Monday, February 28, 2011

Recollections of Springtime in the Frozen Tundra

I'm going to take the plunge and order Marcel Proust for my Kindle. It used to be that buying Remembrances of Things Past made you a weightlifter. Now, thanks to technology, no more lower back pain when reading the masters.

I don't know which came first -- this blog, or my tendency to travel around the different epochs of my life. This is what prompted my Proustian meanderings. (Who am I kidding? I've been reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo for what seems like an eternity. How am I ever going to get through Proust?) Today, as I made my way from the Technology and Training Center, where my office is located, over to the Administration Building for a meeting just next door, something hit me. I'm not sure if it was a breeze, a ray of sunshine, or a combination of both. Maybe it was the sound of that breeze as it worked its way through the canopy of trees that surrounds our complex, or the scent of a budding flower. I think it had something to do with being in a campus-like setting during the time of year when the weather starts to take a turn for the better.

Suddenly, I flashed on a patch of dirt and grass across Marshall Street from the Generic Bar in Syracuse. We called it something with the word "Beach" in the title. It was either just "The Beach," or "Generic Beach," or "M-Street Beach." Something. We would go into the Generic, buy our beers and cocktails, and then take our places on that patch on the other side of the street and watch the world go by on M. Street. We were peaceful, so the cops never gave us any trouble. I remember my friends Jem, Kenny and I once joking drunkenly at the expense of our number-one basketball star at the time, Dwayne "Pearl" Washington as he walked by with his entourage. We couldn't help noticing that he had a huge rear end, something we hadn't quite realized watching him work on the Carrier Dome floor. "Hey, Jane!" we slurred, just quietly enough so that he couldn't hear us, "get your books outta your butt. Why are you carrying your books in your butt?" No one else got the joke, but it killed me, Jem and Kenny.

It was such a joyous time, as that iceberg of a campus turned into one of the most beautiful places you'll ever visit in the warmer months. I'm no meteorologist, but I'm guessing that the same lakes and glacial formations that make for arctic freezes and record snowfalls also somehow account for the crystalline blue skies of summer up there in Central New York.

There were a few spots where we gathered during the thaw. The Beach was only one of them. Others included Fraternity Row on Walnut Park, where beer flowed and bands often played in the spring and summer. The quad is an obvious one; I picture sitting on the steps of Hendricks Chapel, or throwing frisbees, shirtless. There was Thornden Park, overlooked by some students, but to me one of the great treasures of that campus, and even Oakwood Cemetery, where I took many pleasurable walks during my time as an undergraduate up there.

College is such an important time in a young person's life; it leaves an indelible impression on the soul. I wonder if my friends who do college counselling -- Tara, Eva, Erik, and the rest -- think about this much, as they send their kids out there into the world. Knowing them as I do, and knowing they are all such good souls, I have no doubt that similar images of springtime on campus come up each time they shepherd another one off into the Great Unknown that will help determine the rest of their lives.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Oscar Night

Over three hours after it began, the 2011 Academy Awards have finally come to an end, and just like every year, I was riveted by every moment. There were a number of good ones, including a surprisingly lovely speech by Christian Bale (although I noticed they're saying on Facebook that he forgot his wife's name; I think he chose not to say it, for some reason known only to him), and the "F-bomb" coming from Melissa Leo, who I loved in "Treme" and "Homicide, Life on the Street". So happy for both of them, and it's clear that I'll need to go see "The Fighter."

I'll obviously need to see "The King's Speech," as well.

There will be cynical reactions to Kirk Douglas's piece, but I was touched to see him on that stage. And, as my wife (what's her name? Oh, yeah, Jeanette) said, James Franco and Anne Hathaway were "forgettable" as co-hosts. In my opinion, Anne came off as trying too hard, and James came off as not having prepared all that much. (In fact, he'd flown in for rehearsals on the weekends, due to his workload as a PhD student at NYU.) There were the usual clunky bits that you can't help but think should have been cut to avoid the inevitably long run-time. This year, the "musicalization" of "Harry Potter" and "The Social Network" was a time-waster, although I'll admit the "Twilight" punchline "Doesn't this guy own a shirt?" was good for a chuckle. I always find the "In Memoriam" bit moving. This year the experience was odder than usual, however, as my five year old, Jackson, sat next to me, astutely saying, "Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead," after each person's image was flashed on the screen, until I asked him to stop. The ones that made me saddest were Pete Postlewaite, Dennis Hopper, and Patricia Neal.

Throughout my life, Oscar night has been a big deal. My mother used to pop popcorn and make fudge for us. More recently, before leaving New York, Jeanette and I got into Oscar Pools and we hosted a memorable party for the awards the year before we moved. I used to actually see all the movies before the Oscars, but nowadays, my life is a little too hectic, and movies are a little too expensive, so I no longer know anything about the films, other than the buzz that's out there. I saw "127 Hours," which impressed me, and solidified my admiration for James Franco. I bought the DVD of "The Social Network" and enjoyed it; however, I have to confess I don't see it as "best movie" caliber. That being said, I'm happy for Aaron Sorkin, who was an undergraduate at Syracuse University during the years I was up there. Go Orange!

I know it's fluff. I know it's emblematic of a decadent culture. I know there are other, more important things the money could be spent on. But I can't help it. I have always watched the Oscars, and I probably always will. Next year, Jeanette and I are hoping to host our first Austin-area Oscar party. So don't make any plans for Sunday, February 26, 2012....

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Damn Yankees

I'll probably never really know just how much my father loved the Brooklyn Dodgers. He talked about listening to the games on the radio as a boy in Larchmont, and I think he may have even ventured into Brooklyn and caught a few games. I did come close to understanding his devotion to that team fully, I think, during a visit to Little Rock, Arkansas of all places. We were there visiting my mother's parents, and my father came into our hotel room after having been out at the pool. His face was barely recognizable. He looked like a kid.

"I don't believe it. Ducky Medwick is here! At our hotel!"

My brother, mother and I all looked at each other. We had no idea what he was talking about.

"He played for the Dodgers. When they were in Brooklyn. He was one of my favorite players. I just met him. I just shook Ducky Medwick's hand."

I think we may have met Joe Medwick, former Brooklyn Dodger at that point. He may have flashed a big, fancy World Series ring. It's one of those things that either happened, or I "filled it in" to make for a better story. To this day, I'm not sure what he was doing in Little Rock in the middle of summer. It wasn't the kind of heat you wanted to be in if you could avoid it.

Like many, my father was disappointed by the Dodger's departure from New York. He explained that back then there was a class thing going on; the pinstripes of the Yankees represented the pin-striped suits of Big Business, whereas the Dodgers were the team of the people. It's well documented that they used to take the streetcars and buses down Eastern Parkway, where they lived among their fans, in order to get to the park.

The Yankees were the enemy. They were the rich cousin who always made the Dodgers look bad in their many battles for the world championship. (Except for that one, lone victory in 1955, the one bright spot for Dodger fans in that storied rivalry.)

This rivalry created a generation of Yankee-haters. It seethed from my father's pores. He barely allowed us to watch the Yankees. In our home, it was Channel 9 and the Mets only. We didn't dare switch to the Yankees on Channel 11. I'm not sure what he would have done. My father was a gentle man, but there was something about his demeanor that told us this might change if we ever flicked that dial two clicks clockwise. So we never did.

He was a National League loyalist who always rooted against the American League during the World Series. Those two back-to-back losses in 77 and 78 had my father feeling the despair of his youth; you could see it on his face. The 1981 win over the Yankees brought back a bit of that 1955 adulation for him.

I say all this to preface my brief love affair with -- dare I say it -- the Yankees. The 1996 team was hard not to love, even for someone brought up as a hardcore Yankee-hater. They were homegrown young players like Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera, and they were a lot of fun to watch, because they seemed to be having more fun than everyone else out there. I also had a great time going to games that year with James Savoca, a long-time Yankee fan. When I showed up at my dad's place in Irvington for dinner one night, he saw the Yankee cap on my head and said, "What is that?" as if I were wearing a satanic head dress or something.

Flash forward to my Dominican father-in-law, Daniel Reyes, another Yankee lover. He was convinced, when I married his daughter, that I was a Yankee fan like him. I started dating his daughter right around the time I had my brief love affair with his team, so I can see why. Of course, now he's figured out the truth. He enjoys rubbing my nose in Yankee victories, but in his polite, smiling way.

And it's true, since the acquisition of numerous big-ticket superstars who will remain nameless, I've kind of gone back to being a Yankee hater again. I get a deep joy from seeing them lose -- something that must go back genetically to my father's painful experience as a Brooklyn Dodger fan. Sorry, suegro. It's just the way I was raised.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Movie Memories: R-Rated Flicks of My Youth

This morning, as I enjoyed my day off from work, I surfed the cable channels until I happened upon a movie I hadn't seen since it came out in theatres in 1973. It was the first R-rated movie my parents ever took us to, Day of the Jackal. I got caught up in the story, thanks mostly to some good acting by Edward Fox, who plays the title role. The story pulled me in, and I remembered almost nothing, except for a couple of details, like how he tightened a rope around his arm, a tree and the high-powered rifle, so he could get a steady shot, (see photo, above) and how once he had adjusted his sights, he placed one of the bullets he intended to use on President de Gaulle, and the melon he was practicing on at two hundred yards blew to smithereens when he hit it, dead on.

What I do remember is that my parents' attempt to introduce us to adult cinema at ages 10 and 8 respectively was considered a grand failure and something of a joke. It's mostly sex that got the movie its rating; there's hardly any real violence in it at all, other than the implied violence of what may or may not happen in the climax of the film. And the way that Mike and I responded to the sex scenes was with abject boredom. As the story goes, when Fox is just about to bed down yet another woman he is using as cover, 8 year old Mike says, at the top of his voice, "Oh no. Not again." Apparently it brought down the house.

The problem may have been in the timing. I'm not sure if it was a busy night in the baby sitting pool, or what. But when I think about it a bit, I realize that I may have given my father a reason to think I could sit through two hours of suspense and intrigue and very little action, other than the sex. I had started staying up later on Saturday nights in order to watch Mission: Impossible with my dad. I enjoyed pretending to understand the plot-lines, until I saw the joy it gave my father to explain them to me.

I didn't care much what was going on in the story; I just liked the time with my dad. It was horror movies with my mom and spy movies with my dad.

But I wasn't ready for all the intrigue and, well, "naked ladies," as I referred to them then, The Day of the Jackal had to offer.
My other embarrassing R-rated movie story is the time my mother and I decided to go see An Officer and a Gentleman together. The sex scenes in that movie are extremely graphic and realistic. (Who can forget Debra Winger's famous line, "Pass me a towel, will ya?")

I sank as far down in my seat as I could and waited for the end credits to roll. Of course, it's a great film, but not one a 20 year old dude wants to see with his mom. Oh, God! I shudder thinking back on it all these years later.

Now when I see Day of the Jackal or An Officer and a Gentleman on HBO or wherever, all I want is just one more chance to sit down with either or both of my parents and get their responses once more, the comments I can no longer recall. Like everything else, these movies make me miss my parents. But they also provoke a smile and a sense of gratitude that they've brought the departed back into focus, if only for a moment.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Frequent Flier and Still Freaked Out

Okay, so I'm not exactly at the George Clooney level, but I have racked up a bunch of miles since going to work for Region XIII as a grant manager a little over a year ago. No one is going to put my name on the side of a plane, unless I decide to spray paint it myself, and that just sounds very risky. I think they've got a few laws against that sort of thing.

On average, I make two round-trip flights a month, and when I say I'm still freaked out, I mean that on a couple of different levels. For one thing, I am just freaked out to be "that guy." When you spend the bulk of your career as a classroom teacher, you're pretty anchored to one place. The only flying you tend to do is during vacations, with the exception of the occasional education conference here and there. I'm sure some of you who work in the private sector will laugh at my claim that two round trips a month makes me a frequent flier.

Still, it's not something that my career prepared me for, and the "glamour" of it, such as it was, faded a long time ago. I'm the guy whose kids have to tell their friends, "Oh, my daddy's on a business trip." I'm the guy whose wife has to fend for herself with those same children twice a month, every month. Never thought I'd be that guy. It freaks me out.

The other thing that freaks me out is flying itself. I wouldn't go so far as to say I'm afraid of flying exactly; that would be absurd. It does, however, often make me physically uncomfortable, and I've taken to downing Dramamine more often than not. In addition, I never studied physics, so I just don't get it. The whole flight thing baffles me. I mean clearly, the thing weighs tons and tons. It's in the air and it's fucking flying. That just makes no kind of sense. This moment comes at least once on every single flight. I look out the window of the airplane, and I think, "How is this possible?" Now, I'm sure someone out there reading this could send me an explanation, with words like "lift" and "thrust" and "resistance" and all of that, but I'm still like a monkey with a TV set at some point during all my air journeys.

There will likely come a time before too long when I am more grounded (no pun intended, really), either in my present job, after the grants I'm on run out in a year or so, or in some other, more "place-based" position. The monthly travel will become a thing of the past, a fading memory, something I smile about as it flashes into my mind while I do the dishes. So I suppose I should simply try to enjoy it, right? Rack up the miles and the free flights and drink coupons. I'll do that, but it will always be with both the odd sensation of feeling like I'm living someone else's life and the incredulity of the monkey, scratching at the banana on the TV screen as I wonder just how the hell the whole thing works in the first place.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Coming to Terms With Race Down Here in the South

A few years back, in the late 1990's I accompanied friends to Town Hall in Manhattan to see Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. have a conversation about race. I had read (and taught) Race Matters which I thought was profound and original. I wasn't familiar with Dr. Gates, except for maybe a couple of op-ed pieces in the New York Times.

I was immediately impressed by Dr. West's delivery; he has become something of a celebrity now, as one of Bill Maher's favorite panelists on his HBO show, Real Time with Bill Maher. He speaks with a cadence that makes you think of jazz music, often riffing, but always returning back to his point, the way a jazz musician keeps the melody as a through-line through every tune.

Cornel West had recently started working with Dr. Gates at Harvard University, where the two joined forces as a kind of Dream Team of African-American Studies professors. Their traveling interview show was the modern-day equivalent of a barnstorming tour, and I was captivated.

It wasn't just the way in which Dr. West spoke that made me feel that way. He said a number of things, as did others that evening, that challenged my thinking and made me grow as a citizen of the world. As an example, at one point Cornel West looked out into the audience and asked us to raise our hands if we were racists. He did it in his kind, warm fashion, but it was still jarring, and no one quite knew what to do, especially because his own hand was up in the air as he asked the question, suggesting that he considered himself a racist.
He explained that in his mind it is impossible to come up in a racist society like ours and not be a racist.
"But you see," he said, his finger in the air, his eyes widening, and that gap-toothed smile peeking out from an overgrown beard, "I am, however, a recovering racist. Can I see the other recovering racists in the house?" Of course we all put up our hands. After this kind of back and forth went on for a bit, Dr. Gates opened the discussion for questions. A young African-American man got on the mic and said, "I'd like to hear what the two of you think about Charles Barkley and the fact that he's supporting Republicans on the campaign trail. These are the same Republicans who prevent Dr. King's birthday from being recognized as a holiday in Arizona. As a man of color, I'm offended by this."
At that point, another of those exciting, surprising and unforgettable moments came up, when filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles stood up (he was only a couple of rows in front of us) and said, "I'd like to address that young brother who just asked the Barkley question. You see, that's racist. By saying that Charles Barkley has to be any kind of way, due to his blackness, you're being racist. Any man should have the right to be and say whatever he wants, whether it fits into what you think he should be or not."
There was a deep silence then, the kind that comes when someone has said something that has made a whole room full of people think. That evening, and the ideas that came forth from it, changed me, made me better, and gave me valuable ammunition as a teacher.
I'm thinking about it now, because last night, sitting and eating a nice meal at a place called the Inlet Crab House in Murrell's Inlet, I looked up and saw a sticker on the wall that said, "I Don't CARE If That's What They Did Up North" with a picture of the Confederate flag on it. It was small enough to be "subtle," but I was still startled by it and it served to remind me where I was and to realize, sadly, that I would probably not be comfortable bringing my wife and kids to this place. Of course, no one gave me a second look. I looked just like them. I could have voiced my distaste and I could have left. Instead, I stayed and finished my meal, and the key lime pie was the best I've ever had anywhere.
I'm not saying any of this makes me, or South Carolina "evil." It doesn't. I'm just grateful that my eyes are open to these things, and that I can be self-reflective and constantly strive to fight against those tendencies that this society ingrains into all of us, almost from birth.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Importance of Stories in Education

"Keep Telling the Story" -- Hanno Fuchs

There's an interesting confluence happening in my life right now, with this notion of "storytelling" smack in the middle of it. Obviously, this blog shows a renewed interest on my part in telling stories, as do my daily "morning pages." The blog often concerns itself with stories that want to fill in the blanks -- the missing or fading pieces of my family's past. And my morning pages are usually an exercise in capturing any worthwhile stories from the day before, among anything else that crosses my mind.

The idea of "confluence" comes in because I'm seeing and hearing the word "story" more and more in the professional circles in which I work. As a kind of backlash to the "data-driven" push of the last ten years or so in public education, more and more people are calling on that other kind of data -- the anecdotal or qualitative variety.
It came up first in the book Influencer that is central to the work I'm currently doing. The book posits that stories, when told well, allow those whom you are trying to influence to take a leap of faith. Good stories let you imagine a different reality and thus make you more likely to take steps toward change.
I can buy that. It certainly seems to be true of the kind of professional development I have always responded to as a learner. I like it when people teach me through stories. It feels personal. Intimate.
It feels real.

The most fortuitous of all these coincidences is the fact that tomorrow morning I will be sharing the stories my six subjects tell in my video That Safe Space. It will be an easy connection for the people who come and who have been attending this conference for the last few days. I'm hoping that those who come will enjoy the film; I'm confident that they will. My only concern is that because it's the final slot before the farewell lunch, many participants will have already left for their flights home.

But that will be their loss. At this point, my attitude is "Let go, let God." It will be what it will be. Those who stay and choose to make their way into my presentation will hear some touching, important stories. My hope is that they will be inspired by the stories that they hear, and that they'll be inspired to go back home and create, and gather their own stories.

In my father's words, I'm hoping they will keep telling the story. It's in this way that we will change education for the better.

Monday, February 21, 2011

I Wonder: Is My Double Still My Double?

I wonder how many people have ever met their double. This came up because I saw a woman here at the conference I'm attending who looked so much like my friend and former colleague Ivette Callendar that I had to text Ivette, who assured me that she staying warm in her apartment in New York, nowhere near South Carolina. Then, this morning, when I saw the woman again, I introduced myself and told her she had a double and showed her Ivette's Facebook profile picture. "Oh, yeah, yeah. I can see it," she said politely. And that was it. She didn't want to have anything more to do with the crazy man handing her a Blackberry first thing in the morning.

Before it happened to me, it happened to a friend of mine. We were hanging out with a group at a bar in Madrid, and suddenly this weird kind of rolling commotion made its way across the room to us. It was odd, because even though Spaniards are generally quite open and friendly, madrilenos have that sort of cosmopolitan cool that tends to keep little groups of friends from mixing in bars like the one we were in, an old-fashioned neighborhood tapas place. But this murmur rolled its way over to us, and the people had all parted, so that my friend Jose could see this other guy who looked just like Jose across the bar. Both men laughed and shook hands, and exchanged a few words, and that was the end of it.

Up until the summer of 1988, I'd never had a double before. When Valley Girl came out, a lot of my high school friends made a big deal about Nicholas Cage and I having a resemblance to each other, which I guess I could see. The lidded eyes, dark brows, spiky (at the time) hair. I could see it. And there was a guy I waited tables with up in Syracuse who answered to the same general description, I'd say. (Enough so that our tables were always getting us confused, and we finally gave up correcting them and ended up sharing a bunch of tables and their tips.)

I did finally meet my double during that summer of 1988, while traveling in Greece. I was on a small power boat, an island hopper, with Susan and her dad, along with nine or ten other passengers. Suddenly, reminiscent of what had happened in the tapas bar with Jose, a murmur began building. This one was odder, though, since I don't speak any Greek. People shifted their places, leaning back, carefully, so as not to capsize, until another young man of about my age and I were looking at each other from either end of the boat, he at the stern, me at the bow. The people were laughing and patting both of us on the back, and I think Ken may have said something like, "Hey, would you look at that guy? He kinda looks like you."

I think my double and I were more embarrassed than anything else, now that all eyes were on us. I didn't quite know what I was expected to do. Was I supposed to wobble my way to the other end of the boat and shake his hand? Hug him? Instead, we just waved at each other weakly, until the people settled back down for the rest of the trip.

Of course, I no longer look anything like the slender, feather-haired young man that we both were that day on the Aegean Sea twenty-three years ago. I'm a heavier, balder, grayer version of that guy. I wonder if my double is still my double, or if he's still slender, with a full head of hair. And I wonder if he's sitting somewhere in Greece, wondering the same thing about me....

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Returning to the Atlantic

Writing about the ocean, I've learned, is kind of like writing about love. It's easy to fall into the realm of cliche and melancholic overstatement. But for those of you who've been reading these posts, you know I don't mind veering into that lane every now and then, so if I do here, I know you'll forgive me.

I arrived yesterday afternoon here in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for the 23rd Annual At-Risk Youth Forum, where I've been lucky enough to be accepted as a presenter. As I drove closer to the resort hotel where the conference is being held, an awestruck sensation came over me. Resorts have this other-worldly feel, as if they don't quite exist on the same plane as the rest of life, and they don't. The luxury is laid out before you -- the heated pool, the athletic facility, the towels.

And the beach. That wide Atlantic beach. There's just nothing like it. Perfect sand and scallop shells, and the waves rolling thunderously in, one after another. They still manage to fascinate people, just as they've done, constantly, incessantly, for thousands and thousands of years. In a way, the tide is the one perpetual motion machine that I can think of.

I like to think of myself as born of the Atlantic. My parents met at a party on Fire Island, New York. They were both working at Young & Rubicam, an advertising agency in Manhattan. He was a copywriter, she was in the art department. They spent all night talking, and fell in love. And not too many years later, they were packing me and my little brother into the back of our station wagon and driving us out for vacations on Long Island. Once we stayed not far from the spot where they fell in love, but the place was too spartan for Mike and me. There was a grocery store, but you had to walk what felt like miles to us and they didn't the kind of crap we enjoyed eating back then. To say that we complained about it would be an understatement. We scratched a message in the sand: "SEND FOOD."

That was the vacation during which my father was called in for some meeting and Y&R sent a sea plane for him. It landed in the bay in front of the house we were renting, and my father pulled up his pants legs and waded over to the plane. We watched the plane take off, and our dog sat on the beach in front of our house, peering up into the sky for a good twenty minutes, cocking his head, first to one side, then the other.

I've had other memorable moments on the Atlantic, like a bonfire in Montauk, and my summer on Cape Cod. Fun with friends in Martha's Vineyard, and an unbelievable Fourth of July party in East Hampton. The Jersey Shore with Jeanette, our last vacation on our own before the birth of our first son, Diego, and Friday night fireworks at Coney Island with the family.

I hadn't realized how much of an impact the Atlantic Ocean has had on my life, or how much I'd missed it in the nearly three years since leaving New York. Now, as I write with the sound of the waves just outside my hotel window, I say to myself that it's been too long, and that I'll need to come back, sooner rather than later.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Amtrak Days

Earlier today, at the outset of what has been a very, very long day, I found myself jammed in between the window and a man about my size in the back of a U.S. Airways Express jet, if you can use that word for what we were in. It occurred to me that there was another time in my life when I traveled alone, nearly as often as I do now. My parents periodically put me on the Amtrak train in Croton Harmon, for the five-hour trip up to Syracuse, during my years as an undergraduate there, from 1981 to 1986. Confined as I was in that little seat, I yearned for the space and the freedom of the Amtrak trains.

My activities then were so different than they are now. I don't think I ever had a laptop; I graduated in 1986 and didn't get my first laptop until five years later. There was no Kindle and no cell phone. I may have had a Sony Walkman somewhere in there.

Mostly, though, I read, wrote, chatted, if I was feeling confident, or played solitaire. One of my favorite things to do was go to the bar car and write in my journal. I absolutely loved the scenery on that trip; it's mentioned in Raymond Carver's masterpiece, Cathedral, when the narrator feels stupid after asking the blind man if he sat on the left side of the train on his way up from New York, because that's the side with the great views of the Hudson. You get the Hudson, you get the Catskill Mountains, the Adirondack Mountains and the Finger Lakes on the trip. It goes all the way up to Montreal, though I never took it that far.

I used to sit in the club car, as it was also called, and scribble thoughts in my journal -- probably mostly about the melodrama that was passing for my love life at the time -- or about how I wished I was writing more than I was. Sometimes I'd have a beer or more. You could still smoke on the train back then, which I did. And I really enjoyed the taste of those nasty microwave croissant sandwiches and the cheesy, buttery smell of them comes back as a sense memory when I think of it. The scalding burn on the outside edge and that middle bite of still-frozen ice. I loved it!

I was pretty shy back then, so I don't remember many interactions. I do remember being approached by an older man who walked with the help of a cane. I don't recall much about him, except that he had angular features and spoke with a slur that suggested he'd been drinking.

"Introspection or creation?" he asked.

"Excuse me?" I answered, intimidated.

"Are you writing by looking within or without?"

"Without, I guess. I'm writing a story."

He went on to talk about Flannery O'Connor, recommending her work to me. I wrote it down, and still have the journal somewhere. I think it's in my sister's basement in Brooklyn, gathering mold.

The other conversation I remember was with a woman who sat next to me up to Schenectady, where she lived. She was a model in New York, and I enjoyed chatting with her. We hit it off, buying each other beers. I remember thinking she had the most perfect face -- her skin was very dark, what I supposed the word "onyx" to mean, her cheekbones were strong, and her nose was thin. Her eyes were almond-shaped. I was sorry to see her go, and when I asked for her number, she smiled and said, "Bye, Dan. Good luck to you."
Nowadays, on flights like the ones I take all the time, people are on their cell phones before takeoff and after landing, and on their Kindles, iPods and laptops in the time in between. There are very few of the kinds of interactions like the two I've described from my youth. It makes me ask my question yet again -- is all this technology bringing us closer together, or it pulling us farther apart?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Dance Party USA

Last night, just as we were finishing dinner, Diego started a sentence the way he starts countless others: "Daddy/Mommy, can we..." I cringed, in preparation. Be strong, Dan. In the words of Nancy Reagan, "Just Say No." Whatever it is, it won't be something they should do. They drive bargains; that's what these people do. They start high, with things like "Can we go to Disneyland? Tomorrow?" I go low. "No, you can't. Ever. And you can't go anywhere else either. Ever." Then we try to meet somewhere in the middle.

This time, however, I'm relieved, when he asks, "Can we put on some music and dance?"

"Yes! Of course we can, my son! Of course!" Jeanette was thrilled, and immediately began her stretches, in preparation. (I'm teasing. Homegirl was doing handstands as they danced. Literally. Hot yoga is definitely paying off.) Anyway, I'm a little under the weather with asthma and allergies right now (no, seriously, I am), so I had to play deejay. Thinking fast, I put "Michael Jackson Radio" on the Pandora, and the party STARTED.

No, I didn't videotape it this time, sadly, though I did think about it. What happens when you do that sometimes, though, is that it can kill the spontaneity of it. And man, watching my two boys and their mom going like tops around the living room floor with "Beat It" and "When Doves Cry" and "Remember the Time" playing . . . I tell you, it doesn't get any better than that.

Jackson's moves were more rhythmic, and MUCH more, um, how do I put this... adult ... than Diego's. For example, at one point, he was kind of like "freakin" Jeanette from behind (I don't know where he learned it, I swear), and as I raised an eyebrow, he grinned and saluted me. The kid saluted me. I shit you not. We're in SO MUCH trouble. Diego was more ethereal; his dance style was more of a "flow," with some robot thrown in there. I think he's learning different steps in P.E. class right now.

As I think I've said before somewhere in these pages, there will come a time, a few years from now, when these two young people will not be this into us. Dancing with their parents will be way down there on their list of things they consider fun. In fact, I don't think it will be on their list at all. So for now, Jeanette and I live for these moments.

Oh, okay, you want to see them dancing? Here you go: In case you missed it, here they are, dancing to "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Running Fox: I Believe in Omens

One of my favorite pieces of filmmaking/literature/performance is Jonathan Demme’s “Swimming to Cambodia.” Spalding Gray is beyond neurotic, giving voice to a number of my own manias throughout the tour-de-force monologue.

In that performance, there’s a segment in which Spalding talks about what he calls “Magical Thinking.” It’s his obsessive compulsive need to perform certain rituals, including not being able to leave his home until he hears a positive word on the radio.

It’s hilarious to me because it’s so recognizable. Like Gray, I believe in “magical thinking.” I take things as omens all the time, and this morning I had a doozy.

Driving south on Gregg Manor Road towards 290, after dropping off my kids at Manor Elementary School, I saw, about five cars ahead of me, a fox make a run for it across both lanes of heavy school-time traffic, from east to west across Gregg Manor. He was so fast (I say “he” not knowing the gender, obviously) that I don’t think the cars he managed to bisect even realized he’d gone across.

But I saw him, clear as day – a Running Fox – right there in front of me. Of course by the time I reached the point where he’d made his crossing, he was nowhere to be seen, snuggled safely amid the tall pasture grass that borders the Shadowglen golf course.

Significance: My name: Fuchs, German for fox. My tattoo on my left bicep, a running fox. And my film company, whose name is tagged on the documentary I’m about to present at a national conference in South Carolina? You guessed it: Running Fox Productions.

I felt as if God sent that fox in my path as if to say, “Don’t sweat it, Dan. The people who come see your film are going to love it. It’s good work. Be proud of it.”

The thing about me and my belief in omens, is that I tend to believe the ones I perceive to be “positive” ones. If it had been a black cat darting across Manor Road I would have pshawed it, having a private giggle for those poor suckers who believe in that sort of thing.

But if it’s going to help me have a better experience at the At Risk Youth Forum next week, then I say thank you, to God, and to that little gray fox, for giving me the courage to go forth and excel.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Songs whose imagery has been usurped by movies

(This is reprinted from a note I created last year on Facebook. Long day, with no new ideas, but I wanted to keep the streak going.)

Here are some songs featured in unforgettable movie scenes that will now be forever associated with these tunes…
“Singing in the Rain” (Fred Astaire) A Clockwork Orange – (1971, dir. Stanley Kubrick) Malcolm McDowell’s Alex and his cohorts beat a man senseless as they dance along to this tune.

“In Your Eyes” (Peter Gabriel) Say Anything– (1989, dir. Cameron Crowe) Lloyd Dobbler, played by John Cusack, stands atop the hood of his car at dawn, and blares this song out of his very 80’s-looking boom box, in hopes that Diane (Ione Skye) will take him back.

“Stuck In The Middle With You” (Steel Wheel) Reservoir Dogs – (1992, dir. Quentin Tarantino) Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) tortures Officer Marvin Nash, as he moves around him, to the beat of this classic oldie, ultimately slicing off Nash’s ear before being shot by Tim Roth’s Mr. Orange.

“Tiny Dancer” (Elton John) Almost Famous – (2000, dir. Cameron Crowe) The members of Stillwater, along with their entire crew of roadies and groupies, enjoy a moment of unmitigated joy in their tour bus, in an impromptu sing-along of the Elton John hit, unofficially inviting 15 year-old journalist William Miller into their family of gypsies.

“Sister Christian” (Night Ranger) Boogie Nights – (1997, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson) John C. Reilly, Thomas Jane, and Mark Wahlberg sit in a growing rage of paranoia, before getting up the nerve to rob coke dealer Albert Molina, who dances in his underwear to the song, as his Asian lover periodically lights firecrackers in the background.

"Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" (B.J. Thomas) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - (1969, dir. George Roy Hill) For those of us who saw this movie as young children, this scene, in which Butch takes his friend's girl for a romantic bike ride (with no rain in sight, strangely) was our first glimpse at seeing the opposite sex as something other than "yucky." Katherine Ross was stunning.

“Goodbye Horses” (Q Lazzarus) Silence of the Lambs – (1991, dir. Jonathan Demme) I’m not sure how many of us had heard this haunting song before seeing the famous “Buffalo Bill Dance,” (picture "tucking it in") but if we ever heard it again, we’d certainly think of one of the most disturbing sequences (not to mention brilliant acting by Ted Levine) in modern film…

"Mr. Postman" (The Marvellettes) Mean Streets - (1973, dir. Martin Scorsese) Scorsese uses popular music like crazy in his movies (culminating with a near-nonstop musical soundtrack for Goodfellas in 1990), and this is one of his earliest. He likes to "choreograph" his fight scenes, and this one -- after DeNiro and company object to being called a "mook" -- is one of the first examples of this well-known Scorsese device.

"Surfin Bird" (The Trashmen) Pink Flamingos - (1972, dir. John Waters) If you haven't seen it, I'm not going to describe it. Best not to think about this scene for too long.

"Layla (Piano Exit)" Derek and the Dominoes - Goodfellas - (1990, dir. Martin Scorsese) This four-minute "outro" of the song "Layla" becomes the signature song of a LOADED soundtrack, when Ray Liotta explains the meaniing of the term "Goodfellas" while we see the aftermath of Jimmy's (DeNiro's) "housecleaning." The camera pans into the murder scenes of six former associates. The sequence culminates when the song goes silent, along with Liotta's voiceover, and we hear Joe Pesci's Tommy whimper, "Oh, no," when he realizes he's not going to be made, he's going to be whacked...

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Silly Love Songs: The Soundtrack of a Sappy Boy

Stay with me while we grow old/
And we will live each day in springtime/
Cause lovin' you has made my life so beautiful/
And every day my life is filled with lovin' you.

-- Lovin You, Minnie Riperton and Richard Rudolph

The Grammy Awards have come and gone, and it kept the attention of my two boys (ages 5 and 7) surprisingly well. I guess it makes sense -- people making music and wearing outlandish costumes is kind of like every Disney musical they've ever seen. Some were more cartoonish than others, obviously.

I was most struck by the enthusiasm with which Jackson, the five year old, responded when The Bieber (as we call him around Chez Fuchs) appeared on screen. Again, not much mystery there; he's a child who wows adults with his rhythmic and dancing skills. And you can't turn on any of the channels my kids enjoy watching without seeing The Bieber promoting his new film, "Never Say Never." I've got highly educated friends of mine professing their love for the kid on their Facebook pages. It's kind of scary.

So as I'm witnessing my kids' idolization of Grammy hopefuls like The Bieber, I am prompted to take a look back in time to when I was at my sappiest. The year was 1976, and I was 12 going on 13, squarely in the most uncomfortable time in a boy's life -- the "pre-teen" years. The pop songs that dominated the spring of that year went right to my heart, pulling at its mythical strings. "I Like Dreaming," "My Eyes Adored You," and "Silly Love Songs" are three hits that sent me into flights of romantic imaginings. When I heard these songs I needed to find a quiet, private space where I could just sit and listen and place myself in the story I thought the song was trying to tell. One of those places was in the stand of pine trees that marked the property line between the Karneses and the Hills. I liked to climb to the top of these pines, some thirty to forty feet up. From that high I had a great view of the Francises' back yard, and I would often see Debbie, a dimple-cheeked girl with a dazzling, snaggle-toothed smile and sandy brown hair, running and playing with her three collies who barked non-stop, all day and night. The song was perfect in my mind: Carried your books from school, playing make believe you’re married to me. /You were fifth grade; I was sixth, when we came to meet.”

Of course as anyone and everyone knows, 1976 also marked the pinnacle of the ascendancy of disco music, and although I certainly recall trying to make sense of "Disco Duck" and "(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty," Rick Dees and K.C. did not feature prominently in the soundtrack of my childhood. Disco was the music that made its way through the rafters of the ice skating rink at Rye Playland, where my friends tried to rip the labels off the back of the girls’ Levi’s as they giggled past, fully aware of their part in the game. When you actually got the tag, which was rare indeed, the idea was to walk the girl in question outside to the boardwalk. Then you’d push your way through a cut-out bit of chain link fence and make your way down to the beach. Once there, you were expected to chat a bit. And then you made out.

I'd like to tell you I know this from my own experience at the time, but then I'd be getting into the realm of fiction. In reality, I may have gone skating once or twice at Playland, but I was self-conscious, awkward, and decidedly unsuccessful in the seeking and acquisition of Levi's tags. In a word, I was a sap. I made up elaborate stories in my head of defending Debbie's honor and rescuing her from those who would do her harm. These were usually personified by boys in our class who I identified as bullies. In my fantasies I beat them senseless, utilizing Kung Fu skills that made Bruce Lee's look amateurish. In tears, she would thank me, and we would kiss.

It wasn't until a couple of years later, not long after my braces were removed, that I finally had my first kiss. It was an abject failure. The girl was someone I didn't even know all that well; we were at a drive-in movie together with a group of friends, and I guess she just felt it was the thing to do. Her breath smelled like cigarette smoke and buttery popcorn, and she watched the movie with one eye as we kissed. That would have been in the summer of 1979, when I was sixteen years old. Late, I know, for a first kiss. 1979 was, appropriately, the year of Meatloaf's "You Took The Words Right Out of My Mouth." The lyric continues, "It must have been while you were kissing me."

Thankfully, my first "real girlfriend" saved me later that summer, when she kissed me the way every 16 year old boy wants to be kissed. When I'm asked about my First Kiss, I usually delete the drive-in one, and move right to this one. It happened on a perfect, temperate night, and we were playing ping pong in an odd little outbuilding that her family had constructed for the kids years ago. It had electricity, and I remember this, because at an opportune moment, I turned off the light, pulled her to me in the darkness and had the kiss that made me understand what the big deal was. Thinking of it now, my breathing changes, and my vision clouds a little. (Or maybe I'm just getting to the age where I need my asthma pump and reading glasses.)

Keeping to the theme, our make-out album was Carole King's Tapestry, which came out in 1971. I liked that it was retro and not tied to the inane stuff that we were hearing on the radio that year. (Ah, who am I kidding? I loved "What A Fool Believes" by the Doobie Brothers and "Crazy Love" by Poco.)

There's one song that I listen to today that still brings me back to that perfect moment. (And it is a perfect moment. It's one of those moments I'll be muttering about as an old man, when my grandchildren come to visit me at the Home.) It's a stanza from Greg Brown's 1990 song, "If I Had Known."

A hayride on an Autumn night
Well we was 15 if I remember right
We were far apart at the start of the ride
but somehow we ended up side by side
We hit a bump and she grabbed my arm
The night was as cold as her lips were warm
I shivered as her hand held mine
And then I kissed her one more time

And Jane if I had known--
I might have stopped kissing right then
It's just as well we don't know
when things will never be that good again

Now, there are people out there -- some of whom are likely to be reading this -- who need to be assured that they're not to take Greg's words literally. Of course, there have been experiences that have eclipsed the one I described above since that time.

But the memory of that moment is pristine. It was as if my sappy boyhood fantasies all suddenly came to life. Not surprisingly, those fantasies tailed off after that, as I found that living in the real world wasn't so bad after all.

Oh and by the way, if I managed to get any of the songs I've referenced stuck in your head, I apologize.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Giving in to Valentine's Day

This is one of those holidays about which I've got a tremendous amount of ambivalence, which can border on outright hostility at times, depending on my mood. Let me start by acknowledging my single friends, as well as those who are mired in unhappy marriages and relationships. I remember what Valentine's Day feels like to you, and the whiny complaining you're about to hear pales in comparison to what your feeling today. I recognize that. So consider yourselves "acknowledged."

Unlike some couples I know, Jeanette and I did not decide to get married, or begin going out, or have our first kiss, on Saint Valentine's Day. I can understand why people choose to celebrate each other on the dates that commemorate these events, but being forced to spend money on flowers, chocolates, or whatever it is, seems so random to me. Every year I try to collude with my wife on this point. "Let's not fall into this corporate bullshit trap, honey. What do you say? No Valentine's Day for us this year?"

This conversation usually happens right when they first start with the diamond and lingerie ads -- just after the New Year. At that point -- so far removed from the upcoming holiday, she's likely to say, "Yeah, sure. Why not? Let's skip it." And I am pleased that she is my partner -- not only in life, but in standing up to this annual corporate mugging of the American people. We won't be pulled into it. Hell NO!

You'd think I would have figured it out by now. As we draw closer to February 14, and the ads intensify, and more and more people around us volunteer their plans for the day, and solicit ours, she invariably comes to me. It happens every year, in different places, at different times. This year it was on a Sunday evening, January 30, as we straightened up the kitchen after a good weekend of its use.

"And yes, honey," she said resolutely (out of nowhere, I might add -- the "yes" suggested we'd just been discussing the matter, even though we hadn't said a word about it since New Years), "I DO want you to make a big deal over me for Valentine's Day."

I learned a long time ago that Jeanette is not interested in my political opinion on this particular holiday. It is of no concern to her whether it is man-made or somehow intrinsic to our union. She is a woman and, as such, wishes to be wooed and courted and cared for and doted upon. In a word, she wishes to be loved. And in her defense, who among us doesn't share this wish?

As artificial as the day may be, Valentine's is more of a symbol than anything else. So yes, I got her the kind of flowers she likes, and yes, she got me some pajamas with hearts on them. And you know what? I absolutely loved receiving them from her.

Happy Saint Valentine's Day, y'all!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Sparkling Holiday in Nantes

There are some experiences that come and go so fast, and are so pristine in their loveliness, they almost defy reality. You look back on them and wonder how much is real, and how much is manufactured by the dream-making faculties inside your mind.

After graduating from Syracuse in the summer of 1986, my girlfriend and I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where we lived with her father in his three bedroom home. Just next door lived a very pleasant French couple, Michel and Jacqueline. Michel worked at one of the local universities, and Jacqueline stayed home with the boys, Damien and Antoine, who were about 6 and 4, if I'm remembering right.

Susan and I worked for a little over a year in Boston, so that we could save up enough money to get us to Europe. We were accepted into a teacher training program in London, where we would stay for the first month, before going to Madrid to live and work. It had been decided that we would spend the Christmas holidays with Michel, Jacqueline and the boys at their home in Nantes. (They had returned to France at the end of that previous summer.)

Our experience in London was amazing, to put it simply; I'm sure it will come up in another blog at another time. We arranged to take the ferry over the channel to Le Havre, then a commuter train to Nantes. I did my best to get us around, as neither of us spoke French, but my facility with phrasebooks is considerable. (I chalk this up to being my father's son. He spoke a number of languages.) Michel was there to greet us when our train arrived, much to my relief, at their stop in Nantes.

Nantes was a quaint town, all decked out for the holidays in lights and garland. Michel and his family were warm hosts who made us feel at home and showed us around the town. For Christmas day, they drove us out to Jacqueline's parents' house by the sea. We were fed an outrageous feast that included quail and suckling pig. My best memory from that visit was sitting in the dank basement of their old house, shucking oysters with Jacqueline's father. Neither one of us could speak the other's language, but we laughed and enjoyed ourselves together, in the simple act of shucking oysters. The wine might have had something to do with it.

Man, the wine. It just flowed and flowed and flowed. And it was ALL excellent. Not one bad sip the whole time. This may -- I'm realizing now -- be the reason this blogpost is so devoid of the usual detail. It is a little foggy, as I think back.

Anyway, yes, the wine flowed throughout Christmas, and it flowed on New Year's Eve, when we sat down, back in Nantes, with Michel, Jacqueline and several of their friends. They were an interesting bunch, many of whom were working on the unification of the European currencies into something that would be called the "Euro." I remember thinking it was a crazy idea; no way they would get that done by the year 2000, even though that seemed a long way away.

Michel sat at the head of the table, next to a case of champagne. Every few minutes he would pop a new bottle and pass it around. The flavor of that wine was like none I'd had before or since. So perfect. And the bubbles had the effect of lifting my spirits, filling me with love.

At one point, in this state of euphoria, I looked to my left, where Jacqueline was speaking, in French, of course, about something I couldn't understand. I had always found her attractive; she was petite, with sharp features and fair, freckled skin. Her hair was in fine, sandy-blond curls that framed the edges of her face. But the detail that caught me on this particular night (we were probably into the early morning by this point) was that she was wearing some kind of makeup that had just the subtlest presence of glitter in it. Her face was sparkling. Just like the wine.

I'd never seen anything so beautiful. I considered taking Michel aside and sharing a moment like the one that two of the main characters share in my favorite movie of all time, Bill Forsyth's Local Hero, when the American, played by Peter Riegert, professes his love for his friend Gordon's wife.

Thankfully, I thought better of it and said good-night instead. We enjoyed the rest of our visit and made our way to our new life in Madrid. As I said, I'm not sure how much of what I'm remembering about that trip, and about that moment, is accurate truth, and how much is the fabrication of a romantic mind, but I often think of that family, who I haven't seen since those holidays. Damien and Antoine would be in their twenties now, and who knows, maybe there still might be a hint of glitter on Jacqueline's cheek....

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Thousand Cuts

Imagine it -- your body, covered with a thousand cuts. Even if they were small ones, paper cuts, one thousand would certainly mean pain. Pain that would linger for a long, long time.

Yesterday the Austin Independent School District's Board of Trustees and Superintendent put forth a list of just over one thousand recommended staffing cuts. In my twenty years in public education, I have to say I've never seen anything quite so brutal. It's one thing to hear about the possibility -- the probability, even -- of a "reduction in force." I've been hearing those rumblings for as long as I've been an educator. But to see it in black and white, naming specific schools and actual teaching positions is a new one for me.

Maybe this is one of those Texas moments. This is a "Right to Work" state, after all, with no real teachers' union to speak of. (There are "unions" who are happy to allow you to pay dues to them, but they are legislatively and judicially prevented from having any real collective bargaining power.) Someone with more local knowledge than what I have may be able to elucidate on how we got to this sorry state. It's unclear to me how it happened, but apparently someone was writing checks with their mouth that their ass couldn't cash. And here we are, our body about to be covered in a thousand cuts.

There is, as you might imagine, an undercurrent of fear as districts begin putting out these recommendations regarding staffing cuts in the schools. And if it's palpable in the cushy atmosphere of the Education Service Center where I work, it's far worse in the school buildings. Many of the principals I work with have told me of the revolving door of teachers that have been coming to their offices, asking them if their jobs are "safe."

I think if I were a principal right now, in this climate, my message to my staff would be that we're going to continue to take care of each other as best we can as adults, so that we can do what we've always done for our students. They should never have the sense that there is anything different going on.

This brings up an interesting question: How are our schools going to talk to their students and families about the cuts that are coming -- the thousand cuts that are not just names on paper, but relationships that matter to the children, relationships that are, in the best cases, crucial?

The price of the proposed cuts will be much higher than any dollar amount being discussed right now. Imagine our collective body, as a city, as a society trying to provide for our children, covered by a thousand cuts.

It's going to be a very costly bottom line.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Honoring My Mother and Overcoming My Fears

My mother always maintained that I should be an actor. She and I bonded as movie lovers, when I would stay up late watching Creature Features and Chiller Theatre with her, and she would often encourage me to imitate the characters we'd just seen -- Dracula, the Wolfman -- my impersonations gave her a chuckle. She urged me to overcome my shyness and get on stage, which I never did. Not in her lifetime, anyway.

Well, that's not entirely true. I had a brief cameo in a sketch we performed in the Harrison High School Gong Show my senior year. Harlan Zimmerman was playing the principal of the school, Dr. Goodhart, and I was his loyal henchman, the assistant principal, Mr. Hunter. I portrayed him as a Secret Service agent, complete with dark glasses and a lapel pin. I didn't say a word, but I managed to bring the house down, when I pointed to a particularly rowdy segment of the audience, in exactly the way I'd seen Hunter point at a group of my more detention-prone friends. I don't think my mother was in the audience that day, but my sister Jessica was, and she, like my mother, pushed me to try my hand at acting.

As an underclassman at Syracuse, I appeared in a handful of student films, giving performances of which I was generally less than proud. I remember Gordon Antell, one of the student filmmakers, saying, "I like working with Dan because if you put a fireman's helmet on him, he looks like a fireman, if you put a cowboy hat on him, he looks like a cowboy." I think he meant this as a compliment, but it made me wonder whether I was more of a prop than an actor in those short films.

I did take a significant step when I decided to enroll in a class during my junior year called "Acting for Non-Majors." It was basically a Scene Study class. I can't remember whether we discussed doing it together or not, but one of my best friends, Ruben Howard, also signed up for the course. Coincidentally, a good friend from my childhood, Barry Brown, was also in the class, as was Darryl Bell, who went on to be a successful actor, appearing in Spike Lee's "School Daze" and as one of the stars of the Cosby spinoff, "A Different World". Our teacher, Larry Tackett, was a lovably prickly man who I always thought of as a mix of Burl Ives and Garfield the Cat. After one of us would give a long-winded, convoluted bit of feedback to a fellow student, Larry was fond of taking a breath and saying, "Be that as it may, Sally Brown," before giving his own, more concise response. I also recall that he'd get us to be quiet by saying, "Okay, people, cool your jets. Let's bring it down to a dull roar." And he used to require us to keep a journal for the class, in which he would interact with each of us privately, writing his appreciations of our comments, and asking us thought-provoking questions.

A turning point came when I decided to perform a monologue that I found in a compilation of high school playwrights. The one I chose was from the point of view of a teenage boy who had just attended his mother's funeral. This would have been about 1984; I had no way of knowing, of course, that I would have this very experience about four years later. I allowed myself to get caught up in the honesty of the words and did my best to deliver them as frankly as I could. When I looked up, signifying that I had come to the endpoint of my scene, I sensed that the room was somehow different. My classmates appeared reluctant to look directly at me. There was some sniffling and wiping of eyes. One girl excused herself, made her way down from her place on the risers that served as our seats, and left the theatre. Larry mentioned a detail, the way I hugged myself at one point, holding onto my sweater as though it were my mother; "What a wonderfully vivid choice," he said, amid much nodding. I didn't have the nerve to say that I didn't think it was a "choice" at all, as I hadn't planned for it to happen.

There was talk after that performance of my possibly changing majors. Larry introduced me to the head of the drama program, Arthur Storch, best known for his portrayal of the psychiatrist in The Exorcist. The one who gets his balls crushed by Linda Blair. "I heard about your monologue," he told me. "Sorry I missed it. Sounds electrifying." I didn't know how to respond to that, so I muttered a thank you. The three of us discussed the notion of switching into the drama program as a junior. By the end of the discussion, we all agreed that there was too much ground to be made up and that it would mean a year and a half's worth of coursework. And tuition. "I hope you'll continue to study acting, just the same, even as an English major," Mr. Storch said. I told him I hoped so too.

My mother was, of course, excited by my interest in theatre and one Christmas she gave me Uta Hagen's book, "Respect For Acting." She didn't say anything, just that she hoped I'd enjoy it. In it, she had also inserted a newspaper clipping, a story profiling HB Studio, the acting school that Ms. Hagen and her husband, the late Herbert Berghof founded in the aftermath of the McCarthy years.

I enjoyed the book, and it did make me want to continue acting. I was caught up in the idea of going off to Europe with my girlfriend at the time, so much of my energy went into making that happen. Then my mother got ill. And by the time she died, on November 18, 1988, I still hadn't appeared in a play. I was 25 years old.

When I got up the emotional strength to return to Madrid, I vowed to honor my mother's wish. I sought out and found English-language theatre groups, auditioned for them and got in. The first one I worked with was called Teatro Tespis and was an educational theatre company that did simplified versions of Shakespeare plays for Spanish middle school students learning English. My first live performance in a play was in "The Merchant of Venice" as Bassanio, the ingenue. (I was often cast as the ingenue in those days, when I was young and pretty.) Still, I had a good time with it and, with my mother very much present in my heart, I had a successful debut, in a middle school auditorium in Madrid, packed with 2,000 students. Heidi, our director, told me afterwards, "It's official. You're an actor, and if you can make it with this audience, you can make it anywhere."

I also worked with a group called the Madrid Players -- a band consisting mostly of expatriate Brits and Americans who put together pretty respectable productions. I played Lysander, another ingenue, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and was proud of both my performance and the production, directed by a talented Englishwoman named Janet Gordon.

Eventually, I became too homesick for New York, and for my family there, and I said goodbye to Madrid and to my theatre friends. One of my first acts when I returned was to go to HB Studio and sign up for classes, and I had the great fortune to study with William Hickey, perhaps best known for his portrayal of the aging Don in "Prizzi's Honor." But I didn't just want to study; I wanted to act, as well. Luckily, my friend from Syracuse, James Savoca, was doing interesting things off-off Broadway and was open to me coming along for the ride. We wrote and performed sketch comedy in a really fun group called "City Soup" and did a night of one-act plays that we wrote and acted in with a separate group called "Crowded Theatre." (See photo, above.) I've since had the pleasure of helping James with early drafts of the films he has gone on to make, and I got to do table readings with Drea de Matteo and Chris Messina among other very talented actors, in participating in the casting process.

Of course, my life has little to do with acting and the theatre these days. I'm so grateful to people like Larry and Heidi and Janet and James and even Gordon, way back when, for giving me the opportunity to honor my mother's wish, and to tap into an aspect of myself that I needed to explore. I've moved on to other things (education reform, fatherhood, etc.), but I do sometimes wonder to myself whether there might still be a few roles out there still waiting for me to play them...

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Cafe Society 2.0 (A registered trademark of Starbucks)

Don't judge me, because I know what I'm about to say is totally uncool, but I really, really like hanging out in Starbucks, especially when I am fortunate enough to score an overstuffed chair. This one, in South Fort Worth, is small and gives into the Barnes & Noble next door. There is an exhibit of attractive black and white photographs, some of tourist sights in Fort Worth, others of people's hands. If I was someone with money, I'd consider purchasing one.

People sit, thumbing their mobile phones and tapping on their laptop keyboards, like me. There's a funky DVD playing, something along the lines of Sade. Smooth jazz, only cooler. TCU students sit and eat and chat, using the word "like" so much that I imagine a device that will administer electric shocks each time they say it. Finally, mercifully, they shut up and get to work on whatever it is they've come together to work on today -- a group project of some sort, I'm thinking. Currently they're doing their best at some silent reading, but are easily distracted. One of them gets a call on her cell and disappears, chattering loudly. Another is listening to her iPod and can't seem to focus.

It's similar but different from the cafes I used to hang around in when I lived in Madrid. A decidedly Americanized version. But I do appreciate that I can do some pretty darn good people watching, while I sit and nurse my one coffee and no one bugs me about it.

If I had a life that allowed for this use of my time, I'd be in a Starbucks on the regular. Maybe I will schedule things so that I can make this a part of my monthly visits to Fort Worth.

Oh, she's back. Talking about her friend with the mysterious growth who just called. She has like a whole like list of like possible like diagnoses.


Okay, I love the cafe society. 2.0 works just fine for me.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The International Bowling Hall of Fame Rocks (No Really, It Does)

Yesterday afternoon, speculating on whether or not the local schools I work with here in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area would be closed due to the weather, I tweeted, "Snow day in Dallas schools tomorrow? Will I finally be able to visit the International Bowling Museum in Arlington? Fingers crossed!"

Well, lo and behold, I woke up to the sound of ice pelting my hotel room window, and when I looked out, there was a sheet of snow and ice on the roads -- not much by northeast standards, but here, enough to close the schools.

After doing some reports on my computer, and answering a few work emails, I looked at the tweet again and thought, ah, what the hell? So I bundled up as best I could with what I brought with me and walked about a block and a half to the museum. As you might have guessed, I was virtually the only patron in the place, which makes sense. I don't think a whole lot of people get up the morning of an ice storm and say, "I know, I'll go to the bowling museum."

I have to say... I loved it. I loved the International Bowling Museum. The woman at the gift shop was extremely friendly, and she was happy to give me a discount (we called it an "educator's discount," but we both knew it was a get-somebody-in-the-door discount). I learned a few things I didn't know, like that it's possible bowling originated in Egypt 6,000 years ago, and how bowling balls are manufactured.

But when I thought about it over lunch afterwards, I understood that it wasn't the cool stuff I learned, or the highly interactive exhibits, including two miniature bowling alleys you could actually bowl on. It was the memories that place brought back. As I watched a clip on the birth of televised bowling on shows like Celebrity Bowling and Bowling for Dollars, I was transported back to the Saturday afternoons of my childhood, watching those very shows in our downstairs playroom. On the following Sunday mornings, we often got up early with my dad and headed down to our local bowling alley to bowl a few games. We got into it, and even had our own bowling balls, with our names etched into them. Mine was purple, and Mike's was green.

It gave me a smile thinking back on that time. It also gave me a desire to take my boys bowling with me -- just the three of us. I think it could become a tradition, just as it did for me, my brother and my dad. We bowl on the Wii all the time, but there's something about the sound and feel of a bowling alley that's special. I experienced it as a boy, and I want my sons to experience it, as well. Just as the memory of it warms me now, on this cold night alone in a hotel room in North Texas, I want the memories my boys and I make together to protect and comfort them throughout life's journey.
It occurs to me now that the Bowling Museum did exactly what it was designed to do. It made me nostalgic, it made me yearn to bowl, and, most importantly to them, I'm sure, it made me want to introduce a whole new generation to the sport. If you're ever in Arlington, I'd recommend you take the time to visit the International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

My Brief Songwriting Career, Such As It Was

This morning, as I got comfortable with my rental car -- some kind of midsized Dodge ("Avenger," I think it's called. Weird name for a car.) -- I did what I always do in that situation: hit the "Scan" button on the radio, listening for halfway decent stations. Upon hearing a familiar riff, I left it on 100.3, KJKK, "Jack FM." I began to sing along with Chrissie Hynde, approximating the lyrics, "Middle of the road/It's the common thing/I'm standing in a middle life cry with my pants behind me..."

Wait a minute, I thought, I know that riff. And then I remembered: Jem Aswad and I sat in the basement hallway of our freshman year dormitory, the Robert Shaw Living/Learning Center, well after hours, Jem on the guitar, me straining to make my voice sound anywhere near acceptable. I don't remember what drugs we were on, but I have to believe they were good; either that, or Jem was a serious masochist.

We "wrote" a number of songs, the worst of which may have been "I'm Rotting," a touching tune about life equalling continual decay. (We were so deep.) In our defense, the A-G-E riff heard on "Middle of the Road" was ours first. Sadly, we did not record "I'm Rotting" to provide proof of this.

(Whoa, man, I just thought of something: We wrote a song about the decay of growing old, and the chords were A, G, E, man! Too bad those were the only chords. In the whole song.)

Okay, so we never became the rock stars we aimed to be. To his credit, Jem has come much closer, writing for Rolling Stone, MTV and Billboard. And he still plays guitar quite well, often appearing at PS 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, playing for his daughter's rapt class.

Me, I've made something of a name for myself as a vocalist in certain exclusive Karaoke circles. Due to blogging guidelines, I am not at liberty to repeat that name here, unfortunately.
Hey listen, the way I like to think of it is this: We may not have written any good songs down there is the bowels of Shaw Hall in the small wee hours of the morning.

But we did create one hell of a friendship.

Thank God it's lasted longer than "I'm Rotting."

Monday, February 7, 2011

Say What You Need to Say

As an undergraduate in the English Department of Syracuse University's College of Arts & Sciences, it was inevitable, in the early 1980's, that I be introduced to the work of Raymond Carver. He was teaching Creative Writing in what was becoming the most renowned graduate program in the country, and his work was gaining a confident muscularity as he emerged from his drinking life and started anew with poet Tess Gallagher, who also taught in the program.

Like many college students at that time, I was bowled over by Carver's stories. They were terse, economical, and had an emotional directness I'd never experienced in my reading up to that point.

I used to see him at readings every once in a while. I even sat next to him when Edward Albee came to read at the Hall of Languages, because I was friendly with his niece, Amy, who introduced me to him. "Uncle Ray, this is Dan Fuchs. He's a writer, too." He shook my hand shyly, and his shyness was so powerful I could only reflect it back at him. If I said anything to him, I don't know what it was.

One typically cold winter day, not long after meeting him, I saw Ray standing outside the University Bookstore following a book-signing he had just done. He was alone, smoking a cigarette and looked so at peace that I chose not to say hello. I told myself I'd have plenty of other opportunities to speak with him.

Of course, I never did. I was vacationing in Greece in 1988 when I read the news of his death, which floored me. The combination of knowing I'd never get the rush of reading a new Carver story in the New Yorker or Esquire again, paired with the regret I felt as I understood our conversation would never happen, was like having the wind knocked out of me momentarily.

I vowed that from then on I would seize the opportunity, whenever it presented itself, to reach out to the people I admire. In the Spring of 1990, I went to see Richard Ford do a reading at ACHNA (Asociacion Cultural Hispano Norteamericano) in Madrid. With the same nervousness I felt meeting his departed friend, I shook Ford's hand, and managed to say, "You and I have a mutual friend in Toby Wolff." "Really?" he said, his eyes lighting up. "Well, isn't that something? Were you a student of his?" When I said that I was, he called his wife over, "Kristina, come over here. This is Dan Fuchs. He was a student of Toby's at SU." (At this point I was starting to notice the annoyance creeping onto the expressions of the others who were waiting for Ford to inscribe their books. I didn't care.) "Oh wow," Kristina said. "Did you know they just had a new baby?" "You're kidding!" I answered, genuinely surprised. The two of them were so engaging; I wanted to offer to show them around the city, but I could already see a publicist type, redirecting Richard to the line of book buyers who were waiting. "I'll get out of your way," I said. "It was nice meeting you." "Hey, you too, Dan," Richard said. "Did you want me to inscribe that for you?" I'd almost forgotten and handed him the book, a Spanish edition of Rock Springs. In it he wrote, "For Dan, With the pleasure of meeting you, and with good hopes for your work. Richard Ford, April 24, 1990, Madrid."

I now hold the book as one of my prized possessions. It was a moment I knew my mother, only a year and a half gone from the world, would have been proud of, when I realized that even my idols are a part of the family to which we all belong. I'd like to think Ray was pleased, too.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Two Sons, One Father, and a Parallel Dynamic

After a long day that included hiking and canoeing in Zilker Park yesterday, we packed into the car and ate at Hut's on Sixth Street, where we filled up on heavy food -- burgers, fries, shakes. By the time we got home, both boys were asleep in the back of the car. Jackson woke up first, and he and I were able to have some one-on-one time, throwing the football and riding bikes.
Diego eventually emerged groggily from his nap and came outside to find me and Jackson tossing the ball to each other. "Here you go," I called, throwing a pass to Diego, who watched as the ball bounced in front of, and away from him, making zero attempt at a catch. He then yawned, rubbed his eye with his fist, and returned to the house.
I realized then that there is a parallel forming. I am spending time nurturing Jackson's unusual athletic talent and love of sports, just as my dad did with my younger brother. Much was made of the time and attention my father paid to Mike -- least of all by me. But my grandmother, my "Oma," had many talks with her younger son about the issue, explaining to him that it was important to spend an equal amount of time with the two growing boys. I never felt abandoned by my father. On the contrary, I was as excited about my brother's abilities as anyone, and I did what I could to nurture them, as well. I wanted to play my part.

For a while there my brother played the competitive tennis junior circuit, 12 and under. We would drive out to the Port Washington Tennis Center on Long Island, the place that spawned John McEnroe. Mike did well enough that he agreed to enroll in the Welby Van Horn Summer Tennis Academy in Connecticut. When he called home crying that he wanted to leave the camp, my father didn't think twice about going to get him. Thus ended his run for professional tennis stardom at age 12.

I do think, looking back on it now, that my father made a good effort to get me out there on the tennis court with him, as well. I enjoyed playing then, and I still do. I just never showed the same natural aptitude for the sport that Mike did. I've long since realized that it's not a question of my brother being a good athlete and me being a shitty one; it's actually comforting to realize that Mike has freakishly sharp hand-eye coordination, so next to him my skills in various sports have always felt low. Once I went out to play with others, however, I realized I was better than I thought. Mike was simply playing on another level.

I'm starting to think that Jackson may possess this kind of ability, too. He throws the football with stunning accuracy, when he takes the time to concentrate on what he's doing and where he's throwing. And he's got a strong arm for his age. I'll need to remember to give Diego that important equal time my Oma spoke about. Even though he may not be feeling a need for it right now, I think it will be important for me to do things like play video games with him. As I said, I hold no resentment towards my father or Mike; that said, it would have been nice for my father to sit down with me while I was drawing or reading, or whatever I was doing that didn't involve throwing a ball around. As much as I enjoyed throwing and catching and running and hitting, I also enjoyed other activities just as much or more.

What I'll try and do differently is to meet Diego on his own terms. If he wants to join me and Jackson for a catch, that's great. If not, then I'll find the time to take an interest in whatever it is that he finds interesting and exciting. As parents, this is our ultimate job, isn't it? To validate the passions that lie within the hearts of our children.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Bicycles and Me

I want to ride my bicycle;
I want to ride my bike.
I want to ride my bicycle;
I want to ride it where I like.
-- Freddie Mercury
In the beginning, there was the red Schwinn. Or at least that's how I remember it. There were, in fact, many bikes in our neighborhood. We had a bicycle culture when I was a boy in the 1970's. I haven't thought about it in years, but as I recall the accessories I bought for that bike -- the baskets and rear view mirrors, the generator lights that ran on pedal power, and the horns -- it makes me realize just how important my bikes were to me back then.
I suppose each bike was a kind of status symbol that said something about the kid who rode it. I don't pretend to have a memory that could call up all the different brand names each kid had, but I do remember one distinctly -- the Raleigh Chopper that Richie Mahoney owned. If I'm not mistaken it was a rust brown color and it was the coolest bike by far.

That is until Richie trashed it. That's what we did with our bikes back then. We were heavily influenced by the ABC hit TV series Happy Days, and there was a very popular storyline about the Fonz falling for Pinky Tuscadero, leader of the Pink Ladies. She was just as tough as Fonzie, and the two of them rode motorcycles together. To me, they were nothing short of the perfect couple, so I was devastated when Pinky was injured during a demolition derby by the evil Malachi Brothers. My friends and I regularly re-enacted the derby on the cul-de-sac at the end of our street, much to the chagrin of our parents, I would imagine, who must have wondered how we managed to smash up our bikes so completely on such a regular basis.

I would also imagine that I was the Fonz and Lorraine Mahoney was Pinky, and that we were the king and the queen of the demolition derby. No matter how things turned out in the cul de sac, in my mind, we always won, and lived happily ever after.

(I was a bit of a Walter Mitty, even back then.)

Bikes became less a part of my life as I got older; although that changed when we moved to Grosse Pointe, Michigan when I was going into the tenth grade, in the summer of 1978. One of the first things I noticed about Grosse Pointe Park, the town where we lived, was how flat it was. My brother and I were given bikes as a means of transportation; he rode to the middle school each day, and I rode over to Grosse Pointe South High School. It was an easy, bucolic, painfully suburban ride.

The first time I ever got intoxicated was in Grosse Pointe, at Wendy Maniere's house, about a block away from where I lived. At the end of the party, I rode my ten speed home, which was no easy feat. As I recall, there were no cars on the road, but I still managed to get tripped up at a stop sign and land on my ass.

I walked my bike the rest of the way home, collapsed into my bed and vomited shortly thereafter, in a manner so violent that I found myself promising the toilet bowl I would never drink again. (I lied.)

Bicycles didn't really play a part in my life again until I went to college and met Susan Barney. We bought ten speeds together and would take them for rides over to Oakwood Cemetery, where we would sit against trees and read. This was one of those simple, quiet pleasures of those years that I'll remember always.

When the two of us traveled one summer in Europe, we rented bikes in France, in Aix-en-Provence, I believe it was. The travel had wearied me, so that riding the French bicycle was difficult, and I ended up not only exhausted, but sick, as well. I remembered a cure for nausea I had found while traveling in California, when I got car-sick driving up Big Sur. I had my girlfriend's older sister pull the rental car over, and I sat on the side of the road, ready to be sick. Then I noticed a familiar smell -- eucalyptus. I was sitting right beside a bush of the stuff. As I sniffed in the aroma, I immediately felt better. There wasn't any eucalyptus in France, so I sat under a tree and breathed in the smells of the grass and earth until I felt better. (Susan was good enough to take a picture, capturing me in this condition.)

Bicycles were absent from my life during my time living in Manhattan, as that was an era of mind-numbing blurriness, for the most part. It wasn't until I re-emerged on the other side of the East River, in Brooklyn, that I decided to invest in another bike. I lived next to Prospect Park, a biking mecca, and I was wheeling into a new life, yet again.
Now, here in Manor, Texas, I ride my bike as often as I can. Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those guys you see going up hills on the side of the highway, wearing brightly colored spandex, and I didn't need to take out a second mortgage to buy my bicycle. I like to ride a mile or two at a time, or just go for a spin with my kids every now and then. It's not much, but there's a feeling of freedom and renewal I get when I'm on my bike. And I'm not saying the red Schwinn will be my "Rosebud" or anything as heavy as that, but I do feel a connection to all those earlier, cycling selves each time I get on the bike and ride.