Pilgrim goes to Shinbone

The year 1939 was hot for Hollywood. Gone with the Wind. The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Wuthering Heights. The Wizard of Oz. Another fertile year, an embarrassment of riches, was 1976. Taxi Driver. Network. Rocky.

Vera Miles and Jimmy Stewart share a tender and defining moment, which underscores a conflict as big as the threat to a man’s life.

But the year I’m stuck on hit me as I re-screened a film so good that I see it over and over: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Roger Ebert called it John Ford’s “pensive” film. It’s one of Ebert’s Great Movies.

Researching critical reaction to this work, and this moment in filmmaking, reaffirmed my sense of another seminal year in movies, maybe the greatest. That year is 1962. I could offer as evidence a confluence of brilliant, disparate films, not just this one but To Kill a Mockingbird, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.

My ruminations on the four films would run long. I could deal with each in a separate post. Today I just want to talk about the Ford.

Jimmy Stewart’s naïve attorney, Ransom Stoddard, takes Horace Greeley’s advice to “go west, young man,” and meets the face of evil in Lee Marvin’s ruthless thug, Liberty Valance, a hitman for cattlemen vying for perpetual free range. After being beaten savagely by Valance for trying to protect a woman during a stagecoach holdup, Rance recuperates in the town of Shinbone, where he washes dishes in the town restaurant and has a bed off the kitchen. Against the advice of people who say it’ll only attract violence, he hangs up a lawyer shingle.

Macho John Wayne warns our new town lawyer, whom he calls ‘Pilgrim,’ how men handle conflict out West (Pinterest photo).

Vera Miles’s Hallie, illiterate, rough mannered, begins to fall for a man whom nothing in her past could have prepared her for; a man quite unlike Tom Doniphon, played by broad-shouldered John Wayne in a role made for him, a role that is, for my money, better than that of his racist scout in the much lauded Ford movie The Searchers.

Stoddard won’t bow to Doniphon’s suggestion that disputes get settled with guns out West. The stammering, loveable Stewart character steadfastly studies his law books, bent on figuring out a way to put the notorious local terrorist in jail. Meanwhile, Valance jeers at apron-clad Stoddard, who, undaunted in his mission to do good, has started a little school for local citizens, including Hallie.

Meanwhile, Dutton Peabody, played by brilliant character actor Edmond O’Brien, is the erudite, drunken newspaperman who decides to act bravely in reporting on the depredations of Valance and his gang, bent as they are on intimidating everyone “south of the picket wire” into forgetting about their vision of statehood. Valance is paid by big ranchers to make sure open range does not yield to towns, schools, and civilization.

Valance continues to menace. Lee Marvin does bellicose villainy to perfection, including just that touch of wit that makes a bad guy all the more tingly and watchable. As the clamor against Valance and his ilk gains momentum, he finally calls out Stoddard, who has helped the town nominate delegates to the territorial convention. The feckless town marshal, Link Appleyard, a sympathetic if clownish Andy Devine turn, can do nothing about it.

When Liberty Valance beats the newsman Peabody nearly to death for the temerity to print the truth, Stoddard cannot find it in himself to run, an option offered by Doniphon, who has his helper ready with a buckboard to get the endangered tenderfoot out of town. Rance Stoddard will face Liberty on the street, though he has no skill with a gun, as a previous tutoring session by Wayne’s peerless shootist made clear. Stoddard’s willingness to die brings the story to a climax — and a denouement of excruciating poignancy.

Nobody does menace better than Lee Marvin (Pinterest photo).

One needs but to view the ruined, embittered visage of Doniphon after he sees the girl he fancies (and intended to marry) clutching and crying over the miraculously alive Rance Stoddard to witness John Wayne’s brilliance.

When I used this movie in the classroom, I asked students to tell me who the hero was. Their thoughtful hesitancy in responding spoke to the complexity of the film.

The truth of the title does out; the whole movie is a flashback confession. But the reaction of the frame-story editor of the Shinbone Star, a line that became famous, defies the perception of media as sleazy and opportunistic.

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” says the editor of the paper that was decades before helmed by Peabody. He balls up the pages of notes — a blockbuster score for any mercenary newspaperman — and commits them to the potbellied stove.

When Jimmy Stewart, white haired, now married to Hallie, has to hear yet again the tagline he has never been able to shake in the trainman’s well-meaning “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance,” and that match he was going to light his pipe with burns out, and both he and his wife gaze into the horizon of their collective fates, we feel everything merging in a perfect symphony of grief, gratitude, and wonder. This black-and-white classic rings with myth.

We might have associated John Ford with a hawkish and chauvinistic attitude about the destiny and role of America, but this movie asks the complex questions. I wonder if the pivotal character might be Hallie, whose heart cannot help reaching out to the man who possesses none of the qualities her upbringing might have associated with manhood, but a man whose courage will define the lives not only of him and her, but of a people.

Who is the hero?

“Maybe there’s more than one,” one boy in my class ventured.

I think he’s right.

The Art of the TV Drama Gangster Hero: Walter White Versus Tony Soprano

Walter: White: meek chem teacher becomes evil Heisenberg

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?

Man of Constant Sorrow Keeps on Smiling

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.

And all that’s fine.

At least we lived.

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.

I Miss Real Republicans

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

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

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

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

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

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

She shut up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.