Arizonan Burnishes Memories — and Skin Tone — on Big Homecoming Trip

 

Excuse the severe look, but I’m not too good at this selfie thing. Me at Edgewater Park in Cleveland. Hearing the water slapping the rocks threw me into a meditation.

 

Barb has no nostalgia for Cleveland. I do.

My proletarian cohorts at Walmart ribbed me about this week vacation. Something along the lines of: “And where’s he going? Not Vegas. Not Cancun. He’s going to – wait for it – Cleveland! Haw haw.”

I didn’t break any noses, though I suffer Cleveland jokes without the sense of humor you’re supposed to have. I love Cleveland. True, when my mother died and I had to sell the house on Langerdale, in South Euclid, a bit of the bloom went off the rose.

But not much. My thankless executor duties behind me, I realized I still missed Cleveland. Still yearned to go back.

It’s changed. For one, the entertainment districts downtown have exploded into a new, hip incarnation.

The anchoring draw for my going back — the “excuse,” if you like — was the stone setting of a woman who was my buddy’s mom. She was very dear to me, a second mother.

Much was made during the graveside reminiscing of Bobby Gitlin’s love of the Elsner house, where I slept over a lot when I was a kid. Once I ran home and said, “Mom, the milk’s even better there!” Turned out it was the same exact milk. Probably delivered by the same milkman. Oh God, remember milkmen?

Nostalgia abounded.

Family and friends stood by Jean’s grave in, of all places, Parma, where Workmen Circle, a social justice organization that powers progressive Jewish identity through Jewish cultural engagement and Yiddish language learning, has a cemetery. Here, many secularist Jews mingle with the angels.

People spoke about the formidably erudite yet sweet-spirited women who’d touched our lives.

Then, at a get-together in Beachwood, I had the chance to meet old friends. This may have been the best part of the trip.

It’s fun to encounter the gang you remembered from back in the day and realize they were, and are, precisely who you imagined. The sentimental gloss you laid on the memories didn’t obscure the reality, or the truth. That was them.

One guy – hadn’t seen him in fifty years – reminded me of what a self-styled little Jimmy Brown I was during those tackle games on the grass at Bexley Park when we were twelve.

“Nobody could tackle you.”

“Except you. You were fearless. I remember one time I was running and all of a sudden you wrapped your arms around my ankles, just stuck your head in and did it. I went down like a sack of potatoes.” I cocked my thumb at the still handsome, vigorous Micky and said, directing myself to the woman beside him, presumably his second wife: “All seventy-five pounds of him. Fearless.”

“I can’t believe nobody got hurt,” he said.

I did. One of the last games I remember playing” – we’d got older, may have been thirteen or fourteen by now – “over by the fence by Wrenford, someone tackled me and I fell down backwards and smacked my head. I didn’t know if it was Wednesday or Thursday or where I was …” I didn’t tell him that sometimes I wander from room to room trying to remember where I put my reading glasses or car keys and wonder whether that smack on the head was a latent trigger for early onset Alzheimer’s.

But not to worry.

Today, I laid aside anxieties. About how I’d account for myself. About what I’d “made of myself” in comparison with other kids from the South Euclid community I grew up in.

Another Jewish guy of old-neighborhood vintage, who went on to be a lawyer, showed up radiating bonhomie. He praised my blog, which meant a lot to me. It was great talking to Bruce.

And Howard. And Donna. And Jerry. And Mark. And Denice.

And of course Mike, whose mom got better milk, and who was the main connection for the whole trip.

Nobody grilled me sarcastically about what a shonda it was that a nice Jewish boy with a healthy IQ and good grades should have washed up as a cart pusher at Walmart. Nobody gave a shit.

It was a meeting of hearts.

My older sister, who, like me, had known the lady we’d honored and had driven from Red Hook in Brooklyn, New York, to be here, came by with a plate of cold cuts.

“This is such an amazing little party,” she said.

She and her friends, who’d been at last night’s dinner in Little Italy and had just been at the cemetery and were here now, had congregated on the veranda to chat and reminisce and laugh.

“Yeah, I’m having a great time,” I told Lisa.

Friends I’d met through Barb were putting me up for the week, and I spent some of my time at a swimming pool in lovely, leafy Gates Mills. Even the outdoors work rebuilding the patio at my Arizona house hadn’t lent me such a coppery glow. So I can say I got my tan in – wait for it – Cleveland. Haw haw.

Can’t wait to get back to work to show them.

I’m in Prescott now, and it’s good to be back. But I still think when I die my soul’s gonna fly to Cleveland. It’s more heimish there.

Big raucous dinner at Mia Bella in Little Italy. On left is Larry Elsner, a lovely guy and son of the departed but never forgotten Jean Elsner. Right of him, my sister Lisa, who’s either making a funny face or has a mouthful of calamari, but I’m running the shot anyway.

Reading Books While Considering Whether I Was a Russian in Another Life

Me with dog outside my wife’s yoga studio. The redone patio looks a lot better than the “before” picture, eh?

 

I am trying to slog through Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. Why? William S. Burroughs, a writer who influenced me, said Conrad was one of the most consequential writers we have. Others he named were Kafka and Beckett. (I loved The Metamorphosis; I can’t make sense of Beckett.)

I liked Heart of Darkness, which inspired Coppola’s Vietnam movie Apocalypse Now, more than I’m liking Lord Jim. It’s too slow unveiling what happened to Jim that caused his disgrace. I wait, and I wait, and it’s work absorbing all these long sentences and subordinating clauses. I’d compare it to Henry James, except I like Henry James, particularly The Turn of the Screw, which became Deborah Kerr’s best role, in The Innocents, a thinking man’s scary movie.

Does anyone write like Conrad and James anymore? People are in a hurry. All those commas throw us over the handlebars as we bicycle through the prose.

The Conrad is a handy paperback, I’ll give it that. It’s getting to where a book’s physical size will be a determinant of my interest, pro or con. I’m lazy. I like lying down with a pillow or two under my head and a light enough paperback to prop in one hand. Big fat books must be laid on your lap, table, or desk, and you peer down and study them. Lord knows how I got through Infinite Jest.

I have a sneaking suspicion my stepping down from teaching English has lent me the distance to admit that, like my former students, I’d rather do something else, something easier.

I was talking to my therapist about how the self-styled intellectual and autodidact might be slipping. I used as an example how I’d read The Brothers Karamazov on my Kindle. One problem was the delivery system; you can’t flip fore and aft to re-align and reaffirm what you think is going on, like with a paper book. Why didn’t I put it down halfway and give up if it was a compromised enjoyment? You got me.

My favorite Dostoevsky is the novella Notes from Underground, an orgy of self-excoriation. I’m sure the reason I love this poignant, painful tale is that I’ve been in the business of robust, unflinching self-excoriation myself for quite some time. I don’t believe Dostoevsky wrote it to make a statement about such individuals living in squalor and self-embitterment in cobwebby garrets in St. Petersburg. No, I believe he wrote it because he suffered from this hell of hyper-consciousness, leavened by mystical transports equally his and his alone. It’s a book that speaks to me … much the way a far different type of novel, The Catcher in the Rye, speaks to me. It’s painful and it’s honest and the humor comes from the honesty, and it’s not for everybody. Crime and Punishment, I found ponderous; Raskolnikov didn’t compel my interest, even near the end when we sense some sort of Christian redemption circling about him. Notes moves me, with its brave, sweaty truthfulness.

I often think there is something Russian in my soul, my temperament. One of the greatest gifts I ever got was from my mother, who turned me on to Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of The Pathetique. The CD also has “Marche Slave” and the bombastic but irresistible “1812 Overture.” Something about Tchaikovsky’s perfect airs and swelling violins stirs me. As I listen, I imagine the Steppes, the vast teeming nation that poses itself as an enemy to the U.S., and indeed is responsible for horrific violence against Jews, yet fought on the Allied side during WWII and in the process lost 27 million people, both civilian and military, dwarfing the blood sacrifice of any other nation. Somehow this grandson of Russian Jews – a much maligned people standing outside the “national character” – finds himself yearning to know more about Russia. This might partly explain my absorption in the spy show The Americans that got done running on FX last year.

This is a freeform blog, but there’s a reason I’m writing about reading but veering off into music and TV. I often wonder, as I write or read, if any artistic moment can touch in power and immediacy Hendrix’s agonized guitar on “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).”

But books remain an important technology and cultural medium.

And something funny. When you’re ready for a book, circumstances put that book in your hands. I was all cluttered and congested trying to read “important works,” as I’ve discussed above. Then, walking through Habitat for Humanity with a wife bent on buying cheap decorative stones, I strayed through the cheap book section, and happened upon James Herriot’s Dog Stories. Excuse the pun, but it was just what the doctor ordered.

His name was really James Alfred Wight; Herriot was a pen name. I liked the story collection’s humor (or should I say humour?) and compassionate heart. It’s a bit science-y in its polysyllabic references to drugs and treatments used then and now, but never cold or distant. When I took our charged-up Airedale in to the vet’s for a checkup, after the great fatigue scare (valley fever and Lyme disease, both), I mentioned this book to the animal doctor who’d saved Rosa with her pills and treatments. She said she’d had the pleasure of hearing Wight lecture at her college. I said I’d bring her the book. She’s eager to see it.

People communicate through books. Books are an effective medium for information and entertainment. They’re part of a cultural constellation that embraces all art forms.

Why am I following up a blog about manual labor and home remodeling with this ramble about books? Because it explains what I do with my scarce and precious “free time.” I read. My eyes are strained with age, but then again I’m not worried about completing my tour of The Canon anyway. I mostly read for pleasure. Please tell me that’s okay.

That’s okay, isn’t it?

How I Learned to Quit My Bellyachin’ and Get Back to Work

The mess we made of the downstairs deck, which ain’t there no more. Old wood tore out … waiting for new stone.

 

I watched my friend use a circle saw to cut through rotted floorboards on a downstairs mini-deck outside my wife’s yoga studio, a “porch” we’ll redo with stepping stones. What we exposed was sickening.

Suffocated rats’ nest. Spiders.

And worse.

We smelled it before we saw it: shit pooling up from an uncapped pipe. The metaphoric possibilities are inviting. But let’s not go there.

The sewer line was clogged. At Home Depot I rented an industrial snake. We wrestled the monster down to the work area, plugged it in, and got going.

And going.

I thought I’d never get out of there. Jose would not give up.

I was ready to give up. I could’ve curled up in a puddle of shit and gone to sleep I was so worn out. I thought the sun would rise on a new day and I’d still be there with this workaholic, rumbling that thing under the yard. I’d been up since two a.m. I came off my Walmart shift at one p.m. to start right in on this. No time to put sore feet on a footstool and watch TV.

I descended the stone steps toward the street and put my ear to the ground to hear sounds of telltale scraping. Felt like some Plains Indian marveling along the rails at the vibrations of the distant iron horse.

Except wonder had morphed into fatigue a long time ago.

Victory was hard won, but we capped the pipe at nine. Block cleared.

Ending a seventeen-hour workday for yours truly.

Next day started three days off shift at Walmart. But not at my house.

Jose was over at six. As my wife had not liked the color of the hundred seventy-five stones we’d rashly unloaded the day before, these two old guys had to reload his truck in three trips to return them to Lowe’s. Went to Home Depot to look for stones that’d work. Struck out. Finally, a place had terra cotta stepping stones and versalock retaining-wall stones that looked like they’d match what was already on the property, but they looked dark. To avoid a repeat of before, we took a sample to show Barb.

We were right; she was not happy. Said she’d shop herself. Fine by us.

We got going doing what we could. By end of day we’d disposed of half the wood from the old deck, costing me twenty bucks at a landfill. We turned over shit-soaked muck to let it air before we can spread the decomposed granite, tomorrow at this writing, and lay the stepping stones we’re calling pavers.

Barb returned waving a white flag.

“Use the stones you guys picked out.”

Tomorrow we dump the rest of the wood and go get the stones.

It’s getting to me. All this labor.

I’m up to it, but I wake up so sore. Yesterday, carrying load after load of old, nail-studded, broken boards to the street and dumping the loads curbside, I felt like Lurch staggering along on his prosaic rounds. Found myself considering the validity of a certain undeniable resentment. I miss living in an apartment.

At times I feel like telling Barb I don’t want to work that hard. Don’t want to work at all! I want to relax and retire for real. Collect the teacher pension and Social Security and sit on my ass.

I earned it. Even our financial guy said we could quit working our respective little retail jobs, collect Social and chill.

But what would I do? Watch TV and commune with my internet harem?

My self-image depends on labor, however humbling. Perhaps the more humbling the better. I’m old but I’m not dead. I must work. Counterbalancing the resentment, I feel driven, driven by karma.

I was raised a rich kid whose dad got guys to come fix things. Pliers, two screwdrivers, and a claw hammer in the pristine garage. A grease spot from some regular shmo sliding under his car to collect old black Valvoline would constitute a horror to my mother. We were not do-it-yourselfers.

Waxing adulthood denied me that same luxury. Most of my adult life I was poor. I still have this as my operating philosophy. I pull my weight in this marriage. The bit of dough Barb inherited from her dad, which put us in this fine house, does not excuse me from that karmic debt, a debt paid in sweat.

I can’t feel sorry for myself. This is how most men live.

I watch Jose bend to his task and sense he is not happy unless he has challenges of this sort. He tore up the whole back bathroom in his bungalow to redo it. Said the floor was rotted. Makes you wonder. Does he just like having a project like this, even make-work, to get away from his old lady? Whatever the motivation, his is a more successful escape from marital kvetching than my own retreat behind a book. At least he has something to show for it.

I was so fatigued after that first day, that seventeen-hour workday, I couldn’t fall asleep, so I started in on an episode of Madam Secretary with Barb. Ten minutes later my head was a bowling ball. I was so beat I just swished out my mouth with water, arm too tired to brush. Hit the pillow with a thud.

Woke up at four, oversleeping for a guy who’d got up at two fifteen four days running. Drank coffee. Read meditations on our political crisis online. This was my time. My spiritual hermitage. A space for contemplation.

Hmm.

Biden attacked for knowing how to reach across the aisle to get things done. Poor guy, he does look haggard lately. I agree with Bret Stephens that Harris’s attack on Biden will come to haunt her, and with Andrew Sullivan in New York that the Dems are tripping over Latino immigration and the true practical meaning of asylum. If Trump wins in 2020, we’ll have it coming for indulging our Woodstock at the expense of reality.

It’s frustrating, but I won’t give up on our country.

Especially on July 4.

Slogan for the day: Be the American you want America to be.

It’s hard work, but it needs to get done. Let’s do our damn job and quit complaining about it.