Flirting With Insignificance

Day 10

Once I started teaching seniors, I looked forward every year to the day I would begin to introduce them to the concept of existentialism. I felt I had to go all Albert Camus on them because The Stranger was one of the central lit pieces that I taught.

I relished immersing them in the basic tenets of this philosophy, essentially alien to all of them, and for one or two days in a row I played devil’s advocate to every question, objection, personal experience, religious belief that they could challenge me with. For two days I would crush their spirits into the belief that they were living insignificant lives in an absurd and meaningless universe, continually verging on the edge of the abyss of despair and alienation.

Of course, then I would have to spend the next three weeks reassuring them that existentialism was simply one of many world views and not one that I was promoting. To avoid parent phone calls, I had to swear to them that I wasn’t anti-religion, that it was fine with me if they believed in God and the afterlife, and that, of course, they were leading meaningful lives.

But, for some of them, this one lesson was an earthquake. The fact that anyone could believe in such a philosophy, that it was a well-developed, much discussed pillar of post-modern society, that I could fill up a 40-minute power point with its principles was a shock to some 17-year-olds who had never considered a point of view that varied from what all of their families and friends had at least pretended that they believed in.

One student refused to speak to me for the rest of the year.

Part of the lecture was to discuss why existential thought considers an individual’s life to be meaningless. To illustrate this I had them think about how our 70 or 80 or 90 years on this planet compared to the eons that came before us and the millions or maybe billions of years that would follow our short lives. I asked them to add that to the fact that we are on a small planet, in a small galaxy, in the midst of an enormous universe, the size of which is, for me, incomprehensible.

So given all that, just how important was any single action, thought, or decision that any one of us might make? It usually got really quiet after that.

It took me a while to explain why I found this aspect of existentialism to be particularly freeing and not depressing. As someone who constantly second guesses himself and agonizes over sometimes trivial decisions, it helps me to be reminded that the world doesn’t turn on my decision on when it’s appropriate to buy a new vacuum cleaner or get the garden weeded.

It’s where I’d try to lead them to eventually—that meaning comes from within. That an existential point of view empowers them to wipe the slate clean and take responsibility for looking at their actions and decisions and figuring out for themselves what ultimately a meaningful life looks like.

Note: Most of them still liked me by the end of the year.

 

Advertisements

Can’t Make This Stuff Up

It happened 30 some years ago and it was the most romantic thing I had ever seen or would ever see again. There are times we get to be witnesses to something extraordinary happening in the lives of others without knowing anything that came before and no idea what their next chapter might be. This was one of those times.

I was standing in the outside waiting area of the Amtrak train station in San Diego, trying to look sad that my wife and young son were just minutes away from leaving me behind for a visit to her parents that I somehow had weaseled out of. It was Friday evening and my head was full of just what kind of trouble I might be able to get into in the 40 hours of unsupervised time that stretched before me.

I was growing impatient when it became clear that departure was imminent as the assistant conductors began removing stepping stools and generally looking like they were ready to go.

But out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flurry of motion that turned out to be a young man in a full-on sprint nearing the south end of the north-bound train. The guy had no luggage and no apparent ticket but seemed fully intent on catching this train before it left. He leapt onto the steps of the car in front of me and engaged in an animated conversation with the attendant there who looked like he was trying to insist that the guy get off the train, that they were just about ready to go. The young man pleaded, “Just give me two minutes, man. Please!” The attendant tried to say no once again, but the guy was so passionate and so sincere that finally he waved him on to the train where he disappeared from might sight.

Suddenly, all of us waiting for the train to leave had become a collective audience in a moment of street theater. We exchanged “did-you-just-see-that?” glances and felt the delicious suspense building, knowing that some kind of dramatic action was taking place inside the train, off-stage, where we could not see. The assistant who had let the young man on was trying to placate the conductor for the delay with a series of hand gestures that seemed to indicated his helplessness in the situation, that seemed to say, “What was I supposed to do?”

True to his word, the young man reappeared shortly, this time with his hands full. While on the train, he had swept up a lovely young woman wearing a long white dress whose arms were now encircling his neck as he prepared to sweep her off the train. Their faces literally beamed with joy, and the guy stopped at the top of the steps to tell the attendant, “I really owe you one!” The attendant dutifully waved them off the train but smiled along with them. I don’t think the audience that I was a part of gave them a round of applause, but all of us were likewise united in the couple’s happiness as the young man refused to put her down and carried her off to….well, to wherever.

If I had written this as the end of a piece of fiction, it could rightfully be criticized as “hopelessly romantic,” “cheesy,” and/or “totally unrealistic.” But it happened—Just. Like. That.

 

 

Life After Work

firstdayretirementpic

First official morning of retirement

Make no mistake about it. When the time came, I was ready to retire. On my final day, as retirees were asked to address the staff at a little farewell party, I got up to face my colleagues for the last time, some of whom I had worked with for all 36 years of my career, all at the same school. I was surprised to see all the emotion and the tears, maybe just as someone who prefers to keep emotions locked up as tightly as possible because I find emotions to be unpredictable and unruly things.

But in this case, I was feeling nothing but joy. I had had a great time as a teacher. I loved the work and I loved my kids. I had a shelf full enough of recognitions that I knew that students, parents, and my colleagues had noticed and appreciated my contributions. But I had been in school continuously for 54 years without a break! I had gone straight from high school, to college, and then into my career. I was anxious to live an unscheduled life for the first time since before kindergarten.

There had been signs that it was time to go. At some point students would see me coming and stop to open the door for me, as if maybe I was wearing a handicapped placard around my neck. Increasing numbers of kids began referring to me as “sir” instead of “Hey Waldron!” It even began to affect new staff members who could not break the habit of calling me “Mr. Waldron” instead of by my first name as any colleague normally would.

And I was tired. I was weary at the end of every day and often retreated home and napped for what was left of the afternoon. I was like a veteran pitcher who could still gut his way through every outing, relying on guile and experience, knowing that the fastball was gone, that the slider wasn’t sliding, and the curveball just wasn’t breaking the way it used to anymore.

So, even after nearly three years, I’m still flummoxed by people asking me if I’m enjoying retirement or if I miss teaching. The answer to the latter is a firm “no!” As much as I loved my kids and the experience of the classroom, teaching is a brain and soul-sucking experience that can be all consuming. My stock answer about the former is to say, “Yes, I’ve discovered that not working is much better than working.”

gardenpicdavewrigleypiccasting

I now have a vegetable garden going year round and have qualified as a master composter (I don’t actually brag about that much). I have taken yoga, guitar, and hiking classes. I have been able visit my sister in Maui four times, and jet to Chicago twice primarily to sit at the baseball shrine that is Wrigley Field and watch the Cubs play. I have flown to Lake Tahoe for one night to see the Dave Matthews Band perform. I drove one thousand miles to visit two friends I hadn’t seen in years and learned the finer points of fly casting on a Colorado lake.  I finally took time to visit Washington, DC. I traveled to Oakland for one concert and to Phoenix for another. I spend a week in Phoenix every spring driving all over town daily to watch my Padres play their spring training games. I walk. I write.

I guess I’m just lucky that the transition has been relatively easy for me. Any time I feel like it’s been a slow day, that I’m feeling a little bored, I just remember the stacks of ungraded papers that used to fill every waking moment of my day from September to June.

I feel sorry for people who are still working and when I ask about their own retirement, they shrug and say, “I just don’t know what I would do.”

Believe me. There is life after work.

“Clear Eyes, Full Heart, Can’t Lose”

Friday_Night_Lights_title_card

If those words don’t give you a chill or a jolt of adrenaline then somehow you missed out on the five seasons of the “teen drama”, Friday Night Lights, a television show that recreated the experience of living in the small, Texas town of Dillon, a town that lives and dies with the fortunes of its football team, the Dillon Panthers.

If you never watched the show, this piece may not make much sense, and I suggest you call in sick, stock up on supplies, and get ready to binge watch all five seasons immediately.

I was first offended a little when I noticed that Netflix had relegated FNL to the category of “teen drama.” I don’t watch teen dramas, I thought. Why do I like this show so much? Then it occurred to me that I had spent my entire life watching teen dramas as I stood in front of a high school classroom for 36 years. Secretly, as I watched them all unfold, I had a longing to go back and enjoy that teenaged life again.

So this weekend as I finished watching the entire series for the second time, I started to imagine who I’d want to be if I could somehow insert my teenaged self into this fictional narrative. It would be great to be Matt or Luke or Vince, all of whom reach stardom at some point. But no, these are all good boys. I’ve already done the good-boy thing. I would have only one choice, hands down—Tim Riggins.

tim-riggins-friday-night-lights-561364_1125_1500ed

Me.

I like Tim because he keeps it simple. He wants to suit up every week, play hard, hit people, drink beer, and allow a seemingly endless string of pretty girls to pursue him. He’s a laconic, hunky, bad boy with a heart of gold. For all his lack of social graces, Tim is quietly one of the most compassionate characters on the show—you almost don’t notice this about him at first because he always seems to be apologizing for having done something wrong. But in the end, Tim just wants his girl, a patch of land, a beer, and a Texas sunset. Nothing wrong with that (except actually being in Texas).

My teenaged self would have to find a girl and FNL manages to parade an array of beautiful young women through the show without it ever looking like a van full of young Victoria Secret models has descended on tiny Dillon. So there are lots of choices here; it’s no simple Ginger/Maryanne dichotomy. Julie? Too sulky and whiney. Lyla? Too bipolar. Becky or Jess? Maybe when they grow up a little. No, my teenaged self would have been entirely and hopelessly in love with Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki).

 

tyra

My girl.

Tyra grows from a fluffy beauty to a strong, thoughtful young woman as the show progresses. Don’t get me wrong, she also gets even more beautiful, but she veers away from spending her life working at Applebees to being a college girl with a strong sense of her future. I especially love her (and the writers) for including a sweet, but short-lived romance with likeable nerd Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons), my actual alter-ego.

Erictaylor

 

Everyone’s favorite coach.

As a teenager in Dillon, I know I would need emotional support. I’d need strong guidance and a kind but firm presence in my life. For that I’d have to look to Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler). Coach Taylor is the master of the pep talk, both to his teams and to individuals. He is the tough but caring mentor for whom a kid would do anything to please. He’s the kind of man my imaginary teenaged self would like to grow up to be.

 

 

DAY 5 (see note) A Parent To My Parent

Note: I’m starting this only because a friend that I like and respect very much invited me to be part of the club. And also because as a blogger, I’ve discovered a creative kick in the pants can be very helpful at times. Also, I am going to call this DAY 5, even though it is my first contribution, just so I don’t feel hopelessly behind for the next month.

Just like there was no manual for living my through my 30’s and raising small children, I have longed at times for the manual that would guide me through the difficulties of being a parent to my parents.

My mom is now 92, has dementia, can barely converse with me or anyone else, is incontinent, is hard of hearing, and requires nearly constant supervision. She also has a fragile immune system and just this Sunday it was compromised by something, probably an infection of her lungs. As the only child living in the vicinity, I’ve been on call for 4 years now and once I arrived at her board and care home on Sunday, I could see her labored breathing was going to land us in the emergency room.

I’m not sure if it is worse to be attending someone in the emergency room or to be the actual sick person. Mom was agitated for the two hours we waited to get into a room, which meant she would rock back and forth and jabber incoherently and loudly at times while I would try to calm her and get her to stop.

I’m far beyond being embarrassed by this behavior or worried about the reaction of others. They can move if they don’t like it. Hell, I don’t like it, but not liking it isn’t going to change anything. And here’s where I struggle. To all those waiting sick folk, I appeared to be a patient, attentive, loving son. I comfort her and make silly jokes and do anything to break the cycle of moaning and tension that seems to seize her like a wave that will slowly, and only temporarily, recede. I’m sure they look at me and think, “He’s a good son.”

But I’m not. I hate all of this. I hate the constant, seemingly useless visits I make to her every day, the disturbing emergencies, and even the routine doctor’s visit that usually results in a three-hour commitment. I know that none of my efforts or the doctor’s efforts will improve the quality of her life. Every time I leave her I feel sad and depressed. I’m long past the point where I can tell if I’m sad for her or for me. That’s why I feel like a fraud. I told my wife once that everything I was doing was actually “remorse insurance” for myself—a desire that when she passes I could honestly feel that I had done everything possible to make her last years, if not joyful, at least comfortable.

It seems to me that the true good sons out there have hearts that are much more full of love than mine is. My maddeningly detailed, obsessive, neat freak of a mother left long ago, and I’m now caring for what is left. I desperately want it to be over. I hate myself for saying it, but there it is.