The Boofterschneest Imperative

Kootzer McFoodle sharing a bon mot with the frog statue in front of Prescott Public Library

 

Addicted to the offerings of Netflix and Amazon Prime, I have of late found myself ensnared in the web of those adrenaline-charged Jason Bourne movies. I marvel at what Ludlum hath wrought.

I’ve come to contemplate the titles of all those big, important books penned by him and his ilk: the commercial blockbusters, the spy thrillers. The Bourne Identity. The Holcroft Covenant. The Odessa File. The Whatever Whatever.

Could I ever write something like that?

I’m afraid not.

I could write The Boofterschneest Imperative. That’s what I could write.

“Boofter” and “Boofterschneest” are made-up words.

You see, I have my own fabricated language. It’s how I take flight from the world. Those with the misfortune of knowing me “all too well” get dragged into it. My wife even calls me a Boofterschneest. Barb’s a zombie now; she’s been bitten. She understands me. When we go to the movies and I say “I’m gonna procure Duddage,” she knows I am going to buy Milk Duds.

How did this penchant for nonsense and wordplay ever begin?

 

I worshipped my father, we’d better start there. It’s less and less a surprise to me, as the years go by, to realize that every breakthrough in my therapy ends up being about coming to terms with him. Irving Gitlin was a journalist and public relations executive who made a lot of money being a writer. But there was a flip side to Dad. He needed the shadow personality of the anal-retentive goofball to offset the frowning intellectual, the man burdened with Big Ideas. He compensated with a nonsense language, renaming everyone in his family.

My mother, Eleanor, became “Dahss.” Don’t ask why. He never knew. He flirted as well with “Totch,” but “Dahss” moved to the fore as the main alteration.

My Aunt Ronnie had been (perversely, or so she thought) named Rowena. My father called her “Rawoochkie,” which shrank to “Wooch.” All my life he called Aunt Ronnie “Wooch.”

Mom and Aunt Ronnie’s younger brother, Larry Schlossberg, Dad dubbed “Schlo.”

My father found me serious and philosophical beyond my years. In fact, my mom and dad used to sit on the couch trying not to burst out laughing as I stood before them, at five or six, manfully channeling Sinatra’s “Love and Marriage.” To Dad I was “Old Man,” in recognition, I think, of this precocious gravity.

But my favorite of Dad’s affectionate designations for me was “Kootzer McFoodle.” Kootzer McFoodle was a legend to whom Dad ascribed all sorts of gestes and proclivities. Dad wrote epic doggerel in his honor. He even sang a song, to the tune of “The Mexican Hat Dance,” whose chorus was “Rah, rah, Kootzer McFoodle / Rah, rah, macaroni and noodle …”

Now I must say, at the risk of complicating this account, that to this day my brother says he was Kootzer McFoodle. But I insist it was I, not he, who drew the distinction … unless Dad was stringing us both along, and there were two sons thus endowed. Hmm. We’ll never know. Mom might have shed light after Dad’s departure, but both she and Dad are resting in Mount Olive Cemetery, serenely silent. Maybe Marty and I’d better get a ouija board.

In what I regard as the most exquisite of all of my father’s name perversions, my little sister Nina would, in Happy Birthday and other endearments penned by this literary madman, became “La Ouine.” Think French. Pronounced “La Ween,” it’s short for “Nini da Weenie.”

We all inherited the nonsense bug.

I called my little brother Marty “Ginch.” It just happened. I believe generating nonsense words is like industrial food production; you need the right blend of flavoring ingredients and textures. I liked the mouth feel of “Ginch.”

My older sister Lisa would call me “Tugboat,” though more often than not these days (that’s right, we’re still silly) it’s “Crunchy.”

I have been known to call Lisa “Lizard la Stinks” — or, in her own cooperative rendering, “Lyzzard la Stynxx”; at least that’s how she signed off on greeting cards — as well as “Stinkpisher.” She never complained. Lisa always was a good sport.

My younger sister was not so sanguine. When I took to calling Nina “Lardinski” or “Lardfarber” – though, and I want this noted, she was never fat — she would, upon gaining clarity and closure during psychotherapeutic counseling, send me a long email in which she took me to task for giving her a low self-image. Fittingly shocked and appalled at the memory, at how nonsense can cross over into unwitting abuse, abuse of those you love and take for granted, I went into abject mea culpas in the apology I emailed her back.

Nonsense can be dangerous. So why do I descend into it?

I guess it’s tempting to reject seriousness altogether. My brother has made a career of embracing juvenalia, even studying its allure with all the hairsplitting exactitude of the adult mind, whether the subject is the most iconic breakfast-cereal box, the funniest of the Three Stooges, or the greatest episode of Gomer Pyle.

I envy him. I can’t live in that world.

Misery beckons.

I’ll end with this, because I still feel bad about something I just admitted. One of my nicknames for Nina was affectionate and benign. I called her “Ninian.” The long version was “Ninian the Virginian in My Opinion.” Nina told me once that Mrs. Krausz, the Wagnerian piano teacher who came to our house to give us lessons, had even taken to calling her “Ninian.”

Lisa and I took lessons too but dropped out. I got stuck on a Beethoven sonata and that was it. I was too busy smoking marijuana and listening to the Beatles’ white album. I always felt bad about quitting those lessons, even though I wasn’t very good.

I’m glad Mrs. Krausz found me amusing.

Good thing Nina didn’t tell her about a song I used to sing to her at the top of my lungs: “Nina Vagina lives in North Carolina!” Nina being pronounced “Neina,” of course, to rhyme with the other words.

It’s hopeless.

I guess you can play by the rules and work your ass off and bow meekly before all the false idols of modern civilization and sink to your welcome death, a hapless drudge. Or you can fall into the arms of absurdity, rejecting all Reality … only to discover another kind of folly lurking there.

With all its risks, I’ll still stand with absurdity.

At least with the nonsense world, being inappropriate, or at least incongruous or senseless, is the whole point. It’s not supposed to be “right.” It’s not supposed to add up. And that’s a good thing, a bit of solace in this meaning-choked world.

And therein endeth this sermon.

You can order a paper transcript at McFoodle Publications, 147 Schnarglefrummitz Lane, New York, NY 10022.

A Jewish Reflection on Christmas

Me with Rosa Christmas morning. I’m wearing Jack Kerouac T-shirt Barb got me. Got yarmulke on as it fits raving below. I got Barb bed sheets (we’ve been sleeping on schmattas) and cutting boards at Bed Bath & Beyond, and she’s taking it all back to re-buy with coupons! (The art of shopping has always been lost on me.) If I look a little pale here, I’m feeling a little raggedy trying to get over an illness. Best of health, y’all!

 

I don’t read much poetry and maybe that’s why I never taught it much. There are poems I love: Yeats’ apocalyptic “The Second Coming,” Gary Snyder’s zen “Hay for the Horses,” Frost’s pristine “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” among them. The poet is a magician smashing through common reality to find the crystalline truths and subtler complexities. Half the time I can’t get through a poem in The New Yorker, or I feel I’m reading with the foggy lens of the poetry-challenged. Except, as I say, for breakthrough moments, when a poem simply reaches out and grabs me.

I found out about “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport” at Cleveland State University, where I girded my loins for the battle of teaching high school English.

As well as earn a post-baccalaureate teaching certificate, I had to take English courses. My Columbia transcript didn’t have enough of them. That dubious sheepskin, reflective of my New York dissolution, was bespattered with the acne of many poor marks, including an F in an Old Testament study class that was one of the first Religion courses I signed up for. At Cleveland State, during this new incarnation of Robert Gitlin, Scholar, I took school seriously. How hopeful I was, how naive, at 49, in my expectations of a career (a second one, after being a freelance journalist) that would finally suit me and come with a steady paycheck!

And what a reader I was! I had a day job proofreading legal documents. It was one of my three jobs. I also helped out on the cutter at my wife’s dad’s carpet warehouse, and was a barista at the Borders café. After getting out of Baker & Hostetler, red eyed from squinting at retirement plans and wills, I trudged through snow storms up Chester Avenue, humping a book-jammed backpack, from 9th Street all the way to Cleveland State. I did all the reading assigned in both Education and English courses. Not all the students did. I just didn’t want to blow this campaign to get a new career, there was some vindication riding on this new round of school, and furthermore I sensed that marvels lay in store, not just for the budding pedagogue but the Renaissance Man bent on learning about the world.

I took a survey course in American Literature, taught by the learned and congenial Prof. Gary Engel. He sat cross legged in his sandals on the desk at the front of the room as he casually lectured us. From our Norton anthology he directed us to a Longfellow poem inspired by the bearded icon’s 1852 visit to a moribund New England temple and adjacent graveyard.

I was never the same.

This poem — written by a gentile! — helped me learn about my own heritage.

My wife wonders why I’m so obsessed with being Jewish, or Jewish enough. I understand her perplexity. I don’t know Hebrew; I mumble phonetic transliterations from the siddur when I go to shul. My diet is a far cry from kosher.

But this poem reached out and grabbed me in my Jewish heart. It grabs me still, coalescing as it does my own understanding of suffering as well as my debt to my forebears.

It is not an intellectual gift that sustains this hoary tribe but a shared ancestral memory and an injunction to repair the world. This poem, memorializing a ghost race staggering through the millennia, prefigures the worst horror we would suffer. It prefigures Israel. Yet it’s fresh and contemporary.

See if you agree.

There will be no quiz.

 

The Jewish Cemetery at Newport

by HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW

 

How strange it seems! These Hebrews in their graves,

Close by the street of this fair seaport town,

Silent beside the never-silent waves,

At rest in all this moving up and down!

 

The trees are white with dust, that o’er their sleep

Wave their broad curtains in the south-wind’s breath,

While underneath these leafy tents they keep

The long, mysterious Exodus of Death.

 

And these sepulchral stones, so old and brown,

That pave with level flags their burial-place,

Seem like the tablets of the Law, thrown down

And broken by Moses at the mountain’s base.

 

The very names recorded here are strange,

Of foreign accent, and of different climes;

Alvares and Rivera interchange

With Abraham and Jacob of old times.

 

“Blessed be God! for he created Death!”

The mourners said, “and Death is rest and peace;”

Then added, in the certainty of faith,

“And giveth Life that nevermore shall cease.”

 

Closed are the portals of their Synagogue,

No Psalms of David now the silence break,

No Rabbi reads the ancient Decalogue

In the grand dialect the Prophets spake.

 

Gone are the living, but the dead remain,

And not neglected; for a hand unseen,

Scattering its bounty, like a summer rain,

Still keeps their graves and their remembrance green.

 

How came they here? What burst of Christian hate,

What persecution, merciless and blind,

Drove o’er the sea — that desert desolate —

These Ishmaels and Hagars of mankind?

 

They lived in narrow streets and lanes obscure,

Ghetto and Judenstrass, in mirk and mire;

Taught in the school of patience to endure

The life of anguish and the death of fire.

 

All their lives long, with the unleavened bread

And bitter herbs of exile and its fears,

The wasting famine of the heart they fed,

And slaked its thirst with marah of their tears.

 

Anathema maranatha! was the cry

That rang from town to town, from street to street;

At every gate the accursed Mordecai

Was mocked and jeered, and spurned by Christian feet.

 

Pride and humiliation hand in hand

Walked with them through the world where’er they went;

Trampled and beaten were they as the sand,

And yet unshaken as the continent.

 

For in the background figures vague and vast

Of patriarchs and of prophets rose sublime,

And all the great traditions of the Past

They saw reflected in the coming time.

 

And thus forever with reverted look

The mystic volume of the world they read,

Spelling it backward, like a Hebrew book,

Till life became a Legend of the Dead.

 

But ah! what once has been shall be no more!

The groaning earth in travail and in pain

Brings forth its races, but does not restore,

And the dead nations never rise again.

(Poem courtesy of poetryfoundation.org, but it can be found in lots of other places.)

 

How well Longfellow intuits the long myth of the Jews.

And how uncannily his portrayal of a wounded nation staggering on, somehow indomitable, reflects my own struggle.

I am on the brink of deciding this will be my last year teaching. It is a rueful calculation. I have been served one degradation too many by literacy-challenged teens and helpless lapses in my own judgment. The plain fact is that I don’t know how to teach them. I have learned my lesson after years of getting my nose flattened in the arena of my incompetence. So, a decade and a half after that brave start studying for this very career in Cleveland, I’m getting out after next semester. Maybe it’s the not the career I was suited for after all. I tried.

I’ll work more at my other job, which is very physical.

It’s undignified to have to work so hard when you’re old. Sometimes I do flirt with bitterness. If I was on the cover of Forbes I’d be in L.L. Beans, hewing perfect canoes for sale and recreation in the Adirondacks, living the dream. My reality is I’ll have to ask Walmart to give me 40 or 32 hours a week to see me through, until I finally collect Social Security benefits. Suze Orman said in the AARP magazine you should try to slug it out till you’re 70 ½.

Next year I’ll start getting some help when I begin collecting my little teacher pension.

But I’m bedraggled. I’ve lost a step, had a few health scares. I fight fatigue and lately illness.

I surprise myself, hearing my voice share in AA meetings about how I’m happy.

But I am.

Happiness is not a “right” so much as an everyday miracle. I am happy having dinner with my wife, seeing her Sophia Loren cheekbones over our joint musings about our respective work lives. Happy as I lead my snuffling dog on a walk, communing with her simple zeal for the actual world. Happy when I realize that even when people hate me I can rise above it. Happy to realize there is nothing left but to forgive myself for all the stupid mistakes and regrets. Nothing can stop me from enjoying the gift of this life or sour my ability to love. I can snarl and kvetch with the best of them, but I’ll be there for you.

An old AA coot, a gruff old Jew who built a Twelve Step club here in Prescott, Arizona, once said, “God never answered my prayers for money or to win the lottery. But whenever I asked Him for courage or patience, I got it.”

I don’t know whether that’s sufficient lead-in for this, my Jewish Christmas wish, but here goes:

Let us come together to spread peace and good will over this tortured land. For with our resolve we will be, like Longfellow’s Hebrews, the unshaken continent.

Tikkun olam.

Taking a Break on Steroids

 

It was 5:15 a.m.

I’d been working a cart of Dairy onto the retail floor and had come to the compactor to throw in my corrugated paperboard.

But one of the Overnight crew was making a bale.

I asked him to show me how. He let me help feed wires up and around the bale to secure it. He threw a skid down in front of the machine to catch the bale. He set a switch, hit a button, and the bale flopped out of the machine onto the skid, neat as you please.

Hmm. Someday I’ll be doing that too.

I even got the pallet jack myself, moved the bale outside for recycling pickup.

Lungs filled with fresh cold air in the predawn, I rolled the pallet jack back up the concrete ramp to the shipping area, where I was now able to feed the compactor my box waste.

All I had to do now was roll my now empty rocket cart into the “parking area” and ask Jed, CAP 1 crew supervisor, what to do next.

But I failed to fully account for the caprices of this particular rocket cart. This type of cart has two shelves, shin and chest level respectively, that normally stay in place with spring-loaded pins. Only some carts, like the one I had, had a securing pin that didn’t work. You always had to be on the lookout for a bum cart.

I wasn’t.

I swung the upper shelf up and held it up there while setting up to twist my body enough to fish up there for the pin. I was too slow.

Wham!

The shelf fell back down, mashing the top of my right hand, which had been resting on the bracer rim.

The pain was sickening. Wincing, I moved away, swinging my hand in the air.

“Hey, you all right?”

It was Jed.

Everyone loved Jed. He cared about you, and he laughed a lot. Not like some asshole who laughs at everything; I mean, Jed was a genuinely jocular guy, and his cheer had a way of rubbing off on you.

“That was stupid, I’m sorry,” I said. “Man it hurts. But I’ll be okay.”

Trouble was, I felt light headed.

Oh no don’t pass out, I told myself. My head buzzed. I tried to look at the floor and breathe. Blood welled up from nerve endings in the top of my crushed hand.

“Hey, you’re gonna need to get a Band-Aid on that.”

I followed Jed over to the shipping and receiving door, to the first aid kit.

He fished a Band-Aid out.

I rested my hand on a nearby stack of plastic skids. “Mind doing the honors?”

“Okay, just don’t expect me to kiss it for you.”

I tried to smile, concentrating on breathing. It didn’t add up. I get bit by my crazy dog all the time, laugh it off, throw on a Band-Aid and go about my business.

“Bob, you all right?”

“Yeah, yeah . . . just feel a little light headed . . .”

Next thing I knew Jed and Brandon (Brandon is boss of Overnight, with whom CAP 1 overlaps) loomed over me, head balloons, their hands on their knees.

Still wearing the padded windbreaker I’d had on to work the cooler, I lay on my back on the concrete floor, twenty feet off from the compactor/baler, twenty feet from the shipping door in front of me.

It took me a while to realize I’d fainted. I had come out of a twilight state; no, worse, an unconscious state, a dream state, which, to be truthful, was blissful. But now I was back in the world, and the shame was beginning to creep in from around the edges. How did this look? I’d been in la-la land, flat on my back, out of commission. Traumatized.

“I don’t know what happened. I mean I know I hurt my hand, but that . . .”

“Did you eat today?” Brandon asked.

“No. At three in the morning I’m afraid I don’t much feel . . .” I murmured.

“That’s okay, we’re gonna bring you some granola bars,” Jed said.

They also got me a bottle of water, which I drank as I finally sat up.

I wound up in the break room with Jed and Brandon, who filled out an Incident Report. It wasn’t just Walmart covering its own ass for liability. These guys were kind, trying to help me figure out what had happened.

“That must have really looked like something, when I fell down,” I said.

Thinking about it, I was curious. I didn’t remember falling, wouldn’t have any elbow bruises or anything that might indicate a helpless, clumsy fall.

Jed got up from the break room table to demonstrate. “It was really something,” he said. “You had your arms out.” He gestured this: the Frankenstein monster. “And you just fell kind of smooth . . . with your head forward.” Arcing back as if about to fall, he jutted his head forward, chin on chest, like a man knowing he was going to fall but protecting his head from cracking the hard floor.

I got sent home at 5:45 a.m., but not before promising Jed I’d see a doctor and find out what had happened.

Well, it turned out to be quite a week. I called in sick the next day, Sunday, out of simple embarrassment to see the people there.

I went to the school – my other job – and felt okay until late Tuesday, when the fatigue that had dogged me ever since the fainting had turned into something worse: gastrointestinal distress. I ran home even earlier than usual from my half-job at Mayer High School and took up my position on the toilet at home. Worst case of diarrhea in my life.

Had to call in sick Wednesday and Thursday at the school because of feverish chills and the chronic runs.

Called in sick for the Walmart job Saturday for a reason nobody there could have known about.

Sometime midday Saturday I felt my strength returning. And my pride, even anger.

I told my wife, “Fuck this. I’m gonna fight back.”

I ate like a horse, got dressed, even walked the dog up the hill and back. Set the alarm for 2:30 a.m., drank blessed coffee which I’d laid off of for four days, and made my 4 a.m. Walmart shift-start on Sunday.

Saw the old crew. And realized who my friends were, my real friends.

“Bob’s back,” said this old guy whose unctuous sanctimonies always struck me as passive-aggressive dodges for his essential insincerity. And when a woman I’d marked as a friend didn’t respond to my hearty “Hey, how you been?” I was downcast. I figured those two had been talking about me. Something about how I wasn’t tough enough for the job, how I shouldn’t come back. How if it had happened to them they wouldn’t have come back. All that bullshit.

Some gal who works Pharmacy saw me coming down the back corridor and said, “Bob! How are you?” And there was nothing but genuine interest. Jed himself was cordial and warm. Those were friends.

It’s occurred to me it may not be such a thing to be ashamed of, falling out like that. I mean, look at a tough guy like Tony Soprano, with his panic attacks and falls. But I’m not to be confused with Tony Soprano, and if there’s an act that’s not me it’s this Big City tough guy I used to try to affect.

I also flirted with the idea I could sell my fainting episode as the trance of a visionary. Black Elk took gravely ill when he was a boy. When he passed out he had a vision of the Sioux people and their spiritual and existential jeopardy at the hands of the white man. But I have no vision of any kind. In fact, I can’t see too well without my reading glasses.

I’m afraid the reality is that it was just Bob Gitlin falling down.

I had been ashamed to think of how I must have looked, having passed out. Sure. It might have got around I fainted because I saw my hand bleed. Well, maybe the little incident was a sort of mild, triggering trauma, but the core problem was a physiological predisposition, some intrinsic medical conundrum.

The nurse practitioner said I’d had a low-grade infection, provenance unknown, and that that’s what caused the faint. He also said the blood results show I have a slightly elevated blood sugar level. He wants to see me again in six months.

Meantime I guess I had better do my sleeping in bed at night, not on the shipping dock floor. I mean, it won’t do.

I’ll live down the shame.

Maybe the worst shame is something nobody even knows about.

I was at peace lying on that floor.

Lids

Three different flavors of topping for Cactusman: wearing the New York baseball cap, playing with my overgrown warm-puppy; topped by cold weather skully (a headwear I don’t even blog on here, as I wore knit hats well before I became follically challenged); and sporting the English hunting cap, again with Rosa, who’s got plenty of hair.

 

I have a “thinning patch.” I like to say that because it sounds better than “bald spot.”

When I look in the mirror straight on, I can’t even see it. The thinned bit at the back and top of my head doesn’t show. But in less flattering light (which also exposes the eye bags), it shows. Boy, does it ever.

A vain man, I try not to look in the mirror at the gym, which, by reflecting the mirrors all around the room, blares the naked bald spot, a horror abetted by overhead lights that blaze through the invisible scalp furze to the visible skin.

Welcome to old age.

I get involved in schemes to subvert the outrage. I torture barbers with speeches about the “flat” appearance of my hair looking at it from the front. The thinned top flattens down while the parts on each side “brush out.” I try to convey to them how this kills the “round” effect a good head of hair should have, how I was forever having to flatten those brushy bits down, trying, à la Rod Stewart, to “pull up” (into a more vertical position) the front and top hair in an effort to reclaim that rounded look.

Lost yet?

That’s okay. The barbers couldn’t make sense of it either.

The plain fact is, my hair won’t cooperate anymore.

It wasn’t so bad 10 or 15 years ago. By growing the front long enough to pompadour back, I could do a respectable comb-over. It wasn’t too sleazy. There wasn’t much to cover up. But as the years elapsed, and that “thinning patch” became an out-and-out bald spot, this ploy became futile.

These days I keep it pretty tight, but I’ve been told by friends that buzz cuts do not flatter me. One friend said the pre-apotheosis Travis Bickle shave job does not work.

I used to have long hair, a beautiful cascade of gently curling brown hair. Mostly I’ve had it at medium or shorter length, where I could boast a not aesthetically unpleasing “helmet of curls.”

Now? Well now, I have a hard time looking in mirrors.

I’ve taken to wearing hats.

Which have created their own set of neurotic possibilities.

Let’s dispense with the two head coverings that never worked to begin with.

The black $50 stiff-brimmed Stetson I got at a Western store to outfit myself for a drunken Halloween party (I don’t even drink anymore) made me appear the prototypical dude trying to look cowboy. There’s a picture of me wearing it I cringe at. I never wear it. It’s up on a shelf collecting dust.

Let’s also eliminate a black ball cap I bought at Walmart, trying to stay within a corporate dress code that states you can wear a baseball cap long as it’s got no insignia or decal other than Walmart’s own. I wanted a hat while working there Saturdays and Sundays to deflect the glaring overhead fluorescents from my eye sockets, as my eye bags under those kinds of lights are horrific. Wearing an eye visor on my shifts was not only a concession to my vanity but to the people who had to look at me. This “adjustable” black cap was designed for a mean head size, though, and the designer must have thought Americans were Brobdingnagians. The thing came down to my nose. You could tighten it along the bottom, lifting it up, but then you looked like you had a Jiffy Pop on your head.

Now on to lids that more or less work.

I bought a cap in England some years ago, in Yorkshire, in the north. In Hawes, I wandered into a hat store, where I saw a cap distinguished by the militant forward tilt of the top jutting portion and a skull bracer that seemed to ride lower toward the ears than the standard cap. At first the guy inside said something about a sales price, but perhaps at hearing my accent he “remembered” better. I paid $60. I liked the thing just fine. There’s a picture of me grinning on that vacation, wearing it, happily covered. After I bought the cap, I visited my cousin and her husband in the south of England, in Wiltshire, and a bemused Cliff said I looked like some toff heading out for a day of pheasant hunting. I think I’ll buy a bird rifle, break it over my forearm and amble about chortling “Cheerio!” to complete the picture. In Arizona cowboy country nobody wears a hat like that, and, though I’ve had compliments, I feel odd in it. It’s not even a standard “tam” or Brit-style cap, or a cap like some waif from 100 years ago would wear in a movie (think little Vito Corleone on Ellis Island). You want to fit in.

We come now to my powder-blue New York baseball cap. It’s the best-fitting of the three baseball caps I have. Ball caps are, season long, the main way I cover my sconce. I got the New York hat when I was in New York. I seem to recall a tourist trap on Coney. It’s a tourist hat flat out, a big, fat “New York” on the front. I’m not advertising anything. I just like the look of the damn hat. I also picked up a brick-red Cape Cod baseball cap. And my wife came home from a cruise with her sister bearing for me the souvenir of a beige baseball cap with “Nassau” written on it and adorned with a very Margaritaville-looking little palm tree. The Cape Cod hat is too big; the Nassau cap is too small. And it’s not just size but shape. Ball caps have subtle but all-important shapes, which affect how they hug your skull. “New York” fits just right. I mean Three Bears “just right.” There’s a little lift up from the forehead, but not too much. The brim, also, juts out just enough, not too much.

But I’m not sure “New York” is much of a sell in Prescott, Arizona. People don’t like New York out here. You know, liberals. Sometimes I think the New York hat is bad PR. Only trouble is, try to make me not do something for a reason like that and I’ll wind up doing it for spite!

Story to illustrate:

I met some guys for breakfast at a local establishment famous for portions so big they could bring your order to you in a wheelbarrow. My toast came back way too lightly buttered. I gave the waitress a little speech I thought was clever, winning, even a deft flirtation.

“Listen, much as I appreciate your concern about my heart health, this toast needs far more butter than it has. Would you be so kind as to take it away and really lay it on thick? It’s okay.”

She snatched the plate away. Came back five minutes later, threw the plate onto the table with a clatter.

My toast swam under a lake of butter, more inedible than before.

The guys I was with wondered why she had so mistreated me. I sorted through the possibilities, starting with the one most people start with. “They’re an asshole.” This may very well have been the case. But I had to wonder about my smart-ass speech to a harried, footsore kid. And I wondered whether the New York cap I wore at the table had something to do with her venom and impatience.

Maybe the above anecdote illustrates nothing but what a paranoid neurotic I am.

I still wear my New York hat. It fits too well not to. When I wear it, I try to affect a drawl, channeling Augustus McCrea, bending over backwards to come off as low-voiced, soothing, and sweet as I can be.

This whole hat thing is worse than giving away the encroaching baldness. Makes me want to assert this whole nother part of myself, a personality aspect beyond vanity, beyond caring what I look like or what aesthetic vulnerabilities or imperfections I may reveal.

The next frontier is getting rid of the hats, letting people see how ugly I am. What do I care? I don’t have to look at me. Just you do.

We Need a Good Rabbi in Chief

George Herbert Walker Bush just died, and Maureen Dowd’s conflicted but affectionate reminiscence triggered my own interior eulogy.

What will he be remembered for?

Well, managing the end of the Cold War, a campaign begun by Reagan, though you could argue the Soviet Union was ready to collapse under the weight of its own economic impracticability.

Elder Bush will be remembered for waging a “good” war against the Iraqi takeover of Kuwait. Even if it was motivated by oil interests, Desert Storm vanquished the ghosts of Vietnam. The bad guys were demonstrably bad, and our reaction withstood scrutiny. I confess to my own private thrill at Schwarzkopf’s campaign (I’m trying not to use the term blitzkrieg). No quagmire to be stuck in, just in and out, and a parade down Fifth Avenue with people howling and weeping in gratitude. The stain of Vietnam extended beyond regret over a wrong war. It was about getting beat up on, when goddammit we’re the United States of America.

And then Bill Clinton took the presidency from George H.W. Bush in 1992.

“It’s the economy, stupid.”

I remember well that campaign season. I liked the old World War II hero more at the start than I did the roseate, drawling good ol’ boy from Arkansas, though Clinton would become one of our great Presidents, a perceptive leader whose move to the middle helped re-solidify the Democratic Party, and a man whose economic genius led to a rare budget surplus instead of the usual deficits.

Still, the older Bush impressed me. I liked the cut of his patrician jaw. I just liked him. In one interview in ’92, perhaps it was a town hall, someone challenged Poppy Bush’s ability to care about the little guy, rich as he was. Appearing a little stunned, he said, if I paraphrase: “Are you saying that people of means lack a heart, or generosity?” I saw his genuine goodness, and my heart went out to him.

I’m not sure I’d call the elder Bush a Great President. He was a damn sight better than his son, whose Iraq war was absurd, an engagement that, even if it had the shrugging sanction of Daddy, took on (the “surge” notwithstanding) all the earmarks of a mistake. Would it be sane to argue that dropping military anchor in Afghanistan amidst intractable tribal warfare and seated constituencies unwilling to serve our agenda could be called a similarly futile enterprise? Or is the Middle East, like Germany and Korea, a place which, as McCain suggested, U.S. boots must tread forevermore? My beloved English cousin used to speak with disdain about “America, the policeman of the world.” But post-911, the game had to change.

I liked Bush Sr. because, in some fashion, he fulfilled his role as spiritual leader of the American people.

I use the adjective advisedly.

I don’t mean he made us pray in unison. I mean he understood the heart of this great experiment in democracy, was proud of its ideals, and saw his decisions in the larger language of that perspective.

My outrage at the current president is that he is utterly absent this sensibility.

When I think of great presidents, or great national leaders for that matter – Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill – I think of men who unified their nations. They modeled compassion on a national scale. It would be tough going, they argued, but if we pull together – as we must, as we always do – we will prevail.

These men were scholars. They read books, understood history, knew the intricacies of civil discourse, and had studied and mastered the delicate power of speech.

Maybe it’s true that Obama was too diffident to love the job of being President, or be great at it, as was his Democrat forebear who used to keep people up till 2 in the morning arguing fine points of politics in his beloved White House. But Obama’s vision of America and of his leadership bespoke an eloquent embrace of our fondest sense of who we are. Nobody benefits if one man is stepped over, one racial or ethnic group scorned, one gender or sexual preference underprivileged.

Michelle Obama’s great book, Becoming, mentions with silent and heated pointedness this requirement that a president be a model of careful, studied insight.

Not only is Trump a know-nothing, his ego is so monstrous he’s more invested in playing sides against one another than in unifying us. Sometimes this blindness leads him to outrages made no less defensible that they are unconscious.

“There are good people on both sides,” he said, fending off reporters trying to get him to weigh in on the Charlottesville white-supremacist rally, and his role in unleashing racial hate.

He never saw the repercussions of his remark. Back to the wall dealing with the media, he may have blurted out something to do with Left versus Right in general . . . and that scares me more than anything.

That his rabid constituency continues to support this boor, this Mistake cast on the land, constitutes the single greatest obscenity I have had to witness as an American.

Maybe we’d better get used to it. A good journalist recently wrote it will always be thus. America is Balkanized.

The best we can do is something Trump cannot do. Educate ourselves. And try, as educated Americans, to find common ground among the tribes.