All I can’t See

Preston Ochoa flies F/A-18 Superhornets for the U.S. Navy. When I hear from him on rare occasions over social media, I am reminded of the squirrely high school students that he and his brother, Chase, were in my classes. Chase graduated from West Point and is in the U.S. Army. I never imagined both of them being academy grads, but they are–Army and Navy. Great kids–but kids as I remember them.

Dylan Ahara, too. Dylan was a junior in my English 3 class and suffered then from an excess of personality-but the kind you just had to love. A great soul–and apparently, a fine Navy hospital corpsman. He seems wiser than he should be for his age.

Ian Stallings, with whom I have reconnected recently, served in the Army for nearly a dozen years. Four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and he has stories that curl your toes and make the hair stand on your neck. As the others may have as well–though I don’t know–Ian has lost many friends, comrades in arms who stood with him in the fight and lost their lives. Ian remembers them all.

But it’s Mike DiRaimondo who I think about today. I was in my second or third year of teaching and Mike was in my 8th grade English class at Valley View Junior High School. Bright eyed, wide smile, a loving family, all of whom were very kind to me–Mike always wanted to be a paramedic, even when he was 14.

I’ve told the story before, so no need to retell it here. But what is worth remembering is that in January of 2004, Mike was serving in an Army medical evac unit near Fallujah in Iraq when his Blackhawk helicopter took a direct hit from a rocket propelled grenade. Mike and all aboard were killed. Today is his day–a day to remember the fallen and to help bear their burden.

To all of my students who served, are serving or will serve–I honor you, admire you and thank you for your willingness to serve. To Mike and to any others who may have given their all who I don’t know about, I stand today with your families to miss you, mourn you, celebrate you and thank God I got to know you. Forgive us our warring sins. They are too much for us-and we haven’t learned it yet.

May all find Peace–and may Peace find all.

This Gatsby is Great

Baz Luhrman was going to make a new version of The Great Gatsby. I felt personally insulted. That’s my book, I reasoned. There have been no good versions of the movie. Paul Rudd even attempted Nick Carraway back in 2000. Awful. Though Mira Sorvino had the right look for Daisy.

Allow me to back up. I’ve been a high school English teacher for 22 years. For at least 15 of those years, I’ve taught The Great Gatsby. I know the book-or like to think I do-pretty well. I loved the book as a teenager, but I didn’t understand it fully. I didn’t know what those relationships meant, their evanescent flowing in and out. “I did love him–once but I loved you too.” It didn’t register.

I don’t know that it registers with my kids now, either, but it might have. I’ve read several bad reviews of the movie. I disagree with all of them and here’s why:

“Gatsby can never be made into a movie well,” said we English teachers, confident and even smug in our elite and precise opinions. There is truly nothing worse than a room full of English teachers. Our egos are not only large, they’re fragile. We’re easily pleased with ourselves and we’re easily offended. It’s the saddest thing in the world to hear English teachers pontificate, even to the point of tears, about how important our work is. Like Nick Carraway, I’m within and without. These are my people. I’m one of them. But I want to yell, “get the hell over yourselves. You’re English teachers. You will not change the world. Sorry.”

And we all have opinions about the works we teach, but none commands more personal animus, more innate self-righteousness than Gatsby. If you meet an English teacher who doesn’t like Fitzgerald, don’t ever let them near your growing child. Cretins, every one of them. “Only Gatsby–was exempt from my reaction. Gatsby who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.” And it’s true for us, too. We love Gatsby. We care for him. We worry about him and we root for him every year to succeed, knowing that our hopes will be shattered on the shore of West Egg while Nick seeks people to attend Gatsby’s funeral. We’re so disillusioned.

The problem with making Gatsby into a film is that Fitzgerald, for all of his modern sensibility, was a creature of the early 20th century. There were no long, sensitive films. Long and sensitive meant books–and that Fitzgerald knew how to do. So he wrote a book about emotions and opinions. To politicize Gatsby is to admit your own small-mindedness. Fitzgerald transcends politics, transcends economy. Gatsby is America-and so is Nick Carraway. And for pages, you’re hearing what each of the characters are looking for, searching for. Pages go by and no one moves. But hearts are wrenched open and emotions laid bare for everyone to see. This is not the stuff of movies. This is theater of the mind.

Until Baz Luhrman. The creative license Luhrman takes by making Nick Carraway a drunkard seeking solace in a sanitarium, making him equal parts Fitzgerald and Fitzgerald’s creation, is daring and insightful. In the novel, Fitzgerald writes Nick saying, “I was always literary in college–one year I wrote a series of very solemn and obvious editorials for the Yale News…” Luhrman simply takes that and allows Nick’s morbid alcoholism to become a diagnosis instead of a label. Nick transmogrifies into exactly who Fitzgerald wanted to be–and combines that with who Fitzgerald was, a helpless alcoholic, desperately in love with a woman gone insane, disillusioned by the promises of a world that never intended to deliver on them.

But who can be Gatsby? Allow me to cut to the chase–Leonardo DiCaprio. Oh, the whole cast was wonderful and there’s a special place for Toby McGuire in film celebrations as the naive yet insightful Nick Carraway. But when Luhrman focuses his Red camera on DiCaprio’s face for the first time when he says, “I’m Gatsby, Old Sport,” I literally gasped. The smile, the eyes, the “elegant young roughneck” were all there. It was an extraordinary performance and I was truly taken by it.

The visuals that only Luhrman can create, the blend of jazz with hip hop and the wide shots of an early 20th century New York, as much a character in the story as Nick, Gatsby, Daisy or Tom, were unique and brilliant. Luhrman is known for making over-the-top, overly dramatic atmosphere scenes-but that is, of course, what Gatsby is all about.

As the theater went dark and I sat with one of our school’s counselors, who fell asleep, and some 200 juniors, I was entranced. I bought the whole thing. I looked at that smile and I thought, “It understood me just as far as I wanted to be understood, believed in me as I would like to believe in myself, and assured me that it had precisely the impression of me that, at my best, I hoped to convey.”

Baz Luhrman has created a Gatsby that is imminently watchable and understandable, filled with as much meaning, imagery and power as Fitzgerald’s story and Leonardo DiCaprio is a Gatsby worth watching, worth remembering.

My career has gone in a different direction. I won’t be teaching juniors for a while, at least not next year, as I will be teaching the senior classes and delving into Sir Gawain, Beowulf, Shakespeare and Auden. And until today, that was a decision with which I was profoundly comfortable. But after watching Jay Gatsby reach out his hand farther and grasp the little piece of heaven, pulling it closer toward Daisy’s white face, I have to admit, I’m having second thoughts.

 

Burned

Smoke, ash and cinder choked the sky after the Springs fire, which began Thursday in strong east winds of up to 60 mph, shifted course and blew back with an onshore flow. More than 28,000 acres burned, nearly 2000 firefighters and about a dozen aircraft were enlisted to the fight. The numbers go up from there–but the most important one is that thus far, no houses have been burned down. 15 were damaged, but firefighters-who always come through it seems-came through in a big way. The fire is not fully contained yet, but it’s close.

Camarillo Springs is just a couple of miles from where I live in the city of Camarillo. While we were never in danger from fire and flame, smoke was our biggest enemy and even now-with clouds, drizzle, cool temperatures and rain forecast, one can smell the smoke in the air. Sue went out to water the garden this morning and the vegetables and fruit have a healthy dose of ash fertilizer on them. Perhaps that will be a good thing. Fire is a natural thing-and there’s no question but that this one burned areas that needed burning. Still-the havoc created and the nerves frayed along with wildlife and farmland burned–are a high price to pay.

It’s a price we’ve been paying a long time. Contrary to popular belief, California’s weather is not perfect and in fact, in my humble opinion, the Santa Ana winds are about the worst thing going. It was 96 degrees here on Thursday with winds gusting to 60 miles per hour. If I were a fire, I’d pick them to burn, too. But even if the fires aren’t burning, the wind and heat do enough to burn you as you attempt to walk into the grocery store or down the street. It’s gotten old for me. I’m not enamored of this state’s weather–and its attempts to make it harder to live here via taxation, fees, regulation and other public stupidity just get worse every year.

I’m part of the problem, of course. I’m a teacher. And I’m not sure any more that it’s enough for me to say how much I love teaching–how much I love the classroom and my students. I’m not sure it’s enough to really be passionate about literature and writing and spread that gospel to teenagers like I’ve done for 22 years. I love it–I really do. But California works at making it harder for me to enjoy it–to live here and to share in the community. Teachers are vilified, somewhat correctly in my view, but not entirely. It’s far too complex to break it down into a soundbyte and it’s far too multi-layered to fix with legislation. Still, time is no longer on our side.

I burned through all the last major units in my classes on Friday. The seniors are wrapping up a unit on WWI poets and the juniors finished The Grapes of Wrath while the seniors in the Shakespeare seminar spent the week exploring the sonnets. All of the seniors have some writing to do for those units, but it’s now being done on their time–and I’m moving on to the last month of teaching. Poetry for the juniors, final presentations or papers for the seniors-their choice. I’m not burned out-but I’m close…

Summer is upon us once again. It’s hard to believe that our trip east was a full year ago and that year has burned up and gone by, too. That was such a wonderful vacation and it made last summer so memorable. This year’s promises a few surprises and trips as well, but it also means Conni goes back home to Austria and that makes all of us, including Conni, sad. We knew we were getting into that-but it’s no easier. It motivates us to see how we can get to Europe sometime and visit her and her family.

Shannon is 12 years old now and these pages are full of memories and reflections of her life from the time she was four years old. All that time gone by, all the changes we’ve seen and so many more to come.

Off to celebrate Greek Orthodox Easter and write about it for the paper–a Holy time for our Orthodox friends here in the community and I’ve gotten to know many of them well–so it’s a joy for me to go and be welcomed into the midst of them even as I attempt to keep a distance and write about them as an outsider. I have a fun job.

Onward.