Sunday, May 30, 2010

In the Belly of the Box

The other day, I attended a work-related seminar in a swank midtown conference room. These things are always the same: stiffness, awkward, forced laughter, stifled yawns, sage nodding of the head, left finger posed thoughtfully under the chin with crossed arms. That look of corporate serenity you hope to have in your coffin: yes, I understand that I’m dead, and this is the last major roman numeral in the outline of my life.

One of the speakers actually was very good, guy in his 50s, really spoke with a down-to-earth, “seems like I’m just winging it but think about all the details I’ve imparted” sort of vibe. One of the things he did stuck with me. He stopped and asked: “All right, so you’re at a barbecue, kicking back, beer in one hand, burger in the other, and someone asks you, ‘What do you do?’.”

When he asked the rhetorical question, he stopped and looked one person in the eye, as if he were play acting and actually at a barbecue. Slight, uncomfortable silence, nervous laughter, maybe people don’t get it. So he said, “I’m a Vice President at a Public Relations firm … what do you do?”

The concept was to get the person to say something more basic than “I work in a museum.” To look at a question like that as a networking/business opportunity. “I work as a loan officer in a community bank.” “Oh, you know, my brother is looking to take out a loan for his small business.” “Well, here’s my card ..” Etc.

I only had one small problem with this: if you’re the kind of person who goes to a non-work event and immediately starts in with work-related junk, I walk the hell away from you. I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want you asking me “what I do.” I don’t care what you do – profoundly so. No one does. We’re there to hang loose and enjoy each other’s company. I’m not there to shake you down for a job. You’re not an object for my financial gain. I won’t make you feel small if “what you do” doesn’t subscribe to some bullshit standard I hold. The only standard I’ll hold in a situation like that is whether or not you’re interesting and likable enough to hang around and talk with for awhile, maybe even become friends if we really get along.

And chances are if you’re networking, I’ll smell it like a hard-boiled egg fart and evacuate the premises in exactly the same manner. Of course, I picture the guy who was speaking, his world is that kind of suburban barbecue where a bunch of uptight guys walk around in polo shirts and $90 shorts talking nothing but work and the amounts of money they make. If not directly, then indirectly by listing thing like international vacations, cars, second homes, wives’ shopping habits, kids’ Ivy League affiliations, etc. If it’s not money, it’s what money can buy. Not who you are. Who you are is generally buried underneath tons of carefully-piled debris, like a doll in a garbage dump.

(Sidenote to “what do you do” way of life: This always makes me think of old friend John S. in high school, when the topic of “what we were going to do with our lives” came up. I can’t recall the class, but a teacher asked us just such a question. Most kids gave the same stock answers: doctor, lawyer, carpenter, nurse, etc. The teacher knew when he got to John, things were going to get strange, so he saved him for last. Finally, he says, O.K., John, what do you want to be when you grow up? John says, “I have it narrowed down to two choices: a gynecologist in Hollywood, or hot-dog vendor on the beach in Maui.” Of course, he was lying. “Cindy Crawford’s bicycle seat” was the stock answer we gave back then to this sort of question.)

I always feel like a spy at these sort of corporate seminars, because this isn’t me at all. Of course, I realize, you go around the room, and the thought balloons over most people’s heads will be saying, “What the fuck am I doing here? Not just this conference room, but this place in my life? How did I get here? Why do I stay? Do they stage these things so I can have these desperate moments of quiet crisis and make me feel like I pussied out on my life and have turned into some kind of corporate cyborg?”

The answer, of course, is money. And free donuts. Free alcohol if you’re really lucky. But I’m assuming most people in that room are doing what I’m doing: putting on the work face for work. Although you’ll get that glint in more than few people’s eyes, the true believers. And I don’t fault them for that. These displays of public disaffection are meant solely for people like them, who buy into whatever’s being sold and believe in it with a religious fervor. They’re the ones who are perfectly at home in an environment like this, and people like me are intruders in a sense, who may never openly balk at this sort of nonsense, but surely roll along with it as it’s part of the deal of making money.

Something about these things always brings out my inner 19-year-old. That’s roughly the age, for me at least, where everything seemed like bullshit. Strung out between childhood and adulthood. In college? If not, working one’s first job, probably living at home, thinking, “Is this how life works now that school is out?” Teenage kids seem like assholes. Adults seem like assholes. Your friends seem like assholes. You seem like an asshole. Everything’s a joke. Who are you doing this for? What are you doing this for?

I have a few friends with kids right at that age, and, man, do their kids seem lost. Not in a horrifying way – actually in a pretty typical way most people go through. But I can see, you have any romantic notions about being a teenager or young adult, you should eavesdrop on a family that has a 19-21 year-old kid who doesn’t quite know what to do with his life, and that awkward lack of direction will kill that nostalgia. It doesn’t look like any fun – more like a teenage purgatory, stuck between that carefree, private lifestyle they’ve had the past few years and the approaching adult world they’ve been drilled to view with fear and disdain, but now it has to be breached somehow in the next few years.

And I wouldn’t know what to tell them, as if some magic answer will appear through the mist. It won’t. There will be things that suggest themselves, and more than likely, situations that just present themselves as a way to make ends meet, and they’ll often grow into some type of vocation. Some people will aim themselves like missiles to get through life, every step carefully planned and conceived. And I always get the feeling that everything else in their lives is secondary to that game plan. Marriages and children are part of the deal, but not the deal. You’ll find executives with three kids who don’t know a damn thing about child-rearing … because you can’t learn a damn thing about child-rearing when you’re working from 8:00 until 8:00 every day and lining up high-end social engagements every weekend that don’t involve kids. I got no problem with people espousing the way of life, but I wish they’d drop the illusion that they “have it all” in some sense when anyone can see through this charade that goes on with that lifestyle. People who work that hard love work. Whatever else they attach to it is not even a close second. I’d guess that realization becomes fairly obvious to the un-close seconds after awhile, and they either see the truth of their lives and accept it, or decide to kick up a fuss.

That’s what I’d tell these kids: you can’t have it all. You can give yourself the illusion that you can have it all, but you can’t have it all. Something will always be out of place. Something will always be out of balance. One thing will be greater than another. Come back a year later, and those things will have changed places in your life. Where they’re at now, everything looks like it’s out of reach. Not quite knowing they have youth, looks, time, a casual laissez faire attitude towards the future that people will spend years trying in vain to recapture as they age. They have a lot, but are not experienced enough to recognize its value. What they don’t have is that standing and sense of belonging in the adult world they’re un-easing into, which will come in time, but unrecognizably, like a disease that unfolds over the course of years. And as it spreads, that hang-loose vibe of taking life as it comes will disappear.

That’s all I could think of in that corporate boardroom. How does this uptight, nowhere feeling I have in the pit of my stomach have anything to do with that kid I was once, that loose sense of freedom I once had? Should it? On some level, no. When I was that age, I wanted to do nothing but be a writer, not quite realizing that it’s pretty rare that anyone gets to do nothing but write, and even more rare to write only what they want to. Usually there’s a lot of shit attached to that. Teaching. Senior editing. Day-jobbing it. You’ll get paid a $30,000 advance for a book and often not see much more than that. Try living on that for a year. It won’t happen, unless you’re depending on someone else for money. Try freelancing. Even the few people I know doing that successfully spend weeks or sometimes months sweating it financially as their assignments and late-arriving payments ebb and flow.

So I’ve had friends with the same aspirations go do the teaching thing. Only to find that they’re so burned at the end of each work day, and have papers to grade, that there is no time to write anything. Or the senior editors, who spend endless hours at work, I mean 12-hour days as a given, with longer for deadline days and weeks, that the concept of writing whatever they want to write disappears like a ghost in the fog. They surely do write, but nothing they want to. Throw in families on top of that, and the aspirations of a 19-year-old look only like a faded question mark in the backs of their minds. Not something to ever be taken seriously again. There's no time.

This is why I find the “thinking inside the box” paradigm sprung on me by someone who has always lived his or her whole like this bad cliché so offensive. Many of us have tried to live our lives “outside the box.” But live in a society where it really helps to have that box to get by. We need to resort to convention to make a living, while we chip away at things we really want to do. Very few people get to do exactly what they want to do, and I suspect their worlds are fraught with countless threats to their ability to go on doing so, which gives them a different kind of box that is a box nonetheless.

Sure enough, while that guy was speaking, he had another trick question where the object was to get us to “think outside the box.” I can’t tell you how rank I feel when I hear that phrase uttered in an office. The person uttering it invariably owes his existence to the box. I’ve known people who’ve lived outside the box, and most of them are dead or beat-down the way you’d get running into a brick wall repeatedly. I’ve trained my mind to think “outside the box that you live inside of” when it comes to people like this. Since I was bored out of my skull, I started entertaining my inner 19-year-old, thinking of how I should really answer this question if I wasn’t worried about losing my job in a shit economy, and walking away from this questionable way of life. And this is what I came up with:

I AM THE BOX. There is no thinking inside or outside of me. If I was, as you say, “thinking outside the box” – I mean really exercising true thought – I wouldn’t be in this room, nor would you, spouting a bad corporate cliché that tells me you’re really not all that smart beyond the blind ambition. If we were thinking outside the box, we’d probably be driving through the Badlands in a 57 Cadillac with a Yes album blaring from the cassette deck, high on magic mushrooms, on a death trip, one of our friends who had died a few days earlier from a brain tumor, wrapped up in plastic in the trunk, and we’re on our way to California to give him a viking burial at sea as his unofficial will stipulated, the one we verbally agreed upon when we were seventeen, drunk and gazing at the stars on the hood of an abandoned school bus at a bush party, but we wanted to get high and drive through the Dakotas first because he always wanted to see the Badlands, and we only have enough money to get us to Utah and will have to improvise thereafter. Motherfucker, THAT is thinking outside the box … not trying to make me feel like an asshole because I’m playing your game and need to reduce my mind to an uncomfortable place where I can figure out solutions to your wayward marketing campaign that’s going to be a piece of shit no matter how far anyone goes “outside the box” on this one.

Maybe the box is a casket and to think inside it is death? Maybe the box is this fucking job, this way of life, the irrational urge to pile hundreds of thousands of dollars into your life because you feel naked and weak without it? I need to think outside the box? Buddy, you don’t want to know what’s outside the box. You can’t handle it. You don’t want to. Last time you went outside the box was decades ago, and it scared the shit out of you, so much that you took that native intelligence, that spark of life you had, and twisted it around to some pre-defined career path because genuine freedom was something that blew your fucking mind and didn’t fit in with what your parents wanted for you, which sucked you in like a vacuum, and turned you into them, like you knew it always would in your little caste system world. So you’ll forgive me if I’m not all that crazy about spending time anywhere near your box because I need money to survive, but at least still have enough sense of personal freedom to wander around “outside the box” in ways you find counter-productive and childish, but I can assure you, no worse than the rampant insecurities and crippling fear that’s hidden beneath your fortress of solitude, you annoying, sell-out prick with enough arrogance to make Hitler blush, you putz.

And I know that tie is a clip-on!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Defense Mechanism

I was talking to a guy in boxing class today about his other class: krav maga, the Israeli-based form of martial arts. He has a full-contact class that tends to get nuts. I jokingly call him “The Italian Stallion” and he says, ‘No, I’m more like ‘The Italian Scallion.’” He’s had a woman kick him square in the balls in that class and in general gets roughed up a good bit by over-zealous sparring partners, but wearing head gear, cup and mouth piece. Our boxing class is just hitting things, which I prefer. My advice is unless you’re good enough to be a professional or highly-ranked amateur, you should not allow people who really know how to hit routinely hit you.

It’s always a pleasure to talk with this guy, or most people in these classes, because no one is there to kick somebody else’s ass. Every now and then you’ll get a hothead, but he (always he) will rarely last. Like me, most people realize it’s just a good physical release to hit something, and the workout in general is designed to break you down physically, and will, unless you’re in astounding physical condition. (I’ve also found the better you get, the harder you workout. The harder you hit, the more energy you burn. It builds on itself.)

This often makes me think about what it means to hurt or dominate other people, not just physically, and what the point is. Want to hurt me? Got news for you. There are things I understand about myself that are darker, more ugly and more hurtful than anything my worst enemy could come up with. As life goes on, if you’re honest with yourself, you see your own darkness, and embrace it in some strange sense, forgive it whenever possible, try not to encourage it. By the same token, I see great things, too, that sometimes come through clearly, especially when I write.

Gonna’ hurt me? Physically, that’s surely possible, but otherwise, I doubt it. Or at least nowhere near as hard as I could hurt myself. It comes in handy to understand this when you put yourself out there for public consumption. And I’ve learned plenty of people who abhor physical violence and see themselves as miles above it, don’t think twice about trying to inflict the same emotionally and mentally. That’s one major thing I don’t get about adulthood. Kids grasp this instinctively. Adults feel some need to bullshit themselves about this.

That’s one of the interesting things I grasp about New York. The way you see yourself fluctuates constantly because you’re placed in so many situations that tempt you to be the worst you can be one moment, and the best a few minutes later. I’ll be seconds away from popping some nimrod on the subway carrying on about how much he hates white people, fully knowing white people are listening to him carry on with this sort of senseless, baiting crap. An hour later, I’ll take five minutes to help an old lady with a walking cane make it up the subway stairs. Come back in half an hour, and I’ll be contemplating kicking some jackass thumbing an iPhone down the same set of stairs. Aspiring saints should not live here: they'll be tested far too much to make the ecumenical cut.

Boxing to me serves as a defense mechanism against the world. For every man or woman boxing in our class, there tend to be a dozen guys out on the floor pumping iron, building their own defense mechanism. The bigger you are, the less people mess with you. It’s a pretty simple equation. It occurs to me, too, that this is fear in some sense. And I think to understand manhood, you have to understand fear. Because it’s a huge part of the deal. Traditionally, a man had to deal with fear in his world on a daily basis, instilling it in others or controlling it within himself. Life was about regular physical confrontation leading up to the last century or two.

Of course, it applies now, too. It will always apply, as it’s part of man’s nature to feel dominant in some sense. When I’m back home, Mom and I will often sit watching some war documentary on the History Channel. She’ll shake her head and say, “I will never understand why people have to always be fighting.” And I’ll shake my head and reply, “Mom, it’s the nature of men to fight each other. I’ll never understand how peace breaks out so often.”

But the older I get, the less I feel the need to dominate other people. I can understand it in a very base form, living in the most powerful nation in the world, with a standard of living that allows me to think such thoughts. But, really, you see a show on TV about a tribe living in the Amazon, what do they know or care about this kind of dominance? They care about food, and shelter, plants growing so they can eat, water running so they can drink, animals in the forest they can kill and eat. There’s something seductive about that way of seeing the world from my apartment in New York, just walking around with something covering your private parts and only worrying about food and shelter, as opposed to the endless mind games of society. The sense of male dominance in those closed little groups seems incidental to the larger sense of tribal community. Somewhere along the road, long in the past, we lost touch with that. Or more likely wiped it out on purpose.

This country was built on the concept of people dominating each other, and the tradition continues financially, so that we have a place filled with millions of people who don’t feel any sense of worth or happiness unless they feel dominant over just about everyone else they come across. It gets disgusting after awhile, especially in New York. Tiresome. Not something I want to base my life on in any sense. I was never like this as a kid. Or a teenager. Or a young adult. I’m sure as hell not going to start embracing it now. Thought we were going to catch a break on all this shit with the economy nearly collapsing and still ailing. But I can see now, that’s impossible. This system would have to crash for everyone to abandon it. To do so would be to openly admit how empty it is, and we are by extension, and you better believe the people benefiting the most from it will do everything possible to ensure that never happens.

Still, I can see my take on boxing is self defense, not dominance. I don’t walk around beating the shit out of people. I surely walk around thinking about beating the shit out of people – many of us do – but recognize doing so would be much more trouble than it’s worth. It would slowly corrupt my soul to do so (just dwelling on it is surely a minor form of corruption). And the ultimate truth: sooner or later, probably much sooner than I’d expect, I’d come across someone who could beat my ass to a pulp in a few seconds. As I’ve stated before, boxing is about recognizing your limitations. You hang around a gym and see a few guys who are high-end amateurs, it occurs to you, fast, that some people were made to kick other people’s asses, and chances are you or I aint one of them. Catch a few of Mike Tyson’s early fights on ESPN Classic: it’s like watching the perfect ass-kicking machine.

This next generation coming into adulthood, I don’t know what to think. On one hand, you have guys who, no offense, seem like women with penises. They’re all over my neighborhood. Guys who have never been in a physical confrontation and never will be, if they can help it. I’d applaud their pacifism if I didn’t also recognize there’s some key missing elements of manhood in so many of these guys. That flinty quality you’d get with war vets and mechanics. There’s nothing “guy” about these guys. It’s as though any vestige of manhood has been sucked out of or willfully abandoned by them, in favor of being these wimpy, sort of always smirking beings who, as noted, have emotional warfare down to a science, but have somehow erased traditional manhood from their DNA. (This New York Times commercial nails that vibe, that deeply annoying type of guy for me, in a terrible way. I want to kill everyone in this commercial, slowly, but particularly the men, and particularly the balding guy with glasses.)

If you don’t believe me, watch a few current movies, especially comedies, which seem to delight in presenting men as lovable losers who are always sensitive, funny souls life has passed by, but they learn some important life lesson through a strong woman or other like-minded guys, all to the tune of some dumpy indie music that espouses the same airy “let’s just chill, dude” form of quasi-masculinity.

And let’s not forget the “bromance,” i.e., buddy movies, which have been around for decades. The concept of platonic love between men has been discussed since the days of Greek philosophers. But let’s sum it all up now by attaching a vaguely gay slur to the concept of two men being friends … which seems like a neat summation of what I’m getting at. These guys are being raised to be so disdainful of any sign of masculinity that they turn it all into a smirking inside joke, nod-wink, we really know what’s going on here. Right. Abbott and Costello movies were bromances? Eat me.

On the other hand, you have these hyper-macho, heavily-tattooed, nose- and ear-ringed, Ultimate Fighting sort of guys who walk around like open sores waiting for someone to bump into them so they can blast off. It’s like a cartoon caricature of manhood, taking all the obvious physical elements – muscular signs of strength, marking up one’s body with foreboding drawings and designs, inserting metal into one’s face, ears, nose, eye brows, nipples and whatever else, head shaving, facial hair sporting in various awful configurations, glaring at everyone when not wearing wraparound shades …

All I’m seeing are guys who are very afraid of the world, and this is their defense. Constant defense: defense as a lifestyle. I saw a recent story about a champion ultimate fighter beating the shit out of his porn-star wife. So, the guy’s a champion ultimate fighter … who beats up women, too. You have the bravery of this guy climbing into a steel cage to beat another guy’s ass, mixed with the cowardice of beating a woman, particularly one he married and made vows to. So what does the ability to kick somebody’s ass mean in the context of manhood, when you can readily do both these things? What did this woman do to him to make him flick that switch and treat her like a male opponent in a steel cage? What weakness did she exploit so well that his only recourse was to kick her ass?

What’s even stranger are guys who mimic all these affectations, but clearly don’t lift a finger to acquire any of the physical necessities required to be a genuine badass. They’re either rail thin or beer-bellied fat, slobby in general, but ramped up with that “badass” look and attitude … that I can assure you, is going to radically fail somewhere down the road, hopefully not to the extent that the guy gets permanently damaged.

Which is worse, the nancy boy or the alpha male? I’m describing physical extremes here, but admit it, when I describe either, you know the type of men I’m writing about. Surely, most of us guys see ourselves as somewhere in between, with elements of both. I’m not convinced that abandoning any type of physical/strength training would be an answer to anything. It helps to have these skills. Even the weightlifters, it helps to be able to physically intimidate people, even if you have no intention of doing so. In and of itself, it’s not a bad thing: it’s a defense mechanism that is as healthy or harmful as you want it to be. And history is sprinkled with people (Jesus, Gandhi, etc.) who had no defense mechanism, were peace-loving and gentle, advanced souls, who had something greater to teach mankind, and held a different kind of power that’s far deeper than any physical show of strength.

We tend to kill those guys because we can’t handle what they’re saying. Look at us. Look at the world. Look at this country. I don’t mean this as any sort of harsh “we’re fucked” rhetoric. The world has always been this way and most likely always will be. These are just some of the odd things I think about as I’m putting on my hand wraps and slipping on those heavy-bag gloves. Of course, were I Mike Tyson, I would probably be thinking, “Kill! Kill! Kill! In way! Bad! Bad! Kill!” Instead of, “I should really say something complimentary to the pretty girl wearing the retro Led Zeppelin concert shirt on the other side of the gym.”

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Mr. Welker

On a recent trip back to Pennsylvania, I opened the county newspaper and was shocked to find that Mr. Welker, my old high-school chemistry teacher, had passed on in his 80s. I’m usually not big on obituary-reading, but this one was right in front of me. I now know there’s no such thing as “natural causes” when elderly people die – that something gets you in the end, as opposed to this romantic notion so many people have of quietly going to sleep one night and not waking up … while doves and angels in gowns lift you up to heaven. Most of us are guaranteed a gravel-filled wiffleball bat ass-beating on the way out.

Mr. Welker was one of those love him/hate him teachers. Actually, most kids hated him at the time, but later admitted they learned a lot under this tutelage. When I forwarded the obituary to Brother M, the best he could come up with was, “Not one of my favorite instructors, although I think his intentions were good.” The rest was remembering how he’d dropped out of Mr. Welker’s class and had received a stern lecture about his (surely lost) future. Well, M did have logistical issues with adult authority figures in his late teen years, and Mr. Welker had his short-term future pegged. But M surely got his shit together at some point, and proved Mr. Welker wrong. I suspect if he had confronted Mr. Welker publicly years after the fact, Mr. Welker probably would have slapped him on the back and said, “I’m glad I was wrong about you.”

I got along swimmingly with the guy, or about as swimmingly as a goofball teenager could with a strict adult disciplinarian. He was by no means a nasty teacher. Just hard … my way or the highway, learn this, or get the hell out of my class. He was physically imposing, too, a large, burly man, with a pronounced forehead, and most noticeable of all, a strange orange tint to his skin. Like Homer Simpson. He felt like a space alien to many of us, a more intelligent being we couldn’t quite understand, but he was sent here to educate us.

About the only really bad thing I remember about him was his habit of injecting his personal politics into his class, which was Chemistry, i.e., had nothing to do with politics. I know you’ll find plenty of left-leaning instructors doing this (particularly in college), but Mr. Welker leaned right and was convinced every generation that came of age after the Korean War era was doomed. (I’ve since come to agree with him, but not out of any sense of conservatism, just the recognition of how much dumber and LCD society keeps growing.)

This was actually pretty funny when he routinely attacked “Hanoi Jane” Fonda, whom he despised equally for her Vietnam-era antics and her starring role in the then hugely popular movie, The China Syndrome. One of Mr. Welker’s auxiliary jobs when he wasn’t teaching was to help out at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Harrisburg, as he also had a strong background in Nuclear Science. Not sure exactly what he did, but he apparently knew everyone and was well-liked there. As you may recall, there was a core meltdown at Three Mile Island in the spring of 1979 … the exact same predicament detailed in The China Syndrome, which actually came out just days before the real-life accident.

When he’d go off on his Hanoi Jane tangents, man, he’d be on fire. Telling us what a nuclear meltdown was really like and how the movie totally botched it/blew it out of proportion. The problem was, I never knew if I could trust him as a valid source. Sure, he knew infinitely more than I did about the topic – he actually worked there – but how much of his bile (which was usually apropos of nothing, just him going off) was because he: a. worked there and had a professional stake in nuclear power being presented as positively as possible; and b. really hated Jane Fonda.

“All I can say is, by the year 2000, go talk to Jane Fonda when your electric bill is hundreds of dollars of month, and most of that is quietly being provided by nuclear power,” he’d say. From the way Mom carries on about electric bills back in Pennsylvania, he probably wasn’t too far off the mark. I’ll never forget once, though, raising my hand and somberly stating, “I don’t know, Mr. Welker, what you’re saying sounds like baloney in a nutshell.”

I had employed a double-zinger on him – using his two favorite catch phrases, “baloney” and “in a nutshell.” And he knew it, breaking into that weird, hard laugh of his, like a dog choking up grass, and said, “Mr. Repsher, if you don’t start paying closer attention, your grade for this class is going to be baloney in a nutshell.”

I can also recall one more hippyish female student blurting out, “Mr. Welker, are you telling us that Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt are wrong about this?” Those were two of the many pop-music “No Nukes” spokespeople railing against the nuclear industry at the time. Mr. Welker’s reply: “So it goes from Glenn Miller disappearing in a plane while serving his country in World War II to self-serving hippies spouting off about topics they know nothing about.” He threw his hands up and walked away, knowing in his heart we were all doomed, listening to frilly, careless rock stars instead of a guy who actually knew what he was talking about.

On that same note, I’ll never forget his reaction the morning after John Lennon was murdered. That was a pretty shocking incident for all of society, whether you were a Beatles fan or not. Kids my age at the time (16 or so), most of them weren’t really big Beatles fans, but surely knew of them as they were omnipresent in our pop-music culture, much more so than today (and I recognize they’re pretty present today). If you were a teenage kid into music, at some point, you went through your Beatles phase and really “got” the band, despite being a toddler when they broke up. It was just one of those things. Besides which, they were still putting out music. I was a huge McCartney fan and Lennon had just put out Double Fantasy. (Thought most of his songs were solid and Yoko’s sucked, but that’s how they wanted to present the album. He had enough material to put out his own album and should have.)

Well, that morning, we pile into Chemistry class, some kids like me, stone-faced and out of it, still in shock, but honestly, most kids not feeling too affected one way or the other. And Mr. Welker blurts out, “OK, everybody, let’s get over this ‘John Lennon hoopla’ and move on, I don’t recall people getting this upset over Glenn Miller’s plane gone missing, it’s only music, and this is chemistry.”

Most kids just sat there open-mouthed. I’m sure I was one of them. Just made no sense to take a swipe at Lennon hours after his passing, but again, in retrospect and taking in Mr. Welker’s politics, I gathered he was getting a bellyful of John Lennon all morning on the news and from everyone around him, and he’d had enough. I hated him for a few days after that, but it wore off. Frankly, what he had said wasn’t much different from what our parents were saying. But I suspect Mr. Welker’s discomfort wasn’t provided by or aimed at students. Most of the teachers at our high school at the time were relatively young, in their 20s and early 30s, and thus were children of the 60s and surely Beatles fans. So I suspect he was sitting in those smoke-filled teacher lounges and getting an earful of other teachers carrying on about John Lennon, and was thus offended.

His class normally wasn’t that controversial. It was Chemistry. And he drilled it into us, having us memorize the periodic table, key formulas and calculations, the whole shebang. You either learned that stuff by rote, or you got the hell out. To get an A in his class was a monumental achievement and generally indicative of someone who was headed towards a science-based career. I was a pretty solid B student in his class and didn’t even like science. It was that sink-or-swim. If you were a smart kid, like I was, it was a gut check to see how much of this stuff you could inundate yourself with and how well you could process it in a test situation. I passed, nearly got an A too, but didn’t push myself that hard.

A typical Welkerian touch: he loved this particular Texas Instruments calculator that did logarithms, which was a big deal at the time, as he recalled doing this shit on an abacus and such back in the 40s. (I can even recall him having an abacus in the class room and teaching us how to use it!) The Texas Instruments calculator with logarithm function? Shit. For him, it was like the invention of the iPod. He demanded that we all go out and buy that same calculator, nothing else would do. First he would teach us how to do the calculations manually so we grasped the principle, but then we’d use the calculator to save time.

Calculators at that time, turn of the 1980s, were just coming into vogue. You could get a basic one (add/subtract/multiply/divide) very cheaply, under $10, but always battery-operated, as solar panels on small devices like this had yet to go mass market. The Texas Instruments one was special, and as I recall, cost upwards of $20, but probably not much more. I think I still have mine back in “my” drawer that my mother still keeps in the living-room desk. It sits there in its denim-blue carrying case, out-moded by smaller, faster, solar-panel calculators that came in its wake. I also recall the buttons clicked when you pressed them.

The thing with this calculator, though, was that blue, soft leather case came with a loop so you could attach it to your belt. “Now, I’m not going to tell you people how to dress,” Mr. Welker said that first day in class, “but if I were you, I would attach the Texas Instruments calculator to your belt, much like I have these pens and pencils in my pocket protector, and keep it there, because you’ll be using this calculator constantly.”

You could generally tell how much of Mr. Welker’s Kool-Aid a kid drank by whether or not he wore his calculator on his belt … like a gunslinger. Forget about pocket protectors -- a teenage male would get his ass kicked on principle for wearing one. I don’t recall one single female student doing this. I do recall a handful of guys, who were generally not the smartest kids in class, but we really taken in by Mr. Welker’s sales pitch. As with so many nerdy things in high school, you may as well have worn a white t-shirt with the word “DICK” emblazoned on the chest in gigantic ALL CAPS scarlet letters. A kid who did that would take endless shit. The usual gag was to temporarily strap your own Texas Instruments calculator to your belt and pretend to have a gunslinger showdown with the kid, both of you unzipping the case, drawing out your calculator, flicking it on and seeing who could find the square root of 586 first.

I had two legendary incidents in Mr. Welker’s class, along with all the hard work and studying. As noted, we got along pretty well. I had two brothers and a sister pass before me through his classes, so he got the impression he could trust me as a student. Brother M came off as an under-achieving charlatan, while Brother J and Sister K diligently B’d it through his class (the same way I would). I was a “good kid” … and I really was, which wasn’t necessarily a blessing as a teenager. I may have chafed at Mr. Welker’s politics and discipline, but I somehow saw through the BS and took to whatever he had to offer as an instructor.

The first incident was Dress Up Day, which the school would have once every semester, a chance for kids to dress like adults, for guys to put on ties and suit coats and girls to wear nice dresses and such to school. As opposed to our normal uniforms of concert t-shirts, flannel shirts, cruddy jeans and sneakers. (Does it say something about me now that I don’t even own a pair of jeans? I can’t stand denim as a fabric.) It was a big deal to put on the dog in high school, save for that small cache of students who always dressed well.

Well, Dress Up Day, Chemistry class, and Mr. Welker has scheduled some experimentation in the lab next to our desks in his classroom. We loved doing that stuff, because it could be dangerous and risky at times if you didn’t do things right, and shit was always happening, phosphorous burning too much, sulfur smells emanating from mixed liquids, etc. He drilled us on how to use bunsen burners, as you could imagine the danger of 20 or so teenagers lighting these up simultaneously without any training. We all had our hand-held flint devices. And our burners that we’d hook up to our individual gas pipes. Turn on the pipes, hear that telltale hiss, then flick the burner on with the flint.

I must have been groggy that day because I did something unforgiveable: hooked up my bunsen burner accidentally to the water pipe adjacent to the gas. I was dressed up that day. Everyone around me was. I turned on the pipe, didn’t hear the gas, picked up my bunsen to burner to see what was wrong, and when I did, pulled off the small hose leading to the pipe, spraying water over everyone within five feet of the pipe.

Of course, the class went nuts. Understand that kids had lighted their burners, and scattered when they got splashed, nearly burning themselves on the lit burners in the process. It was mayhem for a few seconds, but blew over quickly, although I surely pissed off those kids around me. To Mr. Welker’s credit, I don’t recall him punishing me, just giving me a stern warning. I’m surprised this didn’t happen more with the gas and water pipes right next to each other and not labeled accordingly.

The second incident was a test we had in the last semester of our senior year in Mr. Welker’s Nuclear Science class. That class was a mistake on my part as I hadn’t anticipated how lackadaisical I’d feel towards academics in that last few weeks of high school. (I felt the same way my last semester of senior-year college, too.) I was cruising towards the finish line, already accepted at Penn State, really felt I had nothing to lose. Inject into this mindset Mr. Welker, teaching a relatively new and very difficult class that he had a burning passion for, and it was an educational disaster.

Even the kids who were good at Math and Science were tanking the class. It was fucking hard! Unlike his earlier Hanoi Jane rants, this was actual Nuclear Science, the study of it, and most of us just weren’t cut out for this stuff. I recall two girls really taking to it, and sure enough, both did pursue Nuclear Science in college. But most of us were totally lost in this class, from the first week on, and since it was our last semester and all of us were already college bound, no one was sweating it, save those kids who kept desperate tabs on their Grade Point Average.

I wrote about this class earlier in a posting about The Kinks, that great field trip we took to a nearby power plant, and my discovering that two of the more popular jocks in school were closet Kinks fans. I don’t know why that field trip sticks in my head – sure, it was the Kinks connection, but there was something about the whole thing, being 17 or so, May of 1982, and it’s just one of those “young” memories I’ll always have, walking around that plant in a hardhat with all the other upper-echelon smart kids and having a blast away from the school.

The last week of school, we had our final exam, which was an all-essay extravaganza as opposed to the usual sections of Multiple Choice, True/False and such. Normally, I’d be over-joyed with this development, as I ate up essays and could write them in my sleep. Even if I didn’t know too much about a subject, I could generally feel my way into it as a writer and make it work. But I had two problems here: I was totally flummoxed by Nuclear Science, and my study habits were completely shot with freedom from high school so close we could smell it like blossom on the wind.

That was probably the last test I took in high school, and in uncharacteristic fashion got a C Minus on it … which was cause for great joy. Because I knew jackshit about the topics at hand and truly deserved an F. I can’t recall the exact questions, but each one I turned into a free-form exploration of the universe, gearing the first and last paragraphs towards the question at hand, but in between just rambling a cut-up style of writing much like William S. Burroughs used in his novels. I had just read Naked Lunch earlier in the year and was entering my Beat Writers phase with Kerouac, Ginsberg, etc. It didn’t take me long to realize writing like that wasn’t my forte, but you have to do these things first to realize you’re not good at them.

The one question that stood out was the last: Explain in detail the theory of Black Holes. We all know what black holes in space are, but I recalled we had a special class and film about the topic which went into great detail about their discovery, the differing theories about what they were, what it would be like to enter one, etc. Interesting stuff, but I was zoned out at the time and not paying attention at all. Not studying a lick either. Those few weeks, every night found me shooting pool at near-by Holiday Lanes with pal George, who was much better than I was because he had a pool table in his parents’ basement, so I had to practice really hard to beat him. I spent much more time shooting pool that last month of school than studying … a malady many of classmates suffered from their entire high-school career.

I somehow found a racial component to the Black Hole Theory, tying in the Civil Rights movement and the band Earth Wind & Fire into what happens when a burned-out star enters a black hole. I pictured the Black Hole as nightclub in Harlem, and the burned-out star being singer Tom Jones. And so it went … I think I had Tom and the members of Earth Wind and Fire beating up a gang of KKK rednecks from the 1930s who had slipped into a time-space continuum and ended up in their black hole. The essay ended with me clicking together the heels of my black Chuck E. Taylor Converse hightops and chanting “there’s no place like home” tying into my theory that Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz had actually been in a black hole, and that movie was what really went on in there as opposed to gaseous explosions and super novas.

It was a tour de force of “no longer give a fuck” babble from a kid woefully unprepared to handle that or any other essay question in a test. By all rights, I should have flunked. But Mr. Welker gave me a C Minus, on the test and in the class. Not just that – I had friends in that class who studied their asses off for that test and got C Minuses, too. I guess they simply had the wrong answers, as opposed to imaginatively wrong answers like mine that at least demonstrated some type of creative thinking.

Whatever the case, I’ll never forget how nice he was to cut me that slack on the way out. I tend to remember the good things more than the bad with Mr. Welker, or with anyone who passes on whom I haven’t seen in years. He once told us the story of how he and a few of his friends, back during the Depression, had swiped a shipment of potassium from the lab for the sole purpose of throwing it into a nearby creek to watch it explode. This had to be done carefully, constructing a slingshot, as just throwing it by hand into the water could result in an explosion they couldn’t escape. He detailed the whole thing, how they set up the slingshot between two trees, set up two large rocks they could hide behind, constructed informal mirror/cardboard periscopes (another thing we did in his class …) so they could watch, and communicated the joy they had in blowing the shit out of that creek, although none of them had anticipated the number of dead fish their depth charge would unveil. Again, that dog-choking laughter and twinkle in his eye as he told the story.

I couldn’t help but get along with somebody like that. A few people I know have told me he was like that out of school and after retiring – a fun-loving guy, always with the “devil in his eye” glint of someone looking to pull a fast one. It would have been nice to know him like that, but I can live with the memory I have.