Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Dale Watermulder

Last Thursday I attended a beautiful memorial service for Dale Watermulder, who died on May eighth at the age of 74. Dale was retired from the Knox County Public Library System, where he had served for over two decades as the head of the Audiovisual department at Lawson McGhee Library. I was fortunate enough to work with Dale in AV for a brief period of time (from 2000-2001) and I can honestly say it was the most satisfying and rewarding work experience I've ever had. It was my first job with the KCPLS and I will always be grateful to Dale for hiring me and rescuing me from retail hell (I'm sorry, Kohls: no matter how much I love shopping with you I was miserable working for you). More than that, though, I am grateful that I had the opportunity to contribute in some small way to this awesome facet of our local library system. And I'm so glad that it gave me a chance to get to know Dale better. He was a wonderful, brilliant man and one I greatly admired and respected. He was one of my heroes.

I didn't really get to know Dale until I worked with him but I'd known who he was since I was a kid. My mom worked at a small junior college and she would check out movies from Lawson McGhee to show in her classes. When it was time to return them she would often pull up to the library entrance and send me inside while she made the block. "Take this upstairs to the second floor and tell Mr. Watermulder that it's a return from Dixie Hall at Draughons Junior College" she would tell me. And I would dutifully carry the film case upstairs and return it to Dale. Or Becky. Or Amy. All of whom I would work with years later. In some small way it felt like working with family, because they all remembered me from my days as a pint-sized courier. Plus, by the time I joined the department most of the staff had been working together for years so they acted like a family. There was a refreshing lack of pretense. None of us were really morning people and so, for the first hour or so each morning, we kept quiet and stayed out of each other's ways. Nobody minded if you weren't a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed ray of sunshine at the start of the day; if you just wanted to quietly go about your work until you thawed out that was alright. I assimilated quickly and felt comfortable and at home in that environment. I actually looked forward to work, which was an absolute revelation for me at the time.

Of course that had a lot to do with the nature of our work as well. As head of the department Dale cultivated and curated our collection of movies and music. We provided the public with what they wanted and all the most popular titles were readily available but we also provided materials that were more obscure, more offbeat and random. Dale's knowledge of cinema was vast and varied (and his knowledge of music - classical, in particular - was even more impressive) but he was never snobbish about it. And, this is something I loved so much about him, he wanted to know what we were interested in as well. He listened to our recommendations and suggestions and he took them seriously. Despite his enormous wealth of knowledge he was always keen to learn about new things. Working with him felt like a collaborative process with the single goal of getting the biggest, best assortment of material to the public that we possibly could. It felt great to be a part of something like that, even if it was only for such a short amount of time.

After Dale retired from the library system he would occasionally call me up and we would go to lunch. After we'd decided on a place to eat and exchanged pleasantries he'd always ask "So, what have you seen lately?" He'd get out his little notebook and write down most or all of the titles I'd mention to him. Then he'd tell me what he'd been watching. His recommendations were great. I began my love affair with Hayao Miyazaki after Dale talked him up. I watched The Lady Eve after he suggested it (and I adored it). When I made some remark about loving Hannibal Lecter Dale told me to watch Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer for contrast because it wasn't an entertaining movie (and maybe such gruesome subject matter shouldn't always be entertaining). He really liked Nicole Kidman and I did too so we talked about her work and her all-around fabulousness on more than one occasion. He was upfront about what he disliked as well. I adored The Umbrellas of Cherbourg but he couldn't get past the amateurish singing. He adored Fred Astaire (Swing Time is a title I remember him bringing up several times) but didn't care for Gene Kelly's more robust, athletic style of dancing. I liked The Song of Bernadette but he thought Jennifer Jones was a great big bore. Even when we disagreed it just felt great to engage with someone who knew so much about movies. 

There are other little things that I remember. Insignificant things that I found so endearing. He would wear turtlenecks under cableknit sweaters, most of which were so well-worn that they'd started to unravel at the seams ("We're pretty casual around here" he told me during my orientation). He once told me, after I'd dropped to my knees to reshelve an item and then quickly stood back up, that I looked like Alice in Wonderland growing smaller and then larger by the minute. He never forgot anybody's birthday and brought in a nice cake for the department to share each and every time. He gave us cocoa at Christmas. There was never much fanfare but that made all the gestures seem even more genuine. 

I'll occasionally have this dumb daydream about how fun it would be to co-host a movie series on television with Dale, like Robert Osborne and Drew Barrymore (or Rose McGowan before her) do on The Essentials on TCM. It's silly but I sort of wish I'd told him about it. I think he would've been amused. Though it had been a few years since our last lunch date I thought of Dale often. I imagine I'll continue to think of him often. I didn't know him very well for a very long period of time but he had an enormous impact on me. He was one of my very favorite people in the world and I am so, so sorry that Knoxville has lost such a vibrant, extraordinary presence. But we are better off for having benefitted from his kindness and his generosity for the years that he was with us.

Monday, May 12, 2014

PostScript: Nick Fallon - One Last Goodbye

Rest in peace, Nick Fallon. When you were at your best you were better than everybody in Salem and, when you were at your worst, you were still, in so many ways, better than most. You could be cruel but Salem is not a particularly kind place; the crimes of so many others, often overlooked, were far worse than the ones you committed. You hurt a lot of people but I don't think you hurt anyone as much as you hurt yourself. Your life on this show was a series of mishaps and horrors. You bore the brunt of everyone's contempt and scorn in a way that few characters have had to do. You deserved so much better but, if it's any consolation, know this: your story resonated in a way that most do not. The tragedy of it will stay with me forever. Though there was nothing I could do to help you I can honestly say that you have helped me. You made me feel less alone in the world and for that I thank you. I will never ever forget what you have meant to me. I will mourn you, miss you and love you always. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Requiem for Nicholas Fallon

"This poor baby got nobody. Just nobody!"

I think about this line from Rebel Without A Cause, spoken by poor, doomed Plato's bereaved housekeeper just moments after the troubled teen is killed, a lot when I think about Nick Fallon.

Nick was a particularly tough nut to crack because he was either unable or unwilling to be entirely honest with the people who cared about him the most and because those same people could not or would not put the time and effort into truly figuring out what was going on with the tormented young man. It was in the Days of Our Lives writers' best interests, from a storytelling perspective, to keep Nick's thoughts and feelings largely hidden from the audience. By denying us the opportunity for more than the faintest glimpse into Nick's interior life Days alienated us even further from a character who already alienated a sizable percentage of the viewership. Did that make it easier for some fans to view Nick as little more than a thorn in everybody's side? A nuisance at best, a villain and a monster at worst? It felt, so often, like Days didn't want its audience to empathize or identify with Nick Fallon, though many of us did. 

Even the worst characters on soaps usually have friends, cohorts or, at the very least, lackeys. Unless you count the blink-and-you'll-miss-him Percy Ruggles, who was entertaining but little more than comic relief, Nick Fallon never really had anybody. I don't mean nobody loved him, because Maggie and Julie obviously cared for him, but he needed a real confidant. Someone who knew all the things he'd done but was willing to stand by him regardless. Someone who really wanted to understand where he was coming from and could look at things from his perspective. Someone who saw him for exactly who he was, accepted him, and refused to walk away. I don't know if "partner in crime" is the term I'm looking for here or not. I feel like if Nick had had some sort of real partner then he may not have felt compelled to commit quite so many crimes. What must it do to a person if he feels like nobody really gets him? What if nobody even wants to bother trying? What does that kind of psychological and emotional isolation do to an already damaged human being? No one should be shocked or surprised by the awful things Nick did. Maybe they should be surprised he didn't do much worse.

It's true that the burden fell, ultimately, to Nick to take responsibility for his mistakes and to seek out the help he needed but wouldn't it have been easier for him to do that if he'd had a stronger support system in place? What if just one person who cared about Nick - Maggie, Julie, Hope - had been willing to dig a little deeper a little sooner and determine that Nick was in a very bad place before everything jumped the rails last week? Or what if just one of the people Nick hurt this past year, either directly or indirectly, had offered him their forgiveness rather than their scorn and disgust? If the "good" characters on the show, like Marlena, Rafe and Will, couldn't take the high road and treat Nick with more kindness and compassion than he extended to them then what, exactly, made them the good guys in the story? Why should I have rooted for them instead of Nick? 

I have had so many misgivings about Nick Fallon's story over the years but I think his final week on Days was extraordinary. And no day was more important or impactful than Friday. As much as I loved Nick, as much as I rooted for him, as much as I understood his anger and his bad behavior, I longed for Days to show us more. I wanted them to show us the real Nick Fallon - the lonely young man who so wanted to be accepted. Loved. Seen. I knew he was in there. I refused to believe that he wasn't. That's one reason why I thought Monday and Tuesday's shows last week were so fantastic. We saw Nick challenging his adversaries and stirring up trouble all over town but we also saw tenderness and sadness in his exchanges with Maggie and Julie. Then, on Wednesday and Thursday, those genuine moments were all but gone. It was more of Nick twisting the knife, pressing his advantage, pissing people off left and right. Ok, I thought. This is how it's going to go down. I could still be on Nick's side if he was being malevolent but I had hoped that the show wouldn't sell the character short like that in his last scenes. I didn't want sensationalism, I wanted substance. I wanted the balance we'd seen at the start of the week. What I never expected, ever, in a million years, was for Days, in the eleventh hour, to strip away all the artifice and shatter Nick's tough outer shell entirely; in his final moments, Days fully restored Nick's humanity. They finally acknowledged what all of us who've loved him have long known: that he was a person worth giving a damn about. That his life mattered. "There he is," Julie said when Nick finally confessed that he was lost, that he didn't want to keep hurting people, that he needed help. There he is, I thought. My Nick Fallon. Still trying so hard to grab hold of the happy life that was always just beyond his reach. Still trying, after all his missteps, to right himself. There he is. And he is so dear to me. And I loved Days and Blake Berris for creating a character I could care for so deeply. 

And then they shot him. They shot him so many times. I've never watched a scene that devastated me so completely. I've never felt so much despair over the loss of a fictional life. Knowing it was coming offered little consolation, because there was no way I could have prepared for something so brutal. There was no way I could ever be ready to say goodbye to a character I have loved so much. There was no way to keep it from hurting.

Tomorrow Nick Fallon will officially die, in Horton Town Square, in the arms of Julie Williams. And I am so excited for Blake Berris, because he's going to do so many extraordinary things. He's told an incredible story on Days and now he needs to go tell other important stories outside of daytime. But I don't know how I'm going to say goodbye to Nick Fallon. I just know it's going to hurt like hell.