Near Fender Bender Can’t Dent Anniversary Getaway

My wife makes me nervous when I’m driving and she’s in the passenger seat issuing critiques and giving directions. My own tension causes me to make mistakes – which only fuel her rebukes.

Age removes a portion of peripheral vision and overall flexibility. You don’t react as well, as quickly, as you once did. But for me it’s worse when I’m driving and she’s there. Her edginess rubs off on me.

So when Barb said, “Turn left here,” at a commercial intersection in Lake Havasu City, a resort town we visited to mark our 22nd wedding anniversary, I swung into it without seeing the stop sign.

As I was making the turn, already committed, I had to negotiate my way around a guy swinging into his own (quite legal) left and now needing to go around me to avoid a collision. I made one of those grimacing faces you make to let the other guy know you fucked up and at least feel bad about it.

And I did. But I had to concentrate on her next directions from a cell phone GPS that for some reason wasn’t talking. The fraught moment was further complicated by my realization that the guy I’d cut off was after me, having circled back to that same intersection, made the same left I’d made, roared up ahead of me, and come back in my direction.

I slowed to a stop on the fairly deserted street. He pulled over on the other side and stuck his head out the window.

“Learn how to drive, asshole!”

My own, clever rejoinder:

“Fuck you!”

Just so he didn’t think I was a chickenshit, I glared at him to see if he wanted to get out of his car. But he pulled away.

“What an asshole,” Barb said. “He didn’t have to chase you like that. That was wrong. Wow. My heart’s thumping.”

We’d made progress in our marriage. Was a time any of my profanities would have drawn a stern rebuke. Barb sees in my constant swearing a toxic anger that’s at the root of my emotional difficulties and our marital problems.

LAKE HAVASU was nice, if you’re about twenty-eight, love Trump, deck your boat out with emblems of that brand of coopted patriotism, and drink about a case of beer a day. “Party central,” Barb said. The lake was cluttered with boats the first day we got there, at the tail end of some boat show we hadn’t known about.

The weather was warm that first day, a Sunday. The forecast showed cool the next two days, though warming late Tuesday, and then hot Wednesday. We’d discussed checking out of our room on Wednesday, then renting a boat to get on the water. But we never did. The water remained a postcard view from our balcony. I for one didn’t relish some Three Stooges scene managing even a little rented boat, and my wife didn’t care enough about boating to press the issue. We could have signed up for some overpriced charter cruise, but that, like so much else around here, seemed like a drunk fest, and I didn’t look forward to gazing over the side at the rippling water grinning tightly as the atmosphere waxed louder and drunker around us.

We saw London Bridge, that we did. We enjoyed each other’s company. Had soul talks about our long slog together, with a level of affection and frankness that seemed a breakthrough.

Even went on a three-hour hike. It was only that long because we got lost.

You drive to SARA’s Park in Havasu to hit the trailhead of a hike known as, er, Sara’s Crack, a lewd name for a squeeze through a mountain pass alongside the Mojave Desert. You can take this hike all the way to the Colorado River. But we got so lost in the labyrinth of trails, many mere dirt biking single tracks, that by the time we finally stumbled into Sara’s Crack we were fried. Having ambled precariously and with very sore thighs over the umpteenth wrong turn to attain the, er, Crack, and begun to squeeze through narrower and narrower portions, Barb declared she was beat.

I was relieved.

“Me too. We can come back tomorrow and do the Crack,” I said, “even get all the way to the river. All I wanna do now is get back to my SUV.”

I had hated the hike. I have dreaded getting trail-lost ever since an incident that’s filed in my memory as the Williams Nightmare.

Not long after Barb and I moved to Arizona, we got lost in the Coconino National Forest around Williams.

It was getting cool, even a little chilly, the sun nearing the treetops. I thought we might have to last out the night sitting on the pine needles, hugging each other for warmth and getting bumped into by elk. When we finally staggered into the clear and saw a ranch house, I was so ashamed I had Barb knock. This nice rancher drove us back to where my car was. I let her ride in the cab with him while I ducked down on the truck’s metal bed, preferring the ass bumps to what I perceived as the humiliation of being next to this Western alpha male after I’d confirmed myself in abject want of male resourcefulness.

I’ll never forget Barb looking at me over the dim light at Rod’s Steak House in Williams, an accommodating old person’s restaurant, and saying, “Nobody has to know about this.”

After getting lost at Sara’s Crack, I said, “That’s it.” I tried to download All Trails, a common orientation device, onto my new Apple iPhone SE, but I couldn’t figure it out. Why does every application insist on Google accounts? I have Microsoft Outlook as my email! I am a techno-dunce.

JUST TO FINISH this story, we didn’t go back to the trail any more than we got on the water. On Tuesday we drove to Parker for the hell of it (there’s nothing there) and took a right to get to the Colorado River, where I sat on a rock “watching the river flow” per Dylan. I wish the pictures Barb and I thought we’d taken on my new phone weren’t actually movie shorts or I’d have something photographically to show for it here. Ah well.

We got up Wednesday and found a good place for breakfast and hit the road back to Prescott, armed with a bag of banana chips from a health food store.

One thing I did accomplish on this trip was I got fat. To me anyway. My wife says I am too skinny.

Between the Super Slam at Denny’s on Monday and the steak and eggs with all the trimmings just before heading for home, oh and the blueberry muffins I saw fit to keep in our room once I spied them on our shopping trip to Safeway, the suite, representing an upgrade, being outfitted with fridge and microwave, I found as I stepped on the scale back home that I’d ascended to a tubby 153, a five-pound gain that is not inconsiderable for a guy who manages his poundage like a skittish welterweight.

Maybe Barb’s right, I need to loosen up, even if that means letting out my belt.

A friend back in Cleveland once told me, “Bobby, I just know there’s a happy fat guy in you dying to get out.”

Maybe that guy is emerging into the clear. Hey, pass those Hostess Cupcakes.

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.