Sometimes, I Am Walter White

July 17, 2011

Bryan Cranston as Walter White Screen Shot, Breaking Bad, Season 1, Episode 1. Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws because picture is part of post describing the character and series.

Season Four of Breaking Bad begins tonight at 10 pm EDT on AMC in my part of the world. I’m a late comer to the show, and only because my wife had sat on her Netflix delivery of the first two disks of the first season back in March. But boy did I catch up, watching the first two seasons in a span of ten days! Overall, I find the first six episodes of Breaking Bad the most intriguing. Those episodes provide me the reasons for why I support Walter White (the main character played by Bryan Cranston), because I can see some of myself and my life in his.

For those of you who haven’t watched or aren’t fans, Walter White is a brilliant yet foolish has-been-who-really-should’ve-been-somebody high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He’s fifty years old, married for seventeen years, with a fifteen-year-old who has cerebral palsy, and with a surprise baby well on the way, as his wife’s in her third trimester. When he discovers after collapsing at his other job (at the local car wash) that he has advanced lung cancer and maybe six months to live, he decides through serendipity to use his training as a biochemist to produce high-grade methamphetamine, or crystal meth, in order to provide for his family before kicking the bucket.

I’m not terminally ill, at least as far as I know. Nor am I a biochemist. But like Walter White, I am an over-educated person with tons of skills and experience, but woefully under-applying them in my current work as an adjunct professor and consultant. I wasn’t pushed out of a venture with a biotech company in which the other partners made billions of dollars off of my ideas. But I’ve had people in my life who’ve attempted to keep me from expressing my ideas, from getting a job, even made up stories to derail my career.

Unlike Walter White, I’m at least teaching college students, if only in the technical sense that the students I teach are in college. Although, given the sporadic nature of my consulting when combined with my teaching, it may be time to do like Walter White and obtain certification to teach high school social studies. For unlike in Albuquerque, teaching at the high school level out here often pays better than being a college professor, and can yield better results academically for the students involved.

Given where Walter could’ve been in life by the time he reached middle age, it’s small wonder that he has a

The Hulk Screen Shot, May 1, 2008. (Source:Lawrence Cohen/ Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws because its a low-resolution depiction of a character as described in this post.

deep well of pent-up rage to draw from throughout the series. I understand that rage because I’ve seen it in myself over the years. But my rage comes from a life of deprivation and working my ass off to overcome it, only to feel as if there’s still tons’ more work to do. With the struggle to become a successful writer, and not just an academic one with a book and a couple dozen articles to my credit, I’m already tired. But the struggle for more work in a field in which you know you’re well qualified and already have done a ton of work can lead to Walter White rages. Or, for that matter, Bruce Banner each time he turned into Hulk.

Really, I realize that on the whole, I’m not Walter White. I’ve been written off too often in life to see myself that way. But I can understand after spending the better part of three decades working to turn “No!” into “Yes!,” to prove myself as a thinker, educator, historian, manager and writer. Not only to myself, but to my God, and those manning the gates to jobs, publishing, grants and degrees. I get it as to how and why rage can build up. I guess that if I found myself with Stage 3 lung cancer, I could use my talents to write other people’s books and dissertations, or even to write scripts for porn, but that wouldn’t exactly be me.

No, under Walter White’s circumstances, I’d probably call in every favor that I’ve been owed since seventh grade. I’d contact every writer that I’m a fan of, every contact I know associated with publishing books, magazines, scholarly journals, and make myself a royal pain in the ass. That is, until getting a book contract for Boy @ The Window, publishing several pieces I’ve been working on with occasional bursts of writing for the past two or three years. I’d do whatever I could to make sure that Noah and Angelia were taken care of before I passed.

Come to think of it, what I’ve just written should be my mantra, impending death or otherwise. As Nickelback says in “If Today Was Your Last Day,” “against the grain should be a way of life.” That’s been me for the past thirty years. So I’m really only sometimes Walter White.

Rajon Rondo, ultimate against the grain drive before hard foul, 2010 NBA Eastern Conference Finals, May 1, 2010. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images).

A Musical Mirror in Time

November 13, 2010

My iPod, November 13, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

A side benefit to working on Boy @ The Window has been walking down memory lane in describing the music of those times. The music I listened to for inspiration, out of love, rage or goofiness. Or music that provided my means of escape from the drudgery of poverty at 616, the organized chaos that was Humanities and Mount Vernon public schools. Music that I stumbled upon, or deliberately discovered or discounted.

I’ve wondered off and on what the tunes in my ear and head would’ve been like if all the music that I’ve been exposed to since the end of the ’80s had all been at my fingertips in ’81 and ’82. I know one thing for sure. Had I the ability to send my eleven or twelve-year-old self my iPod from ’10, weird or not, Hebrew-Israelite or not, I’d been one of the coolest kids in school. Assuming that I wouldn’t have had to defend my improbable toy against bullies and muggers, that is.

So, now that I have access to music from any time and any year up to 2010, what would I’ve listened to

My iPod, Sting's "Desert Rose", November 13, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

during the Boy @ The Window years? Thinking about Crush #1, the music I had available in mind and in ear was Stevie Wonder’s “As” and “That Girl,” and The Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” between March and June ’82.

Fully acknowledging that I was in some sort of love then, gee, what would’ve fit my mood? What would’ve been appropriate to the chaos in the rest of my life? U2’s “Beautiful Day” — where “you’ve been all over, and it’s been all over you?” Or Coldplay’s “Clocks,” Sting’s “Desert Rose,” Tevin Campbell’s “Can We Talk,” and Celine Dion’s “That’s The Way It Is,” all songs of shyness and unrequited love? Talk about framing a mood!

Well, what about Crush #2, my obsession with her, and the pain she helped cause? What could complement music like Richard Marx’s “Should’ve Known Better,” Paul Carrack’s “Don’t Shed A Tear,” or Geto Boys’ “My Mind Playin’ Tricks On Me”? Going back to January ’88, Live’s “White, Discussion” would’ve been a place to start. White male angst about race and possibly love — “Look what all this talking got us, baby” screamed at maximum lung-ness by lead singer Ed Kowalczyk — could’ve just as easily been my sarcastic and rage-laced refrain regarding Crush #2.

Other, more goofy and less epic tunes to lay out my anger and disappointment — or to get over it — hmm. Probably something like Michael Bolton’s “Time, Love & Tenderness,” Mariah Carey’s “Can’t Let Go,” or Annie Lennox’s “Walking On Broken Glass.” Music from the ’90s. So much better for coping with crushes and trifling people.

On a more serious tip, what from my present would’ve soothed my constantly worried mind back in the days when mp3 would’ve been thought of as a kind of motor oil? My faves of the ’80s were Mr. Mister’s “Kyrie” and “Broken Wings,” because the songs met me where I was, a teenager struggling to find his true self, to succeed in school, to survive life at 616. Other than some social justice-lite songs like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On,” Sting’s “They Dance Alone,” or Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up,” there wasn’t much of a message in most of the music from the mid- to late-80s — at least related to my life.

My iPod, Nickelback's "If Today Was Your Last Day," November 13, 2010. Donald Earl Collins.

But bringing music back from the future would’ve helped. Like Anthony Hamilton’s “Comin’ From Where I’m From,” Creed’s “Higher,” Sounds of Blackness’ “Optimistic,” even Nickelback’s “If Today Was Your Last Day.” The line of lines — “Against the grain should be a way of life” — has been when I’ve gotten the most out of myself, my God and my life.

I can only imagine what life would’ve been like with a piece of second-decade, twenty-first century

My iPod w/ U2, November 13, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

technology in the early ’80s. It made have made most of my embarrassing, disheartening and sorrowful moments easier to bear. But without those moments, I certainly wouldn’t have as full an appreciation of the music I listen to now and the blessings that have occurred in my life in the three decades since. As Anthony Hamilton would say, “Sometimes you gotta walk alone,” although with music, not completely alone.


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