confessions of an ageing rage-aholic, part 2: the mad prof

most of my friends, and probably all of my enemies, think i have an easy job. cushy. secure. even… lucky. i teach theater, something i still love and am passionate about, at a major university in southern california. i’ve been doing it for a quarter of a century: 17 years as an “adjunct”, 8 years as a full time professor. i don’t have tenure, never will, but somehow my contract seems to get renewed every year. i like to think that it has something to do with the fact that i’m a good teacher, i teach something valuable, self expression & creativity, and perhaps i make a difference in students’ lives. it’s time consuming and meticulous work, but on the plus side, i get a month off for christmas and 3 months off for summer. yep. i don’t make a lot of money but it seems enough to support me and my lovely indonesian wife. we live high in the old hollywood hills of echo park, in a poor man’s paradise, and we get to travel the world more than most people i know. but easy? i don’t think so. all teachers are underpaid and under-appreciated. we have demanding jobs that take planning and fortitude, need patience and discipline, and require immune systems as strong as teflon saucer pans. only occasionally, do we get a return on our investment of trust and inspiration. for the most part, we lead ruthless, narcissistic students into skirmishes and battles for their own education. we try to arm these students for the opportunities and vicissitudes of life. we teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. engineering, law, medicine, and sometimes… theater. occasionally, we succeed and sometimes, we change lives. they used to say, “those who can’t do, teach.” but i just don’t think it’s true anymore. not in my field anyway. all my university theater colleagues are practitioners and survivors of lives in the theater. playwrights, actors, directors, set builders, costume designers… all of us have had professional careers, sometimes simultaneous with our faculty lives. with our university teaching jobs, we are the lucky ones to have found a way to make a living in our humble professions. we are living dinosaurs.

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so….. it’s the end of another spring semester. as usual, it’s the most stressful time of year. we’re inching towards the end of the semester’s final performances. there’s pressure on all of us, students and teacher alike. i teach a solo performance class, the writing and performing of autobiographical monologues, the making of art out of the fabric of the students’ lives. it’s a creative and passionate class in storytelling, and students are asked to be brave and honest, and to take emotional risks. i’m a notoriously demanding teacher, both of myself and my students, and i put in at least 14 hours a week extra, out of classroom rehearsal, for which i’m not paid a penny more. i don’t have to do it. but i do. why? i don’t know for sure. ask my mother or my shrink.

i’ve gotten 2 flus this semester, a quadra-perennial gift from my students. maybe it’s my immune system that has been shot to shit by the cancer i had in ’89. or maybe it’s the damn students, so willing and able to pass on their ornery viruses. but… i’m sick. again. sore throat, cough, congestion… the whole megilla. plus i have painful knots in my upper left shoulder and neck. i’ve been to two chiropractors and two acupuncturists. the last of the four has used a bizarre chinese medicine cupping technique, where he has pierced my back’s skin with a “7 pin dragon needle” and sucked the stagnant blood out of my muscles’ fascia, collecting gobs of nasty red, congealed, jello-looking liquid into 4 different egg-sized cups. it didn’t relieve the pain one iota. nothing has. now i lie on the floor in the classroom, listening to monologues. the students think i’m strange. today, i’ve worked for 10 hours without a break. i see a different student every half hour. i “block and stage” the performance pieces they’ve written earlier in the semester. i wolf down a ham & cheese sandwich that i made for myself in the morning, with green wasabi mayonnaise that i like a lot, in the middle of one rehearsal or another, between 1 and 2 pm. i work like a well-oiled machine. this morning, my first student didn’t show up at 8 in the morning. she didn’t call. she just didn’t show. i almost had 2 freeway accidents getting to the university on time, and she… just didn’t show. i already knew something was dreadfully wrong, just driving to campus. i shouldn’t be inches away from 2 freeway collisions, both of which would have been my fault. i’m just a theater prof.

when i meet them all at noon, i do some math for them on the white board. i say, “there are 16 of you in class, right? i give you all 2 half hour rehearsals a week. how many hours is that?” (i like to use the socratic method.) they say correctly, “sixteen.” “right,” i say, “how many hours do we have in class a week?” “four,” they say. “right again,” i say. “how many out of class hours does that give me?’ “twelve,” feller says, a smart ass theater student i like. “that’s right, feller. that’s a lot of extra hours… that i voluntarily give you.” they look at me quizzically, apparently thinking “where is this going?” “where is this going, you ask?” i’m good at reading students’ minds. and faces. “well, beca didn’t show up this morning at 8.” they all groan in unison. “but i did. and… i wasn’t happy. (beat. for effect.) beca didn’t call.” they groan again. “now i’m sure some disaster might have fallen beca’s way, which, i don’t wish upon her at all, but here’s my point. if you guys don’t meet me half way by showing up when you’re scheduled, then… let’s just not do this anymore. no performance, ok?” they all look around at each other. “is the dude serious?” “is the prof crazy?” “what up?” turns out that i am serious. and crazy… and fed up, all at the same time. it suddenly feels like the 25 years of my professorial service is up. right then and there. i’ve had it. i am ready to retire to that little bed and breakfast in my balinese imagination, and to try to stretch my humble and meager teacher’s 401(k) to the end of my life. in the third world. in the third act of – my life. i get through the end of the day. to 6:30. no one else misses rehearsal. they’re all on time. they all swear to me they’ll continue to do so for the rest of the semester. i accept their promise, and carry on. i shouldn’t have threatened them like that. it was immature. and self serving. but my back hurt. a lot. i ate my ham & cheese sandwich somewhere between 1 and 2, and i walk to my car. in lot 6. it’s 6:31.

University of South Carolina Campus

i get into the RAV4 and eagerly back up…. directly into a 4 inch thick, concrete pole. i get out to assess the damage. my rear bumper has moved about the same 4 inches back into the body of the car. fine. i get back in and decide to take the short route home, through the middle of campus, out gate 4. i usually take the quickest route off campus onto vermont, through gate 6, and take the local streets to the freeway. it’s a little longer in miles, but it’s quick and efficient. why is this day different from all other days? who knows? but for some instinctive reason, i take the short cut through the middle of campus. maybe it’s because my back and neck are still killing me; i just want to get home and lie down as quickly as possible. i drive towards gate 4; it’s only about a quarter of a mile, right in front of me. but there… also right in front of me…  between me and gate 4… are three… college coeds… on bikes… in the middle of the road. peddling in unison. slowly. i tap my horn. that’s what we new yorkers do. tap our horns. honk our horns. sit on our horns, depending what the situation calls for. horns, we’ve been taught, are there for a reason. to be honked. and, like i said, i just tap my horn… to let them know i’m right behind them. i mean, it’s a road, right? ok, this one, on a college campus, doesn’t have a bike lane, but c’mon, girls, be careful, for christ’s sake, if you’re riding a bike.

tiffany, chelsea, and britney, all turn their heads, in unison. they’re riding their pink and blue beach cruisers in the middle of a road, but… there is such a look of privileged contempt on their pretty young faces. “like, excuse us, we’re riding our bikes here.” i slowly pull around the scowling, condescending, perfectly pretty tri-fecta and menacingly, return their glare. if they could have spit far enough, i’m sure they would have. right in my face.

i continue rolling along, slowly, towards gate 4, the merciful exit to my long and virulent day. ok, maybe not as slowly as i could be. i pass several other student bikers. they notice me, keep peddling, and steer over to the side of the road. isn’t that what’s called for? i certainly think so. finally, i’m almost at the gate. there’s just one more stop sign before the traffic light and my salvation of jefferson boulevard. but… as fate would have it, there’s also just one more bicyclist between me and my holy grail. he’s a hydrant-built, blond crew cut kid, no doubt peddling his way towards a career in the military, the CIA, or as a brawny captain of industry. naturally, he’s also biking in the middle of the road. i tap my horn again… lightly…. telling him in audio lingo, “i’m driving a car here, right behind you, dude, and you’re in the middle of the road.” the young captain turns casually around… and… flips me off. “screw you, pops,” he yells, as he reluctantly steers his bike over to the side of the road. ok, i’m old(er) than the young captain. that’s a given. but screw me for honking my horn at him, warning him that there’s a car behind him? after an 10 ½  hour day of rehearsal without a break? after beca not showing up at 9 a.m. and me almost causing 2 freeway accidents? with my left scapula and neck still in spasm? and me just wanting to lie down as quickly as possible to relieve the pain? no, fuck you, mike. or captain mike, whatever the fuck your name is. you’re still a student, as far as i can tell. and i’m a professor. ok, maybe not your professor, and maybe i’m also just a dude in a dented RAV4 honking his horn at you. but c’mon, mike, don’tcha think that’s a little rude and confrontational… flipping me off and telling me to screw myself? it was a light horn tap, mike. i wasn’t laying on my horn, not that anyone in california can tell the fucking difference.

i slam my steering wheel to the right, pulling over to the curb, and i roll down my driver’s side window. mike looks surprised. taken aback, you might say. he stops his bike. “dude, mike, you were riding in the middle of the road. that’s dangerous. how ‘bout looking over your shoulder for cars behind you?” “you blew your horn at me, man!” “yeah, i did. i was warning you, mike. to pull over. what did you expect me to do. just follow you out of the campus at your bike’s speed?” “whatever, man. you blew your horn at me.” mike is very red in the face, but, he sees now i’m an older dude… an angry older dude. he waves his hand at me, indicating something like, “sorry, man. whatever.” i’m satisfied enough to pull back into the road and aim my car towards the elusive gate 4… when… i hear over my back right shoulder… “fuck you again, old man.” ok… i’m old(er) than mike. but fuck me again…? after beca and… and the concrete pole… and… my enraged scapula, and… tiffany and her two spoiled bicyclettes? noooo….. fuck you again, mike! i turn my wheel sharply, to the left this time, making an expert u-turn, right in front of the gate 4 guard station, and…

i aim my RAV 4 directly at mike. he sees me coming and his eyes start bugging out of his head. captain of industry, huh, mike? mike tries to maneuver out of my way, practically falling off his tan beach cruiser. i hit the brakes to a full stop… about 2 inches from mike’s front wheel. mike looks terrified. he should be. i get out of my car and slam the door. i’m gonna tear mike a new asshole… when all of a sudden, another tall, bean-poley kinda student, comes running up to me. “what the fuck, man? you can’t just charge someone with you car!” i look at him. he looks as terrified as mike. i look back at mike. no, mike still looks more terrified. oooops. i’m in an awkward situation here. i almost ran down a student on his bicycle… although i know i’m an excellent driver and never woulda hit the kid. i mean, i usedta drive a taxi in new york, c’mon. ok… awkward. i quickly get back into my car, slam the door, make another u-turn, and finally head out through gate 4. i look in the rear view mirror as i enter the flow of traffic on jefferson, and… i see the uniformed gate attendant writing down my license plate number.

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ok, end of story, number 1: i drive home. lie down, rest my scapula. i realize that i just completely lost my temper… again. at my work place… in front of public witnesses… and that the hard-working guard wrote down my license plate number. two days later, i get called in… again… in front of the infamous ms. jones from the university’s committee on un-american activities… anger management division. “well, nice to see you… again… professor trules. what is it this time?” you see, i’ve seen ms jones before, about a little racial discrimination case. i was innocent. she dropped the investigation and said she “hoped to meet under more favorable circumstances next time.” these are not them. the more favorable circumstances. in fact, ms jones has been contacted by captain mike’s parents, general and mrs. mike, who want to sue the university for the mad professor’s attack on their young flip-me-off son. two days after this, i’m called in… again… in front of my own dean… who tells me this time… there’s nothing she can do to save my tempestuous ass, and, in fact, i will be terminated from the university’s employ in 60 days. she’s sorry. ms. jones is sorry. but maybe i should see a different shrink. whoah, after a quarter century, i finally get the boot. in hollywood variety speak: “blowhard prof gets the ax after 25 years. trules ankles. (hollywood speak for “resigns”). captain mike’s parents sue for millions.” ok. wait.

A worker washes off the blue and yellow paint off a flag pole on USC's campus. (credit: CBS)

end of story, number 2: i drive home. lie down, rest my scapula. i realize that i just completely lost my temper… again. at my work place… in front of public witnesses… and that the hard-working guard wrote down my license plate number. i wait nervously at home… day after day…. waiting for the other shoe to drop. the phone call. the law suit. the termination interview. they don’t… come. so i continue rehearsing with beca, feller, and the gang, and we do a fantastic end of semester solo performance show. eventually, the semester’s finally over. my back’s still hurting, and i’m going in for an out patient surgery at 5 a.m. tomorrow morning. general anesthesia. i hope i wake up. “anger’s just another name for fear you don’t want to lose.” “endurance is the fury of a patient man.” so sez my old friend, dr. ben, who has seen more than a few of my irrational blowups. i like to think of myself as a patient man, one of perseverance and endurance. but i confess… i’m also an ageing rage-aholic. who continues to blow up at inconvenient, inappropriate, and self-destructive times. sometimes, i wonder if it’s too late for me to change? control my temper? stop thinking the world owes me something – fairness, accountability, peace of mind? honestly, i sincerely doubt it does. old dog, new tricks? maybe it’s just too damn late. but… i’m still waiting…. for god…. for godot…. for the terminating angel…. for the third act. for me to finally… change. end of story. number 1? or number 2? you decide……….



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