Three different flavors of topping for Cactusman: wearing the New York baseball cap, playing with my overgrown warm-puppy; topped by cold weather skully (a headwear I don’t even blog on here, as I wore knit hats well before I became follically challenged); and sporting the English hunting cap, again with Rosa, who’s got plenty of hair.


I have a “thinning patch.” I like to say that because it sounds better than “bald spot.”

When I look in the mirror straight on, I can’t even see it. The thinned bit at the back and top of my head doesn’t show. But in less flattering light (which also exposes the eye bags), it shows. Boy, does it ever.

A vain man, I try not to look in the mirror at the gym, which, by reflecting the mirrors all around the room, blares the naked bald spot, a horror abetted by overhead lights that blaze through the invisible scalp furze to the visible skin.

Welcome to old age.

I get involved in schemes to subvert the outrage. I torture barbers with speeches about the “flat” appearance of my hair looking at it from the front. The thinned top flattens down while the parts on each side “brush out.” I try to convey to them how this kills the “round” effect a good head of hair should have, how I was forever having to flatten those brushy bits down, trying, à la Rod Stewart, to “pull up” (into a more vertical position) the front and top hair in an effort to reclaim that rounded look.

Lost yet?

That’s okay. The barbers couldn’t make sense of it either.

The plain fact is, my hair won’t cooperate anymore.

It wasn’t so bad 10 or 15 years ago. By growing the front long enough to pompadour back, I could do a respectable comb-over. It wasn’t too sleazy. There wasn’t much to cover up. But as the years elapsed, and that “thinning patch” became an out-and-out bald spot, this ploy became futile.

These days I keep it pretty tight, but I’ve been told by friends that buzz cuts do not flatter me. One friend said the pre-apotheosis Travis Bickle shave job does not work.

I used to have long hair, a beautiful cascade of gently curling brown hair. Mostly I’ve had it at medium or shorter length, where I could boast a not aesthetically unpleasing “helmet of curls.”

Now? Well now, I have a hard time looking in mirrors.

I’ve taken to wearing hats.

Which have created their own set of neurotic possibilities.

Let’s dispense with the two head coverings that never worked to begin with.

The black $50 stiff-brimmed Stetson I got at a Western store to outfit myself for a drunken Halloween party (I don’t even drink anymore) made me appear the prototypical dude trying to look cowboy. There’s a picture of me wearing it I cringe at. I never wear it. It’s up on a shelf collecting dust.

Let’s also eliminate a black ball cap I bought at Walmart, trying to stay within a corporate dress code that states you can wear a baseball cap long as it’s got no insignia or decal other than Walmart’s own. I wanted a hat while working there Saturdays and Sundays to deflect the glaring overhead fluorescents from my eye sockets, as my eye bags under those kinds of lights are horrific. Wearing an eye visor on my shifts was not only a concession to my vanity but to the people who had to look at me. This “adjustable” black cap was designed for a mean head size, though, and the designer must have thought Americans were Brobdingnagians. The thing came down to my nose. You could tighten it along the bottom, lifting it up, but then you looked like you had a Jiffy Pop on your head.

Now on to lids that more or less work.

I bought a cap in England some years ago, in Yorkshire, in the north. In Hawes, I wandered into a hat store, where I saw a cap distinguished by the militant forward tilt of the top jutting portion and a skull bracer that seemed to ride lower toward the ears than the standard cap. At first the guy inside said something about a sales price, but perhaps at hearing my accent he “remembered” better. I paid $60. I liked the thing just fine. There’s a picture of me grinning on that vacation, wearing it, happily covered. After I bought the cap, I visited my cousin and her husband in the south of England, in Wiltshire, and a bemused Cliff said I looked like some toff heading out for a day of pheasant hunting. I think I’ll buy a bird rifle, break it over my forearm and amble about chortling “Cheerio!” to complete the picture. In Arizona cowboy country nobody wears a hat like that, and, though I’ve had compliments, I feel odd in it. It’s not even a standard “tam” or Brit-style cap, or a cap like some waif from 100 years ago would wear in a movie (think little Vito Corleone on Ellis Island). You want to fit in.

We come now to my powder-blue New York baseball cap. It’s the best-fitting of the three baseball caps I have. Ball caps are, season long, the main way I cover my sconce. I got the New York hat when I was in New York. I seem to recall a tourist trap on Coney. It’s a tourist hat flat out, a big, fat “New York” on the front. I’m not advertising anything. I just like the look of the damn hat. I also picked up a brick-red Cape Cod baseball cap. And my wife came home from a cruise with her sister bearing for me the souvenir of a beige baseball cap with “Nassau” written on it and adorned with a very Margaritaville-looking little palm tree. The Cape Cod hat is too big; the Nassau cap is too small. And it’s not just size but shape. Ball caps have subtle but all-important shapes, which affect how they hug your skull. “New York” fits just right. I mean Three Bears “just right.” There’s a little lift up from the forehead, but not too much. The brim, also, juts out just enough, not too much.

But I’m not sure “New York” is much of a sell in Prescott, Arizona. People don’t like New York out here. You know, liberals. Sometimes I think the New York hat is bad PR. Only trouble is, try to make me not do something for a reason like that and I’ll wind up doing it for spite!

Story to illustrate:

I met some guys for breakfast at a local establishment famous for portions so big they could bring your order to you in a wheelbarrow. My toast came back way too lightly buttered. I gave the waitress a little speech I thought was clever, winning, even a deft flirtation.

“Listen, much as I appreciate your concern about my heart health, this toast needs far more butter than it has. Would you be so kind as to take it away and really lay it on thick? It’s okay.”

She snatched the plate away. Came back five minutes later, threw the plate onto the table with a clatter.

My toast swam under a lake of butter, more inedible than before.

The guys I was with wondered why she had so mistreated me. I sorted through the possibilities, starting with the one most people start with. “They’re an asshole.” This may very well have been the case. But I had to wonder about my smart-ass speech to a harried, footsore kid. And I wondered whether the New York cap I wore at the table had something to do with her venom and impatience.

Maybe the above anecdote illustrates nothing but what a paranoid neurotic I am.

I still wear my New York hat. It fits too well not to. When I wear it, I try to affect a drawl, channeling Augustus McCrea, bending over backwards to come off as low-voiced, soothing, and sweet as I can be.

This whole hat thing is worse than giving away the encroaching baldness. Makes me want to assert this whole nother part of myself, a personality aspect beyond vanity, beyond caring what I look like or what aesthetic vulnerabilities or imperfections I may reveal.

The next frontier is getting rid of the hats, letting people see how ugly I am. What do I care? I don’t have to look at me. Just you do.

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We Need a Good Rabbi in Chief

George Herbert Walker Bush just died, and Maureen Dowd’s conflicted but affectionate reminiscence triggered my own interior eulogy.

What will he be remembered for?

Well, managing the end of the Cold War, a campaign begun by Reagan, though you could argue the Soviet Union was ready to collapse under the weight of its own economic impracticability.

Elder Bush will be remembered for waging a “good” war against the Iraqi takeover of Kuwait. Even if it was motivated by oil interests, Desert Storm vanquished the ghosts of Vietnam. The bad guys were demonstrably bad, and our reaction withstood scrutiny. I confess to my own private thrill at Schwarzkopf’s campaign (I’m trying not to use the term blitzkrieg). No quagmire to be stuck in, just in and out, and a parade down Fifth Avenue with people howling and weeping in gratitude. The stain of Vietnam extended beyond regret over a wrong war. It was about getting beat up on, when goddammit we’re the United States of America.

And then Bill Clinton took the presidency from George H.W. Bush in 1992.

“It’s the economy, stupid.”

I remember well that campaign season. I liked the old World War II hero more at the start than I did the roseate, drawling good ol’ boy from Arkansas, though Clinton would become one of our great Presidents, a perceptive leader whose move to the middle helped re-solidify the Democratic Party, and a man whose economic genius led to a rare budget surplus instead of the usual deficits.

Still, the older Bush impressed me. I liked the cut of his patrician jaw. I just liked him. In one interview in ’92, perhaps it was a town hall, someone challenged Poppy Bush’s ability to care about the little guy, rich as he was. Appearing a little stunned, he said, if I paraphrase: “Are you saying that people of means lack a heart, or generosity?” I saw his genuine goodness, and my heart went out to him.

I’m not sure I’d call the elder Bush a Great President. He was a damn sight better than his son, whose Iraq war was absurd, an engagement that, even if it had the shrugging sanction of Daddy, took on (the “surge” notwithstanding) all the earmarks of a mistake. Would it be sane to argue that dropping military anchor in Afghanistan amidst intractable tribal warfare and seated constituencies unwilling to serve our agenda could be called a similarly futile enterprise? Or is the Middle East, like Germany and Korea, a place which, as McCain suggested, U.S. boots must tread forevermore? My beloved English cousin used to speak with disdain about “America, the policeman of the world.” But post-911, the game had to change.

I liked Bush Sr. because, in some fashion, he fulfilled his role as spiritual leader of the American people.

I use the adjective advisedly.

I don’t mean he made us pray in unison. I mean he understood the heart of this great experiment in democracy, was proud of its ideals, and saw his decisions in the larger language of that perspective.

My outrage at the current president is that he is utterly absent this sensibility.

When I think of great presidents, or great national leaders for that matter – Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill – I think of men who unified their nations. They modeled compassion on a national scale. It would be tough going, they argued, but if we pull together – as we must, as we always do – we will prevail.

These men were scholars. They read books, understood history, knew the intricacies of civil discourse, and had studied and mastered the delicate power of speech.

Maybe it’s true that Obama was too diffident to love the job of being President, or be great at it, as was his Democrat forebear who used to keep people up till 2 in the morning arguing fine points of politics in his beloved White House. But Obama’s vision of America and of his leadership bespoke an eloquent embrace of our fondest sense of who we are. Nobody benefits if one man is stepped over, one racial or ethnic group scorned, one gender or sexual preference underprivileged.

Michelle Obama’s great book, Becoming, mentions with silent and heated pointedness this requirement that a president be a model of careful, studied insight.

Not only is Trump a know-nothing, his ego is so monstrous he’s more invested in playing sides against one another than in unifying us. Sometimes this blindness leads him to outrages made no less defensible that they are unconscious.

“There are good people on both sides,” he said, fending off reporters trying to get him to weigh in on the Charlottesville white-supremacist rally, and his role in unleashing racial hate.

He never saw the repercussions of his remark. Back to the wall dealing with the media, he may have blurted out something to do with Left versus Right in general . . . and that scares me more than anything.

That his rabid constituency continues to support this boor, this Mistake cast on the land, constitutes the single greatest obscenity I have had to witness as an American.

Maybe we’d better get used to it. A good journalist recently wrote it will always be thus. America is Balkanized.

The best we can do is something Trump cannot do. Educate ourselves. And try, as educated Americans, to find common ground among the tribes.

Does Reading Nurture My Soul … or Alienate Me from People?

I read.

Reading puts me back together.

I may come home bruised by some sense of futility in my life. Could be something relating to work, but it could also be a sense of domestic ennui. I must read myself clear.

I must read myself into another world. Doesn’t need to be fantasy fiction. Last month, Stephen Markley’s Ohio, a novel about what’s become of people from the Rust Belt, did the trick.

My father once said you could never be bored if you had a good book. He was right.

I haven’t changed. When I was seven I lost myself in American adventure yarns, Westerns or earlier frontier accounts. The young-adult bio of Cochise morphed into Lonesome Dove. But it’s the same me.

My dad also said people are like onions, they grow in layers. He was right about that too.

I talked a few posts ago about my retroactive autodidactic zeal, this after blowing the opportunity of an Ivy League education. I try to keep up with modern literature. I also try to catch up on all those classics I missed, blitzed as I was during years intended for intellectual growth. It’s how I make peace with my past.

It’s a recreation. It’s also a discipline.

When my father died, none of his offspring but me was remotely interested in his set of Dickens. The books sit shoulder to shoulder on a shelf in my office, kept from falling over by a pirate’s head bookend I also had dibs on from Dad’s personal effects.

I’d already read Great Expectations. I now devoured Oliver Twist, Pickwick Papers, and Bleak House. Dickens opens up a vast world with that sociologic lens, creating gritty and oft amusing character portraits, detailing industrial London. His appreciation of the travails of the oppressed and grimy poor, and of the absurdity of aristocratic affairs (dramatized well in Bleak House, the ultimate lawyer joke), still enthralls. I’ve found only in Dostoyevsky a like sense of place, his Saint Petersburg swarming with misanthropes, bureaucrats, and army officers.

Most recently I set about reading Nicholas Nickleby and was enjoying it when . . . what did happen?

Let’s say that Reading Overload happened.

Old James Lee Burke’s latest crime thriller, which unlike a heavy hardback could be read lying down with pillows under your head, issued its Siren song. This high school English teacher had to reread whatever he was teaching to refresh his game. A torrent of internet bullshit compromised my attention span for the Victorian classic. At Peregrine Books, Prescott’s only contemporary bookstore, I deployed a gift certificate for two literary magazines (of questionable value) and a Poets & Writers, where one can read about the single sperm cells, of the desperate millions, that manage to impregnate the scarce eggs of New York literary publishing. So now my nose is in magazines. Then more magazines. Issues of The New Yorker are piling up on bedside end-table and office desk. Oh no there’s another one, fresh out of the mailbox. Did I get through the last one?

A man who works maintenance at my school told me five books were written about a great-great-great-grandfather, a Mormon missionary whose toughness and even temper made him a mediator with Native Americans. I begged he give me one, an act of politesse that’s come to haunt me. Sentences like “He saw God’s will and began spreading the Word among the community, much to the discomfiture of some members of his own family,” while palatable to an LDS constituency, stymie this set of eyeballs. If I get to page 100 of the 500-page Jacob Hamblin: Peacemaker, will I deem it safe to bail out and return the tome to this kindly man? He helped me fix my stapler yesterday. I don’t know if he read it, but it’s a family heirloom. He wanted to make sure he gets it back in good shape. I’m guarding it against dog-eared pages and coffee spills.

Over-committing to reading is one of my problems.

Interesting the uninterested is another, and it’s reached cataclysmic proportions. About half the students I have at Mayer High School, where, as a part-timer, I teach senior English (as well as a journalism/yearbook elective), would have to think hard if given a choice between having their teeth drilled and reading anything I give them. My wife says maybe I should retire after this year. She could be right. I could go full time at Walmart. Because the down side of teaching the unteachable gets me so down I don’t think I can do it anymore.

And it’s only one difficult class!

Trying to lead a read-aloud (they won’t read on their own), I stand there, book in hand, and watch as a third of them, sometimes half, drift out the door, ostensibly to go to the rest room. There is nothing I can do. I suppose I could stand there and bellow, exhort, and otherwise whine about  the missed opportunity to absorb important literature. I do try to scaffold the reading experience, but when I take a break to help them grok the bracing dialogue between Lady Macbeth and her quailing husband, or the angry, poetic narrative of Paul Baumer, they want me to shut up so they can block their nose and get through the reading. They don’t care if they don’t know what’s being said. They hate reading so much they just want it to be over. When they drift out of the room, as if walking out of a bad movie, I am paralyzed with a personal horror and sense of failure.

I suppose they find me remote. Some old guy who coaches there told me, “You have to find a way to let those low performers learn.”

But how? By removing reading and writing from the curriculum? Utter capitulation — that’s the “answer”? It’s pretty much become policy. In recent decades, during the meth-cooking collapse of any vestige of intellectual culture, English teachers would come to their classrooms to find no kids there. Reading was boycotted. They would go to the Cordes McDonald’s, or to Weights, or FFA, some other classroom where some overworked teacher might shrug and buy their story about how Mr. or Ms. English Teacher doesn’t care.

Nobody expelled those kids, and they’re untouched now. This tiny country school needs all the bodies it can get in order to survive.

A talented, literate woman who left this school to go back to Oklahoma, and whom I met when I was hired last year, gave up on making them read literature. I have considered it and find I can’t do this. Not that I’m so noble. I just wouldn’t know what else to use as rallying points for the all-essential classroom conversation. They also don’t want to write essays, another “given” to this helpless traditionalist. They won’t even free-write. One student, miffed at his succession of low marks, largely because of his refusal to “journal” reactions to Macbeth (which, in his dubious defense, he’s slept through most of anyway), asked whether he could draw pictures in the notebook instead of write words. I am beyond outrage.

I cannot, will not, eliminate English from the classroom so students who hate English can pass. Most of them, long as they do something, will squeak by with D’s. It should be F’s. Maybe I’m acknowledging some vast phenomenon which renders them this way and which is not their fault.

How different from my other 12th grade English class! It’s nice I start the day with it. Or maybe it would be better if it were flip-flopped; maybe my mood would be better if I finished optimistically. All I know is, all the things that blow up in my face third period work like charms in second. It’s a jaw-dropping one eighty. These kids are penning college-level analyses. They offer opinions, see connections, brim with insight, greet me respectfully entering the classroom. Attendance is perfect. They stay in their seats. They just heard “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow . . .” — the “tale told by an idiot” speech, for my money Shakespeare’s greatest — and, despite their wild youthfulness and being unlettered in Gloom and Fatalism, comprehended the cosmic despair of the doomed Macbeth. Here, we have lively classroom discussions; these adolescents can be sassy, but they’re fun. They read, and love to read – or if they don’t love it, they’re good kids who put their heads down and do it because they’re told to. I can lecture here, if briefly. They listen. They seem happy to be with me, milling about giggling and gossiping at the end of the period. I sat in my squeaky chair feeling myself doting on them the other day, waiting for the bell to ring . . .

And then there’s third period, the ego destroyer.

I’ve taught for 13 years around here, always in the “at risk” community. Haven’t had the luxury of being at a goody-goody charter, or even a big public school, a place that boasts lots of academic performers and well-worn inroads to college. I came to the conclusion some years ago that the hardscrabble youth of the rural ghetto have lower literacy skills and come from a lower-literacy community than kids in the heart of African American Cleveland!

It’s a cowboy thing.

“Hell, I didn’t even finish high school. And what’re they doin’ in there anyhow? They oughta privatize the whole thing, like they were sayin’ on Fox.”

I did my Practicum at JFK High School on Harvard and Lee in Cleveland. An uphill climb, to be sure. But one can’t help but notice that black folks are always talking about reading, and making much of libraries, and going to college.

But I don’t know. Look at the assault on traditional English being promulgated by rap music, a new kind of black lingo which, since I became an English teacher, I find it harder and harder to like.

Where have I got with this intellectual life, this respect for long-form reading? I have become a fussbudget. And no discovery of a clever, transcendent essay by Zadie Smith or mordant Richard Ford novel, no re-absorption in the pleasures of Jane Eyre or Oliver Twist or On the Road or The Catcher in the Rye or Blood Meridian, can allay this terrible alienation. Does this aging egghead have anything to show for his reading life but bags under his eyes?

And yet reading itself imparts a sense of connection. Reading to me is still the main way to get information, so you can know what you’re talking about. Reading fuels aesthetic and political fires.

Finding a good book can become cause for hope. I found Michelle Obama’s memoir. She’s even a better writer than her husband, whose Dreams of My Father I found myself guiltily snoozing through parts of. Becoming is a thing of beauty, bracing, witty, artfully shaped. There’s a war on for the soul of America, and I’m in the business of alliance building. This lady’s a general. We need her now more than ever.

Hear ye, hear ye! Read all about it.


When my wife told me she was going out and sleeping over a friend’s, I said all the right things. Told her I’d miss her but she should enjoy her pajama party with Meghan or Marianne or whatever her name is, that works at the flower store. I didn’t want to belabor my response, didn’t want her to see my face when she was telling me she was deserting me of a night. Maybe there wasn’t any pajama party at the girlfriend’s. Maybe Brenda was having an affair. Worse, I didn’t care. I didn’t want Brenda to see me smiling. At the moment I wasn’t thinking about Brenda.

I was thinking about . . . her.

Three hours later, this object of distraction was curled up on the couch. The marital couch! Neither of us cared. As far as we were concerned, it was our couch. None of it mattered. Whatever Brenda was up to was fine. All of a piece in the mad swirl of things.

I put on Sinatra, lit candles. “Summer Wind” caressed us, though it was a mild November evening in Prescott.

I’m not much of a cook, but I can rattle the pots and pans over some simple, hearty fare. A man’s pedestrian culinary talent may be forgiven as long as what he makes he makes well.

Brenda and I have two grills: a wood-chip fired Traeger in the garage you can keep, and a gas grill out on the deck you can also keep. I do better on my cast iron fryer.

The kitchen soon became redolent of my labors. One might have coughed from the smoke; however, the alarm stayed quiet, what with the opening of the deck door.

I set about searing two New York strips. They say a rib-eye is juicier and for the most part they’re right, but if you know what you’re doing there’s no bad steak.

I’d rubbed one with olive oil, cracked black pepper, and Kosher salt; the other I’d left plain, as my dining companion eschewed excessive seasoning. The two steaks fit the pan together, curling around one another like a yin-yang symbol, yet with ample room so as not to smother the cook.

While eyeing her through the partition, I got to work.

I seared each steak two minutes on each side, then turned the heat down to medium for three or four minutes on each side.

The aroma overwhelmed us.

“Smells pretty good, huh?”

No reply need be made. I knew her heart . . . and her palate.

I set the steaks on a wood plank to let the juices work in before the meal.

Using a paper towel to wipe my hands of spitting grease, I gazed again through the partition. She gazed back in utter reciprocation.

I poured a soft drink and, coming out the kitchen through the big opening, went and sat next to her on the couch, pressing her hip with my own. Sipping my Coke, I caressed her taut flank.

Nothing need be said. Anticipation underscored our best times together. The relationship transcended words; my inamorata and I communed on a primal level.

“Better get back to it,” I said presently, rising off the couch.

By this time she could not help but drift into the kitchen after me, showing – just by the widening of the eyes and a strange little smile that played at the edges of her mouth – her mounting and urgent interest.

I plated my own, seasoned steak . . . and slid the cut chunks of the other onto her dish.

Ah readers, to see her hunched over that meal, snapping at the fare with no shame whatever, made me blush, indeed nearly weep with gratitude. Her paws scrabbled the tile as her ingenious snout found new angles to get at the pieces. I ate from my own plate at the dinette not twenty feet away, watching her.

And o! the three mile walk, leisurely, full of tacit and playful innuendo, that would take place in the cooling dusk after twenty minutes of a silly sitcom neither of us was paying attention to. I would feel but a distant twinge of guilt watching the muscles play across her black and tan fur as she negotiated the hills with me on the end of our favorite leash. We knew, beyond all tiresome dicta and dogma, that something that felt this right could never be wrong. And let the neighbors see!

Later, I decided to liberate her from “her area,” as Brenda and I called it, a squashed place abutting the master bedroom, laundry room, and kitchen, and let her into “gen pop,” even into the guest bedroom which for some reason I always slept in during Brenda’s absences, and where I languished tonight with my Dickens.

My whistle brought her galloping from the living room couch. My heart leaped with joy, dear readers, as she mounted the bed, walked in circles, and plopped down next to my legs, pressing them a little with her fifty-seven pounds, sighing and grunting in settled contentment. At this moment I knew beyond all doubt that God had put us on this earth to learn love through His creations. Yes, readers, we slept together!

It wasn’t until two in the morning when, sensing the presence of coyotes outside, Rosa rose out of her slumber and, standing rigid, three legs on the bed and one on my testicular sac, hackles risen as she faced the window I’d opened to admit the salutary breeze, began barking her head off — feral, snarling, guttural — and I knew our dalliance was at an end.

Alas, I must return her to her area.

Instinctively I grabbed my Android.

“When’re you getting back already? This fucking dog’s driving me crazy.”

Sterner Stuff

What would I do if some of the teenagers I’ve taught English to around here saw me stocking the shelves at Walmart? Would I flinch, take refuge behind a rack of potato chips?

I don’t think so. I don’t think I’d care how it looks.

For decades I ran from what Life seemed to be trying to tell me, which was, “You ain’t shit.” Now, having marched into hard evidence of the credibility of that assertion, I find I don’t care, even if it is true. The part of me that anybody could jeer at, that was swollen and conceited, no longer exists. So swing all you like at the old, puffy Bob. He’s not there anymore. He’s got his chin tucked in, like a good servant, or a good boxer for that matter.

They’d get a laugh all right. See me scurrying around in my characteristic haste to get it done. What is my damn hurry? Sometimes I think I’m about to start scampering around on my knuckles and feet like a monkey, I swear.

The kids who hated me most would see justice served. I guess they found me windy.

I probably was. I think the definition of a bore is someone who believes he’s interesting and likes the sound of his own voice.

I’m not doing much talking these days.

My wife said the other night I’ve turned into a bit of a zombie.

“I thought I was a recluse.”

“You’re a zombie recluse.”

But she wasn’t mad or anything. She’s always telling me how glad she is that I take what work I can, and give it my all. I hold up my end as a bread winner. I taught high school English but they cut that job in half. I needed another gig. Some guy at an AA meeting said I could get on at Walmart, where he worked. So I marched in there, the human resources gals were nice, and, after a period of immense anguish trying to complete the [expletive deleted] computer application process, I was in.

And that’s fine.

Walmart’s fine.

I had to do something, that Visa debt was about to eat me alive.

I head to Walmart at four in the morning, at least some days. Worked there full time all summer. Now just weekends, as I’ve accepted the shabby package of the .5 teaching job which is Monday through Thursday at this little budget-strapped school.

I’ve made my peace with it. When I’m on there, it’s a placid, agreeable zombie who staggers from Walmart to afternoon nap to dinner and to bed . . . wakes up in the dark to do it all over again.

I used to care about being important and dignified. That’s because I saw myself as a loser. To tell the truth it kind of looked that way. No glamour had accrued from my existence, only defeats. Mere survival, that pale accomplishment of the dogged, seemed my only claim to mettle and merit.

I don’t see it that way anymore. I’m not ashamed to be just another guy busting ass to make it to retirement. In fact, in a life that unreels like a clinic in comeuppances, working at Walmart even smacks of a certain pugnacious elan, if not downright victory. There, I’ve hit the dreaded bottom. And so what? I’ve worked retail before.

Did I whine and resist, deploying that great Jewish word “should” to point a quaking, accusatory finger all the supposed wrongs Fate has dealt me? Use my sense of outrage and entitlement to sit on my ass and do nothing? No. I took it in stride. As the English say, I was made of sterner stuff.

Enroll me in the ranks of Jews who find outside their own faith a language to express their transcendent experience. The Bhagavad Gita says work for the sake of the work itself, not for the fruits of the work. And all work is equal, whether killing your uncle on the battlefield of Kuru, or determining foreign policy for the United States of America, or designing curriculum for a bunch of electronically distracted teenagers, or stocking the shelves of a Walmart in Prescott, Arizona.

Me, cart pusher at the Walmart on Gail Gardner Road. A young fellow employee kind enough to snap the shot must wonder if I’m nuts.

All About God, and the Great Ivy League Debacle of 1972

When I introduced this blog I said I’d talk about God, but I didn’t have the motivation to do it until a good friend, who once worked as a minister, challenged me.

So here goes. Me, of all people, expostulating on one of the two subjects you’re supposed to avoid at dinner parties. Give me time and I’ll be shooting my mouth off about politics, too.

The photo  above is meant to be ironic, and illustrates the very messiness of the enterprise. Here I am tricked out in pious Jewish garb, surrounded by a cultural smorgasbord of spiritual books and artifacts. Ai, a shonda! There’s a statue of Mother Mary. A battered Be Here Now by Ram Dass. And my menorah! I’m all over the place. I’m Jewish, to be sure, yet the Sermon on the Mount is as precious to me as Psalm 23. The Bhagavad Gita is at my bedside.

Here’s the part that takes some guts to admit, but I believe in God.

I’m not just saying it because I go to AA meetings and they’ll throw your ass out if you don’t. What I mean is, every time I slash my way through the thicket of “I’ll never make it” and find I have prevailed, I can’t help but feel it’s not “me” so much as some fatherly force that guided me.

Teaching takes its toll emotionally. I leave a classroom after a good day and bow my head in thanks. What got me through transcends my ego.

Though I don’t consider myself strictly religious by way of set practice, I meditate often on God.

And on all the received wisdom surrounding religion, much of which I challenge.

The Jewish god is supposed to be unforgiving, “by the book”; the Christian, kinder and gentler. But is this true? This father god of my people isn’t all Sodom and Gomorrah, and denying Moses entry into Canaan because he got angry and struck the rock. Doesn’t Esau forgive Jacob for screwing him out of his birthright? Doesn’t Joseph forgive the brothers that threw him into slavery? Doesn’t God smile on Abraham for giving the preferred portion to Lot? The book brims with tales of God favoring the merciful. Ah, you need a box of Kleenex to read our stories.

I had to read Nietzsche at Columbia. He said the Old Testament was better literature than the New. The Hebrew bible boasted heroic power, that of a strong, naïve beating heart. It also had something else he found missing in the Christian book: “a nation.” The Genealogy of Morals, though at times poisonous, hit me where I live.

I grew up in a secular household. A friend of the family gave me Bible Stores for Jewish Children. I still have it, held together as it is with duct tape. Written by Ruth Samuels, color-illustrated by Laszlo Matulay, published by Ktav Publishing House in 1954, it captivated me alone of the Gitlin kids, expressing a legacy of which I was proud.

I had no bar mitzvah. My parents, radical secular humanists, remembered when “The rabbis named names” during the McCarthy era. (Enough said.) And so my brother and I, and two sisters, were spared the Hebrew school busses, and that extension of the learning day so rued by all our Jewish peers in the middle-class ghetto of my youth, in suburban Cleveland in the 1960s. Unlettered in Hebrew, I would make faces at my cousin Stevie as he strove to hold up his end of the bar mitzvah rite on the bima at Temple on the Heights. He reminded me of this some years later and I was horrified at the memory. He’d almost cracked up.

I am married to a Catholic. We have no children, haven’t had to agonize about organized religion and which one to raise them in.

By the time I was 50, I had morphed from miserable freelance writer in Cleveland to struggling high school English teacher in northwest Arizona. Feeling culturally alienated in Prescott and its environs – this despite a lifelong fascination for The West, and cowboys – I marched into Temple B’rith Shalom. Hip, erudite Rabbi William Berkowitz heard my fairly articulate belly-aching about the unexplored “birthright” and, wanting me to put my money where my mouth was, handed me the same primer he gave 11-year-old boys. Some weeks later, hearing my lusty contribution to the Friday night prayers, he said, “Watch out, we might just conscript you into the choir.”

Which came to pass. There I was – me! — in prayer shawl, on the stage during High Holy Days, singing sacred music during our celebration of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The choir was fun for three or four years. I loved being one of three men up on stage belting out the “Chatzi Kaddish”; I experienced such a connection with an ancient mystery, felt such power, rattling the windowpanes with my impassioned if asthmatic tenor.

But Billy left and this new rabbi kicked our threesome offstage, got in this ringer of a gal who sings like Beverly Sills. It’s no doubt better now, but I got bored. Worse, I began to suspect that all this religion and choir stuff smacked of an ego trip. I quit the choir, returned to my original profane existence, merrily frying bacon every weekend, in fact  blowing off temple. I go sometimes, not much. High Holy Days went by without my knowing it this year. I guess I’m not much of a Jew.

Yet I can say I’ve acquired some rudimentary Judaic experience.

When I was younger I knew nothing.

This makes all the less explicable my taking religion courses when I showed up at Columbia University in Fall of 1972. I declared a “concentration” in religion. Concentrations were for people too stoned to know what they wanted to major in. My only explanation is that I’d had psychedelic trips I regarded as mystical.

I sucked as a Columbia religion student. I was dissolute, self-indulgent, too stoned. I would, however, excel as a guy in later years studying religion and spiritual texts on his own.

I just finished a book by Elaine Pagels. In her Why Religion? she explains the enduring role of religion in our lives, and why she likes studying it. She recounts tragedies she experienced, namely the deaths of her husband and son. In the end it becomes a book about how she would not succumb to final despair but fought back, resisting the dark force through scholarship itself. She is a leading scholar on Christian history and on a special set of Christian scrolls, unearthed at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945, that cast new light on religion studies. Many by now have heard of the Gospel of Thomas, an alternative to literalist dogma. Bring forth that which is within you and you will be saved. If you do not do this, if you do not search your heart, what is there will destroy you.

Elaine Pagels gave me a B+ on a paper I put some work into. Soon after that I went through foolish misadventures I would realize had been traumatizing but didn’t admit it at the time. At any rate, there went my academic discipline. I was about to drop into utter junkie-like dereliction.

I flunked her next big assignment.

She ended a lecture to 200 Barnard and Columbia students by asking to see me.

I went up.

“What happened?” She had lauded my essay on the Ghost Dance of the Plains Indians. Now this. “I had to look twice to realize it was the same student!”

I couldn’t talk about it. I must have shrugged. She shook her head, and I went off.

After reading this latest book (my fourth of hers), I wrote her a letter, care of HarperCollins, in which, among other things, I recounted my little remembrance of her, my encounter with her eminence. This time, I hinted at an explanation. As if it mattered now. Somehow it was a letter I had to write. You see, I have searched my heart. I wonder if she remembers me.

Columbia kicked me out two years after that class, but I wound up reading a lot of books of and about religion, ranging from the King James Bible to William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Still, there’s a part of me that stands outside it all. Maybe I’m not a joiner.

Once I told Rabbi Berkowitz, “I’m not really religious.”

He didn’t buy it. “I think you’re very serious about it,” he said. “I think you’re motivated by a deep interest in it.”

If I ever retire, maybe I’ll dust off that Hebrew primer. See if I can finally memorize “V’Ahavta.”

Note: I’d incorrectly identified the synagogue where I pulled faces at Steve Schlossberg as he tried to bull his way through his bar mitzvah service. The above represents the correction. Thanks, Danny, for straightening me out.

Welcome Aboard

“What am I doing here?” you ask.

Well, what am I doing here?

You’re here to scrutinize, sniff around, judge, light up at what’s here or become bored and leave. I’m here to throw observations out for your amusement. With any luck, I’ll be able to refute my wife’s indictment of me as a hermit. That’s right, I’d like to get a conversation going. I shall foist on the unsuspecting public a plethora of literary musings, meditations on art and culture, feelings about spirituality, and speculations on what makes my dog tick (that’s Rosa above, loafing on her favorite beat-up pad). I’m a high school English teacher, an aging hippie, a critic of American civil discourse, or lack thereof, an aficianado of film and music, and a working man humble enough to take a job in retail to supplement his income, trudging as he is toward the ever-receding Oz of retirement.

My mother loved charades, and said her favorite prompt of all time was “Scaling the heights of rapture, plunging the depths of despair.” I can only imagine the grimaces and gesticulations that led to that one getting solved. Life has its ups and down and I intend to chronicle them here. I can wax gloomy as a Russian melodrama, and I can get silly, indulging a lifelong passion for nonsense. All of us on this bloody planet carry our fair share of torment, guilt, and shame, just as we all are privy to the thrilling transport, the belly laugh, the feeling of oneness with the universe.

I’m the last to know what my own life means. I gnash my teeth of a sleepless night worrying about why my high school English students clearly loathe me; I drive home from the school next afternoon  buoyed by a morning’s encounter with the greatest kids in the world. Who wrote this mad play? On the video series The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell tells Bill Moyers, “No man has led the life he intended.” I try to understand what it all means, to read the signs and steer my actions accordingly, but the world has a way of queering the signals I thought would lead me to answers. If I’ve concluded anything after being whipsawed by Fate and circumstance over six and a half decades, it’s that nothing matters. But I stay on the case. I suit up and show up. Karma gave me my marching orders, and it’s not for me to question them.

And what if I was just doing this blog so I can shoot my mouth off about whatever I want? It’s a free country! You see, contrary to my wife’s picture of me as taciturn and withdrawn, I’ve always been rather a ham. Here’s the deal. If I connect with you, if you “get” me, if I make you laugh, get mad, or even just say “Hmm,” it’ll be worth it. I was hoping not just to have people read my writing (and see my magnificent photos) but to get the above-mentioned dialogue going. So let’s define the zeitgeist together. Help me understand God. Help me understand how we can cry the blues and laugh our ass off on the same day. Help me understand how a four-legged creature that runs around my house naked and doesn’t have to go to a job can possibly be said to be less smart than I am.

Join me here. And welcome.