Writing the Eulogy

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My mom passed away on June 12 at 11:50 PM. I was at her bedside when she passed. That’s a moment I’m not ready to write about, but the experience of writing the eulogy for her funeral was a significant moment of reflection for me. The italicized portions are excerpts from the final draft of the eulogy.

Formally, I wrote this on June 20, two days before the funeral, but in truth it had been rumbling around in my head for months, and I was struggling. Truly warm, positive memories of my mother simply were not imprinted in my brain. She wasn’t a bad mom, just an intense woman who thought keeping everything clean all the time was her most important mission in life.

As my sister and I spent a mind-numbing week dealing with funeral preparations, I sought her out, her memory of our childhood being so much better than mine. I came to find that she likewise was having trouble remembering Leave it to Beaver moments from our early years:

When my sister and I sat down to talk about this eulogy both of us felt some discomfort over not being able to recall many warm anecdotes about mom from our childhoods.

 Oh, there was the time when she was playing with us all in the back yard pool, and ran to answer the door at the front of our house clad only in her bathing suit where she was greeted by one of our parish priests who was out visiting parishioners. That may have been the moment when her hair began turning gray.

But I think my mom struggled a bit with motherhood, exhibiting a certain rigidity and devotion to cleanliness that we messy children could never quite achieve. I attribute at least some of that to her having been raised by a strict and demanding father.

 We both agreed that dad had been a mellowing influence on her and that she evolved over time, especially as she embraced her role as grandmother:

But if she had some challenges as a mom, she was lucky enough to pick the perfect mate, my dad, Jack Waldron. My dad’s innate kindness and his unqualified love for her, certainly softened her rough edges and helped her become the loving woman that most of you knew. Down to his final day, my dad, the man who knew her best, referred to her as “my angel.”

As a grandmother, she lavished care and love on her five grandchildren. When the kids didn’t want to go to school, they would pretend to be sick just so my mom or dad would pick them up, watch The Price is Right with them, and spoil them rotten for the whole day. Mom rarely missed a softball game or soccer match and all of the kids got chances to accompany mom and dad on camping trips.

Then in sorting through her stuff, I came across the picture above and was just startled by her radiant beauty, a nursing graduate at 25. That picture seemed to show her so full of happiness, energy, and plans for the future. It is exactly the way I want to remember her, and it made me wonder why some of that had gotten lost on her way to motherhood:

In going through old photos I discovered the picture of my mom as a radiant 25 year-old woman, just graduated from nursing school that you may have noticed in the lobby of the church. My mother loved nursing and attending to the needs of other. For over 25 years, she did so in hospitals and in doctor’s offices. To me, that picture embodies the spirit of love that she shared not only with her patients, but also with her friends, and within the church community.

 While the last three years with her at the board-and-care home were painful and torturous for me, every person who worked with her or attended to her would comment to me on how sweet she was and what a beautiful smile she had and how happy they were that she was there. This was even when she would growl out demands for food and keep them up all night, insisting on walking around the facility or sitting up in her chair at ungodly hours. Three of her attendants were there at the funeral and were weeping throughout

In her last three years at her boar- and-care home, the attendants, the other residents, the extraordinary ministers from Santa Sophia that brought her communion every Sunday, all spoke to me about how much they loved spending time with my mom. This was true even from the beginning when she was prone to break into her own peculiar renditions of “Amazing Grace” or the “National Anthem” her own personal favorites. There was a love and light inside of her that everyone responded to, even as her body and her mind began to fail.

I decided to end on a fanciful note, thinking that, if there were a heaven, my dad might well have been enjoying the bachelor life for the past seven years. I looked up toward the rafters of the church, and raised my voice as if I wanted to be sure my dad could hear:

Dad, if you can hear me up there, I’m giving you a heads up. You’ve had a seven-year vacation, but mom is on her way to re-join you. So you’d better get someone to run the vacuum around and wipe down the kitchen counters—twice. Oh, and have them put an extra chair out on your back porch where I’m sure you’ve been watching the sunsets by yourself for all these years. Your angel is coming home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hating the Dating

For a while there it seems like we were getting a lot of stories about dating. It’s been like a wave and most of them seem to be horror stories of some kind. You are all reinforcing the notion that I have had for some time now that if ever I were to become single again, either through divorce or unfortunate accident, that I would happily embrace the single life.

First off, I’ve been out of the dating scene for over 40 years, and it now seems like the use of on-line services is a must. So that means I’d have to create a profile right? Something with just enough honesty, but emphasizing my good points and minimizing the bad ones. I tried unsuccessfully to get on a site and look at what the elements of a profile were, but I’m guessing it would go something like this.

Interests: To start with I’m interested in all things outdoors, such as rock-climbing, running marathons, backpacking, surfing and BASE jumping. I’m interested in all of these things and think anyone who can do them would be a real blast to hang out with. I just can’t physically do any of these things any more. So my actual interests run toward napping, reading, movies, concerts, music of all kinds, napping, gardening, small backyard projects, napping, beer, eating out and travel. Did I mention napping?

Personal qualities: I am patient, except for when I am not. I have a good sense of humor—or at least I think I am funny. I am suspicious of spontaneity, generally expecting some kind of disastrous outcome. I love being around free-spirited people, I am just not one of you. I am filled both with a sense of adventure and a sense of impending doom. I am often confused.

See, I can feel the left-swiping starting already.

I’ve mentioned that I don’t show or share emotions easily because, as vulnerable as I can be in my writing, I’m afraid of them in real life. I have this unfortunate habit of developing a crush on nearly any attractive woman who is nice to me. It’s not anything I act on (in most cases) but the fact that those unruly emotions can burst so easily from me scares me, and to begin dating full of hope and expectation just to be crushed by rejection eventually leads me to feel that being alone would not be so bad.

And not getting rejected could possibly be worse! All of the uncertainty, complexity and commitment? I’ve been trying to make that work, more or less successfully, for all these years, but would I really want to start it all over?

A plan is already beginning to form in my mind just in case. In one scenario, I see myself getting rid of the house, downsizing to a small apartment in an area full of bars and restaurants, getting a much larger television than I could possibly need, and maybe a cat–really independent cat who hangs out in the apartment just so I won’t feel like I’m always talking to myself.

In scenario 2, one of those attractive women who is nice to me casually mentions that she is looking for a roommate, preferably male, and I end up with a companionable person, without commitment or expectation, who is pleasant to look at and nice to talk to. Sort of a replacement for the cat in scenario one.

My very best wishes to all of you who are out there doing the dating thing. I admire you and hope that you will soon stumble across a really nice, hopefully sane person who shares your interests and personal qualities, or at least is willing to tolerate most of them.

 

Competitive Backpacking

Mount Mendel, Mount Darwin and the Hermit, Evolution Valley, Kings Canyon National Park, Sierra Nevada, California

In the late 80’s and early 90’s every summer meant one week away from the family for the annual “guy’s backpacking trip.” Three or four of us, depending on availability, would gather together and plan a trip, usually in the Eastern Sierra. You would think that backpacking would be the ultimate in collaborative camaraderie, but for some reason, in our group, there was a strong streak of competitiveness.

Part of getting a “win” meant spending the year scouring backpacking and sports stores for some gadget that would make one’s life better for the week on the trail and inspire jealousy among all of one’s partners. My friend Scott was consistently the most creative and that’s why we generally hated him. His one epic fail was a “solar shower,”  a small, black, plastic bag that one was supposed to fill with ice cold stream water, lay out in the sun for an hour or two and then experience the joy of a steaming, hot shower in the wild. In truth, the water never reached anything warmer than tepid and drizzled out in a stream that wouldn’t be strong enough to shower a moderately-sized rat.

But in subsequent seasons, Scott was first to discover the Thinsulite air mattress, a “self-inflating” waterproof sleeping pad far superior to the 2-inch foam pads that we had lugged around for years. He followed that with a sling chair that weighed about 1.5 pounds and allowed him to sit in comfort while we perched on rocks. By the next summer we all had Thinsulite mattresses and sling chairs and that’s when Scott came up with his most perversely successful innovation. He spent an entire $1.95 on an insulated plastic mug.

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Until that moment the Sierra Cup was considered state-of-the-art. Generations of backpackers used this dysfunctional piece of crap convincing themselves that it was as essential to the backpacking experience as a Swiss Army knife. The angular, wire handle was meant to hang on your belt so that at any thirsty moment one could dip the cup into a stream and be instantly refreshed. In truth, there was no place to hang the cup without it banging about and there are no streams in the Eastern Sierra that are considered free from contamination. No one drinks unfiltered water. In addition, if you were to use it for soup or food you had two choices. Wolf down the meal while it was still hot, scorching your mouth and esophagus or wait 60 seconds and eat your food cold.

It wasn’t enough that we recognized his genius immediately. At every meal, Scott had to make a production of blowing repeatedly on his soup or hot chocolate or coffee and explaining to us that it was just too hot for him to eat. For six days, he went through the same thing repeatedly no matter how loudly we cursed him.

Finally on the last night, we were in a cold and windy pass with little protection, and he started blowing on his cup again.   Before he could even start in on us I interrupted.

“Scott,” I said, “if you say one more word about that cup, I’m going to kill you and bury you up here under a pile of rocks and when people ask me what ever happened to my friend Scott, you know what I’m going to say?”

“What?”

“Scott who?”

Six days of freeze-dried food and taunting can bring out the worst in a man, but he just smiled, biding his time until he would be able to outfox us again the following summer.

 

Mortality: It’ll Get You Every Time

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Earlier, I mentioned my mom’s dementia and failing health. Just recently, the bout of pneumonia that she suffered was like a body blow to her already compromised immune system and since she has returned to the board-and-care home, whimsically named “Raquel’s Rose Garden” after the administrator’s daughter, she has remained in a state of semi-consciousness.

Her condition led me to enroll her in a hospice program so that she could receive all of her medical attention in the home along with all of the other services hospice supplies. Those of you that have had experience with hospice know how incredibly helpful it can be. I suddenly felt that I no longer had sole responsibility for every medical decision, but instead was a part of a team that was going to do everything that we could to keep my mother comfortable through her final days.

Now that we are in the system, I wonder why I waited so long. However, their glossy handbook told me why right off the bat. Early on, it reassured me that, “Often, hospice is not started soon enough because people consider it a “last resort.” Sometimes a physician, patient or family member might resist a hospice referral because they think it means they are surrendering and there is no hope. Hospice is not about giving up.” Dang. Wish I’d read that sooner.

This was exactly my dilemma as I considered if this was an appropriate move. I felt like I was calling it quits as far as my own responsibility and somehow doing her a disservice. I know better now.   I met with the doctor on Saturday morning and, with all of the proper disclaimers and qualifications, she suggested that my mom probably has no more than a month to live.

My mom is 92. She was married for over 60 years with a wonderful man, had three pretty great kids, five grandchildren, and a career as an RN. She has had a good life.

When I would come home depressed from my nearly daily visits to see her at Raquel’s over the past 3 ½ years, my wife did not understand my reaction. She thought it was a matter of my having unrealistic expectations, that every day I went to visit thinking, “she’ll be better today.”

The opposite was true. Every visit meant watching a loved one in decline. There were no good days, at least not in my mind. Every day was a step in the direction that has led to where we are today. The utter inevitability was not only depressing to watch, it reminded me of my own mortality, of how I was essentially on that same path. Depressing I know, but continued exposure to all of this got me thinking this way.

I started the grieving process long ago, but my reactions now are complex and confusing even to me. In our time at Raquel’s I’ve been through the death of three residents. Each one delivers a shock to the house. Most of the caregivers have been with my mom the entire time and the administrator and his wife are both kind and attentive to her. There are only two other residents right now and the three of them have been together for years. Even the hospice nurse has attended other patients and is well known to every one.

I worry about all of them because I know they are already feeling bad about losing my mom. I know that my grieving will be quiet and private, but I’m happy to know there will be others to share the pain with. I am better at being a source of comfort than I am at accepting the comfort of others.

It’s just tough having watched someone, for over three years, journey towards death in exactly the way we all hope to avoid.

“I’ll Be At The Bar”

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I didn’t start frequenting pubs and bars until I was in my late forties. Since I hadn’t done the whole bar thing in college or afterwards, I always felt strangely self-conscious and more than a little afraid that there was a lot of bar etiquette that I didn’t know and was sure I’d be recognized as an interloper, as someone who didn’t belong. I sort of imagined myself getting tossed out, not for bad behavior, but just because I clearly didn’t know what I was doing.

I started the habit after a very long day of school that ended with “Back to School Night.” Most teachers absolutely dread this forced meeting with parents, sure that someone hostile is going to come in and rake them over the coals in front of all the other parents. I discovered that the solution to this was to keep talking about the class for the entire 10 minutes, never allowing time for questions. I even handed out 3×5 cards to the parents and encouraged them to write down any questions they had for me along with their contact information, which they could leave in the basket provided on their way out the door. I promised that I would get back to them whenever I goddam well felt like it. No, not really. I actually enjoyed most of my interactions with parents. Except the crazy ones.

But that one night the draw of the local Irish-theme pub pulled me in. I met Eddie, an actual Irishman who was expert at putting a newcomer at ease. We talked beer for a bit, he pulled me a pint and since the night was slow, within an hour I felt quite at home and like I’d just made a friend. It wasn’t long before I became a regular and began to discover the perks–familiar faces who always seemed happy to see me, a crowd to gather with for soccer, football and baseball games, free entrance to special events, a place to have a solo dinner out and not feel alone, the occasional drink or two that never got added to my bill because…well, just because.

What I liked most about spending alone time at the bar was the unexpected conversations that would begin on some nights with complete strangers. It didn’t happen all the time, but often there was one or more people there at the bar alone that seemed anxious to have someone, anyone, to talk to. This was especially true of women who, once they figured out that I wasn’t interested in anything but conversation, would sometimes spend the entire evening telling me their story—boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, work, successes, failures—startlingly intimate details that it felt they had been waiting a very long time to tell someone about. I was happy to spend the evening listening and sharing my own story. Most times, I’d leave knowing I’d never see that person again.

I don’t spend as much time anymore at bars alone, just hanging out and passing the time. I miss it a little bit. Not the drinking so much–I still do plenty enough of that at home. I miss the thrill of the chance encounter, the short, but intense connection with another person. It was something that relieved the sense of loneliness that sometimes plagues us all.

Visiting Love: One Letter at a Time

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A fraction of the total!

When I delved into a long-forgotten box of cards and letters that my wife and I had written to each other when we were courting from 1970 to 1974, I had no idea what I was getting into. We met as high school juniors but did not begin dating until the fall of the year we graduated. From October of ’71 to May of ’74 when we were married, the letters flew hot and heavy between my home in San Diego and hers in Orange County.

There is a sort of loveliness in re-living a time when all communication was not instantaneous, before texting and talking were considered synonymous. We dated long distance for a little over two years. I began to get serious about the relationship when the price of gas reached 53 cents per gallon.

Once I broke into the box, I thought that I’d read over a couple of letters, laugh at our youthful expressions (Mary used to think that lots of things were “far out!”), eventually feel the wide gulf between our teenaged selves and the adults we had become, and do what Mary had advised all along—“Why don’t you just toss them all?”

But I couldn’t. As I picked up the first few randomly, I felt myself thrust back in time and the immediacy, the honesty, the humor of the letters hooked me. I had decided I would only read her letters to me—those were MY letters. The others belonged to her, and she could do what she wanted with them.

Randomness was not satisfying though. I found myself seeking a narrative, the story and sequence of how we had fallen in love. The earliest letters sported 6-cent stamps, but more importantly they were dated with legible postmarks, so I began to arrange the letters chronologically. All 187 letters.

I started from the very beginning, when we were just friends who had been thrown together by a retreat we had both attended. That friendship continued off and on until October of 1971 when I apparently more openly declared my interest in her because the tenor of the letters changed dramatically. We would frequently write twice weekly, catching each other up on work and school and making plans for every weekend when I would drive up to spend time with her.

The first letter of every week seemed to have a certain glow about it as she would recount the happiness we had enjoyed in our limited hours together. She seemed anxious to make sure I understood everything she had said or done over the weekend and we both (I peeked at a few of the letters I wrote also) were frequently apologizing for any moodiness or distraction we might have exhibited.

She spent a tremendous amount of time telling me how wonderful I was and how much she appreciated me as a man and as a boyfriend. I spent an equal amount of time making sure she knew how lucky I felt that she had chosen me and letting her know how happy I was to be with her. The warmth and affection literally radiated off of the pages

I have yet to finish reading all of the letters and wrap my mind fully around that time of my life. However, what I have read filled me with a sense of renewal, a sense that there was really no reason we could not recapture that liveliness and passion. I felt a little sad that we had stopped writing to each other twice a week. I sense restarting that habit could make a world of difference.

Forty-one years later it would be easy to describe these feelings as naïve, but I don’t feel that way at all. It’s like looking at a slightly yellowed portrait of what love is like before it has endured the bruises and scars that time eventually brings. It is a portrait that I’m happy to have come across. It is a portrait worth cherishing.

 

High School All Over Again

Maybe because I lived more than half of my life in a high school environment, it occurred to me that this daily writing group is starting to feel like a high school party, like the high school party that I would never have been invited to back in the day because I wasn’t cool enough.

But this time I was cool enough to get invited because a friend of mine was looking out for me and thought (I think) that I might have a good time doing this. But after getting the invitation, I sulked around for a bit worrying about fitting in, trying to decide if I really wanted to go to this party, trying to talk myself out of it even though I knew I desperately wanted to go and hang out with the cool kids.

So, finally I decided to go, and after reading a few pieces realized that these really were the cool kids. There were some great writers—some were so funny, others so real and honest, some so creative. Man, how was I going to fit in?

Because I could see right away that the cliques had already begun to form. Some people were always “liking” each other and “commenting “ to each other, all the time, and right in front of everyone else! And for some reason there were mostly women at the party, and everyone seemed to be talking about yoga.  It made me want to curl up into Child’s Pose and try to hide.

But, god, I was there–I had to at least try. So, I pushed out of few observations and tried to be social, reading some other people’s work and “liking” the ones I liked and making a comment here and there. And before I knew it, I started to get some responses. People were reading my work, and some people seemed to stop by and “like” me all the time, so I started to read their stuff and “like” them back. Sometimes we even began having little conversations. I was making friends! I was so proud of myself.

I mean, there are lulls in the party at times. Suddenly, no one seems to “like” me and believe me, I am checking ALL of the time. That’s right. I’ll admit it. I live for the “likes.” I mean how can a piece be “seen” by 35 people and only liked by 8? Were the other 27 people just stopping by because they felt sorry for me, sitting alone in the corner there for a while? That’s when the insecurity creeps in, just like when I’m roaming around at the party and suddenly I don’t have anyone to talk to.

Just when I’m ready to bolt and slip out the door, hoping nobody notices, Kirk drops by and “likes” a couple of my recent pieces. Oh, man. Kirk, who’s like the captain of the football team walks by me and says, “S, up, dude?” on his way to the back to grab a beer. He calls me “dude” because he doesn’t actually know my name, which is perfectly OK right now because the big dawg noticed me. I mean it’s his party after all, and one of the cool girls invited me, and maybe, maybe, I’ll just hang out a little longer and see what happens.

 

 

Compost Geek

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I’m not sure how to explain my affection for rotting, organic material, but it all started in the spring of 2013. Having been a “yellow thumbed” vegetable gardener most of my adult life, I had a vague interest in composting, but no real working knowledge. When I saw that a non-profit in San Diego was offering a 4 consecutive Saturday workshop on composting and that completing the course would qualify me as a “master composter” I decided to suspend my ban on signing up for anything organized to attend the class.

Each class was 3 hours in length and we quickly learned the basics and then, in groups, began building our “hot piles” of compost, using a variety of materials that we had all gathered in preparation. By the following week, we were learning how to turn, aerate, and water our piles after checking the temperature to see if we had achieved the desired balance of materials. After four weeks, while hardly feeling a master, I felt I had the basic to get started on my own.

I raided several local Starbucks coffee shops for grounds that they will gratefully give away to gardeners and composters, and began begging, borrowing, and stealing any lawn clippings I could get from the neighbors. Mary and I found a container for the counter where we could begin to collect vegetable food waste and my gardener brought me bags of dried leaves from his clients who had groves of trees.

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I then assembled my first bin and began to mix the ingredients and in the end, had it filled to the brim. That’s when I began to go a little crazy and continually monitor and make daily reports on how just how hot the core temperature of the pile was to anyone who would listen. It fascinated me that if I just mixed together the right components, in the correct ratios, I could generate temps up to 160 degrees, a point at which they warn you that your pile could spontaneously combust. While I’ve never tried to make this happen, I’m intrigued that it might.

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My son tells me that he thinks I show more enthusiasm about composting than anyone he knows, but the weird thing is that any time I start to talk about it in a group, there always seems to be someone with questions, someone who needs help getting started, or someone who has started but needs some help troubleshooting a problem. I’ve helped numerous friends get started with their own bins and had people come out to the house and visit my small composting complex to get tips.

I am amazed at the amount of food waste that my wife and I create in the course of a week. It has changed our behavior entirely. I can’t just throw away a single banana peel or egg shell without feeling totally irresponsible. I can’t even guess at how many pounds of kitchen waste we have diverted from landfills over the past two years and instead turned it into amazingly rich soil amendment.

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Cleaning out the refrigerator!

I actually started to think about teaming up with the local Starbucks and the nearby Subway restaurant to begin regularly composting all of the perfectly compostable, but currently wasted food product that they throw out every day. However, I was daunted by the endless nature of such a partnership. I would need a team of people to keep up with the volume of compostable product and set up a network to distribute all of the wonderful soil amendment that it would produce. I pretty quickly decided that my sustainability project would be unsustainable.

So, for now, I will simply tend my own garden.

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Rut or Routine?

It matters, right? I mean, we sort of admire our friends who have established healthy work or exercise routines and have a certain stick-with-it-ness. But if we look at our own lives and feel we have fallen into certain habitual behaviors, we think that is bad. Or is there any difference?

I know that I certainly value routine and ritual in my life. Nearly every morning I get up between 6:30 and 7:00 in the morning and after washing my face and brushing my teeth, I shamble off to the kitchen, pull out the toaster, load it up with a whole-wheat English muffin and pull out the almond butter and blackberry jam that I will eventually slather over each half. I buy two jars of the blackberry jam from Trader Joes whenever I am there because I don’t like to run out and I don’t like to substitute.

Once I’m sure I am truly awake, I get in my car and drive the 1.3 miles my neighborhood Starbucks, grab the local paper to go with the New York Times which I have delivered, and pick up the 20 oz cup of delicious caffeine that will assure that within one-half hour, my heart will truly be functioning at full power. People chide me over this habit and I understand that brewing one cup of coffee at home would be more sustainable and efficient, but I like having other people make my coffee for me.

I settle into my chair in the family room and scan quickly through the first two sections of the local paper while I sip the first and best 20% of my coffee. I thin get ready to read the sports section which is always more satisfying if I already know that I get to read about a Padre victory from the night before.

This moment is my signal to get up and prepare my English muffin to go along with the sports section and the rest of my coffee. Besides reading the articles, I enjoy studying the box scores of other teams and players that I follow. Then I’m on to the Times for a more in-depth look at anything that is of particular interest to me.

By around 9 o’clock it’s time to begin on whatever to-do list that I’ve created for myself that will keep me busy for the rest of the day.

Now if this routine, which I repeat day after day, gets disrupted it’s not like I get a nervous tic, or have to take three showers, or lock and unlock the front door five times. I won’t go all Rainman on anyone. If I travel, I don’t need to pack up my jam and a travel toaster. So, am I in a rut? Is this habitual behavior killing my spontaneous spirit?

For now, I don’t care. It’s just comforting. I like it. For now, it’s my way of welcoming the day.

J. K. Simmons: My Hero

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I gave up on hero worship a long time ago. As much as I love sports and admire pure athleticism, my days of putting athlete’s on a pedestal are long gone. The attention given to celebrities disgusts me. Politicians?—Please.

So how did long-time character actor, J. K. Simmons, end up being my hero?

One night on a whim, Mary and I decided to watch the film “Whiplash” on Demand because it was getting some attention near the time of the Oscars. I knew virtually nothing about the film except it was about a tough band director and the actor was getting nominated for all kinds of awards for his role.

I didn’t even recognize the name or know who he was until he entered the film and I saw the very familiar face that I knew best as Dr. Emil Skoda, my favorite police psychologist on 3 different shows in the Law and Order franchise. Most people who saw the film probably thought, “what is the goofy guy from the Farmer’s Insurance commercials doing in this film?” It turns out that he has quite an extensive background in film, television, and theater, but rarely, if ever, in any kind of leading role. He was once the voice of the yellow M&M in a TV ad.

He absolutely killed the role of band teacher, Terence Fletcher. When he walked into the practice room at the beginning of the film, he slipped off his sport coat and as the band came to attention, he extended his arms much like the picture above and I was immediately struck by our similarities. First of all, he was sporting the same haircut as me. Secondly, we both favor black t-shirts. The big difference was, at least in his upper body, the guy was ripped.

After the film, out of curiosity, I looked him up and discovered he was 2 years younger than me. Exactly two years younger—we were both born on January 9, along with Dave Matthews, Richard Nixon, and probably several of you.

I felt inspired. I wanted to be in that kind of shape. I immediately considered going to the gym and lifting a weight, always the first in many steps of actually returning to the gym. To regain the slender torso that he displayed in the film, I promised to cut back on my beer consumption and now make it a practice to never drink more than one beer at a time. Baby steps.

What I loved about watching his performance was just the thought that here’s a guy who’s been a workman-like performer for years and when given a really great part, he just nailed it. Of his own work he once said, “The best compliment I ever got from the public or producers or directors is that I just totally blend in and become the character and they don’t notice me and that the play happens or the movie happens or the TV show happens.”

In “Whiplash” he is not given the option of blending in. He is front and center throughout the film as a brutally demanding teacher who will demean and manipulate anyone to get “his sound.” He was so good that he received the Academy Award for Best Support Actor and 4 other prestigious acting awards all for the same performance, one of only 11 actors to ever do so.

In his Academy Award acceptance speech, rather than heap glory on himself, he spoke touchingly of his family and his message to all the attendees was, “Call your mom, call your dad. If you’re lucky enough to have a parent or two alive on this planet, call ’em. Don’t text. Don’t email. Call them on the phone. Tell ’em you love ’em, and thank them, and listen to them for as long as they want to talk to you. Thank you. Thank you, Mom and Dad.”

J.K., I love you, man. I keep this picture above my desk as inspiration. Tomorrow I’m going to Target to get a fresh supply of black t-shirts, and just as soon as this endless writing exercise is done, I’m back at the gym. I promise.