You need candle flames to see your way through the darkness

Sometimes it’s the good memories that hurt, that confuse, more than the bad.

I’ve been remembering moments – call them oases – of inarguable good amidst the slosh and slurry of bad. This is how I commune with my past. I’ve been remembering, rather sweetly, my experience as a teacher. I remember students who accepted my authority and did as I asked, unlike those who never did the reading and thought they didn’t have to listen to me.

I’ve constructed a flinty resolution to accept my shortcomings, to stop trying to fool myself into thinking I “was happy” teaching at-risk kids.

So then what do I do with these happy anomalies?

Could it be that, shining in memory as they are, they’re not just anomalies?

It was in the middle part of my years teaching English at one school, then two schools, run by the Yavapai Accommodation School District, that I met Nora. I remember her tough beauty, fierce like a Mayan princess. Her skin was coppery, jaw outthrust, nose flat. She was a senior in a school where one person slung syllabi for a whole subject. In this community of alleged low reading, I discerned certain personalities who read with curiosity and absorption. Nora was one of those.

Yes, I had bored students. But I also had shining beacons who taught me a thing or two, not just about books but about life. (Deposit Photos)

My Senior Research Project focused on the horror story. The kids had three stories to choose among: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, and The Interview with the Vampire. I had wanted to include Dracula in the mix, but it was too long. I wanted them to read any two of the three and write a comparative analysis. The books themselves were primary research. I suggested that, as secondary research, they could, say, investigate scholarly opinion available in any of the books’ introductions, seeing if that scholar’s projection was borne out by their own scrutiny.

Nora came to me one day after reading Frankenstein and Vampire.

“Mr. Gitlin, I think I have a thesis. In both those books, you have a main character who doesn’t want to be this supernatural being.”

I sat amazed, reeling in my own awareness. She had nailed something that had eluded me.

I would suggest “The Reluctant Monster” as a title. The prose was utilitarian but shone with core insight. I required her to use specific textual references on a handful of occasions, to make sure she “arc” her thoughts to a definable point.

Her hard work and insight earned her an A. I glowed to hand her that mark on the revised, final paper.

Nora would grow to wonder about some of the things I did in that classroom, such as introducing girls to the movie Mystic Pizza, about the coming of age of three close girlfriends in a New England fishing port. Years later it hit me just how adult some of the content was; I blush to think about it. What possessed me? Something to do with At the Movies, that old PBS TV show, and what critic Roger Ebert said about this movie being an antidote to Hollywood trash that talked down to kids.

Many students loved Kerouac’s book. Hard to reconcile my awareness of its Benzedrine-abetted writing with my sense of its greatness. But I’d do it again. (Viking Press)

Two girls were watching Mystic Pizza near Nora’s seat, sharing ear buds, staring at the same perimeter desktop. I had walked by, patrolling the room as was my wont, and as I stopped to talk to Nora I admitted the movie was a bit risqué. I even said, “You’re probably wondering why I gave it to them.”

“Why did you?” Nora said, a little sharply. Nora was here at Yavapai County High School because she was a young mother. She was adult beyond her years. I explained myself as best I could. She was fairly conservative. I was a little red-faced before the stern admonition, though she warmed a bit at my rationale. Time and closely held standards about film have softened my self-rebuke. Movies are stories, and I was nobly motivated to want the kids to know about stories with heart, not just wanton titillations. Mystic Pizza is about truth and enduring friendship, f-bombs and sex references notwithstanding.

Then there was Emily, a young literary personality par excellence, who in fact Facebooked me not long ago from her home in Texas. Emily was joined at the hip to another student, her sidekick. Emily had sorrel hair and was roundly pretty; Stepanie was tall and slender, blackly Goth (she surprised one teacher, who expected trouble, with her friendly regard for me, chatting me up near my desk). I think of them together. Both girls had surely been friends at their last school, and stayed together upon being kicked over to us.

They accepted my curriculum. I remember having got (from both kids and staffers) some negative pushback over American Short Stories, a collection by Perfection Learning, but these two girls read the stories, answered the open-ended numbered questions at the end of each, and turned in their pen scrawls for high grades.

I got into an interesting discussion with students, including one very special one, about the relative merits of this movie and another about rapping. (Universal-Getty Images)

Emily, the shorter, quieter one, always had her nose stuck in a book. The whole school went ziplining and “team building” at some Christian camp and she wanted to stay back and read, and I found myself secretly sympathetic.

I brought in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, a teeming riot of a first novel about multicultural London, on a hunch, thinking Emily might like it. I told her if she did we could make a “unit” of it, she would write a summative essay. She devoured the book and wrote a high-level appreciation.

I had begun both a school newspaper (more like a magazine) and a literary journal, and Emily contributed a poem to the latter, an impressionistic sketch about bird hunting. It so impressed me with its poignance and shock and onomatopoeia, and all in such plain language, that I sent it in to a contest sponsored by Voices of Young America, a national library organization. When I called to see about it, the woman on the phone spoke raptly about the submission. Emily was less crestfallen than I at its not winning.

I assigned different content to different students. Some, you just let them slog along on Plato or EdOptions or whatever the computerized English class was. There was an algorithm by which I factored in the level of challenge a student was facing. I got some heat from one teacher about my various and sundry hand-scribbled “individualized” syllabi, but I stand to this day by my method.

Both Emily and Stephanie loved One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But only one of them loved On the Road, whereby I backed up further from Beat-inspired Kesey to Kerouac gospel itself. I saw now the sophistication of Emily, who in the speedy rush of Kerouac’s sentences saw the terrible discipline, one might say athleticism, like Hemingway. Emily saw in the set pieces, like the drive down into the Mexican jungle, a universe lush with poetry. She saw in the sometimes gleeful, sometimes sonorous prose a Romantic journey with few parallels in American literature. I daresay Emily would have agreed with something I’d read by Beat scholar and chronicler Ann Charters: On the Road takes its place as a seminal American novel along with The Great Gatsby and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Emily’s essay about Kerouac’s masterpiece bristled with insights.

The third student who comes to mind is a boy I met during what we might call the penultimate chapter in what had become a sad career.

By now I taught between two schools. I had Miguel at Aspire, the second school run by the Yavapai Accommodation School District.

Though this school wasn’t a one-room fishbowl, like the other one, it wound up not being that much different in practice. Students gravitated to teachers they liked, and – despite scheduled times to be in discrete classrooms running off a main hallway, English or math or science or social studies – we wound up letting students go to whatever classroom they liked best. Classrooms weren’t classrooms so much as competing entertainment venues. Mr. Lopez was perhaps the most popular teacher, with his beloved sixties and Motown music playing on a sophisticated sound system, lyrics and videos projecting on a wall screen, but Mr. Newell, who’d commandeered the Smartboard and showed AC/DC vids and POV car races, drew many students as well.

I sat alone in my room, reading what student essays I could elicit, grading quizzes, peering at my computer’s online news sites, wondering why.

One day Miguel and his homies burst into my room and, knowing how much I loved movies – I’d had some success screening The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, even got a little class discussion going about the American mythos and the requirements of manhood – Miguel said they’d seen Straight Outta Compton, and had I seen it?

This rite-of-passage classic won the hearts of some girls I introduced to it. I had to defend the decision to show it. (IMDb)

“Yeah I saw it,” I said. “You know, I thought it started off pretty hot, but then it went downhill for me.”

The boys got their back up.

Miguel said, “Yeah, why?”

“Once it got to be just about that music executive who screwed them out of their money, it lost something.”

“But that’s what happened!” a few of the boys said.

“That may well be, but that didn’t help the movie. It doesn’t propel interest and suspense.” They seemed dejected at my dismissal. “Hey fellas. I’m not a big rap guy. Maybe you’re talking to the wrong person. But you know, I loved 8 Mile!”

Miguel said, “Why’d you like that?”

“I’ll tell you why. It was its theme of interracial friendship. That Mekhi Pfifer character was beautiful.”

They left muttering.

I went back to whatever I was doing, alone in my sad room. I think they went to Mr. Lopez’s crowded den. Mr. Lopez let them sit wherever they wanted, let them talk, music washing over everyone enough to assuage any reservations he might have had about student noise.

Half an hour later, Miguel came back to my room, alone. A lanky kid, he lowered his butt onto a desktop in the back, feet dangling over the front.

“Hey Mr. Gitlin.” I looked up at him, a handsome boy with caramel skin. “Mr. Gitlin, what you said about those movies …?”

“Yeah?”

“You were right.”

He smiled as he left.

Later that same year I became so outraged – some of the kids stuck with me were throwing food bags at me — I stormed out and lost my job. I took a year off and, after subbing and working at Dillard’s, which I hated, took a job as student aide in a middle school room of emotionally disabled kids who took pleasure in spiting me. Then, believe it or not, I got another teaching job, which started okay but, after two years, left me knowing I was done, emotionally depleted. I had nothing to give those kids.

I worked at Walmart for four years.

And now I’ve retired.

I walked up Granite Mountain yesterday. I was smiling as I hiked, smiling past the hurt in my hips and thighs, and past the hurt in my soul. I was smiling because I remembered Nora and Emily and Miguel and the other good kids.

AA’s Ninth Step Promises say, “We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.”

If “dark and melancholic” colors most of what you remember, colors it enough to headline the memory, what do you do with the good memories? I guess you let them be there, like little candles lighting your way through the gloom. Because without them you wouldn’t be able to see at all.

Peter Jackson Makes Me Lord of My Couch with Beatles Chronicle

It was cold up there, but you could hear the magic (photo from variety.com). Get Back is showing on the Disney channel.

Odd, just how into it my wife was watching Get Back, three-part documentary of the recording sessions leading up to and including the Let It Be rooftop concert in 1969. Usually, she and I diverge when it comes to music. She disdains my old CD collection and would prefer we made playlists and used our cell phones to hear them in the car or in the house. This has proved beyond the capabilities of this self-admitted techno-dunce. When I slip a Beatles CD into the player of my SUV, she tells me to take it out. “I’ve heard it a million times.” White Album. Abbey Road. Greatest hits compilations. Doesn’t matter. Take it out.

But she was even more avid than I in attending to every detail of this exhaustive video. And I couldn’t agree more with her end comment, after the rooftop concert itself, about how sad it was that this final burst of exuberance should be followed by the Beatles’ parting of ways.

How in heavens is it that Peter Jackson, architect of the CGI orgy of the Lord of the Rings films, with all those vast mythical mountain-scapes and splendid otherworldly heroes and grisly lumpen villain-creatures, would emerge with this sturdy, tireless reality show? He had to burrow through 57 hours of video, many more than that of audio, all collecting dust in London, before he sifted it down to this remarkable document.

Jackson has been saying that his big takeaway, the big surprise for him, when he started studying this arcana, was how happy were Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr to be playing together. And let’s not forget Billy Preston, whom we may call for these purposes the fifth Beatle, a man who honored the occasion by playing so seamlessly you can’t imagine the numbers without his gospel-trained presence.

A coffee table book called Rock Dreams, by Guy Peelaert and Nik Cohn, which came out in 1973, celebrated public imaginings about the whims and motivations of rock stars. These myths coalesce into illustrations more from the realm of archetype and fantasy than from any proved or recorded event. Conditioned by what I thought about the Beatles, I began watching Get Back. The main fallacy to bite the dust: the Beatles would not be shown getting along.

Rock Dreams cover (photo from ebay.com)

Mostly, I found that not to be the case. To whatever extent they did squabble, it was not the way I’d figured. I’d imagined John Lennon, gothy Yoko ever in tow, would be nasty and uncooperative. But here he is, light-hearted and obliging, and funny as hell! Weirdly for me, it’s “sweet, cuddly” Paul (quotes mine) who, in his effort to steer song making, seems, if unwittingly, to be picking fights. And not with John but with George, who’s only reacting to Paul’s ideas with ideas of his own, but his feedback gets Paul on his heels, so Paul argues back, defending his authority, to the point where George says fuck it and leaves the makeshift studio, and stays AWOL for days.

George emerges as a genuine talent, the song maker in his own right, nowhere more than when he sings his own “For You Blue,” a lighthearted country blues influenced by a sojourn with Dylan in America (so says Wikipedia) and given a signature lilt and swing by John Lennon’s lap steel guitar. Like the whimsical “Honey Pie,” “For You Blue” reminds me of a 1920s tune. For me, this was when the sessions gelled.

I’ve always been a George guy. I took special pleasure when, during the rooftop concert, Harrison stepped out and provided the killer licks to what I regard as a fine latter-day Beatles song, “One After 909,” a straight-out rocker penned by Lennon and McCartney. All the players are playing as one, raucous and loud, delighting most of the surprised citizens (if not one uptight bobby) in the chill of an impromptu London day. You feel the tides of history wash ashore onto this roof. These are the same lads who honed their sound amidst the switchblades and cigarette smoke of Hamburg. You feel the whole blast of genius and sweat, the labor of love.

And you feel the ache of what’s to come.

We had old friends over last night for New Year’s Eve, Barb and I having collaborated on a dinner of prime rib and seizing the chance to fatten some of the local populace (instead of just ourselves) with her Christmas cookies, which should be illegal, like narcotics. Our friends joined us to watch the last segment of the third part of Get Back. Seeing the Beatles on that rooftop getting a chance to play not for screeching teens but for normal people, most of them down on the street, I realized how much had been denied them by fate. The Beatles opened the door for everybody; the world would never be the same. But the Rolling Stones took the stage. McCartney took the stage. The Beatles were done. There were the boys from Liverpool, in their element, rocking out like the great bar band they were underneath the monkey suits and hysterical adulation. Seeing this underscored the bitterness of knowing we would have them no more. But it also underscored my happiness in having had them, and had them at this moment, which was better than I knew.

New Year’s Resolution: love the moments you get when you get them. For they become the stuff of dreams.

Exchange program: Brits versus Yanks. And guess who wins.

Manchin is sinking poor Biden. Pelosi’s a curvaceous relic. The Dems need new blood. But just watch the likes of Beto O’Rourke blow it come 2024. Trump yet rules a perverted GOP. I’m sinking into unadulterated hermitage as the world descends into a miasma of its own making.

Fuck everything. I’ve stopped caring. The world can go piss up a rope.

You want to know what I’m on about these days? I’ll tell you.

The only thing that concerns me anymore is: Why does every new movie that comes out have to have Benedict Cumberbatch in it?

Why, and how, have the British taken over movies and TV in the U.S.?

The great Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential (1997). Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images.

I read that Samuel L. Jackson trashed Idris Elba for masquerading as American in some role, when lots of work-hungry African Americans could’ve played the part and used the paycheck. Hmm, I don’t know about that. Elba’s Stringer Bell in The Wire gave us a thug-life businessman both chilling and sympathetic, with an impeccable accent. He’s earned his cred as an honorary American.

The English are all honorary Americans. It goes beyond our sacred bond fighting World War II as one. They know us; they get us.

Better, I think, than we get them. Even Robin Williams’s ingenious laugh riot, Mrs. Doubtfire, demanded a moment in the script in which Pierce Brosnan could question the “muddled” accent. One wonders whether Ben Affleck was told to talk as he normally does rather than risk a false accent in Shakespeare in Love.

Kate Winslet crushed it as a beer-guzzling Pennsylvania cop in Mare of Easttown. Won an Emmy for it. I’ll still always think of her as the saucy middle sister in Sense and Sensibility, a sweet, ringleted little beauty tragically in love with Willoughby. I guess I prefer to think of her that way than as this blowsy, stouter version. But I’ve got to hand it to her. She plays American seamlessly. She already did it in that depressing Reservation Road.

Who do we have that can imitate them? The main one that comes to mind is of course Lady Meryl. Meryl Streep does English as well as any other accents she tries. I believe her imperious Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady as much as I believe her traumatized Polish Holocaust survivor in Sophie’s Choice.

And there are others.

A few years ago, I was on the phone with my English cousin, Becky, who was born in Yorkshire and now lives in Wiltshire. She hadn’t known that John Lithgow, an American, had played Winston Churchill in The Crown. She had quite enjoyed his performance. I found myself proud, as an American, to hear her praise of Lithgow’s authenticity, as though our guys had turned the tables.

Lithgow is one of those exceptions. He gave us a credible English-accented heavy in the Stallone action vehicle Cliffhanger.

John Lithgow as a believable, grumbling Winston Churchill in The Crown. Photo courtesy of theguardian.com.

Once, when I was speaking to Becky’s daughter, Laura, and airing this hypothesis that we do them less well than they do us, I could think only of Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love as an exception. Laura said Renee Zellweger could have fooled her in Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Maybe it’s more even than I’d thought.

But mostly I still feel like it goes the other way.

Benedict Cumberbatch has planted his flag here. The word “ubiquity” should have a thumbnail mug shot of him in the dictionary. I found The Power of the Dog a bit less dreary than The Piano, an earlier Jane Campion work, but he radiated a malevolent energy that worked, and, however uncomfortable his character was to watch, I have to admit he talked good cowboy.

I’m still rooting for Americans to show our brethren across the Atlantic we’ve got the chops. I can’t wait to see Spencer, in which Kristen Stewart – after months of dialogue coaching, says a New Yorker profile – assays Lady Di. Maybe it takes the most unlikely candidate to meet the cross-cultural challenge. It’s getting good reviews. I never would have thought of her doing English.

History makes them getting us easier.

We Americans have corrupted the King’s and Queen’s English to fit our idiosyncratic regional dispositions as our nation grew. It seems easy for the British to deconstruct that bastardization and mouth the perversions themselves. One has only to memorize certain differences in enunciation of vowels, pronunciation of dentals, accenting of syllables during questions.

Kate Winslet earned an Emmy as a Rolling Rock guzzling Pennsylvania cop in Mare of Easttown. Photo courtesy of theguardian.com.

But we find it hard to speak English-English. Stereotypes have instructed us falsely. All Brits aren’t plummy Terry Thomas or David Niven. We might try to talk British, but we miss whether we’re channeling a haughty costume drama or a Guy Ritchie gangster flick. There’s Alan Rickman or Laurence Olivier declaiming from the Shakespearean stage, but then there’s also some working-class thug from Snatch or Peaky Blinders.

When I was in England, a guy there said the vast spread of regional dialects was greater there than in the U.S. Hard to believe considering the differences among Alabama and Maine and Valley Girl California. But maybe he’s right.

The British nail American through American specifics, American regionality. I believed Daniel Craig in Knives Out as a highbrow Southern sleuth intellectual. It didn’t seem too much work for him to learn the elocution.

In Michael Mann’s The Insider, a 1999 Al Pacino vehicle nobody saw, Michael Gambon and Christopher Plummer impeccably rendered American roles.

Renee Zellweger as the addled Bridget Jones, a role as beloved among English as among American audiences. Photo from IMDb gallery.

Come to that, and lest I forget, that film has Russell Crowe, an Australian, as the heroic, nervous American whistle blower, in a brilliant bit of acting.

But of course. He’s made a career doing us. He killed it as the violent but essentially good-hearted cop in L.A. Confidential. He absorbed and became Richie Roberts, Newark detective chasing Denzel’s crime lord in American Gangster. I could see Russell Crowe in anything.

But my favorite Russell Crowe movie remains the British naval adventure Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a Peter Weir film as much about friendship as about patriotic duty. Crowe spoke in a resoundingly British accent for that role, probably having to elide some of his Aussie speaking style. It’s a great, heroic movie.

At the end of the day, the British message and the American one are the same. Honor is honor on both sides of the ocean.

No matter how you pronounce it.

Get yer mitts offa my library

I see a legacy of literacy; my wife sees dust mites. I see a seized opportunity for redemption after a failed Ivy League education; she sees a clutter symptomatic of general malaise, even laziness.

I love the angry socialism of Alan Sillitoe (on top). “The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller” is even better than the eponymous short story. Used this in class to little avail.

“Get rid of books you don’t want. And get off your ass and clean this place.”

Okay, maybe the essays of Addison and Steele I got at a library rummage sale never will fall under my gaze. A few tattered tomes, I guess I can lose.

But the rest? Forget it.

My library may not mean anything to her, but it means a lot to me, if nothing more than a fulcrum around which to wonder about my life.

My library is “eclectic,” to put it mildly. The collected writings of the Marquis de Sade sit not far from my collection of Bibles. I paid $53 for the former and have barely cracked it. I have made close study of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, and the Beatitudes in my KJV. I like to think this establishes me as more prone to rectitude than to wickedness.

One of my two bookcases. Part of my happy clutter. All right, all right, photo’s a little fuzzy. What do I look like, Annie Liebowitz?

I’m all over the place. Yes, I read religion. But I’ve also got my nose stuck in Lewis Carroll, as well as a book of poems by Gary Snyder that Amazon just mailed me.

I hang out in my library – also known as my office. It’s where I write. Where I sit and read the four online journals I subscribe to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic. Soon to be out of pocket four grand for eye bag surgery, I know parking oneself behind a computer for hours on end, exposing one’s eyeballs to electronic rays, is the worst culprit. So I can’t say everything I do in my office has had a salutary effect.

I’ve heard paper reading is easier on the eyes. So there’s that.

My father’s Dickens collection, flanked by his two pirate’s head bookends, which weigh a ton.
Where I go to forget about everything, including what the hell I’m doing being a writer. Soon I’ll have another dog to hike with. Can’t wait.

Not as though my library is any great shakes. Some libraries cover entire walls of huge rooms. Like that book wall of Lord Grantham, benign patriarch of Downton Abbey. (My God. You need that rolling ladder.) My collection is common, far from haughty. I know people whose every book has, upon an early empty page, the pressed stamp of a family crest or emblem. Such collections are hard back. My library consists of hard and soft covers in equal measure. When the soft covers get so dog eared and weakly bound they’re falling apart, I trash them. Had to do that with a Constance Garnett translation of Notes from Underground and one iteration of The Catcher in the Rye with its iconic red jacket, making sure I had sturdy replacements.

Upon my retirement, and my acceptance of the grim irony that a job in my sixties pushing a cart at Walmart was the stress-free apex in a lifetime of paid work, I’ve had ample time to mull the black absurdities. On walking meditations, anywhere from two to seven miles, I let myself consider the events and circumstances that shaped me. My father was a journalist and aspiring novelist. I entered into the drunken horse race of the “Gitlin kids,” all writers, thus wasting whole decades. Isn’t this, my library, this monument to books, a shrine to egotistical fruitlessness? My sister’s career as a loudmouth lesbian novelist, my brother’s career as a veritable sausage maker of books about sports, sitcoms, cartoons, and God knows what else, do not affect me other than in my capacity as ardent supporter. I don’t want their careers. I want my own, even if my winnings are ethereal. I’ve just written a good novel, though it could be a memoir. It’s about an adventure I took to save my emotionally disabled sister (not Lisa, the other one) from homelessness in Toledo. I’m trying to get an agent to read it. I dream that I will be the sperm cell among millions of competitors to impregnate the ovum of New York and thus produce the zygote of publication.

Who am I kidding? And why do I do this? Futility encircles me no matter how “pure” I imagine myself to be. So why not find other things to do with my time?

I guess I already sort of am doing that. I lift weights three times a week. (Stay tuned for a Gym Rat blog on bodybuilding routines for old guys.) I hike. I meditate. Barb and I will get another dog this spring; I will train that animal. I am an energetic house husband, stripping down to underwear and finding in vacuuming, mopping, and bathroom cleaning a spiritual benefit as well as killer workout. I’ve become not a bad cook. I’m thinking of taking a class at Yavapai Community College, either the one about Judaism or a drawing class. I watch MasterClass when I can talk myself into a reason. (I loved Scorsese on filmmaking, but I’ll never make a movie. The FBI crisis negotiator was good; I won’t have to get a gunman out of a bank, but I might have some angles on arguing with my wife about who cleans up after dinner.) I’m getting better at fixing and installing things around the house. Barb and I are traveling more now that I’m retired and she’s got one foot in retirement.

My brother Marty says I’m too serious. I really look it here. I like my new haircut though. Spent thirty clams at a barber who knows what she’s doing.

I don’t live in an intellectual bubble, and I don’t need to.

I sit in my library and wonder if this echo chamber of books – from the Beats to Victorian novelists to commercial suspense thrillers – mocks me, or rather inspires me. I guess it depends on the mood I’m in.

Did I paint myself into a corner? Or, through books and writing, find a vehicle for lifetime enrichment?

Wish I knew.

A Zen meditation: What I believe

I never got Steve Martin as a standup until one time, on The Tonight Show, he did a Paul Harvey style “What I Believe” routine. Patriotic music played in the background as, square jawed on the stage, Martin delivered one “I believe” statement after another, with graduating absurdity, until his testimonial devolved into straight-faced inanities, like “And I believe in the family – Mom and Dad and Grandma, and Uncle Tom, who waves his penis,” and “I believe that little green men are stealing my luggage at the airport,” until one saw the comedic point: a commentary on idiots masquerading as “real Americans.”

I pride myself on my educated opinions, but lately I’ve begun to associate my speculations with what cracked up Johnny Carson, and me and my dad sitting in the den, half a century ago.

I believe gasoline prices are higher now because of spite. I believe that the international petrochemical community got together to make gas cost Americans more because the big oil magnates would rather have as president Donald Trump, a man with no intention of curtailing them or favoring alternative energy sources, than face the clipping of their wings by a Democrat administration. In my scenario, Arab oil producers are on board with the barons of Tulsa and Houston. “Trump was giving blowjobs to oil sheikhs,” I tell my wife, who regards me as a benign madman and doesn’t much listen to me anyway. I don’t care. Though, like Bill Maher, I can’t prove it, on some level I just know it’s true.

Paul Krugman of The New York Times writes that gasoline prices “have risen because of developments on world markets, not anything happening here.” He would say that. He’s a leftist economist and that always motivates his writing. Fiscal prudence has its own meaning to him; he would have Biden make the social spending plan a five trillion dollar initiative. You take Krugman with a grain of salt. Democrats lost Virginia because people think they aren’t doing enough, he said. Elsewhere in the paper another writer says they lost because people feel they are trying to do too much.

In fact, nobody knows what they’re talking about anymore. Nobody knows the actual truth or factual basis of anything. Even the educated elite are swirling down the toilet of mass deception. Warring interpretations are the fact. The only fact.

We can go further back than Trump for this culture of obfuscation of empirical data, of facts. David Bowie, inspired by Andy Warhol, once told Playboy he was thinking of hiring a team of people to go around planting purely concocted stories to newspapers and magazines, serving notice the media are dupes, not drivers, in the world of public affairs, certainly the world of the arts. Disdain for deliverers of “facts” has always come from the left as well as right. Bowie’s contemplation has its cousin in the QAnon information silo.

Since I started writing this, the infrastructure bill, pared to one trillion dollars, has passed! Whoopee. Perhaps, amidst articles galore about the Democrats’ clear impotence in garnering rural white votes, Biden’s numbers will rise. What bothers me above all is that I’m starting not to care.

Hiking Oak Creek Canyon, you realize how much all of it doesn’t matter.

And yet I must believe that there is one harmonious America somewhere in the public consciousness, which transcends the uneasy stew of warring tribal flavors that seems to constitute what we’re being served.

Barb and I hiked Oak Creek Canyon recently, five miles over forest ablaze with autumnal leaves, fording ten creeks. Such places are our only hope. Whether you’re some gay art dealer from Manhattan or a Montana wheat farmer, it’s the same balancing act hopping from stone to stone without getting wet.

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, 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 Mt. 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.