If only I could quit eating bacon

I’m still in love with this children’s book a family friend got me when I was little. The illustrations really rock. (Photo courtesy of a very patient wife, who’s quite a good photographer.)

 

In the house I grew up in we didn’t have much religion. We were secularists. But, though my father never sent us to Hebrew school, he voiced great respect for his heritage, so we celebrated certain sacred holidays.

Not that we got too hung up on their sacredness. We lit menorah candles on Hanukkah, proud of the little army of zealots that won back the temple, marveling at the miracle of the oil that lit candles for eight days. And we did Passover, recounting the awesome story of exodus and deliverance, leaving “God” out of it though the saga’s all about the unseen hand leading us from slavery.

I went to temple the other night after not being there in a long time.

I had slipped back into forgetting I was Jewish.

Insofar as being Jewish means something to me — I’m still trying to figure out what — I decided to, well, get with other Jews. I went to temple because I missed Jews.

Like Philip Roth, I find myself trying to reconcile a worldly, assimilationist lifestyle with my embrace of an ethnic identity. In the charming little cowboy town of Prescott, Arizona, which I have come to love, I yearn for signposts to my Jewish past. There isn’t much Jewishness around. I am nostalgic for the Yiddish that filled the house I grew up in. I remember with a glow gleeful tackle-football games I played at twelve at Bexley Park with Jewish friends I met in my new suburban-Cleveland neighborhood. I would develop in young adulthood a special fondness for rooms full of Jews, with their unique animated warmth, an affinity that remained with me.

Was it Portnoy’s Complaint that recollected a boy’s going with his father to see neighborhood Jews play softball? “Bellies! Forearms!” You can feel the throbbing maleness, the delight in what you would become. I was enthralled by the distinctly Jewish rhythm of voices in “Goodbye, Columbus,” and by the soothing masculinity of Swede Levov in American Pastoral as he explains to a lady reporter how he runs what might be the last American glove factory. Woody Allen’s movies get to me because, as a friend of mine put it, “They’re such Jewish laughs.”

I had an at-risk girl during an early year teaching in these parts, who was Jewish. This was at the original accommodation school. She had a Jewish last name, and I would know, right?

I was shocked when I saw her doodling a swastika. And yet I thought I understood. I called her into the counselor’s office, which was empty.

This girl was from a busted family. Whatever Jewish element had been there was gone, leaving her only with this name.  She was surrounded not only by non-Jews but by a culture of white supremacists who rally around a poisonous symbol to marshal their hatred.

In a warm, confidential tone, I told her I was Jewish. I talked about my grandparents and the Yiddish they used when they didn’t want us kids to know what they were saying.

“I miss those people so much,” I said, a little surprised at my own passion.

She said she had a grandfather who had that accent, but she never saw him anymore.

I nodded. “You shouldn’t draw … stuff like that.”

She hung her head. “I know.”

To be a Jew is a terrible responsibility, but I have always believed she left that room willing to resist the ambient poisons, and to announce herself, no matter what the cost.

I myself came to this state a Jewish heathen. One year, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur went by without my knowing it. I realized I had to try to “be Jewish.” It meant something to me. That’s how I started going to the local temple.

A rabbi there helped me. In response to a neurotic phone call from yours truly, he invited me to meet him, which I did. He was a hip Bostonian with somewhat the same renegade personality as I have. We hit it off. I started attending services, learning how to say the prayers. He taught me some Hebrew letters, got me in the choir. After he left the post, the place took on two successive women rabbis. The second of these has left.

The Friday I returned, after such a long absence they’d taken away my name card from the little box of them at the door, a lay woman fluent in Hebrew and Judaic liturgy ran the service, and did a good job. She knew to open with “Hinei Ma Tov,” to invite someone up to light candles and say that prayer. Knew enough to sing us through all the right songs, including “Lecha Dodi” and “Mi Shebeirach” and “Mi Chamochah.” I was particularly moved by the stately, melodic “Ahavat Olam,” whose first word means love. The Aleinu went on for pages; its magic syllables, I uttered in phonetic transliteration, turning the pages “backwards,” wondering how this could be meaningful when I didn’t know Hebrew. But it was meaningful. In Journey of Awakening, a book about meditation, Ram Dass (Richard Alpert: self-described “Hinju”) suggests Sanskrit mantras. I don’t know if I can do that. But I felt an incantatory connection as I sang “Ahavat Olam.” The service ended, as all such services do, with the Kaddish, the Aramaic prayer of remembrance and mourning, namesake of Allen Ginsberg’s powerful lament. I sat amidst the congregation and sang sacred music.

I enjoyed the lay service leader’s amateur sermon, an attempt (drawn from the week’s Torah portion) to preach “loving oneself” as the necessary presumption behind the Golden Rule. How can you love others as you love yourself if you don’t love yourself?

“You’re enlivening the bima,” I told her after the service.

I used to kvetch to my wife about how phony it was for me to go to Temple B’rith Shalom. I would imitate some Los Angeles or Phoenix refugee crowing about the nachas (bounties, blessings) she was getting from her family during congregational sharing of good news. You know. “My Harold just opened his new chain of dermatology clinics and was voted one of the top ten entrepreneurs in California, and he’s about to have what will be my seventh grandchild!”

Ho hum, would snarl the curmudgeon down the row, a childless man with a menial job, feeling nothing in common with this culture of wealth and privilege.

But that’s bullshit and I know it. That son being kvelled over — he worked for that. You reap what you sow. My life is not what I intended, nor, on reflection, do I believe I always got behind the right plow. But this life is still a gift. My embattled teaching career has been a gift. My job at Walmart, a gift.

Psalm 23 talks about perseverance and how we’re graced. I think of the Jews of the Holocaust and that makes it hard to consider a loving God in the traditional image, that of the protector of the meek. But I also remember that scene in Schindler’s List where all the Jews being saved by this angel are made to gather, at his bidding, to conduct their Shabbat service in the factory. How stirring is that moment, the penetrating voice of the rabbi leading them to their ancient and enduring celebration of a collective divinity.

After the service I dragged the yarmulke off my head on the way out. The sun had set as I hit the parking lot. Off to the side of the lot stood a policeman by his car. He was watching over us. I had a moment of disorientation, then remembered the spate of shootings of Jews in synagogues. I nodded and smiled.

And bless him too. He’s one of us.

A Nose for Trouble

 

Not too good at this selfie thing but I did my best. Me in my office, crack of dawn through the window. Always looked best at three-quarters and from this side (my left). Joy to the world! Accept your body parts no matter how flawed they may be. I hope this post has a breath of fresh air to it, to leaven the grim misadventure herein.

 

Early in our marriage, Barb and I shared a cramped little apartment in Prescott, Arizona, not the palatial estate we inhabit now with its postcard view.

Back then, a handful of years into the marriage, she had to go back to Cleveland for family reasons. Maybe because of her attachment to her mother, she decided to make it an extended stay.

She was gone at least a month. I had the apartment to myself.

Now I’m no slob, I keep a neat house. The old cartoon – socks over the lampshade, cigar butts in the bathtub, encrusted plates in the sink – that’s not me.

Her absence did extend certain liberties. Not all good.

I’m afraid the distance convinced me it was a good idea to stage a cigarette smoking relapse. Heart pounding with guilty excitement, I drove to the convenience store on Montezuma and spent something like seven bucks for a pack of Marlboro Reds. Wow, I noted to myself, prices had gone up. It’s even more now.

At first, I just had a few cigarettes out on the deck.

But it got to be dead of winter. I began to want to take the chance of smoking inside.

Only problem was, my wife couldn’t know, whenever she did get back.

As my mother said, I smoked them down to my toes. The acrid nicotine smog would not air out easily.

I kept it up, my habit waxing to a pack a day, and the reek commensurately increasing.

What to do?

I decided to sleep with all windows open. It could be ten degrees or zero out and here I was climbing into the sack in sweatpants, knit hat, and sweat socks, and swaddling myself in extra blankets and afghans, as many as I could find. I slept all right, kind of like camping. I do not remember waking with a cold.

The guy below me must have been shivering. Maybe he turned his heat up, had a few words with the landlady about weather-stripping.

Eventually, Barb did phone to say she was coming back. Her own mother shamed her into it.

Back to an apartment two college sophomores might think twice about renting.

It was the price we paid for my decision to undertake the second career of high school English teacher, and no jobs available in Cleveland.

I continued to open windows at night and when I was out of the place. The day before her return, I talcum-powdered the carpet and vacuumed over that, as well as Windexed the windows.

When Barb walked in, she was wise.

“Have you been smoking?”

“No!” I shrugged, made a little laugh. I don’t think she was buying it.

It was sometime later – I want to say a few months – that my nose went on strike. Stopped working. The sinus passages cemented shut.

I gasped for air all night, waking with a mouth that felt like the Sahara. Yea, I suffered the torments of Job. My tongue verily cleaved to the roof of my mouth. I didn’t think it then, but to this day I believe my body was punishing me for the sin of smoking and the open-air ploy.

My mouth was so dry it took some time before my throat could open enough for me to tip water down it. Gasping, I woke in the night, licking my cracked lips and going for a glass.

I took Benadryl and got in arguments with Barb because they made me druggy, depressed. I took them anyway as they were the best antihistamine I could find.

Nasal rinses didn’t work. I was too congested to suck anything up there.

After a while the pills stopped working — no more even the temporary relief of one barely open nostril and a chance to close my mouth as I slept.

I lived in steamy showers. Went to the school red-nosed, honking at students. The counselor commented on my low energy.

The distant imperative to see an ear, nose, and throat specialist began to form. Finally, I saw one.

He gave me steroid pills. Seven the first day, six the second, and so on till you took one and were done. First day, boom! My nose cleared completely. I was in love with my ENT. I never told him about opening those windows but wondered if that had caused the problem, predisposing me to a respiratory crisis.

“Your nasal polyps will come back,” the ENT said.,

They did. I suffer classic Prescott allergies, compounded by my history of nasal difficulties. Juniper trees in these parts plague many citizens. But I’d been aware of dog and cat and ragweed allergies back in Ohio from a young age.

I found my way back to my ENT. This time he talked me into a simple surgical procedure to remove the polyps.

His anesthetist had to put me out. The atropine used to dry up my secretions while the physician worked was so strong it (this is my amateur theory) severed the neural connection by which the brain tells the nether organs to pee. I could not urinate to save my life. I’m still trying to figure out how the upper and lower parts of me could be connected like that.

Hours elapsed. I was back home but couldn’t squeeze a drop. I called the doctor. He said he was busy, but maybe I’d need to go to the emergency room to get “catheterized.” I blanched at the word.

After more frustration, and an alarming rate of uncomfortable swelling, I went to the hospital. I forgot whether Barb drove me or I drove myself. I do remember her being there but then having to leave the waiting room to go to work. I had swollen like a balloon; I was pregnant with piss, jackknifed with pain, my abdomen pushing my waistband. I hobbled to the men’s room hoping I might finally produce piss, but couldn’t, so I hobbled back to my seat, where I shifted from buttock to buttock against the mounting agony, the buildup. For hours I waited to be seen.

When a heroic male nurse (whom I’ll always remember) finally drove a thin tube up me to puncture the bladder, and all that hot pee poured into that bag hanging off the ER bed, I welcomed the sharp torment. Anything to get me out of that swelling, helpless horror. I was finally in blissful relief.

As humiliating as it was for me to wear that thing – and I’d wear it for eleven days, my bladder had got so distended — I don’t want to think about what might have happened if there were no such device. I guess I would have exploded inside and died.

My wife and I are still Monday morning quarterbacking the thing. If only I hadn’t taken a few Benadryl the night before to try to nose-breathe during sleep. If only I hadn’t taken the Oxycontin the ENT gave me for post-surgical pain (a pain that was negligible), pills my wife presently threw out.

Thanks to this experience, abetted by a slightly enlarged prostate, I now know not only an ENT but a very good urologist. I didn’t want to have to meet either of these guys.

I sat home for eleven days wearing that damn thing, languished on the couch, stunned by what had become of me. My wife ran me meals. I felt inert, unmanned, didn’t want to move much except when I had to, down the hall with the plastic thing slapping my shin, to the bathroom where I’d lean down and release the petcock valve to let the urine into the toilet. I got a sub for two weeks, binged on Netflix and Amazon Prime.

When the urologist finally removed the catheter and I went home and, reeling and praying over the toilet, performed a full and unaided urination, I sent ecstatic emails to friends, who tried, not too successfully, not to laugh at me.

Suffice it to say I had fallen out of love with my ENT. To this day, I refuse to do anything he said.

My nose was much better in the half year or so since the operation, but this last allergy season has been bad. I still eschew the nasal rinse (each application to be augmented by drops of liquid steroid). I just take Benadryl and blow my nose a lot. I have filled up many wastebaskets this allergy season. But the utter cementing of my sinuses has not recurred, not like it was before.

I haven’t had a cigarette in four years.

‘So this is it. Walmart.’

I talk to my dog. ‘If you’re not having any fun, what’s the goddamn point?’ she says. Leave it to Rosa to get to the heart of the matter.

 

I’ve worked at Walmart as a second job, but it might become my only job. At first I’d thought I’d keep my hand in as a guy “working with kids” and juggle Walmart and substitute teaching, come August. But I don’t know.

I’ve got no connections, no ins. Subbing would be just like that day I spent driving a taxi in Cleveland and broke even driving overweight inner-city ladies to the supermarket, and no tip. I’ve subbed before. Subbing would probably be leftovers, same as last time. I’d keep pulling special-ed rooms full of angry, emotionally disturbed kids.

So maybe just Walmart. It’s reliable. And some days you don’t even get sub jobs. I need something regular.

Moreover, I’ve found Walmart to be a benevolent employer. Now that’s really weird coming from the son of ardently leftist parents. I inherited from my father a freelance job doing PR for a union that picketed Walmart, the juggernaut that mowed down mom-and-pop America. The Frank Capra movie of American life is gone. The era of the big box store is a fait accompli thanks to Sam.

But Walmart’s done all right by me.

I didn’t realize how much I liked the job until recently when I had to fight to keep it. I had a beef with a crew boss who had been mistreating me, humiliating me in front of co-workers. It was in the dairy cooler, he was asking me where I’d been, like I was some malingerer. And I work hard! I scurry around the place like some damn coolie. I admitted I’d been in the can. Upon further abusive interrogation, I admitted it had taken a long time because I’d had diarrhea. He kept yelling about unwarranted slacking-off, treating me like a punk kid. I am a 65-year-old man. Maybe I fool people because I’m muscular and lift big boxes. But I’m really an old guy and I deserve some dignity, damn it.

I didn’t sleep that night.

Next day I telephoned an old Cleveland friend, who, after delivering himself of a few choice epithets regarding this boss of mine, counseled me to complain. “Bad enough you’ve got to be a punching bag for these asshole kids. You shouldn’t have to take this shit.”

I complained in Personnel the day after that.

It just so happened the crew boss had a two-week break from the store (family affairs, training in another facility, I forget), so I wouldn’t have to see him for a while. I continued reporting to the Walmart gig, Saturdays and Sundays, 4 a.m. to 1 p.m., bracing for the day my nemesis would return.

After the two weeks were up, he still didn’t come back. In fact, CAP 1 didn’t have a crew leader. The overnight manager came in and mustered us, or the top veteran grunt on the crew was told to order people around. The crew was winging it. Going about my business, I finally asked someone about the old crew boss, what had become of him. The guy I was asking and a few people around him laughed. Nobody would tell me anything.

Finally the crew boss did come back.

I’d seen him as hot tempered, certainly in his dealings with me, who he thought had a don’t-give-a-shit attitude, and so in anticipation for this I was even ready to go outside and handle it that way if that was what he wanted. But nothing of the sort was in the air. Soon as we found ourselves in the same room, during the 4 a.m. mustering (we used the Personnel office for this purpose), it was as if the ugliness had never happened. As he was doling out the orders, and I got mine, I said “Aye-aye, sir,” and shot a finger salute off my forehead, sitting at three-quarters angle from him in my chair.

I’m guessing he’d had his ears pinned back and had got put on something else for a spell, and the ultimate powers that be figured the thing was healed.

And, somehow, it was.

We’ve been getting along great. He sees he had me pegged wrong. This same guy just gave me a fair, positive review, as I’ve been there about a year.

And to think I’d been ready to quit the job!

One passive-aggressive little geek who works the CAP 1 crew and had heard my scolding had even said, in the wake of it, that he’d quit if he had been treated that way. Which also burned me up. Some of these assholes thought I didn’t really need the job. They thought I had money, being a teacher. Good one, huh? I’ve had to disabuse him, and some others, of that notion. I don’t have many options. I’m the same rat-on-a-treadmill financially as they are. I need Walmart to make my monthly nut! So anyway, I still have the job. I’m dug in.

So there you have it: a 65-year-old cart-pusher who fought for his job at Walmart.

It would be sad. Except it isn’t.

I was telling my therapist about a kind of happiness that comes from the damn job. Just the doing of it.

Like say I’m in the dairy cooler to label pallets of overstock. It’s 4:20 in the a.m. I’ve got my knit hat on, long-sleeved jersey, one of the polar windbreakers they make available to people working there or the shivering Antarctic freezer. I’m in the moment: scanning and marking boxes, fixing printed labels on them, stocking bins, “capping” bins to draw out merch for the retail floor, working freight and capped “picks.” It’s a simple task, free of “drama,” for which I receive a wage that enables me to pay bills. In a sense I enjoy it more than trying to be a high school teacher.

There have been two worlds, two populations, at the school, which I’ve dealt with. One, the honest stalwarts who read and write, and whom I’ll miss, some with a pang.

Two, stoned ruffians who’ll do anything to avoid the work, and get away with it because I don’t know how to police away their lethargy and plagiarism. I feel my weakness as a teacher. I try my best. With three weeks left in the torture, I don’t even care anymore. Add in the exquisite little irony of my having been a stoned fuck-up myself in twelfth grade, and you’ve got the whole picture. This aspect of the job constitutes an ink blot that has blackened the whole pool.

I’m not the popular teacher. I wasn’t at the last school I’d taught at either.

At that previous job, with the “accommodation” district, there got to be two schools you went back and forth teaching at. One was a one-room school house, a fish bowl with all the kids with their laptops and books surrounded by two teachers and one aide at any one time. The other school, which drove me to quit, was devised to look and feel like a real high school. They had them scheduled in staged subjects, one after another; they went to a room for math, then one for English, etc. But in actual practice the kids went wherever they wanted.

There got to be competing entertainment venues.

The science teacher had a big advantage with that Smart Board on which he broadcast YouTube car races and AC/DC concerts. The acid-head social studies guy had a multimedia rig-up; Doors music issued from state-of-the-art speakers while lyrics scrolled down a screen hugging the wall. It was all on the computer but nobody was working.

I sat in my room, where I tried to interest them in To Kill a Mockingbird and A Separate Peace, and found myself more and more alone. When kids asked if they could go to another teacher’s room, I didn’t have the heart to stamp my little foot and say no, nor give some wheezy speech about the adventure into literacy they were missing. I let them go.

I have come to have the same exact problem at the public school I’m at now, where this second career of mine is about to sputter to an end.

It’s been a curriculum of misery and thank God it’ll soon be over.

When I’m at Walmart I’m in service to a vast mega-corporation, but there’s no opportunity to fool myself. I’m no poseur, as I have been in the schools of northwest Arizona.

Oh don’t get me wrong. The pay I’ve got from that work contributed to the pension I shall start drawing in June, and I am grateful for that. Furthermore, I believe I am a very fine English teacher when given an opportunity to be one. Trouble is, all too often the jobs I was able to get did not require that so much as being there in some behavior management capacity at which I had no skill, nor interest. This is not a region where kids go to college. People don’t come from families that care about reading and writing. They need a corrections officer, and I’m not that guy. I tried to interest unmotivated young people using wiles of such staggering inefficacy it was amazing I never broke down and cried at my serial failure.

No, I never cried. But that fainting episode in the bedroom in December 2008 was from unacknowledged stress over a job I hated. A few months after that I would stalk out of my class when kids had been pelting me with food, and was fined a grand, and became a teacher’s aide in a room of angry, emotionally disturbed kids at a middle school, before I got another teaching job, this one, my last.

I conceived this blog as a victory dance, believe it or not. Excuse this sad story, but I needed to use it to get to talk about how it’s possible not to have had a lucrative or uniformly fulfilling white-collar career, to wash up as a menial laborer, and to somehow be at peace with oneself. You can believe this or not, but somehow I’m all right. On good days, I’d even say I was happy. I pretty much battle through everything.