02 October 2015

Losing Nicole, How a Horrible Defeat Reformed Me

It was always some guy named Julian. Some skinny fucker with penetrating eyes and a soft voice, superficially cool and friendly, a pseudo intellectual, hip but not showy. God I hated those bastards but I was forever losing girls to them. They'd seem deep and honest and the shit they'd say sounded profound -- but not if you thought about it. They were soft, more likely to be musicians than athletes. They'd nod a lot when a girls talked as if they understood and cared about every word she said. Assholes.

All they really wanted was to get laid, which they managed with clockwork frequency and usually with someone I liked or even loved. I could never believe it when the girl I was interested in would pick one of these phonies. No way this guy was any great shakes in the sack. Best case scenario he was "a sensitive lover.” But back when I was dating there always seemed to be a Julian around. Lurking.

Of course any woman who would fall for one of these jerks was not anyone I cared to spend anymore time with anyway. I was better off with the Julians of the world separating the wheat from the chaff for me. At least that’s what I reasoned until I fell flat on my ass in love with Nicole.

Nicole was tall, slender and beautiful with these amazing eyes that made me weak in the knees. I couldn’t get enough of her. In addition to fashion model looks, Nicole was also very bright, politically astute and well read. Best of all Nicole was a lot of fun, she had a sense of humor to match my own. As a lover she had no equal to anyone I’d been with to that point. That point was when I was 24 years old and a journalist working on an alternative weekly and selling stories to magazines on the side. I’d even published some short stories. I felt like I was on top of the world. No one needed to tell me I was handsome, I’d heard it enough times already. I had a way with the ladies, charm, wit and I knew hot to have fun. But I could never maintain a relationship. Women I dated either ran off with some Julian or I got bored and moved on. But Nicole was someone I could never get bored with. I knew that from the start.

We met in a clothing store. I was looking at shirts and saw this gorgeous women who’d been in a class of mine in college a couple of years before. I boldly struck up a conversation and then asked her advice on a couple of shirts. From there we went for coffee together and the next weekend we were on a date and the weekend after that we became lovers. My friends were used to seeing me with a different woman every few weeks and with very pretty ones at that. But when I kept showing up at local watering holes and soirees with Nicole, I was the envy of the males in my circle. I already had an overly inflated ego, what with my early professional success, now I thought I was the almighty greatest most desirable blessed human in the history of the world. Truly the world revolved around me.

For six months Nicole and I spent virtually every night together. We never discussed the future. I assumed that we would move in together at some point and surely would eventually get married. Of course we were both also focussed on our careers. Nicole had just started working as a counselor and had notions of going into psychiatry. I was looking to move up from the alternative press into a full time magazine gig or a job with a daily newspaper. Meanwhile I’d started work on what I anticipated being the first of many successful novels.

But everything fell apart one night at a party my friend Keith was having for his 25th birthday. Keith was as popular among our group as I was but probably a lot better liked because he was a genuinely nice guy who, unlike me, wasn’t in love with himself. It was no surprise that the turnout for the party was huge. I knew most of the people there, but there also relatives and a few scattered friends and workmates of Keith’s I’d never met. One of them was a Julian type named, Brian.

I spotted him as soon as I walked in, sitting on the sofa chatting up some girl. I pegged him right off as one of those phony baloneys. He was being oh so casual and calm and yet all knowing and wise. I probably grimaced at the sight of him. I definitely grimaced an hour or so later when I saw him talking to Nicole. We’d of course split up for a bit to mingle. I wasn’t hitting on or so much as flirting with any women but it looked for all the world like Nicole was interested in this Brian guy. “You’re being paranoid,” I told myself. But when I noticed them still locked in conversation about 15 minutes later I decided to butt in. I walked over and gave Nicole a peck on the cheek and asked her if she was enjoying herself. In response she introduced me to Brian and told me stuff about him that was supposed to impress me -- I guess -- I sure don’t remember what it was. He gave a weak ass handshake and a forced toothless smile then looked straight at Nicole like I wasn’t there and continued talking to her. Nicole put a hand on my shoulder for just a second as she turned her attention back to this dickhead. I went over to where the drinks were and mixed myself a stiff one. And then another. After a few minutes I reasoned that there was nothing for me to be upset about that Nicole and I were solid and she probably just found a topic of mutual interest with this douche bag.  They'd be finished talking soon. Hell, maybe they already were. Then the music started.

A room was cleared and people started dancing. Much to my surprise and dismay Nicole was out there dancing with this Brian guy. He was a terrible dancer. Barely moving at all but looking deeply into Nicole's eyes. I thought: Okay so they're having a dance. What harm could that possibly be? Still I stood there feeling empty inside as I watched. When the first song ended Nicole and Brian started to walk away from the dance area, but as soon as the next song began they wheeled around and were dancing again. Now I was pissed. She was showing me up in front of friends. My best friends. I couldn't just stand there passively, I had to act. So I made my way to where they were dancing and cut in. Brian was cool about it and stepped back but Nicole...Nicole, Nicole said: "I'm dancing with Brian right now." She said it coldly too and gave me an angry look like I'd never seen from her before. It was a punch in the gut. I slinked away feeling, for the first time in my life, abject and total humiliation. No one has ever felt sorrier for themselves. I went and mixed myself a few more drinks. Tall and strong. What else could I do? I got -- least I thought I did -- sympathetic looks from friends.

That night I drank myself into a stupor. I recall sitting around talking with Keith and others but I remember little else. Well there is one thing I remember, I remember it still as clearly as if it were in a movie I've seen a dozen times. Nicole and Brian left the party together. I rushed to the door. Nicole saw me and ignored me. She didn't even say goodbye.

I woke up the next morning with an epic hangover. It felt like my head had been pounded all night with a sledgehammer. But worse was than the hangover was the memory of Nicole ditching me. The very thought seemed to radiate from my sphincter to my brain and made me feel emasculated. I was through with her. Period. She'd crossed a line that was impossible to come back from. I spent the next few days waiting for her to call -- I sure as hell wasn't going to reach out to her -- so I could tell her off. However she tried to excuse her behavior wasn't going to be good enough for me, not by a long shot. But she didn't call. And in those few days I became obsessed with my jealousy, my anger, my sense of betrayal. How I hated her. How I wanted to be with her again. I was never so upset with anyone and at the same time I never wanted so badly to make love to someone. The conflicting feelings were driving me to distraction.

It was over a week later that she called. "How are you?" she asked cheerily as if everything was perfectly normal. All the rage in me surged forward and disappeared. I couldn't muster a hint of my anger. Instead in a pouty voice I assured her that I was fine and asked how she was. Nicole said she was "great" and told me how well her work was going. All the time I pictured her sitting there in bed, probably naked and with Brian having just left. Finally she got to the point: "We've got tickets to the symphony next weekend. We still on?"

Now I knew the meaning of the word dumbstruck. Over a week after her leaving a party with another man she calls and asks if we're still going to the goddamned symphony together. "Nicole, you left a party with another guy. I was standing there like an idiot. I haven't heard from you in a week after we were practically inseparable for six months. Now, now you're asking if we're going to the symphony."

I'd given it to her right between the eyes. I couldn't wait for an apology and some half baked excuse and a promise to make it up to me and an earnestly expressed wish to become inseparable yet again. That's not what I got.

"We have no commitment that I'm aware of. I met a guy I liked and wanted to spend some time with him. I won't apologize for that. I'm a very independent girl, you should have known that about me. I want us to still be close, hang out and be lovers and all that, but I'm not ready to be tied down. And ya know, you could have called me."

The wind was completely taken out of me. My first impulse was to scream bloody murder at her, my second was to invite her over for a night of sexual gymnastics. Instead I meekly said, "I do not want to go to the symphony with you, or for that matter see you again. I'll send the tickets to you. Good bye." And I hung up.

In the aftermath of my affair with Nicole I shied away from relationships. I was celibate for a few months. My professional life was unaffected and I did soon get a job on a national magazine. But I no longer thought of myself as invincible. It's one thing to lose an ordinary girl to a Julian, but to see Nicole saunter off with this guy left me feeling wrung out and emotionally weak. The emotional beating I took was actually a necessary comeuppance for years of arrogant behavior.  I was a changed man one who actually had a dose of humility

I only slowly got back into dating. About a year later I met Karen who I've been with ever since. I've never even seen her look at another guy. We're married now and will soon welcome our first child. I only recently saw Nicole again. She was in a bookstore with a man. I said a cordial hello and she gave me a quick hug. Nicole then introduced me to the guy she was with. "This is my boyfriend, Julian." No kidding, that was his name.

30 September 2015

I Witness Something I've Suffered Myself, A Full Blown Panic Attack, I Try to Help

I watched someone in the throes of a panic attack today. While I’ve experienced far more than I care to contemplate (one is more than I care to contemplate) I’d never seen someone else having one, at least that I was aware of. The titanic kind that I’ve experienced are rare. But that’s what this young lady was suffering.

This took place in the school where I teach. It is an English language school that draws students from all over the world. I was on my way to the teacher’s room during a ten minute break between classes. I saw this woman, who it turns out is a 19 year old from France named Michelle*, in great distress. Naturally I stopped to see what was the matter. There were a few people around her including a friend who was trying to tend to her. When I asked what was the matter the friend said that Michelle was having anxiety. I could tell it was beyond that and I also recognized immediately that, based on my experience in this area, I might be able to help.

I tried to take charge of the situation. The poor girl spoke very little English but her friend was able to translate. We got her seated. Through her interpreter I assured Michelle that she would be fine, as impossible as it may seem at the time, panic attacks do pass. Of course people started to crowd around and I had to shoo them away. Someone gave her a paper bag to breath into and like an idiot I didn’t stop her. Breathing into the bag made it worse. Much. Later another person came over with a bag and I dismissed them from the scene with extreme prejudice.

Michelle could hardly sit still. She didn’t know what to do with her body. During this level panic attack you feel like reality has been turned upside down. The world is not as you normally perceive it and this is terrifying. It is not unlike being under the influence of a psychedelic except there is no drug in your system and there is no pleasure in how you are feeling. Far from it. The greatest fear is that this will never end and that you will completely lose your mind. The word panic is appropriate.

We eventually got Michelle to an office and onto a sofa. Through the interpreter I advised she breath normally, focus on something positive and get as physically comfortable as possible. I could have given her one of my Ativan as they are perfectly safe (I do not normally suggest giving a prescription drug to a stranger). But she calmed down rather quickly. An administrator made a doctor’s appointment for her which is a necessary step. Through her translator I learned that Michelle had experienced attacks before in France. Adjusting to a new country where you will be staying for a few months, especially when you don’t speak the language well is a recipe for panic attacks. These attacks are physiological in nature but can be set off by circumstances. Worse, one attack can lead to anticipatory anxiety, the fear that an attack is eminent. Anxiety like this can cause attacks that mirror panic. They are not as bad as real panic but bad enough, I assure you.

I would think that Michelle needs to have some sort of medication on hand and perhaps, as I do, may need to take something on a regular basis. I was first diagnosed with acute panic disorder about 30 years. Since then there has been significant improvement in the understanding of the affliction and the best types of medications to counter it. I was a veritable guinea pig for 20 years before the proper medicine and dosage was found. Many people swear by holistic treatments and I don’t doubt there effectiveness. A person has to find out what works best for them and this usually includes some sort of psychiatric treatment or counseling.

One of the most devastating consequences of severe panic attacks is that they leave one feeling depressed and vulnerable. There is a sense of powerlessness in the aftermath of an attack that is almost as awful as the attack itself although truly nothing I’ve ever experienced in life is as bad as the moments during an attack. I have learned from my experiences and know how what to do when an attack hits, which, thankfully, is not very often anymore.

It is fortunate for Michelle that I was at the right place at the right time. Understandably no one else knew exactly what to do. It was revelatory for me to see someone else have an attack. My empathy level was through the roof. But as I left work today co-workers recalled my actions and hailed me for them. I understand the impulse, its what people do. But it made me terribly uncomfortable and still does. (This discomfort is my problem and not theirs.) It is akin to how I feel if applauded for reaching a sobriety anniversary, as is done in certain places at certain times. In most circumstances I welcome and even solicit hosannahs and pats on the back and standing Os. But for something like what I did today or for eschewing alcohol I’d much rather not be praised or singled out. I can’t tell you why but it’s a real strong feeling.

*Not her real name

27 September 2015

When Eva Braun was a Student of Mine, What, I’d Make a Thing Like that Up?

I’ve been teaching ESL for a long long time at a school in San Francisco. We have students from all over the world. Some come for as little as two weeks, others for as long as a year. While most students are in their early 20s, many are older. I’ve had students as old as 62 and as young as 15.

As I said I’ve been teaching for a long time. One of my former students was Eva Braun. The mistress of Adolph Hitler. You may remember him as being the fellow who started World War II during his time as the dictator of Germany. As I recall he was a Nazi who hated Jews. Ultimately things didn’t work out for Herr Hitler and the world is a better place as a result. Anyway, though he figures tangentially in this story, my real topic is Eva Braun.

The year was 1937, just two years before Germany, under Hitler’s auspices, invaded Poland and all hell broke loose.

I always have student’s fill out a questionnaire of my own creation, on the first day of class. One of the questions is: Why do you want to learn or improve your English? I recall quite well Eva’s answer: "after my bf conquers England I’ll be spending a lot of time there, shopping, going to the theater and what not so I want to be fluent or as close to it as possible."
Another question was: why did you choose to study in San Francisco? Eva's response: "My fella has suggested the possibility that, with the help of the Japanese, we’ll also have control of the U.S. by war’s end so I’ll be wanting to come out here for visits. I figured why not scope out some real estate while I’m improving my English? I may even snatch up some property for my guy and I. The Marina District looks affordable and I’m definitely going to check out Marin County."

Eva was a pretty good student. She was in a six week program and moved right along. It was, however, distracting to have an SS guard in full uniform sitting next to her at all times. His name was Fritz, but that’s all I got out of him. He just sat there all the time just glaring at me and other students. Also, I could practically see my reflection in his long black boots. He’d lead Eva into the classroom and salute me with a “Heil teacher.” I never knew how the hell to respond to that so would just nod my head. Eva was far more casual of course. She would smile and say “hiya teach.” I’ve gotta tell you, if she hadn’t been Hitler’s girl I would have quite liked her (no, not in that way).

One time Hitler himself came by the school. Eva said he was on break from dictating which, she related, was a pain in the ass job what with all the rights he had to take away and the oppression he had to bring down and the edicts and the freedom eroding. Adolph was forever dealing with sycophants and on the flip side had to execute anyone who wasn’t. An occasional break was a must, so with Eva out here in SF he paid a call.

For him there were half a dozen SS officers in tow. These guys would “Heil!” something at the drop of a hat. They all knew Fritz and kidded him like crazy about being stuck guarding Eva while they had the boss. I remember him saying “aw shucks fellas, cut it out.” in German. He did get back at em though, saying it took six of them to guard one person while he could guard a person himself. It was kind of a hoot to watch them going at each other so good naturedly. After the war it was a bummer to find out what dicks these guys were.

Anyway Adolph had a look around the school and evidently toured the city. I heard from Eva he was crazy about riding the Cable Cars and was suitably impressed by the Golden Gate Bridge. Hitler also lunched a couple of times in Chinatown, he really loved dim sum. Before he left. the Fuhrer met with me to check on Eva’s progress. “She’s not giving you any lip, is she?” he asked. I assured the Nazi that Eva was a very charming young lady and a good student. “Is she mastering prepositions? I know those can be a real son of a bitch.” Adolph wanted to know. I assured him that Eva was doing as well as anyone with prepositions and my only real concern was her difficulty with conditionals. I was taken aback when he hit the table with his fist and shouted, “no conditions will be accepted, surrender must be unconditional.” Boy was he embarrassed when I pointed out that conditionals was a grammar term. “I guess my head’s still in my work,” he said sheepishly.

I was relieved when Hitler left. He seemed so judgmental and inflexible about a lot of things. Plus a lot of our students were put off by one SS officer in the school, having all these others goose stepping around and singing the Horst Wessel song was downright unnerving. One of my Polish students complained about the way they sneered at him and more than a few French students ran like hell when they saw them coming.

Eva finished her course and did really well. She aced the final exam. That said I didn’t much care for her essay. She chose as her topic “What the world will be like in five years.” Her topic sentence was: “pretty much in ruins for any place that has opposed my lover…” it degenerated from there. Still her writing, vocabulary and punctuation were fine, so what can you do.

On her last day Eva gave me a gift, as some students do. In her case it was strudel. Yummy.

I got a letter from Eva after the U.S. entered the war. She said she was sorry it came to that but if Germany won she’d be sure to get me a gig teaching English to Fritz and his crew. I’ll never forget the next line: “if Germany loses, well, you’ll have seen the last of Eva.”

In case you didn’t know, Germany ultimately got its ass kicked and I never did see her or Adolph again, nor did anyone else. As an interesting postscript, Fritz made it out of Germany and out to San Francisco. When he enrolled in the school he requested I be his teacher. He ended up being a lousy student.

20 September 2015

Three Men in a Photo and a Few Words on the Recent Release, Black Mass

I like this picture. I have a lot of pictures that I use as wallpaper for my trusty old MacBook Pro (not a paid endorsement). This is one of my favorites.

On the left is Michael McClure, a poet, novelist and songwriter. Frankly I don't know much about him or his work but he is constantly referenced when I read about some of my favorite writers and artists. As I write this I'm think that I should probably take a look at some of his writing. If one is to be judged strictly by the company she or he keeps then Mr. McClure is quite a talent. According to wikipedia his influences include Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Walt Whitman and Gary Snyder. If those are your influences you're on the right track in my book (would that I actually had a book).

In the middle of the photo is one Bob Dylan. As he is want to do Mr. Dylan is looking somewhat affected. Especially during his early career Dylan was a poser. Not so much for photos but in public. He put on this air of casual indifference and intellectual coolness. The sunglasses were de rigueur for this look. He had a definite persona, one that has evolved or devolved over the years into a bizarre eccentricity. As a kid I played my older brother's Dylan album, specifically the song "Like a Rolling Stone" which I was mesmerized by and listened to over and over. But ultimately the prodigious output of The Beatles overwhelmed Dylan and other voices and when I finally started listening to other music again, Dylan was left out. I came back to him only a few years ago and have been enjoying him very much.

Of course the gentleman on the right is Allen Ginsberg a personal hero of mine. In addition to owning -- through various books -- probably all of his published poems, I have books featuring his correspondence with Kerouac, Snyder and his father. I also have a biography and his published journals. I not only love Ginsberg's poetry, but his entire approach to life. He fully embraced living and being and experimented with being what it means to be human. Like myself he survived having an insane mother and experiencing some emotional tumult but he came out of it all with great passion for people, for peace and for contributing to a better world. In this picture there is intensity in his face as he apparently listens to Dylan. In addition to his other gifts Ginsberg could be a patient listener.

And now for something completely different....

Today I saw Black Mass starring Johnny Depp as the notorious real life gangster Whitey Bulger. Depp is a fine actor who gives an astounding performance here. It is transformative. Depp has wasted his talents for far too long on silly, lightweight pictures many of which are downright awful. He's made a ton of money, enough so that he can well afford to take roles like this that challenge him. Depp has been wonderful in such excellent films as Ed Wood (1994), Donnie Brasco (1997) and Dead Man (1995)

(The first rate cast of Black Mass includes Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon and Peter Sarsgaard as well as some lesser knowns who are terrific, Scott Cooper directed).

The movie itself is essentially quite true to the events it depicts, primarily using the book Black Mass as its source material. Bulger and the events surrounding him make for a compelling story, yet another in a very long series of gangster films from throughout Hollywood's history. There is a scene at a dinner table with Bulger and three others in which a recipe is discussed. Depp is transcendent in this scene which is one of the best few minutes of cinema I've seen in a long, long time.

While I enjoyed Black Mass it was ruined for me by Goodfellas (1990). It was of course my fault entirely but I kept subconsciously comparing the film to Scorsese's earlier masterpiece. Any attempt to imitate Goodfellas would have been forced and unsuccessful but this more straight forward telling of a gangster story can't possibly measure up. If -- as is surely the case -- filmmakers are going to continue to offer the occasional gangster film, they're going to have to do something different and unexpected. Black Mass is a good film on its own terms but it exists in a universe in which many of us have seen Goodfellas, that being the case, good is about all you can hope to achieve.

Another thing that influences my view of crime stories is that I finally, lo these many years late, started watching HBO's The Wire which ran from 2002-2008.  Several people encouraged me to watch it and idiot that I am I waited until seven years after it ended to start. It has been worth the wait. Perhaps I'll delve more into this show later. Suffice to say that for me it ranks right up there with The Sopranos and Breaking Bad among great dramatic television programs.

18 September 2015

Dust Mote on the Tracks

I like to share wry observations with my own inimitable wit. I can hear the deafening roar of a thousand empty chairs as I compose. And still I wonder at injunctions at starting sentences with conjunctions. The steely gaze of a shepherd with his flock, his tea laced with strychnine. Oh the gods of peril watch over us and blast and fury and faith at the new dawn day. Lovable.

On the bus today going through Chinatown a passenger carried in a bag something that smelled like a rotting rhinoceros head. Yet another passenger had evidently bathed in cilantro and more than a few hadn't bathed in a fortnight. There was a large man sitting across from me who was far too obvious a person to be on public transportation. His desire for attention and recognition belied the fact that he was of decidedly low intellect and insignificant accomplishment. Old ladies practically begged for seats up front where teenagers -- regular roustabouts -- sat idly blanking looking at their mobiles.

A tall, long legged woman stood imperiously wondering why fate had thrown her among us mortals. I'd have cast an aspersion but who was I to....

And the rain. After an unlikely heat wave even more unlikely chills and clouds and wet weather. The madness. The unpredictable lunacy of a world ravaged by climate change. I walked from bus to subway enduring and enjoying a few sprinkles boasting neither a jacket nor umbrella. Such is. Now it's going to be hot again then normal then...?

The subway station smells of urine and trash then an overly perfumed woman walks by. Someone blasts music that should be coming through ear buds to their ears only. The effrontery. Casually decadent suited 28 year olds promenade on the platform acting self important as they take a call from the office that they just left. The hustle bustles and there is a bustle to the hustle as pickpockets scope out the unwary. Find a tourist mate.

Trains are delayed because a dust mote landed on the tracks. Screeching halts and obnoxious announcements and gruff middle aged men cursing too loudly and I heave a sigh. A child tugs at mother's skirt and is ignored. The train comes and there is a seat waiting for me next to an overly casual looking young woman crossing her beautiful legs. She ignores me and I realize I have daughters her age and out comes the book and my head zeroes in on the beginning of the chapter where I left off 20 minutes ago on the bus. At the next few stops people jostle on and the train becomes packed and I am bumped and I look up to see sullen faces.

Despite this that and the other I have found myself quite happy recently. This is very unfamiliar and most disconcerting. (I just used quite very and most in the last two sentences, so don't think I'm unaware of my propensity to modify adjectives. Lot of people don't like it. So it goes.) Prolonged periods of joy are unusual for me. I often think they are the lull before the storm, that the scales will soon be balanced, gloom or bad news must be just around the corner. I've never trusted happiness. It's too often built on shaky ground and collapses loudly causing acute pain. The missus tells me to enjoy feeling good and that I deserve. I suppose that's the wise course and I'll sure try but it all seems so unreal and so unnatural.

To betray the dragon that haunted. To live the dogged life of the shadowed man. To spit at the inevitability of death. To clash with the conundrums of time and to smile always to smirk at the relentless happiness of the rewarded man.

Kissing the joyous woman of yesterday's solitude against the mustard sky and revel in the distance between this life and the next while slapping at despair and dancing on the outer edge of yesterday for there is no recourse for the penitent man but the sighs of bygone stories sung by the chocolate choir with angel time at the cusp. Go and do and  then and only then is your love real. Don't cheat love.

And so I imagined an acetylene torch destroying the dust mote.

Weekend at last. Home on chair. Feet up. Eyes forward. Yes.

15 September 2015

The Absolutely True Story of My Invisible Pet Duck and How it Got Me in Hot Water With a School District

This is a duck but not mine because mine was, after all, invisible.

I once had to go see the Associate Superintendent of Human Resources because of an invisible pet duck. This is an absolutely true story.

I was called into the principal’s office one day. This was a terrible awful principal previously mentioned on this blog. She was horrible. This time let’s call her Ms. Padderson (if you substitute the letter t for the letter d you have her actual last name). Ms. Padderson frequently called me into her office. She did not like me. She did not like a lot of teachers. Most teachers did not like her. On this particular occasion she had a toady with her in the form of a vice principal. The issues were so serious that two administrators were present. As I recall there were three issues that she wanted to discuss. The first two regarded some sort of complaint or other from a parent or student. Most administrators take student and parent complaints with a grain of salt. They have to. There are so many of them and many of them are  — you should excuse the expression — bullshit. But Ms. Padderson took every complaint seriously provided it was against a teacher she didn’t like, such as yours truly. I was able to satisfactorily address the first two complaints but the third one I laughed at. Out loud. It seems a student thought hat I believed I had an invisible pet duck. One of the reasons I cracked up was that she presented this complaint to me as if it was a very serious matter indeed. Well I had my chuckle and was on my way. I had more important things to do then waste time with an idiotic school administrator (oxymoron?).

The real story of my invisible pet duck was this: One day in class I called out two students for goofing off during a lesson. I was on the other side of the room at the time and they were amazed that I could detect their behavior from so far away with my sight line obscured. Actually it was as much intuition as anything else. I knew these two kids well enough to detect when they were off task even from a mile away on a foggy day. The young 'uns asked how I could tell what they were doing from where I was. I told them, in front of the whole class, that I had an invisible pet duck who reported what was going on to me. Students got a hearty laugh out of this and the two errant young men didn’t feel so bad because we were all having a yuk. The next day in class a student — jokingly of course — asked if my invisible pet duck were present. I said he indeed was so one and all should be on their best behavior. Everyone got a smile out of that if not an outright titter. My invisible pet duck became a running gag in the class that helped lighten the serious study of history that occupied most of our class time.

Evidently one student thought I really did believe I had an invisible pet duck. As I told the Associate Superintendent, this speaks more about the student’s state of mind then my own.

So one day I got the phone message that I was to down to the district office to see the Associate Superintendent. The message did not say about what. I doubted that it was to thank me for my continued service to the community. It had to be bad. I did one of those gulps you do when you’re scared. Of course I was nervous all the way up to my meeting with Mr. What’s-his-face (I’ll be damned if I can remember his moniker lo these 15 years later). You can imagine my relief when he told me that at issue was a duck. I couldn’t help but chuckle too. He was not amused. He explained that there were questions as to my sanity and the fact that I didn’t take the complaint seriously when the principal informed me of it was a bad sign.

It may come as a shock to those who are familiar with district level administrators, but this bloke was a reasonable guy. He perfectly understood and believed my version of the story and agreed that the reporting student may be the one who needed attention. He also cautioned me about future flights of fancy that might similarly be misinterpreted.

Being the bold rebel that I am, I informed the class the next day that I was retiring the pet duck and I explained why. Students were disappointed but simultaneously got one more laugh out of the duck, I’m afraid at the expense of the anonymous student whose identity was never known to me.

Sometime later a student gave me a drawing of me with a pet duck on a leash. It was titled: "Mr. Hourula and pet duck." It was a simple yet elegant piece of art that I proudly had on my class bulletin board until my last day as a public school teacher.

I guess I should be thankful that no one reported me for telling students that as a youth I worked on my uncle's donut farm. Because I said that. Yeah, I did.

14 September 2015

This Post Concerns Such Things as the Proper Preparation of Salmon, Loading a Dishwasher and the Word Funky

This picture makes my mouth water.

It’s always something. It has to be because if it wasn’t something it would be nothing. No one wants that.

I just enjoyed loading the dishwasher. I’m serious. First I put away the clean dishes that had been in the dishwasher, then I put the dirty ones in. I’m very organized about such things in a way that my family thinks is a little weird. Popularly said, some of what I do is a little OCD. Among all the other peccadilloes, foibles, eccentricities, mental quirks and emotional upsets I live with there is a tendency I have to do certain things compulsively. Well what of it? In my case it's nothing for anyone, least of all me, to be concerned about. I’ve got other fish to fry. Indeed I have a rather sizable lake’s worth of fish to be fried. You know, not that it matters, I prefer my fish not to be fried. Broiled is much better, barbecued is good. Frying is one of the worst things you can do to a fish or to your belly.

My dad regularly went salmon fishing. On the ocean. He did this up until he was 91 and would have continued if on the last trip he took he didn’t have a freakish fall coming out of the boat. That fall ultimately led to his death. He caught the biggest fish on the boat that day. That was my dad. Anyway he once took my father-in-law fishing. The two of them hit it off famously, their mutual love of fishing being a prime reason. They caught some fish, as was generally the case when my dad got anywhere near water. He’d walk down to the pier and the fish would just give up and jump into his lap. So the in-laws were staying with the wife and I at the time and they prepared some of the salmon. This is one of the healthiest foods you can eat. They fried it. Son of bitch, yes they did. They’re from the south where damn near everything is fried. But salmon? Jesus that’s criminal. I tasted it and it was like eating a cross between a french fry and broiled salmon. Meanwhile the wife made me some salmon the proper way. Or I should say, one of the proper ways. My dad used to smoke salmon and even salt it. Either way is delicious. There's a lot of ways to prepare a salmon. Frying should never be one of them. Come on.

But getting back to my original point (and I swear I had one) I enjoyed loading the dishwasher. I like washing laundry and taking out the recycling and compost and trash. I like sorting my clean socks. I like a lot of tasks that are ritualistic and also serve a purpose and make my life a little cleaner and tidier. They are good for the soul. And for someone like me who deals with issues stemming from a crazy and alcoholic mother, they are natural and necessary. There are worse things.

One of the things I like about some chores (mind you there are certain chores I can do without, let’s be real here, I don’t like doing just any stupid thing like mopping or cooking) is that they are reminders of being alive. Occasionally when I’m suffering a particularly difficult commute it feels like death. Waiting in line can be like that. The feeling that life is being sapped away from you. You are helpless and have no power in a situation and just have to take whatever comes. Of course you can just let go and try to relax but that’s one of those things that even after 28 years of 12 stepping is easier said than done. But accomplishing little chores feels like participating in life. In a small way yes, but then who’s to say what’s small and what’s significant?

I mentioned commuting. Regular readers of this blog (both of us) know that I frequently share stories about my bus rides through San Francisco’s Chinatown. On today’s trip a passenger boarded with what must have been a live octopus with an intestinal flu. Whatever it was was in a bag and not moving but the odor betrayed it. I recall the word funky which was quite commonly used in various ways years ago but has fallen out of favor for reasons unknown. I'd like funky to come back. I remember when music could be funky and that was a good thing. More funk, please. It's a word that needs a comeback.

I’d love to chatter on and on and I know you’d very much like me to. But if I wrote more it would keep me from studying Italian which I simply must do and if there was more here for you to read (he flatters himself that anyone has read this far) it would keep you from that book you’re reading. Your book club meets Thursday so that simply won’t do. You're on what, page 86? Jeez. Then again this blog may be delaying you answering some work-related emails, or maybe you should be reading little Millicent a bedtime story or more importantly this might be keeping you from curing cancer. Gracious me.

13 September 2015

September 13, 1940 September 13, 2015

I couldn’t understand why some people were staring at me. Most of them didn’t maintain their gaze for very long. They’d see me, take a good long look and then turn away. A few shook their heads as if in disgust. I double checked to make sure I had clothes on and that my zipper wasn’t down. Everything seemed fine. I even touched my hair to make sure that it wasn’t too mussy. It was fine too. Then I checked my clothes again looking for any stains or anything else unusual. Nothing was out of the ordinary. Nothing at all. So why were people looking at me? This wasn’t a dream. I was sure of that. What I wasn’t sure of was exactly where I was or how I got there. Then I realized I didn’t know what day it was. Tuesday? Saturday? No idea. Hell, I could’t even recollect the month or even the year. This was bad, real bad. Maybe my confusion was somehow related to why people were staring at me. But then why would people stare at a person just because he was confused? I knew I wasn’t acting at all peculiar. I was just standing on the sidewalk in a downtown area.

After a minute or so I started feeling really scared. If I didn’t know where I was, where would I go? Where was home? Was there anyone around I knew or who knew me? I looked around some more and realized that I was in my hometown. Well heck, why didn’t I recognize it before? But it seemed odd, different somehow. Things around me were coming into focus. I finally noticed the cars going by. They were all old cars, but nicely restored ones. Then it occurred to me that people were dressed differently than me. Wait a second…everything seemed different, the buildings, the stores. I only barely recognized some of them. I remembered a picture of downtown I’d seen in the library. This is exactly what it looked like. But that picture was from 1940. Everything looked like then. Had I slipped back in time? Was I 75 years in the past? That must be why people were looking at me, my clothes were from 2015, I must look awfully strange to everyone.

I walked over to a news stand. The local paper had today’s date, September 13, but it said 1940. I felt like jumping out of my skin. I felt like screaming. I felt like I was stark raving mad. I’d had anxiety before but never like this. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Even though it was chilly I was sweating. I tried to imagine how this possibly could have happened. The last thing I remember before turning up here was that…what? I couldn’t think. I had to sit down, try to relax. Try to think. I knew the library was just a block away. It was built during the 1930s so it was sure to be there. It was the same library where I’d looked at the photo of downtown in 1940. The year I was suddenly in.

I walked into the library and sat at a long table near the fiction section. It looked like the same table I’d recently sat at reading periodicals. But the table was new. Of course it was. There were no scratches on it. When had I been at the library? What was the last thing I could remember? I squeezed my fists and scrunched up my face as I tried to think. It was like I was putting physical effort into a mental process. I knew this wouldn’t do so I tried to relax and take some deep breaths. But not too deep, I didn’t want to hyperventilate. I walked over to the water fountain and took a few big gulps. People were still giving me long looks. I hoped it was just because of my clothes and not the way I was acting. I went back to the table and sat down. Maybe closing my eyes would help. I looked around first. I don’t know why. Then I closed my eyes….

I was standing downtown but everything seemed different. What had happened? I’d just been at the library when all of sudden I found myself standing here a block away and everything seemed suddenly strange. How am I in one place on second and another place the next second? This wasn't a dream, I was sure of it. There was very little I recognized. Buildings were different, peculiar looking. There were many more of them. And there are all these people, so many more than usual and they’re dressed in the strangest ways. Men have hair like women. There are a lot of negroes about and crazy people and the cars, my god the cars practically look like futuristic space ships. Some people look it at me kind of funny but I’m sure not the strangest looking person around. It’s like I’m in the future. And this future is very scary and its dirty and smells bad and I just wanted to scream. I saw a newspaper on the ground and picked it up. It had today’s date, September 13. But it said 2015. I wonder if I was suddenly somehow  75 years in the future or is the wildest most realistic feeling dream of all time? I felt panicked. I felt like crying or yelling for help. I headed toward the last place I remember being, the library. I wasn't sure if it would still be there. Thankfully it was and it looked much the same on the outside but I could tell by looking through the windows that it was very different within. I was sweating profusely. It was quite warm. The last I remember before appearing here it was a cool day. I walked by some young ladies who were practically just in their underwear. You’d think they were at the beach. Such short pants and blouses that barely cover them!

The library was laid out much the same as it was but there are strange machines that people are staring at. I walked to the tables near the fiction section, first taking a sip of water at the fountain. I noticed a picture of the wall that purported to show downtown in 1940. It looked exactly like the world I left, my world. I started shaking. What could I do? Who could I talk to? What was to become of me? What of everyone I knew? Many, most, would be dead in this year this unbelievably sounding time of 2015.

I sat at my usual spot. There was a gentleman sitting across from me. He looked strangely familiar….

I tried to relax tried to reason what to do when some guy sat across from me. He looked like, he looked like…me. I was staring, it seemed, into a mirror. But he was dressed appropriate to 1940….

I recognized the man I had sat across from. It was me. Or at least the mirror image. But he was dressed like the other people in 2015….

I reached across to touch him…

He reached towards me and I extended a hand toward him….

I’m exhausted. It was a very strange day. The strangest I can remember. That long hallucination or whatever it was that I came out of in the library has wiped me out. I pick up the remote and turn on the TV. The news is on with a story about the immigration crisis in Europe....

I’ve never felt so physically and emotionally empty. Whatever happened today has sapped me. I could barely make the walk home from the library when it ended. I turn on the radio. Maybe there’s news about the war in Europe.

07 September 2015

Watch Who You're Calling White

Last December I wrote about a woman I met at a party. The post had been on this blog for a few days before I took it down because I thought I’d been a bit too harsh on the person in question. My intention was to revisit the writing and put up a kinder, gentler version in which I recalled that my younger self bore some resemblance to my subject. And so over eight months later here is the revision.

When I was 21 years old I knew everything. Older people were hopelessly out of it and uncool and unenlightened and sans a clue. I’d already been to Europe twice and dabbled in psychedelics and of course lost my virginity. I was nearly through with college and was a reporter on the school newspaper. You couldn’t tell me a damn thing. During the decades since I have gotten progressively stupider. With each passing day I seem to learn more and realize that there is so much more to learn and understand. I completed my degree and subsequently got a few more. I got off booze and drugs and married and raised two children and had a career and now a second incarnation of it. I’ve read, listened, meditated, traveled and paid attention. I look back at the idiot I was at 21 with amusement. There was nothing really wrong with that lad, he never hurt anyone and his intentions were honorable. He was just a stupid kid who needed to grow up and develop a little humility. Check that, a lot of humility. He’s done all right. So having taken a look back at myself I now examine another 21 year old who I met at a party. She was a caution.

Here’s a young lady who proudly states that she doesn’t consider herself white but that she can “pass.” That’s what this young women said. This woman with very white skin. No one would ever think other than white. Which is why — of course — thinking yourself a different skin color is utterly ridiculous. Skin color is a social construct. Its what others see you as. You can consider yourself an ethnicity, you can choose a religion, but you are a skin color. I don’t know what it takes to actually think of yourself as a different skin color, but she’s got it.

The thing is she doesn’t want to be white. I know the feeling. As proud as I’ve always been of being a Finn I’ve had times when I thought it would be cool to be black. But I’ve also had times when I thought it would be cool to be a spy, a rock star, a professional soccer player and a billionaire. This 21 year old was proud to be a woman and “queer.” One was obvious the other was her call and I had no reason to doubt her. But the non white claim was pure bullshit. She was clearly trying to identify with as many minority groups as possible and thus be as oppressed as possible. Being white means benefitting from white privilege. That’s a helluva thing to be stuck with when you want to be with the underdogs. So you hang on to your other differences and pretend to have others. A lot of people like to play the victim. It's easy, you gain sympathy and social status. Never mind that play the victim is an insult to those who have actually been victim. Its not cute to people of color when you try to appropriate their experience.

In the course of our conversation this young lady was able to dismiss any differences of opinion she had with my friend and I because we are white men. This ticked me off, I hate being called a white man. At the same time I am and admit it. But please don’t remind me. When you label someone you strip away a little bit — no actually a lot — of who they are.

I’m a lot of things. Okay so I’m a white guy.

Watch who you call white.

I’m also a socialist and a fan of Cal football and a cinephile and barely middle class. I'm a lot more than white, I'm a lot more than a lot of things. So are we all. Speaking of class, isn’t your economic status more telling than skin color or sexual preference? I think it can be. Society forgives a lot if you’re wealthy. White privilege can be virtually wiped out by poverty. Social mobility has been severely restricted of late in the US as the gap between rich and poor has simultaneously widened into a chasm. So while racism is still alive and well in this country — as recent events remind us — so too is classism, and it may be just as, if not, more powerful.

But I think most galling is using a person’s skin color or gender or sexuality as an out. If you have a difference of opinion you have an opportunity to listen, share and maybe one or both of you will change your mind or bend a little or learn something or understand another perspective. That is if you address the words a person speaks and not the label you've assigned them.

This young woman was full of opinions. She was proud of them and proud of the fact that she expressed them in no uncertain terms. Sometimes one can go from expressing oneself to being obnoxious in the blink of an eye. Being overly strident in one’s opinions and not soliciting other people’s and speaking authoritatively on subjects you know little about is a recipe for alienating people who you might otherwise learn from or at least share with.

She called Ernest Hemingway “a hack.” You don’t like his writing? Fine. You can say that. But calling one of our most revered writers a hack is pretentious. Actually it makes you seem like an buffoon. There are famed and highly regarded authors who I don’t care for but I’m respectful enough of those who do like them not to call them names. Instead I merely relate that their writing doesn’t appeal to me and perhaps add why. I've talked to writers about famous authors. Writers will tell you who they like and don't like but they won't dismiss another writer with an insult. Respect.

Don't even ask her opinions of films. She hates virtually all of those directors considered among the greats. It's easy to dislike. Finding truth and beauty takes work. You have to have an open mind and an open heart. This poor woman is closed up already. Not listening to anyone else, not asking, just forming and fossilizing opinions.

She also wants to read more non white male writers. That’s cool. I can totally understand that. But at the same time I wonder just how similar are "white voices"?  Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Fitzgerald, Celine, Ginsberg and Pynchon. Hey they’re all white guys, right? I don't think all us white males sound alike. I sound nothing like Richard Nixon. But yes, its important to expose oneself to women and non white writers, just don't lump all white writers together. That's too easy.

Clearly there are a lot of young people (as I once was) who should spend more time listening. The problem is, they never know who they are. I sure didn’t recognize myself as a cocky know-it-all who was in reality a know-a-little-bit. Indeed some young people are so blinkered as to think they’re a different color.

I’m a polka dot.