Stones Electrify Arizona

Video screen captures on my humble Android: (top) Keith, left, and Ronnie lay down that elemental Stones guitar attack; (above) Mick prances and cavorts like the athlete he still is.


My wife and I saw the Rolling Stones in Glendale, August 26.

It was raw. It was perfect in its imperfection.

There was a special electricity, a special poignancy, for the cognoscenti. This may be the Stones’ last go-round, at least as a touring band.

Mick Jagger amazed, as reporters had said about previous dates. Heart problem my ass.

Keith looked closer to a medical event than Mick did. But the leathery icon stood there, looking battered and a little tired, and overcame a slow start to rescue the night, for it is his band and always was.

From the opener, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” to the final encore, “Satisfaction,” seventy-six-year-old Mick Jagger danced and gesticulated and writhed with Dionysian exuberance, Ronnie Wood captained lead moments and amped up the energy in the near-sellout crowd, and Charlie Watts played his modest traps with a proficiency improved by time.

And Keith Richards, with a growl that built to a typhoon, threw his arms around the night to carry us home.

I recall it starting to happen on “Honky Tonk Women.” After Jagger got done sneering and vamping, the four-screen video display flashing images of the “barroom queeeeeen in Memphis,” Keith stepped up. Playing a single stinging, dissonant note, an elemental, jarring Keith note, he went into an extended riff that magnetized him. We were waiting for that, for we are lost without him. Mick is lost without him.

Later, perhaps during “Midnight Rambler,” Keith showed his mastery of the guitar. You felt him going one way, issuing raunchy chords and riffs, then catching himself and see-sawing back the other way. There’s a call-and-response there. He speaks through his axe, like an old bluesman. He is an old bluesman.

And to think I’d been worried whether I’d be able to stay up, accustomed as I am to going to bed at seven thirty and waking at two fifteen for work. Adrenalin took over. I was out of my seat dancing and singing. Wore myself hoarse. Barb hadn’t been to a rock concert in ages and worried if she was up to it, saying she’d been a bit of a crotchety old lady of late. I’m proud to say she was Hippie Chick incarnate, party girl revivified, taking cell phone pictures, dancing her ass off, hooting and singing. Like the blues song says, she was shakin’ just like a willow tree.

It was a sometimes uncomfortably mixed crowd, but nothing could stop the fun.

Barb and I laughed afterward, driving to our miserable Quality Inn with no in-room coffee or proper plumbing, about the old bag behind us kvetching about how she’d have preferred seeing Donny and Marie. “Down in front!” she’d groused all evening.

“It’s a Rolling Stones concert!” Barb said as we laughed about the night’s excitements and surprises. “Who sits?” The crowd was older. Of the younger people, a lot seemed distantly respectful, but others threw themselves into the roar.

I put six hundred bucks on my Visa for this. It was worth ten times that.

High points for me included “Sad Sad Sad” off of Steel Wheels, never until now a song I remember loving but now rippling with tripartite guitar energy (including from Mick); the slurry country number “Sweet Virginia” and R&B rocker “Tumbling Dice” off of Exile on Main Street, the spectacular if overproduced double album that takes its place in the Holy Four of albums (all from the Mick Taylor years); “Midnight Rambler,” off of Let It Bleed, extended and vamped up to snaky, evil glory, the sexual menace well and responsibly presented as theater; and a hip-swiveling, can’t-sit-still “Brown Sugar,” the most dance-inducing rock song ever, off of Sticky Fingers.

The magic night wrapped up magically, especially in the first of two encores.

On “Gimme Shelter,” Sasha Allen took the cameo vocal on what may be my favorite Rolling Stones song, off my favorite Stones album, Let It Bleed. She had big shoes to fill. Who didn’t get goose bumps when a black woman named Merry Clayton took that anthem skyward with her electrifying performance fifty years ago?

“Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away!”

Ms. Allen took the responsibility of channeling that divine assist in the proper spirit, making it her own, changing things up a bit, and giving Jagger exactly what he needed to sell the song. “Gimme Shelter” is a cry for help; it’s also a sexual statement, like many Stones songs. It was a pleasure to watch the interplay between the comely African-American chanteuse and the ageless satyr, who at one point leaned back on her, back rubbing back, a moment so amusing she broke out laughing. The video display – flickering, almost subliminal images of police brutality – mixed with the vibe of sexuality to create a message, a contradiction, a political statement made all the more effective for its being covert. The song had a shattering, finishing effect on the night.

I made the mistake of wearing cowboy boots. My feet didn’t hurt till we got out of there, into the near hundred degrees of midnight in the Phoenix area.

We contemplated our whole lives in light of the eternal gift of the Rolling Stones. And thought about how, in today’s ugliness and turmoil, a gossamer line separates us from one another.

“I tell you love, sister / It’s just a kiss away, it’s just a kiss away.”

Barb and me having the most fun we’ve had in years. We will never forget the Rolling Stones.

Thicker Than Water

My brother with his daughter Emily at her high school graduation


I call him Fatman for some reason. He was a bag of bones when he was a kid, and he had an outie. I remember that. I remember how happy we were as brothers. 

My affections ran to excess, as did my temper. I used to throw him down the stairs. He never got mad. He didn’t have to. He would one day beat me in tennis. Regularly. That was enough.

I used to wonder whether he admired me. I found out he did, though in the dubious, time-honored way little brothers regard the accomplishments of their elders. When I was a teenager feeling up a girl downstairs, I could have sworn I felt the presence of a spy. Later, Marty confessed he’d crept down in the dark and peeped over the rail.

I always felt protective of him. One time I came by just when a neighbor boy my age, in other words three years older than Marty, asked him to do something indecent. I steered Marty away. I’d have bloodied anyone who harmed my brother. I had a Holden Caulfield ferocity about protecting his innocence.

Lisa, the oldest of us, used to rib Marty.

“You know, they didn’t want you,” she’d say, referring to the fact (as confessed by my mother) that Marty, after three intended kids, had been unplanned.

“And what a great surprise it was!” Mom would say, glancing hotly at Lisa every time she had to explain this.

Mom barely bore the strain of managing all four of us. A lot of the job of mothering fell to my mother’s mother, our Yiddische bubbe, who didn’t have it easy. “Vild Eendience!” she would howl when we were all screaming and jumping at once. I even imagine the cleaning lady, Mae, through the window of infant memory, changing diapers and bearing some of the burden herself.

My mother warmed and honored the lives of all who knew her. She held not only the marriage but the family together. She was not about making us clean our room. She would later confess she and my dad had not done enough discipline. But there was a quiet fire about her that transcended such prosaic concerns.

My father was, well, like me. Intense, preoccupied, ideologically driven. He had emerged from passionate leftism, gone into the Big War, seen much that was ugly and disillusioning, lost a father and mother and two brothers, endured much loss. There was something distant about him, even though he was the patriarch of the prototypical hugging family. He gave us life, sheltered and fed us, had a whimsical nature. He spoiled us in fancy restaurants, took us to England and Europe.

Lisa said I lived out my father’s shadow. Maybe that’s right. I didn’t sell my novel either. She also said my father terrified me from an early age, so early I could not even remember it. That could be true too.

But I remember an unwitting brutality that fell on Marty worse than on any of us. The crazy rage my father went into when Marty left his shoe on the playground of Sunday school … ah, Meyer Levin Sunday School, where red diaper babies heard about Jewish history and sang civil rights songs and tried to learn some Yiddish. We should have paid attention to that last; it may have helped us keep our parents and grandparents from talking about us behind our backs without leaving the room.

Marty was the forgotten one. It happens a lot to the youngest.

I always felt him a complement to me. When I went off to New York and further confusions than the ones I already knew, I came back declaring some sort of acidhead major in religion.

Marty said, “Why did you study that?”

He went to Ohio University, the “party school,” and was a stoned fuck-up too, but at least he came out with a journalism degree, something you could use.

He would ply that trade well and become a successful writer, a bold, shameless freelance hustler.

Marty eschewed my unwonted seriousness. He went the other way, into refusal to furrow his brow – though, in an act of scholarship I never expected of him, he did take on The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and became an expert on the Einsatzgruppen and Hitler’s whole cast of accomplices.

I was thinking about blogging about Harvey Pekar, the self-described “working-class intellectual” who celebrated his proletarian existence in a series of Cleveland “comics” called American Splendor. And maybe now’s the time. Marty and I were living “at home,” sharing the same little bedroom, when Marty saw my issues of Pekar’s work. Marty was considering doing his own comics — funny, cartoonish comics — and went to see him.

He came home with the sarcastic report, “Real fun guy.” Adding, “Oh. He wants to meet you.”

This may not have been so much because I was a fan as that Marty had divulged something about me I wished he hadn’t. I did artwork. But not anything I could bring myself to show people. I buried my smutty drawings in the toy chest, though my grandmother, on her cleaning rounds, tended to exhume them, to my eternal shame.

When I met Harvey Pekar of the bushy brows and glowering demeanor, it was a melding of hearts and intellects. I saw it all now perfectly, how Marty and he didn’t meld. I rode my bike home (I’d lost my driving privileges from driving drunk) imagining Marty’s carnival-whistle, whoopie-cushion orientation not working with Harvey. Harvey and I were simpatico. He asked me to come back.

I always competed with Lisa and Marty for the title of most successful writer. I lost on both fronts. Lisa published two novels through a small, gay press; she’s working on a third. Marty shot into the stratosphere. He authored a hundred little books, some about sports, some about entertainment and culture. It’s an amazing, prolific career. And he ain’t done yet. The most popular books so far might be The Great American Cereal Book and A Celebration of Animation: The 100 Greatest Cartoon Characters in Television History.

“He’s guileless,” my mother, with typical penetrating wisdom, used to say about him.

Naivete can be violated. Everybody’s innocence takes a beating.

But Marty’s retains a special shine. He’s been though failed relationships but he also has successes none of his siblings can point to. He’s the only one of us with kids. Two glorious daughters, each with an artistic bent. He’s the same lovable nut with them.

Martin Gitlin is a breath of fresh air. While I’m trying to establish my philosophy on life, he’s engaged in a Facebook discussion about what’s the funniest Three Stooges short of all time.

He always reminds me of what’s really important: that you enjoy the only life you’re gonna have on this earth, and for that I accord him the greater wisdom.



This Workin’ for a Livin’ Ain’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be, but It’ll Do

Top: Indiana 1955. Workers punching in. I swipe a bar-coded name card at Walmart, but things haven’t changed that much. (Photo appropriated from Above: Rosa and me at a trail near Thumb Butte. She helps me attain philosophical clarity because I think too much. (Photo courtesy of Barbara Chiancone Gitlin.)

What should this blog be about?

The inner workings of my psychic life? My daily routine? Should Cactus Man concentrate on the wisdom of his dog, who feels no guilt at falling asleep on a pad after a hike and kibble-and-bacon breakfast, while her silly human worries about his wife catching her modern day Andy Capp curled up on the couch, with stones to move and weeds to whack?

Or should the blog target graver, more geopolitical matters? Should I air honed viewpoints about religion, culture, film, national and global affairs? Bari Weiss in The New York Times already nailed how members of my tribe who buy Trump’s definition of a loyal, right-thinking Jew flout the very lessons of the Diaspora. Who wants to hear it from me? I mean who reads these ravings anyway? Like nine people? I wonder if I’m not just some guy talking in a barrel … then some dude at an AA meeting I don’t even know tells me he reads my blog. I can’t keep up with all I don’t know.

Why do I do this? I’ve thought about it a long time and come to believe I’m like a Tourette’s Syndrome sufferer, who cannot help but blurt things out even if they’re profane.

And yet I find I am living peaceably, bemused, with a few incongruities. My wife and I are setting about making an appointment to see a marriage counselor. We need to fight out our issues with a referee. I have never loved her more. Go figure. I work at Walmart. I like it. But how? Let’s remember, I went to Columbia. All right, I was a pothead at Columbia. But still.

I’m reading Working by Studs Terkel, written in 1974. Just what the doctor ordered. It’s one of those books that serendipity put into your hands just when you needed to see them.

Actually it’s not what the doctor ordered, but what the social worker ordered. The woman who acts as my therapist, sitting calmly while I free-associate my way to the odd, strained insight, suggested it.

She suggested it after I announced that I discerned a verifiable victory in my life.

And what’s that? she said.

I had met my Great Existential Predicament head on, without fear, and won. I had burned out, played through all my chances. Being a writer was over. Being a teacher was over. My whole white-collar career had ground to a halt. Reality leered. I’d have to … oh no … I’d have to get some plain old low-pay job, a job job, probably in a store. Oh my God! [Sounds of weeping and gnashing of teeth.] But that didn’t faze me. I walked into Personnel at Walmart (some AA guy said they were hiring) and got a job. It was a moment of reckoning. I stared down the mockery, realizing I was okay with it. I would work at Walmart. I’d do it deliberately, as an act of karma yoga. I’d been carrying the bag for my father’s whole luftmensch wordsmith trip my whole life. Now it was over. May it rest in peace.

I never looked back. I like being a proletarian grunt.

In that bestseller Working, Terkel interviewed all manner of workers. I have read riveting confessions from a farmer, a prostitute, telephone operators, a steel mill laborer, a construction worker, a stewardess, an ad exec. I’ve yet to read oral histories from a bunch of auto plant people. I feel these workers’ pain, the boredom, the banality they endure. I empathize with some people’s suffering of corporate rules that pinch their dignity. I understand the wistful cynicism so many of them express. And I feel the pride in what they do, no matter what it is. We’re all in the dance together.

I guess I blog to add my voice to the chorus.

I blog to lament … and to celebrate.

I’ve been taken to task for being depressive. For that I apologize.

You’ll be pleased to know that Barb and I are going to see the Stones in a few days! I’m so used to following farmer’s hours, waking at three. Crashing out at eight. Opening act goes on at nine! I might have to “reintroduce” myself at a meeting. Will I have to take NoDoz?

Hmm. Do me a favor. If I do, let’s keep it between you and me.

Let me leave you with a final thought. Once you see God, you’re back where you started. Chopping wood and carrying water. Ram Dass, Be Here Now.

Shalom, y’all.

Remembering Ken Kesey

I was never in his revolution and was a confused writer to boot, but he took me in.

I met famous people as a journalist. I may have believed their fame would rub off on me.

It did not.

Not only did their fame not rub off on me, I may have antagonized them.

Ernie Anderson, aka Ghoulardi, Cleveland cult hero who’d gone on to voice-over success in L.A., bristled at my chirpy nervous questions and had to have resented my leaving out of my Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine feature my meeting Mickey Rooney, who happened to be in the same radio-station waiting room as Anderson and me. Rooney mimicked me, taking my pen and pad and squinting at me as he lobbed mock questions. Anderson dutifully shared about growing up in New England, how the Cleveland TV guys let him be a late-night schlock sci-fi movie host, doing beatnik shtick, but I feel to this day my piece was dry and could have been better.

I antagonized Russell Means. I not only interviewed him stoned but offered him grass. This is but one wincing memory that sustains my determination to stay straight. In my piece in FreeTimes, I disdained to voice outrage at the local baseball team’s racist caricature, mascot Chief Wahoo, that had graced helmets and jerseys for decades, though (I like to think I had a hand in this) it no longer does. I sent Means a sheaf of printed bylines that embarrasses me now. I have it on good authority this leader of the American Indian Movement was angry I didn’t march with the protesters at Opening Day for the ball team. I should have. At the time I just thought he was a celebrity, and I wanted to know him. It didn’t occur to me I had a larger responsibility, writing as I was for a left-leaning alternative weekly and putting on parade the collective feelings of a people that had been fucked around enough.

These experiences, and the shame, guilt, and anger they engendered, made me decide not to be a writer anymore.

But here I am writing.

A blog reader asked for this one. It’s about one of the last celebrities I met, Ken Kesey, author of two great novels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion.

He was in Cleveland in 1997 as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum staged a “Summer of Love” retrospective. From a money standpoint it flopped due to utter lack of corporate sponsorship; Rolling Stone missed this or chose not to rub it in. There was poor Donovan having schlepped from England to stand on a little windswept stage in the Rock Hall parking lot on an unseasonably cold spring day, wondering, as he played what I would call a “still palatable repertoire,” why he’d agreed to come.

My interest in Kesey was as an adoring writer. Maybe it was Robert Stone who, upon Kesey’s death of liver problems some years later, said he could have been “a writer for our times” had he not chosen to lead the “revolution.” Look around at today’s political and cultural mess. See any revolution? Me either.

The lingo has been coopted. Black folks say “You trippin” when someone’s acting wacky. We talk about “drinking the Kool-Aid” to refer to imbibing something from a shared cultural well. We would never be the same once Tom Wolfe published The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test about Kesey, acid trips, and public theater.

I had one foot in AA and another in the shaky conviction I had “every right” to take drugs when I took the Shaker Rapid from my apartment to the lakefront to meet Kesey and collect enough to deliver a piece to FreeTimes. The Bus rolled in containing geriatric versions of Mountain Girl, George Walker, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Ken Babbs as well as Kesey himself. They had to have been disappointed in the turnout. I’d thought throngs would swell past the perimeter of the lot, but only a hardy, diminutive host surged about the bus. I heard one cop walking around amidst the marijuana smoke say, “I don’t even care.”

A Plain Dealer asshole, who’d been given the honor of getting on the bus in Chicago and riding in with the Pranksters, told me he’d seen Kesey dispatch a whole bottle of gin on the ride. He spoke dismissively of him.

I had cynical thoughts of my own. LSD had given me some beatific experiences, but it also was present at some of the worst moments of my life, such as when in high school I took it the same night I thought I might have a sexual dalliance with a pretty girl it still wounds me to remember. Traumatized as I was, I still took drugs. That’s drugs to me.

Maybe I just loved those books. Nobody captured the myth of the American male, the American hero, the way Kesey did. The plotting, characterization, use of voice, and other elements of that first, blockbuster novel are, to my mind, unparalleled, the tragic ending perfect. And if you want to read a book opening that’ll knock you out, open Notion, the waters crashing through coastal Oregon, setting up the stubborn bastard at the helm of the action.

For some reason Kesey took me in, disdaining to speak with any of the other journalists pressing about the bus. He had me up on the psychedelically painted ride where I clutched an undersize memo pad to scribble his responses. Both on the bus and off, he answered me and let me tail after him. He seemed wistful, distant, yet deeply intimate, and there for me.

What was he reading? Nothing really.

I mentioned William S. Burroughs.

“Oh, he’s a heavy, like … like Beckett.”

Hearing him speak in cosmic ellipses, I had the uncanny thought he was precisely the character portrayed by Wolfe in Kool-Aid, though in a rap to the crowd prefatory to him and the Pranksters’ garage-band rendition of “Gloria,” he compared Wolfe unfavorably with Hunter S. Thompson.

I suggested his just-released, long-awaited third novel, the “fishing saga” Sailor Song, which felt attenuated, stoned out, and seemed a statement against corporate ownership, might have benefited from a honed “social message.”

He sneered. “That’s … Royko. I’m a fiction writer. Fiction has to have magic.”

There ended that encounter. But wait. There’s more.

When Burroughs died I posted on a memorial web site my feelings about his work, which Kesey read! He would give me his feedback in a strange yet somehow heartening way.

Kesey made a return trip to the Rock Hall, and I was talked into going by some lady I had already met on the first trip there. She had, uh, known his eminence biblically sometime back in the day. She seemed to be living out a celebration of the Sixties, with “Crystal Ship” by the Doors tinkling in her outgoing message. But I went with her. I guess we both needed somebody to go with.

Kesey appeared in the proscenium to act out his children’s book Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear. Wearing costume, and impeccably prepared, he read out the story, playing all the voices. Then he spoke to the capacity crowd and in that speech wound up speaking to me! I guess in the small theater he saw me. I do not remember him calling my name, but when he talked about the piece I’d run in FreeTimes, including its horribly disingenuous ending, and then at length about my eulogy of Burroughs, taking me to task for blowing a fact – it was Beckett, not Tennessee Williams, who’d condemned the cutup method – I knew. I felt as much glow as shame, though there was some scolding in what he had to say. Here he was, speaking directly to me, risking the bafflement of all the others here, because he saw me as a writer.

That was enough. To teach me. And to humble me.

Watery Respite for an Overworked Arizonan

Nothing quite as refreshing as dunking oneself in a cold river on a scorching hot day.

The complications of one’s life tend to dissolve when one is actively engaged in physical exercise. You can’t lift a heavy box or bench two hundred or fight your way up Granite Mountain unless you’re focused on the job at hand. That’s what’s great about physical exercise. It demands concentration; the body – sole agency by which the task is performed – won’t have it any other way.

I’ve wasted a lot of breath bitching about Arizona and its “fake lakes,” but I’m here to tell you I don’t care if Clear Creek, scene of my recent kayaking adventure, is purely God-made or the product of human intervention. It’s the latter, but who cares? It’s delightful — and cold. The dappled river runs between rugged rock, a flickering display that even features real Native American petroglyphs at one point. You drift along on the water, sometimes not even having to paddle, just coursing down the way, then back to work paddling kayak style, bit of a shoulder and upper back workout describing figure eights in the air, dipping one oar into the water then the other.

All your problems drift along, objects in a meditation. Hmm … my agonizing about my wife’s imperfections … my sense of her own anxieties regarding my imperfections … complaints like assholes, everybody’s got one …

But look! Young people ranged on rocks, sunning themselves, drinking beer and smoking marijuana and jumping off cliffs into the water, swimming on this sizzling hot day. This is Navajo country, I deduced on the basis of all the coppery skin and lustrous black hair mixed up with all the crazy white people. What was happening all around me became the meditation.

Everything fell into place on this day. Bob Gitlin, Angry Loner, the man fighting a proud defense of his integrity and damn them who don’t get him, realized he has true friends in a couple that’ve flitted on the periphery of his life since he moved to cowboy country fourteen years ago. Repeating the same pattern as obtained for my father, I let Barb make social arrangements. Sure enough it was she who asked me whether I wanted to go. I did want to. Had my bellyful of my own company, and Barry and Cathy really know how to do the outdoors. We had a Mexican brunch at the juncture of I-17 and SR 260, then drove another hour to get to McHood Park Clear Creek Reservoir, in Winslow.

“Standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona / I’m such a fine sight to see!”

Well maybe not as fine as when I was younger (or as Jackson Browne), but I did justice to my swim trunks. Not too bad for an old guy. Picture to prove it.

Wounded my pride more than anything when we decided to drift to the shoals and park our boats and swim, and when I got out of my kayak my foot touched down on mossy-slick rock and down I fell, backwards. The only physical damage was the bruised heel of my right hand, which made today’s gym workout extra challenging.

I rode for a while with my buddy, just me and him, so his girlfriend could get a rest from the Howard Stern he likes to listen to. I like Howard. So the girls rode in my SUV and I got in with Barry. I had felt a wave of drowsiness overcome me, maybe because I’d scarfed my huevos rancheros a trifle too expeditiously, but soon as I was in his truck, and even though I set the seat back to recline, I found myself overcome with the urge to talk. I was telling him about how my wife and I have problems, yadda yadda, like what couple doesn’t. And he’s telling me he knows, he knows. And it was good to realize I don’t have to hide everything. Such a thing as over sharing, sure. But I’ll get by “with a little help from my friends,” as Ringo said. Sometimes it helps to come full front and admit you’re human.

I tasted victory on this day. For one, I’d overcome my annoyance at Barb for making me have a life, and so I decided to really learn how to lash those two kayaks onto the roof rack of my Subaru Forester. Lord knows my wife spent enough at that trucker accoutrement place having them install those J-racks up there, and she spent a pretty penny buying good kayaks. Two times (at least; I’m trying to block it out of my mind), a badly secured kayak started to fall off the ride while in transit, on the highway!

It wouldn’t do. I decided to man up and do my homework. Over and over I watched a YouTube video about lashing a kayak to J-cradles on a top rack. At Barb’s more recent prodding, I realized I’d turned the vid off too soon. There was this other part. You also must belay the kayaks fore and aft. It’s not just lashing them to the J-racks, it’s using cord and S-hooks and what rudimentary knotsmanship you possess to secure the nose and butt of your kayak to hold-down positions at the front of rear of your ride. This I mastered. No more agonizing, timid crawling down the road afraid of another ego-busting, punk-anger-producing embarrassment, and some “real man” – the prototypical two hundred and fifty pound Arizona Trumpnik in shaved head and goatee riding by in an F-350 – having to come along to fix it.

I’m the real man.

I got a sunburn, but in most respects I put myself back together yesterday. I kayaked, I swam, I bonded with friends. What more can you ask?

Arizona summer, don’t end just yet.

Our love affair has only just begun.

Thank You, Grandfather, for the Blindness in Which I Saw Further

Nap time after a hard day of stocking … and tired in more ways than one. But I’ll answer the bell for the next round!


School has started and I’m not there. I’m working at Walmart. My store’s doing inventory tonight. All is geared toward that end. We’re scanning bins and running merch like the Keystone Kops.

I know why I seem able to eat whatever I want and not get fat. I walk several miles a day each of the four days of the week I’m there. That’s heavy-duty aerobics. And you know any other sixty-five-year-old guys who heft fifty-pound boxes of kitty litter or bags of dog food on their job? And let’s not forget the hardiness it takes to “work the freezer” Sunday and Monday mornings, clad in sweater, knit hat, and gloves as well as the padded windbreaker the store makes available to the luckless peons who draw this duty. It’s fucking Antarctica in there. And you know what’s the worst part? I’ve … God help me … I’ve come to like it. I’m left alone. I run what little freight there is, scan the bins, stock the “picks” my scanner tells me belong on home shelves, and find satisfaction at having met the challenge! Learning how to work the scanner with my gloves on has something to do with it.

All day long I run around doing physical things. When I burst outside that fluorescent cavern at one p.m., after the protracted scurrying that is my role at this retail monolith, I am elated.

And I don’t have to deal with punks. Or the gnawing awareness of my unfitness for the kinds of teaching jobs I pulled in these parts. I’m not even sure I’d have been any good teaching prep school kids, as I liked to tell people. I’m neither as charismatic nor as compendious in my reading as I like to fancy myself.

But it wearies me to realize this, to keep drumming it into myself. Tired of kneeing myself in the nuts over my perceived shortcomings. My therapist, who never pulls her punches, nonetheless says I should be more “self-compassionate.” I live strategically, focused on activities that turn off the noise and shaming between my ears. I forget to think about my failure when I’m engaged in the successful enterprise of being a superannuated stock boy.

In the photo above you see me upon getting home last week from my job.

See Bob. See Bob snore.

And there’s Rosa, sitting for the picture, glad to see me enough to let Barb snap the shot. I can’t lie down for long, though; this dog’s exercise needs are still prodigious, though she’s aged and filled out, having recovered from the fatigue-producing illness I blogged about in spectacular three-part fashion. One reason I feel so simpatico with the meshugene hundt is that she, like me, knows fatigue.

Don Juan in the Carlos Castaneda books said a warrior grapples with four allies. He must defeat them if he is to work out his full agenda as a man. Otherwise each can be an enemy. The first is fear; the hero faces his fears or will never amount to much. The second is clarity, which can make a man narrow minded and too sure of himself or, if he is humble, farsighted and fair. The third is power, which can make one malicious, or benevolent, depending on his moral breadth and agility. The fourth and final force for the modern day Jacob to wrestle with is old age; a man must fight off tiredness, lest he stop short of fulfilling his karmic duty and finding his final wisdom.

In the movie Little Big Man, do you remember blinded, war-ravaged Chief Dan George, Old Lodge Skins, at the end, dancing what he thinks is his last dance, appealing to the great spirit, called “Grandfather”?

“Thank you for my victories and for my defeats. Thank you for my visions, and the blindness in which I saw further.”

This shining leader, as comic as he is an epic character, intuits the sublime in the whole round of his life, from the ribald to the horrific.

In a burlesque moment, rain spatters him as he lies down for what he intended to be his willing capitulation to death, his glad departure from this mortal plane.

He rises on an elbow.

“Well, sometimes the magic works; sometimes it doesn’t.”

And he walks though the downpour with Little Big Man, Dustin Hoffman, back to the teepee to eat, leaving us with a profane parting shot about a woman he has known. It’s a perfect ending to a flawed, sprawling film with a big heart.

We’re all God’s fools. This fictional Native American’s wisdom is to know this. Great leaders know it.

Sometimes I look around at this country that’s devolving into stupidity and violence and want to pack it in myself, tired of living in a place that no longer believes in the experiment America was supposed to be, a melting pot America where different kinds of Americans could find commonality. There are times that, like Old Lodge Skins, I see a future in which Human Beings follow a road that goes nowhere.

I am tired of having as President a boor, a rich boor who has drawn around himself armies of gun-loving racists to further his agenda and nurture his power trip. This presidency is an abomination. If his hateful vitriol stems more from stupidity and dark id than from any reasoned ideology, doesn’t that make it worse? It’s easier to hide. He’s got it hidden from himself. He doesn’t even know he’s a shit. The worst shit ever to assume the highest political office in the world.

Ah, but enough.

I worked hard and humbly today. I hereby lay my cosmic burdens down. For today I did good. I put my shoulder to the wheel. I did my bit.

And so, until my wife kicks me off the couch to do some household chore …

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz …

His Movies Never Bore You

Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (photo stolen from IMDb)

A friend I used to hang with in Cleveland once said, “It was the worst thing anybody ever did to anybody.”

Referring to what for decades has had the marquee title, The Holocaust. An event, in only the past century, that is too horrible to believe.

Except it really happened.

When I heard of Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist history Inglourious Basterds and sat through its interlocking vignettes, its fantasy of revenge on the evildoers, I had reservations. The macho avengers, including horror director and now actor Eli Roth, set my teeth on edge. The smog of hate motivating everything put me off. Why? Not because the Nazis didn’t deserve what they got. They did. So what was my problem?

I just saw it again, on Netflix, and had less of a problem, even noting with special interest how two Basterds, who don’t know they’re going to die in Shosanna’s own holocaust of the evildoers, play their parts with such unmitigated malice as they mow down Germans fleeing for the (sorry, Krauts) barred doors. Eli Roth’s face, lips compressed in boundless rage, are right for the scene. Who – especially someone Jewish – hasn’t imagined such a revenge?

It doesn’t wipe out what really happened, though. And that can seem a problem.

There’s something else to consider, though I wonder if such reservations ever bother Quentin.

Trauma survivors, people who deal with victimization and violence, wind up, if they’ve really done the work, at the threshold of (that dread word) … forgiveness.

I keep seeing interviews of people who were in the camps, who saw loved ones shot from behind like sheep, their bodies falling into mass graves. Makes your blood boil. And yet the refrain of their testimony tends to be about loving every day they have left, and having no room in their hearts for hatred or bitterness or recrimination.

I want to tell Tarantino, “Thanks for feeling for us, but we’re past that.”

I guess, bless him, he’s not.

Mel Brooks treated the Nazi menace best by “laughing them into eternity” in The Producers. That was how he explained himself to Jews who scolded him for “making light” of the outrage.

“There’s no getting back at the Germans,” he said. But comedy offered a catharsis.

Violent revisionist revenge is a fruitful avenue for storytelling, certainly film making in the Tarantino mode. Scratch that; nobody but Tarantino tells this kind of story.

He’s done it again, with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film does its own bravura take on one of the worst horrors America ever witnessed. Tarantino presents this to us on the fiftieth anniversary of the Manson murders. None of the reviewers said it diverges from what we read in the papers August 1969 … but they were vague.

I saw it.

Near the end I wondered whether the climax would document what happened to that poor pregnant actress and her friends.

I’m not telling either.

What surprised me, and what stays with me now, and even disturbs me on the outer edges of my analytic mind, is the negative framing of people referred to as “hippies.”

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m no hippie. In fact, I often have wished I’d come up in the fifties rather than the sixties and never done drugs.

But I still think hippies accomplished something good. I watch Woodstock and know the hippie generation created, in one miraculous moment, something it would take millennia to reproduce, if it’s even reproducible. Watching the musicians revel and play with such transcendence, the crowds swaying, gives you hope for the world. Though I was no hippie – I was too neurotic, too soured, needed too much privacy – I appreciate that moment, that contribution to our world. Those hippies were beautiful, the best Americans.

In Tarantino’s new movie, hippies are the ones responsible for killing Woodstock. We may extrapolate, if a little sloppily, to the Altamont murder by Hell’s Angels, to make the larger point. No sooner did Woodstock happen than those two events cancelled the dream, murdered “The Sixties.”

We needed Tarantino’s new movie to make us realize how strongly we felt that treachery. Hunter Thompson wrote about that moment when we felt the wave roll back, the dream dying. Now we have this.

I have never liked Brad Pitt so much as I liked him as Cliff Booth, a big-hearted bust-out stunt man. There’s talk about an Oscar for Leonardo DiCaprio; I say they’re both due a statue.

There’s something to relish here. Tarantino is not inviting you into any political manifesto. He just fires your imagination, using backdrops that have never been used before. He has a way of stirring up the hostile or negative elements of our memory and shaking us out of those tepid, naïve stereotypes. And he’s right. He’s aesthetically correct in taking us there.

There is a place in our collective psyche for revenge fantasies. I found catharsis in both Inglourious Basterds and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Living through these historic times in this madcap fashion invites us to make our peace with the horror. That’s what you have to do with trauma.

After Tarantino’s climax had screened and it was all over, I sat alternately stunned and confused. I wondered whether it was any good.

As I left my seat and found myself floating, as if drunk, to the exit doors, I knew Tarantino had done another magic trick.

He’s offering us a violent fantasy, yes. But also a way out of our pain.

Just for a moment … which is all a movie is.