Let’s Elect a President Who Has Already Been President

I really have resisted for as long as I could. It is simply not possible to be a writer and not long to comment on the 2016 presidential campaign, especially as it becomes weirder and more unpredictable by the day.

As of today, the front-runner on the Republican side is reality star/businessman Donald Trump, who almost daily spews out some kind of new outrage, continually lies about what he has said in the past, and stomps all over any kind of decent political discourse. Most disturbingly, his clone-lets across the country continually mouth his rhetoric about “making American great again” and profess their loyalty because “he’s someone who tells it like it is!” even though he never actually says anything.

And on the Democratic side there is the surprising candidacy of Bernie Sanders, who I thought simply wandered into the race by accident. He is from a state that is about as big as my garage, but he has a strong, idealistic, and completely unrealistic agenda that is capturing the imagination of yuuuuge numbers of young people pulling for the old dude to upset the presumed coronation of Hillary Clinton.

You can’t make this stuff up. It’s beyond what fiction would allow. Every day that I read the paper, I feel like I’ve stepped into a Dali painting. It reminds me of how I felt in 2003 when California, in the midst of a deep energy and economic crisis, recalled Governor Gray Davis and replaced him with an Austrian weightlifter—and then we kept the Governator on the job for 8 more years!

So nothing seems particularly outlandish to me anymore and I am ready to unveil my radical proposal. Let’s elect someone for president who has already been president!

No, I’m not suggesting we bring back Bush, Bubba, or Barack. Let’s choose from some of the fine actors who have pretended to be president in film and TV because, after all, isn’t being president all about pretending that you know what you are doing most of the time?

So, let me suggest the following five candidates, in no particular order chosen based upon two criteria. One, they showed the ability to give a great speech, one that inspires and unifies, and two, that they showed the ability to get something done.

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 As far back as I went in my research, America’s first African-American president was not Barack Obama, but rather Tom Beck, played by Morgan Freeman in the 1996 film Deep Impact. Personally, I’d feel very comfortable with Freeman at the helm given the air of thoughtfulness, honesty, and wisdom that he shows in this film. After all, he faced an oncoming ecological disaster (a comet racing toward earth) without pretending that it didn’t exist or that it was no big deal (see all Republican candidates re:climate change). Not only that, he came up with not one, but two plans to see that life would continue on earth after the catastrophe and helped to calm the nation both before and after.

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Kevin Kline also gets my endorsement as a candidate for his role in the 1993 film, Dave. Kline is uniquely qualified because as an actor he has already pretended to be a guy who is pretending to be the president! Kline plays Dave Kovic, a look-alike for the sitting president, Bill Mitchell who takes over the role when the president suffers a catastrophic stroke. Not only is he able to stand up to his scheming chief of staff, he works cooperatively with his cabinet to cut ridiculous appropriations to save his not-First Lady’s pet homeless shelter project, and launches an ambitious jobs program. He addresses Congress by owning up to the sins of his predecessor and summarily exposes all of the corruptions that had been allowed to flourish. His ability to pretend to be warm and honest would serve him well as our president. I would have no problem endorsing Kevin/Dave/Bill for president.

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My third potential candidate would be Dennis Haysbert who played President David Palmer from 2001-2004 (in season 1, he is candidate Palmer) in the action series, 24. During his presidency, he faced an unprecedented series of potentially catastrophic terrorist attacks, supported by CTU, possibly the most inept counterterrorism unit ever created. I realize they needed to keep the crisis going for a full 24 episodes, but honestly, not once did a CTU leader say the words, “you guys cover the back in case the terrorist decides to sneak out the back door when we storm the front.” Just never occurred to them. Despite this, Palmer inspired calm and confidence and managed 3 full seasons without ever being shot or tortured by Jack Bauer, no small accomplishment. And through every potential disaster, he kept it quiet that he had our back—he had an Allstate Insurance policy lined up for the entire country.

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My toughest-to-make endorsement goes to Kevin Spacey who has now completed two seasons as President Frank Underwood in the Netflix series House of Cards. Sure, he is unprincipled and ruthless, but those certainly have never been presidential disqualifiers. We have seen his ability to work behind the scenes to push legislation through, cajoling, charming, threatening, and occasionally murdering individuals that might resist his agenda. Frank has also shown to be modest and compelling in giving a speech, even as he lets us, the audience, know that he is dishing pure, undiluted bullshit. Kevin would have to reign in some of Frank’s rough edges to get my full endorsement, but let’s face it, there are scarier people than Frank Underwood who are currently being taken seriously as candidates today.

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My final recommendation is certainly my most heartfelt. From 1999 to 2006 on every Wednesday night, I could comfort myself that for one hour my president was named Josiah “Jed” Bartlet played by Martin Sheen on the immensely popular television series, West Wing. Bartlet showed toughness, compassion and a strong intellect as president. As long as writer Aaron Sorkin was nearby, he was never at a loss for a speech that was comforting and forceful. Maybe his most important contribution was helping me to hold faith in the American political process while suffering thought eight years of George Bush. For seven years, Jed Bartlet was my president. I’d have no problem voting to give him another four or eight.

Fanciful? Maybe. But look at the five remaining candidates and tell me if you think that the primary winnowing process has produced the five most trustworthy and qualified people to lead our country. Tell me you have complete confidence in any of them. Now, look at my five candidates, each one of them with extended experience in being a pretend president. I’m not even sure where the write-in box is for the presidential vote, but I may be looking for it when November rolls around.

 

 

 

 

 

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Jazz Hater

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I suspect that I would be infinitely cooler as an individual, if I could say that I knew jazz, that I got jazz, that I loved jazz—but in truth, I just don’t. I really wish that I did. I’m sure I’d be considered more suave, more debonair if I could talk jazz instead of baseball.

I don’t think I could even name 5 jazz artists depending on how you define jazz. Let’s see, there’s John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and……er, ….. yeah, not even five. So there’s the problem. There is a big gap in my musical education.

I can actually name only one jazz classic, Brubeck’s Take Five which is a perfect example of why I hate jazz.   It opens with a tight, memorable melody and then wanders away into a confusing maze of solo performances that don’t sound anything like the opening, that don’t complement the opening, that sound as if the musicians have forgotten what song they are playing, until they swing back into that great, memorable melody to end the song. By the time they get there I’m likely to have missed it because I’ve dozed off.

I had two recent experiences that reinforced this antipathy. The first was on my annual pilgrimage to see the Dave Matthews Band at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheater. I had read that they were going to feature Herbie Hancock (OK, there’s my fifth) and I was kind of excited to see how they were going to integrate him with the band. Dave opened his song Mercy at the keyboards and then gave way to Hancock who proceeded to go into his own riffs. Within seconds, he had lost me. Even though the band bobbed their heads, and tapped their toes, and just looked delighted with Hancock’s contribution, he was playing something that didn’t sound anything like the song that Dave had started.

It’s my problem with solos in general. They just seem so fucking self-indulgent. The artist is allow to just wander off into a musical Neverland, playing whatever the hell he wants regardless of the structure or integrity of the actual song he’s supposed to be playing. Hancock basically hijacked the show for about half an hour. Whoever thought that was going to be a good fit had badly miscalculated. It was like trying to integrate Riverdancers with a ballet company.

The second and more miserable of the two experiences was when Mary and I visited a jazz club in Montreal, one that had been recommended to us by a local, a local who clearly hated American tourists. Ever since then the words “jazz club” have become synonymous in my mind with “dentist office” in terms how I feel about the possibility of having to go to one.

It was a cute space and I always like live music—honestly. I was predisposed to give the music a chance especially given the local endorsement of the place. The group consisted of a man who played trumpet and a woman who played bass. Once they began to play, I realized that once again, I had entered jazz hell. Occasionally it seemed as though they were playing the same song, but mostly it felt like they teamed up just to get in some practice playing whatever melody (and I use that term loosely) came to mind. I could not distinguish one song from the next. It pained me to watch some of the patrons nodding their heads, sometimes with their eyes closed, clearly grooving and getting something that I simply could not hear. I started to hate them unreasonably. The saving grace was that the bar served a strong, American IPA that I liked and the musicians eventually took a nice, long break that I enjoyed much more than I had their musical performance.

I should probably take a “History of Jazz” or “Jazz Appreciation” class at our local community college and see if I can expand my musical knowledge. Hopefully, it will contain lessons on how to properly nod my head in time to the music.

 

If It’s Friday, It Must Be Barry White

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To be honest, I think most of Barry White’s music is pretty awful. That being said, two songs—“Can’t Get Enough of Your Love Babe,” and “You’re The First, The Last, My Everything”—belong right up there in the Catchy-Ass Music Hall of Fame.

I first got hooked on just how great these tunes were when I noticed that one of the sports guys I listened to on the radio as I was driving home from work every day,  ended his program with a small clip of “You’re the First…” and with the words, “Hey, if you ain’t getting any, it ain’t Barry White’s fault.” The words made no sense, and had nothing to do with sports, but I loved the fact that he did the same thing every day. It was his send off. His ritual.

I’m not sure when I started incorporating music into my classroom (I taught English) but it came from noticing how often some periods began with such lethargy that I felt I was lifting a boulder of boredom before I even got started. So, I started picking out two or three songs to play from the start of the passing period until I had shaken hands with each of the kids, taken roll, and was ready to start the day. When the music went off, kids knew it was time for class to start. I created playlists I thought they would like, made them listen to some international music like Manu Chao, Mexican fusion from Los Lobos and Ozomatli, and lots of Beatles and Motown—basically anything that I liked. Occasionally my son or daughter would advise me to slip in something current, just to keep the “cool factor” up, so I’d surprise the kids with that.

But Fridays were always reserved for Barry White. Monday through Thursday was  a mixed bag, but every Friday was a Barry White Friday. I didn’t explain why, or tell the story about how I had come upon it. I just wrote on the board on the first Friday of the year, “Today is a Barry White Friday.” For some kids, it took months to even notice. Some picked it up right away, that Fridays were different. Fridays were to be celebrated.

Kids are so immersed in so many things that I had to laugh at the number of times I would crank Barry up, and I’d hear someone exclaim, “Oh, my god! It is Friday!” Dancing would then sometimes ensue.

At least two or three times a year, I’ll get a text or FB message from a student telling me about how they were walking through a grocery store or listening to the radio and one of his songs would come on, songs that I had played for 36 almost-consecutive Fridays, and they would be flooded with the memories of senior year.

I don’t think anything about Barry White made my kids better students, improved test scores, or fundamentally changed the arc of their lives. It was just one of those very little things that made our class a little different, a little special. Something that their friends in other classes wouldn’t get, and would never quite understand.

 

 

 

 

Compulsively Bad Taste

Gould: Look, we all go way back, and I owe you from the thing with the guy in the place, and I’ll never forget it.

Clooney: That was our pleasure. 

Pitt: I’d never been to Belize.

This is dialogue from my favorite scene in the film Oceans Eleven, one of the movies that I’ll stop and watch in it’s entirety if I just happen across it when channel surfing, a film I’ve seen at least a dozen times.

Gould’s line is so absurdly funny and Clooney and Pitt respond in lines that mean absolutely nothing to the audience. We really have no idea what they are talking about. The capper is Gould’s comment that “I’ll never forget it” even though he cannot remember any of the details of this previous encounter. I wish I could write like that.

The thing is, I can watch films like this over and over again and not feel like I’m “wasting time” or that I should be doing something more significant. Because essentially, who is to say what actually has meaning?

Even with this proclivity, I stay active. I’m not a couch potato. I’m just entranced by certain actors, certain films, even critical moments in some films.

I can put on the film Once just to watch the first 12 minutes up to the point when Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova make their way to a quiet music store and perform the lovely duet of “Falling Slowly” which earned the pair an Academy Award. On some days, I’ll put in my disc of that film, just to see that scene—once or twice or three times. Then I’ll pull out my guitar and try to master the intro to that wonderful song.

And then there is Tom Cruise. That’s right—I’ll admit it. I’m a fan. I don’t care if he’s a freak personally; he has made a bunch of films that I like. Top Gun has a place in my heart that I’ll talk about later, but lately I find I can’t resist watching Jack Reacher or the futuristic Edge of Tomorrow and reveling in the writing and execution of the films. I hope the guy never ages—and it makes me happy to know that at 5’8”, I’m apparently taller than he is according to my sources at Universal Studios.

And then there is Denzel. He’s done important films like The Hurricane and Training Day but seeing those once was enough. While I’m writing this I’m watching Man on Fire for probably the 20th time, and I just ordered my own copy of The Equalizer only because I recently subscribed to Amazon Prime and can get stuff shipped to me for free. Both are stories of both revenge and redemption, themes I find irresistible. And then there is the very underrated film, Déjà Vu, where Washington excels as both an action hero and romantic lead.

In a pinch, I can plug in any of the three Bourne movies with Matt Damon and escape happily into a world of action and intrigue.

Most of my day is filled with hiking, yoga, gardening, home maintenance, and marriage maintenance. However, I have no problem taking a break to watch something on TV—over and over again.

 

 

Montreal Afternoon

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On a recent trip that included a visit to Montreal, my wife and I stood outside the Basilica de Notre Dame trying to decide if it was worth 5 bucks each to go inside and look at a church. As we rested, standing together near a fountain in the church square across the street enjoying the shade on the warm and humid day, I started to notice a street musician with his electric guitar hooked up to a practice amp. He had just begun singing a song that I recognized, but did not know the title or the original artist.

The song (I later found out) was Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game, and as the tune echoed out over the square it began to lift me as I took in the milling crowd, the façade of the church, the feeling of my wife’s hand in mine. It was as if I had entered a movie where time had slowed and everyone around me was moving at half-speed. The warm breeze was a caress as the tune soared and echoed and leaves from the trees fluttered down over us. My wife didn’t understand when I refused to move until he had finished the song because, of course, this my moment. The song had made that fleeting moment perfect for me and there were no words that were adequate to explain.

I felt a longing for the song to go on, for the moment to continue, but of course, it did not and life sped up again and the momentary magic disappeared. When he finished I went over to drop a couple of bucks in his guitar case and tell him that I had enjoyed the song, but it was an inadequate tribute.

If I had heard the same song on Wednesday night instead of that Tuesday afternoon, or if I had been walking through a subway tunnel instead of in front of the church, it might have been distracting or annoying. If it had come on the radio, I might have changed the station.

But sometimes music has the power to simply stop me in a moment, to define that moment and freeze it in my memory. For me, a Montreal afternoon will always belong to a mournful song and a solitary singer.

“The Equalizer”–Feels So Good To Be Bad

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If I had paid attention to the mixed reviews, I might have never caught the most recent Denzel Washington film, The Equalizer. However, my wife graciously fed my action-film addiction when she discovered it on TV a couple of weeks ago.  I’ve watched it three times since.

The Equalizer falls into a genre of films that has enormous appeal to my lizard brain, that part of me that wants there to be a force for good that will stop at nothing to correct an injustice, that will relentlessly punish evil-doers, that refuses to acknowledges the grey areas of morality. It’s tough and contradictory. I’m anti-war. I’m anti-death penalty. But, as I read the paper daily and see the outrages being perpetrated around the world on innocent people, I find myself wanting that drone strike, wanting US special ops, wanting SEAL Team 6 to storm in and make things right. However, we all know that this is a dangerous road to go down. Just this morning, I read that the United States estimates that we have killed nearly 500 innocents in our air war against ISIS and undoubtedly thousands more in our infamous “war on terror.” How can we justify that?

But in the world of Robert McCall, Washington’s character in The Equalizer, the enemy is always clear, his justice swift and precise. In the two hours of the film, he evens the score for a young woman he has befriended who is badly beaten by her pimp, one co-worker who is terrorized at gunpoint, and another whose family is being extorted by corrupt cops. In the process, he destroys the criminal empire of a powerful Russian mobster.

So, how do I justify my world-view with my pop culture choices. I can’t—not entirely. I did discover though that there were certain elements of this film, and others like it, that I find absolutely irresistible. To tip the scales of justice against and insurmountable number of very bad men, these heroic characters must be imbued with crazy, mad skills—think Matt Damon in all three Bourne movies and, Liam Neeson in the Taken franchise all rolled into one. McCall “equalizes” with cool, efficient, resourceful brutality, barely breaking a sweat as he takes on the Russian mob, cleverly using supplies from his low-level home improvement store job. He finds a way to make the simplest tools lethal for those who pursue him. In fact, I’ll never look at a tree-trimmer (or a cork screw for that matter) quite the same again. The Equalizer - 2014

If you are a Denzel fan, you can’t watch this film without noticing the similarities to his 2004 effort in Man on Fire, which critics rightly point out is a more complex and nuanced performance drawn from a much more complex and nuanced script. Both characters allude to a tortured past about which they have regrets. Joyhn Creasy (Washington) in Man on Fire asks his friend (Christopher Walken), “Do you think God’ll forgive us for what we’ve done?” Compare this to McCall’s conversation with the man who has been sent to kill him: “I’ve done some bad things in my life, Nicolai… Things I’m not proud of. I promised someone I love very much that I would never go back to being that person… But for you, I’ll make an exception.”

What I especially like about McCall is his selflessness. Mills (Neeson) is trying to save his family, and Bourne is trying to both discover and escape his past. Early on McCall befriends a young prostitute who is subsequently severely beaten. He checks in on her at the hospital and then quietly begins his pursuit of the men who harmed her. He tries to explain to his CIA contact: “I couldn’t tell you why it mattered. Why what they did to her that mattered to me so much. One day somebody does something unspeakable to someone else, to someone you hardly knew, and you…do something about it cause you can.” He gets nothing from risking his life except a bit of revenge and a dose of redemption.

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Critics complained about the lack of development of McCall’s character, but I don’t see it—not for this kind of film. We hear about his military background and know that he carries guilt for some of the actions of his past. We know he has loved someone deeply and tries to be a good man in her memory. He is a troubled man who cannot sleep and who spends his nights reading at a local café and his days working a simple job at a home improvement store where he cares about the people he works with and silently works to protect them. Oh, and in his spare time, he takes down Russian oligarchs with ruthless efficiency. Retribution, redemption, and plenty of action that develops logically and relentlessly. Not one car chase in sight. Just one man trying to tip the scales of justice, because he can. Irresistible! I may have to watch it again tonight.

The Dave Matthews Band–My Musical Addiction

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“Hi, my name is Tom (“Hi, Tom”) and I’m addicted to the Dave Matthews Band.”

Now, before you stop reading, realize that I’ve been dreading and struggling with writing this piece. I hate admitting to being an avid fan of anything because as soon as I say it out loud, I know that people start to make judgments, that I begin to define myself in their eyes, and inevitably the haters come out.

I was at a bar one night, and the bartender, muscular and tatted up, asked how I was doing. A DMB song had just come on and I said “Great, especially with this song playing.” He listened for a second, recognized the song and said, “Yeah, it’s so easy to bag on Dave Matthews.” My immediate impulse was to launch myself across the bar and grab him around the neck and…and, well I really didn’t have a plan after that. I’m sure the aftermath would have involved ambulances, broken bones, and various lacerations, all at my expense.

That’s the problem with being a devoted fan. It creates a huge blind spot in my brain and a complete inability to understand, or in severe cases, even stay in the same room with someone who doesn’t get it.

My musical tastes got frozen in the music that spanned the 60’s into the late 70’s. I skipped the ‘80’s and 90’s entirely (I mean, Depeche Mode—really?). And then as my son entered college and my daughter was in high school, they began to help me thaw and begin to listen to new music. My son’s partner has taken it upon himself to create new CDs for me every year for Christmas to introduce me to new music that he knows I’m not listening or to fill a gap that he feels is unacceptable for someone who really loves music.

My fascination with the Dave Matthews Band began when my daughter and some of her friends dragged me to my first DMB concert in 2004. I didn’t know a lot of the music but what caught me was the raw energy and enthusiasm of the band. The guys had been on tour all summer with San Diego being one of the last stops, and yet they played as Rolling Stone magazine once described, “as if their lives—and yours—depended on it.” That visceral passion was what initially plugged me into the band’s sound and drew me to collect and listen constantly to the ever-changing concert versions of their songs, some of which are now 20 years old.

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My wife dislikes his music commenting, “I just don’t like his voice.” Nobody likes his voice, I think to myself. He’s not a smooth crooner. He’s got a rusty, gutsy voice like a Ryan Bingham or a Seth Avett. He admits he just mumbles his way through some lyrics especially if he forgets them on stage. He says that he feels grateful that he gets to go out every night and scream at the top of his lungs.

In watching some interviews on YouTube, he rates his musical skills negatively compared to others he admires such as Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, but if you watch him closely as he plays in concert he’s changing chords constantly, sometimes syllable by syllable to create the sound that he wants. As he plays the same songs night after night, the band improvises, constantly blending the intro of one song with the body of another and effortlessly weaving in the work of others into his original works. Don’t be surprised if suddenly you hear “Fools Rush In,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, or “This Land is Your Land” popping up in the middle of an old DMB standard. One of my favorite improvisations was the summer he took the popular “Everyday” and gave it a reggae rhythm and then wove in a short tribute to Hugh Masekela’s “Grazin’ in the Grass.” I heard it on that one night and never heard it again.

If you have ever watched him in concert, you know that Dave does not have an easy, bantering relationship with the audience. The first show I saw, I think the only thing he said to the crowd was several variations of “Thank you.” It’s almost worse when he does start talking, often drifting off into nonsensical chatter. It doesn’t matter. His fans connected with him long ago through the music and will wait patiently for him to stop talking and launch into another song that everyone in the audience seems to already know word for word.

While some of his songs have a clear focus and straightforward lyrics, others are mystifying. I still do not know who the Nancies are or why they are dancing. I have seen or experienced or met a “Jimi Thing” nor have I come across a “river of Jimi.” I do not know why there is a warehouse in the song “Warehouse.” I’m a lyrics guy, lyrics matter to me, but when it comes to Dave, I just know that sometimes I have to let the music take me and forget about understanding every little thing. I wonder if he even knows what some of this stuff means.

So, maybe the bartender did not deserve the imaginary beating that I inflicted on him that night. Maybe there are a lot of reasons to bag on Dave Matthews.

All I know is that I would never want to actually meet the guy. As much as his music has been the soundtrack of my life over the past ten years, if I were to encounter him, I’d immediately turn into that oozy, goo of fandom where I would have absolutely nothing to say to him except how, “I really love your music, man! I mean, I’m talking really love it!”

Yeah, I don’t want to see me dissolve into that. For now, I will kindly accept all attempts to get me to broadening my music appreciation while I peacefully ride my inner tube down that river of Jimi for the foreseeable future.

 

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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.

“Clear Eyes, Full Heart, Can’t Lose”

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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.

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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.

 

 

How “Field of Dreams” Made Me a Better Father

FMD-Field-of-Dreams

Spoiler Alert! If you have not seen the film this piece abounds with spoilers. And what’s wrong with you that you haven’t seen this film yet?

It was supposed to be a movie about baseball. That’s all I really knew about it as I stood in line waiting for an afternoon showing back in 1989. It was the perfect combination of two of my most favorite things. The bucolic pace of baseball interrupted occasionally with bursts of action, and the cool, dark communal experience of watching a movie in the middle of the afternoon.

So, I was confused when the patrons of the earlier show began to stumble out into the bright light of the afternoon, and I could have sworn that I saw an older gentleman hurry away from the theater in tears.

“Hmmm,” I thought. “Weird.”

The matinee was a momentary escape for my wife and I from our two kids, who were 2 and 7 at the time—a typical afternoon respite from work, kids, responsibility, life.

As the film began, I probably should have paid more attention to the monologue delivered by the Kevin Costner character where Ray Kinsella (Costner) describes the tortured relationship with his father and his desire to not live the dreamless, workaday existence that he perceived was his father’s fate:

Dad was a Yankees fan then, so of course I rooted for Brooklyn. But in ’58, the Dodgers moved away, so we had to find other things to fight about. We did. And when it came time to go to college, I picked the farthest one from home I could find. This, of course, drove him right up the wall, which I suppose was the point. Officially, my major was English, but really it was the ’60s. I marched, I smoked some grass, I tried to like sitar music, and I met Annie. The only thing we had in common was that she came from Iowa, and I had once heard of Iowa.

 Hell, I loved baseball, had majored in English, showed up at some Vietnam War protests because we heard Joan Baez was going to be there (she was), and everyone tried to like sitar music because George Harrison liked it and everyone wanted to like whatever the Beatles liked. I could totally identify with this guy.

In that dark theater, I should have paid closer attention as Ray and the fictional author Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) begin their road trip and Kinsella tells Mann about the effect of one of his books on his relationship with his father:

“By the time I was ten, playing baseball got to be like eating vegetables or taking out the garbage. So when I was fourteen I started refusing. Can you believe that? An American boy refusing to play catch with his father.

Why fourteen?”

That’s when I read “The Boat Rocker,” by Terence Mann.

Oh, God.” (rolling his eyes)

Never played catch with him again.”

You see? That’s the kind of crap people are always trying to lay on me. It’s not my fault you wouldn’t play catch with your father!”

I was completely caught up in the mysticism of the movie and the story of how a dream, any dream, could find fulfillment. How the ball field in Iowa, carved out of his cornfield by Kinsella would provide redemption for Shoeless Joe Jackson and a chance for Moonlight Graham to finally get his first at bats in a big league game. The cornfield also provided the backdrop for Mann to deliver his now famous ode to baseball and its part of the fabric of America where he assures Kinsella that, “People, will come Ray. People will most definitely come.” I was eating up every fantastical theme it was throwing out about redemption, faith, and second chances as avidly as an outfielder diving for a line drive.

So, when Terence Mann drifted off into the cornfield and Shoeless Joe left Ray with one more cryptic message as he pointed to a lone player lingering behind and then left the field, I was completely blindsided. Never saw what the film was really about.

field-of-dreams-25-yrs-slide

Because down at the backstop, the player, a catcher, was still cleaning up his gear alone and unnoticed. The player was Ray’s father, a young man on this magical field, not worn down by life, dreaming of being a big-league ball player, a man with dreams—a man that Ray had never known.

In that moment, Ray and I realized that he had a second chance—a chance to introduce his wife and his father’s granddaughter, a chance to play that game of catch that he had rejected in his youth.

Ok, by now, I’m not crying, I’m weeping. I’ve been so taken by surprise that I’m stunned by the implications of this film and it’s ultimate message. Don’t tell anyone, but I cry at movies, especially ones about sports. I cried at the end of Mighty Ducks II. I cry during about every third episode of Friday Night Lights. Brian’s Song?—forget about it.

This film suddenly flooded me with memories of my dad and thoughts about the father I was trying to become. I had a vivid memory of asking my dad to come and play catch with me. After one or two tosses, I discovered that he had no natural athleticism or feel for the game. He threw so awkwardly that I quickly made up an excuse to cut the session short. As wonderful as he was in so many ways, he did not have this one skill. It was probably the only time that in my youthful ignorance, I felt disappointed in him.

As I grappled with that memory, I was struck hard by thoughts of my own children. I was not an indifferent, neglectful father. I did my share of the chores. In the infant days, I took many turns at late-night feedings and staying home to care for them on days they were sick. I shuttled them to and from day care and pre-school, helped get them dressed every morning, and read books every night.

But having children had both filled a void and torn a hole in my identity that took me years to understand. The all-consuming nature of parenthood had put the brakes on any thoughts about the kind of person I wanted to become outside of parenting and teaching. I probably would never have biked across Europe or climbed Kilimanjaro, but for that period of time I had stopped dreaming.

Even seven years into parenthood, I felt that something was tugging at me that did not allow me to fully embrace the role that I had, to all appearances, fully embraced. I felt an almost constant desire to be relieved from my responsibilities and a tiny, nagging resentment that my life was on hold, that I was missing out on something even if I wasn’t sure what that “something” was.

And absolutely none of this was on my mind when in the dim twilight of the final scene of the film, Costner turned and saw the lone, young catcher. “Oh my god,” I whispered. “It’s his dad.”

It suddenly came crashing down on me that the whole film had been a journey of forgiveness, reconciliation—a second chance for a father and son to “have a catch”, to reaffirm a relationship, to salvage love.

Tears still streaming down my face, it didn’t matter that the ending became awkward and improbable and maybe a little silly; I was too lost between the memories of the son I had been and the father I had become. The singular thought that seared through by brain at that moment was simple, but enduring—you only get one chance to get fatherhood right. One chance.

Outside of Hollywood, there are no do-overs, no cornfields of forgiveness and reconciliation. I realized that I had one chance to be a good dad, maybe an excellent dad, and that already, the years were slipping by quickly.

The film did not so much change the way that I behaved as a father, but it completely changed the way I thought about it. Some of the resentment began to drain away and I more fully accepted everything that came with being a dad.

My clearest memory of how this change affected me came after a long day, after the kids had both been bathed and put to bed and it was my turn to get in the shower. I had to kick away the toys left behind to avoid slipping, tripping or otherwise injuring myself and stood in the stream of hot water and looked about the walls, festooned with colorful, tile stickers the kids had found. Part of me longed to take a shower like an adult, in a clean place without plastic octopi tangling my feet or sea stars staring at me with googly eyes.

And then the thought, the new “Field of Dreams” thought, hit me—look how rich my life is. All of this stuff surrounded me was the stuff of fatherhood and children, of life and love, of the chances that life gives to you only once.