More than once in my life, I have found it a really enjoyable surprise that viewing an old television show or film has sometimes made for a strangely supportive experience when I haven’t quite felt like myself. I may not be a private detective, a veteran of wartime service, or an ex-con for a crime I didn’t commit, but James Garner’s famous character Jim Rockford seems to have shown up on my screen right at the moment when I needed to see someone who can both roll with a punch as well as improv his way through a harrowing situation. Since my days as an undergraduate religion major, I have known that storytelling has always played a key role in human culture, and as it turns out, this may even include detective shows from the irrepressible 1970s.
Moving from Southeastern Pennsylvania to Central Texas was the journey of a lifetime. However, I would have been neglecting a big part of the challenge in this move (and possibly setting myself up for failure) if I didn’t also take a serious look at the emotional side of climbing that particular hill. It’s not that I underestimated what the move would involve and entail, but it was more of the idea that moving far from the city where one has lived for thirty-four years is not necessarily going to follow a neat script. At times, an old television episode or a near-forgotten favorite song from decades ago playing on the radio helped me to feel at home in my new part of the country.
My wife and I made our move to Texas at the very end of my seventh year of teaching in an embattled inner-city Philadelphia public high school that had left me yearning for something new in terms of geography and state of mind. My wife was able to keep her exact same job and move wherever she wanted in the country, so we decided to go with our gut feelings and make a move that would soon put us on a cul-de-sac in a new home that lies on the southern rim of the capital of Texas. My job was to find a new line of work or a new version of my old one. I engaged this task thoughtfully but a bit hesitantly, for I am not one to take or quit jobs lightly. As the summer went on, the mercury went up in a record-breaking way with the scorching heat drying out the sod of our newly lain lawn. I wasn’t keeping up very well with the basics of being a new Texas homeowner, and having dropped the ball in caring for our lawn, I watched as it lost its green and hopeful color.
Through July 2011, our first full month in our new home, I had some money coming in, my “summer money” for completing the school year that had ended at the close of June, so I didn’t panic. I felt exhausted from the cumulative experience of those years of teaching while also stimulated and uplifted by our new home and the warmth of the people in our new city and state. Meredith did a lot of legwork on that newfangled gizmo, the internet, to find me a variety of openings at universities and also information about getting back in the instructional saddle. After July had passed, I was beginning to weigh more and more the financial pressure of our having bought a new home and fairly recent model used car. I went on phone interviews, in-person interviews, and final round multi-tiered interviews that required presentations and timed completion of projects.
After searching for a job (and for vital ideas in some new and old books) unsuccessfully in August, things got interesting in the month that marks the turning of the fall. Suddenly, my wife and I had adopted a rescued puppy, and with Meredith’s help, I had impressed some recruiters and administrators at one of the best and most student achievement-driven charter school programs for high-need students in the entire country. I taught some sample lessons as a try-out to see if I would work as a permanent teacher for a pair of 9th-grade classes. It didn’t work out, but it was an educational experience to be back in the classroom with a critical eye applied to my instruction. I was re-learning that when it comes to searching for something of real value, one often has to put aside the way the search feels and simply persevere.
As a person who can behave overly emotionally, I definitely made my wife feel at times that I wasn’t grateful for her or all the support I had or for living blessings like Jeffrey, our vibrant little puppy. I’ve always been somewhat like my father, a song-writer who is also very emotionally intense and someone not easily categorized. Sometimes, I see what I want to see and search for more of it instead of dealing proactively with the parts of life that are not always dramatically rewarding but absolutely necessary. As I was growing up, there’s no question that my Mom’s example was a yin to some of this yang, but I have never felt that I was using common sense as well as she often modeled it for me. In September, despite all the positive things going for me, I felt myself off balance and upset about everything from my absence of income to my need to adapt to living in a part of the country where my feet cannot get me much of anywhere that is useful or familiar to me.
One day that September, I played in a few contentious basketball games at the gym where my wife and I work out. I had some good young teammates, and they seemed pleasantly surprised at the way I was able to score and rebound in the first game that we won. After winning two games, the third team we played had some guys who were angry that they had lost to us earlier. I scored our opening basket, and the guy who was covering me was furious for the rest of the game. I got into arguments with several guys on this opposing team.
Things came to a head when the guy who was guarding me cheated me on a call. My own teammates didn’t back me up; they simply didn’t know me very well and my arguments with these guys during the game made it look like I was the problem. Despite these harsh interactions, I stayed as diplomatic as possible, kept giving everybody five, and contributed to our team playing well. When I was leaving, I gave one last handshake to each of the three guys with whom I had argued. I did get the satisfaction of winning on this occasion, but I was struggling with aspects of the overall shift that was taking place in my life.
When I was leaving the gym, some of the frustrations of finance, employment, and adjustment in my new home state all came on again with the fresh sting of having been angry and isolated from the other players. Meredith became saddened as my own self-involvement was beginning to take away the joy of an invigorating outing at the gym. I put myself on notice mentally to buckle down emotionally and re-spin it positively because quite frankly it was the right thing to do. If I was upset about a lack of team feeling half an hour earlier, I knew that right there sitting next to her in the car was where the really important teamwork has to happen.
That night I happened to come across a reference in a movie review to the Rockford Files television show. I was a bit young when the show was on its first run, but I had seen re-runs and knew that all three of my parents had always enjoyed the plots and the humor of the show and its main character played by James Garner. Garner’s Jim Rockford is a private detective whose back story is that he’s an ex-con, but he wasn’t a participant in the crime for which he was sent to prison. The cops dislike him even though or perhaps because he is better at solving crimes than many of them, and Garner’s portrait of him combines a low-rent quality with a strange combination of polish, irascibility and eventual genuineness that make him sympathetic. I am something of a fan of detective shows, so I decided to stream the pilot episode of The Rockford Files, which was fortunately available on the web. I felt right at home when I noticed immediately that the pilot episode featured Lindsay Wagner, who would go on to become the Bionic Woman—a can’t miss heroine for a boy born in 1972!
I enjoyed watching the program and felt that it had struck a chord. I watched a few more episodes the next day, and I realized that the virtue of the Jim Rockford character was that he was able to serve as a surprise agent of what’s right in a world that was often wrong. The world, the establishment had been wrong about him, and he had gone to jail for it. However, he kept on figuring it out, living in that ridiculously unbelievable trailer on the beach in L.A. He wasn’t utterly disconnected or adrift—he had a likeable but fuzzy father and several associates, but he had to prove himself nearly all the time to everyone. In this series, Garner gave us an imperfect champion who was more dynamic than Peter Falk’s steady and inexorable genius as official detective Lt. Columbo and a bit less overwhelmed by a brutal, treacherous world as were 70’s film P.I.’s like Nicholson’s Jake Gittes in Chinatown or Hackman’s Harry Moseby in Night Moves. I know that the small screen requires a winner each week, and yet what mattered was how Rockford won—always exasperated and on the brink of death and bankruptcy, but figuring it out as a free agent who knew that some things are right and some are wrong.
It was this idea of a character who was constantly proving himself to skeptical others that helped me to see that I really had no reason to see a negative interpretation in my own life even when I might have run into a hostile (or seemingly so) situation. As a public school teacher or as a streetball player, I had to prove my abilities and figure out how to solve plenty of problems. And it would be totally dishonest to characterize my life experience as anything other than very lucky and hopeful. As it turns out, James Garner had to prove himself in a big way to make it to an acting career. I was surprised to read that Mr. Garner had actually been awarded a purple heart for fighting and being wounded in the Korean War. Every once in a while, something on the screen in front of us helps us to see what’s happening all around us more clearly. I like the shows with a sense of mission about them, such as Star Trek, The West Wing, or Parks and Recreation. Whether it’s a relative “little guy” like Jim Rockford or a towering figure in the fictional society like Martin Sheen’s President Jed Bartlet, well-written characters and great storytelling point us toward an appreciation of real life. Perhaps one reliable message conveyed through the exploits of these characters is that we all have a part to play in solving the mystery and doing what’s right even when the reward isn’t always clear.