minutes out of your day to talk to each student, really made a difference especially during a time where every teenager is struggling to figure out who they are and where they fit in.  It was nice to know that at least one teacher cared enough to take those few seconds out of their day to treat each student like a real person, not just another face in the crowd.”

So, did my 36 year-high-school do-over achieve its purpose of giving me a status I couldn’t quite grasp the first time around?  Not exactly.  While I gained a certain amount of notoriety for my classroom traditions such as the handshake, loud music to begin each day, Barry White Fridays, movie nights, and the year-end scrapbook, I pretty quickly realized that I was there to make my kids feel special as they tried to survive high school; to make them feel accepted, and cool, and as if they were in a place where they belonged.  It was when I had a really good day in helping a student, that the Eggman felt cool once again.

 

 

Thank You, Paul McCartney

Baby, I’m a man, maybe I’m a lonely man

Who’s in the middle of something

That he doesn’t really understand…

I have to admit, despite my eventual qualms about all things Catholic, it was a good decision for me to attend Saint Augustine High School, an all boy’s Catholic school in San Diego.  All freshman had to endure a period of hazing, which included wearing a beanie with the purple and gold school colors for the first six weeks, and being taunted and ordered about by upper classmen, but it was tolerable, and a part of a fierce sense of school spirit, loyalty, and tradition.  The entire school could fit inside the gym.  We did so every Friday during football season, and I can still feel the sense of anticipation as we waited for the band to begin blaring out “When the Saints Go Marching In” as the football team marched in and began a loud and raucous pep rally.  I had excellent teachers for the most part and was proud to be a Saintsman.

Meeting girls, though, was a different story.  Our school took turns hosting dances with the local Catholic girls’ schools, but I found them uncomfortable and awkward, full of a multitude of opportunities for rejection and only slim hopes for satisfaction.  I did managed to go on a couple of dates in my first two years, mostly with girls who were as scared and awkward as I was, but still found them to be mysterious and confusing.

Then one day, I hit the jackpot.  My friend, Pat, a drama kid, came to me and begged me to join the musical production of “The King and I” at Rosary High School, the nearby girls’ school.  “You don’t have to be able to act OR sing,” he reassured me, “they just need guys.  Anyone can do it.”

So, I joined the production for the simple reason that I knew that the girls would vastly outnumber the boys, and I still had hopes as a junior that I could salvage at least some valuable and maybe even memorable social experience before I graduated.

It was my first exposure to drama and in my 16-year-old-eyes, we slowly mounted a magnificent production on the tiny high school stage. The only musical accompaniment was a single piano played by the enthusiastic and dictatorial nun who was also the play’s director.  I had seven different parts in the play, all of them non-speaking.  Nightly, I had to smear my body with a base make-up to make my pasty skin look bronzed and I spent every performance racing from costume change to costume change, just trying to be in the right place in the right time.

Having never been in a drama production of this magnitude or of any magnitude, I was a little overwhelmed by the emotion of closing night.  Even before the final curtain call, there was a tremendous amount of hugging and kissing going on and I was intent on being involved in as much of it as I could be.  In the midst of this vortex of emotion, one of my friends nudged me over towards Dolores, a lithe, beautiful Pilipino girl who seemed intent on passionately kissing every boy she could get her hands on.

I should mention here that I did not then, and even sometimes do not now, have a clear understanding of the appeal of French kissing.  My only introduction up to that point had been my older sister and her boyfriend showing off in front of my younger sister and I who both agreed the behavior was completely disgusting.  My older sister sneered at us.  “You’re too young to understand,” she sniffed.  Whatever.

But when suddenly I found myself in Dolores’s arms, she was kissing me with her mouth wide open, something that immediately made me feel I had become connected to a lovely but out of control vacuum cleaner.  She seemed to be waiting for me to do something, but I had no idea what it was.  I was just sure I wanted to kiss this way as long as she would let me, hoping maybe I would figure it out.  We broke the kiss and I stumbled away with a sense of wonder, loss, and determination.  I had to have a second chance.

The chance came a week later.  My school had a junior-senior prom coming up and so I had been casting about in my mind for who to ask.  After that night, my sights were set firmly on Dolores.  She had no good reason to go with me except that we knew each other from the play and as a sophomore girl she had never been to a prom.  It was just enough for her to say yes.

Proms are supposed to be about flowers, tuxedos, music and pictures, but in my mind, the dinner, the dance, and the after-prom were simply 10 hours of foreplay leading up for a chance to kiss her goodnight. Through the first part of the evening, she was a delightful date.  I still remember the aqua-colored dress and her long, lustrous hair done up beautifully to frame her delicate face. I, at times, could not believe that I was there with a date as lovely as she.

Things took a turn for the worse at the after-prom.  Suddenly Dolores disappeared and from the reports I was getting from my friends, she was chasing after Rocky, our star wrestler, a friend of mine, while I sat disconsolately by a pool table in the bowling alley.  After a miserable hour or so, she re-appeared, looking bored, and finally, it was time to take her home.

I walked her up to her front porch feeling a little sulky.  After all, she had bruised up my ego pretty well.  Of course, I had asked her for the shallowest of reasons but still, was one night of pretend loyalty too much to ask?  My feelings weren’t hurt so badly that I didn’t feel a rush of anticipation as we approached her front door.  She turned and smiled and thanked me, and the smile was enough to melt any resentment I had felt as she drew me toward her and once again kissed me deeply and passionately and for the last time.  Somehow during that kiss, that I hoped would last forever, she taught me what I was supposed to do.

I drove home in a daze and I can still hear Paul McCartney singing, “Maybe I’m Amazed” on the radio, which seemed perfect at that moment.  The sun was coming up, and I was immersed in the wonder and mystery of love and lust, hope and loss.  I had a feeling the world had just grown for me a little bit.

Thanks, Paul, for crystallizing that experience for me, freezing the moment in a way that only a song can do.

Baby, I’m a man,

And maybe you’re the only woman who could ever help me.

Baby, won’t you help me to understand?