Kid from Cleveland contemplates adulthood on pilgrimage home

An absurd fight with Lisa, my older sister, in a Beachwood sushi joint. A couple visits to Progressive Field to see the pitching-hobbled Cleveland Indians get the shit kicked out of them, but also bond with Marty, my younger brother, and experience the old joy of Lisa’s company, a tacit mending of fences. An hour and a half burn down Route 90 to Toledo to look in on Nina, my younger sister, who’s making do in a Residence Inn while Allstate and a construction company tangle themselves in red tape fixing up her fire-gutted house. A chance to see Karyn, Lisa’s old friend, who looks like Sissy Spacek or Jane Fonda, I can’t tell which, and whom I had a crush on since I was four. An opportunity to sit on the back patio of my old friend Roger, the big brother I never had, and have a soul talk and some well-needed laughs. Finally, the cherry on the sundae, a raucous lunch with a gang of guys I knew from Rowland Elementary and Greenview Junior High.

At the Indians game, from left: my niece Melanie, who draws funny pictures; me, smiling too hard as usual; my staunchly loyal sister Lisa, as loving as she is occasionally meshuggeh; my niece Emily, the older girl, saucy and cute as hell; and (in the yellow shirt) Marty, the greatest kid brother any guy ever had. Not pictured: Melanie’s awfully nice boyfriend, Jared, who did duties as photographer, and whom I left a can of Barbasol lest the guys at the airport take it anyway.

Who could have known an innocent remark about Kent State, a graphic novel about the events leading to and including the horror of May 4, 1970, could have triggered Lisa’s diatribe about my not appreciating her role in college activism? I guess any tongue can get unhinged after enough shots of warm saki to cause repetitive motion disorder. Ah well, we all get a little meshuggeh at times. Age, and a ripened appreciation of the absurdities of life, has made me a forgiving person.

I get the weird feeling Lisa was annoyed because she thinks I’m secretly on fire over something I’m afraid to admit. Lisa feels bad for me because I can’t publish my novels. It wasn’t until my last night in Cleveland, when she and Karyn and I met at Taza, a Lebanese place on Eton Square in Beachwood, that she said I was suffering and would never heal until I sold fiction to a commercial press. But this would have happened already if I was that good or that lucky.

“That’s not even the big picture thing,” I said. “The big picture thing is being happy, as it turns out. I realized I’d been happy for years; I just need to get out of my own way and let it happen.”

I hope she believed me.

Lisa would stand in front of a bullet for me. I’d do the same for her. My whole family is like that. Emotionally delicate Nina, despite her questionable decisions and self-medicating, gets me, laughs at my jokes. Marty, the only one of us with kids, a man ensconced in juvenalia and sports stats, remains fiercely protective of me and seems to regard me (sometimes to my amazement) as a big brother to be proud of.

Marty’s two daughters are a product of his slapdash life. The older one’s saucy and defiant; the younger, a bit softer but sharing her sister’s archness. Marty never had the resources our wealthy PR guy of a father had; my brother’s two girls seem scattered to the winds to fend for themselves. Wise Lisa cast some light on this. “We all got out of college with no debt,” she explained on that last, healing night, at Taza, after she and Karyn and I had filled ourselves with schwarma and hummus and baba ganoush.

He may not be a perfect dad – who is? – but my wife thinks Marty is the most successful of the Gitlin writing clan. Marty’s been engaged in a knock-down, drag-out battle for survival, and he’s finally winning, publishing book after book, learning to parlay a schedule of speaking engagements about cartoons and the Cleveland Indians into some financial comfort. He’s got a new book out, about Indians pitching phenom Sam McDowell, that I can’t wait to read. Literary rockstar Lisa delivers food in New York, this despite having won awards from her first, coming-out lezzie novel and filling bookstores at reading gigs in Cleveland and New York. Me, I work at Walmart and blog; come October, I’ll just blog.

On this pilgrimage to my hometown, as well as contemplate writing and how it’s alternately ravaged and blessed the Gitlin clan, I went to the Cleveland Museum of Art, subject of my last post. Went to a lot of places on my own, for the experiences themselves but also to get the hell out of the Super 8 in Westlake which I picked to place me near Marty’s North Olmsted home. I’d have stayed with him except his dog is not hypoallergenic.

Only so much time I could spend in that smoke-stinking room. They gave me a smoking room by mistake. I haven’t had a cigarette in eight or ten years. I was out of town, away from my wife; I could have bought a pack. But I so hate the varnished fingers and grey skin, the shortness of breath, that I stayed strong. I could have changed rooms but for some screwy reason kept the room and, against the laboring air conditioner in the swampy Cleveland heat, punctuated by rainstorms, opened the door a lot.

The capper was that lunch with those old Greenview droogies. What fun to see those familiar faces. Gary, who was always on the team I played against in noon-rec ping pong in Greenview. Bruce, who lived down the street from my dear departed friend Mike and knew about good pickles, and who endeared me to him a few years ago, when I had to attend a stone setting in Cleveland, by telling me he read my blog. (I do wonder at times to what extent I labor in anonymity.) Steve, who always seemed aloof and funny, and re-emerged into my world by saying he liked the novel I self-published on Kindle under a pseudonym. Marc, who goes way back, having lived down Judson Drive when we lived in Cleveland, the Harvard-Lee area, in the fifties and early sixties. John, whom I only glancingly knew back in Greenview, and who consoled me when I Facebooked about losing my dog. Micky, a tough skinny kid who tackled me fearlessly around the ankles during one of those Bexley Park football games we used to play; and his lovely and engaging wife, silently bemused by all the reminiscing. Last but not least, Jon, whom I’d partied with before leaving town for Prescott, Arizona, almost two decades ago, and who still wields that incisive, cynical wit.

I am fond of saying that no matter where I die – and it looks like it will be Arizona – my soul will fly to Cleveland. Even with the old family house gone, 2060 Langerdale inhabited by strangers, and all those old memories (which include my English relatives) brimming with love and zaniness, burnished by time but retreating into the haze of the past, I was able to visit my old hometown, mingle with the memories … and collect some new ones.

Return Trip Yields Sublime Meditation on Art and Life

When I hit Cleveland for a 10-day reunion trip, first thing I did, after getting situated and touching base with my brother, who still lives here, was visit the Cleveland Museum of Art.

I will always have happy associations with the place. When I was a boy, I had painting and drawing classes there.

One of my teachers castigated me for a lazy effort. I showed her my fighting spirit by trying again. I would take five years of art in secondary school, but I don’t possess a drawing or painting from the oeuvre I thus compiled which I like more than the chalk fruit bowl that took shape under the stern gaze of Mrs. Wike when I was nine. How I kvelled when she championed me upon its completion! To this day, I marvel at the sensuality of those well-rubbed, shimmering grapes. The other teacher I had, a nice man, led us kids on little tours of the museum. I still remember terms like “egg tempera” from his explanation of old paintings. I wonder if people paint with egg yolk today.

Marble goddess, 900-1000, Northwestern India. A mutual interest in tits drew me to Indian art in the first place.

Driving to the museum, I shuffled through memories. I remembered, not only from my childhood art classes but my own subsequent unaided visits, the armored chain-mailed soldier on a horse, a vision out of Arthurian legend, bedazzling in that airy courtyard. I remembered Renaissance Italian paintings, evocative of scenes whose symbolic value was alien to me yet ached with a palpable universal pathos. I remembered brooding Rembrandts that would later remind me of how Coppola and Gordon Willis lit The Godfather. I remembered the Flemish chronicler of peasant life whom I would recall to mind when a writer called R. Crumb “the Breughel of our day.” The Cleveland Museum of Art brims with remarkable, and iconic, cultural artifacts.

A renovation and expansion project opened closed spaces, even in what I remember as an airy, cool clime. You now walk past the friendly greeters into a vast sky-lit atrium, frond rimmed, huge posters hanging from up high. The atrium is arrayed with the museum’s accommodating wrought-metal tables and chairs to let patrons sit and enjoy the offerings of the adjacent cafeteria.

I let my feet take me where they would.

MY TOUR BEGAN with Asian art. My eyes bathed themselves in these sculptures, from the fierce Japanese warrior-guardian with his sword to the round-breasted Hindu goddess (like Renoir, the Indians rendered women in a way that anticipated today’s version of pulchritude) to depictions of Hanuman the Monkey God (I remember him from being on the Ram Dass mailing list) and the protector/destroyer god Shiva. I felt myself evolving as I gazed. A lifelong fixation on women’s body parts became a natural appreciation of life, no more a reason for shame than the need to eat and drink. An engrained sense of divinity as residing within a personal and monomaniacal god yielded to a worldview that incorporates many gods, making of the divine energy something all-around and immanent rather than some bearded grandfather astride the clouds, issuing directives from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Maybe God is a concept by which we measure our pain. But some of the greatest, most emotionally resonant art available anywhere in the world comes out of people’s attempts to understand what God is.

Picasso’s 1939 oil, “Bull Skull, Fruit, Pitcher,” depicts the fall of his beloved Barcelona to the fascists. From the wall tag: “This painting expresses Picasso’s despair through the bull’s skull covered with decaying flesh, perhaps symbolizing brutality and darkness. Amid the horror and anguish, a flowering tree referring to the sacred oak of Guernica sprouts in the moonlight, suggesting hope for the rebirth of democracy in Spain.”

From there I ventured into a display of Contemporary Art. Picasso’s horrified meditation on war broke through my old incomprehension of his abstract art. Warhol’s silkscreen Marilyns, arrayed like a page of stamps, proved as vivid and instructive as ever; we have only to reflect back what media and Hollywood and advertising machines are pouring into us to understand how the world makes art. Abstract Expressionists, even de Kooning, never hit me as vividly as when, now, I encountered one of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, which theretofore had done naught for me but inflict damage on the eyes. The painting that hit me the hardest, though, by German artist Anselm Kiefer, was Lot’s Wife, which shows railroad tracks (ostensibly leading to a concentration camp) in a way that reminds us that if we look back on history we might turn into a pillar of salt. There is no god in this world other than the god of creativity that dwells within us, exploding outward in the existential torment and ecstasy that accompany our ugly, hard-learned experience.

I left the place refreshed yet dazed. I’d told myself I’d take pictures. I had a dozen or so on my iPhone, blogward bound.

I’m meeting with family to laugh and reminiscence and talk about family business; seeing my old friend Roger to share thoughts and crack up about the absurdities of life; heading to some of the old AA meetings that established me in the Program (if I can fucking find them), meeting with Cleveland friends who go to meetings too.

And meditating on the crazy perfect mess that is my life. Sometimes it seems like your whole life is an artwork if you can back up from it far enough to discern the lines and shapes. Memory and contemplation take that bowl of fruit and rub it to fruition … full breasted and shimmering, like clusters of grapes.

Just off the cafeteria is this open-air-styled atrium, enclosed yet sunlit within a vast space, a cool place to rest tired feet and wonder at what you’ve already seen. The gift store’s nearby too.

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.