Pandemic reignites intolerance of the aged

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.

I Feel Justified in Watching It Again

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)

How to Stick the Landing on the Last Chapter of Your Life

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.

Hope you had time for this.

White out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chillin in the ‘hood of my mind

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

Call and McCrae: great foils make great movies.

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

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

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

Hobbies. Hobbies.

Hm. Let’s see …

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

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

One meets distinguished men in the common course of life.

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

This is a source of encouragement for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be an idiot not to.