Monday, November 16, 2020



Dallas, August 2016

I knew it would be a tedious trek but I did not count on just how tedious and depressing and surreal but what better place to free-fall into the depths of depression than Dealey Plaza in Dallas where a U.S. President was so brutally slain more than half-a-century-ago; a place where the direction of the USA was diabolically diverted into decline.

The three-hour drive from Austin feels like six, the road flat and dry with the unmerciful hot trying to penetrate our air-conditioned bubble through every crack or just by broiling the windshield.  

The Dallas skyline finally appears and a jumble of highways suck us, the artist Van Stein and me, into its “historic” downtown.

Moments later, before we know what hit us, we’re smack outside the Texas State Depository from which Lee Harvey Oswald supposedly shot President John F. Kennedy as he rode in an open limousine down Elm Street.

We ascend to the sixth floor, now a museum, though the only real “attraction” is the corner window from which Oswald may have concealed himself, taken aim and shot.

We descend and alight from the building to inspect the infamous grassy knoll.  

So-called “conspiracy theorists” have long speculated this mound to be the true location from which a shooter stood.  

It is certainly closer to an “X” permanently taped onto Elm Street marking the spot where Kennedy took a fatal head shot, a trajectory that makes far more sense than Oswald’s distant perch from on high and consistent with a frontal bullet impact, as graphically captured by Zapruder’s infamous eight-millimeter film.

Walking around the Museum Café and Gift Shop full of cheap souvenirs from China this thought reverberates around my aching skull:  

Put him on a fifty-cent piece (as they did in 1964, the last year of silver coinage before LBJ undermined U.S. currency) and they’ll get over it.

I’m not over it.  I’m depressed.  

Which is exactly what I am supposed to be this day, the fourth stage of midlife crisis, what this summer trip to Texas is all about.

Dallas does not disappoint. 

During the mid-1970s I became obsessed with the JFK assassination, which I attribute to mild ADHD.   

My quest for knowledge, which came late (customary for ADHD enjoyers, who only switch on around the age of 20 when most others switch off), focused on the forbidden, the mystical, the esoteric, sparked by research into the Kennedy assassination.

At some point, I created a montage on poster board of images that emphasized conspiracy theory over lone-nut whitewash and I showed it to my father, the artist, looking for commendation.  

What I got was the exact opposite.    

“You’ve got to get over that,” he said.  

And he was right.  

Not just for my own sanity but because all of human history is, as Napoleon put it, “a pack of lies agreed upon.”

And so, finally, here in Dallas, I let it go (try to anyway).

Earlier, in Austin, I went looking for the third-stage of midlife crisis: anger.

I found it at the LBJ Presidential Library, where we're supposed to learn how Johnson anguished over Vietnam, no mention of his Texas cronies profiting on armaments and war support services while millions of lives on both sides were extinguished, countless more lives destroyed through drug addiction or losing loved ones, no mention of the so-called domino effect and how Johnson lectured the American public that if we didn’t take a stand in Vietnam the rest of Southeast Asia would fall and Communist combatants would roll up on the shores of Hawaii.  

David Halberstam called those Kennedy academics who went on to mis-advise Johnson The Best and the Brightest.

Even the worst and the dimmest might have done a better job.

Needless to say, no mention of napalm, of Rolling Thunder, the sustained bombing campaign that cost money, lives and led to America, for the first time in history, losing a war (albeit one it never should have fought).

An exhibition on the assassination of JFK glosses over the horror that allowed Johnson to move into the White House—and actually glorifies the findings of the long-since disgraced Warren Commission.

But what truly causes the bile in my stomach to revolt is a serial on a TV screen showing something called Times of 1957-1965.

An old TV commercial advertising Alka-Seltzer immediately follows JFK's  delivery of the most inspiring line of his inaugural address...

This is not a memorial library but a hellacious monument to whitewash and prevarication.

Anger realized, before noon.

Here are two pics illustrating LBJ's legacy you won't see at his Library:

Here's how the rest of that midlife crisis trip to Texas played out, before and after DEPRESSION and ANGER:

Okay, so maybe renewal is about mid-life crisis. 

And though I’m quite likely beyond mid-life, let’s face it, sixty is the new forty, which means I fit very rationally (as in rationalizing) into the first of six stages of mid-life crisis:  DENIAL.

I’d been thinking I should embark on a marathon cross-country road trip to complete this spiritual odd-yssey yet the more I get around to planning it, the less enthusiastic I become about the prospect of eight days on the road doing generic interstate without quality time in any one locale.

Rationalizing this further, I decide to abbreviate my trek on the basis that I’d already covered the first third—from Santa Barbara to Texas—on previous road trips, right?  

So why not fly to Texas and carry on east, take in New Orleans with its voodoo culture and famed cemeteries (a metaphor for death) and roll to St. Augustine on the Atlantic coast in Florida where Ponce de Leon discovered the Fountain of Youth (a metaphor for rebirth).  

Yet the deeper my research into Austin, my intended first stop, and its “Sixth Street live music scene,” the more I rationalize that this city’s historic downtown and nightly live music is an ideal setting all on its own for renewal; about re-experiencing young adulthood in a music and merriment zone, or REPLAY, the second stage of mid-life crisis. 

And what better time to REPLAY than mid-summer, which is supposed to set you free.

Tagline:  Mid-summer, midlife, writer and artist (Van Stein) flux off like snakes shedding skin to renew their lives.

“It’s going to be filthy hot,” says Thomas Sanchez over coffee at Starbucks in Montecito, trying to divert me northward toward Seattle or Vancouver. 

But the Pacific Northwest sounds awfully sedate, just the kind of summer trip a sexagenarian would take—and what’s summer without hot weather?  

And though I friggin’ hate the heat, I think of Native American sweat camps and saunas and how heat is revered for its healthful and spiritual qualities to detoxify the body and boost endorphins, a natural purge that, like snake skin-shedding, ultimately leads to… renewal!

Thus, on the second day of August, just over a year since I began this manuscript, Van Stein launch by air to Austin.

American Airlines has a long-winded boarding ritual with more stages than midlife crisis, starting with Platinum members, then Gold members, Emerald members, Priority members and Armed Service Veterans before reaching Group One, Group Two and Group Three, finally getting around to our category, Cheese-its.

The Big Seedy, we soon discover, is not just hot but grimy, like most American cities, having grown (and still growing) without any kind of building oversight—aesthetics and community-planning shot to hell, like cancer cells run amok.

The historic and reputedly haunted Hotel Driskill offers refuge and provides novelty when I opt for their LBJ Suite just for the hell of it because a) it’s available for one night only and b) they offer me a super-duper discount and c) with Lyndon Baines Johnson it’s definitely the hell of it.  

This is where the old bull-crapper stayed when visiting Austin and also the room in which he watched the 1964 election returns roll in and I sure hope his ghost lives here because I’d like to give it a swift kick in the ass.

The artist and I park ourselves at the Driskill’s famed bar to absorb the vibe and clink their house cocktail, Bluebonnet (Tito’s vodka, Crème de Violette, St. Germaine).

It’s already dark out when we take our first run at “Dirty Sixth,” the temperature hovering around 93- degrees, a night illuminated by colorful neon signage and rock bands competing with conflicting sound waves and booze barkers trying to drum up biz (“Two dollars a shot!”) 

At Bobalu we light cigars and evade beggars while searching for a speakeasy called Midnight Cowboy where a hostess slams the door in our face.

“I think we just experienced DENIAL,” I say to Van Stein.

Thus, feeling dejected and old, the Driskill's bar provides refuge for the artist and me from tattooed and pierced youngsters to drown denial with fine pinot noir while Van Stein stick's to his story about possessing the eternal child.

To celebrate the third stage of midlife crisis—REPLAY—we rent a car and roll west, a summer road trip, past towns with LBJ libraries, LBJ schools, LBJ this, LBJ that… and then we get to Johnson City.  

Needless to say, this is no one’s destination of choice and not ours either, headed as we are to a town called Fredericksburg, said to be an artist’s enclave.


Tagline:  Here, kitschy-kitschy.

Even worse, almost everything that looks to be vintage Americana is a Made in China reproduction.

Beer gardens complete the picture in Fritztown, so nick-named by the Germans who settled this place and continue to prepare food as they did in Prussia 150 years ago—so thank God or Mother Nature for the sweetest peaches I ever tasted from a roadside stand as we head toward Devil’s Backbone through Texas hill country, past Purgatory Road and into a town that should be called Gift-Shop-From-Hell for all its trinkets and trash.

Onto Lockhart, “The Barbecue Capital of Texas,” for brisket, potato salad and beans, which we try to walk off poking around a vast vintage shop that goes on forever; no one there except a sole shopkeeper relentlessly babbling about everything being subject to one type of discount or another though there isn’t one damn thing worth buying.  

“We’ve got three more warehouses full of things,” she babbles on.

The experience leaves me not only psychically drained but also mentally depressed, which means that the third stage of midlife crisis has arrived ahead of schedule. 

That's when we went to Dallas for DEPRESSION.

But not before a redux of REPLAY:

To emphasize my advanced age, an old friend from high school turns up and reminds me it’s been 43 years since we last hung out together. 

So together we hang at Franklin Barbecue for a lunch of brisket, potato salad and coleslaw and I realize Texas barbecue is just a Jewish deli on steroids (the beans).

That evening Van Stein and I need to prove to ourselves we are good enough, young enough, for the speakeasy that denied us entry the evening before.

We go through the same ritual but this time—having asked our concierge to reserve a table—we transit past the threshold guardian at Midnight Cowboy and slide into a black leather booth to sip Vespers. 

Turns out we hadn’t missed much.

Our next stop is Pete’s Dueling Piano Bar, which offers free therapy:  

Singing along to songs we actually know. 

Upon returning from Dallas next night, dusty and disheveled and depressed, Van Stein and I commiserate at the Driskill bar where a dry martini and our chatter leads me to a new idea for a novel that would necessitate a visit to Sausalito and so weary we are by now of Texas and its incessant heat and everything LBJ that the artist suggests we jump on a plane and go straight there, get it done—and I’m ready to roll with that.

And then everything changes—our new plan, our depressive disposition—when a pretty young woman from Venezuela suddenly swings from her perch at the bar and engages us in conversation having discerned that our pathetic selves need to be saved from our secure box in the Driskill, saved from Sixth Street, perhaps saved in general and thus this siren takes us under her wing, guiding us from our protective shell into the night.

The blues are alive and well at Eddie Vs, where we are joined by a guy—someone who’d been talking to our siren earlier—and everything’s just dandy until he gets snarky about something she says, just a throwaway comment about how in life you have this kind of person and that kind of person that he misinterprets as some kind of insult to himself.

I’m not in the mood for conflict (in this case between he and himself) so I steal away under the guise of a call on my cell phone and walk aimlessly through the streets. 

Eventually I run into a panhandler on the Driskill’s steps and I rump my rear next to him, ask about the path that led him here.  

Greg, from Indiana, explains how as a young adult he’d gotten arrested and prosecuted for possessing marijuana and cocaine, sentenced to ten years in prison, served four—and thereafter could not climb out the hole that got dug for him.  

The stigma of being a felon and an ex-con had reduced him to a life on the street, day-jobs, earning about $160 a week, relying on handouts for food and coffee. 

In the midst of our conversation three chunky uniformed officers from Austin’s finest approach us with faces and body language full of menace to demand we move on.  

This is a first for me and I’m merely amused by the oinks and their aggressive stance, yet this is normal for Greg; what he expects as part of his daily rituals.

“Tell them you’re staying in the LBJ suite!” chirps Van Stein, who reappears on the scene with our siren beside him.

Our trio journeys on into the night, The Elephant Room, a basement jazz club—and then the Rainey neighborhood, rows of craftsmen houses transformed into bars and cafes and restaurants, a scene full of joy, vibrancy, color… not unlike a dream I had when I visited Mount Shasta on one of my road trips.

The siren has an effect on my psyche because that night I dream of her, of being in a place called Venema, which in my dream is her hometown and I’m meeting her parents, falling in love with her and she disappears and I’m looking all around Venema for her and deep inside my heart I know I’ll never see her again.

Sirens are like that. 

I guess this was my midlife crisis fling, if only in a dream. 

And given the nature of my mystical odd-yssey, perhaps more poetic that way.

I could have stayed in my room all day with the curtains drawn and sulked about lost love to fully experience WITHDRAWAL, the penultimate stage of midlife crisis and such a scenario is certainly tempting after four hellishly hot days.

Instead we roll to a nondescript strip mall in a nondescript part of Austin to a shop called Ancient Mysteries, where I exercise bibliomancy and open a book titled Dreams to a page at random:

During sleep, when the conscious mind lies dormant, departed loved ones find this time is excellent to enter and talk to you via your dreams… a very special way in which those who were close to you in life will be able to contact you after they have passed to “the other side.”

Lunch is at the iconic Hoover Cooking to try Austin's signature 
dish, chicken-fried steak, which isn't chicken at all but a cheap cut of beef battered and fried and served with thick milk gravy, candied yams and fried okra (a heart attack special not worth the risk).

So now I’m wishing I’d stayed in my room and drawn the curtains and at this point I’m not planning to venture from the Driskill bar even though Van Stein plans to paint the bats when they swarm from the underside of South Congress Bridge 15 minutes before sunset.

I change my mind, make my way to the Colorado River where the artist is already laying an undercoat and at 8:05 on the dot a 1,500,000 bats awaken and fly off in waves, heading east.  

I’ve only ever associated bats with Halloween and vampires so this is a cool learning experience and a message from the universe to pay attention to bats, an Austin phenomenon I’d not known till deep into this trip.

That night I dream I have the ability to take giant steps and hover above ground, defying gravity.  

Upon awakening I enquire into the dream symbolism of levitation:  

Lifting up your emotions and thoughts beyond normal to benefit the spiritual state, enlightenment.

And that’s how I feel this day, returning home, the sixth and last stage of midlife crisis:  

ACCEPTANCE (the same word I wrote in caps in my journal in 1972 after being blown away by Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan).

I pop bats into a search engine and learn that these winged mammals (who most people regard as creepy) symbolize death and rebirth because, after “going inside” to roost, they emerge at dusk “from the womb of mother Earth.

If the bat has been "flying" into your life as an animal totem, this symbolizes great intuition and utilizing your sensitivities to explore the world around you. The Native Americans sought the bat for its connection to the "other world.”  If this animal totem has appeared to you in your dreams or in waking life perhaps it is a sign that it is time for you to go within. It might be time to take some time off and go on a vacation and bring a journal with you as a way of becoming quiet and allowing your true self to speak... and explore your inner demon.

And though I'd hoped this midlife adventure in Texas would conclude a much longer mystical journey initiated by my father in a dream, I realize it’s not over yet.  

The timing of this message itself is an exercise in synchronicity:  

One week before launching to Austin I had booked a family stay in Sedona, the same mystical locale in northern Arizona where we’d vacationed just before I rediscovered the notes about my father’s dream visit, a discovery that launched this quest.

One year, full circle. 

Take some time off, a vacation, become quiet and explore your inner demon...