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.

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.