Happy. For real.

Flanking a giggling Bob and Barb Gitlin, in the sleigh, are friends Glenn and Darcy Grovenstein. I met Darcy back when I was a teacher. All four of us got done dancing to The Cheektones at the Bird Cage then watched the cowboy boot drop on Whiskey Row. Happy New Year, y’all!

I may be weary, but I am happy, as the above photo will attest.

The drudgery of my final job before I retire can’t make a dent. In fact, this last chapter of working for a living might be a special seasoning.

I have a chance to reach out to others. The job makes me realize I have funds of hardbitten experience that have strengthened me.

Most folks who work Deli are or have been in some local rehab house, of which Prescott offers a plethora.

A new guy showed up after ten years in prison. I asked what he’d been in for.

“Armed robbery.”

This did not diminish or chill my liking him. He treats me with respect. He had to bicycle back to his rehab house through a snow blizzard the other day. Before he left he wanted to make sure he’d cleared away enough of the mess for me to close easily. The man has no car. And he was thinking of me.

Another guy hasn’t to my knowledge had a drug problem but was raised in a busted family and lives in a group home. I can’t tell if he’s socially tone deaf or autistic. He likes to talk more than work and is a little full of himself. In a loud voice he tried to boss me around and I blew up at him, shocking even myself with my stored anger. I had to apologize. I have a “legitimate issue,” sure. I think of myself as a grizzled dignitary among the meat slicers and chicken fryers. All this hulking kid sees is some doting old guy. Don’t get me started on young people’s lack of respect for their elders. Is it different among the Native Americans or in Japan, as I have heard? One wonders. But I got past that one and this young man and I peacefully coexist.

Lots of the addicts who get Deli jobs sample the gig a few weeks then say fuck it and go back out. One guy was Employee of the Month, mouthful of busted teeth testifying to a violent past (if not congenital disease). He went AWOL a few months ago, got wasted. I hear he’s moved to another town to do it all over again. Different rehab, if not his own apartment. Different job. I miss him. He treated me kindly and buttressed my spirit when I flailed for purchase at this physical job full of tasks foreign to me.

We might be losing Joey, who was promoted to Assistant Deli Manager, then bailed out. I saw this same thing happen at Walmart. Guys take boss jobs then tear the stripes off themselves, willingly busted back to grunt, bristling at the forms, extra unpaid hours, and general top-level bullshit. Joey took it further. Not only did he go AWOL, he gave his two weeks. But then I heard we don’t know yet. He might be allowed to straggle back in with his tail between his legs. Stay tuned.

We’d already just lost our top person, the Deli Manager. I find a special place in my heart for this Chino Valley hardass. I know the type. She had issues with everyone, and they with her. She barked orders too fast, with that earpiece stuck to her head so you didn’t know whether she was addressing you or someone across the store, then she’d change tunes to bark another directive over the top of the last one while you were already twisted in knots trying to do what she’d said to begin with. I found myself sympathetic. She suffered neck and back pain after a surgery. Even as she scolded me for letting a cut finger make me timid about cleaning slicers, Roxanne treated me respectfully. In a place failing to keep employees, I mean the quintessential revolving door, I stuck, I kept coming back. I don’t understand how the wells of compassion get filled. And that one runs both ways.

I’m still there, closing the store’s deli Sunday through Wednesday nights.

I remember Burroughs’ “spectral janitors coughing and spitting in the junk sick dawn” (apologies if an inexact quote, from Junky) or a Tom Waits number about “dawn’s early light,” alone, immersed in sinks of greasy trays, making sure the slicers gleam with Ecolab and paper towels, getting unsold chicken on trays for cold clamshell presentation next day. I work like a zealot, and I am smiling.

I seem to have stopped writing. Call this musing an aberration. I identify myself, without irony, as the night closer at the Safeway deli on White Spar. I don’t have to “be a writer.” I get out of the store at ten p.m. and feel completed.

Old ways die hard. I tell myself I will write the great American novel tomorrow.

But I never do (not that I could). I find myself of a morning drinking coffee, stroking my affectionate if meshuggah dog, watching any of a number of Taylor Sheridan TV shows on my fifty-five inch TV. Lately Mayor of Kingstown has held my interest. After Yellowstone and its related Western backstories, I’m enjoying the sooty ambience of this thing set in industrial Michigan, about a guy who makes deals inside and around a 20,000-inmate prison culture, with a rogues’ gallery of corrupt cops and gangsters.

So that is my life. I don’t have many more years to haggle over the terms of contentment.

Darcy, the friend pictured above, on the right, a superb writer and memoirist, asked why I didn’t write anymore. I said I was tired of revealing myself. I didn’t say what I felt deeper down. Where had writing got me? I’m recovering from some bitterness, yes. But overreaching the bitterness is a sort of growing amazement. When I stop recording my life and achieve some distance, I see that life for what it is. A funny movie this guy Bob Gitlin’s been thrust into. He didn’t write it. He woke up in it.

Have a Happy New Year.

May you awaken to your life smiling too.

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It’s all how you look at it

Being happy takes humility, and a special, wise kind of not-caring. I realize now happiness never had to do with wealth. Perhaps not even “success.”

The Columbia dropout living home in Cleveland sold hasps and screws at a downtown hardware store. Dad called it the first moment in my adult life.

In a few years he saw me banging a typewriter downstairs, an aimless journal. Said I needed a master’s in journalism.

By now the tortured Columbia B.A., after transient credits in Ohio, had been mailed. I quit the job, moved to Kent, ran up and down the highway from my graduate dorm to stay in shape. Earned a sheepskin from Kent State, spending all that hardware store money on tuition and lodging.

Enough time goes by, you achieve … evenness of spirit. I thank the Lord for what wisdom I may have accrued.

There wasn’t a job or gig in journalism I got that required that degree. I called this my trade for two decades. I won a Gold Award from the AFL-CIO for a feature on the grand old days of the union meatcutters when I ghostwrote The Voice of Local 880. Tried to specialize in freelancing celebrity profiles; pissed off a few famous people. Mostly worked for business-to-business magazines. Like Paperboard Packaging. The most money I ever made from writing was forty-one hundred clams from Roofing, Siding & Insulation for a feature on fraud and abuse in workers’ compensation claims. Some editor on staff at RSI said they actually made a forum out of my piece at a convention.

But I got tired of that grind. Got a teaching certificate (“Integrated Language Arts 7-12”) from Cleveland State. Moved to Arizona to beat my brains out on the second of two lifetime “white collar” occupations: high school English teacher. In my case, of militantly “at risk” students. After ten checkered years, this endeavor culminated in flames, a special kind of emotional torture based on my boredom with police work, which was what the job turned out to be.

I had a nervous breakdown wondering what I had amounted to.

I decided, the smoke having largely cleared, that one asset I had was physical stamina. Still needing to earn, I got a job stocking shelves at Walmart.

And now I work as a deli clerk at a local Safeway grocery. The job makes me remember past jobs I’ve had that were like this. Store clerk jobs.

What was wrong with selling bulk nails at Koller Bros. Hardware & Plumbing supplies on Prospect Avenue in my twenties? I enjoyed the flow of human traffic in and out the place. It included not just construction foremen and contractors but colorful rogues out of a Tom Waits song. One black wino who called me “moneybags” came in late, around four, while I was counting the day’s take from the cash register. Perfumed entertainers from the New Era Burlesk down the street flirted with me, though I was basically shy.

I think of this time as I go about my present rounds. Frequenting Safeway’s deli counter are plenty of middle-class folks, professional and comfortable, but also homeless people, people who are poor and have bad teeth and live in some of the seedier trailer parks nearby. It’s another snapshot of the world that fascinates and enlivens me. Working at age sixty-nine (I just might do this till I’m seventy) has kept me in the world, where I need to be. I get in trouble trying to find happiness in a room by myself.

‘Where did all the money go?’ Poring over accounts on her tablet. Where would I be without Barb?

It’ll be Thanksgiving, and I am thankful.

I’m thankful for:

My wife, who’s put up with me for thirty years, finding the courage to keep on despite my moods. I was spoiled in my youth by doting women who made me think I was special. The world teaches different. So does Barb, who tempers her sternness with much affection.

My new dog, well not so new anymore, who walks with me and greets me with love when I get home from work four nights a week, and attacks with great relish the cold cuts I add to her dog food. She provides unqualified devotion and gratitude. Where else do you get that? Why she wants to chew up twigs she finds on the ground befuddles and worries me, but we’re working on that.

My TV. Of late, every Sunday, after I joined Paramount+, it’s been delivering episodes of one of prolific writer Taylor Sheridan’s most recent products: Tulsa King. A bearded ugly-handsome Sylvester Stallone plays a mafia captain who, having kept his mouth shut twenty-five years inside, gets out and is given the consolation prize of free reign over the virgin territory of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Shades of Joe Pesci in Casino, only far more benign. Also – and this might sound heretical given what I’m reading and hearing, and my wife’s own denunciation – I thought Season 5 of The Crown was excellent. I have growing admiration for Dominic West, a British actor I first saw as a tough, rebellious Baltimore cop chasing drug gangsters and killers in The Wire, wielding an American accent. Here he’s got the plummy elocution and intellectual exactitude of Prince Charles. Actors playing the queen, her husband, and Diana all excel. In fact, Elizabeth Debicki as Lady Di is a special wonder, uncannily evoking this tragic figure. I didn’t care about the whole melodrama until I saw this show, though I know liberties were taken with chronicled fact.

My health. I work out three days a week with free weights and machines: chest and triceps, back and biceps, legs and shoulders. I’ve become a workout dork, watching instructive videos on YouTube hosted by bodybuilding legends. But I fit my clothes well and mostly like how I feel. Sure, I gimp a little mornings, and removing my wallet from the back pocket hasn’t cured the sciatica. But I’m lucky to have such vigorous health for an old codger.

I don’t hunt so I don’t use Scout to bring me back ducks I shot. I keep her around for entertainment. She never fails.

Books. I’m reading The Iliad. Ripping good war story by some Greek guy named Homer. A real testosterone-laced soap opera. The Robert Fagles translation makes it as readable as one of those Folger Edition Shakespeares I used in the classroom when I taught high school English.

I could go on, but effusiveness is not in my line.

God has blessed me with a life, a good life.

During this time of the year it is well for me to remember that.

Drunk on words: distilling literary whisky from the noise in my head

One of my favorite photos, from the Allen Ginsberg archive, is this post-WWII shot, in New York, of William Burroughs and young acolyte Jack Kerouac. (The Guardian)

Perhaps rationalizing the weirdness or impenetrability of his own writing, William S. Burroughs once said, “There is no possible subject for the writer other than what is at the forefront of his brain at the moment of writing.”

I wonder if Stephen King or James Lee Burke would buy that.

Rick Montanari, a Cleveland friend and published murder mystery writer I befriended back in Cleveland, used to tell me, “Just because you use a formula doesn’t mean you have to write formulaically.” I think he was trying to say I needed to shoehorn myself into a commercial structure to get to the next level of exposure. I would go down in flames and a smog of crack smoke.

I used to carry around, like an amulet, Ginsberg’s “First thought, best thought.”

As the years went by and I stood without victories, once a known byline, now stoned and forgotten, the Beat credo got to seem an excuse for sloppy writing. But if you want to read something shot through with what my father’s novelist friend Don Robertson called “a disciplined spontaneity,” read On the Road.

You must be spontaneous, even if you’ve got a farsighted plan.

John Updike claimed the most important rule to himself was not to forget the power of what that first draft may unearth.

Formatting, the craft of forcing your creation within the walls of an accessible presentation, is necessary, a good thing. Music is the study of form as it relates to sound; literature, the study of form as it relates to the symbols known as words; art, the study of form as it relates to shapes and color.

Not long after I started this blog I figured I might exhaust people writing over 1,200 words. I would strive, and do, to keep my postings at 800-950 words.

But, back to my original problem, what to write about? I sit around wondering. There is a war within.

A few candidates vie for attention.

Why do I work out? An exegesis on weight training at 69. Dumbbells and pullups, chest and triceps, back and biceps, legs and shoulders, the right ab workout. The lore and lessons of YouTube bodybuilder videos.

And who cares? One deflates at the elaborative examination of what might be a good idea. Do I give up too fast?

Wait, here’s another:

Who am I to assert an esoteric or advanced belief system? My mentors are not Heine or Kierkegaard but Howard Stern, whose memoir intoned that one must wipe one’s ass three times. Subsequently, on air, Howard said he needed to do it four (lest he with his aging colon trail shit smears to bed with his model wife). Now here I am religiously wiping four times because he said so. An essay on how slavishly attachment to the reckonings of a media star. Doing something because someone famous said so. Celebrity adulation as a form of craziness.

I have learned how to wipe my ass from Howard Stern. (Biography.com)

Naaah. The more I develop the idea the less I want to do it.

This is what you’re up against, the drag of your own reflection.

You must be dogged. Some writing projects I stuck with, determined. Unfortunately the driving force was an old, by now vanquished, insitence on sharing my angst with the world. But it did drive me into a mode of persistence. I sent a top editor at Farrar Straus Giroux the front end of a novel I’d written (an autobiographical work which I would disseminate on my own dime as At Risk under the pseudonym R.G. Philips, on Amazon Kindle). He praised my “masterful command” of humorous moments but said it wouldn’t make it in the commercial market. The book was about the comical horror show of my first year teaching. Not the first time anyone had that idea.

I would remember, perhaps even more achingly than the rejection, something that editor said in an interview not long after.

“There are far fewer slots for publication than there are writers. I wish more writers just wrote for the joy of writing. They can’t all be published.”

I cut meat and cheese at the Safeway deli counter and muse upon my writerly anonymity and how, though a steely realist, I seem to be doing just that, writing for the ostensible joy of writing. I’m not so sure I’m happy about it. I just can’t seem to stop doing it. I even try to represent writing to myself as an unnecessary torment, something I “don’t have to do anymore.” The suffering can now be over. I’ll just read and work out and watch TV and go to AA meetings and play with my dog.

But, even if it’s suffering, I find it’s part of what I am, so I still write, praying anybody reads what I write, and as ever warmed anybody does. I have a voice and have accrued some hard-fought wisdom I need to share. Or maybe I just like the wordplay, riding thought’s current to see where it takes me. I get drunk on the whisky of what I distill from the riot of the mind.

Lest I sound suspiciously humble and pure, I must admit I haven’t shed my competitive resentment. I didn’t even read the latest Poets & Writers. I don’t give a fuck what hotshot rose through the incestuous ranks of MFA programs to get noticed. I riffled it on the toilet to see if there were any photos of comely, sweater-clad young ingenues basking in the glow of publication.

It’s hopeless.

But that’s okay. Something to write about.

Outlaw Country West cruise puts some giddyup back in my system

Despite making a total idiot out of myself trying to manage snorkeling gear and almost drowning near the Cabo San Lucas shore, and having Steve Earle tell me my haiku was lame, I had a great vacation on the Outlaw Country West Cruise.

Dave Alvin and his tireless female drummer

Takeaway as per the above: snorkeling’s not my thing, and if I’m not a musician I have no business showing up at a songwriting workshop.

But I wasn’t fazed.

Let’s take screwup number one first. I couldn’t figure out the snorkeling gear and had a panic moment over immersing myself and, I thought, choking to death, so, sloshing around in the ocean, tore off fins and goggles and at this point was borne violently into rocks. I reached for them clutching for purchase, fearing the undertow would bear me back into the sea to die hilariously before a bunch of partying Mexicans on the beach. My hands and wrists and leg were bleeding. I near froze to death waiting for the Mexican guy to come pick me and my wife (blissfully shorkeling) up in his boat and end this outing. But by the time I got back to the cruise ship and our stateroom, and lay beside my wife, I found myself saying, “It’s funny, but even after making a total dork out of myself in front of all those poeple, I’m exhilarated anyway. The whole day was an adrenaline arc.” And I meant it. I felt good. And I picked up some color.

Iffy proposition number two: Barb meant well, sprang the secret that she’d got this humble blogger and smalltime self-published novelist the birthday present (within the overall gift of the cruise) of enrolling me in country star Steve Earle’s songwriting workshop. I protested my lack of credentials but it was already paid for, no refunds, so what could I do? I was curious, figuring it’d be fruitful much as watching Scorsese’s MasterClass on film making was. I will never make movies; I don’t write songs. But I went, and listened to this loquacious and erudite former crackhead and former cameo star on The Wire, architect of many good songs from the rebel side of the country track, share his experience and advice on two successive meetings of the workshop. He made us all write haikus. On the second day he let us read them. Mine he dismissed as achieving nothing more than the 5-7-5 line by line syllable count. Not that mine was the only one eliciting his boredom or harsh critique. What was I doing here? Three people who are musicians got the spotlight at the end, when they had their songs played. One of them Earle pronounced, quite rightly, “gorgeous.” When the thing finally disbanded I trudged to the Garden Cafe, one deck above our eleventh floor room (we took all our meals there but for a few) to soothe myself with a cup of coffee. I felt only a little bruised. I even found myself smiling, in a good mood!

Cabo shoreline, shot from the boat

Maybe at the advanced age of 69, I am learning humility.

The whole cruise, as I say, was my birthday present. Barb organized and paid for it all. It all started when she told her boss I love Outlaw Country, a Sirius/XM channel, and her boss said we should go on this cruise. We’d known nothing about it. There have been several Outlaw Country cruises, most setting off from Florida, one out of New Orleans. This one, the Outlaw Country West cruise, melded L.A. cowpunk and (seemingly) outright punk rock with the channel’s signature edgy noncommercial country brand. An oil-and-water mix? What was Social Distortion doing there, other than the  fact of their serviceable cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”? But I liked Social Distortion, who come blaring at you like the Ramones only angrier, all buzzsaw guitar and angst, beret-clad bull-necked lead singer tattooed up to here never letting up. I loved the rockabilly-haircut lead guitar, who provided just the right raveup culminations.

Barb at lunch with me in Cabo

You spent your days and evenings and nights on the Norwegian Cruise Lines ship going to shows, whether poolside open-air gigs (and mostly it was chilly!) or any number of inside venues. Tough cowboy-hatted growler Dave Alvin was perhaps my wife’s and my favorite act, and that’s saying a lot; I’d been fascinated by him since I saw him on an episode of Justified playing himself doing a bar band set. Songster-poet Steve Earle gruffly serenaded us, hitting notes of sensitivity such as Tom Waits can reach. Los Lobos, that fine meld of country and barrio roots, knocked everybody out; there’s more to them than their cover of “La Bamba” and that beautiful guitar-and-vocal number that starts off Dennis Hopper’s gang movie Colors. We fell in love with Lucinda Williams and her plaintive and pointed and oh so simple poetic anthems. I thought Elizabeth Cook, world’s sexiest DJ (I love her “Apron Strings” show), came off better, and was better heard, playing with her guys in an acoustic set than she’d done full electric and getting drowned out. We dug rockabilly outfits like Deke Dickerson and the Whippersnappers, who got me singing along to “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke”; and James Intveld, who recycled Buck Owens’s “They Call Me a Playboy” as well as Dwight Yoakam did some years ago, which hipped me to the song.

The event’s banner, hung at the Stardust, an acoustically perfect auditorium where we heard Dave Alvin, Elizabeth Cook, and others

The ship docked twice in Mexico. First was the southern part of the Baja Peninsula, Cabo San Lucas. Many cruise veterans stayed on the boat. We novices got off. For the most part we were set upon by hustlers looking to take your money. After getting ripped off for a taxi ride to a beach, we had a nice lunch at the quay, to me the high point of the day. A fight with my wife led to my agreeing to a second beach outing, where I almost killed myself (see above). But there are no hard feelings. The second docking point was Ensenada, where we also disembarked but this time had the good sense to just walk around. We got lucky and ran into a former Californian who now lived back here, and showed us around the town, and advised us to buy that bottle of Kahlua in a grocery store rather than get ripped off on the strip. We needed something for the dog sitter, but would discover he doesn’t drink!

After five days of hectic and noisy music listening, and climbing up and down the ship levels, including to the onboard gym, where I had two brilliant weights workouts, we were ready for it to be over. Finally, back in Los Angeles, we got the courtesy shuttle to the hotel we’d stayed at, pulled our baggage into the garage there, got back in the SUV which needed oil and coolant on this trip, and drove the seven hours back to Prescott. We made it to where we’d dumped off our beloved Scout and collected her from the trainer fellow who’d agreed to save our ass and look after her. Scout had a houseful of dogs to romp with, but she was glad to see us. Back to the old rhythm.

Pure bliss. Lunch in Cabo.

All of us are catching our breath, me and Barb in two-step time. We’re not sure we want to go on a cruise ever again, but we sure had a good time on this one.

Love those Williams woods

The guy who owned this motorhome before me was six five and modified everything to be tall. I sat inside like a munchkin, on a pillow on the banquette beside the eating table, shoulders strained, wrists poised over keypad as I considered adding words to the blank screen on my laptop.

The piney, primeval forest around Williams has more appeal to me than gazing into the maw of the Grand Canyon.

I hadn’t blogged in many a week. A month?

Plenty of time now. I was dry camped, boondocked, along White Horse Lake, eighteen miles from Williams. No internet connection, but I could write. And did.

If the PC ran out of juice I toggled a switch on the control panel to run the generator, introducing the rumbling sound of modernity to this wilderness. I also turned it on to make drip coffee or use the microwave or charge my cell phone.

The formal, managed White Horse campground, with latrines and metal fire grates, was closed for the season. I’d have paid for the amenities. But there’s something to be said for learning not to be apprehensive about shitting in your own toilet. Having drained my black tank as of this writing, I can report a most unlikely locus of personal gratification. Another challenge conquered for this RV novice.

I’d almost lost my teeth juddering over the washboard road leading from Route 40 to get here. Almost twenty miles of hell and horror for dog and RV. And your trusty blogger.

She whined from the base of the bed, and I hoisted her up there to sleep with me. A great, warm sleep companion. She liked it up there.

When I finally pulled onto the bare stretch of grassed earth I chose to camp on, I saw that the sickening shatter I’d heard above the roar of the laboring behemoth – a twenty-five-foot 2009 Ford Ranger, emblazoned “Tioga” – was the fire extinguisher pulled free of its feckless wall clip and clattered to the floor. And the big, mirrored closet door in back had sheared off its hinges and smashed to the tile.

I sorted the wreckage (fix that door later), made a whopping great dinner of steak and beans, garnished my dog’s kibble with steak, and walked Scout up and down the gravel and dirt paths, even into the pastures. I would next day realize I could take her off the leash. She romped but always came back, never left my sight.

I’d come here to rusticate, to meditate, primed for precisely this trip. Even reread Travels with Charley.

I lay in bed that first night trying to read “The Short, Happy Life of Frances Macomber.” I could see how Hemingway’s writerly credo “Use the pain” fueled this brutal inspection of a diseased marriage, spotlighting Papa’s obsession with machismo and cowardice. Why would somebody pride himself on going out to kill a lion? You don’t eat a lion, do you? I went back to James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, a masterpiece of phrasing and insight.

The woods gave onto a cow pasture, beyond which I could make out the White Horse Lake Campground, closed for the season.

I walked Scout for the last time that night, me in sweatpants and sheepskin moccasins and knit hat, across a moonlit field giving onto the pasture in the distance where we’d seen cattle graze three hours earlier. Now, in the gloaming, I couldn’t tell if the cattle were still out there. It occurred to me in the vast hush and cold: this was precisely what I’d come here for.

I did a lot of reading. My second full day there, on a pleasant day in the sixties and sunny, I read Baldwin, a corner of which you can see lower right. I put my coffee cup on the obliging log too. Scout played around outside while I sat thus in my camp chair, loving this moment, and this trip, and the book, and, yes, my dog.

Scout whined, tail up.

“What is it, girl?” My voice a mild startle in the pristine chill and vastness.

Something was out there, some kind of animal. I could make out nothing. Maybe she smelled something, some kind of scent or spoor.

That night, wearing sweatpants, sweat socks, sweater, and knit hat, all windows closed, I slept well, a dreamless sleep like Kerouac talks about in The Dharma Bums. When I woke I figured out how to push the thermostat from cool to warm. I did this now, punctuating my scramble into jeans and hikers and sweater and flannel shirt and sweatshirt. The dog whined at the heat blasting out the low grates; I turned the heat back off. No matter. She and I’d slept well amidst my jumble of swaddling blankets, and the day would warm to near seventy.

That’s right. I slept with my dog. If I broke some training protocol, fuck it.

Mostly we just walked up and down this road. The only other people hereabouts this time of year are deer hunters, and sometimes some guy in camos would rumble down the road, disrupting my silent rustication, in his jeep or truck.

I’d crashed at eight. I must have been in bed ten hours. I’d been afraid I’d wake up at two thirty, with nothing but my racing thoughts and worries, about work, about marriage, about life.

The risen sun somehow a heartening affirmation, I made breakfast, frying bacon over steak grease from last night. Garnished her kibble with bacon. I had bacon with a plate of microwaved leftover beans in tomato sauce and two pieces of brioche bread I’d got a loaf of at Walmart that’s a little sweet and cakey and whose only problem was I’d refrigerated the butter but I jammed icy butter shards onto the bread and folded it over and it was good anyway. (I’d forgot to bring eggs. And syrup; the Eggos would return to Prescott.) Cup after microwaved cup of coffee from the pot I’d made the day before upon arriving.

Took Scout for a walk up the road and back, shots from deer rifles muffled only slightly by pine vastness. Mostly we strolled in silence, Scout stiffening and lurching for forest at either side of the crunching stone road. I looked, saw nothing moving. I had seen a few young deer scampering about nearby on the drive in, but no animals the rest of my stay but cows in the nearby field.

I’m told to smile more in photos and I did here, and looking at it now I’m not so sure I was forcing it. Maybe a little. I can look too damn grim.

We stayed two days, me and the dog. After Saturday morning breakfast I battened down the hatches and pulled up anchor.

Saw a sign directing me to Williams instead of back to Route 40, and took it. But for a few washboard sections rutted by rains and utterly unpaved, where you slow it up to 10 mph, it was smooth. When I hit the asphalt road leading to my favorite little tourist town, rustic Williams, hard by the Canyon, I knew I’d be back.

I had found my way.

My trusty RV stood up to the rigors of a bum steer from GPS. Got some cleanup and repairs to do, but she’ll be up for many more adventures, God willing.

A Jewish New Year musing

I will go to temple next week on the Day of Atonement. It’s the least I can do to keep my hand in as a Jew. (Photo from Depositphotos)

It’s Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. How will I freshen my life in the new year? How sweeten the lives of others?

I try to follow precepts of the Torah, be a mensch, a decent hearted guy, slow to anger. I listen to people.

I just got off the phone with my sister, whom I saved from the streets, about which adventure in Ohio I wrote a journal I decided is unpublishable. By the sound of it, she has surmounted her emotional handicaps and is making the most of living in a group home in Toledo. I was mid-babble when she cut me off; her bus had got her back. “It’s okay. We’ll talk later,” I said. “I just wanted to hear your voice. You sound good!” I smiled as I got off.

Daily challenges abound, in all their attendant absurdity. I feel like my life has spun out of control, yet I am at the hub of it, watching it spin about me. Age has even helped me see it as funny.

I sit on my deck with a Christian evangelist who fetishizes Jews. There’s something in Isaiah or maybe Revelations where we’re going to get right and accept Christ and then be worth a damn. I suppose I could casually mention when he brings his dog over to play with my dog that it’s the Jewish New Year and what does he think of that? But he’ll start talking about messianic Judaism, and I don’t want to go there. I’m not a very pious Jew, but I have determined to go to temple on Yom Kippur. I have much to account for.

I started this blog announcing I’d shoot my mouth off about whatever I damn well pleased. Well let’s talk about God.

What am I doing now?

I’m all about making things right with God before I die.

I’m not trying to sound morbid or self-pitying. I mean it. I believe God put me on this earth to try to help others. You have to love everybody. Ram Dass said there are no exceptions.

So this would include not only Nina, my little sister, but the testy, muttering Mexican they hired in Deli. I can’t tell if he means it when he compliments my attitude. He seems secretly and inwardly sort of violent; I think they call this passive aggressive. He talks to himself back there in the kitchen. I hear epithets. I call back from the upfront deli counter, “You talking to me?” He laughs through the partition, says no, “I talk to whoever’s listening.” His mouth keeps him company; I’ve become silent, like a shattered gong.

His is the barely managed violence of the uneducated, who live on the fringe, and to whom life has not been particularly kind, consigning them to jobs such as the one he has, elbow deep in chicken grease and trying to making time with the female customers. Takes long breaks and dumps the work on me. This was the best they could get. Three people have quit Deli. It’s true. People don’t want to work.

I wish I had my own life sometimes. I put up with people I wish I didn’t have to know.

This applies to the Biden-hating character I spend time with who brings his dog. But it gets complicated.

On some level, I like him. An idled commercial airline pilot, on disability, he wonders about his undiagnosable fatigue-producing condition. Seeing me with his dog is what he does, how he at least gets out of the house. I said it’d be cool if, when he got the energy back, he could take me up in a single-engine plane. He seemed pleased, wants to do it. In some way, he and I are best friends! I don’t see many people, don’t make kneejerk “How ya doin’?” phone calls. I see this guy. I’m glad to keep him company.

I joined a Ram Dass memorial and celebration group on Facebook and was glad, when I posted a memory of this spiritual leader, that I got such friendly response. (Photo from San Francisco Chronicle)

Life is fraught with contradiction. I can’t figure it all out.

But God has given me wisdom. That nice girl, the young Safeway employee I seem to have befriended, a top high school student, came in on her day off with a boy in tow. She found me at the rotisserie chicken table.

“And who’s this?”

“My boyfriend,” she said through her braces.

I shook his hand.

“Is he smart in school too?”

While he was laughing and mumbling something that did not sound resoundingly in the affirmative, she said, “Yeah, he is.”

“Good. I figured you wouldn’t be going out with some dope. Brainiac that you are … oh, sorry, probably some kinda insult.” I reiterated what I’d said days before. “One twenty-hour-a-week job is enough for you. The rest of your time you should spend on study. And going on dates!” I glanced at the boy. They laughed. “Hey, I better get back there. Deli’s understaffed, everybody’s new. I’m gonna get fired if I don’t hold things together. I close.”

I found myself smiling rest of shift. This girl warms and amuses me. I’m glad I encouraged her to go to college. In Jewish terms, I’m “doing a mitzvah,” performing a conscious act of empathy or kindness.

And she’s doing one in return, giving time to an aging man who can get a little lonely. And wonder what he’s doing to redeem himself.

An Elder Confronts Himself

I have come to believe you’re only as sick as your inability to keep your secrets. Now that would be perverting an old AA saying, “You’re only as sick as your secrets,” but I have long suspected I’m a pervert, so I stand by my statement.

I need a shave, but I can’t remember when I’ve felt better about myself.

I have made it a point in this blog to confess everything, only to discover that didn’t create the best blogs. The best blogs offered some point of connection or comfort or amusement to the reader, and they may not and indeed probably didn’t have as their narrative fulcrum some wincing incident from my past, which I believed required a full going-over not only by me but the world for some hoary lesson to be learned and the menace dispelled from our midst.

Only trouble is, it’s my midst. Nobody else’s. Nobody cared to know about my beloved shitshows. And if that’s the kind of writer I was, nobody else wanted to be dragged into the kind of spotlight I had in mind.

I wrote a memoir, really an extended journal, about a suffering sister, someone I love, reeling under the effects of emotional unbalance. I thought I’d bring it to publication, albeit self-publication. Ego driven, I intended to create my own little moment of fame. Then my sister said she wanted to see it. I balked. But why? I called a friend, who’d seen the thing. I’d already sent it to a discerning Facebook friend.

I suddenly knew the book was stillborn. I would never get it out there and be a sneaky asshole, and I knew I didn’t want Nina to see it. It had always had value only as an exercise for myself.

And rest in peace. I’ll save the printouts to start campfires. The big news is Nina’s better now, the family is grateful for the group home and the guardian. I was able to help Nina, and that’s the only takeaway I need.

There’ve been repercussions for me as well as my sister. After the five-week adventure in Toledo “retired” me from Walmart, a year of not working yielded to the realization I needed to go back to work. My money situation had never recovered from putting a (fairly ineffective) plastic surgery on my Visa. Walmart didn’t want me. That was okay. This recovered teacher intended no further dealings with teens, so forget about subbing. Store jobs abounded.

I’ve been at Safeway nearly two months. I have been “closing,” working till ten, shutting things down, swabbing and cleaning, getting the deli shiny, fresh, and antiseptic for the morning crew to mess up again. I like the job. I’m reliable. Not everybody else they’ve hired is. Drug and alcohol abuse has spurred AWOL situations. More pressure on old reliable here. I have to learn my way around the oven and hot oil fryer. I get tired. I’ll be sixty-nine soon.

The job has made me tougher. I have to be. My boss is tough. Thick skin can be learned at an advanced age. I can’t leave; I have to adapt.

My Safeway accoutrements: name badge, ball cap, safety knife, Sharpie

Rebukes alchemize into challenges. I will learn to fry chicken better, to bake trays of Traditional and Mango Habanero. I scurry about like a coolie, bend over a sink washing trays till my back hurts. I get home so beat and footsore I need Epsom salt baths before going to sleep.

I was telling a sympathetic manager, “Maybe there was a time when you could just go get ‘some job’ where you didn’t have to do much, you could skate. But with people sitting home and not wanting to work, and workplaces understaffed, those gigs don’t exist.” Unconscionably devised harder jobs are a product of our consultant-managed corporate culture, even in union shops.

But I feel useful. And not just as a guy who cuts ham and cheese.

I learned the name of a sweet girl who has the title of courtesy clerk. She cleans bathrooms and sweeps around, maybe wrangles carts.

“Did you go to PHS?” I asked. She swept around me as I was eating in the break room. I would have liked to teach at Prescott High School but wasn’t so lucky.

“I go there now!”

“So you’re … seventeen? eighteen?”

“I’m gonna be seventeen.”

“My God, I didn’t realize …”

She worked twenty hours a week here, was planning to get another job to boot.

Concerned, I reverted to teacher mode. “Um … do you have any career ambitions, anything that might include college?”

“No.” She gave a little laugh.

I felt intrusive. “Ah that’s okay. Nobody does. It’s just some question you ask people.”

Last night, late, she approached me near the rotisserie chicken table. We got to talking again. She has a four-point in school. No, she wasn’t wild about her English class. What she loved was Tech Theater, dealing with the “backstage” details of putting on shows. I went into action again and suggested she not foreclose her options to the extent of putting such a passion behind her.

I drove home happy. Talking with this girl had made me feel like an elder, as I sometimes did when I was a teacher. I made many mistakes, but I had modicum of wisdom to impart.

I felt that way when I coached the young man who works deli with me. He wanted a promotion to assistant deli manager. I advised him on how to interview, how to convey just that right mix of humility and self-assurance.

He got the job. A victory, though nobody else had applied. The gal who runs deli is famously rough.

“You’re a boss now. If you don’t yell at me sometimes, I’ll be a little disappointed.”

I have become an elder. All this time I’ve been hashing over my past to vindicate myself, and I’ve been delivered into a situation of great karmic cleansing.

I suppose it was the same Gitlin wisdom and forbearance, inherited from my parents, that enabled me to do Nina some good.

How I almost killed myself at work

I came off the retirement couch to take a job at Safeway as deli clerk. I’ve been there a month and a half.

I’m no uglier than I was before. The finger looks okay.

It’s been a tough go.

In a last-ditch attempt to find me a role I wouldn’t fuck up, they anchored me into “closing,” a mostly 2 to 10 p.m. responsibility each of four successive evenings.

I took the challenge, and I’ve honed my skill, desperate as I am to keep this job, which I sorely need to solve a cash-flow problem. I am happy to report I have paid off my Visa. Now I have to save up the money to self-publish a memoir, unless the “disinterested” reader I’ve hired disheartens me by saying it’s a piece of shit. Hell, I might publish it anyway.

I liked working at Walmart and I like working at Safeway, probably Safeway a little more. I like the union shop, the culture of the place. It’s less depressing than the fluorescent cavern of that monolithic big-box icon I’d started at when my teaching career devolved into a shit show.

I worked there four straight days; I work at Safeway four straight days.

On either job, I’ve experienced great elation upon clocking out that fourth day.

But something happened a few Wednesdays ago that compromised my last-day elation. In a frenzy of trying to complete the murkily explained chores I had before me in order to close, I nicked the end of my ring finger. I was trying to clean a slicer. That sickening aftershock … and my fingertip gushed red. [Faint-hearted readers, including my wife: read no more.]

It was late. I was alone in Deli.

This being an “incident,” I should have told the night manager, but I was embarrassed.

I cut myself at 9 p.m. I wrapped the finger in paper towels and managed to open a first-aid kit. I went to front of store to get a cashier to put two band-aids on, one over the top of the wound, the other around the finger, and went back to work. When it started seeping again, I took new band-aids and sought the help of another cashier. I made jokes with the cashiers, trying to act jaunty.

I had considered going home, but I finished the job, even washing the final greasy pans and soup cans in water reddening with blood, finger aching. Not wanting to bother anyone, I managed to slide off the water-logged dressings and replace them with dry band-aids a few times, trying to get through all the greasy trays and racks and pans.

I clocked out at 10, as usual, proud of my perseverance.

Sometimes I sleep in another room, not wanting to wake my wife and too wired from working to crash. I’ll read myself to sleep on the guest bed or living room couch, usually head back to bed with Barb around dawn.

She was asleep when I got home that night and I wanted to keep it that way. I tiptoed into the bedroom, undressed and got into my pajamas, and crept silently to the other side of the house. In the guest bathroom I changed the dressing yet again. On the guest bed I lay down and tried to read and relax. But I’d rewrapped the finger so tightly I could not sleep; the crosswise tourniquet had cut off circulation. It hurt. Bad.

In the bathroom I unwrapped the dressing for the zillionth time and experienced a moment of mild horror. I’d torn off the thin flap of skin that had covered the wound. My fingertip spurted like the top of a volcano.

I tore off toilet tissues to cover the mess and ran to the kitchen, where I ripped paper towels off the roll.

And now I had to wake Barb and confess my mishap.

Had to endure her mutterings as to why I took such a job.

“Please, I don’t want to hear about it!” she kept saying as I tried to apprise her of the clinical details.

She got dressed and drove me to Yavapai Regional Medical Center, me still in pajamas, T-shirt, and slippers. Fortunately, I was the sole emergency room patient.

It was about 2 a.m. Thursday. The ER doc squeezed out the last spurts from my nicked fingertip and applied “medical super glue” to the tip. After a moment of intense pain, this stanched the flow.

He said the glue cap would fall off within a week and, upon my nervous querying, said there’d be no deformity.

He was right. To this day you’d have to look hard to see any flattening of the end of that finger.

The glue cap had already dropped off when, a few days later, I returned to the job. The workers’ comp claim I’d let the hospital file had gone through, and the tough broad who runs Deli straight-up told me I’d caused her some shit.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I blame nobody but myself. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

I looked over her shoulder while she cleaned the slicers and realized my fumbling timidity may have caused the accident. You have to know where the blade is. I’ve gotten good at cleaning slicers now.

I just got a raise! And she said the store was happy keeping me on the closing shift I said I liked. My situation had been precarious. They’d thought they might have to move me somewhere else or say goodbye to a guy that didn’t work out.

“You have gotten better. You kept coming back.”

She looked at me curiously but with admiration.

My therapist got me starting this blog years ago. She said it was a place I could record my “mythopoetic hero journey.”

I didn’t, and I don’t, see anything particularly heroic about my life. But I suppose there’s heroism here and there. Not a glamorous kind of heroism, more a prosaic kind of grit, the kind that usually dances with folly. I stagger on.

This photo has nothing to do with this blog post. I just love my dog. I garnished her breakfast kibble today with pan-roasted turkey. My dog eats good.

Gentleman of leisure? Not yet.

I now work at Safeway as a deli clerk. It’s hard for an old man. When I’m off, I lie in a bathtub full of scented Epsom salts. Smiling.

Why is this man smiling?

My supervisor is military and unforgiving, peppering me with rapid-fire questions about what I’ve done or not done. The younger version of me might have broke down and cried.

I was retired. For a year. Why am I doing this?

One, I have to pay down my Visa. I hate credit card debt. My accountant says it will “eat you alive.” I strive to remain uneaten. Two, I decided to save up the money to self-publish a book I wrote, inspired by a family crisis. I need the closure. Maybe my family does too. Unless they all sue me.

I shall work this job Sundays through Wednesdays, 3 to 10 p.m., for the foreseeable future. I’m a closer. I get out at the end of the whole store day. It’s so different from my Walmart shift of 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. Now that I’m up later maybe I’ll start having a life. You know, go to bars on weekends and see bands.

But for now the bigtime “fun” and “retirement” hang in abeyance. Maybe I will quit the job next summer. Or I might go all the way to my 70th birthday, when long-delayed Social Security benefit checks, swollen to more than healthy after a lifetime of putting my shoulder to the wheel, begin to arrive.

I’m inundated by the myriad tasks of grocery store deli clerk. The squishy-handed breading of chicken parts and dropping them into the fry basket. The waiting on customers up front needing ham and cheese and potato salad. The washing of trays and tureens in hot soapy water (forehead sweat mingling with the turbid suds) in an effort not to get caught short by the brutal round of new trays and tureens collecting grease and food sludge and needing washed.

Contemplating happiness in the midst of challenge. Hiking with my dog along the Riparian Preserve off Rt. 89 in Prescott.

I lost five pounds my first two days. My wife says I’m getting dangerously skinny. But I feel a weird elation, a celebration of extended physical vitality. I’ve eradicated the self-pity that wanted to rear its head when I took the job and realized I must accept tutelage from employees a third my age. I worried I might have to take shit from some kid I used to yell at for not doing his reading when I was a teacher. But the young people who’re there now are super nice, and thank God I don’t recognize anybody.

Meanwhile my mint-condition Ford Ranger 2008 motorhome sits in a lot in Chino Valley collecting cobwebs against the day when I retire for good. Then I shall become a man of leisure and tool around America with my charming wife and beloved puppy. Working this one last burst will make Lake Tahoe or Rocky Point or Utah all the more appealing. And I already know from a trip to Williams that Scout loves living out of the camper.

I’ve been blogging for years trying to get to the bottom of my angst, only to realize I’m happy. I don’t know why, other than I’m too tough to be otherwise. This life is a gift. Happiness is a heart thing. Once you see this, you can tell your noodging head to go piss up a rope. This has become part of my daily meditation. A theme that arises along with images of me not quite being there in knowing how to operate a chicken fryer, and being bawled out for it. I could tell the supervisor I went to Columbia but I don’t think it’d do much good.

Scout and I hiked this morning along monsoon-waterlogged Riparian Preserve, off 89 in Prescott. Dense with vegetation, this high-desert anomaly of a riverside stroll has exploded into a lush greenery where hikers get wet legs from unforeseen soggy ground, shoulders splashed from leaves as they brush by. My dog wanted to ford the raging river but had to settle for looping around the forest and glens, the gentle voice of an affectionate owner sounding in her flopping ears as she trotted beside him, an animal enjoying her life, as well as the company of a simple, hard-working old coot.

Back to my trusty, battered Subaru Forester, one happy dog.

A place where Dwight Yoakam and Tony Bennett can dance together

I’ve got near 18 years’ “uninterrupted sobriety,” meaning abstention from alcohol and drugs. Yet I still get high, as in thrill to music, the way I did when I made music a mainstay of my stoner lifestyle.

Dwight Yoakam represents pure country to me, and the place where country meets rock ‘n’ roll. (Wikipedia photo)

After enduring my wife’s groans about my old CDs and her having to listen to them in the car all the way through, I entered the modern era and learned to program playlists. I still maintain there is unimpeachable reason for hearing Abbey Road or Let It Bleed from alpha to omega, soup to nuts, A to Z: these art works demand protracted attention, same as a Beethoven or Mozart symphony. But there is something to be said for mixing it up. Paying $10 a month for Spotify’s premium option, I am buzzed by the juxtapositions.

Sometimes I’ll want to hear a real torch singer, a romantic balladeer. Frank Sinatra said Tony Bennett was his favorite singer. Nobody held and celebrated a note the way Tony did. And still does. (imdb photo)

It’s a place where “Guitars, Cadillacs” by retro country phenom Dwight Yoakam segues into “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” by the inimitable Tony Bennett.

Or I’ll be listening to James McMurtry’s European-tour version of “Choctaw Bingo” (which he prefaces by calling it “a song about the north Texas southern Oklahoma methamphetamine industry”), an infectious ramble ironic in its enthusiasm; then I’ll get “Both Sides Now,” the Joni Mitchell song rendered by sparrow-throated Judy Collins. The Rolling Stones’ hard-driving “Bitch” (I can just see sweaty Jagger onstage dancing his cock strut à la James Brown) gives way to “I’ll Never Find Another You,” a romantic ballad by sixties English folkies the Seekers. “Trouble Man” by Marvin Gaye spills into “Goodbye” by sweet-voiced seventies folkie (and McCartney discovery) Mary Hopkins. Waylon Jennings’s take on Rodney Crowell’s “I Ain’t Living Long Like This,” a prisoner’s lament, leads into the Beatles’ “Girl.” Zappa’s sinuous, electric-violin driven “Willie the Pimp,” which is also a funk-guitar master class, shuffles into “The Way” by Fastball, a pop hit that made me realize rock was not dead. I’ll take a warm bath in the Grateful Dead’s signature “Truckin’,” perhaps that band’s best lyric, then jolt awake with “Hitchcock Railway,” a song that makes the throat-ravaging attack of Joe Cocker more appropriate than on anything else he did, and whose background singers really bring it. “El Condor Pasa,” a wistful Simon and Garfunkel rendition of a Peruvian folk tune, yields to the barrage of the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band’s take on Bob Dylan’s “Everything Is Broken,” a writing that solidifies my belief that the Nobel Prize in Literature indeed belongs on Mr. Zimmerman’s shelf.

I’ve added songs and added songs till I’m up to about 50 on the single playlist I’ve got going. I guess people can build lists so big they must start new ones. I’m still delighting to those juxtapositions.

The great guitarist Keith Richards knows how to architect a rock song as no other. Listening to the best Stones songs is largely about hearing his sometimes subtle craftmanship. (Twitter photo)

I don’t go to AA meetings much anymore. I’m sick of the squabbling among members, the backbiting, the Christian nazis, the ex-cons and other assholes. I’m thinking of drinking again. The only reason to go back to meetings is not to. I’ve thought of smoking weed again too, but I don’t think I’m in much relapse danger there. What did I do when I got stoned? I became intensely introverted. It got to where I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. Freelance writing had brought me the lifestyle I thought I craved. I had a joint with my morning coffee, stayed stoned all day long, saw nobody, communed only with pornographic images. Maybe this is not the experience of Willie Nelson or Seth Rogan or Snoop Doggy Dogg. But it was mine. I’ve no doubt it would be again. One thing I loved, though, was listening to music, and I think I am still getting high today through music. I don’t need the cannabis.

Mick Jagger, the greatest performance artist of our era. Of all time? I hear in his vouce, so inspired by American idioms, an amalgam of sex and anger. (Billboard photo)

I am in a state of enhanced study. I thrill to a Stones song like “Dance Little Sister” or “She Was Hot” and marvel anew at how Keith Richards, with those fuzzy, almost dissonant rhythm chops, provided the main structure of any song that seemed to feature singer Mick Jagger. No other guitar player does this, lays down the substrate, the hook, for a song as he does. Richards and Jagger remind me of the call-and-response of blues. And Jagger is like no other vocalist we’ve ever seen. He’s chameleonic. Pure country, got it down cold, on “Dead Flowers.” An amalgam of every wildcat black R&B or soul singer on “Beast of Burden,” adopting every nuance of phrasing, down to knowing when to mispronounce to burnish an overall effect. Mick Jagger coopted American roots idioms like no other. There is joy in the appreciations he brings to stage and studio. There never was another like him.

Hearing music that’s all over the place, on playlists, freshens my senses, helps me discern juxtapositions within songs, within bands, as I’ve never done before.

Wow. Got goosebumps.

Better hit a meeting. Just to keep my head on my shoulders.