Over a Cheever

I was at a tender and impressionable age when I discovered the short stories of Flannery O’Connor and John Cheever.

John Cheever’s grave in Norwell, Massachusetts. It’s adjacent to the parking lot for a place called Cheever Tavern.

They were life-changing.I was introduced to O’Connor by my mentor, Starkey Flythe.

Starkey was Georgian and Southern Gothic, so that was a natural development of his preaching to me.

I often refer to working with Starkey as my graduate school. He was a lovely man and the world is poorer without him.

Here is a short film of Starkey reading one of his poems. It’s a beautiful piece of work. Go to the link, then scroll down to “For My Absent Friend.” https://www.williammckeen.com/news/

I read O’Connor’s Complete Stories in one long inhale. With my friend, Harry Allen, we conversed as if we were characters in her story “Greenleaf.” She gave us a new language. She was a wonderful writer.

Oddly, her novels didn’t move me the way her short stories did.

Not sure how I came to John Cheever, but Starkey was probably the culprit.

Cheever wrote of a different world — the New York suburban life of highballs and infidelities. I again inhaled his collected stories (The Stories of John Cheever) in one gulp.

Decades later, I read the massive book straight through again. When I moved to Massachusetts, I was amused that I settled near Braintree and Quincy, Cheever’s old stomping grounds.

Flannery O’Connor

I have a friend who coaches the tennis team at Thayer Academy, the school that expelled Cheever.

I’ve been in a Cheever mood recently and discovered that I’m working one street over from Cheever’s apartment on Bay State Road.

He taught at Boston University for a while. Then, curious about his burial, I discovered he is in the First Parish Cemetery in Norwell. It’s right across the street from where son Charley works as a food runner. (The Tinker’s Son — frosty libations and swell vittles.)

So I played hooky from grading yesterday and found his grave. It’s a few feet away from the parking lot for a restaurant called Cheever Tavern.

There it was. This great writer’s grave is next to a parking lot. He’s buried next to his wife, Mary, and his son, Federico. Federico was a celebrated professor of law. He died while kayaking in 2017.

There is no great meaning or burning epiphany to report, but finding Cheever’s grave was deeply moving.

The Tavern wasn’t open, but I go by the place a couple of times a week, so I’ll drop in for a Scotch in honor of those two masterful storytellers.

John Cheever in the 1970s. He spent a couple of deeply unhappy terms teaching at Boston University before his career revived with Falconer and The Stories of John Cheever.

Cheever Tavern looks spiffy, and the menu might be too rich for my blood.

There is no entrance on the main street.

The tavern is behind a convenience store and a coffee shop, and you have to drive around back to find the joint.

I’ll let you know what it’s like, assuming the maitre’d doesn’t kick me out for being a lowlife.

Google translates a review of the French edition of my book about Hunter S. Thompson

My book was called Outlaw Journalist in the English-speaking world. The title was a little more cumbersome in French. I saw that a review of the book appeared in a French publication, so I copied and pasted it into Google Translate and this is what I got. I particularly like the phrase “monkey emeritus.”

Hunter S. Thompson was the inventor of gonzo style: journalism written by a living pharmacy, a way to crack the American dream without skimping on LSD, peyote, Tequila, Chivas Regal and other amphetamines, a columnist who is featured as the character Principal’s reports.

The excellent biography by William McKeen does justice to this monkey emeritus.

The cover of the French paperback features this Al Satterwhite photograph, taken in Cozumel in 1974.

The monster was born in 1937 in Louisville, Kentucky, a city providing half the world’s bourbon. Adept of creative vandalism, the juvenile seeks to silence his demons by engaging in the Air Force. Editor of a cabbage leaf for sport pilots, it is already the bombing and the chameleon. He was fired in 1957 for “rebel and superior attitude.”

Here grouillot to Time columnist bowling Puerto Rico goalkeeper villa in Big Sur, freelance for The Observer in Latin America. Adept of hitchhiking in bermuda, the character loves shooting rats with a 357 Magnum. Reader Hemingway at the time of Bob Dylan, this atypical madmen consonant with a new generation of columnists. They call Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Terry Southern. Their way? Integrating the psyche of a journalist in the article itself, deal with the real weapons of fiction. In this new journalism, Thompson adds a kind of intimate caving with whims and exciting. Set in 1964 in San Francisco, he lives between the world of psychedelic hippies and the leather community while the Hells Angels, which he dedicated in 1967 an essay memorable him to be beaten by those crazy bikers. “Journalism, he said, pays for our continued education.

Now camped in his hut in Aspen, Thompson throne with his eternal cigarette holder and his Hawaiian shirt in the woods elk stolen Hemingway. Looks like a kind of Walt Whitman redesigned by Robert Crumb. The brilliant crazy wrote to President Johnson asking him to be appointed Governor of Samoa before embarking on one of his terrible raids journalism. Will pay for the presidential candidates of 1968: Richard Nixon, his staff Antichrist, “a nightmare of intrigue, bullshit and suspicion”, and his rival Humphrey, “an ignoble body electrified.

“Hunter did not commit suicide, Hunter followed the Way of the Samurai” (Iggy Pop)

Freak. Described by one witness as “a cross between half-mad hermit and a Tasmanian devil”, this psychotic Celinian is recruited by the fledgling Rolling Stone magazine, which he made the beautiful days. There he publishes Loathing in Las Vegas, the story of a drift distorted through the game city, wrote to the Dexedrine and bourbon during the summer of 1971. Journalism vision, stretched, torn by lightning psychotropic, as if the Stones put music in the Apocalypse of St. John. The legend of gonzo Thompson begins to take shape. The man, safari hat covers the presidential campaign of 1972 or the fall of Saigon, and sometimes signed “Martin Bormann” on hotel registers, becomes a character in the comic strip Doonesbury Uncle Duke, a reporter with the glasses of ‘Aviator seeing bats everywhere.

After 1976, Thompson patina. Cocaine him gnawing nostrils. His wife Sandy left him. He was fishing for tarpon in Key West, is the portrait of Muhammad Ali, hangs out with Jim Harrison or John Belushi, then resumed a weekly column in the Examiner. Working in his kitchen in the middle of televisions turned on, the super-freak of the Reagan gently invite to vote for Bill Clinton, whom he lent “the loyalty of a lizard who lost his tail.” The man who loved to “dedicate” his books with a bullet becomes the totem of young Hollywood, revered by Sean Penn or Johnny Depp, who will play in the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But, less a prisoner of his mythology, the old hunter scalps in 2005 will choose the end of Hemingway’s heroes: a .45 caliber gun in his mouth. “Hunter did not commit suicide, Hunter followed the Way of the Samurai,” says Iggy Pop. Consistent with this life pyrotechnic is the gun that his ashes were eventually scattered.

Hunter S. Thompson: journalist and off-the-law, William McKeen (Tristram, translated from English by Jean-Paul Mourlon, 496 p., 24 euros).

Hunter S. Thompson

I Dream of Maisel with the Dark Brown Hair

I’ve been a fan of “The Marvelous Mrs Maisel” from the start.

Rachel Brosnahan as Midge Maisel

The only way the show could be better would be if there was an option that allowed me to leap into the screen and run away with Midge Maisel.

That sort of happened the other night.

In my dream, Midge and I were reporters for an unknown news venue — wasn’t sure if it we were working in a newspaper or a television newsroom — but we made a great team. Midge was so good that she was offered the job of Rome bureau chief.

She refused to take the job unless I came as deputy chief.

I’d say my dream came true, except it didn’t. It remained a dream. I woke up in Massachusetts, not Italy.

Still, it was a satisfying dream.

Rachel Brosnahan (Midge) and Alex Borstein (Susie, but also Lois on “Family Guy”) were the first to reap rewards. But what an ensemble this has become. Tony Shaloub is great as Midge’s OCD Dad, Kevin Pollak is brilliantly irritating as her father in law and Marin Hinkle (Midge’s mother) has emerged as a secret weapon, stealing lots of scenes this year.

Lenny Bruce (played by Luke Kirby) has been in the show from the beginning, but this season ::::::::::SPOILER ALLERT :::::::::::: he finally crashed the custard truck with Midge.

It’s a great show and I love it. **Sigh** If only it was real. I’ve never been to Rome.

An explanation

I’ve been gone.

I escorted son Travis to a week-long baseball camp at a Major League training complex. It was a great experience for him. He ate three squares at the training table, had his uniform washed nightly, and lived like a player, except that he repaired nightly to the soundproof suite he shared with his pop at the local Marriott.

I went to the camp twice daily, when parents were let in for games.

On the second night, Travis racked out, Our Lady of the Most Indelicate Gastric Symptoms visited. She visited me 17 times in little more than an hour. She stayed away the next two days, but I spent those days writhing in my sheets in the soundproof suite. I alternated between a hot fever and those shaking chills.

Sometimes, the fevers stopped.

At the last game, on the last day, I began shaking and collapsed over a huge Gatorade bucket, my fingers frantically grabbing for something. Can’t remember what, exactly, but it had the texture of perfectly cooked black beans.

The athletic trainer said I was suffering severe dehydration and malnourishment. I’d had no interest in food the whole week, consuming only one meal — a fish sandwich, no fries nor slaw — the whole time. I didn’t miss it.

Camp was over so Travis bought me SmartWater and I guzzled. While attempting lunch, Our Lady visited me three more times.

We got on a long plane flight, made it back to the splendid South Shore. I was at the door of my doctor’s office when it opened Monday.

I was a frightening visage, a silent tribute to Johnny Cash gone horribly wrong. All in black of course. My hair waterfalled over my eyebrows like it was Lubbock, 1955. I was pouring sweat. My physician recoiled and ordered me to the emergency room.

I got there, and spent the (full) day in the modern health care equivalent of Titanic steerage. Poked and prodded all day, we were entertained by a geezer yelling “Oh my GAWD” for the full five hours of his trying to move his bowels.

I was eventually checked in and spent the next week being MRI’d, Cat Scanned, shot-up, IV’d, specimen’d. What was it? No doubt severe dehydration. That really serious fever was a result of a sepsis episode from a bad blood infection. (I suppose there aren’t any good blood infections.)

I speak with Our Lady of Gastric Weirdness several times a day.

I didn’t read a book or monitor social media. I was content with CNN, the Olympics, and Turner Classic Movies. Mucho noir this week.

In a loop in my head, you were with me as I led battalions of Busby Berkley dancers into the valley of death as we faced the czar’s forces, dressed in purple helmets honoring Dolly Parton’s hairstyle, circa 1974.

I owe you.

This is a picture of me, autumn 1968, Bloomington, Indiana. I have no further explanation for it.

Sweet Mysteries of Life

My father died when I was young, and there are a few million things I wish I could talk about with him. He was 53 and I was 20. I’ve significantly outlived him.

I inherited most of his books — and it’s daunting. He had everything. Go into my living room, where I keep this prized library, and you’ll find an impressive collection  of world literature. Run your fingers over the spines: Thuycides, Plato, Aristotle, through all of Jane Austen and Henry James, and that fun couple, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne

This photograph of Raymond Chandler kind of looks like my father.

I have a beautiful edition of Leaves of Grass, printed (appropriately) with a grass leaf cover. I have his copy of The Bible as Living Literature

He loved Vladimir Nabokov, and could recite parts of Finnegans Wake from memory. He was a huge fan of James Joyce and so the portrait of Joyce next to the living-room bookshelves — which I purchased from a Dublin street artist — is there in tribute to him. I’ve appreciated Joyce’s short stories but never made it through Ulysses or Finnegans Wake.

I have such strong memories of my father performing passages basso profundo.

But his tastes were so catholic. Note lower case. 

My father was one of those guys with a book in every room — living room, family room, bedroom, bathroom. Different books for different moods.

I share one of his addictions, though mine did not appear until many years after his death. We both love(d) detective fiction.

I remember when we were stationed in England in the 1950s. Dad had a lot of paperback mysteries strewn around the house. My brother got custody of those books when Dad died, so I’ve been playing catch-up.

Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason

The recent HBO series devoted to the Perry Mason origin story got me reading the Erle Stanley Gardner omnibus my son Jack bought for me last year at a garage sale. Mom and Dad used to devour those books.

I bought a few Raymond Chandler collections from eBay. Dad, in particular, loved Chandler.

And there was a less-well-known writer, named John Dickson Carr. I remember so clearly my father reading his book, The Problem of the Wire Cage. I await the arrival of a battered 60-year-old paperback from eBay.

I wish I could talk over these books with my Dad. I was so unformed when he died. In the last year of his life, he bought me two books that meant so much to me — The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse and In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I was the only member of the family who showed no interest in following him into a medical career, so he wanted to support me in the work I chose.

Carl Hiaasen

Somewhere along the way, I became a fan of mystery novels. Maybe it started with Carl Hiaasen’s books, back in the 1980s. I’m not sure those are traditional mysteries — they’re more like farces with undertones of ecological skullduggery.

His latest book, Squeeze Me, spoofs the crimes against humanity at the Palm Beach White House, where the president is known only by his secret service code name: Mastodon.

Hiassen’s novels have only a couple of continuing characters. Alternating novels feature Skink, the renegade former governor of Florida. War hero and patriot Clinton Tyree returned from Vietnam filled with idealism and entered public life. He was elected governor, but then became frustrated by the rampant corruption in the state, and so disappeared.

But he didn’t exactly disappear. Tyree went underground as an eco-terrorist, subsisting on roadkill.

Thankfully, Skink appears in Squeeze Me. (He has also appeared in one of Hiaasen’s entries in his best-selling series of young-adult novels. Hoot is the best-known of his YA books.)

Squeeze Me got me laughing during this pandemic, and I wrote about that book a few posts back. Find it here.

Michael Connelly

But my old man would have really loved books by two writers whose work is like crack to me: Michael Connelly and Tom Corcoran.

Both are known for their long-running series of novels with continuing protagonists. Connelly and Corcoran are so expert at their craft that it does not matter in what order you read the books. You can read the latest Connelly novel about Harry Bosch and not feel left out.

Bosch is the character to whom Connelly most often returns. He was introduced 30 years ago as a Vietnam veteran, born to a prostitute and a (then) unknown father. His mother is murdered, Bosch grows up in foster homes, serves as a tunnel rat in Vietnam before becoming a cop. With each case, he avenges his mother’s murder. “Everybody counts or nobody counts.”

Along the way, Connelly has introduced other continuing characters, including FBI profilers Rachel Walling and Terry McCaleb. He had to kill off McCaleb several years back, because Clint Eastwood bought the rights to a novel featuring McCaleb. The character was around 40, but when he was played by the Great Squinter in Blood Work, Connelly realized he had to dispose of his creation. In a meta moment, Connelly addressed the issue of Eastwood’s major plot twist that perverted the relationships in the Blood Work novel. This showed in conversation, when McCaleb notes — not long before his demise — how it sucked to be played by a geezer in the movies.

Along the way, Connelly created another character. Since he showed a great affinity with police stories, he decided to master the courtroom thriller. Thus was Mickey Haller born. Turns out he’s the half brother of Harry Bosch — we finally find out the identity of the father — and works out of the backseat of his car. Connelly inaugurated a series of Lincoln Lawyer novels, then two years ago, introduced a young detective who lives in a lean-to on the beach, Renee Ballard. 

Another continuing character, Jack McEvoy, harkens from Connelly’s days as a newspaper reporter. He appeared in The Poet, The Scarecrow (one of Connelly’s very best) and Fair Warning. Once a mad-dog journalist, these days Jack works for a non-profit reporting collective. Connelly keeps up with the times. His characters often show up in each other’s novels. Bosch might appear in a McEvoy book and Bosch makes frequent walk-ons in the Mickey Haller stories.

(FYI, Bosch is the excellent Prime Video series starring the perfectly cast Titus Welliver as the detective. If you have not seen it, six seasons await your binge. The seventh season is in production.)

A few years back, the jacket of a Tom Corcoran novel bore a quote from Connelly that said Corcoran’s book Air Dance Iguana was “the reading highlight of the year.” 

That is high praise. 

Tom Corcoran

Corcoran’s protagonist isn’t a police detective. Alex Rutledge is a Key West photographer well connected to cops and reporters and gets roped into solving mysteries in America’s southernmost city. 

Corcoran’s books have the added attraction of their setting. He gives us the underbelly of Key West, not just the tourist version. His books are fecund with sights, sounds and tastes of Key West. 

As an even further added attraction: the setting, the heat, the lack of clothing, the island breezes . . . they all combine to make these Corcoran books sexier than your average detective novel.

I’ve read all of his books and his new one, The Cayo Hueso Maze, is his best. Again, you can start with this Alex Rutledge novel, then read the rest of them — and trust me, you’ll want to — in any order.

Corcoran was an Ohio boy, but was assigned to Key West in 1968, and he’s spent most of the last 50-plus years in the islands, and he knows the town’s deep history, having palled with Tennessee Williams, Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison. He wrote a couple of songs with new-kid-in-town Jimmy Buffett (whom he also housed when Buffett lacked a place of his own) and co-authored two unproduced screenplays with Hunter S. Thompson.

(Of course, if you’re interested in Corcoran’s life, you can always read my swell book, Mile Marker Zero.)

We are in the middle of a global pandemic, so reading a Tom Corcoran book might be the only way to take a trip to the island.

Click on these links to buy the two latest books — Connelly’s The Law of Innocence and Corcoran’s The Cayo Hueso Maze

Michael Connelly’s website: www.michaelconnelly.com
Tom Corcoran’s website: www.tomcorcoran.net

Land of the freak and home of the brave

Hunter S. Thompson lived a huge life. It’s so monumental that it’s nearly impossible to tell the whole widescreen Technicolor story. 

Hunter S. Thompson in “Freak Power”

I know, because I tried to wrestle that life between covers when I wrote Outlaw Journalist a dozen years ago.

At least I had the luxury of a book with wide-open pages.

To tell Hunter’s story on film is tougher. Maximum ass-time in seats rarely exceeds two hours, so you have that limit.

So what’s happened with tellers of Thompson stories is that they have begun to break off chunks of this epic life, to focus on just a part of the narrative.

A couple of years ago, Timothy Denevi examined Thompson’s 1970 political campaign and his influential role as a journalist covering the 1972 presidential campaign. He called his excellent book Freak Kingdom.

Click above to order the film.

Daniel Joseph Watkins put together a lavishly illustrated coffee table book celebrating that 1970 campaign and now he’s co-directed a new documentary. Both the book and film are called Freak Power. 

Watkins and his co-director, Ajax Phillips, have done a masterful job filleting the contours of Thompson’s life and creating a riveting, inspiring and heartbreaking documentary of a critical time in the life of Hunter S. Thompson and his country.

As the Sixties limped to that decade’s sad conclusion, Thompson retreated to Aspen, Colorado. He evacuated the Bay Area after a few years in San Francisco, where he’d witnessed the birth of the counterculture. 

He found peace and beauty and the community he wanted in Aspen — like-minded friends he fondly called freaks. As was the case with most of the country in that foul era, there was a generational divide in the town. 

Aspen’s powers-that-be included old-guard Germans who’d come to the Colorado ski village after ending their Nazi careers. They had become the new establishment, and, joined by the conservative town folk, they went to war with the long-haired young folk who’d moved to town to ski, fuck and smoke dope.

One of the stores posted a sign: No Hippies Allowed.

Into this world came Thompson, who soon joined in with the other young folk — Thompson was 33 in 1970 — to look for a different kind of society.

“We were the aberrants,” Thompson’s friend Ed Bastian said. “We were freaks of nature. So we might as well call  ourselves freaks.”

With his friends, Thompson helped established the Freak Power movement. He was placed on the ballot as a candidate for sheriff, with a platform that called for renaming Aspen “Fat City.” It was a move to scare away developers and tourists. “Sod the streets at once,” he said elsewhere in his platform. He wanted a pedestrian town.

Click on the cover to order.

Though Thompson was funny, running for sheriff wasn’t really a joke. He believed that politics was the art of controlling your environment. And he and his friends thought they could really establish a new utopia in the mountains.

We so rarely take funny people seriously. Many assumed his campaign for sheriff was some sort of prank. Watching the film, you can see idealism in his eyes.

And what we also see in Freak Power is Thompson’s seriousness of purpose. He had a lot of good ideas, and planned to use the office of sheriff — if he’d won the election — as sort of an ombudsmen within the community. 

Again, Thompson was ahead of his time. The sort of law-enforcement model he suggested is similar to the proposals we hear in the wake of the defund-the-police movement.

So he was putting forward a lot of great and innovative ideas, but he couldn’t help himself. He had to be funny. 

For example: the incumbent sheriff, Carrol Whitmire, had a short, well-groomed head of hair. Since one of the gripes the Aspen old guard had with the hippies was with their tendency to be hirsute, Thompson shaved his head, so he could refer to Sheriff Whitmire as “my long-haired opponent.”

Freak Power shows the campaign in all of its glory. It makes no effort to tell the full-life story of Hunter S. Thompson. That might take three 10-episode seasons on Netflix.

Click on the cover to order

Instead, you see this brilliant guy, climbing to his peak. His first book, Hell’s Angels, was behind him. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and his campaign coverage for Rolling Stone were ahead. (His first article for Rolling Stone was about the campaign)

Watkins and Phillips use 1970-era films from a variety of sources. The images are crisp and the sound is excellent. There’s nothing about this film that looks dated.

As always. Thompson’s civic wisdom is timeless. His analysis of American political experience — spoken 50 years ago in an Aspen hotel — could have been spoken yesterday.

Things are pretty foul. A lot of friends shake their heads about the state of the modern world and say, “I wonder what Hunter would say about all of this.”

He’s already said it. 

Listen to him in Freak Power and re-read his political coverage. He warns us about the nation’s Trumps, no matter what their names. Denevi, in Freak Kingdom, pays tribute to Thompson’s enduring political wisdom.

Freak Power is a fantastically well-made film, laser focused on that long-ago campaign but with wisdom that resonates today. The story is told with the vintage film and with voiceovers by the surviving participants. They appear at the end, old soldiers speaking of their battle and their eventual survival. 

Throat, meet lump. 

Laughing to keep from crying

Carl Hiaasen practices rage humor.

Carl Hiaasen

He’s so angry — over the environment, greed, political imbeciles, and general assholery.

Yet instead of standing on a mountaintop to spew screeds about injustice, he uses humor to craft magnificently twisted tales in which the bad guys get what they deserve. (Besides, there are no mountaintops in Florida.)

He makes us laugh as he eviscerates the unjust. I just finished his latest, Squeeze Me, and in the modern landscape, there is much that angers Hiaasen.

I’ll give nothing away, but a lot of the action takes place at the Florida estate of the President of the United States. He’s a rotund toupee-wearing blowhard referred to only by his Secret Service name, Mastodon.

It’s a wonderful book. A couple of times, I had to close the book and sit and laugh for a moment. I had a chuckle every other page or so.

But as I was reading — and laughing — all I could think about was the righteous anger underneath. I’ve read all of Carl’s novels and they are without exception excellent books. I marvel at his word choice and the music of his language.

What a great, distinctive voice.

His writing is masterful and his passion is there, the foundation underneath the humor. I’ve always been fond of Double Whammy and Native Tongue and Lucky You. But hell, I love all of his novels. I can’t think of one that wasn’t simultaneously funny and thought provoking. You rarely find someone who can succeed on both of those platforms.

He’s deft, this Hiaasen fellow.

Every now and then, I recall Native Tongue, which is about a corrupt South Florida theme park called the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills. Every afternoon at 3, the park watches a parade called the Pageant of Florida History, featuring tributes to wastewater and break-dancing migrant workers. I’ve broken out in random laughter on the subway when that crosses my mind. (Usually my fellow passengers scoot away from me when this happens.)

But this new book — Squeeze Me — may be his best work. It so well reflects our time, set as it is in the post-Covid-19 world. Carl has us laughing just to keep us from crying.

It’s funny. When someone is a social critic, those on the far right think they’re unpatriotic or anti-American. Seems to me the critics are the ones who love their country long after a weaker soul would have given up on the enterprise.

Carl’s so angry about the maggots destroying the environment and our system of democratic government. That anger inspires him to make us see, through laughter, the lurking tragedy. When I think of what’s behind the anger, I recall John Lee Hooker, who sang, “It’s in him and it’s got to come out.”

Lucky for us, he channels his Wagnerian rage into his novels. Rarely has fury been so funny.

I hope he’s OK, though. This book makes me wish I could buy him a bowl of soup.

My Dream of Merle

I used to think dreams were our doorway into the next world. I thought that because after my father died, he kept coming to me in dreams.

Merle Haggard

I remember once in a dream, we were walking and suddenly he stopped. I asked if he was coming with me. He said, “No, I stay here.”

Then I woke up.

I just woke from a different kind of dream. As it was coming to its conclusion, I found myself in a gas station that a couple was converting into some kind of restaurant. There were tarps between the bays in the old garage and the woman in the couple — an extremely friendly person, eager to talk and easy on the eye — kept me company while I waited. 

I didn’t know what I was waiting for until Merle Haggard walked up. I was surprised by what a small man he was. I towered over him — something that just doesn’t happen to those of us of supremely average height. 

He was thirsting to talk though and I was so pleased because it’s so rare that you get to tell an artist — especially one who is dead — how much their work means to you. We talked about various songs and their composition and some of his performing stories.

I talked about my daughter Mary, who works in the music business, and what an odd strangely-scheduled life it is. He began talking about the inspiration for some of his songs, and he couldn’t make it through reciting the lyrics to “(Mama’s) Hungry Eyes,” without sobbing.

We were both heaving, unable to speak because of our crying. Then I told him how much I enjoyed that album of his called “Let Me Tell You About a Song,” that came out in 1972. Each song was prefaced by its origin story. That album was my gateway drug to Merle. The songs I remember from that album spoke for racial tolerance and justice.

Talking about those songs, Merle collapsed again and I helped him up and he composed himself. After a bit, we dried our eyes and decided we needed to go our separate ways. I hugged him and told him I loved him and he smiled and said it’d been a pleasure.

I go out front of the former gas station and start walking west, toward the sun. It is blinding me, but I see a caravan of three cars heading my direction, going too fast. Next to the third car is a boy riding a bicycle, banging on the window outside the back passenger seat. I look inside the car — as best I can, considering the blinding sun — and see six riders, three in each row, stoic, looking straight-ahead, ignoring the boy. I jump back on the curb just before the kid would have run me over, and keep walking.

Behind me I hear a crash and turn in time to see one of the cars sailing through the air, and into another construction site across the street. I turn around and run to  the crashed car nearest to me and pry open the door. The passengers are as before — steadfastly stoic, not at all upset by the crash. Still, I pull them from the car one by one. No sign of the boy on the bicycle.

I get the six people into the former gas station, for the accident has occurred right in front of the place, and ask the woman half of the couple of help me get water for the crash victims. I get each of them settled in one of the former car-service bays where I had been opening my heart and soul to Merle (and vice versa) just moments before. 

I need to go find the other two cars and take care of those passengers. Just then a stretch pulls up in front of the station, driven by my former girlfriend Lisa — a woman I dated more than 20 years ago and haven’t seen since. I tell her what happened and she immediately parks the car and gets out to help. We find the six people in the second car, but they are wedged in too tightly to easily remove, so we bring them cups of water until we can free them.

Still no sign of the boy.

Then I wake.

Merle Haggard
Let Me Tell You About a Song
1972

Dying / Not Dying

I’d begun losing weight on the run-up to gastric surgery. The change in my controversial girth was noticeable and it was remarkably easy to maintain the pre-op diet. I saw light at tunnel’s end.

This is Part 44 of my Asshole blog.

You can do anything if you know it’s going to end soon. So I quickly developed a taste for protein bars and spoke at length on the virtues of one brand over another. God, I must’ve bored the shit out of people.

I cut back on the beer and, although my diet was far from being a well-balanced ideal, it was helping with the goal: reducing my bulk, so there was less of me on the operating table.

After the surgery, I left the hospital and had the most splendiferous recovery of any of my multitude of medical procedures. The weight fell off in regular intervals. Within four months, I was buying significantly smaller pants — down eight inches. The wall in the kitchen where I measure family height showed another change. I appeared to be getting taller by an inch or two. I suppose it was a change in posture brought on by not carrying additional weight.

There was another possible bodily change about which I was curious.

I’d always struggled with weight. At one point, still in my twenties and living in Bowling Green, Kentucky, I joined Weight Watchers. There were about 85 regular members at the meetings and aside from me, only one male.

That male was an unusual bloke. Feeling outnumbered, we developed a habit of sitting together. He was like a character in a John Updike story. Like the protagonist in Updike’s novel A Month of Sundays, this fellow — Milton was his name, if memory serves — was a pastor who ministered to the women of his flock in secret and carnal ways.

He was much heavier than me and was in a long struggle with his body. I would estimate that when I knew him, he was circling 300 pounds, about ready to land. He’d been in Weight Watchers longer than me and had already lost sixty.

We shared a table and talked about our different lives. I was a young married professor with a new baby at home. He was a single, randy member of the clergy. This is when he bragged, under his breath, about his many physical and spiritual conquests.

“Have you noticed,” he asked, his eyes darting around the room to see if any of the women were in earshot, “that for every twenty pounds you lose, you gain an inch of your manhood?” The way he studied me from under his eyebrows told me that this was his main motivation for weight loss.

I lost about forty pounds during that Weight Watchers stretch. After gastric surgery, I lost 85 pounds and unfortunately can neither confirm nor deny that in either case the horny pastor’s speculation on genitilia was accurate.

I think about him now and then and wonder if he’s still alive, or if he was discovered by the husbands of his flock and summarily plucked.

Despite that relative disappointment, I had no complaints about other changes in my body. I’d often overcompensated by purchasing too-large clothes, even when I was at my biggest. I now floated in my garments and began to enjoy buying smaller shirts, going from an XXL in some clothes down to an L, and — in one shirt at least — an M.

The body changes helped my sleep apnea. Soon, I not only set aside my C-PAP machine, but I began sleeping straight through the night.

The hernia too seemed to go away.

The knee was another story. I wasn’t carrying as much weight, so the walking was easier. But Dr. Ghushe said two out of three wasn’t bad and that I should see an orthopedist. I did and we tried cortisone shots and physical therapy, with little result.

My mother had left me some cash that she wanted me to use to travel. “Take the boys on a trip,” she told me in one of her lucid moments near the end. “Take a real vacation. Show them the world.”

With the boys in Ireland

So two years out from my cancer summer, I arranged for a driving trip through Scotland, England and Ireland. It was a lovely and precious time with the boys. It was life-defining in a lot of ways — and perhaps the subject of a different story. Nothing conveys “I love you” as effectively as a road trip. It’s a nice way of saying, Hey, I love you so much that I want to spend a whole month confined with you in a hurtling piece of machinery. Man, was it great.

But when I came back from traipsing over Europe on two bum knees, I decided that I had to do something. I felt too good to feel so bad. We tried further treatments for several months, then decided we could no longer put off the inevitable.

I scheduled replacement surgery for my right knee in mid-August the year after the European adventure. The week before surgery, I took the boys to Washington, DC — again with the show-them-the-world mantra — and was in horrifying pain from walking. Hiking through the National Zoo, I felt so awful that being heaved to the hyenas would have been a relief.

I was glad to finally have my knee replacement scheduled. I had to go to a lot of classes, watch videos about the surgery and be able to explain the process to civilians. They really wanted me to know what I was getting into.

That was the plan. I would be out of the hospital after two days, with Jack as my live-in caretaker and visiting nurses to help with therapy.

But the moment I came out of the anesthetic, I could tell something was wrong. Though he’d been dead forty years, I could hear my father the surgeon speaking to me: “There’s no such thing as routine surgery.” Every time you introduce anesthetic into your body, dad always said, you’re risking your life.

When I woke in the hospital, I had an odd sensation in that place that was of greatest concern to that carnal pastor from years before. It’s as if it was gone.

When I complained of numbness — something I’d never felt before in that region — following surgery, the nurse said it might be a reaction to the anesthetic.

A day later, everything was fine, except there, down in the valley. Still numb, it seemed that things just weren’t working.

I was sent home catheterized, since I was not functioning on my own.

Physical therapy nurses kept showing up at the house, but they were not conversant with catheters. Jack occupied my mind with endless episodes of The Simpsons — he wanted me to watch all thirty-plus seasons in sequence — and generally fetching things that needed fetching.

Finally, a catheter nurse showed up and removed the catheter. Still, not everything seemed right. In the middle of the night, unable to go, I called the nursing service. A nurse came over at three in the morning and hooked me up again. After the struggle to urinate for a couple of days, the catheter was a relief. A few days later, it was taken out again and a day later needed to be replaced. It was a merry-go-round of urinary equipment.

Soon it was time for Jack to go back to his mother’s. School was starting. I needed to get back to work soon but wondered how that would be possible with this tube and its attendant bag. (A bag — again!)

That’s when the Lost Weekend descended. I still had the catheter and was unable to stay awake. I retired to my room and went into another dimension, one absent of sight and sound but fecund with nightmares and bleached souls of memory.

I writhed in bed with the cold sweats. I woke up once because my son Charley was at my bedside, with his mother standing in the doorway. Was I all right? Did I feel OK? Did I need anything?

Oh no, I babbled. I’m fine. I’m all right.

Sarah with her daughter Pearl. Sarah is wearing one of my mother’s old sweaters.

They left. The next thing I remember: opening my eyes, and seeing my daughter Sarah there. This was the baby from all those years before, in my days with the carnal pastor.

Sarah was a grown woman now and she’d come in from New York. Nicole, standing behind her that night, had picked her up at the airport.

Apparently, by that point, I’d been in bed two full days.

“Dad, are you all right?”

“I’m fine, fine. You didn’t have to come.”

“You don’t look fine.”

I was clammy with sweat, my T-shirt stuck to my body. My face was covered in droplets.

“I’m good,” I said. “Don’t worry about me.”

Pause. “I think you need to go to the emergency room.”

“Don’t be silly. I’m all right. I have my checkup with the knee doctor tomorrow. I’ll talk to her.”

It was around that time that all hell broke loose. To describe it accurately would trigger a lifetime of terrifying dreams for you. Suffice it to say that it involved the part of my body affected by cancer and from that orifice suddenly burst strange rodents and mythical beasts in a Biblical torrent, all to a Wagnerian soundtrack. On the sheets, on the floors, utterly without concern for shame or modesty or any attempt at human control.

I hoped that no one would notice, but of course that was impossible, as the foul waste unrelentingly spewed forth. I set about cleaning my wreckage and staggered naked into my shower stall, to cleanse. I was still unsteady from the surgery and slipped in the shower. I then saw myself from above. I’d become an Escher drawing: a different part of my body filled each corner of the square stall and I could not move.

Befouled, doomed by the evils of geometry, it took the pulling and tugging of strong young Jack McKeen to extricate me from that tiled prison.

By this time, Sarah and Nicole had disposed of all of the bed coverings — there was no possibility of salvation — and Nicole had cleaned the floor and was mopping it with bleach.

I was pretty sure that I had ripped open my knee incisions when I fell, but no blood gushed from that joint. I got into some pajamas and got all parties to agree that I would re-examine my situation the next day after meeting with the orthopedic surgeon.

I promised. Before admitting defeat at the hands of my uncooperative body, I wanted to talk to the doctor.

Sarah said she would sleep in Charley’s room, across the hall from me. Assured, Nicole took the boys and went home.

All night:

I got out of bed every ten minutes, attempted urination, failed, returned to bed.

Sarah[from the doorway] : Dad? Are you all right?

Me: I’m fine, don’t worry, I’m fine.

In the morning, I struggled — at 16 revolutions per minute — to get dressed and prepare for the doctor’s visit.

It was a long night, which is like saying black is dark.

Sarah backed out my car and I stood at the open passenger-side door, reading her the address of the orthopedist’s office so she could plug it into the car’s GPS.

Then I was again — suddenly and without provocation — visited by the strange rodents and mythical beasts, which streamed down the pants leg of my jeans, onto the asphalt, and into my shoes.

“Oh, Jesus, Sarah,” I gasped. I staggered into the garage. “I’m so sorry.” The rodents finished their revolting journey in the darkness, while she stood by the car in the blinding sunlight.

I called to her, giving her the name of the doctor, and she looked up the number, calling the office them from the sanctity of the driveway, cancelling the appointment.

Meanwhile, I extricated myself from my loathsome clothing in the garage, thanking God that there were rags and bath towels on a shelf there. I tossed everything in the garbage, wrapped myself in a towel and told Sarah that I would go through the house, take a shower upstairs, then meet in the family room.

I envisioned an afternoon of sloth and recovery. When I got downstairs, I saw that Sarah had made other plans. She‘d conferred via phone with Nicole and made a decision.

“I called an ambulance, Dad.”

“That wasn’t really necessary,” I said, sinking into the couch. I’d brought down a towel from the linen closet, in order to protect my cheap-ass discount furniture sectional from further degradation.

A few minutes later, the ambulance crew appeared at the back door.

I have two questions:

  1. Why are all emergency medical technicians so darn good looking?
  2. Why must all emergency medical technicians fawn over my daughter?

As long as they were here, I expected the EMT crew to have some interest in me.

They began checking my vitals. I still had a fever. Heart rate was elevated.

Then the questions. I don’t remember the exact questions, but it was something like this:

EMT: Mr. McKeen, what is this? [Holds up set of keys]
ME: [After a thirty-two second pause] Keys?

A few other questions followed — simple questions, with me struggling for answers that were not simple to attain, that required spelunking to the deepest recesses of my brain to find. I’d never felt so lost and stupid.

I’d never been so unable to function, so unable to process the simplest of thoughts, so totally adrift on a sinking raft in a sea of unknowable knowledge.

And I was sinking. I could feel the water up around my ears and into my mouth and finally I realized I was drowning.

I had died before and I felt it coming again.

“I think we need to get you in the ambulance,” the handsomer of the two handsome EMTs said. “Call now,” he told his partner. “Tell them we’re bringing in a 63-year-old male, disoriented, dehydrated, high fever — hundred and three. Possible septic shock.”

That got my attention. The EMTs snapped the stretcher together, strapped me to it and carried me out into the front yard.

Bill McKeen’s Dream

Reader’s Digest used to have a feature called “My Most Unforgettable Character.” When Sonny Bono died, Cher delivered the eulogy and said that Sonny was her nominee for that role.

This is Part 42 of my Asshole memoir.

Mine is Jerome Laizure. I knew him for only four years in the mid-eighties. We wrote or called only sporadically in the years after I moved away from Oklahoma, but he was always on my mind.

He ran the printing operation of the Oklahoma Daily during my years teaching journalism at the University of Oklahoma. His office was on the other side of the building, and we’d often hang out in the no-man’s-land in between, in the journalism school’s main lobby.

Jerry

Jerry was fearless. The man had no filter, and I loved him for that.

“Hey, Jerry,” I’d say. “Ed Carter wants to talk to you.”

“Well, he can just kiss my cracked ass,” Jerry’d say in that deep-gut twang.

Didn’t matter who was standing within earshot. Jerry was Jerry and he said whatever was on his mind. He never worried about what people thought. He was ill-disposed to kiss any ass on the planet.

He was one of the strongest, most ethical people I ever knew.

I realize that this kiss-my-cracked-ass thing doesn’t endear him to you, but context is everything. You had to be there. He was a Picasso of profanity. I should solicit our shared friends for more examples of his brilliance with blue language, which put him in the same rarefied and profane air as Hunter S. Thompson. But even if I compiled a three-volume catalog of his swears, it would detract from what I want to say.

Rough on the surface, he was unsentimentally sentimental. He could go zero-to-60 with curses in record time. Above and beyond these theatrical qualities, he was an intelligent, sincere and wise dude. He shepherded scores of students into careers as journalists and was, during a difficult time in my life, my conscience and my great friend.

He left the university and started a weekly newspaper in a nearby small town and later went on to a distinguished career in photojournalism. I was gone by then, but could still admire his work. If anything happened in Oklahoma — and lots of things did that made the national magazines — look at the photo credit. Good chance it was Jerry’s work.

He and I were about the same age and so I have to say that when he died some years back, he was much too young. Much.

He’d been dealing with a number of health issues and in our infrequent communiqués, he’d tell me of all the things he could no longer do.

His death was a shock to me, but perhaps not so to those closest to him. He was not tall, but still managed to be a towering figure, larger than life. I didn’t understand how fragile he was.

He was deeply loved. When he died, his Facebook page turned into a tribute, a virtual temple of bouquets left by those whose lives he touched. In the days after his death, I’d look at his page every few hours, to read the new bouquets left by friends. The family posted pictures of the funeral, and his children wrote about how fortunate they were to have him as a father.

A week or so after his death, I checked his Facebook page on a Sunday night. Peggy, his wife — now widow, I suppose — had posted: “Damn it, Jerry. Where’d you leave the remote?”

Man, they loved each other, and they set a high bar. We should all be so lucky to have a relationship like theirs.

Jerry in 2012, near the end

Back in the old days, back in the eighties when our children were small, I used to love to hear Jerry talk about his kids. “I got three,” he’d say. “One of each: a boy, a girl, and Jackson.”

Maybe that’s a subliminal reason I have a son named Jackson. (I’d been pushing for Elvis, and the family history is murky on how he became Jackson, but Jerry’s son might be the reason I didn’t put up a fuss when the name was suggested.)

Jerry’s death shook me as much as a death in my biological family. There were few pre-cancer times when I had such a sense of fragility.

I hadn’t seen him in years, but he was there, in my head, and at the other end of the keyboard when we’d exchange messages.

I’d moved away to Florida and always wanted him to come visit, telling him to bring the family, to stay at my house, and have a cheap-ass trip to Disney World. He said he’d come, but it never happened. He was always working.

I wanted to take myself back to the old days, when Jerry would saunter across the lobby to my office. I was doing a term as assistant director of the school, stuck in an windowless box in the administrative suite. I’d hear the outer door open, but couldn’t see who was there. Then I’d hear him gently growl at the receptionist.

“Is that useless dipshit in?” He was from Bartlesville and had an oilfield twang. The receptionist giggle would follow, no doubt accompanied by her finger pointing toward my office.

Then he’d darken my door: “Are we going to eat or what?”

So we’d amble across the street — Jerry never went anywhere with dispatch — to our local burger joint, the appropriately named Mister Bill’s. We had the menu memorized and each day had a different special — the California Burger, the Grandma Burger, the Salsa Burger and so on. We ordered in kind and, now and then, committed that work-day sin of a lunch-time beer.

Those long lunches and conversations were my graduate education in human studies. Jerry was so much smarter than me when it came to understanding our fellow beings and their psychology. I wrote about people and what they did, but Jerry seemed to know what people would do before they did it, before even they knew what they would do.

The beautiful University of Oklahoma campus

Those afternoons at Mister Bill’s were my Paris in the Twenties or my Algonquin roundtable, but with a limited cast of characters. Jerry and I never tired of talking or ran out of subjects to consider, or world problems we were called upon to solve. We were fine on our own, but now and then we’d ask someone else along.

Of course we’d eat, but the point of the meal was to share time, that most precious of commodities.

When I think of childhood dinnertimes, I don’t think of the food — though both of my parents took great pleasure in cooking. I think of the time spent.

At the time, lunch with Jerry was lunch with Jerry. Only later, decades later, did I realize what Lunch With Jerry had meant.

He always busted my chops. He’d see my empty plate and do a double take worthy of Curly in a Three Stooges two reeler.

“McKeen, you don’t fuckin’ eat — you inhale.”

Mister Bill’s, now out of business

What I wouldn’t give to have him good-naturedly berating me right now. He always used the expression “stacking shit.” So he would want me to say what I miss is him stacking shit on me.

Yeah, that’s more Jerry-worthy.

What I want to say: Eating is more than nourishing our bodies. We show our humanity across the table, and over food. We break bread. We dine with friends. We talk. We show our love.

I find myself thinking of the song “Bob Dylan’s Dream”:

How many a year has passed and gone?
Many a gamble has been lost and won
And many a road taken by many a first friend
And each one I’ve never seen again


I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat
I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like tha
t

Jerry has been gone for years now. I’m here in the kitchen. The boys are with their mother tonight and this large house is too quiet. It’s raining outside and I stand over the sink in the pathetic dance that we single men do — eating, standing up, trying not to make a mess, trying not to dirty a dish. Now, with my innards rearranged, I no longer have the capacity for a meal. I eat only to stay alive.

The gastric surgery has changed my life, and quickly. Eating too fast or too much means pain. My new body can’t do the job my old body used to do. I must retrain this carcass yet again.

I’ll figure it out, but these first weeks are hard, especially as I stand there at the window, doing the single-man dinner dance I thought I’d left behind.

I think about the great meals of my life — at an open-air bar in the Florida Keys, a table in the courtyard of Joe Garcia’s in Fort Worth, the upstairs at Commander’s Palace, or a long-gone burger joint in Norman, Oklahoma — and think about those moments and those friends and think those are the moments that will unspool (assuming I get the chance for that final midnight showing) on my deathbed.

I wish, I wish, I wish in vain that we could sit simply in that room again

Yet here I am — standing over the kitchen sink, alone.

What I want to say:

Eating is more than nourishing our bodies. We show our humanity across the table and over food.

We break bread. We dine with friends. We talk.

We show our love.