The summer when Harry took his life must have been not only frightening for him, but a product of a profound, existential disappointment.
We were like thumb and forefinger, he and I, from 1971 to 1978, a total of 8 years. Close friendships are similar to marriages. But when we were still young, our friendship soured. He had a bright, quirky mind, and a terrific memory. He was an artist and painter, a guitarist, and a poet. His poetry was beautifully gnarly and not always easy to follow. With his terrific memory, he could grasp references that were beyond us, certainly beyond me. It frustrated him that we, that I, could not quite apprehend the invisible abstractions in his poems, and sometimes after reading them he’d quiz us, quiz me, which always set me on edge. What I would often do was to rewrite his poems in my own words and images, trying to mirror them in a fashion that would let him know that, yes, I did get them, on some intuitive, if not literal, level. This seemed to mollify him. However, the course our lives were taking put distance between us, and it was only later that I began to see how out of tune he was not only with me and others, but with the world, and with himself. In 1978, after our second fistfight, we went our separate ways.
He was not the first friend with whom I would part ways.
There was Sebastian, Mo, Violet, Charlie, Gala.
I’d grown away from them all, for various individual reasons that had no easy remedy, not an odd thing. People often make connections arising from the sets we’re acting on, but when the movie is over, back to unemployment and that’s that. In moments of introspection or weakness, years later in fits of a pleasant nostalgia, I sought out some of these old friends anew, meeting with them over dinner or a drink, or conversing on the phone. But it quickly became apparent that there was a reason each of them had either been jettisoned from my life, or had turned away from me, or simply fallen away.
What do we expect? Some, if not most, friendships end. Sebastian was a shallow man who thought he had depth, but he didn’t, and he was ultimately boring. Mo was a glib New Yorker with whom I shared the dream of being a musician, but when he that for designing women’s shoes, he acquired a flat dimension and took off for outer space and I remained earthbound. (Or maybe it was the other way around.) Charlie’s friendship turned out to be purely the once-upon-a-time proximity of our junior high school lives and did not survive the time or the distance. And Gala? She was, in the final analysis, a failed artist who was a superlative little judgmental shit with a large chip on her shoulder who found herself when she became a well-paid bureaucrat with the power to hire and fire people who had skills she never would; talentless and unoriginal. And Violet was lost and laterally drifting, like myself, and we ended up moving past each other without even realizing it.
The intersection of what they expected, and what I expected, diverged at a certain unforeseen but inevitable (I think) point, a failure to rendezvous based on a miscalculation of mathematics. The numbers would never add up, or in any event, in those cases they didn’t.
Was David O. a different case? Was Eduardo V an exception? Or Jim? I don’t know about them. These were friends who died in the full flowering of our friendship, and we’d never gotten past that amount of time in which things sometimes fall apart, if they’re going to. Would their friendship have withstood the test of time? Who knows? David was murdered while still young. Eduardo died of AIDS complications nearly three years after we met. And Jim took his own life, in a different country and for reasons I was never privy to other than the part played by genetics. Perhaps in some cases it’s not an inevitability.
Down on his luck, his family disintegrating, he’d reached out to me anew in 2009, 31 years after we’d gone our separate ways. A burly, hairy handsome fellow when we’d been friends, he’d grown bald and thin. We got together 3 times. The first time, when he came by my office seeking to sell his paintings, desperate to get out of financial straits. The second time, we had lunch at Casa Vega on Ventura Blvd., like old times. And again like in the old days, we went to Corky’s — reopened after it had been closed for a little over a decade or so — and shared coffee and conversation.
We never did get together again after that. Less than 2 months later, he was dead.
In his youth he’d been a wonderfully fat-mouthed atheist, blasphemous and iconoclastic. But now he’d discovered Jesus. I thought it odd, sad. It reminded me of the Leonard Cohen song “Suzanne,” in which he sings about Jesus that “only drowning men could see him.” Afterwards we went to the Sherman Oaks Park across the street, and, sitting on a picnic bench like once upon a time, he read a new poem to me. I wanted to tell him not too, but he was eager to do so. He probably wanted to verify something. I felt ice in my veins, a feeling of déjà vu already clouding the moment. He did read it, and I had no clue what it was about. Neither of us made much of it, and later, with a sinking feeling I gave him a ride home. There, he made me the gift of one of his paintings, and I gave him a copy of my novel, Heartfelt Affectations, which ten years earlier I’d dedicated to him and to David. We promised to get together again, soon, and parted.
Shortly after that he’d called me on a Saturday evening just as I was about to go out to dinner with my wife, son and father–in-law. I knew it was him, but I didn’t want to talk to him. I’d been avoiding him. I let the call go to voice mail. He left a longish message thanking me for being kind to him, for being open to resuming our friendship, his voice fraught with selective nostalgia. He said he’d found a new place to live, and that the stars were beginning to line up. He said positive things, but his voice was sad, tentative, exploratory, but probative of what I did not know. Nonetheless, it stirred a lot of deep, sweet, intense and primal memories we’d forged in our youth, though this present-day Harry, like the historical Last Days Harry, made me nervous. Did I want to introduce this man to my wife and son? I half-heartedly promised myself to call him later in the week, and I did, repeatedly, but he never answered, and we never spoke again.
A little while afterwards I learned that he’d committed suicide.
Then shortly after that, the Corky’s we used to read our poems to each other over coffee when in high school — he, David and I — was closed down a second time, and eventually torn down.
I guess that some things just aren’t meant to be.
When I read Jorge Luis Borges, I become a different person. I slip into his mindset, looking at and feeling the world through his filter. Reading Borges carefully, I feel as if I myself am capable of his deep, fantastical thoughts.
Reading Peter Watts’ Blindsight, watching Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible or Bradley Cooper in Burnt, I am an alien-watcher, an incredibly adept and luck spy, or an obsessed, artistic chef.
It’s the Walter Mitty effect that fiction so delightfully provides.
I think that this is, likewise, the attraction of traveling. Granted, there are some places that are more magical or alluring or romantic than others, but in the end, what is important is to get away from your life. To escape the geography that bounds your existence and the daily cares that inevitably get left behind, even if they plague us in some measure in thought and dream. But even then, we can shrug our shoulders. You can think I’m far from home, what can I do, as you reach for another beer or glass of wine.
Or just drink a bottle of cool water as you tag along with the riot of your three grandchildren.
Alabama the second time around was a joy.
With the exception of a hot dog at the Space Center and huevos rancheros at a (you guessed it) a Mexican Restaurant on our last day there, the food was common at best, mediocre at worst.
But the rest? Ah…
There was a hike at Madison County Nature Trail that started with a small lake and took us on a pathway of tiny frogs and multiple brightly colored mushrooms under a canopy of shading, breeze ruffled trees.
There was, again, the Space Center with videos of the space race’s history and the marvelous artifacts of the Space Age. Not to mention the aforementioned hot dog.
There was a 2 hour excursion on a small boat with a crusty captain who had interesting tales to share on Lake Wheeler that revealed the local flora and fauna and a peaceful and exciting.
The weather was hot and humid, but this made many of our destinations — the bowling alley, the Space Center, the Lowe Mill artists collective in Huntsville, the snow cone shop — were cool, air conditioned respites. The drives between locales were vividly green and bucolic and widely disbursed. The cloud-work was gorgeous, the blue sky suffused with a light that a painter would marvel at.
And there was a leisurely amble through downtown Huntsville. We fed the ducks at a huge pond, and walked through a park that had a free book kiosk, where I found a book I’d meant to buy before leaving L.A., Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Writings. Score! We ate at a local artisanal brewery and had gelato at a pizza parlor, resting our dogs and recharging.
And yes, it was a challenging delight seeing the grandkids — ages 7, 9 11. A shame they live so far away.
I miss Alabama already.
Everybody is from somewhere, and everyone wants to go somewhere else. Los Angeles, California is my city. People come from all around the world to visit us and to sample our wonders. But living everyday in paradise inures you to the wonder.
Alabama was wondrous.
There used to be a commercial on television and radio for A.M./P.M. MiniMart where, touting the incredible number of choices they had to eat and drink and spend your money on, ended with a scratchy voiced man saying, “A.M./P.M. MiniMart: Too much good stuff!” They said it like it was a good thing.
The classic Chinese ancient text, the “Tao te Ching,” says something similar. “Hunting and racing madden the mind.” That is to say, too much good stuff can mess you up.
I often find the glut of information exhausting.
I get daily internet posts to the New York Times with the news of the day. I have other daily posts from Geopolitical Futures, the Atlantic Monthly, the Smithsonian, dispatches from Authors Publish and Manuscript Academy, from Book Marketing Tools. And that’s just a partial list.
I get weekly hardcopy issues of the New Yorker, of bi-monthly issues of Asimov’s Science Fiction, a monthly copy of the National Geographic, and the weekly copy of, yep, you guessed it: The Week.
Not to mention the emails with attachments from friends, from my brother, from my wife. Then there are the bombardments from Facebook and Instagram and LinkedIn.
And forget about the fiction I am interested in, the stories I want to read.
It’s true: There’s way too much good stuff.
And I feel like a hoarder. Each and every one of the above-named have the tidbit of info that’s indispensible, enlightening, revealing and enriching. I need it all.
I learned a long time ago that the five senses we possess — touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste — not only allow us access to five glorious dimensions of our world. They also filter out an onslaught of informational input that is bouncing around out there. And thank God for that! I can barely keep up with what the five senses show me. As a matter of fact, most of it becomes a background mural of data that becomes a backdrop of sounds not really heard, things not really seen, so on and so forth. The ambient data of everyday life forms a rich loam, like elevator muzak.
Perhaps a house cleaning is in order. I need to reduce the amount of information I feel obligated to review and focus on. But what to get rid of? The way mass media and the internet are geared up, reading an article can become an all day chore. Look up a subject you’re interested on Wikipedia, something you want to know something about, and imbedded within that article there are countless links that will take you to new isles of relevant and needed ancillary information, I mean, if you really want to be complete and well-informed.
And if you’re reading this blog? Well, there’s that.
What’s a reader to do?
What? You say you want to live a bit of life, too? Go on a hike, walk the beach, visit friends, go to a concert, see a movie, do a bit of grocery shopping, visit Mom, get ready for Easter and Fourth of July and Thanksgiving and Christmas, your brother and sister’s birthdays, nieces and nephew’s too, but first that lecture at the university you want to hear, a trip to the moon, a week on Saturn, a spin in the Multiverse? Shoot! There’s not enough time to even make a pit-stop to the corner MiniMart.
Sorry, no can do. Just the way it is. Everything we want, or want to do, have price tags.
For 34 years, the writer and editor Gardner Dozois published yearly anthologies, “The Year’s Best Science Fiction.” Each volume had an awfully long but absorbing introduction, a compendium where Dozois broke down the current state of the art, and — man! — could the man read! He was comprehensive and complete, insightful and well-versed, at the very top of his game. Five years after his death, no other anthologist comes even remotely close. Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld, as well as Jonathan Strahan, bravely try, but compared to Dozois, well, it’s no cigar.
I’m boggled at what must have been the amount of absorption this life of reading and interiority must have taken. What is the toll of such a life? A lot of sitting around, no doubt. This once relatively thin man ballooned up in weight. He had a quintuple bypass operation in 2007, then in 2018 he had to return for a new surgery that he did not survive.
Most professions have their own complications, I imagine. (I’ve read about them.) Doctors, lawyers and dentists yearly make the top 10 list of suicides. Everything exacts a cost. As a lawyer, I can personally attest to the stresses and havoc that the juridical life can cause. Drinking, frayed nerves, an adrenaline level that’s hard to control, a sense of futility that repetition and constant exposure to the disgruntlements and feuds of people.
Hunting and racing can madden the mind.
Even hunting for the elusive beauties and epiphanies can be time-intensive. I mean, it depends on how serious you are, right?
Perhaps my fatigue makes me a little fatidic and negative. That’s what sleep is for, no? Sleep, dream and meditation, bucolic walks in the hills, wading in a stream watching the undulating bright fish, the gambit of some white rice between meal courses to cleanse the palate.
There’s no way around it. You have to pick and choose. You can’t make love to every person who tickles your fancy, you can only eat one meal at a time, you can only read one book at a time. And occasionally you need to pull back and just watch things and let the world go by without you.
I remember my old friend Mack. We were at a party and in one corner the conversation ran towards the old bad-mouthing-television-and-praising-reading-books screed. He interrupted angrily, caustically telling us that television was just another resource, another form of capital for us to spend stupidly or wisely. And, he reminded us, both were forms of vicarious existence anyway. There was also direct, first-hand experience to revel in. Not all of third-hand vicarious experiences were equal. Hell, not all first-hand experiences were salutary either.
Don’t forget that, he said. It’s hard to think straight sometimes. Hunt and racing do madden the mind.
In late 2022, when I removed my science fiction novel, “Scissors, Rock and Paper Doll”, from the Xlibris imprimatur, it was mostly because Xlibris charged about $22 for the book. I wanted to re-commission the novel through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and make it more affordable. It goes for $14.50 now.
But I also wanted to clean it up, do some garden variety editing for misspellings and such. So, I reread the book with this in mind.
“Scissors, Rock and Paper Doll” was written in the late 1980’s, almost 35 years ago. When I wrote it, I thought I was writing a short story, but I was an uninformed tyro. I had written a story that was a little over 100 pages long. A short story’s approximate limit is about up to 30 pages; a novelette between 30 and 70 pages. I had in fact written a novella, a work between 70 and 160 pages. After a novella we have a novel, 160 pages and up. My “short story” was repeatedly, and understandably, rejected by the short fiction magazines.
I could not see my way to cutting out 70 or 80 pages, a little more than 65% to whittle “Scissors, Rock and Paper Doll” into a short story. I opted to continue the story, and turned it into a novel.
When done, it sat in limbo for a spell. I sold short stories, but sold no novels. I decided to self-publish “Scissors” in the early 2000’s. I self-edited it and self-published it through Xlibris, a fine DIY literary venue.
Since then, I’ve self-published three other novels and a collection of stories.
I believe that with the passage of time and the exercise of writing and getting feedback through writers’ critique groups, I’ve become a better writer. I have come to earn accolades from a variety of corners, starting with the famous and illustrious author Paul Di Filippo. I’ve also earned multiple honorable mentions for my stories, and have been short-listed a number of times.
So, it was no surprise to me that when I decided to edit and republish “Scissors, Rock and Paper Doll”, I was a little taken aback at what I read. As mentioned, I’d written this about 35 years ago.
There are two strands to the novel: the original 100-page core which had grown in depth and length; and a second story that braided itself around the core. The two rivers of narrative met and united at the ending.
With a few exceptions, I was happy with the original strand. The second strand, however, was — I hate to say it — subpar. I found it adolescent, predictable, generic and outdated.
It was an adventure and a pleasure — as well as a sweat — to revisit and rework the material. I worked to make the text both more fantastic and poetic at the same time, and more believable. I found the crease and stress lines in my characters’ lives and restructured some of the events, as well as tropes, in order to let gravity do some of the hard work.
I believe I succeeded in crafting a superior telling of “Scissors, Rock and Paper Doll” while preserving — and highlighting — the original structure and story. I was happy when I finished the first version of it in the early 2000’s. Twenty plus years later, I am more than happy. I’m titillated, excited, and proud.
We have not, I hope, seen the last of Truman Ferry and her surrounding cast of characters — Muse, Carmen Ysidros Tyler and her brother Alejandro, and of course, the former Iceman Clay Tyler. I’ve been plotting two more novels to follow the first, to complete the story arc I came to intuit and envision when I finished this novel, my first.
The older I get, the more I see that I’ve missed.
I’ve known of Tom Waits for a long, long time. I’m sure that I’d heard songs of his, if not in complete form, certainly in fragments. But they must have come on the radio when I was at the McDonald’s drive thru. And as he’s done music for movies I’ve seen, it stands to reason I heard them in their entirety.
But really, I don’t think I’d ever listened to them.
So why have I shied away from Mr. Waits?
I vaguely recall seeing him in a movie, with, I think, Lily Tomlin (must’ve been a Robert Altman movie) where he was crying about a “broke yolk.” That’s all I vaguely remember of him, but I also clearly recall finding that scene obnoxiously affected.
Yes, I know that to call an actor’s performance “affected” might be skirting the line. After all, what is acting but pretending, a honed affectation?
Still, I have no cavil with people who are affected. I do, however, not care for affectations that are obvious, silly, threadbare. When an actor is obviously acting, then that can be a problem. Over-actors don’t normally get nominated for acting awards. A good actor strives, I believe, to not look like they’re acting while acting.
If you’re trying to make your acting obvious, you step over the line into camp, which is a different discussion.
Or is it?
Affectations that are obvious:
Bryan Ferry’s vocal wobblings in the first Roxy Music album.
Bob Dylan’s Woody Guthriesque salt-of-the-earth singing, variable throughout the years.
William Shatner’s acting.
Tom Waits’ singing and performance.
But hold on. Now, just because something is affected doesn’t make it unlikeable or fake. Not exactly.
As a young man I loved Bob Dylan songs but hated Bob Dylan performances. It took time and age to make me love his early performances, of course abetted by the seductive architecture and perceptive poetry of incredible songs.
Same with Bryan Ferry with his GQ Tin Pan Alley Playbook persona, desperately pretending to be some Dashiell Hammett gumshoe. I think he’s cool (at least was, up to “Siren”).
And William Shatner? Well, who doesn’t love Captain Kirk? (Except Sulu, of course.)
Even so, it’s difficult to predict which of the obvious affectations will rub one the wrong way. Presumably the less pronounced they are, the less obtrusive they’ll be. Affectations are like plastic surgeries: You only notice them when they’re done too often, and/or done badly.
I, for one, find Morrissey’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” too precious and mannered for my blood. The song “Rock and Roll Heart” by Lou Reed (among some other songs, too) is offensively mock-low brow, a song in praise of being stoopid. And this from the man who made the album “Berlin?!?”
And the list goes on.
Contrary to my long-held though somewhat vague feelings about him, I decided to listen to Tom Waits’ album “Blood and Money.” I’d read quotes by him that I thought deliciously poetic and twisty, observant and acute. My favorite: “The world is a hellish place, and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering.”
How can you not love something like that?
So, I listened to “Blood Money.”
I found the first song, “Misery is the River of the World” outlandishly performed, and the song gave me no little amount of listening misery. It sounded like the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street singing with a sore throat. I stopped playing the CD then.
But I was determined to be fair. The next day, I started listening again, and played the whole album.
Something possessed and shook me. Slowly at first, for sure. Kind of like when I first ate sushi, which I tolerated while I was eating it, liked it the next day, but day after that I was singing its praises.
I know that Tom Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan, wrote the songs. Waits is a musician as well, and I can only imagine that the sound created was his. I was sucked into the conjurations of the man and the creations he and his wife have lovingly crafted.
Each song is a world unto itself.
Is the performance affected? Are the lyrics, slanted with a particular worldview? Is the music shaped to purpose? Ask it another way. Is the performance enthralling? Are the lyrics observant, mordant and skewed? Yes, yes, and hell yes.
I had no idea that the Cookie Monster was so damned talented. He grows on you.
I even came to like that first song which I’d initially hated.
But yeah, he grows on you.
There is a New Yorkish vibe to him, a 1920’s bohemian aura, Color Noir à la Blade Runner. His world is the world of Tim Burton and Diane Arbus, the arrangements of the music instruments and the guttural growling voice conjuring the work of the German artist George Grosz. The feelings of delighted unease he creates in me recall watching, as a five-year-old, the underworld demon footage from Disney’s Fantasia, a full color extravaganza watched on a black-and-white TV. It also brought to mind Leonard Cohen’s “Diamonds in the Mine.”
I enjoyed the entire album, but I did have favorites.
I loved the eighth song, “Lullaby.”
Sun is red, moon is cracked
Daddy’s never coming back
Nothing’s ever yours to keep
Close your eyes, go to sleep
If I die before you wake
Don’t you cry, don’t you weep
A gently growled put-the-child-to-bed melody that made me think of The Addams Family. Even beautiful monsters have children.
And “Coney Island Baby,” the third song. It conjured images of 1920’s cartoons, recently reincarnated in the video game “Cuphead,” that kind of stuff. And very romantic.
And I loved “The Part You Throw Away.”
Will you lose the flowers
Hold on to the vase
Will you wipe all those teardrops
Away from your face
I can’t help thinking
As I close the door
I have done all of this
Many times before
If you are like I was, ignorant of Tom Waits’ music, then do yourself a favor: listen for yourself. And hold your trepidation in check as you approach the fence to peek at the fierce beasts. They look scarier than they are.
Even so, be careful. They can be dangerous.
When we return home from a journey, one of the first things we do is to unpack. Not merely all the physical items that have traveled to and fro with us, but the experiences and memories we bring back with us as well. It often takes a bit of reflection to understand these experiences and memories. William Faulkner wrote, “I never know what I think about something until I read what I’ve written on it.”
It’s true that photographs never quite capture or convey the immediate, existential experiences we hoped to retain, revive and elicit when we took them, unless of course, you’re a professional photographer. But even then, hands-on real time objective and immediate experience never captures reality the way reality itself does.
Being in Oaxaca last summer was both magical and mundane. We had our share of bad meals, but there were some extraordinary ones as well. There was a lot of aged and aging architecture that was a delight to see and inspect. Having been to Mexico many times as a child and as a teenager, the streets were familiar though still new, foreign. The people were a joy to watch and intermingle and converse with. And it was the everyday stuff that was wondrous.
I was amazed at the limpid quality of the sky’s blue, and at the gorgeousity of the castling clouds. Yet the city air was kissed with ozone and car fumes. The taxi rides were a speedy, tail-gaiting provocation which, with time, felt as natural as jogging miles and miles without stopping, for me possible only in a dream.
I was amused at how high the curbs are in Mexico when stepping down into the street
or back up to the sidewalk; even such familiar things were somehow a little “off,” and enticingly so.
We witnessed a couple of street parades —it was 2022 and July, the month of the yearly Guelaguetza Festival — and visited the amazing pyramids and structures at Monte Albán, a pre-Columbian archaeological site in the Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán Municipality in the south.
Because of the Guelaguetza Festival there were a lot of tourists, not merely from the U.S., but from all of Mexico as well. It was wonderful and lively, but there were some signs of the strain, literal signs in the graffiti that was there one morning but gone within a day or two.
One day when we’d gone to the largest central tourist park where there were a million restaurants, wheeled kiosks and vendor’s tents galore, we went to visit one of various museums of note that we had to wait in line to get into. I started talking with a young fellow from the capital, an engineering student there for the festivities. In the course of our conversation, I mentioned the anti-tourist graffiti we’d seen.
“Oaxaca’s is a tourist industry around this time of the year. Visitors are welcomed with open arms and coddled.” He smiled and hesitated, nodding. “But, you know, the city gets so busy taking care of the tourists that it neglects its own citizens a bit. The trash hasn’t been picked up at the outskirts for nearly two weeks now. The people scrawling on the walls are few, but the sentiment is not a surprise. It’s a love-hate sort of thing.”
He went on to laud the everyday folk, and I had to agree. We’d met people who whose demeanors were friendly, helpful, informative, welcoming, very warm. When they were elsewhere, at home or alone with themselves, what did they feel and say? What were their thoughts? Complicated, no doubt.
We met and ate with other tourists like us, no Americanos but other visiting Mexicanos who had the leisure and money to travel. We ate with them, interacted with them, exchanged stories and contact information.
Eight months later, I want to go back. I wanted to go back five minutes after we left. I fantasized at odd, quiet moments, as my younger self, as yet unmarried and without children. An expatriate writer and bon vivant in Oaxaca for a year or two. To know a place you must spend some time there. A trite thought, but there you are. Travel lends trite thoughts gravity, turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. Never enough time.
“You okay, Dad?” asked my son as we waiting in the airport lounge watching airplanes taking on the airfield, taking off and landing. I nodded.
I watched my wife reading her book, “Circe”, and suddenly I wanted to be home, enjoying the delight and warmth of cherished domesticity, of quiet, mutual and wordless understanding.
Travel does that, doesn’t it. Reinvigorates the mundane with a sheen of agreeable strangeness, washing the accumulated film from one’s eyes.
Ten days in Oaxaca was a breathless gift. I was missing it before we even left.
In Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, Bill asks Mike Campbell, “How did you go broke?” Mike says, “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
Aging is like that. You barely notice the slow, gradual piling up of the indicia — the skin’s loss of elasticity, soft, quaint wrinkles here and there, mild pains there and here which are constant visitors, the development of intolerances to things that never bothered you before: the loss of a tooth, a diminishing of the libido, an upgrade in the lenses to your glasses. And so it goes.
It starts gradually, then — boom! — it hits suddenly.
Our culture in the U.S.A. is, as in so many other things, in denial. I know I am. When I hit 50, I heard that 50 was the new thirty. Sure, yeah, why not? I liked the sound of that. But 10 years later, when I got to 60, things began to visibly, demonstrably and annoyingly gel into problems that could conceivably go away, but were not. Problems that had not been problems became, well, problems. An exacerbation in the numbers measuring my high cholesterol levels; my diabetes; the aches in my knees; the pains from gout (a form of arthritis) making my mornings stiff and achy. Little things like that.
I’d quit smoking 25 years earlier; I’d given up drinking alcohol 10 years after that. Once upon a time I used to jog 5 miles 3 or 4 times a week. Little by little that got whittled down to hiking, then to walking, then to neighborhood strolls, until finally, as a conscious and concerted exercise, I stopped walking altogether, except, of course, the normal moving from place to place, through malls with my wife, from here to there and back, waiting in lines, et cetera. I mean, I didn’t completely stop walking. For a spell I even walked about 1 ½ to 2 miles around the park about 3 or 4 times a week, with my son, who slowed his pace for me. But the diabetic neuropathy in my feet and the broken jagged glass feel in my knees tempered that.
This July, 2022, I turned 68.
Goddamn. Two years away from 70!
One year away from the 69 years of age my father died at.
I can’t help it, I measure my timeline with those closest to me. My father died at 69, my mother at 83. An older brother died of a cerebral hemorrhage at 73. My father-in-law passed at 80, a friend 74, my brother-in-law at 57.
I have a vegetable-and-fruit hating fast food junkie uncle who’s led the life of a vagabond dissolute, and he’s visibly aged, but he’s still kicking at 82, taking the buses here and there and doing God knows what. He’ll probably outlast me, me thinks. Another older brother is 85, though what condition he’s in, I’m not sure, being that we don’t talk.
My memory isn’t what it used to be. I spent an entire day trying to remember the director and star of the movie “Dances with Wolves.” Hell, I finally had to look it up. My wife and children tell me that as I’ve grown older, there’s more and more I have to remember, and my mind has to make choices on what to remember, and what to jettison. Not remembering unimportant things, like Kevin Costner’s name, is small potatoes.
No doubt there are short term remedies: eat better and less, be more physically active, engage in targeting exercises, take Tai Chi, do crossword puzzles, memorize the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s longer songs, make new friends, learn new songs on the guitar and pray at every meal, and try to roll back the clock, if not by much, well, by something. But at a minimum, I have a ringside seat to how the fight is going to turn out, no ifs-and-or-buts. I would not feel so all alone, but everybody must get old. Well, if you’re lucky, right?
And like a neighbor who is no longer with us told me, “Getting old is not for the faint of heart.” Buck up, kiddo.
All things being equal, though, some mornings feel like 68 is the new 78.
When things stare us in the face, sometimes we don’t see them.
I don’t recall exactly how old I was — late high school, I think, maybe early college — when it was pointed out to me that the ubiquitous meal, breakfast, was a break from the fast imposed by sleeping those 6 to 10 hours every night. Break + fast. I know. Some of you are saying Duh.
This was the sort of epiphany I had listening to the song by the Police, Every Breath You Take. The song is bouncy, catchy, and has a happy-go-lucky aura that blinds us to what the song is really about.
It is a Stalker’s Theme.
The song is about an abusive, scary man who is telling “his woman” that, try as she might, she can and will never escape his vigilance and his control. It’s a suffocating, frightening song with a repulsive message.
Curious and concerned, I Googled the song to see if others had noticed this. Lo and behold, the author of the song himself, Gordon Matthew Thomas Summer, otherwise known as Sting, talked about this as well. He said he was surprised, but he didn’t mention a thing about removing or otherwise rescinding this song that couples have played at their weddings, or of returning the royalties. He didn’t sound too convincing.
I prefer songs that sound like what they’re about. The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby sounds like what it is about: sad, slightly ominous, existential, dark. Over the Rainbow from the Wizard of Oz sounds wistful, longing, a reaching out towards lost feelings and lamenting what we had but no longer do. Hey Jude sounds celebratory and anthemic, and it involves the audience in its tail-wagging excitement.
Every Breath You Take sounds like a boyfriend/husband saying I love you, don’t worry, I’ll always be there.
Until you strip the words of the sweet music and actually pay attention to them.
There are other songs that are tricky that way.
Creedence Clearwater Revival’s song Bad Moon Rising sounds jaunty, rhythmic and driving (to quote Billboard). But I was learning the song for guitar, and was jolted by its dark, grim apocalyptic message: bad luck and horror are on their way. The world is going to end. Don’t bother making plans for the future.
And me skipping along, fat dumb and happy.
Oh yeah. Duh.