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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

The Hope That Only Comes In Spring

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On March 21 I’ll pack up the car and make the 5½ hour drive from my home in the San Diego area to Phoenix, AZ where I will spend the next three days jetting around this sprawling metropolis to watch entirely meaningless baseball games.

I will follow my San Diego Padres around to Peoria, Glendale, Scottsdale, Goodyear or wherever they might be playing on a given day and find a place in the shade to sit and watch. Like a baseball scout, I’m curious about the team they have put together, and the only way to evaluate is to be there and watch maybe twenty players and 5 or 6 pitchers rotate through the game as I play along with the coaches and trying to figure out which players will bust out as stars and which players will simply be busts.

I will probably even go three hours early to one of the games to do nothing other than stand with other fans and watch both the major and minor leaguers go through drills and batting practice. It is boring and repetitive stuff, but you get to be so close to the players, watch them trip up, listen them razz each other.

And then as the players rotate to different fields, they will stand near a fence or cordoned-off area and the gracious ones will sign autographs, chat with fans, and allow them to take pictures. Others will load their hands up with gear and trot quickly on to the next field ignoring the fans or promising to sign, “as soon as I get done.” They never do.

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I watched former Padre stars Huston Street and Jake Peavy go out of their way to sign every item thrust at them and lean in for every selfie requested. I watched former skipper Bruce Bochy sign a ball for my daughter and kid around with her about a question she asked him about an impending trade.

I caught the great Tony Gwynn a couple of times back when the Padres trained in Yuma, once as he took the long way around the fields trying to sneak in the clubhouse away from the throngs of fans who adored him. I spent two or three wonderful minutes chatting with Jerry Coleman, the voice of the Padres for so many years, asking him about his days with the Yankees before he got dragged away by someone more important. I stood in line to get an autograph from the forgettable pitcher Eric Show, passing on a chance to ink a promising young second baseman, Roberto Alomar. After all, he was just a minor leaguer—a minor leaguer who would eventually end up in the Hall of Fame.

Two years ago I contacted Corey Brock who covers the Padres for the MLB.com. He writes articles almost daily as the season begins and is a frequent contributor on sports talk radio and does TV interviews as a “Padre insider.” I emailed him about my interest in sports writing, we exchanged phone numbers, and eventually arranged a time where he came out of the Padre offices and sat with me for about ½ hour just talking baseball and the business of sports writing before he got called away to cover a press conference.

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There is an intimacy in spring training that you just don’t get anywhere else. The ballparks are small, and players will frequently sign autographs and hang out with fans before and after the games. While I don’t certainly don’t venerate any of these guys, I get a kick out of watching them up close before they get to the real season, playing real games in their cavernous stadiums. That being said, I will undoubtedly become a drooling, idiot fan if I stumble upon Trevor Hoffman this spring and happen to have a fresh baseball and Sharpie in my hand.

If you hate baseball, you probably did not read past the first line of this one. If you are not a San Diego fan, almost none of the names I mentioned will mean anything. It’s OK, I get it. But for three glorious days, I will be toasting in the warm Arizona sun, drinking beer, and rooting for Tyson Ross to find his rhythm, and for Andrew Cashner to get his head screwed on straight. I’ll be cheering if there is any sign that Matt Kemp might find his swing before July this year, and that Wil Myers will get through the season without having his wrist fall apart.

Any baseball fan knows that spring training is the season of hope—the hope that this is the year when the gods of baseball will choose to smile on their team.

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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.

 

 

 

 

The Wisdom Thing And Why I Don’t Think I Have It

Day 15—I have been part of an FB writing group for the past three weeks or so. The challenge was to write at least 500 words a day for 30 consecutive days. This post is specifically addressed to those participating group members.

I’ve gotten a couple of very kind comments from members of the group that indicated that they thought I possessed some kind of wisdom or insight, and it’s a label I’ve always been uncomfortable with. I know part of it comes with age. I think I may be the senior member of our group from what I can tell, and just because I’ve lived though a few more life transitions than others doesn’t make me feel qualified to impart anything to anyone.

I told my wife I was struggling on how to approach this topic, and she suggested I try to define what I felt wisdom was.

Reading all that you have shared about your lives, I’m always so impressed by the depth and breadth of your experiences. You have traveled so much and so adventurously. I’ve never even seen the inside of a hostel. I can get lost walking out the front door.

In addition, you’ve worked in so may fields, had big failures, big successes, or are still trying to make your way, still inventing yourself, still figuring it out. I admire that. You’ve experienced a multitude of relationships, and I feel awful when I read about how painful some of them have been for you, but you keep finding your way through, showing a resilience that is admirable. In time, you will have a breadth of experience to share that I think really approaches wisdom.

My “wisdom” is deeply rooted in a lack of experience. I’ve been married for 41 years and we’ve been together for 43+. She is the only woman I have ever been with. What do I have to tell you about relationships? I have lived in the same house since 1980. I worked at the same job in the same high school for 36 years. Notice the pattern here? And, of course, only I am aware of just how fallible and foolish I can be, about my epic failures of judgment, about my continued and sometimes purposeful acts of poor judgment.

When I taught I school, I always felt deeply honored by students who came to see me as a mentor of sorts. One of my classroom rituals was to shake hands with each student in every class every day, just to say hi, offer them a greeting, cajole them about their work, tease them about the bad hair day they were having, whatever. Sometimes, I’d see a change in mood or demeanor and I might stop and ask if they were OK, or hit them up later and check in with them. Some sought me out on their own. Some simply came into my room and dissolved into tears over their latest crisis.

I got to be pretty good in these moments to just let them talk, to be an active listener, and to qualify any advice I might give them with the disclaimer that I was completely unqualified to give advice. In truth, I don’t think it mattered much what I said. What mattered most was they had found a caring adult who would stop everything for the moment and listen to whatever they had to say without appearing shocked or judgmental, even though they sometimes shared incredibly intimate details of their lives. I think it was especially important that I was a parent, but not their parent. If I gave them anything, it was reassurance, not wisdom. Those experiences have continued to this day with students who have chosen to stay in touch with me. I feel very honored by those relationships.

A small group of my students once got into a heated discussion before class over whether I was more like Gandalf (the wise and kindly wizard of The Lord of the Rings) or Albus Dumbledore (the wise and kindly wizard of the Harry Potter franchise). I found it a little disturbing. I didn’t like them having a perception of me that was so different than the perception I have of myself, as complimentary as it might have been. I told them it was the dumbest conversation I had ever heard them have, and that they should sit down so I could get class started.

(The answer, by the way, is Dumbledore, always Dumbledore.)

 

“The Kids Are All Right”

My children are now 28 and 33, and yes, it makes me feel old to write that down. Typical of their generation, they are both single and both still testing out a number of possible career choices. Luckily, they are both bright, hard-working, loving individuals and I don’t spend as much time worrying about them as I used to, maybe because they live in different cities and we only get edited versions of their daily lives.

But I have no trouble remembering the early years. Emily (our youngest) did not sleep through the night for the first two years. I have no idea how my wife and I soldiered on with heavy work schedules, early mornings, and no sleep.

We went through the usual number of medical emergencies including several broken wrists due to horses and soccer. When he was a toddler, my son, Nico, implanted a purple button so deeply up his nose that we couldn’t see it and had to take it on faith that this justified a run to the urgent-care clinic. I remember thinking to myself, “You’d better have a button up your nose.” He did and the doctor calmly took some tool that looked like a cross between pliers and tweezers and snaked it out for us.

Emily, my youngest, scared the living shit out of us when one afternoon she suddenly seemed to lose all strength in her legs. She must have been 5 or 6 and seemed quite happy to squirm about on the floor, but we were quickly again off to urgent care for an exam and blood tests. They started throwing around scary words like meningitis. That night we got a call that they wanted to us to come back in the morning to re-do a blood test. The first one had revealed a very high (or was it low?) white cell count and they needed to confirm the results. I called my mom, the registered nurse and asked her what this meant and she hesitated before I pressed her. “Well, it could mean leukemia, but…” I don’t remember the rest of the conversation.

The next morning, they got her right in and drew blood and my wife and I sat with her in an exam room waiting very nervously. Visions of losing my baby girl to some awful disease filled me with dread as we waited. The doctor popped in and without hesitation said “Everything is fine.” The original test had been faulty. By then, Emily was running about like a normal kid again, but I felt like I had aged.

Looking back I can pick out two things about which I was incredibly naive when it came to parenting. The first was my assumption that everything we had learned raising the first child would be applicable to the second child. Not even close. I remember trying to give Emily a pacifier, which Nico had taken to as if his life depended on it. Emily kept spitting it out and looking at me as if to say, “Why do you insist on sticking this piece of plastic in my mouth?” Everything was different. We were five years older. Emily had a sibling to contend with which Nico never did. Her temperament was entirely different.

My second grand misconception was that my job as a parent was pretty much over once I had gotten them off to college. Wow, was I wrong about that. It wasn’t just the financial support; it was everything. I’ve come to believe that kids need more parenting in their twenties than maybe at any other time in their lives. As my father-in-law used to say: “Little people, little problems; big people, big problems.”

I’m proud of the adults they have become. If anything, I would worry that I had made them boring and overly-cautious like I am, but they seem anything but. They seem to be enjoying life and making their way just fine, despite broken bones and purple buttons.

 

 

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.

 

 

Bookshelf

Completely bereft of an idea for today, I started to stare at the large bookshelf that hangs over my desk—the desk where I often sit thinking about how I don’t have anything to write about.

Mary and I have been getting rid of stuff that we have not touched in 10 or 20 years and that we have finally decided we should really let go. The urge to purge really came from two sources. One was that we had to empty bookshelves, closets, china cabinets and more because we were having all of the flooring in our house replaced and we had to protect as much stuff from breakage and dust as we could. We enriched the local thrift stores with a truckload of boxes and bags, but half of my garage is still taken up with boxes that we have not had the time or the will to tackle.

And then 5 years ago, my sister and I had to empty my mother’s mobile home out and put it up for sale when we realized she could no longer live on her own and had to move her into a board and care home. It took us the better part of a month to sort through the decades worth of crap that my parents had held on to. I hauled bag after bag of items that were once useful and meaningful to them off to the dumpster including at least 10 ashtrays (they had both stopped smoking over twenty years ago). It was weird. It was like throwing away someone else’s life without their permission. I decided that I would try not to do the same to my own kids.

So on my bookshelf I can see there are really three categories of books: books I will never read, books I have read many times but cannot yet bear to part with, and books I have purchased or have been given to read but haven’t gotten to yet.

The “never will read” category includes Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, which should have gone to the thrift store, but I felt guilty because some people think it’s a modern classic and I always meant to read it. Same goes for Camus’ The Plague and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I mean, really. When am I going to be in a good enough mood to want to read shit like that?

The “cannot bear to part with” section is probably the largest. There are the classics like my copies of Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, Catch-22, The Poisonwood Bible, and Fahrenheit 451, each filled with years of notes crammed into the margins from the time I spent teaching them. They each carry all of the memories of those years of my life, especially of the days when a discussion went well. And tucked away in a corner is a little gem of a book entitled If I Never Get Back by Darryl Brock. It was his first book, and I’m pretty sure it’s out of print. It has romance, time travel, Mark Twain, and the history of baseball all put together in a story I fell in love with.

The “yet to read” section is filled with gifts from family and friends, most especially from my son, a fellow writer. High on my list is Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity which I hope it is just as funny as the movie was, and Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. I can’t figure out why I have not yet tackled Khaled Hosseini’s book And The Mountains Echoed because his first two books were so terrific (The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns).

So, I’m faced with the dilemma of what books to save, to toss, or to give away. It’s a tough one for a former English teacher. Each story seems to carry it’s author’s history and a little bit of my own.

 

 

Ooops!

Coming home from Balboa Park the two days ago, I got into a car accident on the freeway and I handled the whole thing in a totally uncharacteristic way.

A car re-entered the freeway slowly from the shoulder, causing the guy in the first lane to swerve into the guy in the second lane, causing that guy to hit me a glancing blow on the right side as I swerved into what was luckily an open space. I looked in the rear view mirror and could see some dust and debris flying up in the air but it didn’t look like anyone was spinning out or slowing down or pulling over.

By instinct and training, I knew I was supposed to pull over to the side of the road, exchange information, and call my insurance company, but at the moment that just seemed like an enormous fucking hassle.

Strangely enough, I was uncharacteristically calm. I did not feel shaken up at the close call and wasn’t feeling that huge adrenalin rush that usually accompanies such a moment; I wasn’t angry at the idiot who had caused the mess; I just felt annoyed that I might get sucked into some god-awful mess when everything had happened so fast that I didn’t even know the color of the car that had hit me.

So, I just decided to drive on and hope the damage to my car was as minimal as I imagined that it was. I was kind of surprised at my reaction but figured it this way:

First of all, I was most definitely a victim. Through no stretch of the imagination could I have been considered at fault. I got hit in a chain reaction and had luckily avoided hitting anyone else. It didn’t really occur to me that someone could have been seriously hurt, but I suppose that was a possibility. I just didn’t feel it was my job to stop and try to sort things out.

Secondly, I didn’t want to get into the legal hassles that were going to follow a chain-reaction accident. This had happened to me once before when I was sitting at a stoplight and a young woman plowed into a car, three cars behind me. I ended up being the last in line to get popped, just enough to get some free chiropractic and massage treatments. But I also got sued by someone in the line who sued everyone involved in the accident even though I had no possibility of being at fault. I called my insurance and the guy said, “Yeah, this happens all the time. It’s why you have us.” The estimate was that it would take 3 months and $6– $10,000 to extricate me from the suit. I did not want to go through that again.

Lastly, I’m not crazy about the car I own now. It’s a small 2007 SUV that I’d like to replace, but it only costs me about $500 a year to insure and it’s paid for. It is eminently reliable and functional for hauling around my yard and garden stuff. I’ll probably drive it until it dies. All the dings are on the passenger side, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s in pretty pristine condition as long as I don’t walk all the way around it.

It did vaguely occur to me that I had “left the scene of an accident” and that I might get a visit from the Highway Patrol if someone had been fast enough to get my license, but for me, someone who worries about just about everything, I felt oddly unconcerned. You could say that it barely put a dent in my day.

The Voices In My Head

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No, not the schizophrenic ones.   The medications seem to be working fine, thanks.

Having spent my adult life as an English teacher, I venerate authors. I view them as magicians, as possessing powers that regular people just don’t have. When I finish an epic novel by Marquez or Kingsolver, I’m stunned by the vision that allows for the elegant plotting of a story that consumes me for hours and then clouds my head for days with their characters, images, and elegant language.

I was staring up at my bookcase, trying to think of something to write, when I noticed how many really great authors I had met or had some kind of personal contact with.

After all, authors (the living ones anyway) want to sell books, so they are public people. Their publishers arrange book signings, speaking tours, appearances at English teacher conferences and book fairs around the country, and I have taken advantage of such events to get to see and listen to some of the best.

Maybe the most impressive author I ever had the chance to see was Maya Angelou—once at a teacher’s conference in Oakland and a second time at San Diego State University. I was shocked to hear when she passed away this year, just because after hearing her speak, it seemed as though she was one of those voices who would live forever. And what a voice—the most resonant, memorable, lyrical voice this side of James Earl Jones.

At SDSU, she did not just give a canned inspirational message, but it was as if it were a three-act play. She wove the story of her remarkable life—her difficult and abusive youth, her mastery of five languages, her time with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., her experiences living in Africa and the Middle East—with her message of hope and love. One moment she’d be telling of her time as San Francisco’s first African-American cable car conductor (at 14 years of age) and then break into a song. Before long she would be reciting the magnificent words of the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Every bit of it was seamless. I feel sad for anyone who never had the chance to hear her speak.

One Saturday in the spring of 2009, I drove frantically from a workshop I had given in San Diego, arriving at UCLA just in time to hear Ray Bradbury speak at UCLA’s annual Festival of Books. He was quite frail by that time and in a wheelchair, but still full of the fire that lead him to write such wonders as Dandelion Wine and Fahrenheit 451. He still decried what he perceived as the advance of the totalitarian state and yet charmed the crowd with stories of his life as a writer. He told the story of writing the bulk of Fahrenheit 451 in UCLA’s Powell Library, using their typewriters which they rented for 10 cents an hour. He managed to finish the book for $9.80.

At that same Festival of Books, I had the chance to see Mitch Albom (Tuesdays With Morey) interviewed by Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes, Tis, Teacher Man). If I die, I want to come back as Mitch Albom—I just wouldn’t spend as much time writing about dying and the afterlife. However, doing so has not hurt Mitch. His books have sold over 35 million copies. I love music, travel, and sports and Albom combined them all to advance his education, establish a career, and have the twenty-something experience of a lifetime.

He traveled across Europe, freelancing as a sportswriter and supporting himself by playing music along the way. At one point he settled for a time in a small, Greek village and became the town’s “piano man” at a favored local bar. I remember sitting and listening to this story and thinking “why would you ever leave?” Eventually though, he came home and in time became the lead sports columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Let’s see. Sportswriter in Detroit or musician in Greek village—and you picked Detroit??? On purpose??

He continued to play music, eventually forming a band called the Rock Bottom Remainders that included other notable writers such as Amy Tan, Stephen King, Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson, Barbara Kingsolver, and others. The group did charity gigs at various locations including once at a book-sellers convention where they were so well received that they were surprised to find themselves being called out for an encore. They were startled when a stranger joined them on stage and grabbed an extra guitar, a guy who had been backstage and who Mitch thought was a janitor. Turns out the “janitor” was Bruce Springsteen, who sat in with them for their final song and offered the advice, “Your band’s not too bad. It’s not too good either. Don’t let it get any better, otherwise you’ll just be another lousy band.”

Throughout the discussion with McCourt, he had the crowd in stitches. The guy could tell a story. Novelist, sportswriter, musician, traveler, comic and guy who hung out for one night with Bruce Springsteen. I would take that life in a minute–as long as I didn’t have to live in Detroit.

I also have been surprised at how willing authors are to correspond with their readers. I got the idea to have my students write to their favorite authors and ask them five questions and see just how many responses we would get. This was in the early 90’s, pre-email and pre-Google, so contact information was much harder to come by. Most got either form letters (Stephen King sends out form post cards) or no response, but I scored.

I wrote to Thomas Boswell, sportswriter for the Washington Post, because I had just read his fine collection of baseball essays, Heart of the Order. It bothers me greatly that I cannot find that letter to this day, but I still remember that he took time on New Year’s Day of that year (91-2?) to pen a two-page letter to a baseball fan/teacher with his answers to my questions about the life and work of a sportswriter.

And, of course, an autographed book is gold. Both of my kids became admirers of Barbara Kingsolver so with a little trial and error, I found out the method for getting a book to her for her autograph. In both cases I wrote a letter describing my appreciation of her work and my use of her books and essays as a teacher. I included personal notes about my kids and why they were devoted to the particular works that I was sending her. I found a first edition Poisonwood Bible at a used-book store to give to my son, Nico, for a Christmas present. I got it back from her in time and while it was duly autographed, there was nothing of the personal touch that I had hoped for.

I tried again, several years later, sending Kingsolver a copy of the tenth anniversary edition of The Bean Trees, with a note about my daughter Emily who adored the book. Emily, a frequent worrier (not sure where she got that from), had trouble getting to sleep often as she made her way through the turbulent years of high school, and I described to Kingsolver that she would often pick up The Bean Trees, which she had already read several times, and simply pick a spot and start reading and let the beautiful words and tender characters wash over her until she could let her mind rest and fall asleep. This time Kingsolver came through. Inscribed on the title page of the book, in her careful script, was the note that read: “Emily, from one insomniac to another, best wishes, congratulations—and courage for the road ahead. Barbara Kingsolver”.

I guess what I learned, is that authors aren’t magicians. They are hard-working people, many of whom are quite humble and who appreciate their audiences. Like many gifted people, they are sometimes surprised at their own talent and by the response that they get to the work that they do. They are frequently insecure and scared to death that the wonderful idea upon which they are now working, may be their last (not unlike bloggers).

If you have a favorite author, find an email or an address and drop them a line. You might be surprised by the response that you get.