Hating the Heat

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This is a re-post of one I wrote last September.  The heat is back.  Time to share the misery once again.

Living in Southern California (San Diego, specifically) leaves me so little to complain about when it comes to seasonal weather that it is downright discouraging.

I mean, how can I complain to people from the rest of the nation who year after year live through blizzards, followed by “mud season”, the spawning of Mosquitos of Unusual Size, and locusts for all that I know. Outside of my SoCal bubble, there seems to be a brief period of lovely spring-like weather followed by monsoonal storms, and then tornados, blistering summer heat, and mind-numbing humidity. I hear fall is nice, but can the beauty of fall colors get a person through the inevitable knowledge that the blizzards are on the way once again?

I get it. Even throwing in our occasional earthquakes and wildfires, my meteorological complaints can’t compare to those of the average Nebraskan or Upper Peninsula Michigander.

However, as the climate changes, a fact universally acknowledged by any everyone except the 30% of Americans who get all of their wisdom and opinions from Fox News, summers are getting longer, hotter, and more miserable here in paradise. For me, it means longer periods of frayed nerves, slothfulness, and despair.

If you aren’t from around here and you keep an eye on the weather pages, you might regularly curse the seemingly endless reports from San Diego of temperatures that never exceed 85 degrees. Please understand that those temps are being recorded on the coast, in the shade, and I suspect, in an air-conditioned room, so that San Diego will have an endless appeal to tourists. Each mile inland from that thermometer means a one degree increase in temperature, so that in my corner of the county, 85 on the coast usually means 100 degrees in my inland valley. The thermometer seems to be stuck there for long stretches from June through the middle of November. It is becoming increasingly popular to plan Thanksgiving as an outdoor picnic.

I try to adjust. I really do. I get up earlier, get my walk done before the worst of the heat begins or take late evening walks. I blow through my outdoor chores sometimes as the sun is just coming up. As soon as the sun goes down, if the heat has not beaten the life out of me, I try to enjoy the warmly comfortable evening out on my deck or at a nearby bar that features an outdoor, big-screen TV with endless sports coverage.

As summer comes on, I become obsessed by the daily forecasts. None of them accurately anticipates the suffering I’m going to feel the next day. I recently bought a digital indoor/outdoor thermometer so that I continually, throughout the day, can check the exact temperature so that I know EXACTLY how miserable I am and EXACTLY how much I should be able to complain about it. My family has grown weary of my constant updates as the heat climbs toward triple digits.

My self-esteem sinks on days like this as my motivation to accomplish anything wanes. Sweeping out the garage seems like a monumental task. Watering the roses?—Herculean. I stare at the phone but the idea of actually picking it up to make an appointment to have my car serviced is just too much. On such a day, can’t watching 5 episodes of Scandal be considered an accomplishment? My lethargy weighs on me.

Essayist Joan Didion described this phenomenon brilliantly in her essay on the effects of the Santa Ana winds, a weather condition that brings high temperatures and hot, dry winds howling through the inland valleys, frequently in September and October when the tips of the palm trees turn brown and we start to hope for fall. It’s good to read her words and know that my desperation at day-after-day heat is not isolated. She recounts the effects as the populace senses the onset of the super-heated winds: “The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever is in the air.” She further quotes Raymond Chandler who wrote about the winds saying, “On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.”

It gives me comfort to know that external forces are toying with my actions and emotions. I know that I will rise again once our three weeks of winter begin some time in January. Until then, I wait in quiet desperation for the sun to go down. I give thanks for Netflix. I lie in bed at night waiting for the first cool breeze of the day to come drifting in my window, listening to the sirens wailing and the coyotes singing in the canyons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Panic Attack–A Bridge (Way) Too Far

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Ok.  Top 5 things I am afraid of:

5.  Dying as a result of mere inattention either by me or some other idiot.

4.  Dying while trying to fix my own plumbing or electrical problem.

3.  Dying at the hands of a crazed, spandex-clad bicyclist.

2.  Dying slowly of some kind of progressive, degenerative disease.

1.  Having to drive my car over a bridge.

Clearly from the list above, mortality is on my mind, as I imagine it is for most members of the over-60 club. The good news is, when you join the junior geriatric set, you get an increasing number of discounts. The bad news–you don’t get to enjoy them for all that long.

Death, however, in all its bizarre and mundane forms, still seems very abstract to me. I do not worry that I am going to die—that much is certain. However, how I go about dying is of much greater concern to me.

The difference between fears 2-5 and #1 is that the former are all somewhat existential concerns that don’t cause fierce heart palpitations, hyperventilation, and a desire to leap out of my car when I am faced by them.

I used to love to talk with my students about their various phobias. I was surprised to find out how many were still living with what we think of as child-like, boogieman fears. It was a revelation when one girl offered that as she prepared for going to bed, she would turn off the room light and leap into bed from the spot of the light switch. For years, when the subject of fear would come up in class I would share that story and always find others who still, even as 17 and 18-year-olds, practiced the same behavior.

I don’t remember many of the fears I had as a youngster or an adolescent. However, I do remember when reading the novel The Exorcist late into the night, I reached a point where I simply could not turn another page. I put the book down, and sincerely prayed that none of the evil spirits that I was convinced were now swirling about me would invade my body and turn me into a head-spinning, projectile-vomiting creature.

And, of course, I was fearful of having my adolescent heart crushed by someone like Theresa, a girl that I met when I was a sophomore and developed a huge crush on. We worked together on a project and I convinced myself that I was somewhere in her league—convinced myself so much that I finagled an invitation to her house on or about Valentine’s Day and gave her a gaudy, Hallmark V-day card. I met her mom, and she seemed happy that Theresa was “dating” a “nice boy.” Theresa traded on that impression to get her mom to let her to go to a dance with me. I was over the moon about the whole thing and still wondering at my luck as we entered the gym and she quickly informed me that she hoped it was OK with me if we didn’t stick together for the whole dance, and before long, she disappeared. She was kind enough to make sure she got back with me for the final slow dance and she managed somehow to hold me closely enough that it almost made up for the whole, slow burn of humiliation that I had felt during the night.

But these are all fears that I would think of as being common human experiences, just as I think we all worry about the onset and manner of our eventual deaths. It wasn’t until I was fully adult that I discovered the white-knuckled, heart-pounding, breath-taking fear that came on me unexpectedly when I was doing something as simple as driving over a bridge.

I don’t exactly remember when I discovered that I had gephyrophobia –yes, it actually has a name. For me, it is truly the mother of all completely irrational fears. I had a hint of it the first time I drove up to Carmel and my new bride and I took the scenic Hwy 1. I could not relax once in that three-hour stretch as I hugged the north-bound lane and hoped to God I wasn’t about to plunge over the all-too-close cliffs and down to the rocks and ocean below.

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I do remember that it became an issue for me when we were headed home from a trip to the Napa/Sonoma area. Heading back toward Oakland, I was totally unprepared for the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, which as I approached, began to look like a piece of ribbon about six inches wide. As the bridge shrunk in size it also took on the appearance of a huge roller coaster ride that I had not signed up for. Suddenly, I couldn’t grip the steering wheel hard enough, as if at any moment some (Exorcist-like) force would make me veer off, break through all of the guardrails and send us to our deaths. I tried to find a lane that felt comfortable, crossing back and forth without consulting my mirror or using my signals. I did not give a flying fuck about anyone behind me. I was in full-blown panic mode and was trying to find any comfortable space where I could survive the five minutes it was going to take me to get across this span.

Of course, a fear like this feeds upon itself. I started to study maps of our driving trips and if I spotted a bridge crossing, I’d worry about it for days. Often the bridge would be so short and flat that I’d be over it before I would even notice but one successful crossing did not breed confidence. Once when I was at a conference in Palo Alto, I wanted to go over to Oakland to visit with my son who was living there at the time. To get there, I would have to cross the Dumbarton Bridge or take a very circuitous route through San Jose. I actually looked up the bridge using Google images to find a picture of this beast and see if it looked passable. I made it, back and forth, but not without a lot of concentration and deep-breathing exercises.

This means there are a lot of cities I will never live in. San Francisco, New York, and Seattle come to mind right away. We are currently planning a trip to the Adirondacks and there is just so much water there. I don’t even want to look at a map and start thinking about it.

I’ve come to realize that it is bigger than just bridges. I don’t like to be near the edge of the abyss. If I can see a dramatic drop-off, I start to panic. I don’t like mountain driving, or even hiking on a narrow trail with a steep drop. Strangely, I have gone para-sailing without incident and stared over the edge of the observation deck of the Empire State Building without any problem. I suspect that I could do a parachute jump although I have not yet taken that one on.

There is something about being near the edge though, that continues to haunt me. Maybe that drop-off is somehow metaphorically connected in my mind to the Abyss with a capital “A”—the fear of death that permeates the other four of my top five fears.

Or maybe I just hate bridges and will assiduously continue to avoid them at all costs.

 

 

 

 

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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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.

 

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.

Just A Few Things I Don’t Understand About Women

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First, let me say that I love women. Love them. Could not live without the lovely friend and partner who has been my wife over the past 41 years or any of the women I’m lucky enough to have as friends. And this writing group seems to be populated by so many brilliant and thoughtful women. It has been a pleasure to get to meet you all. In fact, the fact that I get confused by the behavior of women is probably entirely my fault.

Have I put in enough disclaimers that I can broach this subject now?

Gift giving. I have always thought that on any occasion it was best to give your friend or partner something that you know that she wants.   So, early in our marriage, when I the electric wok that I purchased for my wife as an anniversary present was met with less than enthusiasm, I was confounded. I knew it was something she wanted. She had said so repeatedly. To explain her disappointment she actually sat me down and told me, slowly and using small words, that kitchenware of any kind was just not an appropriate gift for special, personal occasions. Honest to God, I had no idea. Where was the manual for gift-giving procedures?

Christmas gift giving seems to be more easy-going. Three months, three full months, before a recent Christmas, my wife saw a hanging lamp in a favorite boutique shop that she declared to be the perfect replacement for a dated chandelier-type lamp that had hung in our dining room for years and years. However, she declined to buy it at the time, and I swooped in like a shark. The very next week, I went back on my own, bought the lamp and put it away. On Christmas day, I saved it for after she had opened the more personal gifts (having learned my lesson from the wok debacle), and she seemed truly surprised and delighted as she unwrapped it and opened it up. Hah! I knew it! Perfect gift, perfect surprise! Then she made maybe the most contradictory statement I have ever heard any woman say, “Gosh, honey, this is great, but just because I say I want something doesn’t mean you have to rush out and buy it for me.” WHAT!!?? I thought it was EXACTLY what we were supposed to do. I thought it was exactly what the attentive and thoughtful spouse would be expected to do after 40 years of careful observation. Hmmmm.

Those three little words. Every partner cares about three little words. However, I suspect that the exact words may be gender specific. For me, there is nothing more heart-warming, nothing more life-affirming than hearing my wife whisper in my ear, “you were right.” On the two or three occasions per year that this happens, I usually feign deafness so I can have her repeat it once again, just to extend the satisfaction of the moment.

The expectation of the power of mind reading. As a high school English teacher I worked primarily with female colleagues and individually, I could hold my own with them. But once they assembled in a friendly group, they would all begin talking at once with lots of gesturing, head-nodding, eye-rolling. I would watch them smiling, frowning, smirking all in quick succession all leading to a lull and a sense on my part that something had been decided. Finally, as the token male I would be asked, “What do you think about it, Tom?”

“About what?” I’d ask.

Ah, thank goodness I get to stop at 500 (actually 600) words. I suspect I am in enough trouble already.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

“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).

 

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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.

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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.

 

 

“Dude, I Said I Was Sorry!”

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I’m a very careful driver. I almost never run over bicyclists. I give them wide berth even when they are doing something obnoxious like riding two abreast on a street with no bike lane, or wearing those garish neon, spandex outfits, or walking around the coffee shop in those ballet slippers they wear.

So you can imagine my confusion, when I was confronted by an angry—no—apoplectic, spandex-clad, black-helmeted, bicycle rider after having just pulled into the parking lot of a popular regional park that was the meeting site for my weekly hiking class.

“Hiking class” is one of those things that as a retired person, I can sign up for and attend because I have time. The teacher draws up a list of hikes for the quarter, emails us notes and directions the night before, and then at 8:30 every Wednesday morning we hearty retirees meet up to trek about the local hills and valleys.

“YOU IDIOT! YOU CUT ME OFF DOWN THERE AND NEARLY HIT ME!” the irate man screamed at me.

I stared at him dumbly for a moment as I started to pull my gear from the back of my car. I hadn’t even seen him.

“I didn’t even see you,” I told him.

“I KNOW YOU DIDN’T SEE ME, YOU ASSHOLE! WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU?”

Actually nothing was the matter with me except that this large man was screaming at me, and I was puzzled how I could have nearly hit someone in a wide- open area, someone that I had not even sighted. I decided repetition and an apology might work.

“I’m sorry. I-Never-Saw-You.” I said the last part more loudly and more slowly, as if he perhaps had not heard me the first time.

“I HEARD YOU THE FIRST TIME!” he yelled. “YOU ALMOST RAN ME OFF THE ROAD DOWN THERE. BEING SORRY DOESN’T HELP THAT.

He had a point. But since I HADN’T hit him, and he HADN’T fallen, and I HADN’T damaged him or his bike in any way, I was stymied about what to say. By now I had withdrawn my walking stick that weighs all of about 8 ounces because I was starting to think I might need to whack him with it if he became violent. I’m a lover, not a fighter, but angry people are unpredictable, and I can get flustered easily when confronted by one.

However, he seemed content to sit on his bike and continue to berate me some more at which point I apologized a third time, although I was finding it harder and harder to be sincere since I had no idea what I was apologizing for.

Finally, he grew tired of yelling and turned to ride off, screaming a few more insults at me as he left, and I strapped on my hiking gear and set off on the trail enjoying a rare cool morning, but I found myself going back over the incident in my mind and wondering if I could have handled it differently.

How could I truly apologize for something that I wasn’t even sure I had done? Maybe he was just an angry guy, hiding in the bushes, waiting to ride out and scream at someone. A guy who felt persecuted and needed someone to take his rage out on. Maybe it was a hobby for him, confronting and making people uncomfortable, and then riding off gleefully knowing he just might have ruined someone’s day.

But what I most pondered, as I enjoyed the hike that wandered down along the San Diego River and then back up to the visitor center, was what does one do when an apology simply is not enough?

I don’t have an answer for that one.

 

 

 

 

How “Field of Dreams” Made Me a Better Father

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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.

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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.