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Miss Imbach

I was one of the “smart” kids in my Las Lomitas elementary school classes, learned the minimal info we had to learn with ease, and when in Third Grade we started having homework, I always did mine at the last minute, often sloppily, and my teachers, until Eighth Grade, didn’t require more from me because I was still “ahead” of most of my classmates.

My main teacher in Eighth Grade at La Entrada junior high was Miss Imbach. She was in her early twenties, educated at Stanford and Harvard, and she was brilliant. Within minutes of sitting down in her classroom, I was keenly aware she was a different species than my previous teachers. She spoke to us as if we were intelligent adults and she didn’t seem to care if we immediately liked her or not.

She taught us the art of outlining, and not in a cursory way. In learning to outline, we diligently practiced distinguishing layers of specificity, which taught us critical thinking, among other things. We outlined everything, and constantly. No one-week course in outlining with Miss Imbach. We practiced outlining for the entire year. This was also true for diagramming sentences and rewriting sentences and paragraphs.

But a couple weeks into that school year, before we learned to outline and rewrite, I turned in my first essay, most of which I’d written on the twenty-minute bus ride to school. Miss Imbach glanced at my hastily scrawled pages, handed them back to me and said, “See me after class.”

As I stood before her in the empty classroom, the other kids having rushed out for recess, she said, “Explain, please.”

“Explain…?”

She gazed at me steadfastly.

“It’s what I wrote,” I said stupidly.

“I’ll give you another day to write it again. We both know you can do better than this. I want to see your rough draft and second draft and third draft.”

I was in shock. I’d never rewritten anything. I had no concept of second drafts, let alone third drafts. In fact, I had no concept of taking time to write anything. I always just quickly wrote something related to what we were supposed to write about, turned in what I’d written, and gotten an A or a B.

Thus at the age of twelve, for the first time in my life, I sat down to thoughtfully write a few pages about something, I don’t remember what, and when I’d written those pages, I read them, which was another first for me. I was horrified. And the fact was, I didn’t know how to rewrite. I had no experience of rewriting, nor had any teacher ever taught me how to even begin to do that.

I didn’t dare ask my father for help. He would, I knew, use this as an opportunity to prove how smart he was and how stupid I was, and it never occurred to me to ask my mother. So I resorted to my older sister Kathy, a fastidious straight-A scholar, by then a sophomore in high school.

She read my rough draft and said, “Gag me with a spoon,” a popular expression of distaste in those days. She showed me a few tricks, which I applied to my essay in making a second draft. I read this second draft and thought it better than the first draft, but still dreadful. My sister agreed, showed me how to eliminate a few obvious redundancies and how to say a few things more clearly, and I created a third draft.

This all took me hours! I’d never spent even one hour on homework. Ever.

When I turned in my three drafts to Miss Imbach the next day, she nodded and resumed her conversation with another student. What? No ticker tape parade? No trophy? No effusive thank you and congratulations and an A+? Nothing. And two days later when we got our essays back, my grade was a C-.

To make a long story short, I became devoted to Miss Imbach, so much so I attended her wedding mid-year when she became Mrs. McConnell. I loved her as I have never loved another teacher. She taught me to write, to think, to argue cogently, and to tear sentences and paragraphs apart and put them back together so they became clear and pleasing; and we had many fabulous laughing sessions as a class, our senses of humor lifted by her teaching out of the potty into realms of relative sophistication.

Indeed, high school for me, after having Mrs. McConnell for my teacher, was a colossal bore and a waste of four golden years. I learned nothing new in four years of Advanced English, and backslid because I could turn in crap again and get A’s and B’s.

Yet perhaps the most miraculous thing Mrs. McConnell did for me in that life-changing year was to pair me with Cyd Jasmin as editors of each other’s writing. That is, Mrs. McConnell created dyads in our English class, and when we wrote essays and stories we would exchange drafts with our partners who would then make editing suggestions prior to our writing our final drafts.

When the dyads were announced in class a couple months into the school year, I froze in disbelief when Miss Imbach said, “Cyd and Todd.” Why disbelief? Because ever since Third Grade, Cyd had been the king bully of our school along with a couple other brutes. I’d never before been in a class with Cyd, and he had never spoken to me except to threaten me with bodily harm. And on a few occasions he had inflicted that harm. Hence, I was terrified of him. Besides, I was one of the “smart” kids and he couldn’t be smart, right?

Wrong. The first time we traded papers, our autobiographies, Cyd gave me a typed twelve-page opus that was so good, so sophisticated and nuanced, I felt like an idiot for giving him my childish five-page summation of my comparatively silly life.

I could find no flaw in Cyd’s writing, and his autobiography revealed so much about him and his life, I understood why he’d become the school bully and chose to consort with the local toughs.

When I gave him back his autobiography the next day and effused about how good I thought it was, he beamed at me and responded in a most un-Cyd-like way, saying he’d really enjoyed my autobiography, too, and had only made a few suggestions which he’d written on the last page.

And for the rest of Eighth Grade and through high school, Cyd and I liked each other. We didn’t become good friends, but we were always glad to see each other, having for several months vetted each other’s essays before we rewrote them for our beloved Miss Imbach-McConnell.

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Mystery Memory

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The Rico Chronicles: First Sighting

Rico at Fourteen with his father photo courtesy of Steve Rees

My great friend Rico Rees, AKA Richard Rees, died recently at the age of sixty-eight. To celebrate Rico’s life, I will be posting a series of remembrances entitled The Rico Chronicles. Here for your enjoyment is the first of those memories.

October 1957. Atherton, California.

I was just about to turn eight, riding on the big school bus on our way to Las Lomitas Elementary situated on the border of Atherton and Menlo Park. A sunny morning, Mr. Viera, one of the kindest and most patient human beings I have ever known, was driving the bus down Atherton Avenue in his never-hurried way. The morning ride to school was usually a calm affair, in contrast to the afternoon ride home when things often verged on chaos, the main instigators of that chaos holding sway at the back of the bus.

I loved Mr. Viera. His first language was Spanish and he only spoke a little English. Nevertheless, he connected with each of us in a friendly way as we got on and off the bus, unless he was in a bad mood, which he sometimes was, and then he was merely silent.

He ferried me and many of my classmates to and from school every day from First Grade through Sixth, and when my dog Cozy had her one litter of puppies when I was in the Second Grade, he came to our house with his wife and they took two of the pups, after which he gave me occasional reports about que buenos perros they turned out to be.

My bus stop, which was right across the street from our house, was near the beginning of Mr. Viera’s route in the morning, so I always found an empty seat halfway back where I would sit by the window and hope someone I liked sat beside me. Sometimes kids I didn’t especially like would sit with me because I never had the heart to tell them not to sit with me. Many other kids saved the space beside them for kids they liked and wouldn’t allow other kids to sit with them.

I always sat on the right side of the aisle (right facing forward) because this afforded me a view out my window of the kids waiting for the bus as we approached their stops, as well as a view of them getting on the bus, which for some reason I just loved. We weren’t supposed to stick our heads out the windows that were easily opened in those bygone days, but I sometimes leaned out my window to watch the kids getting on and maybe call out to a friend before he or she ascended onto the bus.

On this particular morning in October, the bus nearly full, we stopped on Atherton Avenue just west of Selby Lane, and after the few regulars got on, a pretty woman with black hair, half-carried and half-assisted a little boy with braces on his legs up the stairs onto the bus. He had two short metal crutches attached to his wrists by what appeared to be metal bracelets at the tops of the crutches. As the little boy reached the top of the stairs and the woman released him to stand on his own, Mr. Viera directed a kid in a front seat to relocate to make room for the little boy.

I was amazed and awed that someone so small and fragile and walking with crutches would get on a school bus and go to Las Lomitas where before school and during recesses and after school, the corridors and playground seethed with unhinged children racing around and crashing into each other. How, I wondered, would this fragile child survive?

This child was Richard Rees. He was six-years-old, though at the time I guessed he was four or at most five. I never imagined that eight years later, when I was sixteen and a high school junior, and Dick (Rico) was fourteen, a freshman, that he and I would meet backstage in the Woodside High multi-purpose room where we were both in a play, and we would become instant friends and best friends for life.

It wasn’t until we’d been high school pals for a few weeks and I found out where he lived, that I realized Dick was the little boy I had watched get on and off the bus those many times before I went off to junior high, and how each time he mounted those steps to get on the bus he was more and more capable of getting on without assistance, how he became progressively bolder and more talkative as he rode to school, and how ever after he was my hero.

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Rico’s Dance

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Morning Coffee

Blessed Brew Nolan Winkler

Blessed Brew painting by Nolan Winkler

“Get out those coffee beans and grind’em just so, make us both a cuppa real good joe.” from Todd’s song Real Good Joe

I was grinding coffee beans this morning, and as I listened to the beans turning into brewable dust, I realized Oh. I’m drinking coffee again, which made me think about my ever-changing relationship to coffee, starting sixty-two years ago when I was a wee tyke.

My mother and father were both hooked on coffee by the time I was born, and my father drank multiple quarts of coffee every day of his life until he died at eighty-four. My mother ceased to drink coffee in her sixties after undergoing successful treatment for bladder cancer.

One of the first difficult tasks I learned to perform as a little boy was the making of my mother’s morning coffee. My father drank that coffee, too, but my motive for making the first pot of the day was to soothe my mother’s jangled nerves sufficiently so my siblings and I might get through breakfast and leaving for school without suffering our mother’s wrath—so easily ignited in those crucial minutes before she had her coffee.

So six-year-old Todd would get up before anyone else, and with the help of a little kitchen stepladder, I would place a medium-sized pot on the electric range and use a two-cup measuring cup to fill that pot with water from the tap. Then while the water was coming to a boil, I would carefully fold a large round paper coffee filter in half, then in half again, and insert this now-triangular filter into the top of a Chemex coffee maker—a large hour-glass-shaped thing made of glass. I would then scoop seven scoops of Folgers drip grind into that folded filter, and used a ladle to pour the just-boiled water over the grind again and again until the bottom half of the hour glass was full of coffee.

As I grew older and stronger, I was able to lift a full kettle and pour hot water onto the coffee, but when I was six and seven the kettle was too heavy for me to lift and safely pour.

My mother, awakened by an angrily buzzing alarm clock, would stagger into the kitchen, pour herself a cup of the freshly brewed coffee, and metamorphose into a functionally civil human being. I don’t recall her ever thanking me for making her morning coffee, something I did every morning until I started going to high school, though I never drank any coffee, nor did I develop a taste for coffee until I was in my thirties—and then, oh boy, did I develop a taste.

When I was in Third Grade, a mob of us from Las Lomitas Elementary School went on a tour of the Hills Brothers coffee plant in San Francisco courtesy of their marketing director who was the father of one of my classmates.

Three things stand out in my memory from that long ago field trip: the heavenly smell of roasting coffee, the fantastic Rube Goldberg-like structure of metal tracks on which cans and lids zipped around the cavernous factory, and the white bag full of coffee candy and miniature cans of Hills Brothers coffee for my mother.

When I was twenty-nine and having success with my writing, I hired my friend Prairie to be my part-time secretary. This was before the advent of personal computers, so having a fast typist to type up my pages of longhand and then retype those pages after I bloodied them with my editor’s pen was a dream come true. Prairie was a religious coffee drinker, and now and then I would have a cup with her, which cup would turn me into a fast-talking jitterbugging crazy person until the caffeine wore off and I descended into gloom. So I stopped drinking coffee.

Five years later, I married a dedicated coffee drinker, and after a few months of marriage I was a daily coffee drinker, too. But coffee made me hella jittery and then horribly cranky once the high went away, so I quit. And then I started again. And then I quit. And so on without end. My marriage fell apart, but my relationship with coffee endured.

Fast forward to about four years ago. Having gone sans coffee for a couple years, I started drinking coffee in the morning, black coffee, in lieu of breakfast, and I was soon drinking two and three cups a day. At the same time, I was suffering from severe shoulder pain for which I was popping lots of aspirin and ibuprofen, often on a stomach containing only coffee.

Then one day I woke in the morning feeling as bad as I have ever felt and assumed I had powerful flu. But after two days of growing weaker and weaker, I realized I was on the verge of dying. Marcia called an ambulance, the volunteer fire department folks and paramedics arrived, and I was rushed to the hospital where it was determined I had lost nearly all the blood in my body as a result of punching a hole in my stomach by taking way too much ibuprofen and aspirin on a stomach containing only coffee.

I was transfused with a couple units of fresh blood, spent a night in ICU, and took a year to regain a modicum of my former strength. Since that frightening experience four years ago, I have taken a total of two aspirin and two ibuprofens, and for the two years following my near death I drank no coffee.

Yet here I am today having a cup of coffee diluted with almond milk. For some months now I have been having one such cup a day, and I have no intention of increasing my coffee intake any time soon. The truth is, a little bit of coffee goes a long way for the likes of me. I love the smell of just-made coffee, I enjoy the ritual of making a cup, and I prefer the taste of coffee to tea.

In the afternoon and evenings I drink nettle or chamomile tea, both of which I find soothing and warming.

Some years ago, a friend wrote to say that her morning ritual was to listen to my piano music while she made and drank her first cup of coffee, so for my album of solo piano tunes Incongroovity, I improvised a piece called Morning Coffee with her in mind. Now every time I listen to this tune, I think of her sipping her coffee and listening to my music.

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