I Miss Real Republicans

Emily Proctor as conservative Republican counsel Ainsley Hayes in The West Wing (photo: Warner Bros.)

I voted for John McCain in 2008, praying he wouldn’t die and leave me with Sarah Palin.

In the gear-up to the election, I was sitting at my mom’s kitchen table talking politics with her and my sister, an ardent liberal Democrat. Lisa flew into a rage hearing I would vote for McCain.

“How could you do that?” she squealed. “What are you, crazy?” She said I’d gotten Neanderthal, I liked right-wing warmongers because of some inner rage best explained by psychoanalysis.

I let her blow off all her steam. You have to with Lisa or you’ll never talk.

“I’ll explain it to you if you want to hear,” I said.

She shut up.

“Okay. First of all, you may not know this, but he’s a very hip guy. Much loved by the media. John McCain is a truly personable man, and funny. Reporters love riding his bus.” I could have added he spent too much time on Sunday morning talk shows, but none of the bloom had come off the McCain rose for me. I still loved him for his brave proposal to fix immigration laws.

Lisa seemed taken aback by my opening salvo; she’d no doubt thought McCain stodgy.

“Now, on to his credentials. With all this terrorism and security threat after 9/11, I like the idea of a guy like him, a war hero, in charge. What’s Obama? Some little pisher who had a cup of coffee in the Senate and all of a sudden wants to be president.”

I said some other things, made some rational points. Lisa seemed mollified, at least by my ability to weather the storm of her proto-commie broadside with a sober argument.

Later, my mother got up next to me, took my arm and said, “Bob, I’m proud of you.” This from a woman who would vote for Obama. But she had raised an educated citizen, and that was more important to her than party affiliation.

I have always resisted identifying myself with either party, though I seem to have signed up as a Democrat. I get mail and ballots from the Democratic Party. But in the current horror that is American political and civic life, know what I miss most? A healthy Republican Party.

The GOP used to be the party of fiscal prudence and small government, of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. I never was offended by the bullet points of the GOP credo. In fact, I secretly liked them.

I read in a column by Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times that we may be ending a half-century cycle begun by Ronald Reagan, if signs of Joe Biden’s ardent progressivism and willingness to spend money to get results are to be read aright. We might be starting a new cycle.

That’s saying a lot. It’s saying former Democrat presidents somewhat labored under the Reagan banner. But the theory holds up.

Bill Clinton made enemies in the union movement with NAFTA (I know, I did PR for the UFCW). He lost bona fides as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal when he tightened welfare laws and sentencings for peddling narcotics. But he was far-sighted about the global economy, domestic jobs, and public fears during the crack epidemic. One reason he smells so sweet in our memory, despite his failures (particularly that 1994 crime bill), was his willingness to coopt conservative arguments. A lot of ideas he wielded – ideas that subtly revivified the Democratic Party — came from the other side of the two-party-system aisle. They were Republican ideas. Back then, despite noxious Newt Gingrich, whose influence would metastasize into the political mutation of today, a fairly intact Republican Party helped check Democrat excesses.

There remains barely a vestige of that salutory system of bipartisan checks and balances. The big stars of the GOP are slimy personalities like Texas’s Sen. Ted Cruz, a political prostitute vying for Trump acolytes even after Trump de-balled him in the 2016 primaries. Or, the real loo-loo, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Greene, an avowed QAnon addict and hater of blacks and Muslims and Jews, a woman who called the Parkland, Fla., school shooting a ruse staged by Democrats to steal your guns, and who chased and taunted a student survivor of that shooting as he pounded pavements trying to tighten gun laws.

Core conservative Republican values are not antithetical to the values of good Democrats.

Some of the best moments in the NBC series The West Wing were when the liberal Democrat administration undertook to work with conservative Republicans, from whiz-kid think-tanker Ainsley Hayes, hired to help the legal team out of some pipe-cramped basement office; to the emergency president, played by John Goodman, a right-wing hawk who shunts Martin Sheen’s traumatized Josiah Bartlet aside after Eurotrash terrorists kidnap Bartlet’s daughter, and puts thing right; to Jimmy Smits’s newly elected Democrat president, in the swan-song season, offering secretary of state to Alan Alda’s narrowly vanquished Republican opponent Arnold Vinick.

Would that Biden’s promise could come true: that he, as with Reagan and Tip O’Neill, can reach compromises over a glass of whiskey.

Whoever’s there to work with, there aren’t enough of them.

Oh, there are a few brave souls. Mitt Romney. Liz Cheney.

Ohio’s Sen. Rob Portman showed his decency and embrace of honored values in a Wall Street Journal interview with sedate yet irrepressible Peggy Noonan. There’s a reason Portman and Arizona’s former Sen. Jeff Flake have cashed their chips. You can’t be a real Republican anymore; there’s no traction. A GOP strategist told Noonan it’s a good time to hang out on Fox being an asshole, but if you want to “get shit done” the Republican Party’s just not in the business anymore.

Looks like that “Gone fishin” sign is hung there permanent. God, please let me be wrong.

White out

A whiteout offers time to get in touch with oneself. All will heal, even the deck couch (you can see a corner of it lower right) will survive getting snowed on before its owner got it together to wrap it with twine and plastic. The grill is battened down though! All things considered, a snow blizzard is more blessing than curse. For damn sure I wasn’t going to slide around breaking my ass to get to work today! If I lack the PTO to make it a paid day, screw it.

January whiteout kept me from going to Walmart to work today. I still woke up predawn and did what I do in my office to gear up to the day, a day of leisure but squinting guilt ridden leisure such as I have made my own over the course of an adult life. Surrounded by conundrums and paradoxes I can never solve, ah what a relief to at least know this now. Perhaps we shall get another dog and I may pay down my karma by training it not to swallow metal or plastic objects that will rip open its stomach. Perhaps I shall find a place of rest then. But until that time I sit in my office I subscribe to three online newspapers: The New York Times, read an excellent travelogue some journalist traveled thousands of miles recording ghost town and wilderness America, Make America Great Again emblazoned from roadside ramshacklery (Kerouac rhythms on my mind, you see); The Washington Post, for its superb crisp reporting (they go a little shorter than the  sometimes windy Times) and bracing columnists; and, just to even out my nagging liberalism, and to catch the precise and potent Peggy Noonan, The Wall Street Journal, who tore Trump a new one bad as anyone after the Rape of the Capitol.

I’ve come from watching the first five installments of Long, Strange Trip, a very well done documentary about the Grateful Dead that’s on Amazon Prime and that includes, among other delights, testimonial from Deadhead nerd extraordinaire disgraced Minnesota Senator Al Franken who I wish would storm the politics stage again, he’s suffered enough.

White blanket we used to let the dog out she’d burst out there and do her business in the ghost land of no cars and a few hearty souls shoveling, come right back to shake off the snow but she loved the snow, I miss Rosa but we might be ready to get another one and this time I’ll take training seriously, even if doing that makes me miss her even more. Perhaps we’d better dismantle our little foyer shrine with its memorabilia and box of ashes commemorating what was the main source of material for this blog and whose removal constituted quite an obstacle to my writerly flow, aside from the anguished outpouring on Facebook that so many kind souls responded to. After that I sat stunned.

Come full around don’t care about much of anything. I write because I am a writer. That’s why I’m back in the chair of a morning, snow all round outside. About to go Joyce and utter the final words of “The Dead” but I’ll spare you. Snow is general all over Prescott, let’s leave it at that.

I don’t understand politics anymore, all wisdom eludes me. I hear the Q-Anon people murmuring in the break room about the insurrection that hasn’t given up yet, I stay out of it what’s the point, but those are the people who you have a problem with the stocking system or a customer, they’ll put down what they’re doing and give it their all to help you. I seem well liked, even by AA friend Patty who always chides me about the bags under my eyes and I got sensitive and cold-shouldered her a few days ago then had to hug her and admit I always was an oversensitive pussy. I love my Walmart friends. We suffer so hard, all working our underpaid asses off. I even like the pipsqueak gal who now has been given the power to run the joint. Walmart seems, customers and workers alike, rather a repository for what I regard as backward politics.  But you stay out of it and you wind up taking any of them over some snide liberal cynic any day. These haggard Walmarters’ cynicism is just ignorance, and mine is a life of spectacular ignorance in action so I should talk. You see I can’t hate as well as I used to. It just won’t work.

AA’s dropped out of the picture because I’d rather not take the chance on live meetings during the coronavirus pandemic and sometimes wonder why not pour some good whiskey over a tumbler of ice. But I’ve been living like this so long, a consummate bore, my worst drug indiscretions seem to involve caffeine and one ridiculous dalliance with dick pills I didn’t need but my doctor gave me after hearing me wonder aloud about the potential effects of blood pressure meds. Barb will figure out how we can get a vaccination sometime soon. That’s drugs I can use. I’ll die one day but hell, I’d like to stave the fucker off long as possible.

Trying to pave the way for a rich and self-educational retirement, I signed up for online Master Class and (though by mistake, thinking I was getting the other) The Great Courses. In the first I’m watching Martin Scorsese talk about every aspect of film making, I’ll never make a movie so why am I watching this? I am watching this because this man glows with the fire of art, and I’ve always idolized him. In queue behind this are Sedaris on humor writing and other stuff I picked for forgot what I picked. The Great Courses a little stodgier, teachers at lecterns pontificating to college kids on folding chairs, got a class where some Northwestern professor is talking about Russian literature, I’m watching that too, using it to better understand The Idiot, better than a third of the way through but come on. I used to think I was smart but I am crawling through this book, not the speedreading whiz kid I liked to think I was. Slow, but I’m rapt. A velociraptor within. (Word play. Refuge of the bankrupt literary tactician.) It’s snowing like a mother out there. Good thing I called out.

Chillin in the ‘hood of my mind

Woodrow Call & Augustus McCrae | Lonesome dove, Lonesome dove quotes, Hat  creek cattle company

Call and McCrae: great foils make great movies.

Trouble with retiring is the big question “And do what?”

That’s where I’m stuck. I have this blog, which some people read, and I send stories out to magazines and other publishers. I do have “hobbies,” which seems a lackluster word. My wife says I better get some before I think of retiring from Walmart.

It’s become an urgent topic of consideration, what with Social Security money, for the first time, about to cross our threshold.

Hobbies. Hobbies.

Hm. Let’s see …

I sit around on my free time and read what other people wrote. I finished Barack Obama’s memoir, A Promised Land, and was so impressed I wrote him a chummy letter.

Yeah I know. Dreaming myself into the company of great men.

One meets distinguished men in the common course of life.

Met one who majored in Russian and Slavic literature in college. We hit it off. He gave me a stack of Gogol, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, and some others, and at present I am enjoying The Idiot.

This is a source of encouragement for me.

The Idiot is about a very pure, sweet man, a sort of saint, a man without suspicion or rancor, who is regarded, perhaps because of epilepsy, as an idiot. An anecdote emerges from my private fund of Beat apocrypha. When Allen Ginsberg was committed to a mental hospital in the forties and met Carl Solomon, another patient, allusions to Dostoyevsky sounded between them. (Given a small paperback imprint by his father, Solomon would one day respond to Ginsberg’s publicizing push by printing Burroughs’s Junky.) Ginsberg said, by way of introduction, “I’m Prince Myshkin,” referring to the abovementioned saintly character; Solomon fired back he was Kirilov, from The Possessed. I remember Kirilov as a maniac up all night having drunk too much tea. That’s about all I remember from the book; I may not even have finished it. You need a table of characters at your fingertips what with so many of them, and use of first as well as last names, diminutives and formal.

Dostoyevsky’s bitter, terribly personal Notes from Underground is one of the books that shaped me, but I wavered in my respective slogs through Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov (the latter I recall as Lear only with sons instead of daughters). Perhaps I have always masqueraded rather than truly been a reader, a scholar. Working chest and triceps, or back and biceps, or legs and shoulders at Fitness for 10, then biding my time on my easy chair before the big screen, may be more my speed.

But with this new book, The Idiot, I just might succeed in finding a Dostoyevsky to at least balance off the one little book of his I already love, thereby burnishing my credentials as scholarly. Hate to run around calling myself a Dostoyevsky fan having taken to my heart but one little book of his.

I’m thinking of signing up for that Master Class they’re advertising online. David Sedaris teaches humor writing; Joyce Carol Oates, the short story; Scorsese, making film. I could tell Barb I was involved in something like that and she’d stop calling me unconnected to the world. She thinks I’m a hermit. Though we all are during this Covid lay-in.

What else do I do? I watch old movies I’ve already seen before. My wife chides me for that, too, just as my mother used to do.

I myself wonder why, after the riveting beginning and early action scenes of Black Hawk Down and that throbbing soundtrack, I don’t bail out when it becomes Tom Sizemore yelling at the top of his lungs into the ears of the other soldiers on that fateful day in Somalia, unable to hear anything above the shelling. It gets dinful.

How many times can I watch Lonesome Dove? But it’s that good. Augustus McCrae may be the greatest cowboy hero of all time, and I view this performance as the apex of Robert Duvall’s career. And there never was a more perfect foil than Tommy Lee Jones’s tightlipped Woodrow Call. Speaking of westerns, one reason I loved Brokeback Mountain was the perfect pairing of complementary characters as played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger. The corresponding literature of both these films – as with that template, To Kill a Mockingbird – more than does justice to the movies.

I recently watched, yet again, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which a Facebook person in my orbit called, correctly, “criminally underappreciated.” Russell Crowe’s jaunty, impeccably militaristic Captain Jack Aubrey and Paul Bettany’s intellectual Irish-rebel ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin constitute another example of perfect foils.

In my retirement, indeed my dotage, I shall sit around contemplating my worth as an appreciator of the arts. How eclectic I am! The same man who loves Annie Hall loves Taxi Driver; the same man who loves “Here Comes the Sun” loves “Yer Blues.”

Come to that, did anybody but me feel Bon Jovi hit exactly the right note with his Inauguration performance of that George Harrison song? Happiness has been elusive. Watching Jon sing this sweet, magical testament to life’s way of rejuvenating itself was just what the doctor ordered.

But enough sitting on my ass in my writing chair. Better go to my reading chair and plow further into The Idiot.

Be an idiot not to.

My Searing Junior High School Memory

My friend Alan and I agreed. Greenview Junior High School had a great cafeteria. We adored the establishment’s bill of fare. These hair-netted gals made big sheets of square thick-crust pizza, more a zesty than a sweet sauce, though somehow that’s the only entrée I remember. I remember the desserts quite well. There was pecan pie, which was new to me: a mixture of crunch and gooey teeth-aching sweetness. And oh, the little egg custards in a cup! Once, with someone timing me, I slurped one down in eight seconds. I never tried to secure the recognition of The Guinness Book of World Records, but that should be in there.

Alan wasn’t my only friend. There was Mike, of course, may he rest in peace. When I moved from Cleveland to South Euclid, Mike sponsored me in suburban society.

One of the kids Mike introduced me to was Peter, an anomalous Italian among the Jewish population of the neighborhood, who joined our knockabout tackle football games at Bexley Park. He was into athletics, fitness challenges. He once approached me as I sat on the bleachers during noon rec and said he could do 75 pushups, then dropped and did them. Good ones. Didn’t even seem winded when he sprang back up. Built like a Greek god.

Somehow I recall “having lunch fourth.” That was the earliest period you could have it. There was also fifth and, I think, sixth. I was sitting in social studies or math or English dreaming about lunch. When the bell rang I banged out the classroom door and went running – not walking, running – down the hall to be ahead of everybody. I shot down the stairs, barely holding onto the rail to correct for the centrifugal swing. I hit the bottom of the stairs to make my final turn and head into the home stretch to the chow line. Only trouble was, it had been raining, the tiles were slick, and I slipped and fell on my ass.

That would be bad enough, but I saw out of the corner of my eye, coming down from the top of the stairs, none other than Peter.

I was crimson with shame, and am sure I loaded my tray with a compromised élan that day.

Peter was pretty nice, and I wonder if he felt for me, felt my embarrassment, because it wasn’t long after that, during study hall, that he sat down across from me and engaged me in a real guy conversation, about, oh, among other things, whether I’d discovered playing with myself. I guess he just wanted me to know animal urges were normal. Not to impute adult foresight and guidance to this fun, blonde-haired moppet of a kid, but I did feel the presence of a gesture intended to mollify my little social agony and shame.

He revealed something about himself.

“You know what I love?” he said. “My mom makes it for me. You take chocolate cake and pour milk over it and it gets real soft, like mush . . . and then I eat it. That’s real good.”

You look at this kid with his rock chest and arms and shoulders and washboard belly – nobody looked like that at this age – and found it odd, and touching, to hear him talk about something so . . . private and comfort producing. So Pillsbury dough boy. He seemed made of iron.

I wanted to be made of iron too, but I had many guises, all competing for primacy during this period. I was figuring out who I was. There were a lot of Bob Gitlins.

I was athletic and loved not only the tackle football games but what we called “chicken fights.” One kid got on the shoulders of another and tried to claw down the rider of another team. Peter and I were a good team.

I played tennis. A kid named Artie once beat me two sets to one in ninety-degree heat at Bexley Park and though I lost I would always remember with a glow such an epic fight.

I hated Little League because I didn’t want to be there and performed sluggishly. I fell in love with Cap’n Crunch, precipitating a chubby phase that warred with the athleticism.

That war is still on. It’s why I still work out at the gym three days a week and put up with a manual labor job that would fell lesser sorts. I’m 67 and I still care about muscle and fitness. I wonder if it was Peter’s influence. I’ve lost touch with him.

My therapist says I have to be kinder to myself. There’s a happy medium between self-punishment and self-indulgence.

I told her she reminded me of my mother, who used to say you had to be your own best friend.

“You think there was wisdom in that?”

“Yes I do,” said my therapist, and she smiled.