My suspense-filled quarantine

Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts in David Cronenberg’s brilliant Eastern Promises (IMDb photo still)


When I want to entertain myself, I’m more likely to put on a movie than pick up a book. If that makes me lazy and passive, so be it. But I’m not sure it does. To appreciate a movie, to really taste and assimilate it, is both an intellectual and emotional challenge. I guess you could say I’ve been doing a lot of work as a film scholar during my own extended lay-in, my own private COVID-19 quarantine.

I’m still working at Walmart, but I came down with a bad allergic reaction or a cold; I don’t want to think about anything bigger it might be. So that added a day off to a week when I normally have three days off. I’ve been filling my time writing, reading, and watching my big screen TV. I have been burning through the offerings of Neflix, Amazon Prime, and Starz, as well as my own DVDs, at a rate that would make Martin Scorsese proud.

I just got done re-screening and studying three great films by Canadian director David Cronenberg.

Cronenberg began in the field by making low-budget horror movies before expanding into the role of auteur. I once heard a critic on NPR say this man makes better movies when he’s committing himself to genre fictions than when he’s trying to be all arty and “important.” Thus were Naked Lunch and that one about Freud relative failures, while his movies that aren’t trying to be “literary” but are shamelessly derivative, traveling (and widening) the grooves of existing commercial categories, stand out as classics bigger and more graceful than the sum of their parts.

The Fly (1986), a reworking of an old Vincent Price movie, is, next to the hippie sentimentalism of The Big Chill, the best acting ever done by Jeff Goldblum. The exacting enunciation and hand gestures work well to depict a man ahead of his time and scientific community, a twitchy genius who, in a moment of drunken oversight, brings upon himself a hideous genetic union with a housefly. It would be funny if it weren’t so viscerally shocking and compelling. One watches through webbed fingers the progressive steps of this horrific transformation, each stage more sickening and gut-wrenching than the last. Yet the culmination is disarmingly elegiac. Geena Davis, as the journalist who cannot tear herself away from the mutated subject cum romantic partner, answers Seth Brundle’s plea to help him end his waking nightmare. As we watch her final grief and the fade to credits, we know we have been through something more than a schlocky joke. The horror is circumscribed by a love story. The meme, “Be afraid. Be very afraid,” came from here.

In the other two Cronenberg pictures I want to discuss, we have his go-to guy, cleft-chinned Viggo Mortensen, one of the Australian talents (both actors and directors) who’ve flooded Hollywood in the past several decades. Viggo is Cronenberg’s De Niro.

In A History of Violence (2005), inspired by a graphic novel, Mortensen plays a family man, a good man, who runs a small-town diner in what we might describe as a “bucolic” Indiana town. In a nail-biter of a scene, he reveals a part of himself nobody around him knew he had when he turns the tables on two repugnant criminals intending to rob the diner and perhaps sexually assault a female employee. After killing the two thugs (in a deliciously grisly explosion of action), Tom Stall is a hero. He gives the prototypical self-effacing speech to local and then national media. But the exposure has located him in the eyes of big-time Philly mafia who think they know him and want to hold him to account for actions in a past they insist is his. The tension between beloved, quiet-spoken Tom Stall and this Richie Cusack character imputed to him by Ed Harris’s not entirely unsympathetic mob lieutenant makes for riveting viewing. It leads to another moment of unwonted death-dealing by our humble protagonist, and eventually to a square-off between Mortensen and William Hurt as long-lost brothers. The movie is a referendum on rule by violence in our world, but in the end the imperative to kill seems at one with the yearning and the need for domestic bliss.

In Eastern Promises (2007), Mortensen plays Nikolai, a driver and muscle guy for the Russian mob in London. This one unravels not only an individual life – that of a sadly misled Russian girl who, on promises of being an entertainer, moved to London where she became a sex slave shot up with heroin – but the criminal world of post-Soviet Russian emigres. Naomi Watts excels as a hospital midwife, Anna, who takes it upon herself to dig up the story behind the 14-year-old hooker who died giving birth to a product of rape, as divulged in a diary Anna managed to have translated. Mortensen, while doing the bidding of a kindly-seeming don of the organization (who runs a Russian restaurant) and playing pals to the don’s debauched son, straddles an ethical divide. Though operating under the rule of Semyon (faux avuncular Armin Mueller-Stahl), Nikolai behaves sympathetically toward the ever more frenzied and impassioned Anna, who’s grown fond of the orphaned infant still in her charge at the ward. A fight scene with knives in a steam bath sets a new standard for hyper-realism in fight scenes. With his crested hair and Russian accent and acting courage, Viggo Mortensen creates a world you can’t look away from. The plot twist around which everything revolves underscores the theme of the compassionate heart that impels the player to live, and survive, in a remorseless world.

Cronenberg would deny there’s a moral engine at work in any of these films, but I discern in all three a core sweetness without which they might be unpalatable. He takes us to far-fetched places, using extremes to make a painting about horror, death, and violence. But even as he immerses us in these gruesome worlds, he allows us to come away remembering how it is we manage to stagger on, driven as we are by the enduring mystery of love.

How Not to Be a Big Deal

It’s weird being a writer. The imp that makes you write doesn’t square with the commercial market. Note: the wastebasket’s on the desk because my dog will run in and snatch used tissues out of the trash and eat them if it’s on the floor. This photo exemplifies the Dali painting of my life: a surrealistic juxtaposition of objects. (Photo courtesy of Barb, my talented photographer wife.)


God speaks to us less through ego aggrandizement than ego deflation. Allow me to illustrate with a little tale from the workplace.

I was on the ladder attached to my stocking cart and, instead of using my TC-70 scanner to beep items on the top shelf, the stocking shelf, of row 7 (the coffee and peanut butter aisle), I reached into my pocket for my Android and began to text an old friend.

“So you’re top stocking using your cell phone now?”

The voice below I could not identify right away. I figured it was a guy I worked with, not a guy – the guy – I worked for. I was still staring at my handheld. “Ah I got this personal thing, then I’ll get right off.”

“Well if you have to do that, why don’t you get off the floor.” The voice was brusque.

I looked down. On the floor was the store’s top executive, the man who runs the store, who has been good to me, fair and approachable.

I apologized, red faced. As he walked away, I scrambled to shut the phone. Deeply ashamed, I went back to the job Walmart was paying me for. During the coronavirus scare he’s had enough on his plate.

I went home for lunch and confessed the incident to Barb, who agreed it wasn’t the end of the world. She told me a boss had issued a similar reprimand to her when she worked customer service at Dillard’s.

I worked my ass off the second half of the day to feel better about myself.

Humblings straighten us out. We need them.

I am fresh from writing an angsty mini memoir. I showed it to a friend in Cleveland. My older sister, a writer, had liked some of the writing but said it could be better. Had she been damning it with faint praise?

One can be a good writer but not have a story anybody wants.

That’s what I’m sensing as I await the reaction from this second reader. Roger’s had the lurid manuscript about a month. He says he loves my writing. I think he does. And he never pulls his punches.

But I’m afraid he doesn’t like this. I think that what I wrote – an exegesis on the most humiliating, even traumatizing, moments in my life – fell so flat for him he opted to do nothing rather than hurt my feelings.

One thinks when one writes such a thing that, after the recitation of all that was feckless and cowardly in one’s life, the end product will be a hero, cleansed by the action of the telling. People will congratulate the writer for his bravery, his unflinching ability to face up. If I was a wimp and a dupe decade by degrading decade, after this hard-bitten admission I’d emerge a veritable Mike Ditka of confessional literature.

This turns out not to be the case. If I turned into anybody it’s Gilbert Gottfried.

I’ve come to rue I wrote the thing almost as much as I rue the experiences it chronicles.

I have worked through the feelings, been “feeling” the silence, taking it to heart, using it to open up my intuition. I figured Roger sees me as a friend. He looks up to me for my humor, grit, and resiliency. This memoir may have asked him to see me in a light he didn’t want to see me in.

Or maybe it just flat bored him. Which is worse.

I still have a clean manuscript of it in my drawer. All I’ve got to do now is dump it in the garbage and the whole thing never happened. I used to draw porn pictures. When Barb was out I’d go to the garage, where we had a metal garbage barrel, and burn them. Thus did I exorcise what was shameful. It’d be like that.

All this seems the truth, but something happened that is part of the circular twist I always fall into, that made me question my intuition. Last night I was in my easy chair reading and feeling peaceful. Just as I was starting to nod off and be ready for bed, I had the thought maybe the book was every bit as good as I’d told myself, Roger just didn’t have time, he was after all in his workaholic, high-stress world, a divorce attorney with bigger problems than how to help Bobby parse his rumination on the banal ordeals of his life.

I woke up this morning feeling I didn’t know what was to be made of the book, but I was better off leaning on the side of the first supposition (Roger hated it) than the second (I had no evidence of his reaction, so who knows?).

I’m better off battling a mild depression than getting my hopes up.

I guess part of me up on that cart felt I was too good to be some guy pushing a cart at Walmart.

I am a writer! A man of intellect, of culture, of the arts!

Hell, maybe I am.

In AA meetings – put on hold during the coronavirus scare – we talk about learning to live life on life’s terms. I’m still working on that.

You know what I like about hiking with Rosa in the woods? I’m where my feet are, not where my head’s at. White Spar a few weeks ago. Barb said use this one because I’m smiling, even though it’s a goofy selfie smile.

Siriusly, Folks

(Howard and Hillary. Photo respectfully filched from the internet.)

I’ve got my Sirius/XM preset to ten channels. They reflect my eclecticism and need to be informed as well as entertained. You’re in my blog now. I’ve got you in my clutches. You will hear where I’ve got my buttons set.

Far left, number one: the Beatles Channel. My delight in the Beatles is well served here, even if the reverence borders on the one thing rockers fear with cross and garlic: institutionalization. But it doesn’t really happen. You can trip out to “Tomorrow Never Knows” or rock out to “I Saw Her Standing There,” and, when you throw in mini-blurbs from musicians of disparate provenance joining at the altar of love, one is considerably warmed and enlivened and one’s own appreciation burnished in this place dedicated to the most remarkable band of all time.

Number two: Little Steven’s Underground Garage. Though I could do without the gushing of Michael Des Barres (the James Lipton of rock DJs), nothing beats Van Zandt’s “beat” narratives fronting the playing of tunes. His cultural appreciations make you want to sit in a coffee shop in a black turtleneck wearing a goatee snapping your fingers. I’ve been meaning to write him asking whether he writes those raps himself. On LSUG you get raucous “garage” rock. This is the go-to when you think rock and roll is dead or lost its punky nerve.

My number three, Classic Vinyl. I never was a fan of “Free Bird” or most of the stoner oeuvre of Pink Floyd, but damn! it’s tasty when you get in your car to some classic you always loved from the seventies or sixties. I indulge my old guy vibe here. Screw it if I don’t know what’s going on in popular music today.

Number four’s been giving me some trouble. I had it on Deep Tracks, which spun “other” tunes from famous albums you might remember only if you were around then. Like I once called into WMMS in Cleveland to request “Fat Man,” a Jethro Tull number featuring tambourine. The DJ asked what I weighed. I said one thirty-five, which got a laugh. My point is, the big numbers off of Stand Up were “Nothing Is Easy” and “Reasons for Waiting.” But I knew this back tune. That’s the idea behind Deep Tracks. But that channel turned into a station playing Rush 24/7. I’m not a Rush guy. I changed it to Siriusly Sinatra, having grown old enough to dig the likes of Johnny Mathis and Mel Torme. I have a Tony Bennett greatest hits CD that stirs me as nothing else can. Romance!

Five is where I declare I will be hip to new pop music. On The Spectrum I’ve gotten an earful of Nathaniel Rateliff and Michael Kiwanuka and The Lumineers, all mixed in with, say, “The Weight” by the Band, which I heard recently, or they throw in some Stones or Neil Young. This one’s growing on me. It solves the problem of me being stuck in the past. That makes you an old guy. All right, I am an old guy. But still.

Six is Outlaw Country. I love a certain edgy kind of country music. Dwight Yoakam is one of my favorite artists. He might show up here. I got turned on to James McMurtry’s cover of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Choctaw Bingo,” a wry take on the meth-cooking gun-shooting culture of Texas and Oklahoma, and liked it so much I downloaded a certain bad-ass live version off YouTube for my delectation. I always felt that this kind of country is, in fact, rock and roll. It meets in the same place.

Seven has become a news station, CNN online. I sat in my car on lunch breaks and ate and listened to the impeachment hearings, filling with pride and relief at the testimony of Fiona Hill, former White House national security aide, knowing full well nothing would come of her assertion of the kind of core principle we need in public service. I keep this one here. Can’t be all music. I like talk. I like to stay informed.

Eight is Bluesville. I just got turned on by Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Moneymaker,” which has to be among the most downright frank songs about the love act available to the human ear. Old blues has something no other kind of music has. It’s one reason I still have a nest of CDs, and among them I find I must put Buddy Guy’s Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues back on regular rotation. Blues ain’t dead. I love this channel like I love Outlaw Country; I can feel the place where the genre meets and even becomes rock and roll.

Nine is Symphony Hall. I like to consider myself a man of eclectic tastes. Just as “Intentional Heartache” and “Ain’t That Lonely Yet” by Dwight Yoakam stand tall in my cavalcade of favorites, so does Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique, in particular the recording my mother turned me onto, that of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi, a CD that includes “Marche Slave” and the bombastic yet soulful “1812 Overture.” Rock can be all climax. By the time Tchaikovsky ends a movement, it comes with a wallop earned by artful buildup.

Howard Stern occupies my far right set, number ten. Does anybody but me regard it as amusing that this guy, who did such a remarkable and responsible and respectful job interviewing Hillary Clinton a few months ago, also hosts dick jokes? One thing I love about the show is the chance to hear guest gag routines. Remember when Bill Clinton took an office in Harlem and Howard played some routine where one guy played Bill in his cracked, drawly voice having a phone conversation with some Bible-thumping woman of the ‘hood, and you can hear him beginning to privately turn the exchange into phone sex? Another classic is the lady who “did” Hillary Clinton making scatalogical comments about her rivals in the 2016 primary season. Howard is a genius, though sometimes when I’m riding to work at four thirty and he’s belching and getting into spats with the people he works with … it’s a little early for me. Maybe I’ve got to take a shit.

(Dwight rockin’ out. Thanks, Wikipedia.)

Por que triste, senor?

Buck and his benevolent new owner

My wife and I were having dinner in a Mexican restaurant with my new AA sponsor and his wife, and Russell was talking about having seen The Call of the Wild, the new movie with Harrison Ford and, from what I can gather, a computer-generated dog.

He said it was good.

Russell is a wise and discerning man. That’s why I asked him to sponsor me. I’d been “flying solo” for many years, which is not safe.

I asked him whether he’d read the Jack London story. In his soothing Texas accent, he said he had. I asked whether the movie had stayed true to the spirit of the tale. He nodded in the affirmative.

But lukewarm reviews reaffirm rather than dissolve my resistance. Not that CGI is all bad. I laughed myself into hysterics at Mouse Hunt, wherein Nathan Lane and Lee Evans chase a computer-generated mouse around a dilapidated mansion.

I don’t worry about laughing too much — though Barb’s nine-year-old nephew, whom we took to the slapstick film, thought I was deranged.

But I do worry about crying.

Because here I was going into a reminiscence about Buck, the much-abused dog who finally finds a sympathetic master in the frozen Yukon and, in an act of raw resolve to please John Thornton, pulls a half-ton sled to win him a bet, and I got choked up recalling this thrilling scene from the book. I shoved my nose back into the menu.

Stories and movies got to be a source of discussion. When Russell’s charming wife said Sense and Sensibility was her favorite movie, I complimented her on her taste, and chimed in with how I’ll never forget Emma Thompson as prudent Eleanor Dashwood, sitting at the seeming deathbed of her younger sister, Kate Winslet, who’s caught fever but is actually dying of a broken heart, and begs her, “Marianne, please try.” I had to catch myself again, as tears welled up.

What is wrong with me?

I was walking Rosa, my own stalwart dog, when I began to wonder whether the memoir that I began has predisposed me to sadness. But no, I was this way long before I started it. As with most misery-based autobiographical writing I do, its most redeeming quality seems to be its ability to break the crust of ego and be droll. Are all writers essentially entertainers? But sadness remains my starting subject.

It’s become an avalanche of memory. Watching Rosa sniff her way along, I remembered a moment in my life that may or may not make it into the book, but I thought I’d talk about here, on my long-neglected blog.

I had taken myself too seriously after getting ripped off in front of a girlfriend at Columbia University freshman year by Harlem street punks. I thought I had a right to soothe myself forever. I became a recluse, letting Dad pay for me to bide my time in New York, smoking dope and not going to classes. My academic progress slowed to a crawl. Dad bought that I would be okay, would even pay, during those doldrum years, for summer school and lodgings, which came to subsidizing sloth and alienation.

An African American maid came to the student apartments on East 119th Street. I was ashamed to see her in the hallways and would bolt the dorm, embarrassed at being there all day. I was ashamed of the full ashtrays and glad when they turned up clean. There wasn’t much else for her to do in there. The porno magazine would have been under the mattress. I don’t think she touched the filthy bed. I got high, consorted with myself, listened to music on FM radio.

In summer of 1975 I lay on that bed, tears rolling down my face to Ray Charles’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” It came on regularly. “Third Rate Romance” by the Amazing Rhythm Aces, “Lido Shuffle” by Boz Scaggs, and “Car Wash” by Rose Royce also punctuated my junkie existence. DJ Alison Steele, the Nightbird, would come on to purr, “Come, fly with me …” She was about the only company I had.

So what does all this mean? Why am I still crying at the drop of a hat? I should have dried up by now.

But no. The damage seems permanent.

A few years ago I was in Cleveland and driving around in a rented car. I called into a good college radio station and asked for the original recording of the Beatles’ “Across the Universe.” They played it right away. Lennon’s double-entendre lyric, “Nothing’s gonna change my world,” which might be about relief or despair, you can’t tell which, poured into my car as tears poured down my cheeks. I had to pull over.

In the Andrew Roberts biography Winston Churchill, I read that the great leader was a sentimental slob who cried at movies. I didn’t feel so bad.

I get misty watching a well-made dog food commercial.

I’m glad I got off my ass after that New York vegetation and joined the hard fray of life. That came with its share of agony, but it taught me laughter, which my tank was low on.

Between laughing and crying, you know which one I’d rather be doing.

Lee Evans and Nathan Lane, thwarted by a CGI mouse

I Still Read

A moment of leisure bliss. If my dog read, it’d be suspense thrillers about the acquisition and consumption of food.

I’ve been planning a blog about the seemingly arcane act of reading for quite some time. It seems the flood of internet messages and images, and the world of fantasy film and TV shows that go for the easy tease, have drowned out “reading.” I labored in the public school classroom to stimulate an interest in it, and found that young people – at least the ones I got – were so averse to the activity that one had to lead read-alouds, by which we crept, as a group, through the books. Thus were Macbeth and The Catcher in the Rye dispensed with, and though many enjoyed them, to my great satisfaction, and wrote compellingly to reveal the opening up of heart and soul in the apprehension of sympathetic character and gripping conflict, the sheer numbness of so many of them, morphing at times into spite and hostility, helped drive me from the field.

They’re all on their handhelds; that’s their world. The primacy of the internet addict has drowned out the voice and relevancy of that former eminence, the discriminating reader, leaving us with various tribal viewpoints fueled by social media. I am about to take a position as a volunteer tutor to grade school kids at the Prescott Public Library. The library employee who took me on said new statistics show reading is far from “going away.” But the world doesn’t feel like it.

I am almost embarrassed to cite Howard Stern as a weathervane of public taste or emissary of what’s good or not good, but I have to say I twinge every time he says he doesn’t like to read. Not that I don’t feel like that myself sometimes. I’ve found myself reading a sentence over ten times to get a footing in some a obtuse opinion piece in one of the three newspapers I subscribe to online. I have to remember Howard’s confession of reading distaste is but a blip on the screen of his campaign to share his whole crazy psyche with us, jittery attention span and all. And it makes me smile to hear him talking, just the next day, about sitting down with the Sunday Times and finding it fascinating, full of variety and life and interest.

The same contradiction obtains to me and my reading life. I assigned myself a thousand-page biography of Winston Churchill and loved it. And yet if you asked me what happened in The Brothers Karamazov, I can barely tell you. I loved Notes from Underground, a mad, painful little book, but my effort to win to memory the tome many call Dostoyevsky’s great work — and maybe a Kindle was the wrong tool for the job — came to naught. It stalled me as a reader. Reminds me of the time when I was a kid and loved kiddie bios of American frontier heroes and stories about Indians, and forced myself through The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans and wound up in remedial reading in seventh grade with slouching greasers, my reading rhythm now hobbled and traumatized.

When I was very little, before the ill-considered wrestling match with James Fenimore Cooper, I loved adventure stories. Bible Stories for Jewish Children, which I’ve blogged about, fascinated me. Here was the heroic literature of my people! I have remembered this book my whole life, an amulet against wearied stereotype. I remember Fire-Hunter by Jim Kjelgaard, about a primitive man who invents a spear-launching tool. I remember Hardy Boys mysteries. I remember a sports book called Triple Play, a suspense story in which a man is threatened by criminals to throw a game but, by standing his ground at the end, creates a stirring conclusion (the poor Italians will have to live with heavy Nino Martelli, a name that sticks with me).

Mr. Bunsey, my eighth grade AP English teacher, assigned memorable challenges, including a haunting short story by Conrad Aiken about a boy’s psychic disintegration called “Silent Snow, Secret Snow.” But the 1957 novel A Separate Peace was the real jewel. I found in exuberant, disarmingly honest Phineas a character to love. Not since Tom Sawyer had a character stuck with me so well. I liked Finny even better than Tom, who started the Twain classic kind of a smartass, though the frightful adventure of Tom and Becky trying to stay ahead of chilling Injun Joe was ripping good stuff, as was the scene of Tom walking in on his own funeral. Who cannot (however blushingly) admit to wanting to hear people boohooing their passing? And magic abounded in the tacit affection between Tom and Becky. But there was something refreshing and life-affirming about the athlete Phineas that rocked my world as nothing had before. A Separate Peace has informed my idea about integrity, and what it is we love in people, to this day.

In the photo above, I’m at it again. Reading.

It was the best kind of day, a day off from Walmart. The Beast and I ate a good breakfast, and not long after that I leashed her up and, in the morning cold, took her for our customary three-mile walk. “A tired dog is a happy dog,” the vet says. Rosa’s feeling gentle and drowsy and is keeping me company on the guest-room bed as I open my Kindle to Studs Terkel’s Working, a procession of prompted monologues from Americans about their jobs. There isn’t enough literature about the everyday reality that shapes us. It’s a long book, but I think I’ll finish it.

Whether it’s paper or doing it this way, I still like to read. Reading won’t go away until I go away, and I don’t think that’ll be for a while yet.

My Christmas Sermon

All you real Jews out there, you tell me. Is my mezuzah on right?

[Note: When I first posted this I said “menorah” in a few cases where I meant “mezuzah.” Having been alerted to this embarrassing oversight, I have hereby fixed it.]

I think I celebrate Christmas. Maybe it’s because I’m married to a woman of Catholic background. But it goes further back than that.

During college I dropped acid and read the gospels. To this day I regard as valid what happened to me sitting cross-legged on that bed in a student apartment on W. 119th St. in Manhattan. Ever since then I have returned to what I learned by rereading these stories, particularly Matthew, to freshen something that blossomed within me.

One of the profound moments in the six-part video series that aired during the eighties on PBS, entitled The Power of Myth, was when Joseph Campbell tells his ingenuous interviewer, Bill Moyers, what the virgin birth really means.

“Have you risen above your animal nature and been reborn as a human incarnation?” As I recall, this beautiful scholar created linkages to the Holy Grail myth and to the heart chakra in Eastern spirituality and particularly Kundalini yoga.

At one time I was this close to becoming a goy. I rather enjoyed going with my wife to Unity Church here in Prescott, largely because of a lovely man, Rev. Catlin, who was funny and wise. When he left the pulpit here, I didn’t want to go anymore.

But at one point I had sat in Unity during Christmas Eve with a candle on my lap singing “Silent Night” with the congregation. Before Catlin left, I formed a bit of a friendship with him, even imposing on him once in his office, subjecting him to some verbal blur about me reconciling my liking it here with my “being Jewish.” A torrent of hand-wringing esoteric bullshit. I do remember what he said. That it didn’t matter. I could carry around everything. In his place, no one belief system needed to be so literalistic as to block out any other. Here, humanism was the ultimate practice, giving and sharing and making the world a better place by practicing love.

After Catlin left and I didn’t go anywhere, but returned to my profane rhythms and self-indulgences, I got on a guilt trip. Or maybe a better way to put it was that something seized me that was ancient and tribal and Jewish and made me decide that I should at least give Judaism a chance. I’d had no formal training as a boy, never went to Hebrew school, never “had a bar mitzvah.” I wandered into Temple B’rith Shalom, where another bracingly likable chap, Rabbi Berkowitz, took me in, gave me a primer on the Hebrew letters, got me singing the prayers over wine (grape juice to this guy) and bread, and even conscripted me into a choir largely populated by very old people, mostly women. I felt some kind of identity with something larger than myself but couldn’t let go of other spiritual beliefs I’d found compelling.

I don’t go to the temple much anymore. I don’t go anywhere.

I am lighting menorah candles every night and saying the brucha taught me by my father – out of superstition? My prayer may not even be right. Last night I forgot to light the three candles off the shammes (“shammash” in Hebrew), a ritualistic blunder. My Judaism, insofar as I practice it, is not by the book. The mezuzah nailed onto my office door jamb might be on the wrong side though I think it’s tilted correctly. At any rate I never paid some Judaic hucksters any 35 bucks for a rabbinical script in miniature that’s supposed to be shoved into your mezuzah to make it officially holy. I sent a few bucks to the temple in a moment of fervency after High Holy Days.

I’ve come to the conclusion I’m not a religious man at all. Excuse the cliché, but I am spiritual without being religious. I have a spiritual life but do not belong to any club with rules and systems. I think the main thing that got me out of the choir was not just that I was kicked out of the spotlight along with some other guys in favor of some diva, but that I was subjected to pro-Trump crowings from what I gathered, with some shock, were a bunch of benighted Republicans. One rabbi after another had assumed the bimah since my mentor had left, all women. The rabbinate is undergoing the same transformation as the barbering industy; more and more women are getting into it. I missed Berkowitz.

Barb’s dicey relationship with the church is somewhat the same. She regularly sits in the adoration room to guard the host at Sacred Heart, and sometimes goes to confession and to Mass, and fingers rosary beads. But when she hears all these church ladies spew poisonously intolerant political beliefs, particularly about abortion, she will tell me she does not like the place and steers clear.

“Don’t let those old biddies drive you away,” I’ve said. “That’s your church. That’s your God.”

Funny for a profane old goofball like me to say such a thing. But I do. When she goes off to do her Eucharistic adoration in that serene meditation room, the nominal Jew frying bacon calls after her, “Say hi to God for me.”

I find religion fascinating though I stand outside of it. When I stood at the bedside of my old dear friend Mike, who died in hospice care in Tucson a few weeks ago, one of the visitors was a leftist ex-Methodist minister who’d quit the church to become a high school math teacher. I engaged him in conversation about his days as a symbol of “the faith,” and told him about my little “Jewish adventure.” He said it seemed to him people go to these houses of worship largely for the social life they provide. I got the feeling he didn’t have much use for religion anymore.

Today I think I’ll read the Sermon on the Mount again. And pray for a nation to find its soul.

A Gratitude List on My Sobriety Birthday

Plenty to be grateful for. My wife and dear friend Bill Noble, visiting from the Boston area. We’re about to have dinner at Prescott Brewing Company. I’d thought just the meat loaf was good, but they do a righteous burger too.


Today I complete fifteen years of uninterrupted sobriety. Nobody I knew back in Cleveland thought I’d do this.

I moved to Arizona eight months clean and haven’t used a mood- or mind-altering substance since.

Never was much of a bar guy, though I liked Miller Genuine Draft and Jim Beam shots. I don’t have much night life now that I follow farmer’s hours, working a four-days-a-week retail job that begins before dawn, and being, you know, old. But back in the day, in Cleveland (scene of all my revelries), I followed Wild Horses around in roustabout saloons including the Pirate’s Cove in the Flats and the Sahara in Willoughby Hills, where, despite my neurotic musings (like, why can’t I be a rock star), I managed to meet young ladies who gave me the benefit of their conversation as well as acquiescence to my more carnal, mercenary agenda.

All a greying snapshot from faded youth for a man just turned sixty-six.

I guess drugs got me into Alcoholics Anonymous. All I have to recall is my high, faggy voice under the influence of crack, sitting in a hiding place from reality with this kid who knew how to score the stuff, to remind myself why I don’t do drugs anymore. My final memory of drugs, all of them, was me abdicating responsibility for manhood. It was slow putting myself back together after my Humpty-Dumpty shatterings. But I did that, rescued myself from where I had been. I was in headlong flight from the anger, envy, and pain that boiled beneath. I had an existential crisis that forced me to look into my soul. It wasn’t pretty. But I’m grateful I did it.

I would change everything. Maybe I went overboard. I came to Arizona to be a teacher. Though teaching would provide many gifts, it may have been a mistake. Yes, it forced me into contact with others, made me transcend ego in that sense. I would stand out on lunch duty smiling in divine amusement at the freshness and folly of swarms of teenagers. I was such a one once. But most of the experience hurt too much to call fulfilling.

It certainly began as a horror show. This trial by fire inspired a sometimes salacious novel I wrote under the name R.G. Philips and, after finding no publisher or even agent, uploaded electronically. Strange, how mere dozens of people reading and liking it felt like immortality. As my old friend Rabbi Berkowitz said, “How much is enough?”

My AA meetings are down. I’m lucky if I hit a meeting a week these days. I haven’t been a very good friend to the man I’d called my sponsor, so I don’t have one anymore.

I’ve been abstinent so long there is no sharp, gnawing urge to drink or use. It is only when I am with people to whom alcohol represents a lifestyle that I suffer any blip in contented temperance. But why start all that up again?

I was a naïve buffoon of an instructor among hostile teens, in a region known for low high school graduation rates and low attainment of college degrees. But this tough place built in me a weird, unaccountable happiness. I began to suffer deliberately, facing up to what began to appear through the mists as my karma. The big picture wasn’t to become famous or make big money, but to be a mensch.

I have begun a memoir at the prompting of an old friend who said the South Euclid working-class Jewish neighborhood that spawned us was uniquely nurturing. Friends from back then are still there for him in a special way. I get that. A July trip to Cleveland enveloped and warmed me in a way I hadn’t expected. It was like one of those heartening Old Testament stories about reunion and reconciliation. How long have I fled from myself in fear and shame, unable to embrace others and laugh with people who know me?

I need psychological distance to write about a thing. I wrote about beating up my best friend because he finked on my sister and she gave me no rest. I wrote without wincing about being in a mental hospital during the struggle to attain a belated manhood in my sad twenties. Clawing even further back through cobwebbed memory, I wrote about a traumatic experience at Columbia University, elaborating scenes with the distant interest, even wry delectation, of an objective chronicler. My book is a sperm cell swimming upstream in competition with millions of other tadpoles; it were foolish to be hotly expectant of hitting that egg, though I’ve been read by the likes of Michael Korda and Jonathan Galassi. What do I do with the chesty confidence that impels me to my writing chair?

The strangest source of solace comes from my current job, stocking shelves at a store. I have a clear conscience and leave the place elated. No hateful students sticking pins in my tires, refusing to read, playing spiteful emotional games with an aging lover of writing, journalism, and literature.

I accept myself. Yes, I know I was a flawed teacher. The disciplinarian is the first face these kinds of kids must see before the ostensible wonders of language can even be broached. File this under “If I had it to do over again …” But young people from past classrooms float into my Facebook orbit to declare their appreciation of me.

Go figure.

The Fart Chronicles

The twist is wise.

Was the cheese in that meatball sub that did it.

I thought I might be in the clear after I blew that one in the Snacks aisle. Figured I’d gotten out in time. I’d fled around the corner, down the Cereal aisle, and come back around to my stocking cart from the other direction, wearing a serious, self-absorbed expression, a look of utter innocence, though a lingering effluvium obtained about my cart, or in any case was with me as I got back.

An older woman who had pushed her shopping buggy into the area now squatted down on her old tentative knees, right by my cart. Her nose visibly wrinkled as, finding nothing she needed, she rose creakily up, glaring at me. She knew; she’d seen me dart out.

You can forget about a bright, cheerful Walmart greeting, “Can I help you find something?”

I was blown.

And this damn day was getting complicated.

Answers don’t come easy, but I’m in the answer business. This town’s full of questions, and I aim to solve them best I can. That’s why they pay me.

Had to lay low for a while. But I was thinking all the time.

What happened on Snacks stayed with me. I weighed the evidence as I unloaded Planters peanut jars, and got out of there to work the Candy aisle.

I was obsessed with a conundrum.

When you pass gas and swiftly dart from the scene of the crime, are you in fact free and clear? Or are you dragging evidence of your foulness along with you in your jockey shorts and jeans?

That wrinkled nose added up to a clue I didn’t want to find. But ain’t life like that?

My afternoon break came not a moment too soon.

I took a swift belt in my car from the bottle I keep in the glove box. Needed the soothing balm of a shot of Jim Beam.

“Look, it coulda been worse,” I told myself. “What if you’d got found out by some pretty young babe in short shorts?” The kind you see in Produce. Everywhere else in the joint you’re in danger of getting run over by old, fat people in motorized carts, though most of them can walk. “It was just some old lady. Relax.”

But that constituted slim solace. Not much encouraging feedback from the young gals these days anyway. At 66, my swagger around the young, nubile specimen had attenuated with a sobering realization. My ogling was inverse to her own reaction, something along the lines of, “Eew. This old guy’s checking me out.”

I’ve lived and fought and loved and farted all across this great land of ours.

You learn your truths the hard way.

Lived in New York for a spell. Wotta town.

With my fedora and a Camel unfiltered hanging from my lips, I give people the impression of being some kinda tough guy. True, true. I can massage a stooge’s gums with my knuckles or with the .38 I carry if I really wanna make an impression.

But that’s not me. I got more class than that.

I took to going to museums in the Big Apple. That’s where some of these intellectual broads hang out.

I tell you, there’re some hot dames in that town.

And I’ll tell you something else, there are some hot dogs that’ll give you indigestion. I do a lot of eating on the run working cases, so GI issues are a hazard of the trade. Shouldna had that second Sabrett.

I’m strolling from canvas to canvas in the French Impressionist display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, when the flatus expanded within my bowels, causing discomfort and pressure, and a mounting sense of urgency.

I thought the coast was clear, even with this leggy, elegant twist, high heels clacking, moving along not fifteen feet away, eyeing a Manet or Monet. One of those nays.

I anticipated an emission of little olfactory threat; my sole concern was that it might be audible.

So I thought I’d pull a fast one. An old trick I liked to use. Takes a little coordination between mouth and the other relevant orifice, but I prided myself on being a pretty slick operator. Or I did, until that day.

Mr. Slick was not on his game. His control was off, his delivery unsynchronized. The “Ahem!” – clearing my throat – was supposed to happen at the same time as the fart. Only it didn’t. Maybe because I’d been holding it in, it got trapped and took a while coming out. So I cleared my throat and then, a split second later, farted.

The twist broke into a helpless grin. She couldn’t stop laughing, kept trying not to.

I try not to take myself too seriously, but I didn’t want to wait around long enough for her to make of my ludicrousness a friendly joke. Like “Good try.” Man’s got his pride.

Hell, maybe that’s the problem.

I knew a guy in junior high who barfed all over the girl in front of him in class. It became known schoolwide that they became boyfriend and girlfriend after that.

Go figure dames.

MOMA had Nefertiti in another exhibit. I tore myself away from a Cezanne (nothing but a buncha swells lounging around on the grass in half-ass swimsuits with umbrellas all around) and headed over to Egypt.

Try to crawl into a sarcophagus with the mummy.

Step Right Up

Martin Balsam as erudite scoundrel Alardyce T. Merriweather in the 1970 film Little Big Man (photo blithely appropriated from


I sit on a reclining chair with a comfy headrest, feet on a footstool, eyes closed. I’m sinking into meditation. Or maybe it’s sleep.

It don’t make no never-mind to the folks who run this joint. If they could see me they’d figure they succeeded. I looked peaceful and content, glad about the deal that brought me here.

Little do they know what goes on behind the serene exterior. I am beset by doubt, even something akin to scorn.

Intending to run alternative therapies like this is a way to get a bank loan, isn’t it? Only unlike the usual ploy — say, a coffee shop or barber shop — this one comes with a special kind of pitch, one that harks back to the Old West.

I can’t help but feel some hippie carnival barker got me into the tent.

What’s the difference between this and some medicine show hustle? I think of Alardyce T. Merriweather, the miracle-cure salesman in Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man. Along with sidekick Jack Crabb, he gets what he deserves.

But he’ll never learn. Dustin Hoffman’s Crabb calls to his tarred and feathered mentor, during their mutual comeuppance, “You don’t know when you’re beat!”

Martin Balsam’s incorrigible philosopher chortles back, “I’m not beat, Jack. Just tarred and feathered, that’s all.” And laughs.

The hustles will never stop.

You sit in a room in your stockinged or bare feet. Barb suggested I rub my bare feet into the salt.

“They said it’s good for fungus.”

I’ve been at Walmart all day and am self-conscious about hot smelly feet pulled from sweatsocks, but Barb insists. Hoping to cure my athlete’s foot, I negotiate my toes through the pink crystals lining the floor.

As of this writing, my feet still itch like a bastard.

The floor of the place, a little room squared off with two sets of facing chairs and a footstool in the middle, is covered with “pink Himalayan salt,” which I figure is mined by Morton and food-colored. Some kind of atmosphere high in salt content is pumped in as ambient air. It has occurred to me that you could get the same effect standing on the prow of a Gloucester fishing boat. (Note to myself: send a letter to the fishermen’s trade association suggesting a way for those guys to make a buck in the off-season.)

A placard outside the salt room promises many benefits, including the one that secured my interest, or I should say the success of my wife in talking me into coming here: a remedy for allergies. I didn’t object when Barb bought a month’s couples pass: a hundred fifty bucks for as many 45-minute sessions as you want.

I’ve been coming here a week and I’m filling up wastebaskets bad as ever.

A lot of people believe in Ayurvedic rather than traditional approaches to diet and health. I get that. I even went into a “Chinese” herb store once (with Barb). A bottle of something that would cure my male pattern baldness caught my eye. I bought it; it didn’t work.

I guess I still believe in verifiable western science, carry around old-fashioned ideas about cures. I was raised in the fifties and sixties, the era of the “good doctor” with his medical bag, who made house visits. Like the guy who fixed Jem Finch’s broken arm in To Kill a Mockingbird. I miss that time.

Things are different now. People are uncertain about healing. We’re trapped in the system. Physicians knee-jerk order tests and prescribe pills. People cast about for nontraditional answers. And become suckers.

My wife talks to some guy on the phone to get “psychoanalysis.” I have no indication he even has a social work  degree. He sees her psyche over the phone lines, don’t you know.

She subscribes to acupuncture, which I suppose does have some time-proven benefit – this my sole qualification.

A high proportion of her friends practice some form of New Age hustle. One’s a psychic. I’d rather trust a Chinese fortune cookie.

Some of her friends are “reiki healers.” They’re not Jesus but they lay on hands. Barb has gone to reiki healers. They touch you and you feel their aura while they’re feeling into your pocket for money instead of getting an honest job.

We found out about the salt therapy place a few weeks ago. Barb knows a gal who knew about it.

At its year anniversary, it had a big virtual opening, an official ribbon cutting. Chamber of commerce PR people in pressed white shirts (this itself a sign of uppity falseness in this cowboy town) taking pictures for web sites, promos, whatever. Smiling guys coming over to shake the hand of some cynical shmo stuck there with his wife, the Believer. The main guy, a co-owner, buttonholes me about the benefits. It’s an effort to smile back.

But hey. Helps with allergies, huh?

After a week of going almost every day, I’m no better.

Not that it’s so painful. The 45 minutes in the room fly by. New age piano music piped in … it’s really quite relaxing.

I’ve mumbled to the people who run the joint I’m here to fix my runny nose and sneezing.

To their credit, they smile, ask whether the allergies have subsided.

I reply, “I guess it’s a real bad allergy season.” And lie. “But in general, I think I am better.”

Just to show you what a phony I am.

Not Everybody Agrees With Everybody Else. Get Over It.

People born in America sometimes have a hard time working with people from somewhere else (IMDb still from 2019 documentary American Factory).


Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man I’d always admired more for his pec routine than his political views, was on Howard Stern talking about Donald Trump. Doesn’t look like the California GOP ex-governor will vote for Donald. He wouldn’t go into too much detail but said one reason was Trump’s opposition to environmental reform.

Stern quipped that if foreign-born Arnold could run for president he could use “Make America Great Again” and make it real.

But Arnold wouldn’t use the slogan. “America is already great,” he said in that resolutely thick Austrian accent. We are the greatest country in the world, we just need to work on staying that way, he said. America even now represents the dream of liberty and self-choice to the world, he added.

Americans here already, though, have issues. I’ve noticed that these resentments have targets ranging from studious Asians snatching doctor and scientist jobs, putting us to shame for lapsed work ethic and stupidity around math and science, to Latin American agricultural and factory workers driving down labor costs.

Welcome to the melting pot. We stew in tribal resentments. The boil agitates the more violently from the influx of newcomers.

Some say Trump has created or at least riled up the rifts, that’s he’s — consciously or not — empowered white nationalists. But the problem preceded Donald Trump and his graceless assumption of the political stage.

A documentary on Netflix opened my eyes.

In American Factory, a failed GM Ohio auto plant was taken over by the Chinese. Newly incarnated as a non-union shop making auto glass, it secured the wary cooperation of hundreds of people who’d been displaced. They told themselves they were lucky to be working again, if far below the old pay scale.

There is no “editorializing” in the making, shooting, and interviewing. This is a pure documentary.

And it’s sad. Americans come across as fat and lazy, while the Chinese – many of whom resettled here in management and sub-management roles – appear as humbler, harder working, untroubled by claims of “individual” rights. The barbecue-eating, gun-shooting Ohioans seem to want to get along with the Chinese, but it’s hard not to see the Chinese as their masters.

And there’s the rub. Something about the Communist-trained fealty to the state is lost on the American laborers. A trip to China, and a jarring exposure to that mindset, and what it boils down to in the corporate setting, serves to help us further understand the Americans’ laxity. They can’t be brainwashed or coerced this way – because that’s what it feels like.

The Americans wanted a union; Sherrod Brown, in a ribbon-cutting speech that pissed off the plant’s new management team, even snuck in an acknowledgment that the workers had a right to get one. By the end we see the first union vote fail. Management propagandists do their job well.

The show thus dramatizes the struggle of the U.S. labor movement to regain a foothold in a global economy, and the uneasiness of foreign ownership in this nervous multicultural time. U.S. unions thrived post-WWII, enriched by the world’s gratitude; our steel and cars were king. American business could afford an organized labor force. Those days are gone. The fight is a new one, and the pro-union spokespersons given voice in the documentary are worthy soldiers for that fight. I’m rooting for them.

The real gem of American Factory is the addendum, a short conversation in which Michelle and Barack Obama commend the filmmakers on their unflinching objectivity and discuss issues around breaking down barriers. You can see the battle lines drawn in the film. Obama says people in this country need to get over hating one another. We must sit down and find common ground, work from there to heal wounds. Anger and hatred won’t work. We need to cross barriers, share hearts, make compromises. We need to stop playing stock characters from central casting, opposites intended to brew and nurture conflict.

I am encouraged by what I heard from Arnold Schwarzenegger, a pro-business Republican fighting to save oceans, and from Barack Obama, the community organizer cum president who warns liberals against rejecting their correspondingly adamant political opposites.

I have been guilty of precisely the kind of enlightenment-blocking resentments Obama finds counterproductive. I live in a place where, the day after little school kids were slaughtered by a madman back East, I heard folks grumbling not about the hell and horror of this gruesome turn of events but about the sonofabitch who can “just try” to take their guns. The Remington .223 deer rifle and the Smith & Wesson .38 caliber revolver for home protection are not the problem. The AR-15 is the problem. But there is no intelligent discussion. Battle lines are drawn, lobbyists driving the vitriol. We are deaf to nuance, far too comfortable hating our political opposites.

I fired a gun once, at a target range. I enjoyed it. I was thinking of buying one, but I’m afraid my tempestuous wife might do a Janice Soprano after I said I don’t wanna weed whack.

Though I see the need for guns, and acknowledge America’s legacy as a gun-owning nation, I have found myself despising “gun-toting Republicans” who are a main constituency in and around Prescott, Arizona. But where does this get me? By hating area gun owners I’m abasing myself.

I want a strong and healthy nation just as they do. My pocketbook issues can’t be all that different from those of the guys with Trump bumper stickers. And I know they felt as gut-punched as I did by Sandy Hook.

It’s difficult to mend fences when your heroes are other peoples’ goats. From where I sit, I see lurking another America. Sometimes it chills me. Should I unfriend people who send around Facebook pictures of Hillary Clinton on a broomstick, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s toothy smile rendered as a donkey’s bray? I just saw someone saying why was Trump on the hook when Biden was the criminal. It would be a bland understatement to say I see it another way.

Ah hell. I’ve decided not to spank down the reject-chute any Facebook friends I disagree with. I need all the friends I can get. Anyway, one of them was a very nice girlfriend to me once upon a time, and, for all the occasionally jarring Facebook provocation, I still get a big kick out of her.

I’m trying to build a better America. Nobody said it was gonna be easy.