Maybe eye bag surgery should get on the list of things to do when I retire. But then again, I’m starting not to care how ugly I am. I’m playing old man onshore here, watching my wife kayak at Lynx Lake. Pulling a happy face for a selfie. At least I learned how to take shapshots on my iPhone without them turning into video clips.
Down to three days a week at Walmart. Used to be four.
The time I don’t spent with my chin on my chest in my easy chair, streaming stuff on my 55-inch Samsung, I spend on various forms of physical activity.
I work in the high desert rock-scape I call my yard: weed whacking, adjusting drip irrigation heads, carting off bush clippings.
I work out three times a week at Fitness for 10. Yesterday was chest and triceps; tomorrow, back and biceps; Saturday, legs and shoulders. I might blog about being a gym rat. I could brandish photos of my aging musculature, but Barb says nobody wants to see them. I’ll take her word for it.
I bicycle, kayak, and hike, activities that may include my wife, serving the added purpose of solidifying our marriage. Nothing worse than to hear, “I feel like I’ve got a roommate not a husband.” Each of us with our own TV shows. Me holed up with a book, her twittering to her friends on the phone. In opposite corners of a boxing ring, touching gloves only long enough for her to tell me I’m friendless and maritally unavailing.
So I’m exercising with her, trying to include Barb in the movie of my life. We’re working on increasing our intimacy. Better leave it at that. It’s happy work.
October 24 will be my 68th birthday. Then Walmart will see the last of me. Unless I’m there buying steaks and cheap jeans.
And what will I do?
All this physical activity is great, but I’d always prided myself on my intellectual gift. What about that?
I’ve got bad memories around this.
When I was a teacher, some students valued me and took seriously my stance as a teacher exposing them to stories and writing opportunities that enriched their appreciation. I cherish those memories of being useful.
But I wasn’t always respected. I held students hostage to my prolixity, forgetting they were castoffs from other schools, uninterested in me and my word stream.
Nearing the end of one semester, getting close to graduation, one punk gave it to me with both barrels.
“I used to come over here and all I wanted was a yes or no answer to something, and you’d keep talking for fifteen minutes about some bullshit I didn’t care about.” The boy was seething, standing over me, knuckles on my desk, teeth gritted as I sat there blanched and helpless. That hurt.
But it taught me something. I’ve come to believe the very definition of a bore is one who likes the sound of his own voice. I limit my shares at AA meetings. If, upon my death, I am remembered as terse, good.
Maybe it’s best I remain a muzzled novelist, though three books I’ve written are credible products.
Got a dirt bike and am training on flat rides. You take Peavine Trail far enough out, make that slant left at mile three. Round about mile four you see cattle off to the side. They’re no dummies. Most of them chill in the shade of trees. Lesson there about being happily retired!
None has proved publishable commercially. A computer consultant who comes over now and then to lead me out of the various labyrinths of my technological befuddlement is in the business of helping people self-publish. She encouraged me to get my novels out there by my own self.
“I could just see you reading in public.”
Was she telling me I was charismatic? Or that I was a big ham who can’t keep his mouth shut, so why not create a venue?
But that’s the problem. What kind of venue?
And who’d be there?
Facebook friends who receive the teasers regarding my latest blog post might be there. Many of them are local friends. They’d be there because they felt obligated.
I can just imagine the kitchen table dialogues.
“Why in the fuck do I have to go to Bob Gitlin’s reading? He’s a longwinded bore with his head stuck up his own ass. Bad enough to read about his fucked-up life in his Facebook posts – I never click on the stupid blog — it’d be torture to have to hear him read from a whole fucking book about his boring life and what he learned from it.”
What’s the use? The books are like the blogs. About me, even veiled as “made up.”
The first one, called Last Winter in Cleveland, though its maiden name was Crackup, is a sick sadomasochistic thriller about a drug-dealing partnership between a white guy and a black guy in Cleveland. It got as far as getting a New York agent and being read by a famous guy at Simon & Schuster, but no go.
The second, I dubbed At Risk, though perhaps a friend’s suggestion of The Flaming Cactus would have been better. I self-published it under the pseudonym R.G. Philips after a bigshot at Farrar Straus & Giroux passed. It chronicles a guy’s miserable first year as a teacher in a strange new region of the country, an ordeal complicated by the fact he’s trying to stay sober. I could remarket this novel under my own name now that I’m not teaching and the salacious sex details are nothing to worry about.
The third, new novel, Working the Freezer in Paradise, is a pastiche of linked vignettes, mostly flashbacks, chronologically sprawling but thematically unified, bookended by an old man who took a retirement job at Walmart and finds himself in the absurd position of being professionally happy for the first time in his life.
I can’t think of an elevator pitch for any of these gnarled creatures.
But I could put them all out there to have something to do when I retire.
What do I have to lose? I am word struck, in love with my examinations of life through fiction.
Instead of being suffocated in my musty office, I need a rooftop from which to scream.
And if that doesn’t work, I could always do a one and a half gainer off that roof into a manhole cover.
Just kidding. I like life too much. I always want to see what happens next. Win or lose.
Three TV dramas compete in my mind for top slot: Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and Justified.
I have blogged about Justified, whose most interesting character is not amiable, trim-hipped Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) but Walton Goggins’s backwoods criminal, Boyd Crowder, a man with that quality all great villains have, a likeable aspect, his being a poetic, even preacherly soul. Most of the ironic twists in Justified come from a role other than the protagonist.
Maybe that’s why it may be between the other two shows. I’m not sure I’m going to solve the little fight in my head. And who cares? As Japhy Ryder (fictionalized Gary Snyder) tells Jack Kerouac’s goopy protagonist in The Dharma Bums, “Comparisons are odious, Smith.” By extension, needing to declare a superlative may be more odious still.
But, as I’m a resigned couch potato, I pride myself on at least being a thinking man’s couch potato.
As I scrutinize the saga of the South Jersey mafia, I’m reminded of a quote from Bryan Cranston, whose Walter White introduced a new kind of criminal to TV drama.
After the show aired its finale, and all the Emmys and accolades had come in, Cranston and other members of the show were receiving the royal treatment from James Lipton in a roundtable edition of Inside the Actors Studio. Lipton asked Cranston what made Walter White special. Cranston said that James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano was a riveting character but he stayed the same pretty much from start to finish, whereas Walter White was more a character to be studied for his graduated ascent into malevolence.
Tony Soprano: a sympathetic monster if there ever was one
To be sure, there is evolution in Tony Soprano, if within this framework. We watch him acquire a facility for self-reflection under the promptings of Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), the psychiatrist whose languid articulation and physical solidity add up to an acting performance that betters what she was given to work with as Karen Hill in Goodfellas. Tony may have fallen in love with Melfi, but she never, despite her own attraction, lets him have her. At the very end, after friends beg her to kick this sociopath to the curb — he’s intransigent, ineducable, an out-and-out con — she does stop seeing him, and we know he will never be the same.
Similarly, though we do not witness the transformation, as they’ve long been married before start of show, Carmella (Edie Falco) has changed Tony. His fealty to the tough-talking, intellectually robust housewife humanizes him through many plot convulsions.
Dealing with Christopher Moltisanti has changed Tony, invoking calls to be paternal and protective; however, as his final dealings with the ravaged addict bear out, Tony solves the problem of Chris as he’s solved so many others. We saw “the real Tony” early, when he choked to death an old rat who’d fled to Maine under the auspices of witness protection, and this is the Tony we will keep seeing. That scene was a searing moment in an iconic episode. It’s the one where Tony, squiring his daughter to prospective New England colleges, takes time out to strangle to death a man whose testimony put away a lot of Tony’s cohorts, while back home Carmella and the priest get drunk on wine and almost make out on the couch. Horror and comedy dance. Much is on the boil in the Jersey drama and much ferments from one thing into another, particularly with its main character.
But Cranston was right. Nothing in The Sopranos compares with the chilling evolution of Walter White. Cranston’s craggy, ingenious high school chemistry teacher, pushed into moral relativism by a cancer diagnosis and a wounded ego, reminds me of Macbeth, the noble soldier who becomes a monster yet maintains the shell of seeming rectitude. Just as a philosophically shattered Macbeth will fight to his death asserting his divine right to power, so does Walter White maintain a human, rational defense mechanism, a decidedly unmonstrous demeanor. You hear that professorial voice try to dismiss the boy’s death after the train robbery, try to explain away to Jesse Pinkman all manner of moral compromises. Meanwhile White, like Soprano, solves problems through homicide.
But the homicides themselves represent a metamorphosis: from the long-delayed choking of the captured dealer, whom he’s even asked if he likes the crusts cut off his sandwiches; to his shooting of gang punks he ran down to keep him and Pinkman in the clear; to his rigging up of a death trap for arch-fiend Gus Fring in a nursing home Fring visited to torture an old enemy (a fit end to two haters); to his killing of the likeable enforcer, ex-cop Mike Ehrmentraut, in a poignant riverside scene; to his ingenious fire-spray execution of a compound of white supremacists, which wrests back to Walter a final measure of qualified nobility before he exits to the strains of “Baby Blue.”
Walter White’s is an arc from repressed gentility to shocking malevolence. There is a special enjoyment in watching a transformation so fully realized.
Tony Soprano was a monster in Season One. He is the same monster at the final moment, when, as Journey plays “Don’t Stop Believing,” we may assume he’s being whacked.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I still have most of Season 5 ahead of me, then the final season.
Honey, will you bring me another sandwich? Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease?
I don’t know about other old folks, but I intend to keep rockin’, and so does my wife.
I used American Short Stories, a collection by Perfection Learning, to teach junior English back when I labored in the trenches of Arizona high schools. One story I favored was James Thurber’s classic about a meek man lost in a fantasy world. But I found that, with few exceptions, teenagers did not get “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” When a lone boy roared with laughter at reading it, I could have hugged him. Because by that time, I’d grown to expect a bland or even annoyed reaction to the humor classic.
I tended to use the questions at the back of each book’s story I taught, a page called “Responding to the Story,” to evaluate student appreciation. The returns on “Walter Mitty” bludgeoned my hopes for it. The students almost uniformly saw it as a depressing tale about “this old guy who’s losing it.”
“Old guy,” “old dude,” “old man” – that was their takeaway. Nothing about what Thurber put on the page: a henpecked (middle-aged!) husband who soars into realms of imagination that make him a hero, whether as a surgeon, a courtroom lawyer, or a fighter pilot. Hell, the onomatopoeia alone is worth the price of admission with writing this brilliant.
You can’t enforce enjoyment, and surprises are rife in the teaching business. I used Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” which I never liked, to great student acclaim. Conversely, I should have become accustomed to kids not digging stories I adored. But this one hurt in a special way; it nagged at me. Even if Walter Mitty was “old,” in his sixties or seventies, did that make him an unsympathetic character? I sensed active disdain among the young readers, something beyond mere student dullness. A bias was at play.
Prejudice against the aged has survived the onslaught of woke rebuke, as Bill Maher said on his HBO show. Old people have been the most vulnerable to COVID, making us all mask up and suffer. Old people hog the public trough with their nagging Social Security needs. Old people constitute a bigger and bigger part of the populace, expect a bigger and bigger piece of the pie. Go die and get out of the way, old people.
We’ll never have herd immunity because of shot antagonism, and part of that is based on prejudice against old people. The CDC said if we’re fully vaccinated we needn’t mask up, not if we don’t want to, and needn’t feel guilty about it. I will show up at Walmart next shift without the cursed mask, which I always had to take off to scratch or blow my blasted nose. Walmart even offers an incentive: if you want a $75 boost to your paycheck, show us you’ve been vaccinated. I sense at least half the workers there haven’t gotten shots. To a large extent it’s Trumpian bullshit — the thing’s all a ruse to put Democrats in power, don’t you know.
Among the youth, the resistance is tinged with the abovementioned prejudice. Again, I heard a broadside against dreaded, hated old people, spoken with veiled venom by a young person, one I happened to like and still do! (They know not their own hearts, dear Lord.) We were working the dairy cooler, trying to get milks and creamers into the sliding slots leading down to the customers out there, when I heard Braylon tell another, older guy he wouldn’t get the shot. “It’s just something old people had to worry about. I’m young. I’m not gonna do it.” But I’m sure, what with the “honor system” Walmart feels compelled to use, that this young man will represent himself as having been vaccinated and, with no vaccination card to present, work unmasked.
I shouldn’t be surprised. When I took a “retirement” job at Walmart, I found the same intergenerational dynamic at play as I’d found in the classroom.
I grew to resent a sarcastic young man who, without realizing it, was speaking snidely to me, almost talking down to me. Me! a man in his middle sixties. I had thought the imprint of age merited respect, but not to today’s generation.
My gig starts before dawn. I got used to showing up in the wee hours when the night crew was coming down its home stretch. Drew, a tart-tongued young man, would be on the paper and chem aisle, where it might be my job to help him finish stocking the overnight freight. After a brief period of enjoying his sassy rejoinders and heartening, conspiratorial bitches about working at the store, I began to find something dismissive about him, even borderline insulting, in a way I couldn’t pin down.
“Please break down your boxes. You’ll fit more in the baaaaaler …” he chided me in singsong as I stood over the rolling paperboard waste bin, beating my hands to pulp trying to collapse stiff double-wall corrugated containers that had held laundry detergent. Though I learned to wear work gloves to protect my hands, better wielding them as cutting blades and ripping claws, I remained offended by his mocking, suggestive tone, which implied not so much annoyance as absence of the need to defer to a man well into his sixties.
Was I “reading into” Drew’s manner because of my defensiveness and insecurity, even lingering emotional bruises from the way kids at the end of my “teaching” career regarded me? I worked the same kind of job as he. If he was treating me as an equal, so what?
But that was just it; that was the offense. Despite my failure at classroom management during those last, bad teaching years, I figured I deserved respect because I was old, had lived long, suffered long, learned much.
I know now I was naïve, my learning partial. If only the most forbearing and mature students were nice to me, that was to be expected. You’re good at that job, teaching at-risk youth, or you’re in the crosshairs.
But there was something more, something broader and more sociological, that explained the thing. A lot of these boys had no father figure. They came from households featuring a mother, her latest partner, and the kids. If the “father figure” is a stepdad out of prison with a swastika across his chest sharing a meth pipe with a 14-year-old, the myth of reverence for the elder male might go out the window. All across the socioeconomic spectrum, not just the white rural ghetto where I taught, the era of the nuclear family, and of some Norman Rockwell dad carving the Sunday roast beef, seems to have run its course.
Ah, what’s the use? I can kvetch all I want. My cohort and I will still die off and the young punks will take over.
I like to be optimistic though. Call it my brand of patriotism. I have to believe that today’s youth will acknowledge the secret weapon of the aged, their very years, and that young people will humble themselves to the lengthening shadow of mortality by whose lessons we learn how to live.
My wife makes me nervous when I’m driving and she’s in the passenger seat issuing critiques and giving directions. My own tension causes me to make mistakes – which only fuel her rebukes.
Age removes a portion of peripheral vision and overall flexibility. You don’t react as well, as quickly, as you once did. But for me it’s worse when I’m driving and she’s there. Her edginess rubs off on me.
So when Barb said, “Turn left here,” at a commercial intersection in Lake Havasu City, a resort town we visited to mark our 22nd wedding anniversary, I swung into it without seeing the stop sign.
As I was making the turn, already committed, I had to negotiate my way around a guy swinging into his own (quite legal) left and now needing to go around me to avoid a collision. I made one of those grimacing faces you make to let the other guy know you fucked up and at least feel bad about it.
And I did. But I had to concentrate on her next directions from a cell phone GPS that for some reason wasn’t talking. The fraught moment was further complicated by my realization that the guy I’d cut off was after me, having circled back to that same intersection, made the same left I’d made, roared up ahead of me, and come back in my direction.
I slowed to a stop on the fairly deserted street. He pulled over on the other side and stuck his head out the window.
“Learn how to drive, asshole!”
My own, clever rejoinder:
Just so he didn’t think I was a chickenshit, I glared at him to see if he wanted to get out of his car. But he pulled away.
“What an asshole,” Barb said. “He didn’t have to chase you like that. That was wrong. Wow. My heart’s thumping.”
We’d made progress in our marriage. Was a time any of my profanities would have drawn a stern rebuke. Barb sees in my constant swearing a toxic anger that’s at the root of my emotional difficulties and our marital problems.
LAKE HAVASU was nice, if you’re about twenty-eight, love Trump, deck your boat out with emblems of that brand of coopted patriotism, and drink about a case of beer a day. “Party central,” Barb said. The lake was cluttered with boats the first day we got there, at the tail end of some boat show we hadn’t known about.
The weather was warm that first day, a Sunday. The forecast showed cool the next two days, though warming late Tuesday, and then hot Wednesday. We’d discussed checking out of our room on Wednesday, then renting a boat to get on the water. But we never did. The water remained a postcard view from our balcony. I for one didn’t relish some Three Stooges scene managing even a little rented boat, and my wife didn’t care enough about boating to press the issue. We could have signed up for some overpriced charter cruise, but that, like so much else around here, seemed like a drunk fest, and I didn’t look forward to gazing over the side at the rippling water grinning tightly as the atmosphere waxed louder and drunker around us.
We saw London Bridge, that we did. We enjoyed each other’s company. Had soul talks about our long slog together, with a level of affection and frankness that seemed a breakthrough.
Even went on a three-hour hike. It was only that long because we got lost.
You drive to SARA’s Park in Havasu to hit the trailhead of a hike known as, er, Sara’s Crack, a lewd name for a squeeze through a mountain pass alongside the Mojave Desert. You can take this hike all the way to the Colorado River. But we got so lost in the labyrinth of trails, many mere dirt biking single tracks, that by the time we finally stumbled into Sara’s Crack we were fried. Having ambled precariously and with very sore thighs over the umpteenth wrong turn to attain the, er, Crack, and begun to squeeze through narrower and narrower portions, Barb declared she was beat.
I was relieved.
“Me too. We can come back tomorrow and do the Crack,” I said, “even get all the way to the river. All I wanna do now is get back to my SUV.”
I had hated the hike. I have dreaded getting trail-lost ever since an incident that’s filed in my memory as the Williams Nightmare.
Not long after Barb and I moved to Arizona, we got lost in the Coconino National Forest around Williams.
It was getting cool, even a little chilly, the sun nearing the treetops. I thought we might have to last out the night sitting on the pine needles, hugging each other for warmth and getting bumped into by elk. When we finally staggered into the clear and saw a ranch house, I was so ashamed I had Barb knock. This nice rancher drove us back to where my car was. I let her ride in the cab with him while I ducked down on the truck’s metal bed, preferring the ass bumps to what I perceived as the humiliation of being next to this Western alpha male after I’d confirmed myself in abject want of male resourcefulness.
I’ll never forget Barb looking at me over the dim light at Rod’s Steak House in Williams, an accommodating old person’s restaurant, and saying, “Nobody has to know about this.”
After getting lost at Sara’s Crack, I said, “That’s it.” I tried to download All Trails, a common orientation device, onto my new Apple iPhone SE, but I couldn’t figure it out. Why does every application insist on Google accounts? I have Microsoft Outlook as my email! I am a techno-dunce.
JUST TO FINISH this story, we didn’t go back to the trail any more than we got on the water. On Tuesday we drove to Parker for the hell of it (there’s nothing there) and took a right to get to the Colorado River, where I sat on a rock “watching the river flow” per Dylan. I wish the pictures Barb and I thought we’d taken on my new phone weren’t actually movie shorts or I’d have something photographically to show for it here. Ah well.
We got up Wednesday and found a good place for breakfast and hit the road back to Prescott, armed with a bag of banana chips from a health food store.
One thing I did accomplish on this trip was I got fat. To me anyway. My wife says I am too skinny.
Between the Super Slam at Denny’s on Monday and the steak and eggs with all the trimmings just before heading for home, oh and the blueberry muffins I saw fit to keep in our room once I spied them on our shopping trip to Safeway, the suite, representing an upgrade, being outfitted with fridge and microwave, I found as I stepped on the scale back home that I’d ascended to a tubby 153, a five-pound gain that is not inconsiderable for a guy who manages his poundage like a skittish welterweight.
Maybe Barb’s right, I need to loosen up, even if that means letting out my belt.
A friend back in Cleveland once told me, “Bobby, I just know there’s a happy fat guy in you dying to get out.”
Maybe that guy is emerging into the clear. Hey, pass those Hostess Cupcakes.
Photo politely borrowed from Amazon web site. Warner Bros. is the record label for this 2015 album.
These days I’m rocking out to Dwight Yoakam’s “Man of Constant Sorrow” off a now six-year-old album, Second Hand Heart. I may be late to the party, but serendipity has no expiration date.
The original, published in 1913 by blind Kentucky fiddler Dick Burnett, is “the crown jewel of the Appalachian song tradition,” said Ann Powers for NPR when Yoakam’s record came out. The number has been widely covered, including versions by Bob Dylan, Ginger Baker, and Alison Krauss.
I found out about Dwight Yoakam’s rendition riding around listening to SiriusXM. Elizabeth Cook, a country player who moonlights as the sexy DJ of “Apron Strings,” a lively, eclectic Outlaw Country show, played it. It pricked up my ears. Then she commented on how she loved how Dwight hears something he wants to make his own and then just plucks and assimilates it.
Here, he takes his country inspiration to the place where, with the help of sizzling guitar work, it becomes rock ‘n’ roll. I felt the same way about Dwight’s “Guitars, Cadillacs,” “Fast as You,” “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” (which tops an old version by hippie country band New Riders of the Purple Sage), and “Intentional Heartache” (an innovation with its rap overlay about the fury of a scorned woman).
Remember the 2000 Cohn Brothers movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson — the Soggy Mountain Boys — sing “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” (the original title) into radio mikes, a peak moment in an uneven film. I like the song better brought into rockabilly bloom by Dwight Yoakam.
I often find cover artists bring an original into new glory, as with Judy Collins’s “Both Sides Now” (Joni Mitchell) and Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s “Everything Is Broken” (Dylan). Since I heard Dwight’s nasal twang and impeccable nuance on “Man of Constant Sorrow,” I haven’t been the same.
BARB FINALLY decided she would get the shot, her first, a Pfizer, and wanted me along in case she got sick afterward. We rode to Cottonwood together and I put Second Hand Heart on her CD player. My Subaru Forester is a good ride, but the fidelity sucks compared to the symphony acoustics inside her Honda.
Barb dug the tunes.
“I love Dwight. Now I can have this with me all the time,” she said. Her car records CDs automatically.
After she got the shot, at a CVS, we found a Mexican restaurant and ate outside, warmed by the spring sun. I was glad to be with her, found myself gazing at this woman who has endured me all these years, will accompany me on a 22-year anniversary getaway to Lake Havasu soon, makes me see I have a good life.
In related news . . . I have decided to retire from Walmart.
Regarding my employment there, I have come to realize the ultimate, exquisite irony: I will be going out on top.
This job as an aging stocker represents the best work experience I ever had.
Used to be hard to grok this. Now it tickles me.
I grew up among Jewish kids destined to be doctors, lawyers, titans of commerce.
I have topped out as a member of the CAP 1 stocking crew at Walmart #5303 on Gale Gardner Road in Prescott, Arizona.
The overall arc of my lifetime “career” experience has made me a man of constant sorrow. But I have discovered something inside me I didn’t know was there: pure obstinate refusal to capitulate. I won’t lay down and stop living.
To have overcome this last work difficulty constitutes a win in a life that’s often seemed short on victories.
I am relied on to work the store freezers, stocking raw freight off pallets, and scanning boxes of binned frozen entrees and ice cream and carting this too out to the floor. On days I show up, this task awaits me and me alone much of the time.
I should be mad but I’m not.
I titled a perhaps unpublishable book Working the Freezer in Paradise, a kaleidoscope of linked vignettes, about (well, among other things) how a character is forced into this task by a resentful supervisor but never flinches. He makes the job his own to show how tough he is. Now, I find I can’t resent that this job is dumped on me. Given my old-guy hardiness and clear expertise, the store managers choose me because I’m good.
Yes, I am being exploited.
But I am also appreciated.
I did not feel this way as an editor slash writer slash journalist slash PR hack back in Cleveland, nor as a harried teacher tragically bad at disciplining recalcitrant teens in alternative Arizona high schools.
And so, here I stand at the end of it all, almost resistant to the idea of stepping down from this . . . misbegotten ascension into career fulfillment.
MY THERAPIST says that, rather than let Walmart drain me — because the job is physical, a real ass bust — I should think about retiring. I could write, travel, work around the house, go on bike rides, firm my aging musculature at Fitness for 10. After a life of putting my shoulder to the wheel of the Gross National Product, I can stop.
As far as the travel thing, we’re on it. After Lake Havasu (I’ve got to see that transplanted London Bridge), we plan a September ride to the Black Hills of South Dakota and the great annual “buffalo roundup.” I always was fascinated by Native Americans. Maybe I’ll stop being a white man; I’ll jump on a spotted pony with a bow and arrow when I see those bison thundering over the land.
I have geared down from four to three days a week at Walmart and, at Laurie’s suggestion, targeted my birthday, in October, as the demarcation point for my stockboy swan song. I used to worry about idleness and addictive behaviors, a resumption of old bad habits. Watching TV all day. Becoming an aged idiot seduced by internet titillations.
But I’ve got too many disciplines. And a growing gratitude list.
Though this life has had more than its share of misfires, blunders, embarrassments, losses, and unmet expectations, I will continue to digest, with gratitude and equanimity, the long, strange trip of this mortal round. Life is for learning, Joni Mitchell said in “Woodstock.” I’m gonna try an’ get my soul free.
SOMETIMES a song finds its way into your internal soundtrack while subverting expectations that surrounded its original composition.
Dwight Yoakam’s “Man of Constant Sorrow” is life affirming, rousing and joyful, but the words are dark, frank, gloomy.
It’s the way he channels the pain. Like blues, country celebrates our human agonies and frailties.
And so, to paraphrase and even fuse stanzas from my new favorite song:
I may die tonight on this train . . . you may learn to love another as I lie sleeping in my grave . . . but you will meet me on that golden shore.
Timothy Olyphant as U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. (This is an FX show, all intellectual property rights being theirs. May they forgive this benign theft.)
Just got back from lunch with one of my favorite people, a man who once was my boss and still is an original Kentucky hard-ass. U.S. Army helicopter fighter pilot and Vietnam veteran Jim Taylor ran Yavapai County High School, a place in Prescott Valley for at-risk kids where I felt nurtured and loved teaching English for quite some years.
I didn’t know what I was going to blog about, but, driving home from seeing him, along with some other good friends from that happy time, I knew it had to be about one of my favorite TV shows.
It’s as Kentucky as he is.
I watch shows all over again that I’ve already seen if they’re that good. I plead guilty of doing this with Breaking Bad.
If I opt to re-screen such a show, I study it this time around.
I enjoyed Timothy Olyphant’s ramrod-spined sheriff in that genre-defying HBO western Deadwood. Now I’m watching him (again) as U.S. Federal Marshal Raylan Givens in the FX drama Justified (currently available on Hulu). He was a righteous, wrapped-tight lawman in the former show, winding that tension up so high his eventual carnal release with a languid, glamourous laudanum fiend was all the hotter.
His character is a little looser in Justified. With his lanky, ambling stride in blue jeans and cowboy hat, and that curious smile, he’s a throwback to another era of law enforcement, though his rigid adherence to the principles of traditional American masculinity and heroism — that menace lying in wait behind the drawl — recalls Seth Bullock of the South Dakota mining town.
Justified sprang from an Elmore Leonard novella I’ve been meaning to load onto my Kindle. Where else in written or visual fiction do you get the satisfaction of a protagonist whose daily job requirement is that he be quick on the draw? And, of course, he’s the loveable badass, always a little at odds with his boss Art Mullen, amiable chief deputy of the U.S. Marshals field office in Lexington, a role well played by Nick Searcy. There are lots of great roles here, including women who are easy on the eyes, some of whom wind up romantically entangled with our hero.
I’m on season two. If it’s not the show’s best season, it’s close.
If you hated Margo Martindale as Hilary Swank’s ungrateful trailer-trash mom in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby but found her talented, you were right. What a brilliant character actress! Her KGB operative Claudia on The Americans, a role devoid of the rural southern accent Martindale has elsewhere exploited, showed us her full range. Here, on Justified, she’s Mags Bennett, matriarch of a family of hillbilly pot growers, and more than a match for everyone who comes down the pike to challenge her, including a high-heeled head of a rapacious mining concern. Martindale seems outfitted for roles loaded with the macabre. Her Russian spymaster ordered many hits in a show ghoulish in its depiction of politically motivated execution. We will come to associate the drawling backwoods general-store owner Mags Bennett with her cinnamon-flavored, sometimes deadly moonshine, “Apple Pie.”
But I think the steadiest glittering jewel of the show is a character who spanned every one of the six seasons: Boyd Crowder. Here’s where you want to see Walton Goggins, who has since looked silly and ill used in a sitcom whose big conflict was him trying to get dates.
Goggins steals Justified. As with southern-bred Martindale, Alabama-born Goggins’ own roots help with the speaking style that loads so much credibility to the role. When we meet him, he’s a hillbilly criminal mastermind commandeering a group of white supremacist terrorists. After a run-in with Raylan’s unerring gun (only a wounding shot from the old friend), Boyd renounces the idiocy of that former lifestyle and resurfaces as a backwoods preacher.
The thing that’s exciting about Boyd Crowder is your inability to nail him down. His slow speaking cadence packs an almost Elizabethan tang, as when (I can’t wait for this to happen, way up ahead from where I’m at now) he confronts a rich hypocrite up the hill who fatally underestimated the outlaw down the holler. Great bad guys have sympathetic qualities. We find ourselves rooting for Boyd; we can’t help ourselves.
It’s the old buddy story, the thing between Raylan and Boyd. The last episode of the final season culminates with Raylan saying, “We dug coal together.” It’s a mantra of the show.
It explains everything.
Raylan Givens understood Boyd’s potential for evil better than anybody, and was sworn to defeat him – indeed, wielding an anger parallel to that of his nemesis — but the two men have a bond as old as the hills.
When I find myself getting all twisted up in the dreary memory of my own tepid life, and how it erupts in blogs that then embarrass me, I come to a show like this, a show this exciting, for nurturance, a way to recharge myself, even my zeal in exploring the mythology of my own hero journey.
Yeah, it’s guy stuff. Barb is bingeing on Grey’s Anatomy; I go to Harlan County.
Having entered into the soundtrack of my mind is the innovative theme song by Gangstagrass, “Long Hard Times to Come,” a divine melding of rap and bluegrass. It’s so good I still have yet to hit “skip” on my remote when it plays each time, inaugurating another episode.
It’s so good I feel justified.
Below: Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder and Margo Martindale as Mags Bennett (both photos politely borrowed from FX, which has the right to sue me)
This photo was taken by the Washington Post. It reminds me of me.
Watching a bunch of ignorant louts storm the Capitol on January 6, I suffered a sinking, eerie feeling that gnawed me worse than my revulsion at the violence being done my country’s shrine of government. I empathized with those self-described patriots; I related to these assholes fed a daily diet of Q-Anon and Trump’s own lies. Because for three decades of my life I was a similar schemer. I, too, dreamt of storming the stage.
This is about the one time I attained that stage and how it transformed me. It’s also about how it didn’t transform me, not until the sickness, impervious even to the prescribed catharsis, had to run its course, like some wounded tank slowly drained of petrol. On that day I realized that everything, the whole melodrama, had been about mere ego, just as that army of idiots may one day realize nothing was proved but their need to be seen.
To collapse a back story: after getting kicked out of Columbia University, I returned in the mid-seventies to my native Cleveland, where I discovered that my older sister’s friend, a gentleman named Roger Kleinman, played bass in Wild Horses, a rock band, launched in Columbus, that had moved up to Cleveland and were making a name for themselves. A “recovered” pothead who never went to bars, I went with Lisa to see them play.
I fell in love. And discovered the recreational joys of drinking. It was nothing for me to see the band play and dispatch a six of Miller Genuine Draft or Rolling Rock. Wild Horses represented to me whatever was rejuvenating, rebellious, and affirmative in rock ‘n’ roll.
I was at the Pirate’s Cove every Saturday night. A rowdy Flats saloon adopted by bikers, the place had begun to resemble an S. Clay Wilson comic. Once, a fistfight raged around me while I sat up behind the sound man’s riser with Lisa, sublimely zonked on Seven and Sevens. I met a beautiful girl at the bar once and had a great time with her and would grow to wonder why I never called her again. For the most part I just got drunk and drove home. I collected a few DUIs during this period in my life.
It should have been all fun, but a sour syndrome of recrimination and worry began to pervade my nocturnal adventurings. An undeniable envy sprouted within me as I watched the band and drank. I fought off a sense I belonged on that stage with them but was too diffident to attempt such a thing. I would sink into worse, more private states of resentment and self-abuse at seeing one guy, as abandoned as I was inhibited, make a weekly ritual of getting up on stage Saturday nights to belt out “Johnny B Goode.”
The band’s hirsute, stocky singer, a toothy, clownish character, was a point of connection yet subtle mockery. When he wasn’t banging a cowbell or trying to play saxophone, he lent vocal credibility to such numbers as “Louie Louie” and “Eighteen” and would, from the stage, cajole the likes of me with the mid-set exhortation, “Get drunk and be somebody!” Maybe he had an arrangement with the saloon owners to help boost liquor sales.
I still just drank and didn’t do anything about my secret yen.
Wild Horses were dismissed by some as just another cover band, despite a flicker of at least regional fame with their quirky, reggae-styled little number “Funky Poodle.” I liked “Carbona Mona” better. I am given to understand that both originals sprang from the pen of guitar player and singer Steve Jochum, to whom my then-girlfriend ascribed the only star potential on the Wild Horses stage, amply demonstrated on that little pop-rock number with its predictable progression of chords.
Much of the appeal of Wild Horses resided in their fealty to the classics as well as recent radio hits they made their own. They did Santana, Stones, Beatles, Bowie, Kinks, Allmans, Skynyrd. The more I drank, the more I got swept up in the sense I was with them, which was fine, but this always morphed into a nagging conviction I had to do something about it.
I was of the same psychic stuff as Mark David Chapman or any of those people who assumed, or strove to assume, celebrity status through an act of violence.
I was and am a writer. I cannot help but write. I never felt that way about music. I threw off early classical piano lessons when I discovered marijuana and the Beatles’ double white album. (My dad clouted me across the jaw when, smirkingly stoned, I headed out the door to “party” rather than wait for Mrs. Krausz to come over and try to get my tangled fingers around that Beethoven sonata.) In my adulthood, during my Wild Horses fan years, I piddled around on an electric guitar I bought for over four hundred dollars and played along to Some Girls down the basement before I sold it to some kid who riffed chords on the thing and made a cutting remark about “having to work for it.”
And yet I kept going to see Wild Horses play, kept on aching to go up on stage, kept on telling myself I could do that. Sing. And kept chickening out. I’d veer toward the stage — before cutting over to the bar for another beer.
Why even have this stupid hang-up? I wondered in sober, self-pitying reflection. Many, many people stood around at the saloon swilling beers and listening. This did not palliate my conviction that I was a coward. I guess I thought I was special, I should do more.
The band cut a few albums that got regional airplay, even did some traveling. They kept on playing around town and there was Bobby Gitlin, still at it, still a fan, if disfigured by self-loathing.
There were aborted attempts to break out of my anonymity. Once I willed myself to proceed robotically onto the stage at the Sahara Club in Willoughby Hills and stood at the mike frozen, or pretending to sing, and when for weeks later some girl at the bar, who’d liked the look of me up there, kept telling me I reminded her of Springsteen it made me wish I had it in me to do it again, whatever it was I’d done. But dragging myself up there had depleted me. My revenge mission against nobodyness and failure remained but half waged.
I was in my thirties and forties, working jobs that located me squarely in the realm of lower middle class. By Achieving Jewish Standards of the era that produced me, I was a poor schlub laboring on the outskirts of anything resembling success. I could only afford some squalid apartment on the poor-person perimeter of Shaker Heights. I was a talented freelance writer, but most of my paychecks came from salaried sub-editor gigs for industrial magazines. That my craft must find inspiration in corrugated paperboard and vending machines did not sit well with this self-styled Kerouac, this would-be Salinger.
My therapist, to whom I’ve been talking about all this, tried not to smile when, remembering my life, I told her I’d thought my big problem at the time had nothing to do with entrepreneurial failure and living just above the poverty line but that I didn’t have the balls to get up on stage with Wild Horses. This silly hangup stretched on for half my adult life.
BY MY FIFTIES I’d moved to Arizona to teach high school. One summer I went back to Cleveland to visit. I spent an evening with Barb’s parents, who were, politically and culturally, the opposite of my liberal parents. I had some affection and gratitude for my mother- and father-in-law, and not just because Joe Chiancone had built a floorcovering business whose profits were already being distributed to his daughter and me as early inheritance. I felt at peace with these two working-class people as they sat in their den watching Larry King. Maybe that serene, almost drowsy feeling explains what happened.
After I excused myself, hugged Barb’s mom and shook Barb’s dad’s hand, I drove to Legacy Village, an upscale shopping plaza in Lyndhurst, where, on this balmy summer night, aging, never-say-die Wild Horses were playing outside. I didn’t drink anymore, having established sobriety and racked up several years of this as a new lifestyle.
I stood in the crowd loving the band. Tummler and self-appointed MC Roger with his between-song wisecracks as he stood there with his bass slung over his shoulders. Another bearded eminence, keyboard-playing ex-hippie Billy Buckholtz, who’d started the band and sang like Greg Allman. Jochum gone, replaced by one in a series of new guitarists. The ladykiller Italian drummer, Tony, gone into real estate. The bearded singer was still up there.
I stood in the little crowd enthralled, happy, reminiscing not without savor . . . when it occurred to me I still had those old thoughts. I still wanted to join them. And a new, fizzy calculation hit me: how easy it would be to do just that.
I marched through the light throng of mostly drunken frat boy types, up some steps, past an amp or two, sidled up next to Dennis (“Get drunk and be somebody!”) Christopher, stood behind a mike, and sang along best I could to “Honky Tonk Woman.” I think it was Dennis who handed me a tambourine or a cowbell, which I whacked with a will. I stayed up there for the next tune too. The band seemed glad to have me there, though I was miming some words. You’d have thought, having seen these guys seven thousand four hundred and thirty-eight times, I’d have them memorized.
They took a break and I got down from the stage.
Elated, I floated to my parked car, fumbled out my phone, and called Barb long distance. I gushed to her how I had done it. I had fucking done it!
She started to congratulate me, just as a call came cutting in and I had to get off.
“Where’d you go?”
It was Roger. They were going to start another set.
But I was so drained from having done what I’d done, I wasn’t sure I had the energy.
I have no memory of there being any continuance of Wild Horses with Bob Gitlin that night. I may have driven right home.
That should have been the end of this story. I wish it was. But it’s not.
Now I had something to prove. Had to do it again.
The next summer, they played Legacy Village again, and I made it a point to be in town again.
I drove around and around the place, got out and listened to the band, and chickened out. Began driving home, then castigated myself, pulled over onto a ramp off of Route 271, turned around and went back, chickened out again, and finally let myself go home to sleep at Mom’s.
Despite this, somehow singing had become part of my life.
I had wandered into an Arizona synagogue in an attempt to be Jewish, by which I mean I strove to unearth my birthright Judaism. I loved the rabbi, who took me in, fully understood my red diaper secularism, “got” that I’d had very little formal training in sung Jewish prayer, gave me a primer to learn Hebrew letters, even “conscripted” me (his joke) into the choir. I relished the spotlight, belting out the “Chatzi Kaddish” High Holy Days in yarmulke and fringed prayer shawl. Yet I was fully conscious this wasn’t the star mode I’d spent all those drunken nights contemplating. Bellied up to the bimah I manifested stocky pedantic Tevye, not yowling sinewy Jagger.
I flew back to Cleveland again one summer. Wild Horses were playing a big outdoors engagement during my stay.
They were playing outdoors to a huge crowd on a field by the Cleveland Museum of Art. Surveying the human sprawl, I quailed. This was fucking Woodstock! so unlike that Legacy Village parking lot opportunity with its accommodating gaggle of fans. But I steeled my resources and marched into “action.” I wended my way past people and speakers. The band was far off on that big stage. A mike near me was probably turned on. I parked myself behind it and yipped and growled to “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” Face burning, I left the stage right after the song, wanting to erase myself.
Roger told me on the phone next day, “Nobody knew you were there!”
We had dinner. I murmured something about still liking to sing. He said, not without a little acid, “Stick to the choir.”
My eyes fell on my plate. I felt ashamed, angry at myself for alchemizing one sweet magical moment into this sour end.
But that was the end of it, and in some tired region of my soul I must have been relieved.
ROGER is the big brother I never had as well as my longtime pro bono psychiatrist. I rarely call him to lament these days. Old age has knocked much of the mishigas off me.
But I had to call him a month or two ago for lawyerly advice about my wife’s and my will.
Soon as he saw my number flash on his cell, he picked up and cried, “More cowbell!”
After a startled moment I laughed, with happy relief. This greeting washed away the taste of his consigning me to the senescent temple choir, far removed from the soaring rebellion of Wild Horses.
“You know,” I said, “I will always remember doing that.” He knew I meant the good time, that magic solidarity at Legacy Village. “That was one of the most fun things I ever did.”
There was a pregnant pause, a moment of tacit brotherhood on the line, before Roger said, “Hey, at least you didn’t storm the Capitol.”
I chuckled obligingly, knowing what he meant, knowing all too well.
After I finally got off the phone with him, I found myself smiling bleakly at his remark.
Done driving myself nuts. Thought I’d try happiness.
I’ve struggled against poverty though never been so poor I couldn’t pay rent or have a car. Now I have a nice house and an SUV, a loving wife, and a fixed income that establishes me as middle class. I can relax.
And, at 67, work less. Social Security checks have begun to come in.
Barb has gone to a yet more part time schedule at the flower store.
Trying to gear down from four days a week to three at Walmart, I ran into a problem with personnel. Wound up promising the old gal there I’d stay on four days for yet another month, until she can do the hiring necessary to replace the labor they’re losing with my cutting back.
“They hired this one guy but he’s not enough, they need another,” I told Barb.
“That’s a compliment to you, isn’t it?” It is. I’d had a dock worker job at Dillard’s which I quit after daily battering by a lady boss who found me distressingly unused to such travail after my long white-collar pose. At Walmart I acquired manual-labor chops. And it did feel good. “I can’t remember when you had a job that made you so happy,” Barb said.
She was right. I had come to regard my whole “career” as a bust. Being a writer, being a teacher, one big collective shitshow. After the final gasp of all that, it was “Walmart, here I come.” Not a proud moment. More like proof positive I was a failure, having “come to this.”
Then something funny happened. I wound up cobbling together some self-respect working at the store. After a rocky start, getting backhanded and dissed just because I was a foreign presence among these working-class grunts, I learned how to do everything. Even began to incur praise. I came to get along with fellow crew members and with the ravaged hierarchies of over-stressed bosses, themselves under the gun from their own taskmasters to increase productivity.
I clock out with a feeling of elation.
When a manager asked me to stay late last week to work a cart still on the floor in Pets, I sighed but said yes. Every muscle ached. I was so tired of taking off and putting on my reading glasses, which fog when I wear them along with the expletive-deleted mask. Wrestling 40- and 50-pound dog food sacks and kitty litter containers is a muscle job, a job for a young man. I could have asked for something else here. But I’m too proud to stand at the front of the store and say, “Welcome to Walmart.”
I worked late unloading that pet cart. And you better believe the boss was grateful. That’s a good thing. Wasn’t sure he liked me.
I’ve been lightening my karma at Walmart, showing my fealty to a team ethos, a community. I even feel – don’t laugh – I’m doing selfless service, transcending my petty ego.
I like helping customers. I know where everything is in Grocery.
I like the humble job.
But I’m nearing 70. I don’t want to hump pet food sacks and cap out the Antarctic freezer for much longer. Nor, however, do I want to retire into a life of easy-chair re-viewings of movies I’ve already memorized. Maybe it’s not a good thing I own The Godfather, available for my infinite delectation.
To prepare for a fit and productive retirement, I’m trying to cut back on TV. I read books that challenge and expand my awareness, books that got by me in college. I will take this opportunity to announce a somewhat compromised adoration of Dostoevsky, whose The Idiot represented an arduous four-month slog. But I’m glad I read it. I signed up for The Great Courses and MasterClass both online and, weirdly, have gotten more out of dorky old-fashioned Russian literature expert Prof. Irwin Weil, of Northwestern University, addressing kids in a room in folding chairs, than from Martin Scorsese talking about making movies, a program albeit slickly produced by MasterClass, much as I love Marty. I guess I’ll keep reading Russian literature. I won’t be making movies.
I figured when I retired, though I’ve foresworn being a writer, I would, well, write.
But danger lurks here. Writing could be a place I get twisted up in my past rather than heal my soul or even provide credible entertainments.
The other night I dreamt I was screaming bloody murder at an old friend who in real life has died. I was stunned upon awakening.
“I must have a lot of anger,” I murmured over to the next pillow.
Barb said I should do “morning pages.” You wake up and take paper and scribble out dream memories, anything else that comes to mind, and throw the pages away. This lubricates you, gets you in touch with yourself. “With you, you blog, you revise, but it’s all in your head. You never get out of it.”
I’m not sure that’s correct. I see it as a big battle in my heart, my whole being, that is hard to resolve.
A confession from an old hippie who acquired much of his philosophy from Castaneda occultism: Don Juan, the yakking Yaqui, says happy people are very “careful about the nature of their acts.”
I think the suffering which writing has caused me – exposing a lack of self-esteem, sharing mushy directionless prose – has forced me to mold myself into a better writer. What better exercise for an aging man willing to keep learning?
This blog allows me to target a topic, conjure a theme, and – respecting the old verities of beginning, middle, and end – let that arrow fly as fast as possible. Because people don’t have time.
I was listening to The White Album in my car, bathing in a double disc package whose technical name is The Beatles and that I might have paid three or four bucks for at Recordland when it came out; listening to the two CDs, cruising around, when I came to realize — yet again, and in a new way — just why the Beatles have magic. There is no way to appreciate this multifarious foray into new zones without remembering how they started, with “Yeah yeah yeah” and “I saw her standing there.” How far they ranged!
You can trace the dissolution of the band through the gestures and key moments of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. McCartney may be set on sweet nonsense (his “Silly Love Songs” was a dud), but “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” makes you happy! Whereas I always associated Lennon with the confusion and violence, the dissonance and horror: “Yer Blues”; “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey”; and “Helter Skelter,” even though it turns out that was a McCartney composition!
But despite the dissonance, there’s an artistic integrity in Lennon, a poignancy, that outreaches anything else in the Beatles canon. He challenges you in his obstinate divagations from the pop songbook. I guess in the Lennon/McCartney pairing, it all gets mixed together, and that’s what made those songs great.
Is there anything weirder than “Revolution Number 9”? From the English gentleman’s “They are standing still” to the doomed and sonorous cantorial warbling, from the young woman’s “You become naked” to all the scratchy crosstalk of studio sound effects used against the laws of aesthetics and harmony, it’s a dissection of the whole mess of the human psyche. The Beatles produced songs that were downright scary! This one is rather in the footsteps of “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” off of Sgt. Pepper, a song whose carnival music elicits a prickle of dread. One thinks of William Burroughs’s cutup theory, how the books he crafted that way are unreadable but for discrete, congruous patches; the avant garde weirdness of “Revolution Number 9” was crafted that way yet is all of a piece! I feel the John energy on this one, just as he was with that masterpiece of psychedelia “Tomorrow Never Knows” off of Revolver, and what many call his best work, the climactic chapter of Sgt. Pepper, “A Day in the Life,” a combination of dreamy narrative and mounting orchestral riot.
There is no Lennon without McCartney. The White Album would be flat and unpalatable without Paul’s whimsy. Perhaps my favorite number on the whole record is his reproduction of a nineteen-twenties dance hall ditty. With its scratchy backdrop and way of singing, and its overall lilt, “Honey Pie” had to be a faithful rendering of an existing song, I thought, till I Googled it and found that Paul wrote it! Randy Newman identified McCartney as one of a handful of geniuses at concocting melody. Recreations of old Swing Era ballads tend to be disturbing, in fact created for that purpose, like the Gold Ballroom soundtrack of The Shining or the pop hit of Johnny Favorite in Angel Heart. But Paul’s song is different; it warms and consoles. Paul rocked hard, but he also sang us lullabies.
George Harrison’s contributions are far from negligible. I once cringed at “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” indulging in Nik Cohn rock-dreams speculations I had no right to, relating to the unplasant detail (to me) of Clapton pirating George’s wife. And here’s Eric contributing those agonizing riffs! But I dig the song now. Those men re-cemented their friendship to build another monument to Beatles magic. It has the cosmic energy of a blues classic, as affirmed by anybody’s YouTube perusal of the Rock Hall tribute pending George’s passing, with its input by all manner of rock luminaries including Prince’s jaw-dropping guitar finale. George Harrison was a genius. “Who knew?” George Martin would muse. We knew he was “a magical guy” (Clapton’s words) ever since “Here Comes the Sun” and “My Sweet Lord.”
Oh, and speaking of the Beatles longtime producer, Howard Stern is a little off the mark to badmouth George Martin as an intrusion, an afterthought, unworthy of being mythologized with the four Beatles. His contribution was immense. Martin’s traditional sensibility, manifested in those symphonic productions and arrangements, enlivened and expanded the Beatles palette. “Eleanor Rigby” is but one early example of the debt we owe George Martin. And it was Martin, the “old straight guy,” who would say, about his having heard the raw tapes of what became Revolver, “They were starting to hand me much more interesting work.” He was as hip as they were.
A schismatized magic gleams out from The Beatles. As do some pure, stand-alone nuggets that stand any test of time. “Dear Prudence” is still gorgeous. A folk singer named Colette used to play and sing it at the Barking Spider in Cleveland with such fealty to the original I would listen with something near rapture. I still jump around in my seat to the flat-out rocker “Back in the U.S.S.R.”; Russians love it too, have a whole cult and party scene around it. Nobody rocked like the lads from Liverpool. “Birthday,” same thing. Hold onto your fucking hat, and what about that galactic ending?
It’s a shame the band is no more, but you can read history in the runes. You can see, in the White Album, the pieces of a mosaic representing this astounding breadth of artistry. Just as you can see how the pieces, once separated, would never come completely back together again.
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.