Feeding the burros in South Dakota

I love feeding animals.

I fed giraffes at the Toledo, Ohio, zoo a few months ago. Paid $5 for fronds of iceberg lettuce. Standing up on a tall platform, I was approached by stupendous African beasts whose long round purple tongues wrapped around lettuce pieces expertly. I remember their slow chewing, how it gave me pleasure to feed them.

“Excuse me sir, I don’t mean to bother you, but I’m a Vietnam Veteran a little down on his luck. If you could spare an apple or a carrot …”

I fed wild burros in Custer State Park last week, the peak experience of a five-day stay in the Black Hills. These friendly brutes walk up to your car if you pull onto the shoulder of Wildlife Loop Road, and hustle you for snacks. Their regular diet is prairie and low-mountain grass. Exploited a century ago as pack carriers, they were then left to fend for themselves. It’s easy to understand the park’s one blind spot in the directive not to feed the animals.

You also see buffalo, white-tail and mule deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and other wildlife on this ride, where you’re held to 25 mph. You stay in your car (another directive). It’s only burros people get out of their cars to feed.

First time we went, Barb and I set out with two apples and a plastic bag of peeled baby carrots. At first, we thought we were going to strike out. We’d done everything right. You hit Wildlife Loop Road after sunrise or before sunset, when it’s cool and the critturs rove about feeding. It takes an hour or two to do the road. We slowed down a few times, for white-tail deer, but that was it.

The burros finally appeared, about the eighth or tenth mile. They’re the friendliest, most grateful animals. My advice is to halve or quarter your apple first. Equines — horses or mules or donkeys or burros — cannot eat a whole apple at once. One burly hustler stuck his head inside my car window. I extended a whole apple. It bit it in half. I caught the free half and, after it had chewed and swallowed and opened its rubbery lips for more, fed it the rest. It slobbered as it ate, drooling foamy white stuff onto my jeans and T-shirt. Barb and I shared a yeeeccch! moment but were having too much fun to care.

It gets a little slobbery, but for a burro this surely passes as impeccable manners.

“Bob! Don’t give him the whole bag. Show a little discipline,” my wife said to me once when I was out of the car feeding a burro on the shoulder.

She was right. I closed the carrot bag and began walking back to my car. I began to giggle hysterically as my insistent customer nudged my shoulder and followed me! I shook him with one last carrot feed before bolting into my battered but reliable Subaru Forester.

We redid Wildlife Loop Road the last night before we had to check out of our lodge. I got rid of the rest of the carrots as well as apples Barb had cut into pieces. I’d heard the burro population was eight, but on this second visit we saw about 15: not only adults, which were white, but smaller, apparently younger ones, which for some reason were brownish grey. It felt good to see them surviving, even thriving. It must be a hard winter, but the fall, spring, and summer forage sustains them. Even spoiled by the likes of me.

And what can you say about buffalo? You must see these shaggy, formidable beasts up close, hear them snorting and moving about, to get a sense of their majesty. The sheer breadth of shoulder, chest, and huge head as they graze by the score along the roadside! They even cross the road to get across, oblivious to crawling cars and trucks and SUVs. In fact, a lot of the vehicles weren’t crawling but had stopped, tourists inside snapping pictures like mad.

The staged Buffalo Roundup was a dud compared to Wildlife Loop Road.

For the roundup, an annual event, attended by South Dakota’s governor amidst some hoopla, you get up in the dark and pack folding chairs and munchies and coffee thermoses into your ride, having bundled yourself up against a long wait in morning cold, and drive to line up in the dark to be let into the park. This occurs at sunrise, about 6 a.m. You get your stuff out of the car and traipse down to where the staging area is. You can position yourself up close to the fence, down a long hill, or somewhere further up the hill to see the roundup over people’s heads. Barb wanted our noses up against the fence so we went there, which only made for a longer hike up a high hill for the portable loos to relieve myself after a weird, sleepless night and too much coffee to compensate.

You have to see these shaggy beasts to appreciate their legacy. White man has a lot of karma to work down for bringing them to near extinction.

We expected a thundering stampede, barely managed by a bunch of whooping cowboys: a storming herd of beasts, its outer edge a mere 20 feet from the chain link fence. Instead – after a four-hour wait! – the cowboys, some driving trucks, brought the big herd (all the park’s bison having been rounded up) over a distant rise toward us, then drove them toward the big pens off to our right. The herd never got closer to us than the length of a football field away. As the patriotic applause died down, Barb and I, and her family members from Cleveland, glanced at one another, shaking our heads. We’d expected something more rip-snorting, an event rather more harrowing than this! This was weak tea, and over in a few minutes!

I’m glad, after that letdown, we did Wildlife Loop Road that second time.

I was hit on by an old burro first, then I got out of my SUV and walked to the shoulder where a fuller herd was assembled than we’d seen last time. The battered old wheezer couldn’t get all the goods. I wanted to share them with a younger adult. But as it turned out they both competed for my last carrots, the second, younger one necking down to sneak off the grass a final bit that had dropped to the feet of the old one.

I was out. And the trip to South Dakota finally felt complete.

Neither seeing Mr. Rushmore’s dramatic night lighting ceremony with all its attendant lump-in-the-throat speechifying, nor sitting through the vaunted Buffalo Roundup, had produced this feeling of fullness.

Now I feel the vacation is complete,” I said to Barb as I pulled the SUV onto Wildlife Loop Road to head back to our lodge. Sun dropping to piney hilltops, I added, “I don’t know why feeding animals tickles me so.”

“If something’s fun for you,” she said, “why question it?”

Why indeed.

Kid from Cleveland contemplates adulthood on pilgrimage home

An absurd fight with Lisa, my older sister, in a Beachwood sushi joint. A couple visits to Progressive Field to see the pitching-hobbled Cleveland Indians get the shit kicked out of them, but also bond with Marty, my younger brother, and experience the old joy of Lisa’s company, a tacit mending of fences. An hour and a half burn down Route 90 to Toledo to look in on Nina, my younger sister, who’s making do in a Residence Inn while Allstate and a construction company tangle themselves in red tape fixing up her fire-gutted house. A chance to see Karyn, Lisa’s old friend, who looks like Sissy Spacek or Jane Fonda, I can’t tell which, and whom I had a crush on since I was four. An opportunity to sit on the back patio of my old friend Roger, the big brother I never had, and have a soul talk and some well-needed laughs. Finally, the cherry on the sundae, a raucous lunch with a gang of guys I knew from Rowland Elementary and Greenview Junior High.

At the Indians game, from left: my niece Melanie, who draws funny pictures; me, smiling too hard as usual; my staunchly loyal sister Lisa, as loving as she is occasionally meshuggeh; my niece Emily, the older girl, saucy and cute as hell; and (in the yellow shirt) Marty, the greatest kid brother any guy ever had. Not pictured: Melanie’s awfully nice boyfriend, Jared, who did duties as photographer, and whom I left a can of Barbasol lest the guys at the airport take it anyway.

Who could have known an innocent remark about Kent State, a graphic novel about the events leading to and including the horror of May 4, 1970, could have triggered Lisa’s diatribe about my not appreciating her role in college activism? I guess any tongue can get unhinged after enough shots of warm saki to cause repetitive motion disorder. Ah well, we all get a little meshuggeh at times. Age, and a ripened appreciation of the absurdities of life, has made me a forgiving person.

I get the weird feeling Lisa was annoyed because she thinks I’m secretly on fire over something I’m afraid to admit. Lisa feels bad for me because I can’t publish my novels. It wasn’t until my last night in Cleveland, when she and Karyn and I met at Taza, a Lebanese place on Eton Square in Beachwood, that she said I was suffering and would never heal until I sold fiction to a commercial press. But this would have happened already if I was that good or that lucky.

“That’s not even the big picture thing,” I said. “The big picture thing is being happy, as it turns out. I realized I’d been happy for years; I just need to get out of my own way and let it happen.”

I hope she believed me.

Lisa would stand in front of a bullet for me. I’d do the same for her. My whole family is like that. Emotionally delicate Nina, despite her questionable decisions and self-medicating, gets me, laughs at my jokes. Marty, the only one of us with kids, a man ensconced in juvenalia and sports stats, remains fiercely protective of me and seems to regard me (sometimes to my amazement) as a big brother to be proud of.

Marty’s two daughters are a product of his slapdash life. The older one’s saucy and defiant; the younger, a bit softer but sharing her sister’s archness. Marty never had the resources our wealthy PR guy of a father had; my brother’s two girls seem scattered to the winds to fend for themselves. Wise Lisa cast some light on this. “We all got out of college with no debt,” she explained on that last, healing night, at Taza, after she and Karyn and I had filled ourselves with schwarma and hummus and baba ganoush.

He may not be a perfect dad – who is? – but my wife thinks Marty is the most successful of the Gitlin writing clan. Marty’s been engaged in a knock-down, drag-out battle for survival, and he’s finally winning, publishing book after book, learning to parlay a schedule of speaking engagements about cartoons and the Cleveland Indians into some financial comfort. He’s got a new book out, about Indians pitching phenom Sam McDowell, that I can’t wait to read. Literary rockstar Lisa delivers food in New York, this despite having won awards from her first, coming-out lezzie novel and filling bookstores at reading gigs in Cleveland and New York. Me, I work at Walmart and blog; come October, I’ll just blog.

On this pilgrimage to my hometown, as well as contemplate writing and how it’s alternately ravaged and blessed the Gitlin clan, I went to the Cleveland Museum of Art, subject of my last post. Went to a lot of places on my own, for the experiences themselves but also to get the hell out of the Super 8 in Westlake which I picked to place me near Marty’s North Olmsted home. I’d have stayed with him except his dog is not hypoallergenic.

Only so much time I could spend in that smoke-stinking room. They gave me a smoking room by mistake. I haven’t had a cigarette in eight or ten years. I was out of town, away from my wife; I could have bought a pack. But I so hate the varnished fingers and grey skin, the shortness of breath, that I stayed strong. I could have changed rooms but for some screwy reason kept the room and, against the laboring air conditioner in the swampy Cleveland heat, punctuated by rainstorms, opened the door a lot.

The capper was that lunch with those old Greenview droogies. What fun to see those familiar faces. Gary, who was always on the team I played against in noon-rec ping pong in Greenview. Bruce, who lived down the street from my dear departed friend Mike and knew about good pickles, and who endeared me to him a few years ago, when I had to attend a stone setting in Cleveland, by telling me he read my blog. (I do wonder at times to what extent I labor in anonymity.) Steve, who always seemed aloof and funny, and re-emerged into my world by saying he liked the novel I self-published on Kindle under a pseudonym. Marc, who goes way back, having lived down Judson Drive when we lived in Cleveland, the Harvard-Lee area, in the fifties and early sixties. John, whom I only glancingly knew back in Greenview, and who consoled me when I Facebooked about losing my dog. Micky, a tough skinny kid who tackled me fearlessly around the ankles during one of those Bexley Park football games we used to play; and his lovely and engaging wife, silently bemused by all the reminiscing. Last but not least, Jon, whom I’d partied with before leaving town for Prescott, Arizona, almost two decades ago, and who still wields that incisive, cynical wit.

I am fond of saying that no matter where I die – and it looks like it will be Arizona – my soul will fly to Cleveland. Even with the old family house gone, 2060 Langerdale inhabited by strangers, and all those old memories (which include my English relatives) brimming with love and zaniness, burnished by time but retreating into the haze of the past, I was able to visit my old hometown, mingle with the memories … and collect some new ones.

Return Trip Yields Sublime Meditation on Art and Life

When I hit Cleveland for a 10-day reunion trip, first thing I did, after getting situated and touching base with my brother, who still lives here, was visit the Cleveland Museum of Art.

I will always have happy associations with the place. When I was a boy, I had painting and drawing classes there.

One of my teachers castigated me for a lazy effort. I showed her my fighting spirit by trying again. I would take five years of art in secondary school, but I don’t possess a drawing or painting from the oeuvre I thus compiled which I like more than the chalk fruit bowl that took shape under the stern gaze of Mrs. Wike when I was nine. How I kvelled when she championed me upon its completion! To this day, I marvel at the sensuality of those well-rubbed, shimmering grapes. The other teacher I had, a nice man, led us kids on little tours of the museum. I still remember terms like “egg tempera” from his explanation of old paintings. I wonder if people paint with egg yolk today.

Marble goddess, 900-1000, Northwestern India. A mutual interest in tits drew me to Indian art in the first place.

Driving to the museum, I shuffled through memories. I remembered, not only from my childhood art classes but my own subsequent unaided visits, the armored chain-mailed soldier on a horse, a vision out of Arthurian legend, bedazzling in that airy courtyard. I remembered Renaissance Italian paintings, evocative of scenes whose symbolic value was alien to me yet ached with a palpable universal pathos. I remembered brooding Rembrandts that would later remind me of how Coppola and Gordon Willis lit The Godfather. I remembered the Flemish chronicler of peasant life whom I would recall to mind when a writer called R. Crumb “the Breughel of our day.” The Cleveland Museum of Art brims with remarkable, and iconic, cultural artifacts.

A renovation and expansion project opened closed spaces, even in what I remember as an airy, cool clime. You now walk past the friendly greeters into a vast sky-lit atrium, frond rimmed, huge posters hanging from up high. The atrium is arrayed with the museum’s accommodating wrought-metal tables and chairs to let patrons sit and enjoy the offerings of the adjacent cafeteria.

I let my feet take me where they would.

MY TOUR BEGAN with Asian art. My eyes bathed themselves in these sculptures, from the fierce Japanese warrior-guardian with his sword to the round-breasted Hindu goddess (like Renoir, the Indians rendered women in a way that anticipated today’s version of pulchritude) to depictions of Hanuman the Monkey God (I remember him from being on the Ram Dass mailing list) and the protector/destroyer god Shiva. I felt myself evolving as I gazed. A lifelong fixation on women’s body parts became a natural appreciation of life, no more a reason for shame than the need to eat and drink. An engrained sense of divinity as residing within a personal and monomaniacal god yielded to a worldview that incorporates many gods, making of the divine energy something all-around and immanent rather than some bearded grandfather astride the clouds, issuing directives from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Maybe God is a concept by which we measure our pain. But some of the greatest, most emotionally resonant art available anywhere in the world comes out of people’s attempts to understand what God is.

Picasso’s 1939 oil, “Bull Skull, Fruit, Pitcher,” depicts the fall of his beloved Barcelona to the fascists. From the wall tag: “This painting expresses Picasso’s despair through the bull’s skull covered with decaying flesh, perhaps symbolizing brutality and darkness. Amid the horror and anguish, a flowering tree referring to the sacred oak of Guernica sprouts in the moonlight, suggesting hope for the rebirth of democracy in Spain.”

From there I ventured into a display of Contemporary Art. Picasso’s horrified meditation on war broke through my old incomprehension of his abstract art. Warhol’s silkscreen Marilyns, arrayed like a page of stamps, proved as vivid and instructive as ever; we have only to reflect back what media and Hollywood and advertising machines are pouring into us to understand how the world makes art. Abstract Expressionists, even de Kooning, never hit me as vividly as when, now, I encountered one of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, which theretofore had done naught for me but inflict damage on the eyes. The painting that hit me the hardest, though, by German artist Anselm Kiefer, was Lot’s Wife, which shows railroad tracks (ostensibly leading to a concentration camp) in a way that reminds us that if we look back on history we might turn into a pillar of salt. There is no god in this world other than the god of creativity that dwells within us, exploding outward in the existential torment and ecstasy that accompany our ugly, hard-learned experience.

I left the place refreshed yet dazed. I’d told myself I’d take pictures. I had a dozen or so on my iPhone, blogward bound.

I’m meeting with family to laugh and reminiscence and talk about family business; seeing my old friend Roger to share thoughts and crack up about the absurdities of life; heading to some of the old AA meetings that established me in the Program (if I can fucking find them), meeting with Cleveland friends who go to meetings too.

And meditating on the crazy perfect mess that is my life. Sometimes it seems like your whole life is an artwork if you can back up from it far enough to discern the lines and shapes. Memory and contemplation take that bowl of fruit and rub it to fruition … full breasted and shimmering, like clusters of grapes.

Just off the cafeteria is this open-air-styled atrium, enclosed yet sunlit within a vast space, a cool place to rest tired feet and wonder at what you’ve already seen. The gift store’s nearby too.

Pilgrim goes to Shinbone

The year 1939 was hot for Hollywood. Gone with the Wind. The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Wuthering Heights. The Wizard of Oz. Another fertile year, an embarrassment of riches, was 1976. Taxi Driver. Network. Rocky.

Vera Miles and Jimmy Stewart share a tender and defining moment, which underscores a conflict as big as the threat to a man’s life.

But the year I’m stuck on hit me as I re-screened a film so good that I see it over and over: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Roger Ebert called it John Ford’s “pensive” film. It’s one of Ebert’s Great Movies.

Researching critical reaction to this work, and this moment in filmmaking, reaffirmed my sense of another seminal year in movies, maybe the greatest. That year is 1962. I could offer as evidence a confluence of brilliant, disparate films, not just this one but To Kill a Mockingbird, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.

My ruminations on the four films would run long. I could deal with each in a separate post. Today I just want to talk about the Ford.

Jimmy Stewart’s naïve attorney, Ransom Stoddard, takes Horace Greeley’s advice to “go west, young man,” and meets the face of evil in Lee Marvin’s ruthless thug, Liberty Valance, a hitman for cattlemen vying for perpetual free range. After being beaten savagely by Valance for trying to protect a woman during a stagecoach holdup, Rance recuperates in the town of Shinbone, where he washes dishes in the town restaurant and has a bed off the kitchen. Against the advice of people who say it’ll only attract violence, he hangs up a lawyer shingle.

Macho John Wayne warns our new town lawyer, whom he calls ‘Pilgrim,’ how men handle conflict out West (Pinterest photo).

Vera Miles’s Hallie, illiterate, rough mannered, begins to fall for a man whom nothing in her past could have prepared her for; a man quite unlike Tom Doniphon, played by broad-shouldered John Wayne in a role made for him, a role that is, for my money, better than that of his racist scout in the much lauded Ford movie The Searchers.

Stoddard won’t bow to Doniphon’s suggestion that disputes get settled with guns out West. The stammering, loveable Stewart character steadfastly studies his law books, bent on figuring out a way to put the notorious local terrorist in jail. Meanwhile, Valance jeers at apron-clad Stoddard, who, undaunted in his mission to do good, has started a little school for local citizens, including Hallie.

Meanwhile, Dutton Peabody, played by brilliant character actor Edmond O’Brien, is the erudite, drunken newspaperman who decides to act bravely in reporting on the depredations of Valance and his gang, bent as they are on intimidating everyone “south of the picket wire” into forgetting about their vision of statehood. Valance is paid by big ranchers to make sure open range does not yield to towns, schools, and civilization.

Valance continues to menace. Lee Marvin does bellicose villainy to perfection, including just that touch of wit that makes a bad guy all the more tingly and watchable. As the clamor against Valance and his ilk gains momentum, he finally calls out Stoddard, who has helped the town nominate delegates to the territorial convention. The feckless town marshal, Link Appleyard, a sympathetic if clownish Andy Devine turn, can do nothing about it.

When Liberty Valance beats the newsman Peabody nearly to death for the temerity to print the truth, Stoddard cannot find it in himself to run, an option offered by Doniphon, who has his helper ready with a buckboard to get the endangered tenderfoot out of town. Rance Stoddard will face Liberty on the street, though he has no skill with a gun, as a previous tutoring session by Wayne’s peerless shootist made clear. Stoddard’s willingness to die brings the story to a climax — and a denouement of excruciating poignancy.

Nobody does menace better than Lee Marvin (Pinterest photo).

One needs but to view the ruined, embittered visage of Doniphon after he sees the girl he fancies (and intended to marry) clutching and crying over the miraculously alive Rance Stoddard to witness John Wayne’s brilliance.

When I used this movie in the classroom, I asked students to tell me who the hero was. Their thoughtful hesitancy in responding spoke to the complexity of the film.

The truth of the title does out; the whole movie is a flashback confession. But the reaction of the frame-story editor of the Shinbone Star, a line that became famous, defies the perception of media as sleazy and opportunistic.

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” says the editor of the paper that was decades before helmed by Peabody. He balls up the pages of notes — a blockbuster score for any mercenary newspaperman — and commits them to the potbellied stove.

When Jimmy Stewart, white haired, now married to Hallie, has to hear yet again the tagline he has never been able to shake in the trainman’s well-meaning “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance,” and that match he was going to light his pipe with burns out, and both he and his wife gaze into the horizon of their collective fates, we feel everything merging in a perfect symphony of grief, gratitude, and wonder. This black-and-white classic rings with myth.

We might have associated John Ford with a hawkish and chauvinistic attitude about the destiny and role of America, but this movie asks the complex questions. I wonder if the pivotal character might be Hallie, whose heart cannot help reaching out to the man who possesses none of the qualities her upbringing might have associated with manhood, but a man whose courage will define the lives not only of him and her, but of a people.

Who is the hero?

“Maybe there’s more than one,” one boy in my class ventured.

I think he’s right.

Rooftop of Bliss … or Oblivion

Maybe eye bag surgery should get on the list of things to do when I retire. But then again, I’m starting not to care how ugly I am. I’m playing old man onshore here, watching my wife kayak at Lynx Lake. Pulling a happy face for a selfie. At least I learned how to take shapshots on my iPhone without them turning into video clips.

Down to three days a week at Walmart. Used to be four.

The time I don’t spent with my chin on my chest in my easy chair, streaming stuff on my 55-inch Samsung, I spend on various forms of physical activity.

I work in the high desert rock-scape I call my yard: weed whacking, adjusting drip irrigation heads, carting off bush clippings.

I work out three times a week at Fitness for 10. Yesterday was chest and triceps; tomorrow, back and biceps; Saturday, legs and shoulders. I might blog about being a gym rat. I could brandish photos of my aging musculature, but Barb says nobody wants to see them. I’ll take her word for it.

I bicycle, kayak, and hike, activities that may include my wife, serving the added purpose of solidifying our marriage. Nothing worse than to hear, “I feel like I’ve got a roommate not a husband.” Each of us with our own TV shows. Me holed up with a book, her twittering to her friends on the phone. In opposite corners of a boxing ring, touching gloves only long enough for her to tell me I’m friendless and maritally unavailing.

So I’m exercising with her, trying to include Barb in the movie of my life. We’re working on increasing our intimacy. Better leave it at that. It’s happy work.

October 24 will be my 68th birthday. Then Walmart will see the last of me. Unless I’m there buying steaks and cheap jeans.

And what will I do?

All this physical activity is great, but I’d always prided myself on my intellectual gift. What about that?

I’ve got bad memories around this.

When I was a teacher, some students valued me and took seriously my stance as a teacher exposing them to stories and writing opportunities that enriched their appreciation. I cherish those memories of being useful.

But I wasn’t always respected. I held students hostage to my prolixity, forgetting they were castoffs from other schools, uninterested in me and my word stream.

Nearing the end of one semester, getting close to graduation, one punk gave it to me with both barrels.

“I used to come over here and all I wanted was a yes or no answer to something, and you’d keep talking for fifteen minutes about some bullshit I didn’t care about.” The boy was seething, standing over me, knuckles on my desk, teeth gritted as I sat there blanched and helpless. That hurt.

But it taught me something. I’ve come to believe the very definition of a bore is one who likes the sound of his own voice. I limit my shares at AA meetings. If, upon my death, I am remembered as terse, good.

Maybe it’s best I remain a muzzled novelist, though three books I’ve written are credible products.

Got a dirt bike and am training on flat rides. You take Peavine Trail far enough out, make that slant left at mile three. Round about mile four you see cattle off to the side. They’re no dummies. Most of them chill in the shade of trees. Lesson there about being happily retired!

None has proved publishable commercially. A computer consultant who comes over now and then to lead me out of the various labyrinths of my technological befuddlement is in the business of helping people self-publish. She encouraged me to get my novels out there by my own self.

“I could just see you reading in public.”

Was she telling me I was charismatic? Or that I was a big ham who can’t keep his mouth shut, so why not create a venue?

But that’s the problem. What kind of venue?

And who’d be there?

Facebook friends who receive the teasers regarding my latest blog post might be there. Many of them are local friends. They’d be there because they felt obligated.

I can just imagine the kitchen table dialogues.

“Why in the fuck do I have to go to Bob Gitlin’s reading? He’s a longwinded bore with his head stuck up his own ass. Bad enough to read about his fucked-up life in his Facebook posts – I never click on the stupid blog — it’d be torture to have to hear him read from a whole fucking book about his boring life and what he learned from it.”

What’s the use? The books are like the blogs. About me, even veiled as “made up.”

The first one, called Last Winter in Cleveland, though its maiden name was Crackup, is a sick sadomasochistic thriller about a drug-dealing partnership between a white guy and a black guy in Cleveland. It got as far as getting a New York agent and being read by a famous guy at Simon & Schuster, but no go.

The second, I dubbed At Risk, though perhaps a friend’s suggestion of The Flaming Cactus would have been better. I self-published it under the pseudonym R.G. Philips after a bigshot at Farrar Straus & Giroux passed. It chronicles a guy’s miserable first year as a teacher in a strange new region of the country, an ordeal complicated by the fact he’s trying to stay sober. I could remarket this novel under my own name now that I’m not teaching and the salacious sex details are nothing to worry about.

The third, new novel, Working the Freezer in Paradise, is a pastiche of linked vignettes, mostly flashbacks, chronologically sprawling but thematically unified, bookended by an old man who took a retirement job at Walmart and finds himself in the absurd position of being professionally happy for the first time in his life.

I can’t think of an elevator pitch for any of these gnarled creatures.

But I could put them all out there to have something to do when I retire.

What do I have to lose? I am word struck, in love with my examinations of life through fiction.

Instead of being suffocated in my musty office, I need a rooftop from which to scream.

And if that doesn’t work, I could always do a one and a half gainer off that roof into a manhole cover.

Just kidding. I like life too much. I always want to see what happens next. Win or lose.

The Art of the TV Drama Gangster Hero: Walter White Versus Tony Soprano

Walter: White: meek chem teacher becomes evil Heisenberg

Three TV dramas compete in my mind for top slot: Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and Justified.

I have blogged about Justified, whose most interesting character is not amiable, trim-hipped Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) but Walton Goggins’s backwoods criminal, Boyd Crowder, a man with that quality all great villains have, a likeable aspect, his being a poetic, even preacherly soul. Most of the ironic twists in Justified come from a role other than the protagonist.

Maybe that’s why it may be between the other two shows. I’m not sure I’m going to solve the little fight in my head. And who cares? As Japhy Ryder (fictionalized Gary Snyder) tells Jack Kerouac’s goopy protagonist in The Dharma Bums, “Comparisons are odious, Smith.” By extension, needing to declare a superlative may be more odious still.

But, as I’m a resigned couch potato, I pride myself on at least being a thinking man’s couch potato.

As I scrutinize the saga of the South Jersey mafia, I’m reminded of a quote from Bryan Cranston, whose Walter White introduced a new kind of criminal to TV drama.

After the show aired its finale, and all the Emmys and accolades had come in, Cranston and other members of the show were receiving the royal treatment from James Lipton in a roundtable edition of Inside the Actors Studio. Lipton asked Cranston what made Walter White special. Cranston said that James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano was a riveting character but he stayed the same pretty much from start to finish, whereas Walter White was more a character to be studied for his graduated ascent into malevolence.

Tony Soprano: a sympathetic monster if there ever was one

To be sure, there is evolution in Tony Soprano, if within this framework. We watch him acquire a facility for self-reflection under the promptings of Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), the psychiatrist whose languid articulation and physical solidity add up to an acting performance that betters what she was given to work with as Karen Hill in Goodfellas. Tony may have fallen in love with Melfi, but she never, despite her own attraction, lets him have her. At the very end, after friends beg her to kick this sociopath to the curb — he’s intransigent, ineducable, an out-and-out con — she does stop seeing him, and we know he will never be the same.

Similarly, though we do not witness the transformation, as they’ve long been married before start of show, Carmella (Edie Falco) has changed Tony. His fealty to the tough-talking, intellectually robust housewife humanizes him through many plot convulsions.

Dealing with Christopher Moltisanti has changed Tony, invoking calls to be paternal and protective; however, as his final dealings with the ravaged addict bear out, Tony solves the problem of Chris as he’s solved so many others. We saw “the real Tony” early, when he choked to death an old rat who’d fled to Maine under the auspices of witness protection, and this is the Tony we will keep seeing. That scene was a searing moment in an iconic episode. It’s the one where Tony, squiring his daughter to prospective New England colleges, takes time out to strangle to death a man whose testimony put away a lot of Tony’s cohorts, while back home Carmella and the priest get drunk on wine and almost make out on the couch. Horror and comedy dance. Much is on the boil in the Jersey drama and much ferments from one thing into another, particularly with its main character.

But Cranston was right. Nothing in The Sopranos compares with the chilling evolution of Walter White. Cranston’s craggy, ingenious high school chemistry teacher, pushed into moral relativism by a cancer diagnosis and a wounded ego, reminds me of Macbeth, the noble soldier who becomes a monster yet maintains the shell of seeming rectitude. Just as a philosophically shattered Macbeth will fight to his death asserting his divine right to power, so does Walter White maintain a human, rational defense mechanism, a decidedly unmonstrous demeanor. You hear that professorial voice try to dismiss the boy’s death after the train robbery, try to explain away to Jesse Pinkman all manner of moral compromises. Meanwhile White, like Soprano, solves problems through homicide.

But the homicides themselves represent a metamorphosis: from the long-delayed choking of the captured dealer, whom he’s even asked if he likes the crusts cut off his sandwiches; to his shooting of gang punks he ran down to keep him and Pinkman in the clear; to his rigging up of a death trap for arch-fiend Gus Fring in a nursing home Fring visited to torture an old enemy (a fit end to two haters); to his killing of the likeable enforcer, ex-cop Mike Ehrmentraut, in a poignant riverside scene; to his ingenious fire-spray execution of a compound of white supremacists, which wrests back to Walter a final measure of qualified nobility before he exits to the strains of “Baby Blue.”

Walter White’s is an arc from repressed gentility to shocking malevolence. There is a special enjoyment in watching a transformation so fully realized.

Tony Soprano was a monster in Season One. He is the same monster at the final moment, when, as Journey plays “Don’t Stop Believing,” we may assume he’s being whacked.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I still have most of Season 5 ahead of me, then the final season.

Honey, will you bring me another sandwich? Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease?

Pandemic reignites intolerance of the aged

I don’t know about other old folks, but I intend to keep rockin’, and so does my wife.

I used American Short Stories, a collection by Perfection Learning, to teach junior English back when I labored in the trenches of Arizona high schools. One story I favored was James Thurber’s classic about a meek man lost in a fantasy world. But I found that, with few exceptions, teenagers did not get “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” When a lone boy roared with laughter at reading it, I could have hugged him. Because by that time, I’d grown to expect a bland or even annoyed reaction to the humor classic.

I tended to use the questions at the back of each book’s story I taught, a page called “Responding to the Story,” to evaluate student appreciation. The returns on “Walter Mitty” bludgeoned my hopes for it. The students almost uniformly saw it as a depressing tale about “this old guy who’s losing it.”

“Old guy,” “old dude,” “old man” – that was their takeaway. Nothing about what Thurber put on the page: a henpecked (middle-aged!) husband who soars into realms of imagination that make him a hero, whether as a surgeon, a courtroom lawyer, or a fighter pilot. Hell, the onomatopoeia alone is worth the price of admission with writing this brilliant.

You can’t enforce enjoyment, and surprises are rife in the teaching business. I used Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” which I never liked, to great student acclaim. Conversely, I should have become accustomed to kids not digging stories I adored. But this one hurt in a special way; it nagged at me. Even if Walter Mitty was “old,” in his sixties or seventies, did that make him an unsympathetic character? I sensed active disdain among the young readers, something beyond mere student dullness. A bias was at play.

Prejudice against the aged has survived the onslaught of woke rebuke, as Bill Maher said on his HBO show. Old people have been the most vulnerable to COVID, making us all mask up and suffer. Old people hog the public trough with their nagging Social Security needs. Old people constitute a bigger and bigger part of the populace, expect a bigger and bigger piece of the pie. Go die and get out of the way, old people.

We’ll never have herd immunity because of shot antagonism, and part of that is based on prejudice against old people. The CDC said if we’re fully vaccinated we needn’t mask up, not if we don’t want to, and needn’t feel guilty about it. I will show up at Walmart next shift without the cursed mask, which I always had to take off to scratch or blow my blasted nose. Walmart even offers an incentive: if you want a $75 boost to your paycheck, show us you’ve been vaccinated. I sense at least half the workers there haven’t gotten shots. To a large extent it’s Trumpian bullshit — the thing’s all a ruse to put Democrats in power, don’t you know.

Among the youth, the resistance is tinged with the abovementioned prejudice. Again, I heard a broadside against dreaded, hated old people, spoken with veiled venom by a young person, one I happened to like and still do! (They know not their own hearts, dear Lord.) We were working the dairy cooler, trying to get milks and creamers into the sliding slots leading down to the customers out there, when I heard Braylon tell another, older guy he wouldn’t get the shot. “It’s just something old people had to worry about. I’m young. I’m not gonna do it.” But I’m sure, what with the “honor system” Walmart feels compelled to use, that this young man will represent himself as having been vaccinated and, with no vaccination card to present, work unmasked.

I shouldn’t be surprised. When I took a “retirement” job at Walmart, I found the same intergenerational dynamic at play as I’d found in the classroom.

I grew to resent a sarcastic young man who, without realizing it, was speaking snidely to me, almost talking down to me. Me! a man in his middle sixties. I had thought the imprint of age merited respect, but not to today’s generation.

My gig starts before dawn. I got used to showing up in the wee hours when the night crew was coming down its home stretch. Drew, a tart-tongued young man, would be on the paper and chem aisle, where it might be my job to help him finish stocking the overnight freight. After a brief period of enjoying his sassy rejoinders and heartening, conspiratorial bitches about working at the store, I began to find something dismissive about him, even borderline insulting, in a way I couldn’t pin down.

Please break down your boxes. You’ll fit more in the baaaaaler …” he chided me in singsong as I stood over the rolling paperboard waste bin, beating my hands to pulp trying to collapse stiff double-wall corrugated containers that had held laundry detergent. Though I learned to wear work gloves to protect my hands, better wielding them as cutting blades and ripping claws, I remained offended by his mocking, suggestive tone, which implied not so much annoyance as absence of the need to defer to a man well into his sixties.

Was I “reading into” Drew’s manner because of my defensiveness and insecurity, even lingering emotional bruises from the way kids at the end of my “teaching” career regarded me? I worked the same kind of job as he. If he was treating me as an equal, so what?

But that was just it; that was the offense. Despite my failure at classroom management during those last, bad teaching years, I figured I deserved respect because I was old, had lived long, suffered long, learned much.

I know now I was naïve, my learning partial. If only the most forbearing and mature students were nice to me, that was to be expected. You’re good at that job, teaching at-risk youth, or you’re in the crosshairs.

But there was something more, something broader and more sociological, that explained the thing. A lot of these boys had no father figure. They came from households featuring a mother, her latest partner, and the kids. If the “father figure” is a stepdad out of prison with a swastika across his chest sharing a meth pipe with a 14-year-old, the myth of reverence for the elder male might go out the window. All across the socioeconomic spectrum, not just the white rural ghetto where I taught, the era of the nuclear family, and of some Norman Rockwell dad carving the Sunday roast beef, seems to have run its course.

Ah, what’s the use? I can kvetch all I want. My cohort and I will still die off and the young punks will take over.

I like to be optimistic though. Call it my brand of patriotism. I have to believe that today’s youth will acknowledge the secret weapon of the aged, their very years, and that young people will humble themselves to the lengthening shadow of mortality by whose lessons we learn how to live.

Near Fender Bender Can’t Dent Anniversary Getaway

My wife makes me nervous when I’m driving and she’s in the passenger seat issuing critiques and giving directions. My own tension causes me to make mistakes – which only fuel her rebukes.

Age removes a portion of peripheral vision and overall flexibility. You don’t react as well, as quickly, as you once did. But for me it’s worse when I’m driving and she’s there. Her edginess rubs off on me.

So when Barb said, “Turn left here,” at a commercial intersection in Lake Havasu City, a resort town we visited to mark our 22nd wedding anniversary, I swung into it without seeing the stop sign.

As I was making the turn, already committed, I had to negotiate my way around a guy swinging into his own (quite legal) left and now needing to go around me to avoid a collision. I made one of those grimacing faces you make to let the other guy know you fucked up and at least feel bad about it.

And I did. But I had to concentrate on her next directions from a cell phone GPS that for some reason wasn’t talking. The fraught moment was further complicated by my realization that the guy I’d cut off was after me, having circled back to that same intersection, made the same left I’d made, roared up ahead of me, and come back in my direction.

I slowed to a stop on the fairly deserted street. He pulled over on the other side and stuck his head out the window.

“Learn how to drive, asshole!”

My own, clever rejoinder:

“Fuck you!”

Just so he didn’t think I was a chickenshit, I glared at him to see if he wanted to get out of his car. But he pulled away.

“What an asshole,” Barb said. “He didn’t have to chase you like that. That was wrong. Wow. My heart’s thumping.”

We’d made progress in our marriage. Was a time any of my profanities would have drawn a stern rebuke. Barb sees in my constant swearing a toxic anger that’s at the root of my emotional difficulties and our marital problems.

LAKE HAVASU was nice, if you’re about twenty-eight, love Trump, deck your boat out with emblems of that brand of coopted patriotism, and drink about a case of beer a day. “Party central,” Barb said. The lake was cluttered with boats the first day we got there, at the tail end of some boat show we hadn’t known about.

The weather was warm that first day, a Sunday. The forecast showed cool the next two days, though warming late Tuesday, and then hot Wednesday. We’d discussed checking out of our room on Wednesday, then renting a boat to get on the water. But we never did. The water remained a postcard view from our balcony. I for one didn’t relish some Three Stooges scene managing even a little rented boat, and my wife didn’t care enough about boating to press the issue. We could have signed up for some overpriced charter cruise, but that, like so much else around here, seemed like a drunk fest, and I didn’t look forward to gazing over the side at the rippling water grinning tightly as the atmosphere waxed louder and drunker around us.

We saw London Bridge, that we did. We enjoyed each other’s company. Had soul talks about our long slog together, with a level of affection and frankness that seemed a breakthrough.

Even went on a three-hour hike. It was only that long because we got lost.

You drive to SARA’s Park in Havasu to hit the trailhead of a hike known as, er, Sara’s Crack, a lewd name for a squeeze through a mountain pass alongside the Mojave Desert. You can take this hike all the way to the Colorado River. But we got so lost in the labyrinth of trails, many mere dirt biking single tracks, that by the time we finally stumbled into Sara’s Crack we were fried. Having ambled precariously and with very sore thighs over the umpteenth wrong turn to attain the, er, Crack, and begun to squeeze through narrower and narrower portions, Barb declared she was beat.

I was relieved.

“Me too. We can come back tomorrow and do the Crack,” I said, “even get all the way to the river. All I wanna do now is get back to my SUV.”

I had hated the hike. I have dreaded getting trail-lost ever since an incident that’s filed in my memory as the Williams Nightmare.

Not long after Barb and I moved to Arizona, we got lost in the Coconino National Forest around Williams.

It was getting cool, even a little chilly, the sun nearing the treetops. I thought we might have to last out the night sitting on the pine needles, hugging each other for warmth and getting bumped into by elk. When we finally staggered into the clear and saw a ranch house, I was so ashamed I had Barb knock. This nice rancher drove us back to where my car was. I let her ride in the cab with him while I ducked down on the truck’s metal bed, preferring the ass bumps to what I perceived as the humiliation of being next to this Western alpha male after I’d confirmed myself in abject want of male resourcefulness.

I’ll never forget Barb looking at me over the dim light at Rod’s Steak House in Williams, an accommodating old person’s restaurant, and saying, “Nobody has to know about this.”

After getting lost at Sara’s Crack, I said, “That’s it.” I tried to download All Trails, a common orientation device, onto my new Apple iPhone SE, but I couldn’t figure it out. Why does every application insist on Google accounts? I have Microsoft Outlook as my email! I am a techno-dunce.

JUST TO FINISH this story, we didn’t go back to the trail any more than we got on the water. On Tuesday we drove to Parker for the hell of it (there’s nothing there) and took a right to get to the Colorado River, where I sat on a rock “watching the river flow” per Dylan. I wish the pictures Barb and I thought we’d taken on my new phone weren’t actually movie shorts or I’d have something photographically to show for it here. Ah well.

We got up Wednesday and found a good place for breakfast and hit the road back to Prescott, armed with a bag of banana chips from a health food store.

One thing I did accomplish on this trip was I got fat. To me anyway. My wife says I am too skinny.

Between the Super Slam at Denny’s on Monday and the steak and eggs with all the trimmings just before heading for home, oh and the blueberry muffins I saw fit to keep in our room once I spied them on our shopping trip to Safeway, the suite, representing an upgrade, being outfitted with fridge and microwave, I found as I stepped on the scale back home that I’d ascended to a tubby 153, a five-pound gain that is not inconsiderable for a guy who manages his poundage like a skittish welterweight.

Maybe Barb’s right, I need to loosen up, even if that means letting out my belt.

A friend back in Cleveland once told me, “Bobby, I just know there’s a happy fat guy in you dying to get out.”

Maybe that guy is emerging into the clear. Hey, pass those Hostess Cupcakes.

Man of Constant Sorrow Keeps on Smiling

Photo politely borrowed from Amazon web site. Warner Bros. is the record label for this 2015 album.

These days I’m rocking out to Dwight Yoakam’s “Man of Constant Sorrow” off a now six-year-old album, Second Hand Heart. I may be late to the party, but serendipity has no expiration date.

The original, published in 1913 by blind Kentucky fiddler Dick Burnett, is “the crown jewel of the Appalachian song tradition,” said Ann Powers for NPR when Yoakam’s record came out. The number has been widely covered, including versions by Bob Dylan, Ginger Baker, and Alison Krauss.

I found out about Dwight Yoakam’s rendition riding around listening to SiriusXM. Elizabeth Cook, a country player who moonlights as the sexy DJ of “Apron Strings,” a lively, eclectic Outlaw Country show, played it. It pricked up my ears. Then she commented on how she loved how Dwight hears something he wants to make his own and then just plucks and assimilates it.

Here, he takes his country inspiration to the place where, with the help of sizzling guitar work, it becomes rock ‘n’ roll. I felt the same way about Dwight’s “Guitars, Cadillacs,” “Fast as You,” “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” (which tops an old version by hippie country band New Riders of the Purple Sage), and “Intentional Heartache” (an innovation with its rap overlay about the fury of a scorned woman).

Remember the 2000 Cohn Brothers movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson — the Soggy Mountain Boys — sing “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” (the original title) into radio mikes, a peak moment in an uneven film. I like the song better brought into rockabilly bloom by Dwight Yoakam.

I often find cover artists bring an original into new glory, as with Judy Collins’s “Both Sides Now” (Joni Mitchell) and Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s “Everything Is Broken” (Dylan). Since I heard Dwight’s nasal twang and impeccable nuance on “Man of Constant Sorrow,” I haven’t been the same.

BARB FINALLY decided she would get the shot, her first, a Pfizer, and wanted me along in case she got sick afterward. We rode to Cottonwood together and I put Second Hand Heart on her CD player. My Subaru Forester is a good ride, but the fidelity sucks compared to the symphony acoustics inside her Honda.

Barb dug the tunes.

“I love Dwight. Now I can have this with me all the time,” she said. Her car records CDs automatically.

After she got the shot, at a CVS, we found a Mexican restaurant and ate outside, warmed by the spring sun. I was glad to be with her, found myself gazing at this woman who has endured me all these years, will accompany me on a 22-year anniversary getaway to Lake Havasu soon, makes me see I have a good life.

In related news . . . I have decided to retire from Walmart.

Regarding my employment there, I have come to realize the ultimate, exquisite irony: I will be going out on top.

This job as an aging stocker represents the best work experience I ever had.

Used to be hard to grok this. Now it tickles me.

I grew up among Jewish kids destined to be doctors, lawyers, titans of commerce.

I have topped out as a member of the CAP 1 stocking crew at Walmart #5303 on Gale Gardner Road in Prescott, Arizona.

The overall arc of my lifetime “career” experience has made me a man of constant sorrow. But I have discovered something inside me I didn’t know was there: pure obstinate refusal to capitulate. I won’t lay down and stop living.

To have overcome this last work difficulty constitutes a win in a life that’s often seemed short on victories.

I am relied on to work the store freezers, stocking raw freight off pallets, and scanning boxes of binned frozen entrees and ice cream and carting this too out to the floor. On days I show up, this task awaits me and me alone much of the time.

I should be mad but I’m not.

I titled a perhaps unpublishable book Working the Freezer in Paradise, a kaleidoscope of linked vignettes, about (well, among other things) how a character is forced into this task by a resentful supervisor but never flinches. He makes the job his own to show how tough he is. Now, I find I can’t resent that this job is dumped on me. Given my old-guy hardiness and clear expertise, the store managers choose me because I’m good.

Yes, I am being exploited.

But I am also appreciated.

I did not feel this way as an editor slash writer slash journalist slash PR hack back in Cleveland, nor as a harried teacher tragically bad at disciplining recalcitrant teens in alternative Arizona high schools.

And so, here I stand at the end of it all, almost resistant to the idea of stepping down from this . . . misbegotten ascension into career fulfillment.

MY THERAPIST says that, rather than let Walmart drain me — because the job is physical, a real ass bust — I should think about retiring. I could write, travel, work around the house, go on bike rides, firm my aging musculature at Fitness for 10. After a life of putting my shoulder to the wheel of the Gross National Product, I can stop.

As far as the travel thing, we’re on it. After Lake Havasu (I’ve got to see that transplanted London Bridge), we plan a September ride to the Black Hills of South Dakota and the great annual “buffalo roundup.” I always was fascinated by Native Americans. Maybe I’ll stop being a white man; I’ll jump on a spotted pony with a bow and arrow when I see those bison thundering over the land.

I have geared down from four to three days a week at Walmart and, at Laurie’s suggestion, targeted my birthday, in October, as the demarcation point for my stockboy swan song. I used to worry about idleness and addictive behaviors, a resumption of old bad habits. Watching TV all day. Becoming an aged idiot seduced by internet titillations.

But I’ve got too many disciplines. And a growing gratitude list.

Though this life has had more than its share of misfires, blunders, embarrassments, losses, and unmet expectations, I will continue to digest, with gratitude and equanimity, the long, strange trip of this mortal round. Life is for learning, Joni Mitchell said in “Woodstock.” I’m gonna try an’ get my soul free.

SOMETIMES a song finds its way into your internal soundtrack while subverting expectations that surrounded its original composition.

Dwight Yoakam’s “Man of Constant Sorrow” is life affirming, rousing and joyful, but the words are dark, frank, gloomy.

It’s the way he channels the pain. Like blues, country celebrates our human agonies and frailties.

And so, to paraphrase and even fuse stanzas from my new favorite song:

I may die tonight on this train . . . you may learn to love another as I lie sleeping in my grave . . . but you will meet me on that golden shore.

And all that’s fine.

At least we lived.

I Feel Justified in Watching It Again

Timothy Olyphant as U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. (This is an FX show, all intellectual property rights being theirs. May they forgive this benign theft.)

Just got back from lunch with one of my favorite people, a man who once was my boss and still is an original Kentucky hard-ass. U.S. Army helicopter fighter pilot and Vietnam veteran Jim Taylor ran Yavapai County High School, a place in Prescott Valley for at-risk kids where I felt nurtured and loved teaching English for quite some years.

I didn’t know what I was going to blog about, but, driving home from seeing him, along with some other good friends from that happy time, I knew it had to be about one of my favorite TV shows.

It’s as Kentucky as he is.

I watch shows all over again that I’ve already seen if they’re that good. I plead guilty of doing this with Breaking Bad.

If I opt to re-screen such a show, I study it this time around.

I enjoyed Timothy Olyphant’s ramrod-spined sheriff in that genre-defying HBO western Deadwood. Now I’m watching him (again) as U.S. Federal Marshal Raylan Givens in the FX drama Justified (currently available on Hulu). He was a righteous, wrapped-tight lawman in the former show, winding that tension up so high his eventual carnal release with a languid, glamourous laudanum fiend was all the hotter.

His character is a little looser in Justified. With his lanky, ambling stride in blue jeans and cowboy hat, and that curious smile, he’s a throwback to another era of law enforcement, though his rigid adherence to the principles of traditional American masculinity and heroism — that menace lying in wait behind the drawl — recalls Seth Bullock of the South Dakota mining town.

Justified sprang from an Elmore Leonard novella I’ve been meaning to load onto my Kindle. Where else in written or visual fiction do you get the satisfaction of a protagonist whose daily job requirement is that he be quick on the draw? And, of course, he’s the loveable badass, always a little at odds with his boss Art Mullen, amiable chief deputy of the U.S. Marshals field office in Lexington, a role well played by Nick Searcy. There are lots of great roles here, including women who are easy on the eyes, some of whom wind up romantically entangled with our hero.

I’m on season two. If it’s not the show’s best season, it’s close.

If you hated Margo Martindale as Hilary Swank’s ungrateful trailer-trash mom in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby but found her talented, you were right. What a brilliant character actress! Her KGB operative Claudia on The Americans, a role devoid of the rural southern accent Martindale has elsewhere exploited, showed us her full range. Here, on Justified, she’s Mags Bennett, matriarch of a family of hillbilly pot growers, and more than a match for everyone who comes down the pike to challenge her, including a high-heeled head of a rapacious mining concern. Martindale seems outfitted for roles loaded with the macabre. Her Russian spymaster ordered many hits in a show ghoulish in its depiction of politically motivated execution. We will come to associate the drawling backwoods general-store owner Mags Bennett with her cinnamon-flavored, sometimes deadly moonshine, “Apple Pie.”

But I think the steadiest glittering jewel of the show is a character who spanned every one of the six seasons: Boyd Crowder. Here’s where you want to see Walton Goggins, who has since looked silly and ill used in a sitcom whose big conflict was him trying to get dates.

Goggins steals Justified. As with southern-bred Martindale, Alabama-born Goggins’ own roots help with the speaking style that loads so much credibility to the role. When we meet him, he’s a hillbilly criminal mastermind commandeering a group of white supremacist terrorists. After a run-in with Raylan’s unerring gun (only a wounding shot from the old friend), Boyd renounces the idiocy of that former lifestyle and resurfaces as a backwoods preacher.

The thing that’s exciting about Boyd Crowder is your inability to nail him down. His slow speaking cadence packs an almost Elizabethan tang, as when (I can’t wait for this to happen, way up ahead from where I’m at now) he confronts a rich hypocrite up the hill who fatally underestimated the outlaw down the holler. Great bad guys have sympathetic qualities. We find ourselves rooting for Boyd; we can’t help ourselves.

It’s the old buddy story, the thing between Raylan and Boyd. The last episode of the final season culminates with Raylan saying, “We dug coal together.” It’s a mantra of the show.

It explains everything.

Raylan Givens understood Boyd’s potential for evil better than anybody, and was sworn to defeat him – indeed, wielding an anger parallel to that of his nemesis — but the two men have a bond as old as the hills.

When I find myself getting all twisted up in the dreary memory of my own tepid life, and how it erupts in blogs that then embarrass me, I come to a show like this, a show this exciting, for nurturance, a way to recharge myself, even my zeal in exploring the mythology of my own hero journey.

Yeah, it’s guy stuff. Barb is bingeing on Grey’s Anatomy; I go to Harlan County.

Having entered into the soundtrack of my mind is the innovative theme song by Gangstagrass, “Long Hard Times to Come,” a divine melding of rap and bluegrass. It’s so good I still have yet to hit “skip” on my remote when it plays each time, inaugurating another episode.

It’s so good I feel justified.

Below: Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder and Margo Martindale as Mags Bennett (both photos politely borrowed from FX, which has the right to sue me)