Choo, choo

We spent a week at Rancho LaPuerta over the Christmas holiday.

It started last summer under the massive oak tree that has been resting peacefully for some two hundred years in front of Jackie’s house in the Arbolada. Sitting in the two comfy chairs beneath its canopy, the blessed silence was interrupted with a question from Jackie, “Would you like to spend a week at Rancho LaPuerta?”

Recovering from my semi-stupor, I suggested that the answer to her question required some additional information, “What is Rancho LaPorta?”

“LaPuerta, LaPuerta, not LaPorta” she admonished. “LaPuerta means door while LaPorta means porthole.” Thank goodness for her spot-on translation. Spending a week squeezed into a porthole was definitely not my idea of fancy travelling.

Further interrogation revealed that Rancho LaPuerta is an upscale fitness spa located in Tecate, Mexico, about an hour’s drive from the San Diego airport. So far so good. Additionally, the spa served real food instead of the Bugs Bunny diet enjoyed by Jackie at her regular stomping grounds, the Optimum Health Institute. I was sold enough to suggest a phone call to the spa.

Jackie is not one to postpone tasks. Once assigned, they are quickly disposed of. Grasping her iPhone X with those cute little fingers, she deftly connected to the Rancho. Ten minutes later, my Visa card’s available balance surviving on fumes, we were booked into the Rancho.

Conveniently, Jackie’s plans immediately prior to our Rancho excursion included a one week visit to Optimum Health in San Diego. She would drive to OHI. I would then meet her in San Diego, drive her car to the San Diego airport and take the Rancho’s private bus from there to the Mexican border. To get to San Diego, I could fly from LAX, or take the Amtrak train from Ventura.

Ever since our trip to Costa Rica, I have had sufficient time to hone my dislike of airports and airplanes. The opportunity of a relaxing trip on the train was too tempting to pass up. Checking the Amtrak schedule, I found a 7:30am departure from Ventura that, five and a half hours later, would deposit me in San Diego more than two hours ahead of the Rancho’s bus trip from the airport to the border. Enough time for Jackie to scoop me up from the train and dump us at the airport. It was the last scheduled Rancho bus trip of the day, Missing the bus would cause complications too horrible to contemplate. And my Spanish is not so good, por favor.

I booked a seat on Amtrak 768. And over the next few weeks, I endured the horror stories related to me by the hapless souls who had banked on Amtrak to get them where they needed to be, yet failed miserably. No matter, surely I would be the exception to the rule.

Joy is Ojai’s airport and train station driver of choice. A delightfully gabby woman who combines wit with daredevil driving, she picked me up at 6:35am on departure day. It was Saturday and traffic on the 33 was almost non-existent. The uneventful trip brought us to the Ventura train station twenty minutes ahead of schedule. Piece of cake.

Except for an overhang, the train platform is exposed to the elements. But twenty minutes on a chilly morning seemed like a doable wait. Rolling my suitcase up the platform ramp, I deposited myself in a spot where the sun offered some warmth. There’s a digital time display on the platform that also informs riders of train arrival time. It said Train 768 will be twenty minutes late. I quickly calculated that I now had less than two hours of leeway before I would run out of time. My pulse reacted from the adrenaline rush. Then my logic took over and said “It’s only twenty minutes late, dummy. Not to worry.”

I stared at the clock as it ticked down 768’s arrival time. Then, without so much as a by your leave, the display blanked out and returned with a new arrival time…8:10am. Another twenty minutes charged to my declining spare time balance. Like a watched pot, I’m convinced that the digital clock moved ever slower as I gazed at it. Minutes seemed like hours. My life passed before my eyes.

768 arrived at 8:25, nearly an hour late. Hoping I had seen the worst, I hopped aboard, stowed my bag and found a window seat that gave me full view of the surroundings as we passed and stopped at too many stations. Oxnard, Camarillo, Moorpark, Simi Valley, Chatsworth, Van Nuys. Was there a place on earth that this train was not going to stop? At each stop I mentally shoved the passengers on and off the train, hoping to gain back some precious minutes.

And then the conductor said, “We will be making an equipment change in Los Angeles.” A what? What’s wrong with this equipment, I thought. It’s been good enough to get us this far. Why not just keep things the way they are? I’ve got no time to spare. I’ve got to catch a bus.

And so we changed equipment. Amtrak employees wandered around the train platform like lost sheep. And I lost the last remaining hour of my spare time. Not yet finished teasing me, 768 lost another twenty minutes on the last leg of the journey. I started practicing my Spanish. Donde esta el banyo?

I had been texting Jackie, keeping her updated on our lack of progress, my accelerating heart rate and my rising blood pressure. Poor sweetheart, she had been waiting anxiously at the train station like a war-time wife. When I did arrive, she embraced me like a soldier returning home from the Battle of the Bulge. Her iPhone was hot to the touch from pleading with the bus company to delay their departure.

She drove to the airport like a woman possessed, only to see the bus already making its way to the Mexican border. It was, like in the movies, all I could do to stop her from blocking the twenty-ton bus with her tiny car.

And I thought, where was Mussolini when you really needed him?

 

Bargain Hotel

I hadn’t been up to the Bay Area since Ila died. It was time.

On December 30, Jackie and I returned from a week in Tecate, Mexico. That gave us two days to do laundry, spend New Year’s eve with friends and then hop back in the car for the seven hour drive to Berkeley on New Year’s day.

Highway 101 seemed very retro and uncrowded. The sun shone on the rolling hills and I felt the increasing anticipation of a visit too long postponed. Jackie made the trip even more enjoyable as I often glanced at her next to me, bundled up in a tight little package of loveliness.

We had originally planned to stay at Berkeley’s Claremont hotel. A staid, posh establishment that has stood the years gracefully and elegantly. But eleven hundred dollars plus extras for two nights’ lodging seemed like extravagance run amok.

Enlisting son David in my search for comfortable lodging at a reasonable price, he suggested the Durant Hotel near the University. A google search revealed that the hotel had been re-christened the Graduate Berkeley. Booking a room at a fraction of the Claremont’s budget busting rates took little effort.

We arrived at the hotel mid-afternoon and entered a lobby that seemed eerily devoid of other human beings. A relatively dark interior, coupled with comfortable but out-of-style furniture, added to the feeling that we had been transported to the mansion featured in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. A kindly desk clerk, without a hump, took my credit card, handed us two keys and pointed to the one operating elevator; the other being out of service for the foreseeable future.

Before schlepping our bags to our room, we did a whirlwind tour of the lobby and environs. The restaurant was cold, both in appearance and temperature. No problem, as the University campus is populated by a flotilla of eating establishments. The twenty-four-hour fitness center, which appeared cavernous on the hotel’s website, contained one elliptical machine, one treadmill and one other multi-purpose device that might have seen service in the Spanish Inquisition. And it too was cold.

Finishing our tour, and yet to encounter another guest, we rode the elevator to the sixth floor, found room 623 and entered a suite that could best be described as quaint. Unable to pass each other in the aisle separating the bed from the wall, we adopted a you first methodology that prevented serious injury. An inspection of the bathroom brought back childhood memories of my parent’s Chicago apartment in Albany Park. The floor was covered by those same tiny white hexagon tiles that look like it took forever to create. The sink (no double plumbing here) seemed designed for Lilliputians. Brushing one’s teeth would prove to be a challenge, focused on preventing a flood of biblical proportions.

I did the usual manly inspection of the heating and air conditioning system. The room had one of those units mounted high up on the wall. The kind you wave your hand at above your head to see if the unit is running, much less delivering the proper air flow. I eyed the thermostat on the wall and did the usual random clicking. There appeared to be only two settings, off and cooling. Surely, I thought, there must be a heat setting. After several dozen repetitive clicks that predictably produced the same results, I cast aside my manliness and phoned the front desk.

“Hi, I’m cold and can’t seem to get the wall unit to dispense any life-sustaining warmth.” The same young man who had directed us away from the non-functioning elevator said, “The wall unit does not dispense heat.” He continued, “There is a radiator in the corner of the room. It delivers heat.”

I had noted the radiator in question but had dismissed it as merely an historic artifact, abandoned in favor of the 1980’s wall unit. The type of radiator that had last been seen at my Bar Mitzvah, celebrated in my parent’s Albany Park apartment. Surely he was jesting about delivering heat through this potentially explosive device. Silly me.

The young man continued, “You just crank the knob at the end of the radiator to regulate the heat.” Feeling I had little choice, I surrendered and said, “Thanks, my mother would be pleased with my newfound skill.” But the young man was not finished. “The heat will only be available at 5:30 this afternoon and every afternoon.” At first, I thought he was joking or pretending we were subject to some sort of World War II rationing. Then I realized he was quite serious.

It was now 4pm and I said, “But I’m cold now. By 5:30 I will have frostbite. You will be responsible for the maiming of an old, cold man who had only asked for a little heat to ward off the aging process.” The young man relented, “I can send up a space heater.” He did, and I stayed very close to it, and to Jackie.

The Claremont seemed like a bargain.

Yoga Music

A month ago, I took a series of four yoga classes at Ojai Yoga Shala on Matilija Street just across of Java and Joe.

Before leaping into it, I read the material on the Shala website where I became cautious when I saw the names of the various classes. Earth Chakra Workshop, Soulful Sunday, Vinyasa and, my favorite, Sweet Vinyasa. Most seemed too challenging. And then I found Gentle Flow and was hooked. It was designed for guys like me. Old, a little creaky and with a C-minus in flexibility.

I threw caution to the wind and, despite a won’t-go-away shoulder problem, I put myself into the hands of the Shala’s Alana Mitnick. She deftly guided me through the basics and left me feeling like I had almost mastered the first one percent of the mysteries of Yoga. The most difficult part of the evening involved exiting Shala’s dimly lit building without embarrassing myself by falling down those pesky steps that are designed to further shorten a senior’s active career.

My aging eyes are no match for moonless nights. They can be a recipe for disaster when coupled with Ojai’s insistence on the obliteration of outside lighting that might ruin the delights of viewing the evening skies. Enhancing one’s viewing pleasure also runs counter to Ojai’s other predilections of sharing the road with bicycle riders, and the leap-before-you-look mindset adopted by the I-challenge-you pedestrians who death defyingly enter the street within or without a crosswalk. Dueling with a two-ton mass of metal is a favorite hobby for many locals.

Last week, furthering my yoga career and taking full advantage of my house which hasn’t seen a prospective home buyer since the Armistice, Jackie planned and delivered a two-hour yoga retreat that attracted twenty-three yogis. The attendees included a number of what appeared to be pre-teens, as well as buffed out young men and lithe, charming young women. I had the over-fifty category all to myself.

The yoga part of the evening was led by Tiffany, a young lass with a soft voice and a matching demeanor. Since it was my home that Jackie had donated to the event, I was invited to participate in the session. I asked Tiffany, “Is this going to be a gentle flow session or do I need to ask my mother if I’m allowed to join in?” She smiled and said, “Not to worry, I will be kind and you won’t suffer.” She should have appended the word “much.”

I found a cloistered spot next to Jackie and unrolled my yoga mat. I have always wondered if there is a correct side to the mat. However, given my beginner status, it probably doesn’t matter. My tush firmly grounded, the games began. It was no surprise to discover that I could barely hear the posing instructions emanating from sweet Tiffany’s mouth. My declining ability to hear the high-end of the sound spectrum matches my inability to see well in dark surroundings.

If I had been an accomplished yogi, I probably could have figured out Tiffany’s commands. It was not to be and I resorted to watching those around me for clues. This only succeeded in over stretching my neck and produced an annoying ache that fit in nicely with my aging eyes and diminished hearing.

Being a nanosecond behind the young, lithe bodies surrounding me only added to my discomfort. By the time I figured out what Tiffany was saying, the group had already moved to the next yoga pose. I’m quite sure my poses bore little resemblance to the real thing but I probably shouldn’t have worried since I was unable to perform most of the poses anyway. I merely grunted and moped while others twisted their bodies in ways that surely must delight chiropractors.

The Down Dog pose is pretty much just a push-up. Something that I gave up in my first year of college. However, looking for some degree of accomplishment, I did what seemed to be several dozen Down Dogs. And I further injured my left shoulder in doing so. After what seemed like a fortnight of yoga, blessed relief arrived in the form of laying flat on my mat, not stretching anything, and just being inert as I mentally inventoried my body parts.

And then it began. Cello music. Tiffany had invited a friend to end the two-hour session with his cello. An accomplished musician, Jeremy had spent many years in the pit at New York’s Metropolitan. He moved to Ojai a week before last year’s Thomas Fire and was now a composer. His choice of music for our yoga retreat was perfect. Robust but calming, it enriched us all.

Lying on my back, staring at the dim ceiling lights, with only the cello making itself known, added a bit of mystery to the night. Confirmed by Jeremy, the acoustics were wonderful. I had never heard them before in this great room. It was as though a new chapter had been added to my life with this house. The music ended, people arose and smiled. Not just a dutiful smile, it was spontaneous and heartfelt.

I asked Jeremy if we could do this again, maybe without the Down Dogs.

Coffee with Norm

I hadn’t seen Norm in almost two years. And then on Wednesday I bumped into him in the dairy aisle at Vons.

I had to look twice to be sure it was him. Older and grayer, he carried himself with a bit of a stoop and a little shuffle in his gait. Always kind-hearted and sensitive, his somewhat older persona fit his indelible character.

We had once been very active in the Ojai photography milieu but both of us had mostly abandoned that activity for reasons that could not be clearly enunciated by either of us. Norm had a creative streak that produced some clever and cutting-edge photos. He was one of the first to create photos without the benefit of a camera. This novel idea led to a discussion some ten years ago about whether his artwork was truly a “photo” that met the requirements for submission to the annual Ojai Art Center photo contest. It did, and it won.

Norm was kind enough to send me an email the day after our Von’s tryst that told me how much he enjoyed our brief conversation surrounded by the milk, butter and sour cream. I wrote back and, with some hesitancy, asked him if he’d like to have a cup of coffee. I knew that the death of his wife, Phyllis, nearly three years ago coincided with his withdrawal from the art scene and I wondered if he might not respond to my invitation. But he did, quickly, and we settled on Java and Joe at nine o’clock two days later.

I was already sipping my usual dark roast coffee with Splenda and cream when Norm arrived, right on time. No surprise, since he was always punctual. A lot like me, Norm did not crave the center of attention and tended to cede the podium to those more verbose than he. I hoped we’d have enough to talk about before my coffee cup was empty.

I felt a bit awkward when I told him of my engagement to Jackie. Due to what seemed a reclusive demeanor, I had assumed that Norm had not fully recovered from the death of his wife, dear Phyllis. Also talented, she had been both a prolific artist and an art teacher. Conducting classes at the Art Center, she had a large following. Her illness had gradually robbed Phyllis of her ability to continue in her usual mode. So, she moved the classes to their home. Then, as she became frailer, she employed the computer and on-line instruction. Norm told me about the last year of her life when they would combine trips to Santa Barbara hospitals and doctors with lunch at favorite restaurants, walks on the beach and much conversation. It was a happy second honeymoon for them even though the outcome was ordained.

I need not have worried about Norm’s anticipated discomfort as I talked about “my Jackie.” For he had some time ago taken up with a woman in Camarillo. Introducing her to his family led to serious consideration of their relationship. However, it was not to be and their togetherness ended short of any more formal binding. Currently happy, it was like he had attended my bereavement group when he spoke of feeling guilty while enjoying himself when Phyllis could not.

We had a bit of an organ recital and lamented on those parts of our body that did not respond as quickly as they did years ago. About five years older than me, Norm had some physical setbacks but is able to work in his garden and be entertained by his children who show up regularly to check on him. He commented on my activities with “You seem to have a full schedule.” Funny, since I often don’t feel that way. Maybe it’s my lifelong need, sometimes a curse, to stay busy.

I looked up from our conversation and saw Jackie bounce into the coffee shop. Her appearance, complete with a certain impish demeanor, immediately brightened my day. Introducing her to Norm added to my enjoyment. Her hand lovingly rubbing my shoulder completed the unexpected treat. Jackie shared some words with Norm and, knowing the right time to depart, did so with an infectious smile. When she was gone, Norm looked at me and said, “She’s just like you described her, only more so.”

We spoke of photography and the increasing difficulty of aging muscles to bear the weight of the usual assortment of professional level camera equipment. Smart phones and their increasing ability to emulate the photos taken with traditional cameras occupied the next few minutes. Norm’s visits to hospitals and doctors with Phyllis had generated an interest in watching others as they sat in waiting rooms. Using his smart phone, he shared with me some of the photos he had taken of these kindred spirits. I remarked on both the unique concept and his ability to capture the moment that showed their pain, boredom or exhilaration. I was both enthralled and jealous of his art. But probably not enough to ignite my own juices.

Norm reminisced about the time we had once spent every June, hanging selected photos on the Art Center walls in anticipation of the annual show. He and I sometimes were a team, measuring, nailing, hanging and leveling the submissions. In the midst of our thoughts he said “I remember you and Ila sitting on the couch during a break. You held hands and sang together. The sight was something so warm that I wished we could have hung it on the wall. You seemed so happy.” I couldn’t remember the occasion, but he was so pumped about it that I didn’t want to break the spell. “Yes, we did that a lot.”, I said.

Like a lot of things that grow fuzzy with age, we tend to alter their true story in ways that satisfy a need, improve its reception by the listener, or we simply forget. Some stories are told so many times that they become real. I sometimes start them with the preface “I’ve told this story so many times that I’m not sure what’s real and what’s made up.” But it doesn’t matter, so long as I can tell it.

Time passed and the extended silence between our sentences signaled the end of our conversation. I asked Norm to call me if he wanted to do this again. Wondering if we would, we deposited our coffee cups in the trash and walked to our cars. At our age, tomorrow is a lifetime.

More than weeds

I don’t usually take candid photos. I’d rather focus on a project that’s several months in duration.

About ten years ago, Ila and I had the pleasure of producing a book called The Faces of Help of Ojai. With the cooperation of the Help staff, we chose about twenty people who volunteered there. Our objective was to take their photos, interview them and publish a book that had their pictures and their words. We hoped the book would tell the reader why people volunteer and would encourage them to follow in their footsteps.

We set up in a small room at Help and blocked out the light coming through the windows. Each subject seated themselves comfortably in front of artificial lighting. I snapped photos while Ila asked the volunteer a series of predetermined questions. We recorded the conversation and extracted a couple of paragraphs that became part of the volunteer’s book page along with a photo.

We published and distributed about five thousand copies of the thirty-page book. I still get a charge whenever it pops up unexpectedly and I remember how much Ila and I enjoyed working together on the project. I was especially pleased to see it displayed today at my bereavement group session. Sadly, many of the book’s featured volunteers have passed away.

Another project involved photographing oil wells. I used unusual angles and close-ups. I enhanced the faded colors of the rigs and emphasized their graininess. Ila was my sous-chef, carried some of my equipment and was welcome company. The project took about four months. When we finished, I took the portfolio to the Union Oil Museum in Santa Paula thinking they might like to exhibit some of them. The response from the museum administrator was “Why would we display pictures of oil wells?” Scratching my head, I went home, put a couple of photos on the wall and deemed the project completed.

About seven years ago I became fixated on the wild flowers that a perfect rainy season had brought to the area around our home in the Upper Ojai. The vistas were filled with plants whose names were a mystery to me. These plants and their flowers must be photographed and identified, I thought. Arming ourselves with a clipper and a bucket of water, Ila and I spent the next few weeks collecting samples of the best they had to offer. Placed in the bucket, Ila nurtured them as though a bouquet of the finest roses.

Each of the plants was quite small, about a foot high. Its blossoms no larger than a quarter. I used a very small vise to stand the plant erect. A black background was placed behind the plant. Using a macro lens, I photographed about thirty of the tiny plants from about eighteen inches away. The plants in the photos could have easily been assumed to be much larger than reality.

We printed the photos as large as my printer would allow. The resulting fourteen by twenty-one-inch prints revealed the intricacies of the stalk, the leaves and, most of all, the flowers. Veins in the leaves were easily distinguishable, much like the avenues though which our blood flows. Tiny hairs on the stalks reminded me of the hair on the back of my neck. Flowers revealed the uniform structures that supported them. Lacy filaments cascaded throughout. The colors were vibrant.

And all the while I thought of these little beauties as weeds. Interlopers that would normally be viewed as pests in an otherwise manicured landscape or garden. So that’s what we called our collection…Weeds. I posted them on my website, produced brochures that we sent to friends and framed a few.

Years passed and the Weed collection remained dormant. I went on to other things, but continued to wonder what would happen to Weeds. Just another project that absorbed part of my life seemed too little. Yet I did little to promote its resurrection. Ila passed away. So, it seemed, had Weeds.

My friend, Barbara, had been working on developing a collection of art for the new Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura. Devoting over six years to the project, she and her committee had accumulated more than six hundred pieces that would grace the rooms and corridors of the new facility. Barbara had seen Weeds and asked if I wanted to see them on the hospital walls. Would I? It was the opportunity I had been looking for.

The new emergency department has twenty-five examining rooms. I had twenty-five weed photos. A match made in heaven. I printed the photos and Barbara had them framed. They were hung.

A week ago, the new hospital opened its arms and invited the public to see the six hundred pieces now housed permanently on its walls. Jackie and I got there an hour after the affair began. We listened to some speeches and, when the formalities were completed, we went directly to the emergency department. Greeted by a security officer, we were told that the department was closed for the evening.

Closed? After seven years was I to be denied entry? Would I need to be injured or ill to visit the emergency department to see Weeds? Mercifully, my guardian angel appeared in the form of Haady Lashkari, the administrator of the Ojai Valley Community Hospital. With just a little bit of sugar delivered by Jackie, he graciously interceded with security and we were admitted to the emergency department for a guided tour. The framed photos were there, reminding me of the winding path we had taken to get here. I thought of all the patients who might be comforted by the photos.

Ila would have been pleased.

I’m a fiance

Taken from the French, the word fiancé is the masculine term for a man who is engaged to be married. A fiancée (note the double e) is a woman who has chosen a similar fate.

I haven’t been a fiancé for almost sixty years since dear Ila and I linked our lives together. It feels a little strange and a bit lofty at my age to be calling myself a fiancé. So I thought there must be another term that means the same thing but would slide more easily off my tongue than “Hello, I’m Fred and this is my fiancée Jackie.”

According to Wikipedia, being engaged is not the same as dating. During this period, a couple is said to be betrothed, intendedaffiancedengaged to be married, or simply engaged. “Hello, I’m Fred and this is my betrothed, Jackie.” Or “Hello, I’m Fred and this is Jackie. We are intended.” Nope. Just doesn’t work.

I shared my new status with my bereavement group at Help of Ojai. When asked if anyone had anything to share with the group, I quickly said “I’m engaged.  And my fiancee’s name is Jackie.” The faces of those sitting around the table gave me cause for celebration. I asked if I sounded awkward saying fiancé. I was assured that I had done it well and could lay to rest my fear of using the term.

You may recall that I had the same difficulty finding a term that described our status before Jackie and I were engaged. Back then it was a toss-up between partner, sweetheart, significant other, beloved and lover. We have managed to live through that awkward period without significant damage. and I’m sure we’ll do the same while coping with uttering fiancé or fiancée.

The question most often asked after someone congratulates me for being engaged is “So when’s the wedding?” After some hesitation, I generally say something cute like one small step for mankind or you’ll be the second to know. According to my sources, the length of an engagement varies widely. The longest engagement on record was between Octavio Guillan and Adriana Mart¡nez. They finally took the plunge after 67 years in June, 1969 in Mexico City. Hopefully, they had time to consummate the marriage before one of them invoked the phrase until death us do part.

The ring also plays a significant role in engagements. The tradition dates back to the ancient Egyptians when a ring was thought to symbolize eternity. It was worn on the ring finger which was believed to have a vein running directly to the heart, later named vena amoris. Second century Romans believed that a ring signified the ownership of the woman.

The first recorded use of a diamond engagement ring occurred when Archduke Maximilian proposed to Mary of Burgundy. The diamond ring craze began in earnest when Cecil Rhodes founded DeBeer’s in the late 1800s. Pricey, but probably better than the early caveman who tied cords of braided grass around his chosen’s hands, wrists and waist to bring the hussy under his control.

We spent time looking for the perfect ring. And we found it in a small jewelry store in Santa Barbara. More a storeroom than a store, Tuon, the owner, made us feel confident that he could bring off the pairing of a diamond with a setting that did it justice.

Anxious to get the ring on Jackie’s finger before Thanksgiving, I called Tuon weekly. “Not to worry, it will be done”, Tuon assured me. His text on the Monday afternoon before Thanksgiving said “Come to the store Tuesday morning. I have what you seek.” Jackie had a full day at school Tuesday and gave me license to pick up the ring without her. I protested, ”But what if you don’t like it?”. Fearless as always, she sent me on my way.

It gleamed. It was perfect. It was her. I took a photo and sent it to Jackie’s iPhone. Her priceless shrieking told me we had done good. I unwound and took a deep breath. One small step…check.

Tuesday night seemed an appropriate time to formally propose and present the ring. I added a Where’s Waldo tie to my outfit that included tennies, a  tee-shirt and worn Levi’s. I knelt at her feet and said “Please do me the honor of marrying me. She giggled, put the ring on her finger and said with that twinkle in her eye “Yes I will.” Another small step…check.

No one has yet asked me “Why did you decide to get engaged.” I’ve thought about it. Jackie and I have spoken of it frequently. It’s not some crazy idea that just popped out. I am nearly eighty, some sixteen years older than sweet Jackie. Should I depart this world at ninety-five, Jackie will be my current age. I’ve tried to mentally list the reasons why I want to be engaged. After all, there are lots of people who live together happily without marriage. Maybe nearly sixty years with Ila left me with the belief that if you love someone, marriage is the logical conclusion.

I don’t think that logic is a vital component in the decision to marry. If we base it on logic, the odds seem to be arrayed against marriage. No, I think it’s simpler than that, perhaps genetic. Perhaps it’s like that caveman with the braided reeds who understood that a lasting relationship includes the warmth, the sharing and the relative certainty of marriage.

Time to work on a guest list.`

I’m feeling better, thank you.

I had a crappy day Tuesday. The culmination of two weeks of depressing events.

It started with the murder of eleven Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. A week later the mayhem at the synagogue was topped by an ex-Marine who slaughtered twelve innocents who were out for a good time.

The election, complete with its own tensions, was but a pit-stop in the course of events. Deadly fires took center stage by burning down Paradise and sending movie stars to evacuation centers in Malibu. Neither gunmen nor Mother Nature was rationally selective in their choice of victims.

In a reversal of fortune, daughter Nancy was forced to seek shelter elsewhere as drought fed flames threatened her Calabasas home. Last December, it was I who was the victim of the month as I escaped the Thomas Fire in Ojai and took refuge in Calabasas. Now it was her turn in the box. None of us are immune to what has become a state ready for burning regardless of season.

My friend lost his son to a drug overdose. A young life snuffed out in his prime. I attended a sad memorial service of remembrance.

When I could have used some warm hugs, my sweetheart Jackie was in Hawaii visiting her daughter. Friends, no matter how attentive or compassionate, are no substitute for a lover’s bright eyes, warm hands and soft words.

My sleep patterns were disturbed. I usually fall asleep quickly, wake around 3am, take a pee break and then fall asleep again for a couple of hours. But the last few weeks have found me unable to resume sleeping once awake. Instead, I’d toss and turn in a two-hour half-sleep filled with muddled thoughts. Unable to think clearly, my thoughts would crescendo into unshakable, pessimistic fantasies. Ones that would seem stupid in the light of day but quite real in the darkness of my bedroom.

I’d meet people at the gym, the grocery, the coffee shop and the library. “Good morning. How are you?” they’d ask. Fearful of ruining their day or causing them to retreat from me as though I had leprosy, I’d force a smile and falsely respond “Fine, how are you?” Knowing full well that they were probably as disturbed as I was, they would lie “Great. Thanks for asking.” And we’d move on separately to our next victim.

Tuesday is the day my bereavement group meets at the Help of Ojai west campus. I’ve been going to these meetings ever since my sweet Ila died. Most of the seven or eight attendees are women who have lost spouses or children. Faces change but many keep coming back. Men show up occasionally. Urged by Jackie to stick with it, I consider myself a regular.

There is no set agenda. No one is forced to speak, yet the ninety minutes fly by without a break. We usually begin by offering a brief glimpse into our own emotional state, events that may have impacted our lives or just a phrase that may say much with but a few words. It’s not necessary to mince words or hold back since those in attendance understand that what’s shared in that small room stays in that small room.

“I am having a crappy day” I heard myself say. I briefly rattled off a list of the contributing offenders and sat back waiting for something to happen. I half expected Dr. Phil or Dr. Ruth to appear with happiness in a bag. Nothing happened. On to the next person. Left in the ashes, I sulked.

Getting through the holidays was on the mind of many at the table. I’ve never found that Thanksgiving had any impact on my mood. Being Jewish leaves me fairly neutral about Christmas. Suddenly, Phyllis, our group leader turned to me and asked “Fred, when is Hanukkah?” I turned to her and without thinking said “Is this a test? How the hell would I know?” And added “When I find out, I’ll set fire to myself…like a beacon.”

It all seemed so outrageously funny that I started laughing. As did everyone else who, a moment before, had been consoling themselves about being alone for the holidays. We laughed loudly for what seemed like an hour. I hadn’t roared like that in two weeks. I felt wonderful. I forgot about being crappy, leaned back in my chair and smiled. And so did everyone else.

Jackie came home last night.


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