Gates of Hell

Negotiating the !&*%$#@ gate into the bedroom. Aaaaarrrrrgggggh!

What most agonizes us are not Big Failures but niggling inconveniences that pile up.

I can live without understanding how America elected Donald Trump. But give me a box of cereal whose cellophane bag won’t open at the ministrations of two strong sets of fingers, or a soggy display carton at my job that won’t tear loose along the perforations, and I’m ready to scream.

Dog gates are my main hell.

Barb decrees we must keep the dog nearby, but segregated. Hence, gates at every portal, blocking access and egress – human as well as canine.

This is not a dog that languishes all day in a crate in a remote room, some benign imprisonment from which we might release her at times to walk or eat. She must have more freedom. The crate is there, but never locked; she may go in there if she likes for that nice den feel.

I have learned giving a dog too much freedom is mistake number one in dog training. So what to do?

Barb set up collapsible gates all about the house to keep the dog from wandering into rooms we want her out of. Doors must stay open, per Barb.

Thus, Barb and I sleep with our bedroom door open. Should Rosa need to pee or shit in the middle of the night, she pokes her long muzzle over the gate and whimpers. If it’s my turn, I get into flip-flops or slippers to step over or pull aside the gate, then leash her and lead her blearily outside, into “her going area,” a sloping lot mined with root hooks, tufts, and toe-jamming rocks. Sometimes it’s a sham; the dog heard or sensed some animal out there and that’s why she woke me up. She damn near tears my arm off straining and barking at three in the morning to get free and tangle with coyotes, javelinas, or mule deer. But mostly she does have to go, and then I shuffle back into the house with her, unleash her, and – after getting past that gate — try to go back to sleep. If I can.

When Barb turned the house into an obstacle course, I tried to step over the gates but knocked them down with the shin or big toe of the second leg, the bent leg across the hurdle.

“Just reach down and lift it out of the way,” Barb said.

I find this annoying, though I do it at times. I’m more top heavy; she’s shorter, it’s easier for her.

Barb put a gate up at my office door, my sanctum. This door I must never close now. Barb says it has as much to do with house ventilation as giving Rosa the feeling of not being left out.

“But she eats snot rags!”

“That’s why the gate.”

Don’t ask; you can’t win.

Yes, the dog will fish used facial tissues from this allergy sufferer’s wastebasket and eat them. Sometimes you wonder how you can love your dog. I’ve seen Rosa take a gourmet’s interest in drying mounds of equine foeces along hiking trails that double as bridle paths.

Allow me to proffer an instructive scenario that dramatizes my objection to this gate thing.

“Bob, will you get my purse! It’s in the bedroom.”

Barb’s in the guest room, currently doubling as her office. I’m next door, in my man-cave of an office, web surfing or writing.

Her purse is thirty feet from where I sit. It becomes twice that because of gates.

I get up, step over the gate at my office door (it’s a not very tall one) and walk down the little hall, yearning to slant right for the beeline to the bedroom, but the crate blocks that. So I continue straight up into the living room and bend around in a loose right hairpin through the dining room and into the kitchen. Here, I may have to lift aside a big gate we use to block her off when there’s food to filch. I slant up left into “her area,” shift left again, and, at the threshold of the bedroom, either lift a foot up to clear that gate or reach down and lift aside the gate, replacing it behind me as I enter the bedroom to get the purse, lest the dog, if she’s following me around, run in. There’s a wastebasket in the master bathroom too.

I must deal with all these gates in reverse on the way back to the guest bedroom, where Barb waits. And, to get to her, I have to get past the gate that now spans that entrance, unless, out of kindness, and not wanting to hear me bitch, she gets off the little chair behind the kneehole desk and her Mac, and takes the purse from me over the gate.

“How come we don’t just close doors?” I plead.

“That’s mean. I don’t like the tone that sets. She should feel the house is her house.”

“It damn sure is! I’m living in a fucking torture chamber! It’s so frustrating getting around! At least a door, you got a knob, you –”

“You need to work on your anger.”

Sometimes when Barb’s not in the house and I’m full of anxiety, tension, and impatience, and I need to go get something across the house, I’ll stub my toe on a gate and find myself flinging it aside with violence. I’ll even let loose a karate yell, fists clenched, emptying all the air out of my lungs and abdomen.

I guess I need to work on my anger.

What a Real Singer Does

Top: Sasha Allen, who sang with the Stones on the No Filter Tour and did justice to “Gimme Shelter.” Above: another real singer.

One of the things that drives me nuts at Walmart is “Walmart Radio,” a broadcast that’s always playing, Monday through Friday, with “live” (canned) DJs and call-ins from company employees across retail land, requesting songs. I mean, gag me with a spoon. Right. We’re one big family, enfolded in community by His Benevolence Himself, Holy Ghost Sam, may he rest in peace chewing straw in his big barn in the sky. And some of the music makes me puke. Bad commercial country, the same bullshit patriotic statement sung the same dumb-ass way by some no-talent schlub about his gal and gun rack and six-pack at quittin’ tahm and who cares. Or insipid religious music (I think the Jews have done the best Christian music: Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky”). Or chick singers so into showing off their lungs and octave span you get a headache.

The music plays all hours. Graveyard shifts. All the time.

The best Walmart Radio music is at five thirty a.m., when the station format nervously slides into aesthetic coherency. You’ll hear a Canned Heat or an Eric Clapton or a Linda Ronstadt and it’ll put you back together as you’re using a carton knife to liberate twelve boxes of Lucky Charms, and all is forgiven.

But it’s got me thinking about singing and how one attains chops as a real singer. Someone with an iconic voice, a voice that has urgency, that must be heard.

Janis Joplin, raspy and raw, was a bona fide singer. Cyndi Lauper, with that almost-joke of a voice — that was a real singer. Chrissie Hynde said she wished she could sing like Karen Carpenter, but Chrissie, with that shaky, earthy, ethereal voice, is a singer.

I’m not living in the past. I heard a song on Walmart Radio, and I’d heard it elsewhere, called “Begging for Mercy” by a Welsh woman, Duffy, a true singer, a rocker who sings from the hips, a performer who’s sexual without trying to be cute. Quirky Amy Winehouse, channeling Billie Holliday, was a magnificent talent and is a painful loss. Joni Mitchell, whose voice alternated between sexy barroom nymph and witchy vibrato, grabs you, to some extent because her words are poetry. Joan Baez is one example of a meaningful, urgent singer who possessed, technically, remarkable pipes. But technical proficiency alone, hopping the scales, delivering pop clichés, fails to inspire. Joan inspired. Listen again to “Joe Hill” the old union song or the a cappella marvel “Amazing Grace” off the Woodstock album. I’ve got her greatest hits CD, and I’m here to tell you, there is no female singing performance more full of love and ache and exquisite irony than “Diamonds and Rust,” which I still think is about Bob Dylan.

Ah. Good segue.

Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger are not known as great vocalists in any kind of technical sense. I mean, they’re not Caruso, or Tom Jones for that matter. But it’s worth studying what they did to become the legends they are. They went into a room and when they came out they were Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger.

Bob Dylan was an adenoidal nerd with a fixation on American folk music. He was looked on as weird when he dropped out of school and went to New York like some damn fool. He was laughed at. But he went into a room and listened to Woody Guthrie and old blues and other inspirations … and came out Bob Dylan. Cosmic, ruminative now, he faintly recalls the explosive punk Jeremiah of yesteryear, with his uncanny superannuated wisdom. This is a reedy, at times hoarse, even damn near garbled excuse for a voice – and John Prine is right when he says “Dylan is a great singer.” He delivers poetic statements, for which he rightly received a Nobel Prize.

I posted about the Stones concert, which threw me out of my intellectual mind-traps and into an ecstatic experience. And I’ve been following up by playing over again my Stones CDs. You can hear Wilson Picket and James Brown in every one of those yawps and wildcat yowls of Mick’s. He stole from everybody; he truly was the Monkey Man, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. He once said (he’d heard this from, I think, Fats Domino) one should never sing the words too clearly, and, if you listen to the “lyrics” to so many of his songs – even “Gimme Shelter,” which I partly reproduced in my post, copying from online — you wonder if they’re right. Listen to the crazy vocalizing on “Slave” off of Tattoo You, or when Mick comes to Keith’s rescue at the end of “Happy” off of Exile. The words are subservient to the sound, the feel. They may be downright unintelligible. Jagger is channeling black soul and R&B singers, scatting really; he’s in a zone of his own. This is true singing. Many have commented he can’t sing for shit – he probably would agree. But he is a singer, par excellence.

Dwight Yoakam, with his unabashedly high, lonesome sound, is a true singer, and a host of more commercially successful products of the Nashville establishment are not.

I like to think I’m being myself when I’m writing this blog. If I’m imitating someone – as, I think, all writers do – I cannot but deliver an authentic statement if I’m being honest. And being honest is more important than craft in the final reckoning.

Maybe I thought this blog up because I went to an AA meeting last night where we talked about humility. I think it safe to say that Dylan and Jagger have egos the size of Texas, but I also know in my heart that each studied at the altar of genius before his own meteoric fame. I believe they must feel they are keeping alive something sacred to them, something they were humble enough to learn from artists who were their betters, at the crucial threshold of their own trajectory across the firmament of world culture.

What Ram Dass Means to Me

Ram Dass’s stroke slowed his speech, but he’s still articulating a message we need to hear, and I still love him.


I read a smart-alecky profile on Richard Alpert in the New York Times September 1.

You remember him. The Harvard psychology professor run out of his job by administrators appalled at his advocacy of mind-expanding drugs. The scion of a railroad tycoon who, after his ejection from academia, went to India and found a guru, and a scholarship beyond anything he — or Harvard — could have imagined. Richard Alpert found a career as an awakened man, a tsaddik, a guiding light. Alpert became Ram Dass.

The Times piece was headed, “Ram Dass Is Ready to Die.”

Anti-euphemism as I lean, I nonetheless discerned a slight, a dig, in the starkness of this, maybe even a form of sarcasm.

The reporter called Ram Dass’s classic spiritual text Be Here Now a “mash-up” of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Clever. But it’s also a “bracing synthesis.”

Angling for hot ink, the reporter asked what he’d say to Donald Trump. Rather than invective, he got unbroken compassion. Trump groans under the weight of “heavy karma.” Ram Dass would not play the hate game.

It’s not what he does. I learned this first hand.

I remember so vividly how he paced the stage of The Civic on Mayfield Road in Cleveland Heights when I saw him the first time. It had to be thirty years ago. The venue had once housed Temple on the Heights. “I was bar mitzvahed in a place like this,” he mused, striding around on the wood boards, barefoot, in his dashiki.

There was something deeply Jewish about him that was, for me, the way in. He was a tummler, a sage in the best storytelling tradition, using Jewish inflection and humor, though his spiritual influences drew from exotic wells.

He wasn’t the first Jew to find spiritual nurturing outside the tribe. Theodor Gaster, a famous scholar whose World of Myth course I sat stoned through at Columbia, had taken his anxiety about whether God existed all the way to Japan, where a monk, intuiting his angst, waddled up to him and straightened him out. “Don’t you see? There is no you.”

Ram Dass’s oral dissertations, well before Ted Talks, were more standup routine than somber lecture. You could order tapes, for a small fee, from Seva Foundation, who were involved in helping Third World people going blind from not having a simple operation get that operation. Things like that.

The central revelation Ram Dass came to had to do with the fallacy of ego, how it led to separateness.

“We really think we’re somebody,” he said on one of my cherished tapes.We walk around continually manifesting our somebodyness without knowing it.” Ever stand on a street corner and watch people walk around, see into the rapturous self-delusion implicit in their faces and gestures? “And we enter into these conspiracies. You make believe I’m what I think I am, and I’ll make believe you’re what you think you are.” Pause. “We call them relationships.”

I don’t remember if it was that time or the next time I saw him, which might have been ten years after, that I stuck my foot in my mouth in front of a lot of people.

Ram Dass forged into a rap about social concern, helping the hungry, but I was focused on me and my shitty life, and even thought in my egotism there might be some reward in brandishing a cheerless, minority opinion.

And so, when it came time for questions and comments from the crowd, I got up and asked what to do with one’s annoyance at bums hitting you up for change on the street.

“I mean, here I am out here working for a living, busting ass. Why should he get a free ride?” Something like that.

The crowd lowed. I thought I heard a few hisses.

Ram Dass tried to quiet the boos with a calming voice and lowering palm.

“I get what you’re saying,” he said. “This person seems to you not to be ‘playing the game’.” Tenderness infused the voice even as it became pedagogical. “You realize a lot of these panhandlers are street people, discharged from mental institutions?” I nodded, already regretting this.

“Here’s my advice,” he said. “Next time you have such an encounter and you wonder whether to give, use your intuitive faculty and not your intellect.” He saw into me, how my fear-driven mind had forced me into this embarrassment to begin with.

As I sat down, he stayed with me all the way.

“Did you hear what I said?”

“Yes. Thank you,” I croaked, contemplating whether I was a masochist or just flat-out insane.

I was, months later, home scanning Seva Foundation’s catalog of Ram Dass talking tapes, and saw “Panhandling Ethics” as a thread on one of the ones I could order. I didn’t get it. Didn’t figure I could handle it.

The second time I heard him was in downtown Cleveland, at the old Arena. At the end I stood in line with a lot of audience members to hug him.

It was my turn; I took a step up onto the stage, and approached.

He took one look at me and broke out laughing.

“Don’t worry!”

That was like telling a skunk not to stink. I was always worried.

He hugged me and I felt better. Immediately.

I had imbibed all he’d ever had to say. All the stuff about the astral plane and how the Bible was for real. All the mysticism, the stuff about how there are many incarnations. But at this moment I was hugging my zeide. I was folded in the arms of unblinking love. I felt his soul and through it knew my own.

Anyone who’s dedicated his life to offering himself as an exemplar of psychic and spiritual renewal merits more than disingenuous coverage in the nation’s best newspaper.

Hey David Marchese, I learned my lesson.

Not too late to learn yours.

Stones Electrify Arizona

Video screen captures on my humble Android: (top) Keith, left, and Ronnie lay down that elemental Stones guitar attack; (above) Mick prances and cavorts like the athlete he still is.


My wife and I saw the Rolling Stones in Glendale, August 26.

It was raw. It was perfect in its imperfection.

There was a special electricity, a special poignancy, for the cognoscenti. This may be the Stones’ last go-round, at least as a touring band.

Mick Jagger amazed, as reporters had said about previous dates. Heart problem my ass.

Keith looked closer to a medical event than Mick did. But the leathery icon stood there, looking battered and a little tired, and overcame a slow start to rescue the night, for it is his band and always was.

From the opener, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” to the final encore, “Satisfaction,” seventy-six-year-old Mick Jagger danced and gesticulated and writhed with Dionysian exuberance, Ronnie Wood captained lead moments and amped up the energy in the near-sellout crowd, and Charlie Watts played his modest traps with a proficiency improved by time.

And Keith Richards, with a growl that built to a typhoon, threw his arms around the night to carry us home.

I recall it starting to happen on “Honky Tonk Women.” After Jagger got done sneering and vamping, the four-screen video display flashing images of the “barroom queeeeeen in Memphis,” Keith stepped up. Playing a single stinging, dissonant note, an elemental, jarring Keith note, he went into an extended riff that magnetized him. We were waiting for that, for we are lost without him. Mick is lost without him.

Later, perhaps during “Midnight Rambler,” Keith showed his mastery of the guitar. You felt him going one way, issuing raunchy chords and riffs, then catching himself and see-sawing back the other way. There’s a call-and-response there. He speaks through his axe, like an old bluesman. He is an old bluesman.

And to think I’d been worried whether I’d be able to stay up, accustomed as I am to going to bed at seven thirty and waking at two fifteen for work. Adrenalin took over. I was out of my seat dancing and singing. Wore myself hoarse. Barb hadn’t been to a rock concert in ages and worried if she was up to it, saying she’d been a bit of a crotchety old lady of late. I’m proud to say she was Hippie Chick incarnate, party girl revivified, taking cell phone pictures, dancing her ass off, hooting and singing. Like the blues song says, she was shakin’ just like a willow tree.

It was a sometimes uncomfortably mixed crowd, but nothing could stop the fun.

Barb and I laughed afterward, driving to our miserable Quality Inn with no in-room coffee or proper plumbing, about the old bag behind us kvetching about how she’d have preferred seeing Donny and Marie. “Down in front!” she’d groused all evening.

“It’s a Rolling Stones concert!” Barb said as we laughed about the night’s excitements and surprises. “Who sits?” The crowd was older. Of the younger people, a lot seemed distantly respectful, but others threw themselves into the roar.

I put six hundred bucks on my Visa for this. It was worth ten times that.

High points for me included “Sad Sad Sad” off of Steel Wheels, never until now a song I remember loving but now rippling with tripartite guitar energy (including from Mick); the slurry country number “Sweet Virginia” and R&B rocker “Tumbling Dice” off of Exile on Main Street, the spectacular if overproduced double album that takes its place in the Holy Four of albums (all from the Mick Taylor years); “Midnight Rambler,” off of Let It Bleed, extended and vamped up to snaky, evil glory, the sexual menace well and responsibly presented as theater; and a hip-swiveling, can’t-sit-still “Brown Sugar,” the most dance-inducing rock song ever, off of Sticky Fingers.

The magic night wrapped up magically, especially in the first of two encores.

On “Gimme Shelter,” Sasha Allen took the cameo vocal on what may be my favorite Rolling Stones song, off my favorite Stones album, Let It Bleed. She had big shoes to fill. Who didn’t get goose bumps when a black woman named Merry Clayton took that anthem skyward with her electrifying performance fifty years ago?

“Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away!”

Ms. Allen took the responsibility of channeling that divine assist in the proper spirit, making it her own, changing things up a bit, and giving Jagger exactly what he needed to sell the song. “Gimme Shelter” is a cry for help; it’s also a sexual statement, like many Stones songs. It was a pleasure to watch the interplay between the comely African-American chanteuse and the ageless satyr, who at one point leaned back on her, back rubbing back, a moment so amusing she broke out laughing. The video display – flickering, almost subliminal images of police brutality – mixed with the vibe of sexuality to create a message, a contradiction, a political statement made all the more effective for its being covert. The song had a shattering, finishing effect on the night.

I made the mistake of wearing cowboy boots. My feet didn’t hurt till we got out of there, into the near hundred degrees of midnight in the Phoenix area.

We contemplated our whole lives in light of the eternal gift of the Rolling Stones. And thought about how, in today’s ugliness and turmoil, a gossamer line separates us from one another.

“I tell you love, sister / It’s just a kiss away, it’s just a kiss away.”

Barb and me having the most fun we’ve had in years. We will never forget the Rolling Stones.

Thicker Than Water

My brother with his daughter Emily at her high school graduation


I call him Fatman for some reason. He was a bag of bones when he was a kid, and he had an outie. I remember that. I remember how happy we were as brothers. 

My affections ran to excess, as did my temper. I used to throw him down the stairs. He never got mad. He didn’t have to. He would one day beat me in tennis. Regularly. That was enough.

I used to wonder whether he admired me. I found out he did, though in the dubious, time-honored way little brothers regard the accomplishments of their elders. When I was a teenager feeling up a girl downstairs, I could have sworn I felt the presence of a spy. Later, Marty confessed he’d crept down in the dark and peeped over the rail.

I always felt protective of him. One time I came by just when a neighbor boy my age, in other words three years older than Marty, asked him to do something indecent. I steered Marty away. I’d have bloodied anyone who harmed my brother. I had a Holden Caulfield ferocity about protecting his innocence.

Lisa, the oldest of us, used to rib Marty.

“You know, they didn’t want you,” she’d say, referring to the fact (as confessed by my mother) that Marty, after three intended kids, had been unplanned.

“And what a great surprise it was!” Mom would say, glancing hotly at Lisa every time she had to explain this.

Mom barely bore the strain of managing all four of us. A lot of the job of mothering fell to my mother’s mother, our Yiddische bubbe, who didn’t have it easy. “Vild Eendience!” she would howl when we were all screaming and jumping at once. I even imagine the cleaning lady, Mae, through the window of infant memory, changing diapers and bearing some of the burden herself.

My mother warmed and honored the lives of all who knew her. She held not only the marriage but the family together. She was not about making us clean our room. She would later confess she and my dad had not done enough discipline. But there was a quiet fire about her that transcended such prosaic concerns.

My father was, well, like me. Intense, preoccupied, ideologically driven. He had emerged from passionate leftism, gone into the Big War, seen much that was ugly and disillusioning, lost a father and mother and two brothers, endured much loss. There was something distant about him, even though he was the patriarch of the prototypical hugging family. He gave us life, sheltered and fed us, had a whimsical nature. He spoiled us in fancy restaurants, took us to England and Europe.

Lisa said I lived out my father’s shadow. Maybe that’s right. I didn’t sell my novel either. She also said my father terrified me from an early age, so early I could not even remember it. That could be true too.

But I remember an unwitting brutality that fell on Marty worse than on any of us. The crazy rage my father went into when Marty left his shoe on the playground of Sunday school … ah, Meyer Levin Sunday School, where red diaper babies heard about Jewish history and sang civil rights songs and tried to learn some Yiddish. We should have paid attention to that last; it may have helped us keep our parents and grandparents from talking about us behind our backs without leaving the room.

Marty was the forgotten one. It happens a lot to the youngest.

I always felt him a complement to me. When I went off to New York and further confusions than the ones I already knew, I came back declaring some sort of acidhead major in religion.

Marty said, “Why did you study that?”

He went to Ohio University, the “party school,” and was a stoned fuck-up too, but at least he came out with a journalism degree, something you could use.

He would ply that trade well and become a successful writer, a bold, shameless freelance hustler.

Marty eschewed my unwonted seriousness. He went the other way, into refusal to furrow his brow – though, in an act of scholarship I never expected of him, he did take on The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and became an expert on the Einsatzgruppen and Hitler’s whole cast of accomplices.

I was thinking about blogging about Harvey Pekar, the self-described “working-class intellectual” who celebrated his proletarian existence in a series of Cleveland “comics” called American Splendor. And maybe now’s the time. Marty and I were living “at home,” sharing the same little bedroom, when Marty saw my issues of Pekar’s work. Marty was considering doing his own comics — funny, cartoonish comics — and went to see him.

He came home with the sarcastic report, “Real fun guy.” Adding, “Oh. He wants to meet you.”

This may not have been so much because I was a fan as that Marty had divulged something about me I wished he hadn’t. I did artwork. But not anything I could bring myself to show people. I buried my smutty drawings in the toy chest, though my grandmother, on her cleaning rounds, tended to exhume them, to my eternal shame.

When I met Harvey Pekar of the bushy brows and glowering demeanor, it was a melding of hearts and intellects. I saw it all now perfectly, how Marty and he didn’t meld. I rode my bike home (I’d lost my driving privileges from driving drunk) imagining Marty’s carnival-whistle, whoopie-cushion orientation not working with Harvey. Harvey and I were simpatico. He asked me to come back.

I always competed with Lisa and Marty for the title of most successful writer. I lost on both fronts. Lisa published two novels through a small, gay press; she’s working on a third. Marty shot into the stratosphere. He authored a hundred little books, some about sports, some about entertainment and culture. It’s an amazing, prolific career. And he ain’t done yet. The most popular books so far might be The Great American Cereal Book and A Celebration of Animation: The 100 Greatest Cartoon Characters in Television History.

“He’s guileless,” my mother, with typical penetrating wisdom, used to say about him.

Naivete can be violated. Everybody’s innocence takes a beating.

But Marty’s retains a special shine. He’s been though failed relationships but he also has successes none of his siblings can point to. He’s the only one of us with kids. Two glorious daughters, each with an artistic bent. He’s the same lovable nut with them.

Martin Gitlin is a breath of fresh air. While I’m trying to establish my philosophy on life, he’s engaged in a Facebook discussion about what’s the funniest Three Stooges short of all time.

He always reminds me of what’s really important: that you enjoy the only life you’re gonna have on this earth, and for that I accord him the greater wisdom.



This Workin’ for a Livin’ Ain’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be, but It’ll Do

Top: Indiana 1955. Workers punching in. I swipe a bar-coded name card at Walmart, but things haven’t changed that much. (Photo appropriated from Above: Rosa and me at a trail near Thumb Butte. She helps me attain philosophical clarity because I think too much. (Photo courtesy of Barbara Chiancone Gitlin.)

What should this blog be about?

The inner workings of my psychic life? My daily routine? Should Cactus Man concentrate on the wisdom of his dog, who feels no guilt at falling asleep on a pad after a hike and kibble-and-bacon breakfast, while her silly human worries about his wife catching her modern day Andy Capp curled up on the couch, with stones to move and weeds to whack?

Or should the blog target graver, more geopolitical matters? Should I air honed viewpoints about religion, culture, film, national and global affairs? Bari Weiss in The New York Times already nailed how members of my tribe who buy Trump’s definition of a loyal, right-thinking Jew flout the very lessons of the Diaspora. Who wants to hear it from me? I mean who reads these ravings anyway? Like nine people? I wonder if I’m not just some guy talking in a barrel … then some dude at an AA meeting I don’t even know tells me he reads my blog. I can’t keep up with all I don’t know.

Why do I do this? I’ve thought about it a long time and come to believe I’m like a Tourette’s Syndrome sufferer, who cannot help but blurt things out even if they’re profane.

And yet I find I am living peaceably, bemused, with a few incongruities. My wife and I are setting about making an appointment to see a marriage counselor. We need to fight out our issues with a referee. I have never loved her more. Go figure. I work at Walmart. I like it. But how? Let’s remember, I went to Columbia. All right, I was a pothead at Columbia. But still.

I’m reading Working by Studs Terkel, written in 1974. Just what the doctor ordered. It’s one of those books that serendipity put into your hands just when you needed to see them.

Actually it’s not what the doctor ordered, but what the social worker ordered. The woman who acts as my therapist, sitting calmly while I free-associate my way to the odd, strained insight, suggested it.

She suggested it after I announced that I discerned a verifiable victory in my life.

And what’s that? she said.

I had met my Great Existential Predicament head on, without fear, and won. I had burned out, played through all my chances. Being a writer was over. Being a teacher was over. My whole white-collar career had ground to a halt. Reality leered. I’d have to … oh no … I’d have to get some plain old low-pay job, a job job, probably in a store. Oh my God! [Sounds of weeping and gnashing of teeth.] But that didn’t faze me. I walked into Personnel at Walmart (some AA guy said they were hiring) and got a job. It was a moment of reckoning. I stared down the mockery, realizing I was okay with it. I would work at Walmart. I’d do it deliberately, as an act of karma yoga. I’d been carrying the bag for my father’s whole luftmensch wordsmith trip my whole life. Now it was over. May it rest in peace.

I never looked back. I like being a proletarian grunt.

In that bestseller Working, Terkel interviewed all manner of workers. I have read riveting confessions from a farmer, a prostitute, telephone operators, a steel mill laborer, a construction worker, a stewardess, an ad exec. I’ve yet to read oral histories from a bunch of auto plant people. I feel these workers’ pain, the boredom, the banality they endure. I empathize with some people’s suffering of corporate rules that pinch their dignity. I understand the wistful cynicism so many of them express. And I feel the pride in what they do, no matter what it is. We’re all in the dance together.

I guess I blog to add my voice to the chorus.

I blog to lament … and to celebrate.

I’ve been taken to task for being depressive. For that I apologize.

You’ll be pleased to know that Barb and I are going to see the Stones in a few days! I’m so used to following farmer’s hours, waking at three. Crashing out at eight. Opening act goes on at nine! I might have to “reintroduce” myself at a meeting. Will I have to take NoDoz?

Hmm. Do me a favor. If I do, let’s keep it between you and me.

Let me leave you with a final thought. Once you see God, you’re back where you started. Chopping wood and carrying water. Ram Dass, Be Here Now.

Shalom, y’all.

Remembering Ken Kesey

I was never in his revolution and was a confused writer to boot, but he took me in.

I met famous people as a journalist. I may have believed their fame would rub off on me.

It did not.

Not only did their fame not rub off on me, I may have antagonized them.

Ernie Anderson, aka Ghoulardi, Cleveland cult hero who’d gone on to voice-over success in L.A., bristled at my chirpy nervous questions and had to have resented my leaving out of my Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine feature my meeting Mickey Rooney, who happened to be in the same radio-station waiting room as Anderson and me. Rooney mimicked me, taking my pen and pad and squinting at me as he lobbed mock questions. Anderson dutifully shared about growing up in New England, how the Cleveland TV guys let him be a late-night schlock sci-fi movie host, doing beatnik shtick, but I feel to this day my piece was dry and could have been better.

I antagonized Russell Means. I not only interviewed him stoned but offered him grass. This is but one wincing memory that sustains my determination to stay straight. In my piece in FreeTimes, I disdained to voice outrage at the local baseball team’s racist caricature, mascot Chief Wahoo, that had graced helmets and jerseys for decades, though (I like to think I had a hand in this) it no longer does. I sent Means a sheaf of printed bylines that embarrasses me now. I have it on good authority this leader of the American Indian Movement was angry I didn’t march with the protesters at Opening Day for the ball team. I should have. At the time I just thought he was a celebrity, and I wanted to know him. It didn’t occur to me I had a larger responsibility, writing as I was for a left-leaning alternative weekly and putting on parade the collective feelings of a people that had been fucked around enough.

These experiences, and the shame, guilt, and anger they engendered, made me decide not to be a writer anymore.

But here I am writing.

A blog reader asked for this one. It’s about one of the last celebrities I met, Ken Kesey, author of two great novels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion.

He was in Cleveland in 1997 as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum staged a “Summer of Love” retrospective. From a money standpoint it flopped due to utter lack of corporate sponsorship; Rolling Stone missed this or chose not to rub it in. There was poor Donovan having schlepped from England to stand on a little windswept stage in the Rock Hall parking lot on an unseasonably cold spring day, wondering, as he played what I would call a “still palatable repertoire,” why he’d agreed to come.

My interest in Kesey was as an adoring writer. Maybe it was Robert Stone who, upon Kesey’s death of liver problems some years later, said he could have been “a writer for our times” had he not chosen to lead the “revolution.” Look around at today’s political and cultural mess. See any revolution? Me either.

The lingo has been coopted. Black folks say “You trippin” when someone’s acting wacky. We talk about “drinking the Kool-Aid” to refer to imbibing something from a shared cultural well. We would never be the same once Tom Wolfe published The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test about Kesey, acid trips, and public theater.

I had one foot in AA and another in the shaky conviction I had “every right” to take drugs when I took the Shaker Rapid from my apartment to the lakefront to meet Kesey and collect enough to deliver a piece to FreeTimes. The Bus rolled in containing geriatric versions of Mountain Girl, George Walker, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Ken Babbs as well as Kesey himself. They had to have been disappointed in the turnout. I’d thought throngs would swell past the perimeter of the lot, but only a hardy, diminutive host surged about the bus. I heard one cop walking around amidst the marijuana smoke say, “I don’t even care.”

A Plain Dealer asshole, who’d been given the honor of getting on the bus in Chicago and riding in with the Pranksters, told me he’d seen Kesey dispatch a whole bottle of gin on the ride. He spoke dismissively of him.

I had cynical thoughts of my own. LSD had given me some beatific experiences, but it also was present at some of the worst moments of my life, such as when in high school I took it the same night I thought I might have a sexual dalliance with a pretty girl it still wounds me to remember. Traumatized as I was, I still took drugs. That’s drugs to me.

Maybe I just loved those books. Nobody captured the myth of the American male, the American hero, the way Kesey did. The plotting, characterization, use of voice, and other elements of that first, blockbuster novel are, to my mind, unparalleled, the tragic ending perfect. And if you want to read a book opening that’ll knock you out, open Notion, the waters crashing through coastal Oregon, setting up the stubborn bastard at the helm of the action.

For some reason Kesey took me in, disdaining to speak with any of the other journalists pressing about the bus. He had me up on the psychedelically painted ride where I clutched an undersize memo pad to scribble his responses. Both on the bus and off, he answered me and let me tail after him. He seemed wistful, distant, yet deeply intimate, and there for me.

What was he reading? Nothing really.

I mentioned William S. Burroughs.

“Oh, he’s a heavy, like … like Beckett.”

Hearing him speak in cosmic ellipses, I had the uncanny thought he was precisely the character portrayed by Wolfe in Kool-Aid, though in a rap to the crowd prefatory to him and the Pranksters’ garage-band rendition of “Gloria,” he compared Wolfe unfavorably with Hunter S. Thompson.

I suggested his just-released, long-awaited third novel, the “fishing saga” Sailor Song, which felt attenuated, stoned out, and seemed a statement against corporate ownership, might have benefited from a honed “social message.”

He sneered. “That’s … Royko. I’m a fiction writer. Fiction has to have magic.”

There ended that encounter. But wait. There’s more.

When Burroughs died I posted on a memorial web site my feelings about his work, which Kesey read! He would give me his feedback in a strange yet somehow heartening way.

Kesey made a return trip to the Rock Hall, and I was talked into going by some lady I had already met on the first trip there. She had, uh, known his eminence biblically sometime back in the day. She seemed to be living out a celebration of the Sixties, with “Crystal Ship” by the Doors tinkling in her outgoing message. But I went with her. I guess we both needed somebody to go with.

Kesey appeared in the proscenium to act out his children’s book Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear. Wearing costume, and impeccably prepared, he read out the story, playing all the voices. Then he spoke to the capacity crowd and in that speech wound up speaking to me! I guess in the small theater he saw me. I do not remember him calling my name, but when he talked about the piece I’d run in FreeTimes, including its horribly disingenuous ending, and then at length about my eulogy of Burroughs, taking me to task for blowing a fact – it was Beckett, not Tennessee Williams, who’d condemned the cutup method – I knew. I felt as much glow as shame, though there was some scolding in what he had to say. Here he was, speaking directly to me, risking the bafflement of all the others here, because he saw me as a writer.

That was enough. To teach me. And to humble me.

Watery Respite for an Overworked Arizonan

Nothing quite as refreshing as dunking oneself in a cold river on a scorching hot day.

The complications of one’s life tend to dissolve when one is actively engaged in physical exercise. You can’t lift a heavy box or bench two hundred or fight your way up Granite Mountain unless you’re focused on the job at hand. That’s what’s great about physical exercise. It demands concentration; the body – sole agency by which the task is performed – won’t have it any other way.

I’ve wasted a lot of breath bitching about Arizona and its “fake lakes,” but I’m here to tell you I don’t care if Clear Creek, scene of my recent kayaking adventure, is purely God-made or the product of human intervention. It’s the latter, but who cares? It’s delightful — and cold. The dappled river runs between rugged rock, a flickering display that even features real Native American petroglyphs at one point. You drift along on the water, sometimes not even having to paddle, just coursing down the way, then back to work paddling kayak style, bit of a shoulder and upper back workout describing figure eights in the air, dipping one oar into the water then the other.

All your problems drift along, objects in a meditation. Hmm … my agonizing about my wife’s imperfections … my sense of her own anxieties regarding my imperfections … complaints like assholes, everybody’s got one …

But look! Young people ranged on rocks, sunning themselves, drinking beer and smoking marijuana and jumping off cliffs into the water, swimming on this sizzling hot day. This is Navajo country, I deduced on the basis of all the coppery skin and lustrous black hair mixed up with all the crazy white people. What was happening all around me became the meditation.

Everything fell into place on this day. Bob Gitlin, Angry Loner, the man fighting a proud defense of his integrity and damn them who don’t get him, realized he has true friends in a couple that’ve flitted on the periphery of his life since he moved to cowboy country fourteen years ago. Repeating the same pattern as obtained for my father, I let Barb make social arrangements. Sure enough it was she who asked me whether I wanted to go. I did want to. Had my bellyful of my own company, and Barry and Cathy really know how to do the outdoors. We had a Mexican brunch at the juncture of I-17 and SR 260, then drove another hour to get to McHood Park Clear Creek Reservoir, in Winslow.

“Standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona / I’m such a fine sight to see!”

Well maybe not as fine as when I was younger (or as Jackson Browne), but I did justice to my swim trunks. Not too bad for an old guy. Picture to prove it.

Wounded my pride more than anything when we decided to drift to the shoals and park our boats and swim, and when I got out of my kayak my foot touched down on mossy-slick rock and down I fell, backwards. The only physical damage was the bruised heel of my right hand, which made today’s gym workout extra challenging.

I rode for a while with my buddy, just me and him, so his girlfriend could get a rest from the Howard Stern he likes to listen to. I like Howard. So the girls rode in my SUV and I got in with Barry. I had felt a wave of drowsiness overcome me, maybe because I’d scarfed my huevos rancheros a trifle too expeditiously, but soon as I was in his truck, and even though I set the seat back to recline, I found myself overcome with the urge to talk. I was telling him about how my wife and I have problems, yadda yadda, like what couple doesn’t. And he’s telling me he knows, he knows. And it was good to realize I don’t have to hide everything. Such a thing as over sharing, sure. But I’ll get by “with a little help from my friends,” as Ringo said. Sometimes it helps to come full front and admit you’re human.

I tasted victory on this day. For one, I’d overcome my annoyance at Barb for making me have a life, and so I decided to really learn how to lash those two kayaks onto the roof rack of my Subaru Forester. Lord knows my wife spent enough at that trucker accoutrement place having them install those J-racks up there, and she spent a pretty penny buying good kayaks. Two times (at least; I’m trying to block it out of my mind), a badly secured kayak started to fall off the ride while in transit, on the highway!

It wouldn’t do. I decided to man up and do my homework. Over and over I watched a YouTube video about lashing a kayak to J-cradles on a top rack. At Barb’s more recent prodding, I realized I’d turned the vid off too soon. There was this other part. You also must belay the kayaks fore and aft. It’s not just lashing them to the J-racks, it’s using cord and S-hooks and what rudimentary knotsmanship you possess to secure the nose and butt of your kayak to hold-down positions at the front of rear of your ride. This I mastered. No more agonizing, timid crawling down the road afraid of another ego-busting, punk-anger-producing embarrassment, and some “real man” – the prototypical two hundred and fifty pound Arizona Trumpnik in shaved head and goatee riding by in an F-350 – having to come along to fix it.

I’m the real man.

I got a sunburn, but in most respects I put myself back together yesterday. I kayaked, I swam, I bonded with friends. What more can you ask?

Arizona summer, don’t end just yet.

Our love affair has only just begun.

Thank You, Grandfather, for the Blindness in Which I Saw Further

Nap time after a hard day of stocking … and tired in more ways than one. But I’ll answer the bell for the next round!


School has started and I’m not there. I’m working at Walmart. My store’s doing inventory tonight. All is geared toward that end. We’re scanning bins and running merch like the Keystone Kops.

I know why I seem able to eat whatever I want and not get fat. I walk several miles a day each of the four days of the week I’m there. That’s heavy-duty aerobics. And you know any other sixty-five-year-old guys who heft fifty-pound boxes of kitty litter or bags of dog food on their job? And let’s not forget the hardiness it takes to “work the freezer” Sunday and Monday mornings, clad in sweater, knit hat, and gloves as well as the padded windbreaker the store makes available to the luckless peons who draw this duty. It’s fucking Antarctica in there. And you know what’s the worst part? I’ve … God help me … I’ve come to like it. I’m left alone. I run what little freight there is, scan the bins, stock the “picks” my scanner tells me belong on home shelves, and find satisfaction at having met the challenge! Learning how to work the scanner with my gloves on has something to do with it.

All day long I run around doing physical things. When I burst outside that fluorescent cavern at one p.m., after the protracted scurrying that is my role at this retail monolith, I am elated.

And I don’t have to deal with punks. Or the gnawing awareness of my unfitness for the kinds of teaching jobs I pulled in these parts. I’m not even sure I’d have been any good teaching prep school kids, as I liked to tell people. I’m neither as charismatic nor as compendious in my reading as I like to fancy myself.

But it wearies me to realize this, to keep drumming it into myself. Tired of kneeing myself in the nuts over my perceived shortcomings. My therapist, who never pulls her punches, nonetheless says I should be more “self-compassionate.” I live strategically, focused on activities that turn off the noise and shaming between my ears. I forget to think about my failure when I’m engaged in the successful enterprise of being a superannuated stock boy.

In the photo above you see me upon getting home last week from my job.

See Bob. See Bob snore.

And there’s Rosa, sitting for the picture, glad to see me enough to let Barb snap the shot. I can’t lie down for long, though; this dog’s exercise needs are still prodigious, though she’s aged and filled out, having recovered from the fatigue-producing illness I blogged about in spectacular three-part fashion. One reason I feel so simpatico with the meshugene hundt is that she, like me, knows fatigue.

Don Juan in the Carlos Castaneda books said a warrior grapples with four allies. He must defeat them if he is to work out his full agenda as a man. Otherwise each can be an enemy. The first is fear; the hero faces his fears or will never amount to much. The second is clarity, which can make a man narrow minded and too sure of himself or, if he is humble, farsighted and fair. The third is power, which can make one malicious, or benevolent, depending on his moral breadth and agility. The fourth and final force for the modern day Jacob to wrestle with is old age; a man must fight off tiredness, lest he stop short of fulfilling his karmic duty and finding his final wisdom.

In the movie Little Big Man, do you remember blinded, war-ravaged Chief Dan George, Old Lodge Skins, at the end, dancing what he thinks is his last dance, appealing to the great spirit, called “Grandfather”?

“Thank you for my victories and for my defeats. Thank you for my visions, and the blindness in which I saw further.”

This shining leader, as comic as he is an epic character, intuits the sublime in the whole round of his life, from the ribald to the horrific.

In a burlesque moment, rain spatters him as he lies down for what he intended to be his willing capitulation to death, his glad departure from this mortal plane.

He rises on an elbow.

“Well, sometimes the magic works; sometimes it doesn’t.”

And he walks though the downpour with Little Big Man, Dustin Hoffman, back to the teepee to eat, leaving us with a profane parting shot about a woman he has known. It’s a perfect ending to a flawed, sprawling film with a big heart.

We’re all God’s fools. This fictional Native American’s wisdom is to know this. Great leaders know it.

Sometimes I look around at this country that’s devolving into stupidity and violence and want to pack it in myself, tired of living in a place that no longer believes in the experiment America was supposed to be, a melting pot America where different kinds of Americans could find commonality. There are times that, like Old Lodge Skins, I see a future in which Human Beings follow a road that goes nowhere.

I am tired of having as President a boor, a rich boor who has drawn around himself armies of gun-loving racists to further his agenda and nurture his power trip. This presidency is an abomination. If his hateful vitriol stems more from stupidity and dark id than from any reasoned ideology, doesn’t that make it worse? It’s easier to hide. He’s got it hidden from himself. He doesn’t even know he’s a shit. The worst shit ever to assume the highest political office in the world.

Ah, but enough.

I worked hard and humbly today. I hereby lay my cosmic burdens down. For today I did good. I put my shoulder to the wheel. I did my bit.

And so, until my wife kicks me off the couch to do some household chore …

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz …

His Movies Never Bore You

Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (photo stolen from IMDb)

A friend I used to hang with in Cleveland once said, “It was the worst thing anybody ever did to anybody.”

Referring to what for decades has had the marquee title, The Holocaust. An event, in only the past century, that is too horrible to believe.

Except it really happened.

When I heard of Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist history Inglourious Basterds and sat through its interlocking vignettes, its fantasy of revenge on the evildoers, I had reservations. The macho avengers, including horror director and now actor Eli Roth, set my teeth on edge. The smog of hate motivating everything put me off. Why? Not because the Nazis didn’t deserve what they got. They did. So what was my problem?

I just saw it again, on Netflix, and had less of a problem, even noting with special interest how two Basterds, who don’t know they’re going to die in Shosanna’s own holocaust of the evildoers, play their parts with such unmitigated malice as they mow down Germans fleeing for the (sorry, Krauts) barred doors. Eli Roth’s face, lips compressed in boundless rage, are right for the scene. Who – especially someone Jewish – hasn’t imagined such a revenge?

It doesn’t wipe out what really happened, though. And that can seem a problem.

There’s something else to consider, though I wonder if such reservations ever bother Quentin.

Trauma survivors, people who deal with victimization and violence, wind up, if they’ve really done the work, at the threshold of (that dread word) … forgiveness.

I keep seeing interviews of people who were in the camps, who saw loved ones shot from behind like sheep, their bodies falling into mass graves. Makes your blood boil. And yet the refrain of their testimony tends to be about loving every day they have left, and having no room in their hearts for hatred or bitterness or recrimination.

I want to tell Tarantino, “Thanks for feeling for us, but we’re past that.”

I guess, bless him, he’s not.

Mel Brooks treated the Nazi menace best by “laughing them into eternity” in The Producers. That was how he explained himself to Jews who scolded him for “making light” of the outrage.

“There’s no getting back at the Germans,” he said. But comedy offered a catharsis.

Violent revisionist revenge is a fruitful avenue for storytelling, certainly film making in the Tarantino mode. Scratch that; nobody but Tarantino tells this kind of story.

He’s done it again, with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film does its own bravura take on one of the worst horrors America ever witnessed. Tarantino presents this to us on the fiftieth anniversary of the Manson murders. None of the reviewers said it diverges from what we read in the papers August 1969 … but they were vague.

I saw it.

Near the end I wondered whether the climax would document what happened to that poor pregnant actress and her friends.

I’m not telling either.

What surprised me, and what stays with me now, and even disturbs me on the outer edges of my analytic mind, is the negative framing of people referred to as “hippies.”

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m no hippie. In fact, I often have wished I’d come up in the fifties rather than the sixties and never done drugs.

But I still think hippies accomplished something good. I watch Woodstock and know the hippie generation created, in one miraculous moment, something it would take millennia to reproduce, if it’s even reproducible. Watching the musicians revel and play with such transcendence, the crowds swaying, gives you hope for the world. Though I was no hippie – I was too neurotic, too soured, needed too much privacy – I appreciate that moment, that contribution to our world. Those hippies were beautiful, the best Americans.

In Tarantino’s new movie, hippies are the ones responsible for killing Woodstock. We may extrapolate, if a little sloppily, to the Altamont murder by Hell’s Angels, to make the larger point. No sooner did Woodstock happen than those two events cancelled the dream, murdered “The Sixties.”

We needed Tarantino’s new movie to make us realize how strongly we felt that treachery. Hunter Thompson wrote about that moment when we felt the wave roll back, the dream dying. Now we have this.

I have never liked Brad Pitt so much as I liked him as Cliff Booth, a big-hearted bust-out stunt man. There’s talk about an Oscar for Leonardo DiCaprio; I say they’re both due a statue.

There’s something to relish here. Tarantino is not inviting you into any political manifesto. He just fires your imagination, using backdrops that have never been used before. He has a way of stirring up the hostile or negative elements of our memory and shaking us out of those tepid, naïve stereotypes. And he’s right. He’s aesthetically correct in taking us there.

There is a place in our collective psyche for revenge fantasies. I found catharsis in both Inglourious Basterds and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Living through these historic times in this madcap fashion invites us to make our peace with the horror. That’s what you have to do with trauma.

After Tarantino’s climax had screened and it was all over, I sat alternately stunned and confused. I wondered whether it was any good.

As I left my seat and found myself floating, as if drunk, to the exit doors, I knew Tarantino had done another magic trick.

He’s offering us a violent fantasy, yes. But also a way out of our pain.

Just for a moment … which is all a movie is.