MY DOG LIVES ON. ROSA, REST IN PEACE.

My beloved Rosa had to be put down early this morning and my wife and I are still in grief. No more feeling her warmth as she stretches and groans on the waking couch of a dawn. No more athletic hikes up Granite Mountain, down and up Smith Ravine, up the big White Spar trail that after the rock clamber levels off on a deer-grazing plain. No more cavorting with my hiking pal. I got up this morning and missed having to worry about gates and her running into a room she’s not supposed to be in. I will miss her so much. She provided companionship and love to me and Barb for a little more than six years. She had stomach and intestinal problems to the point where another surgery would have promised questionable benefit. We cried over her as the vet put her down, telling her how much we love her, letting her get out of her agony and go to her heaven surrounded by a rope toy and even a piece of liver Barb brought for her final sniff, one of the things she loved.

She had gone outside after messing the house and garage, wouldn’t move, we could have left her there next to my SUV on the cold concrete all night, I didn’t know we had a choice, went to bed, but Barb said at 10 p.m., already shaking with tears, we had to get her inert form off the concrete and into my car and to the emergency vet clinic in Prescott Valley. I managed. Better she died at the hospital surrounded by love than alone — as the vet said she would have — to be found cold upon my waking to go to work. We gave her final love on the floor of the hospital, even as she leaked the putrescence that had alerted everyone to the direness of the situation.

I’ve heard it said that dogs have a soul and I believe it, because hers is with me, and with Barb, now and forever. We love you, girl. You’re running after rabbits and eating bacon and kibble in paradise.

Facebook friends, wish me luck getting over this. Never did a man love a dog more than I loved this willful Airedale.

Rocker muses over sentimental transports

I don’t know what’s happening to me. I can’t decide if I’m hard or soft. I guess both.

I spent the late morning and early afternoon unloading a truck at Walmart with heavy metal blasting.

And liked it.

I’m CAP 1 stocking crew. CAP 2 usually unload trucks when they start at two, but things are in disarray at my store what with absenteeism related to Covid 19 and everybody’s nerves frayed, so last two days the age-diverse CAP 1 crew — a mix of old guys like me and some young people thrown in — had to do it.  The hard gargle of metal vocal and that battle-axe guitar attack usually leave me cold. But today some of it came through as precisely what rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be about. Maybe it was Metallica I was listening to; them I always liked. Or maybe Slayer. Who knows?

 

Slayer, a well-known metal band

 

All I know is I worked well with this raucous stuff blasting. Some things, you can’t have “nice” music as a soundtrack to.

 

Like when I was in the gym trying to bench two hundred three times and “My Sweet Lord” came on the Classic Rewind they pipe in there. I had to ignore the song to get mad enough to attack the bar. Now I love that song! George Harrison is in heaven, I wear him in my heart. But it wasn’t working for me to lift weights. (I like to think George would understand.) “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf or “Hang Fire” by the Stones might have worked better. There’s a time and a place for the hard and raucous.

But my musical tastes have drifted of late into the lyrical and innocent, and into years past, into realms one might call those of the doddering old sentimentalist.

Recently I had this unopposable yen to use my Spotify app to find songs nobody but me is looking for. I sat in my office and bathed myself in decidedly unhippyish half-century-old pop hits on my Bose desktop speakers, turned up pretty loud. I didn’t care that Barb across the house might wonder what I was up to. She leaves me to my musings and soul adventures when I’m in my sanctum.

 

First, I found the YouTube video for “I’ll Never Find Another You” by the Seekers, a folk-influenced Australian pop quartet who were big in my younger days. The song could be a statement of friendship, a testimony of what a fine and memorable friend someone was. But it might be about romantic love.

There is always someone
For each of us, they say
And you’ll be my someone
Forever and a day.
I could search the whole world over
Until my life is through
But I know I’ll never find another you.

The Seekers may look square, but ‘Another You’ still hits me where I live.

So much drifts by, flotsam. What – or who – rises above the ruckus and letdown of life to provide a sustaining voice, a calming hand, a wise counsel? Female voices that are pure – another is Welsh singer Mary Hopkin in “Those Were the Days,” a McCartney composition – elevate the spirit. Maybe I love the woman who sings lead for the Seekers. Judith Durham made this a 1967 hit. I think maybe the song stuck with me because that was a golden time in my life.

The next song I had to hear on YouTube was even more explicitly romantic, “Deep Purple” by Nino Tempo and April Stevens. When their collaboration came out, in 1963, I took no notice. I heard it over the years as an oldie and might have liked it all right. Then it began to captivate me when I heard it again in yet later years. It stuck in my heart, a musical amulet, a pure and very lush celebration of amour, shamelessly immediate, even embarrassing, but real.

“In the mist of a memory / You wander all back to me / Breathing my name with a sigh.”

And later:

“And as long as my heart will beat / Sweet lover, we’ll always meet / Here in my deep purple dreams.”

This could be called pap. Schmaltz. Guilty as charged.

But it’s sung with such passion it becomes … true. Not what you sing, but how you sing it.

Why would such songs demand to be heard on this particular day of my life, at this particular juncture of my battle to find meaning in this existence, when the existential fact is that there is none?

It’s a blind need that brooks no reasons. I needed those songs. I needed them because … well because I can’t make it on reality alone.

Nobody can.

We who dream of love, or who remember it, have to do the work of making the world go round.

‘People are like onions. They grow in layers.’

We never lose our ability to dream. Life’s grind is always counterbalanced by life’s fairyland. (Photo blithely appropriated from the World Wide Web.)

 

How old will I get? Hard to say.

Just a little old? Methuselah old?

I hope it doesn’t morph too far beyond the current state of disintegration. Half-moon bags under my eyes. Male-pattern baldness. Hemorrhoid that comes and goes. Sciatica which requires me to lean on a door jamb while putting on my underpants. Swollen prostate making my urinations longer.

Yet I am vigorous for a man on the brink of sixty-seven. I lift weights three times a week, hike my dog mucho miles.

I have been thinking about age and how I regarded old people when I was young.

I may have been arrogant, looked down on them. My sister said I once cruelly mocked palsied Uncle Joe. I feel bad about that. I had no right.

A guy in the Walmart break room, back in spring, groused to me about this pandemic “bullshit,” how it just meant a bunch of old people would die, and who cared?

“It’s like … Darwinian. The population has to thin, always has. But they’re making a big deal out of it.”

I grunted noncommittally, trying to make my own my sense of the newly announced “menace.”

Back when I taught high school English, I discerned a sneering, dismissive attitude toward the aged.

As my career progressed, the kids in my classrooms trended more and more toward delinquency and the impossibility of graduation. They sat there illiterate and intransigent, and they hated you. They hated you because they hated all the other male authority figures in their lives.

You read about countries like Japan where the aged are revered. Or Native American cultures, sachems holding forth around the fire, fonts of ancient lore and enduring wisdom, interpreters of dreams. That is not America, certainly not our reality now. We’re all hung up on the respective ages of two old farts battling it out for the presidency.

When I’d started at the county-run “accommodation” school program, it was fun. The kids were naughty but curious. It was a little one-room schoolhouse, a catch basin for kids who’d otherwise slip down the drain. Yavapai County High School admitted wayward teens who just didn’t work out in big regular public schools, usually for absenteeism. We were their last chance.

I could get them to read. I used books and traditional writing assignments.

My cabinet of books became moot as, over the years, more chilling criminal elements, particularly of one outlying high-desert town, began (for district money reasons) to be admitted into our schools.

Yes, schools. Now there were two of them.

Aspire, the new high school built by the Yavapai Accommodation School District, was a miniature “real” high school, hallway spurring out to discrete subject-area classrooms, which became competing entertainment venues, each teacher vying for popularity with his own special audiovisual system.

As hardened fuckups became our clientele, everything went to the computer. We “taught” the unteachable. They would not read or learn; they bided their time, sitting there because probation officers had prodded them in.

But even back when I could get kids to read, I’d found a certain antipathy to written content that was about old people.

Case in point: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” about a meek, hen-pecked man who finds refuge in a fantasy world where he is a hero, saving the day as surgeon, fighter pilot, courtroom lawyer.

Every kid who wrote a reaction said the same thing. “There’s this old dude and he’s losing it. It’s sad.” They saw a depressing tale about clinical delusion. There was nothing funny about it.

Once – only once – did I see a young person crack up at this classic tale.

Tyler was a lanky youth longing for the military. He took a deep breath and committed himself to “triple,” meaning go to morning, afternoon, and evening shifts to cram in as many credits per unit time as humanly possible. Thirteen hours among kids arrayed around desktop PCs and perimeter carrels, teachers scheduled like nurses. You could be on from seven a.m. to two p.m., or three to ten.

A kid might “double,” stretching himself across two of the three shifts. But Tyler, bent on the Navy, had a deadline in mind by which to be accepted. Ready to dive-bomb off the board, he held his nose and plunged in for an improbably extended daily immersion in remedial education.

One task was to plow through American Short Stories for my junior English course.

I was on one afternoon when suddenly he erupted in loud crazy uncontrollable laughter in his chair around a table.

He was reading “Walter Mitty,” I heard him explain to the students around him, who wondered whether Tyler was hysterical from overwork.

I ambled by to chat with him and thrilled to realize that this story – which I’d been thinking of dropping from the course – had got over on someone. He identified with Walter Mitty.

There’s no greater pleasure in reading than to have such moments; or, in teaching, to see them take place.

I don’t know whether he went on to serve in the military, but I do know he exercised his humanity on that long late afternoon, when mordant James Thurber spoke to him about the compensatory mechanism of the human mind.

We’re all – if we’re lucky – going to get old someday.

My dad used to say, “People are like onions. They grow in layers.”

The imaginative faculty of the child never disappears.

To live is to dream. We can weather any prosaic chore, endure the whole slog of our grumpy round, if we never lose that child inside, who is always open to the adventure.

Because sometimes it’s the adventure within that sustains us.

Dog recovers from plastics binge

Rosa post-surgery: A little dopey, but coming back. At vet’s advice we put an old T-shirt on her to keep her from chewing at her incision.

 

I try to be tough but I’m a big softie.

I saw my dog post-surgery lying in the warmth of the vet operating room at Harmony Holistic Veterinary Care in Prescott. My Airedale’d had her stomach cut open and a cup of plastic junk removed. She’d been stitched back up, her shaved belly stapled to prevent her chewing loose the surgical incision.

She’d stirred to consciousness and now her little kopf poked out the swaddling blankets these angelic gals, vets and vet techs, had placed around her.

“Can I … touch her?”

“Oh sure,” said Dr. Joy Fuhrman with her distinctive South African accent. Dr. Joy had led the two-vet surgical team.

I walked into the room toward that ruffled brown head. Squatted down and petted it. Even sat on my butt on the tile floor to keep stroking her, feeling her silken ears, her neck.

Rising to my feet, back still turned to the staffers and my wife, I pulled up the front of my oversized T-shirt to tamp my eyes.

“God damn allergies.” Turning and snatching a paper towel from a dispenser, I stepped into the hall to blow my nose.

I guess all dogs do it. Grab and eat things that aren’t food.

Rosa’s quasi-culinary thieveries caught up with her. Barb thought she wasn’t shitting because she’d inhaled a good part of a chicken carcass, bones and all, or because after Barb had broken a peanut butter jar on the kitchen floor the dog had snapped up not only peanut butter but pieces of glass.

But the stuff pulled out of her stomach was neither chicken bone nor glass. It was some mysterious and still undetermined plastic. Almost hard, like a ball coating, only it wasn’t a tennis ball or other kind of ball.

Barb thinks it’s from when the dog tore loose from her grip and ran down the sloped side lot we bought to keep anyone from building there. Trailing the leash, the dog shot down the hill to a house construction site on the street. And got into something. Barb may be right.

The dog loves construction sites. I make jokes about how she flirts with construction workers. Where there are construction sites there are men; where there are men there are food scraps. Rosa will find a hot dog wrapper from some guy’s lunch from two years ago and on the strength of a lingering or imagined aroma attack and consume the thing.

 

She’s indiscriminate. She once stole some guy’s cigarette pack. I had to chase her, zigzagging behind her darting form like some clown chasing his hat in the wind, before I could wrest it back and, wiping off the slobber, return the squashed thing to its stunned owner. Clearly, keeping Rosa on the leash is indicated.

I had thought if anything would have fucked her up it would have been plastic bags. If I’m stupid enough to come back from our trail hike with treats still in a baggie, and I’ve got the baggie sitting out on my desk, and she’s at large, she can come into my office and before I know it snatch it off my desk and eat the whole thing, plastic and all. That’s her modus operandi.

I’d figured the accumulation of baggies had caught up with her. Thought the baggies had stopped coming out swirled in her turds and were now, finally, plugging up the works. But I’ll never know. The vets don’t think so. Barb’s supposition seems to have more credence.

The damn dog couldn’t shit.

Day after day after worrisome day she showed herself unable to really back one out, anything but these sad little dribbles. This is a dog who will have two prodigious bowel movements a day! I walk her on undeveloped, adjacent land, county land, where she seems to find rough remote areas to crap in, places so out of the way I won’t have to pick up after her. It’s one thing I love about my dog. There’s a certain delicacy about her.

If you’re wondering why Bob Gitlin, who had an Ivy League education, is always writing about shit, I don’t blame you. But let’s face it, in life, if you’re wondering what you’ve ever “contributed” to or “produced” in society, and your best prayed for answers begin to look like ephemera, wispy dodges, you begin to see that nitrogenous waste may well be a main achievement.

Anyway, leave it to me to realize Rosa needed medical attention. I had to go to work but Barb took her in.

I was stocking the grocery aisles at Walmart when she came in to tell me the vets said good thing we’d acted. There was a problem.

I am indebted to the two vets who managed the surgery, and to Dr. Roxanne Batt, Rosa’s longtime PCP, who couldn’t do it herself, tied up as she was all day in surgery herself. Dr. Rox had already saved the dog’s life when she came down with a deadly fatigue. And Rosa’s regular doctor figured strong in the huddle over what to do pending examination of the perilous X-rays and the realization that the barium enema hadn’t budged down her tract. An early worry was whether the cutting would, given the presence of that barium, invite leakage into breathing organs. You’re talking sepsis, danger of pneumonia.

After I saw the dog lying doped and swaddled on the floor, Barb and I drove her to the Prescott Valley emergency vet clinic for overnight observation. The vet there gave her oxygen to make sure her lungs stayed clear. Rosa bore up all right. Next morning we drove her back to Harmony Care so the splendid Dr. Fuhrman and crew could watch her again. And that evening she returned to us.

 

We’re a few days into her recovery. The dog’s wearing one of my old T-shirts so she can’t worry that incision on her belly.

Deal cost us four grand and change. Glad we had the money.

Main thing, she seems to be on the mend. Looks like our four-legged friend will be with us for a while yet.

We can’t feed her much, so no big shits yet …

And I think I’d better stop here. Before I wax rhapsodic about shit again. Though when you think about it, it is something to be grateful for.

We take so much for granted.

 

Satori on a camping trip

Resting the legs that just got her through an ass-buster hike, and relishing Margaret Atwood, is my wife. Barb’s being kept company by the world’s most stalwart terrier, also recuperating from the unforgiving but panoramic Bill Williams Trail.

 

Just because I don’t use drugs anymore doesn’t mean I don’t get high. I’m the same headbanger I was in college.

Just spent a half-hour enjoying Spotify on my laptop and Bose speakers, rocking out to: “Everything Is Broken,” the Dylan song nailed by Kenny Wayne Shepherd; off of Grateful Dead (Skull and Roses), “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad (Not Fade Away),” “Johnny B Goode,” and “Me and My Uncle,” the original full-throated rock ‘n’ roll roar and cosmic twang; and, because that country spirit moved me, old “El Paso” by Marty Robbins.

Got my eyes closed rocking back and forth in my swivel chair, not caring how loud it is out the windows. Jerry Garcia still makes me tingle.

Just because I don’t smoke cannabis or snort coke or drop acid anymore doesn’t mean I don’t get high. Just because I don’t gape at internet pornography anymore doesn’t mean I don’t have a sex urge. Just because I live in austerity doesn’t mean I don’t live.

Ever find you had to redefine happiness? It’s not just about doing everything you “want.” I will meet my maker; this aging Hebrew needs some metaphysical lambs to throw on the fire, as well as some new kinds of celebration to mark a new stage on his trek.

Barb and I just went camping at Dogtown Lake near Williams, a four-day trip. Even after hiking Bill Williams Trail, a seven-mile ass-buster (my calves still hurt), I got back to Prescott weighing five pounds more than I’d set off at! We ate good. Cooked on a grate over an open flame, partly because I spazzed and spilled a pan of water onto the propane burners of my camp stove. I love eating outside on a camping trip. I do enjoy the woods.

I’d crawl out the tent in the dark or dawn, start a fire, put my bashed-in camp percolator on the grate, and wait. Ah, those first cups tasted so damn good … warming your hands on the fire, feeling the woods waking around you.

I dig Williams, that whole area. I read where Sam Shepard loved Williams, so I’m in good company.

Barb and I spent a lot of time at our campsite reading. She’s become quite the bookworm. She’s in a book club, says I should join, there’s only one other guy. Maybe I will. But I’m too bossy in my opinions. She’s in love with Margaret Atwood.

Me, I’ve been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, relishing the poetic moments, where a phrase might break through the personal-historical murk into a nugget of crystalline truth. I’m not sure Toni Morrison’s right, that he’s our generation’s James Baldwin, but his argument for reparations, available on The Atlantic, is riveting and important.

I enjoyed Zadie Smith’s latest essay collection, the spare Intimations. She embraces the moment in all its nuance and complexity. Whether she’s talking about warring cultures, drugs, or politics, she’s keen-witted and amusing. If Nigella Lawson taught England how to cook, Zadie Smith taught the world how to think.

Blasted through Bari Weiss’s How to Fight Anti-Semitism on my Kindle. And I’m going back to temple. One of the things I love about The New York Times these days is the mix of liberal and conservative voices. Bret Stephens and David Brooks balance off Michelle Goldberg and Jamelle Bouie. My favorite columnist is tart-tongued, laconic Maureen Dowd, who can take down a pompous braggart in four seconds. Bari Weiss is a liberal with conservative guard rails. Everything she says about the hatred leveled at Jews over Israel is brave and correct. We both don’t like Netanyahu but feel Israel must be defended and supported by Jews, who hold her to account! Weiss chronicles a phenomenon as old as the ages. It’s refreshing to hear her assert and reassert her ethnic and religious pride. The old poison from the far right is easier to deal with than the insidious, censoring voice of anti-Zionist bile on university campuses. I get why Seinfeld won’t play colleges anymore.

But maybe the big prize has been the book I’m still getting through, one I should have picked up a long time ago and did finally secure on Amazon. The Hero With a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell, has changed me. My therapist tells this quacking neurotic he must work on improving his self-image. I’m trying to see in my life the delineations of an actual hero journey. Who has this kind of scholarship anymore? Reading this makes me see things anew. It’s vast yet hits home in moments of intimacy. Wisdom comes from the heart, not the head. Dreams and myths beyond our ego impel and shape our journey. Campbell offers a guidebook on how to say yes to this crazy world, beyond stifling shoulds. He teaches us how to love, how to dig the trip we’re on.

I know a fine woman who didn’t think she had it in her but insisted on tackling that mountain. I might want to pull my head out of my ass and pay attention to her. I’ve found that’s generally good for a better return on investment.

It’s nice being back home, having bathed the foot stink away, and re-immersed myself in all the old household rhythms.

I finished watching a two-part Western on my Roku feed, Broken Trail. You get a good story when Walter Hill’s in charge. (He directed The Warriors and 48 Hours, perhaps guilty pleasures, perhaps acknowledged gems.) Here, Robert Duvall’s aging cowboy says he’s not as brave as he appears. Says he wakes up in the dark and remembers all he’s done and not done.

Asked what he does when that happens, he says he tries like hell to get back to sleep.

Being awake has been fairly kind to me. But I know what he means.

 

Below: “I know, girl, my tongue’s hanging out too.” At the top of Bill Williams Mountain, better than 9,000 feet up, in the pine wonderland of northern Arizona.

Still Life: Cell Phone with Pile of Shit

The morning beauty of Prescott National Forest

My wife wants we should go camping. Be one of those couples you see plugged into the KOA power line, sitting out in folding chairs sharing stories from the road.

Sounds like a good idea, except I can just see me pulling this huge rig knocking down telephone wires and running over kittens. The whole thing scares me.

So I got on my hind legs and bawled about it.

“You’re not the one who’ll be driving it.” We’re talking a Type C camper van like a Winnebago, or an F-150 pickup and 17-foot trailer. “Ever try to back up one of those trailers into a parking site? It’s counterintuitive. I don’t need another Three Stooges show in my life.”

Nor did she; she didn’t argue. In fact, my opposition represented progress for our marriage. Instead of caving in to her zeal to Have Fun, despite her boring husband, then fucking shit up, like I did with those kayak racks which almost got us killed on the highway, I expressed my real feelings.

I employed the baby steps argument.

“Let’s get our tent camping game together.”

We have this ripped old tent, the one you get for $59.95 anywhere.

We stood in line in masks to get into the REI store in Flagstaff. I got us a good tent, more expensive, bigger than the old one. Then proceeded back home to show my handyman chops by setting it up in the garage. Rain fly too, no problem.

The whole time I kept asserting my outdoorsman bona fides. I do like being in nature.

Not long after we got back from Flag, I pulled off a neat trick when a challenge arose on a hike in the Prescott National Forest. I share this tale with you to prove – to you, if not my wife – I am not a bookish nerd. Well, not always.

I have to get the dog onto the trailhead at dawn. It gets into the nineties here and she hates heat.

I wake in the dark even on days off, but still don’t have much time to sip coffee and read online newspapers before I have to throw backpack, dog, and last-cup-to-go into my Forester and get going.

Get her onto the trailhead at five fifteen or five thirty and she shoots off like a rocket as I unsnap the leash.

Two days ago I was still yawning, even with two cups of coffee in me, as I released her to her dawn frolic at the head of Trail 393, off the Copper Basin Road parking lot.

I’d made it here good and early, full knowing there’s a more dire aftermath to the haste than mental cobwebs yet to clear.

I might have to do a number two.

At the one-and-a-half-mile point I swung off 393 onto 327. Not a half-mile up the new trail I realized I had to take a dump.

We two creatures were the only ones in the woods — I had yet to step aside for dirt biker one — so being discreet would not be an issue. Recent prescribed logging to thin timber and lessen the chance of forest fire made it harder to find concealment, but I located an ideal spot. Hung my backpack on an obliging stump off a tree, clambered up a rise over dirt and pine needles, and, finding a perfect place behind a shrub, dropped my shorts and jockeys and did my business.

I wiped with tissues from the front pocket of my shorts and, without looking behind me, stood back up and pulled up my underwear and shorts and started back down the rise, when who should I encounter bounding up the rise toward me but Rosa. She eludes me when I want her back, and here she is finding me when I’d rather not be found. Dogs.

The two-and-a-half-mile point, our customary snack-and-water turnaround, was half a mile away as I re-shouldered my pack and resumed my walk.

In about five minutes I realized my shorts felt light.

I slapped my pockets.

Oh no.

My cell phone was gone. It had fallen out a back pocket.

I decided not to worry; you only make mistakes. I got us all the way to the resting spot. Rosa was so thirsty she slurped up a whole collapsible bowl and a half of water as well as slobber down a few venison bites. I stayed cool, fighting off despondency about losing the phone. I sat on my customary stump, slugged some water, and realized I needed to head back sooner rather than later. I stood, changed into a fresh T-shirt, put the part-emptied water bottle, bowl, and sweaty jersey in the backpack, zipped it up, and shrugged back into it. Clipping the clasps at chest and waist, I said, “Come on, girl.”

Ever so slowly I worked my way around the switchbacks, waiting for instinct to instruct me.

No, not here.

No … not here either.

Here.

There, the tree and, up to the right, the climb I’d made. The whole scene a snapshot imprinted on my brain.

I started up the rise. Twenty feet up lay my phone.

Good thing it sat well apart from both shit pile and soiled tissues. Having to pull my phone out of a pile of my own crap might have sullied my victory somewhat.

Quiet elation filled me as I pocketed my Android and headed back with the dog.

I felt like a chopper pilot using laser focus to hit a target. A moon capsule astronaut pulling off a pinpoint touch-down in a galaxy of random lostness.

I went home and told Barb of my accomplishment.

She shrugged.

Next day she said, “Barry texted me some info about a good camper. Wasn’t that nice?”

“Yeah,” I agreed weakly.

She still wants her RV.

Ah well, a new challenge. What else is retirement for?

Wish me luck.

Ten-four, good buddy.

Even the Tsaddik Has a Giggle

 

Rosa chewing on a deer leg along Turley Trail reminds me of my own gnawing over the spent gristle of my past.

I realized I had gotten too serious when I wrote about my nasal polyp operation. The ENT’s anesthetist gave me so much Atropine I came off the nod and couldn’t pee, had to wear a catheter for eleven days. The only “tragedy” was I couldn’t play with myself for a week and a half. In fact, it was a philosophical quieting. I watched Amazon Prime and Netflix, went shuffling to the bathroom with the bag slapping my shin, lifted the petcock to let the pee splash into the toilet. Napped a lot. Contemplated mortality and a saintly wife.

I got through it.

But while the thing was going on … oi, the self-pity. Self-pity, enemy of a sense of humor.

And now, writing some meshugge memoir that turned into a novel has presented me with the same challenge. If you’re using your painful memories to limn something literary, it won’t work unless you take the trip of feeling those memories, really feeling them. Because you’ve just been skimming the surface. If you don’t dig deep, you’ll never see them, not enough to alchemize them into palatable reading. Of course, you might realize you have to make shit up. Your life ain’t that interesting, but that’s another story.

I’ve grown doing this. I recoiled from the shame of exploring my little traumas. As I forced myself to do just that, and explored them anyway, I came away with more shame than I could have imagined! But that’s a good thing. I see now I had no cause to hate all those people whose only crime was they were there to see me make a donkey out of myself. Draft by draft the rancor drifted away, leaving an aging man wondering at the madness and weird perfection of his imperfect life.

I’m working at two levels: what AA people call the Fourth Step, a spiritual and therapeutic telling on oneself; and a literary enterprise, an effort to launch a salable story, even if the crazy mess will be published in heaven and there alone.

I’ve been going nuts. I got stuck at sixty thousand words and in a hysteria of needing it bigger started patching in old essays and short stories, hoping the grafting would take. It wouldn’t. And then something broke within me, I realized the problem wasn’t an empty script but too many memories standing in the wings to fill in around the edges. And now the words poured out, a thousand a morning, in the dark, before I had to go to Walmart for my job or, on days off, drive to Prescott National Forest to let my dog romp … and meditate in the piney serenity of a world waking up, listening to birdsong, realizing my blissful lack of importance.

The book, whose motto could be “You’re as sick as your secrets,” improves iteration by iteration. Its main flaw, however — this unwonted moroseness — might prove unsolvable, as complete closure continues to elude me. I am doomed to take but half-steps toward my apotheosis of ultimate awareness.

And some stuff is sad. It just is. The man of sorrows cannot hide who he is.

It turns out that memories are fictions; you don’t know if everything you’re recalling isn’t so inflected with your subjectivity and bias, it has become something written by you.

I HAVE TO shake myself out of the self-absorption. The United States of America is in a battle for its soul.

As Trump hangs on to the presidency, I remember with growing nostalgia the Lincolnesque eloquence of the man who preceded him, a man whose speeches, by appreciating nuance, calmed us.

How hard is it to accept the complaint made plain by this latest, brutal killing and set about making a public effort to reform how police do business? Being a cop can’t be a refuge for white supremacists.

I often think black people are the best of us, if the martyrs they’ve served up aren’t all Martin Luther Kings, but characters like Rodney King, fucked up on PCP, and George Floyd, trying to buy smokes with a fake bill.

God willing, enough black people will get to the polls to end this Caligula shit show that passes for American government, and get us a real leader. Because if this is the best we’ve got, there will be ironic merit in all the talk I hear in red state Arizona about “government” being the cause of our evils. You’d think we were all libertarians. We’re not. We’re just fucking idiots.

I am transfixed by what’s going on around me.

My own life? A reflection in a barbershop mirror … images of images. I must be there for others, the better to fight my part of the crusade.

I went to my first AA meeting in two weeks, out in Fain Park, all eight of us seated six feet apart. I mostly sat silent, deliberately. For I remembered the last time I’d been here, shooting my mouth off about how AA’s focus on tried-and-true sayings reminded me of Orthodox Jews nodding over Torah portions. There are times I wonder if my problem isn’t that I’m too serious, but not serious enough. I can be a smart-ass.

Let me end this long-delayed blog post with a Hebrew saying.

Tikkum olam.

I’m a Little Too Good at This

Barb hanging out on the couch with Rosa on an epic loafing day. The hyperactive terrier spent the day snoozing.

 

Me in my office trying to show off a fairly intact chest for a 66-year-old guy.  It’s a bit of a cheat, though. My left pec, flatteringly sidelit from the window, was always firmer than the right, which you can’t see behind the stretched arm. Anyway, been doing my pushups.

 

The coronavirus scare may have put a crimp on the economy, but the economy will bounce back. The worse trauma is the dug-in tribalism America has devolved into. Two camps. Democrats will listen to the voice of science and rationalism; Republicans believe in the bluster of Trump, who in his infinite egotism thinks the whole thing’s a ploy to cost him popularity. My only hope, and it’s a fervent one, is that America comes to its senses in November, gets off its ass and gets itself a real president.

I’ve been a political iconoclast, not a kneejerk liberal. I voted for McCain in 2008. With all the international terrorism, I figured he’d work better than this little pischer who had a cup of coffee in Senate and wants to be president. Turns out Obama was up to the job. What class we had in the White House! I appreciate the enduring legacy of him, and of his wife. A recent Netflix special about her book tour warmed me. You see Michelle in an even more funny and intimate way than you find her in the elegant memoir.

We will never heal as long as blocked ears and cultural scapegoating supplant that old Capraesque “we’re-in-this-together” vibe that once was who we were. How is it that a minority population of white, rural, camo-wearing, shave-headed lunkheads who know about guns has risen to a leadership position in this country, having elevated a New York real-estate hustler to a position of virtual royalty? Orwell would have put his tongue out at himself to have imagined such a setup. I have droll “nightmares” in which people like me have to take a side in a civil war, and I shoot my foot off.

But I’ve been cheerful. I’m used to seclusion, maybe a little too used to it. I seem to have adapted with ease to the lay-in, to being locked out of the few places I was used to going to. And not just eating in restaurants.

I can’t go to Fitness for 10. (I hear my particular franchise, the one near Costco, is up for sale.) So I returned to an exercise program that is free. Pushups and situps.

On pushup days I pump out five sets of 30, sitting in a chair reading between sets. My pushups are pure, touching the chest. Because of a shoulder problem I’ve had since I blew it out benching too wide, I do my pushups slow.

I was doing my crunches the other day in the bedroom, and Barb’s teddy bears judged my form.

Situp days alternate with pushup days. My situps are a crunch routine I read in a magazine. Five sets. Fingers at temples, or you can cross your hands on your chest. You start with 20 straight crunches, feet flat on the floor. Then a set where you aim one elbow at the opposite knee, back down (that’s a rep), then twist the other way, feet still on floor. Third set, get your feet off the floor, crossing your legs at the ankles as an effective stabilizer. The fourth, lock your knees and point your feet to the ceiling, legs now jackknifed from the hips (I cross ankles on this one too). Finally, 20 bicycle crunches, a rep being elbow to knee on one side then elbow to knee other side. Rest a half minute between sets. I finish that routine with stretches I learned from a hatha yoga class I took 50 years ago.

Been working on a novel. Also reading my ass off. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, about a woman and her son fleeing the cartel, proves true to the impassioned blurbs I read when I saw it at Costco. Mexican cartels have become an inspiration for so much storytelling. They’re the new heavy. Did you see Ozark? Yikes!

The New Yorker has been printing blurbs about films streaming on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and other sites. It recommended The Mule, directed by that geriatric marvel Clint Eastwood and starring him as an old man who drives money and drugs for, that’s right, a Mexican cartel. It’s a surprisingly sweet film though. It depicts the cartel with enough brutality to keep things real but doesn’t descend to stereotype. It’s a story about family, estrangement, and reconciliation. Dianne Wiest excels as the former wife.

Yesterday Barb and I watched Don’t Come Knocking (2005) after another New Yorker recommendation. It’s written by and stars Sam Shepard, who died recently. I loved his Gen. Garrison in Black Hawk Down, felt his quiet ferocity and care for his men. Don’t Come Knocking, directed by Wim Wenders, presents Shepard as a Western movie actor in a late-midlife crisis, on the back end of his career. He escapes a shoot to go find his long-neglected mom, a superlative Eva Marie Saint. She informs him of a son he may not know about. Off he goes to Butte, Montana, to find him. He also finds the woman who bore that child, played with charm and passion by Jessica Lange; and an angelic daughter, played by Sarah Polley. Sometimes this movie feels like David Lynch, particularly the son singing in a bar (think Blue Velvet); at others, like Jarmusch, unconcerned with commercial rhythms, allowing itself to spread its wings in artistic abandon. In the hands of a taut script from a writer like Shepard, and brilliant camera choices, it all works.

Yesterday my wife and I let ourselves rest and relax, get off our workaholic merry-go-round. I had the day off from Walmart; Barb wasn’t working at Allan’s Flowers. Even nutsoid foodaholic Rosa got into the spirit, groaning and stretching and twitching in dog dream on her favorite pad, then walking stiff-legged over to a couch or chair to plop down there and keep sleeping. Barb and I watched the widescreen TV and ate reheated slices of a Bill’s Pizza, my favorite, a specialty pie called the Bada-Bing.

When I went in to get my order, they’d taken all the chairs and tables out. You march over the tiles right up to the counter.

They kid around with you there. I always liked that.

I tipped the guy and said, gesturing to the open space, “I hope I’ll be sitting here soon.”

He said, “Hopefully it won’t be long.”

Long as it takes.

My suspense-filled quarantine

Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts in David Cronenberg’s brilliant Eastern Promises (IMDb photo still)

 

When I want to entertain myself, I’m more likely to put on a movie than pick up a book. If that makes me lazy and passive, so be it. But I’m not sure it does. To appreciate a movie, to really taste and assimilate it, is both an intellectual and emotional challenge. I guess you could say I’ve been doing a lot of work as a film scholar during my own extended lay-in, my own private COVID-19 quarantine.

I’m still working at Walmart, but I came down with a bad allergic reaction or a cold; I don’t want to think about anything bigger it might be. So that added a day off to a week when I normally have three days off. I’ve been filling my time writing, reading, and watching my big screen TV. I have been burning through the offerings of Neflix, Amazon Prime, and Starz, as well as my own DVDs, at a rate that would make Martin Scorsese proud.

I just got done re-screening and studying three great films by Canadian director David Cronenberg.

Cronenberg began in the field by making low-budget horror movies before expanding into the role of auteur. I once heard a critic on NPR say this man makes better movies when he’s committing himself to genre fictions than when he’s trying to be all arty and “important.” Thus were Naked Lunch and that one about Freud relative failures, while his movies that aren’t trying to be “literary” but are shamelessly derivative, traveling (and widening) the grooves of existing commercial categories, stand out as classics bigger and more graceful than the sum of their parts.

The Fly (1986), a reworking of an old Vincent Price movie, is, next to the hippie sentimentalism of The Big Chill, the best acting ever done by Jeff Goldblum. The exacting enunciation and hand gestures work well to depict a man ahead of his time and scientific community, a twitchy genius who, in a moment of drunken oversight, brings upon himself a hideous genetic union with a housefly. It would be funny if it weren’t so viscerally shocking and compelling. One watches through webbed fingers the progressive steps of this horrific transformation, each stage more sickening and gut-wrenching than the last. Yet the culmination is disarmingly elegiac. Geena Davis, as the journalist who cannot tear herself away from the mutated subject cum romantic partner, answers Seth Brundle’s plea to help him end his waking nightmare. As we watch her final grief and the fade to credits, we know we have been through something more than a schlocky joke. The horror is circumscribed by a love story. The meme, “Be afraid. Be very afraid,” came from here.

In the other two Cronenberg pictures I want to discuss, we have his go-to guy, cleft-chinned Viggo Mortensen, one of the Australian talents (both actors and directors) who’ve flooded Hollywood in the past several decades. Viggo is Cronenberg’s De Niro.

In A History of Violence (2005), inspired by a graphic novel, Mortensen plays a family man, a good man, who runs a small-town diner in what we might describe as a “bucolic” Indiana town. In a nail-biter of a scene, he reveals a part of himself nobody around him knew he had when he turns the tables on two repugnant criminals intending to rob the diner and perhaps sexually assault a female employee. After killing the two thugs (in a deliciously grisly explosion of action), Tom Stall is a hero. He gives the prototypical self-effacing speech to local and then national media. But the exposure has located him in the eyes of big-time Philly mafia who think they know him and want to hold him to account for actions in a past they insist is his. The tension between beloved, quiet-spoken Tom Stall and this Richie Cusack character imputed to him by Ed Harris’s not entirely unsympathetic mob lieutenant makes for riveting viewing. It leads to another moment of unwonted death-dealing by our humble protagonist, and eventually to a square-off between Mortensen and William Hurt as long-lost brothers. The movie is a referendum on rule by violence in our world, but in the end the imperative to kill seems at one with the yearning and the need for domestic bliss.

In Eastern Promises (2007), Mortensen plays Nikolai, a driver and muscle guy for the Russian mob in London. This one unravels not only an individual life – that of a sadly misled Russian girl who, on promises of being an entertainer, moved to London where she became a sex slave shot up with heroin – but the criminal world of post-Soviet Russian emigres. Naomi Watts excels as a hospital midwife, Anna, who takes it upon herself to dig up the story behind the 14-year-old hooker who died giving birth to a product of rape, as divulged in a diary Anna managed to have translated. Mortensen, while doing the bidding of a kindly-seeming don of the organization (who runs a Russian restaurant) and playing pals to the don’s debauched son, straddles an ethical divide. Though operating under the rule of Semyon (faux avuncular Armin Mueller-Stahl), Nikolai behaves sympathetically toward the ever more frenzied and impassioned Anna, who’s grown fond of the orphaned infant still in her charge at the ward. A fight scene with knives in a steam bath sets a new standard for hyper-realism in fight scenes. With his crested hair and Russian accent and acting courage, Viggo Mortensen creates a world you can’t look away from. The plot twist around which everything revolves underscores the theme of the compassionate heart that impels the player to live, and survive, in a remorseless world.

Cronenberg would deny there’s a moral engine at work in any of these films, but I discern in all three a core sweetness without which they might be unpalatable. He takes us to far-fetched places, using extremes to make a painting about horror, death, and violence. But even as he immerses us in these gruesome worlds, he allows us to come away remembering how it is we manage to stagger on, driven as we are by the enduring mystery of love.

How Not to Be a Big Deal

It’s weird being a writer. The imp that makes you write doesn’t square with the commercial market. Note: the wastebasket’s on the desk because my dog will run in and snatch used tissues out of the trash and eat them if it’s on the floor. This photo exemplifies the Dali painting of my life: a surrealistic juxtaposition of objects. (Photo courtesy of Barb, my talented photographer wife.)

 

God speaks to us less through ego aggrandizement than ego deflation. Allow me to illustrate with a little tale from the workplace.

I was on the ladder attached to my stocking cart and, instead of using my TC-70 scanner to beep items on the top shelf, the stocking shelf, of row 7 (the coffee and peanut butter aisle), I reached into my pocket for my Android and began to text an old friend.

“So you’re top stocking using your cell phone now?”

The voice below I could not identify right away. I figured it was a guy I worked with, not a guy – the guy – I worked for. I was still staring at my handheld. “Ah I got this personal thing, then I’ll get right off.”

“Well if you have to do that, why don’t you get off the floor.” The voice was brusque.

I looked down. On the floor was the store’s top executive, the man who runs the store, who has been good to me, fair and approachable.

I apologized, red faced. As he walked away, I scrambled to shut the phone. Deeply ashamed, I went back to the job Walmart was paying me for. During the coronavirus scare he’s had enough on his plate.

I went home for lunch and confessed the incident to Barb, who agreed it wasn’t the end of the world. She told me a boss had issued a similar reprimand to her when she worked customer service at Dillard’s.

I worked my ass off the second half of the day to feel better about myself.

Humblings straighten us out. We need them.

I am fresh from writing an angsty mini memoir. I showed it to a friend in Cleveland. My older sister, a writer, had liked some of the writing but said it could be better. Had she been damning it with faint praise?

One can be a good writer but not have a story anybody wants.

That’s what I’m sensing as I await the reaction from this second reader. Roger’s had the lurid manuscript about a month. He says he loves my writing. I think he does. And he never pulls his punches.

But I’m afraid he doesn’t like this. I think that what I wrote – an exegesis on the most humiliating, even traumatizing, moments in my life – fell so flat for him he opted to do nothing rather than hurt my feelings.

One thinks when one writes such a thing that, after the recitation of all that was feckless and cowardly in one’s life, the end product will be a hero, cleansed by the action of the telling. People will congratulate the writer for his bravery, his unflinching ability to face up. If I was a wimp and a dupe decade by degrading decade, after this hard-bitten admission I’d emerge a veritable Mike Ditka of confessional literature.

This turns out not to be the case. If I turned into anybody it’s Gilbert Gottfried.

I’ve come to rue I wrote the thing almost as much as I rue the experiences it chronicles.

I have worked through the feelings, been “feeling” the silence, taking it to heart, using it to open up my intuition. I figured Roger sees me as a friend. He looks up to me for my humor, grit, and resiliency. This memoir may have asked him to see me in a light he didn’t want to see me in.

Or maybe it just flat bored him. Which is worse.

I still have a clean manuscript of it in my drawer. All I’ve got to do now is dump it in the garbage and the whole thing never happened. I used to draw porn pictures. When Barb was out I’d go to the garage, where we had a metal garbage barrel, and burn them. Thus did I exorcise what was shameful. It’d be like that.

All this seems the truth, but something happened that is part of the circular twist I always fall into, that made me question my intuition. Last night I was in my easy chair reading and feeling peaceful. Just as I was starting to nod off and be ready for bed, I had the thought maybe the book was every bit as good as I’d told myself, Roger just didn’t have time, he was after all in his workaholic, high-stress world, a divorce attorney with bigger problems than how to help Bobby parse his rumination on the banal ordeals of his life.

I woke up this morning feeling I didn’t know what was to be made of the book, but I was better off leaning on the side of the first supposition (Roger hated it) than the second (I had no evidence of his reaction, so who knows?).

I’m better off battling a mild depression than getting my hopes up.

I guess part of me up on that cart felt I was too good to be some guy pushing a cart at Walmart.

I am a writer! A man of intellect, of culture, of the arts!

Hell, maybe I am.

In AA meetings – put on hold during the coronavirus scare – we talk about learning to live life on life’s terms. I’m still working on that.

You know what I like about hiking with Rosa in the woods? I’m where my feet are, not where my head’s at. White Spar a few weeks ago. Barb said use this one because I’m smiling, even though it’s a goofy selfie smile.