Something Rotten

Last Sunday Jackie and I saw Something Rotten, a high energy musical that would be well beyond my acting capabilities even if my role was that of a black plague victim.

Performed by two dozen Nordhoff High School students at Ojai’s Matilija Middle School auditorium, the play was presented in a single weekend of three performances. A testament to the tenacity of the students, it mattered little to them that they went through months of preparation for just a handful of performances.

The play is set in 1595 and chronicles the difficulties encountered by an out-of-ideas playwright searching for a hit. He enlists the aid of an oracle and runs up against the idea-stealing Will Shakespeare, a tight-fisted royal financier, and skeptical friends.

The choreography was worthy of an Emmy, and the costumes took no back seat to Edith Head or Bob Mackie. The sets were professional, and changes to them were carried off with little intrusion or fumbling.

The most impressive component of the show was the cast that included sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Children a lot more mature than their years danced and sang with skills that for many were the result of years of private lessons. Some youngsters had been in multiple plays, a fete that could only have been achieved by passion and dedication.

But I wish I could have heard what they said.

We had seats in row J on the aisle, more than halfway from the stage. Funny, when I booked the tickets, I could have sworn they were closer to the stage; not that it would have made any difference.

Walking in from the bright early afternoon sunshine I found myself in near darkness, an affliction that comes with age. I groped my way down the main aisle, holding Jackie’s hand and listening to her countdown the rows. W, V, U, T….J

Our seats were on the aisle, blessedly accessible to an emergency potty break that might call me before the intermission. We sat, got comfortable in the cushy seats, and relaxed. My vision gradually improved, and I found people seated throughout the auditorium that can hold about 300 playgoers.

The theater filled rapidly, and we began the “I hope that guy doesn’t sit in front of me” silent mantra. Very tall people with bushy hair seemed to be in the majority and we took deep breaths as they passed us by on their way to afflict others.

And then two people stood in the aisle next to us, emulating the Himalayas. I thought, good thing they are in our row and not in front of us. I held my breath as the man looked at his ticket, bent toward the row medallion fastened near the arm of my seat and said, “Nope, not ours. We’re in row I, not J.”

My heart sank as they prepared to take the two seats directly in front of us. Maybe, I thought in desperation, that they were seriously short-waisted with leg lengths approximating those of a giraffe. Maybe they would be gobbled up by the cushy seats and re-appear the size of Wizard of Oz munchkins.

The man took his seat. Much like Mount Everest, he seemed to tower above me with most of his height hidden in the clouds.

I thought to myself, I’ve been through this before. At the Music Festival, the Ojai Playhouse and the Art Center, I have suffered with people who should be permanently assigned back row seats as punishment for their abnormal height. But I can take it, I thought, I’ll just forget about seeing the play, I’ll just sit back and enjoy the dialogue and the lyrics. After all, I had only paid $20 for the ticket. What did I expect anyway, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion?

I should have known better.

The first performer either had no vocal cords or selfishly refused to use them for fear that the strain might limit the length of her blossoming Broadway career.

The first song, Welcome to the Renaissance, was unintelligible. It could have been about a French automobile. I was certain that some of it was written in Hebrew, a language with which I have some familiarity.

And then I realized that the kids were not the problem. It was the acoustics that were robbing me of a chance to enjoy the sounds of the play.

It was hopeless. Even the audience conspired against us. From the racquet that went on, I was sure that Jackie and I were the only two guests who were unrelated to the performers. The rest of the audience were either parents, grandparents, or intimate friends of the kids. Anxious to show their undying love and admiration, these supporters reacted vigorously and without concern for the hearing of those seated around them. At times it seemed that a cheering contest between audience members was underway rivaling the action on the stage.

Mount Everest participated with abandon. Like the performers on the stage, he had surely practiced diligently for this once in a lifetime event. Elongated whoops amplified by a rolled-up program rang out whenever his Susie or Jimmy was on stage. Ear splitting whistles seemed choreographed to match the tempo of the songs. Anxious to see how he was doing, he occasionally glanced to either side to determine the level of damage inflicted on the rest of us.

Not to be outdone by him, the woman directly behind me took up the challenge. Her weapon was laughter. Now I like laughter as much as the other guy, but this Phyllis Diller wannabe took first place for the quantity and rapidity of her laughs. Much like nature that deplores a vacuum, she filled every soundless space with annoying laughter. It mattered not what was happening onstage. It only mattered that she match the zeal of the man in front of me.

I slunk down in my seat and began pouting and quietly humming trying to moderate the din in front of and behind me. Sensing my discomfort, the man next to me, undoubtedly a professional audiophile, turned and said that he couldn’t hear much of play either. He said we were in an acoustic dead zone, one that muted much of the performance. He also said he would confront the mountain man after the performance and remind him of audience etiquette.

The play ended. We acknowledged the actors, walked up the aisle, exited the building and entered a world of soft light and muted sounds.

I felt like cheering.

Fishing Trip

I went to the fish store yesterday. It’s not really a store in the pure sense of the word. More like a drive-up ATM, which it was until a few years ago. Now it’s Ideal Seafood, which in comparison to another Ojai landmark, Osteria Monte Grappa, leaves little doubt as to its focus or pronunciation.

Access to the market is a challenge, requiring a left turn from busy highway 150 onto a poorly paved driveway. The faded blue structure now houses one lonely attendant, suspicious hygiene, and an amazing array of fresh and smoked fish.

The market has its own idea of the definition of regular hours, and you should call before making the trip. I often ignore this advice and sometimes turn a quick shopping trip into a lazy driving excursion. But today is a good day. It’s open.

As I pull up to the kiosk, I am greeted by chalkboards on either side of the drive-up window that exposes the innards of the market. Dozens of items appear on both boards. Chilean Sea Bass had a prime spot on the list of available fish, but no longer. Delicious, and therefore overfished, it and its $50 a pound price tag are only a fond memory.

I’m seeking salmon today, prompted by a New York Times article extolling the virtues of certain foods, including that silvery fish, that will allow my brain to function properly until it’s no longer needed.  I shall continue to test the fish’s virtues by occasionally counting backward from 100 by sevens. Reciting the names of all nine Supreme Court justices, once another of my favorite memory tests, has stumped me for the last few years, perhaps prompted by my hope that some of them will find other employment.

The pickup truck in front of me finished its business, pulled away, and let me carefully coast to a stop in front of the kiosk without damaging my door or the fish house. Congratulating myself for this brilliant Mario Andretti maneuver, I greeted today’s attendant, Roberta, and asked, “Salmon today?”

I’m not sure why I always ask that question. Unlike the much lamented Chilean Seabass, they always have salmon. Great mounds of it, I presume, since they have never said anything to me like, “No, we don’t have salmon, but how about Seabass?”

I asked Roberta for a pound. Thirty seconds later she returned with a filled Ziplock bag and announced, “OK if it’s a tiny bit over, or do you want me to trim it?”

I quickly estimated the weight of a “tiny bit” and its additional cost. My inability to upset anyone, even where money is concerned, went into my decision process, and I said with a smile, “No problem. Love to have the additional fish. Good for my brain.”

The rest of the process is like buying a Starbuck’s Grande at the drive-up window just down the street from the fish place. Hand my credit card to Roberta, she runs it, and then hands me a bag of salmon. Pretty even exchange since the Grande also weighs a pound. Except for the cost which is about one-sixth that of the salmon.

I mentally wrestled with the option of asking for some ice to keep the fish cold during the 15-minute ride home. But it was cool outside so I waived my rampant paranoia and decided that the fish could take care of itself for a quarter hour. I wished Roberta well and drove off.

About half-way home I remembered that we needed something to go with the fish, like a salad. I weighed the probability of Jackie stopping for it after work and decided that, why take the chance, the fish will stay cool, and I can earn some husbandly brownie points.

Westridge market was coming up and I prepared myself for a right turn on Blanche and an immediate left into the parking lot. Piece of cake.

The corner is ripe for a fender bender or a dispute with pedestrians crossing mid-block from Westridge to the Bank of America on the opposite side of the street. I carefully watch for it.

Sure enough, a young boy, maybe 13 sprinted across the street without seeing me. But I had anticipated it, stopped, and watched him. He seemed weightless. His feet seemed to hover over the asphalt. His arms moved in perfect synchronization. He had boundless energy. He was fearless. He slowed, glided onto the sidewalk, and moved along as if choreographed.

I thought, how long has it been since I could do that? I couldn’t remember. But I could wish.

It was a great fishing trip.

Tread lightly

I’m waiting for the repair guy to finish and deliver his verdict.

My Trotter treadmill has served me well for over 20 years. First, in our Northridge home. Then in the Upper Ojai. Finally, three years ago, it made the trip to the Andrew house where it stands like an ancient warrior in the contrasting company of a sparkly Precor elliptical machine and a high-tech Peloton stationary bike.

Before my Trotter, I used a rowing machine. Built for light duty home use, I religiously spent an hour on it every day until it began to fall apart. Like an old car, it simply wore out; I unceremoniously dumped it in the trash, like the inanimate object it was. That was 1995.

I began a search for a new rower with a trip to a high-end sports equipment store in Encino. Like a Mercedes dealer showroom, it was filled with glitzy boy toys (women were yet to fully come of age and sport tight tights in high end athletic clubs where they now blessedly outnumber ill-clad men.)

I attracted a salesman’s attention, probably because of my well-developed pecs, and said, “Where are your rowing machines?”

His name was Ron and didn’t look much different than my chunky, out of shape bookkeeper. He stared at me like he hadn’t heard my question. I repeated it slowly and loudly, just like my old Rabbi insisted when he coached me on my bar mitzvah speech.

“A rowing machine. You know, one of those things you sit on and try to look like a member of the Princeton rowing club.”

He caught my drift, stuck a pudgy index finger in the direction of the back wall, and said without enthusiasm, “There.”

So, I went there. And I found a total of one rowing machine.

Sure that I had misunderstood his pudgy finger, I worked my way back to Ron who was on a snack break, probably induced by the heavy lifting he experienced in handling my request.

“Ron, is that the only rowing machine you have?”

Taking time out from munching his chocolate M&M’s, “Yes, no one buys rowing machines anymore. I mean NOBODY. Treadmills are the in thing. like this new baby, the Nordic Track; but we don’t have any of those. Sizing you up, I’d say you were a Trotter man.”

Feeling much older than I did before I entered the store and found that I was seriously out of touch with today’s equipment of choice, I tucked my tail between my legs, ponied up serious bucks and went home with Ron’s promise to deliver my Trotter next Tuesday.

Our man-machine relationship has been blemish free, serving me without complaint for over 20 years. With the same routine every morning. Brush my teeth. Kiss Jackie. Lace up my in-thing Hokas. Mount the machine, set the incline angle at four percent and the speed at three miles per hour. Turn on the TV. Dial up an inane news program with tons of unpronounceable products for your lungs, skin, and Crohn’s disease. And try hard to get through sixty minutes without boring myself to death.

Never a complaint until four weeks ago. Then, like a small child, the machine whined. Maybe more like a whimper. I thought, “The machine works. Maybe if I ignore it, the noise will go away.”

I should have known better. The child grew older and became angry. An intermittent rumbling joined the whining. It sounded like a couple of members of the Spike Jones band were stuck under the treadmill playing Spike’s zany version of Cocktails for Two.

The child blasted through puberty and, like an unhappy teenager, turned the whining into screeching, intensified the rumbling, and stomped its feet. It was going to get its way and I couldn’t do anything about it.

And then, last week, it stopped. Not all at once. More like a piece at a time. I tried goosing the running belt by grabbing and rotating the roller at the rear of the machine. It was like cranking an old Model T. That worked a couple of times, but the noise was like being in a lumber mill. I later discovered that people have been dragged under a treadmill doing what I did, never to be seen again.

Jackie’s elliptical and stationary bike continued to perform flawlessly. They seemed to cast occasional sideward glances at the Trotter that conveyed a message, “You’re over the hill. Give it up. He’ll probably dump you in the trash just like the rowing machine.”

My aging adult, depressed and unloved, just sat still, crossed its arms in front of its chest and refused to move. At all. Not a sound.

It was time for action. I had learned my lesson with the rowing machine. I was not junking the Trotter; it had seen me through too many years of loyal support.

I found a guy who repairs treadmills. He’s here now. Says he needs to rebuild the motor. It’ll be back in a week. It’ll look like a senior citizen, but it’ll work.

Meanwhile, I’ll just brush my teeth and kiss Jackie.

Only $43 Billion for a Tweet

Elon Musk is a household name, much like Henry Ford about a hundred years ago.

They both were innovators, they liked cars, and they were convinced that they knew what was best for the rest of us. They treated workers with disdain and didn’t always follow the rules. Ford was worth about $200 billion when he died at 83 in 1947, about $70 billion less than Musk, adjusted for inflation. At 50, Musk is a mere baby with time to build up his lead and his impact on us.

Musk is the world’s richest person even surpassing rock stars Foo Fighters and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Race car drivers Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton love cars too but are worth only $300 million. At $18 billion, the Saudi Crown Prince pales in comparison. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is about $90 billion short of Musk.

Although the Saudi family fortune is estimated at $1.4 trillion, it’s spread among 15,000 members. Musk shares his fortune with no one.

Viewed by some as being weird, Elon acquired the trait early on. When he was a child, his adenoids were removed because doctors suspected that he was deaf, but his mother later decided that he was thinking “in another world.” Echoing his mother, Musk’s business ventures sometimes rival those of the psychotic Howard Hughes.

Nearly all of Musk’s fortune is tied up in Tesla. With more than two million slavishly devoted Tesla drivers, the company is valued at about $1 trillion dollars. That’s 5% of the U.S. gross domestic product.

A company’s value is often reflected in its price/earnings or P/E ratio. If a company earns $5 per share of stock and its stock price is $50, the company is said to have a P/E of 10. The higher the P/E, the greater the expectation for a company’s bright future. Tesla’s PE is a whopping 209. Amazon sports a robust but not overly radical 47. General Motors has a P/E of 6. Some might say that Tesla is overvalued; others might say that GM is in the shitter.

An active user of social media, Musk has 80 million Twitter followers. My blog has about 200, not million, just 200. I influence no one other than my wife and my daughter. And even then, I get criticism.

Musk’s recent offer to buy Twitter for $43 billion reminds me of the movie, Citizen Kane. An ill-disguised story starring Orson Welles, it focuses on William Randolph Hearst, of Hearst Castle fame and chronicles his accumulation of wealth and power through his newspaper publishing empire. It demonstrates the impact of one man on the news read by most of America, and the fears of Hearst’s contemporaries who might be targeted for destruction by the influential and semi-neurotic mogul. It also shows the eventual decline of the man and his chronic unhappiness.

Not necessarily equally neurotic, Jeff Bezos’ acquisition of the Washington Post and Rupert Murdoch’s giant news media empire both march in the direction of using the media to advance one man’s favorite causes and his picture of what a perfect world should be.

Maybe Musk has too little to do. Maybe he just likes to rattle people’s cages. Or maybe he has a grand design for Twitter known only to him that comes from what his mother called “another world.”

With 80 million Twitter followers and the ability to sanction other Twitter posters (Barack Obama has 130 million followers) for behavior deemed unacceptable by a sometimes-peripatetic Musk, his influence should be of concern. 

On the other hand, it could be a fun ride. In a Tesla of course.

Harvey

All things come to those who wait…sometimes.

Just before the pandemic, Jackie and I bought two tickets to the Ojai Art Center’s local production of Harvey. Shortly after that purchase, the Center and every other building in Ojai went dark and remained that way for more than two years. Harvey would have to wait.

I squirreled away the tickets, hoping that the pandemic would end before I did, the Art Center would brighten up, reconstitute Harvey, and honor our tickets before they yellowed with age, turned to dust, and blew away in the wind. 

The play was written by Mary Chase in 1944 and won a Pulitzer Prize for drama. It ran on Broadway for nearly five years and spawned a film version in 1950 when I was only eleven. It attests to its continuing popularity today with live performances that delight us even after nearly 80 years.

I’ve seen the film many times. Starring Jimmy Stewart as Elwood Dowd, he wanders through the film accompanied by an invisible to us six foot, three-and-one-half inch rabbit named Harvey. The film is no On the Waterfront or Streetcar Named Desire. And Stewart is no Marlon Brando.

But Stewart engages us with a warmth that Brando would find unattainable. Stewart’s presence offers us a glimpse of who we’d like to be, and who we really are. Like his role in It’s a Wonderful Life, Stewart’s screen presence is enough.

His character is largely restricted to accepting people as they are, thanking them for things that would turn-off the rest of us, and displaying a willingness to recognize the good in everything. Surrounded by an array of bumbling characters, Stewart seems the only sane person despite his fondness for the reclusive Harvey.

Retired from an undisclosed profession, Stewart has little to do with his time other than visit friends at the local bar and drink martinis. He invariably invites characters who wander into the film to share his drinking penchant; a clear violation of today’s caution about displaying alcoholism in a positive light. Yet, we seem to excuse this behavior, perhaps because he might lose his loving character without it.

Like a philosophical rapid-fire ATM, Stewart delivers homilies and witticisms to make his point. The listener still absorbing one, when the next appears.

I have a favorite that comes about half-way through the film:

Years ago, my mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be” – she always called me Elwood – “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

Given the number of times I’ve seen the film, the scenes are all memorable, but that quote always defies my ability to repeat it verbatim during casual conversations with friends and strangers. I often fumble, sometimes substituting clever for smart, or nice for pleasant. But that doesn’t do it justice. For example, this doesn’t cut it:

Well, for years I was clever, I recommend nice.

Lacking the right words, it loses the essence of what Stewart meant. It has no staying power. So, I always look forward to seeing the movie, waiting for that moment, hearing the carefully chosen words, and then feeling renewed.

Perhaps it’s my mantra, something that reminds me of who I want to be. Harvey refreshes my mantra and pushes me in the right direction. I regularly fail and regret it. I often succeed and congratulate myself. But the mantra regularly flashes before me, and I wish Harvey was there.

I had never seen the live stage play and looked forward to it. The performance, which cast local talent, had been moved from the Art Center to Matilija Middle School to accommodate the crowd. But, after a two-year delay, I was to miss it because I was ill. I felt crappy, and the audience would not have appreciated my hacking and sneezing.

I was sure she would enjoy the play, so I pushed Jackie out the door. Then I laid back on the couch and watched the film on Netflix while she mingled with the crowd and saw my primary care physician, Dr. Halverson, play Elwood. I wondered how much the film would differ from the live performance. Lacking a warm body to cuddle with, I pretended that Jackie was seeing the exact same scene that I was.

Jackie came home around four and spoke glowingly about the two-hour play. She thought that Dr. Halverson was perfect. I asked her if she remembered hearing Stewart’s line about being pleasant. She didn’t. Maybe they dropped it. Maybe she forgot.

I can always watch the film again, or maybe I should just write down the mantra. But that would remove the challenge. And, after all, isn’t that part of it?

Is it just a cold, or…

I’ve been nursing a cold for a few days.

I’m sure it’s my first since moving from the mountain into town, but Jackie insists I had a similar malady two years ago. No matter, I accept the discomfort with the style and grace that is a hallmark of my personality.

In other words, I am a lousy patient.

My colds follow a pattern. First a scratchy throat that I incorrectly label as a post-nasal drip. Then a more pronounced throat discomfort that belies my initial diagnosis. Next, a drippy nose that is held at bay by the multiple Kleenex boxes that occupy strategic places throughout the house.

An added attraction is the concern that this could be a disguised Covid virus cleverly inserting itself in a body already weakened by the trauma of a seasonal cold or flu. So, I check my temperature with the digital thermometer and find it normal. Distrusting the digital read out on the overused device, I seek human confirmation by asking Jackie to “feel my head.”

I am rendered speechless when she touches my forehead and says, “You do feel a little warm. Maybe you’ve been spending too much time on the patio. Drink some water.”

Is that all they teach you in nursing school? “Drink some water.”

My mind is riveted. I take my temperature again, 99.1. This is getting serious.  I take it once more, 99.6. I’m afraid to do it again. I try to remember what one does if they have Covid. Do you stay home, or tear off your clothes and run screaming down the street?

I imagine the ambulance screeching to a halt in front of the house. Loaded on a gurney, shoved in the bowels of the van, and taken to Ventura.

I mentally list all the things that need to be done. The appointments I’ll miss. The people who’ve been exposed to me. Taxes filed late. No pickleball.

I shake it off and remember the Covid test kit that President Biden kindly delivered to my mailbox. I should use it, I think. But then, what if the results are positive? Maybe it’s better not to know; then I could still play pickleball.

My civic pride and the genes borrowed from my parents get the better of me.

I get the test kit from the junk drawer in the kitchen. I open it and find an array of devices all cleverly designed to make it easy to mess it up. Calming myself, I realize there are two kits in the package and feel less challenged.

The instruction packet seems just a bit smaller than the Old Testament. Maybe that’s because it’s written in several languages including Sanskrit and Esperanza.

I read it. And then I read it again. It’s taking me too long, I think. I can hear the ambulance arriving if I don’t get this done soon.

I swab my nose, both nostrils. I am cautioned not to touch the tip of the swab. Why is that I think. Does the manufacturer think I have leprosy or teenage acne?

I go through the rest of steps, convinced I’ve done something wrong. Shoved it too far up my nose, swabbed in the wrong direction, moved it around too quickly, exposed it to some foreign substance. A million possibilities, but not a clue.

After wrestling with the little bottle and its multiple caps, I scoop up the precious liquid and deposit three drops in the test strip portal. It’s in God’s hands now, I think.

The instructions caution me to wait 15 minutes before looking at the results. I wonder if 10 would really be enough. Maybe they bump it up for those people who haven’t got the time to see if they’ve contracted a fatal illness.

Normally, 15 minutes passes quickly. Not this time. I could read Gone With the Wind and still have three minutes to go. I hang around the kitchen but avoid the test strip. I wait.

I can’t take it anymore. After 8 minutes I stare at the test strip. Only one line is visible. Two lines would spell disaster.

I age noticeably. I look in the bathroom mirror and I see Charlton Heston delivering the tablets to the Jews.

The kitchen timer beeps.

I check the test strip. Only one line. I take a closer look. Still only one line.

Well, so much for Covid.

I wonder when I had my last pneumonia shot. 

Las Vegas

The noise coming from the cheesy cab radio was odd. Not music. Not conversation. More like a garbled roaring sound, punctuated by the announcer’s voice speaking what could have been a foreign language.

The cab driver was disinterested in his passengers and only spoke when asked a question. Most of the time it was, “How long before we get there?”

His repeated stock response was, “Nine minutes.” I stopped asking the question when I realized he had no idea how long it would be, since he had not activated his GPS.

His official ID that hung from the visor assured me that he was an authorized driver. His name was Max.

Max looked like he was wearing last week’s unwashed clothes. A short-sleeved shirt, multicolored shorts, and plantar fasciitis provoking flip-flops. He was bald on top and sported long, uncombed curls on the sides. He was fixated on the radio and occasionally banged his fist on the steering wheel in response to the broadcaster’s periodic announcements. He muttered disappointedly when something disturbed him, which was often.

I listened more closely. The radio announcer was indeed speaking English. He seemed to be talking about cars. My curiosity got the better of me and I asked Max, “What are you listening to.”

Showing mild annoyance he said, “It’s the NASCAR race at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. I’ve got some money on it.”

My initial thought was, gee I didn’t know they had NASCAR races in Las Vegas. I was even more surprised that you could bet on them. And then I banished those naïve thoughts when I remembered we were in Vegas, where you can bet on anything until they take all your money, and probably even after that.

Unlike other cities, Vegas has more taxis than Ubers. It’s as though all the old, abandoned taxis from L.A., New York and Chicago have been sent here to die, just like the elephant graveyard. 

Our first taxi encounter is at the airport where we are greeted by a line of cabs that must have circled the earth twice. Despite the possibility of a riot fomented by people anxious to lose their life savings, the line was carefully organized and reined in by workers who, like other gaming mecca employees, are either current or former gambling addicts. Nice enough people, they seem to be just biding their time waiting for their shift to end and return to the tables and slots.

The airport cabs charge a flat fee of $28 for a ride to any of the hotels on the strip. I thought it was pretty cheap, until I discovered that it only took about five minutes to get to our hotel, the Palazzo.

The Palazzo is a newish tower adjacent to its older and somewhat faded sister hotel, the Venetian. True to their names, they have an architectural design that mimics the palatial mansion that Al Pacino lived in immediately prior to his assassination by the mob in the 1983 movie, Scarface.

Descendants of some of the characters in the movie can be found wandering the casinos, disguised as pit bosses. You can easily identify them since they are the only people wearing business suits, ties, and rings on their pinkies. Most everyone else is wearing shorts, tie-dyed shirts and, like Max the taxi driver, flip flops.

Our cab dropped us in front of the Palazzo where we were swept into what seemed like a moving sidewalk of moneyless guests departing, while arrivals like us still had what proved to be only temporary ownership of our finances.

Registration was easy as we were professionally handled by Ramon, a glib young man who might have come from a Wall Street investment banking firm before falling under the influence of the devil. He upgraded our room, itemized a bunch of perks, and took multiple images of my American Express card which might, in short order, be maxed out.

Although Max brazenly forsook his cab’s GPS for directions, we could have used one to get from the registration desk to our room. Instead, Ramon simply told us to hook a left and watch for the overhead signs. “You’ll be fine.”

Any Vegas hotel planner worth his salt will design it so that you can only reach your room (and a welcoming pee break) by marching through the casino. After an absence of 25 years, I had forgotten what the inside of a casino looked like. I was soon reminded.

Bright lights and noise are the principal components of the massive money eating enclosure. Devoid of any daylight, thereby assuring the victim that the time of day was irrelevant, the casino is a Walt Disney animated movie in garish technicolor. Noise comes at you from multiple sources including ten feet tall slots that advertise jackpots that probably paid off during the last ice age.

Periodic shrieks at the craps tables announce a lucky winner who, despite multiple selfie promises of, “Just one more time”, will assuredly re-deposit his winnings with the faceless croupier.

While I was intent on finding the yellow brick road to our room, Jackie fixated on the slots and slowed my march. Her eyes glazed over, and her breathing slowed. As though in a trance she said, “I see the machine I want.” It was the Wheel of Fortune. Her eyes brightened. Her pace quickened. Her hand was on her wallet. The machine pulled her in like it was a life-size electromagnet. It was love at first sight. I felt abandoned.

But that’s another story.

Robert

I’m in my fourth year at the Ojai Valley Athletic Club where I pay a monthly fee to use the facilities and, as a bonus, ogle the attractive women who make the visit much more enjoyable.

I joined the club after Ila died and have been a faithful member through the pandemic. Some Covid-mindful people thought I was foolishly risking my health by sharing the club’s air with others who were also deemed crazy. They were probably right.

Until I moved from the Upper Ojai in 2019, I’d get in my car at 6am, five days a week and drive eight twisting miles from the house on the hill to the club on Fox Street. Since becoming an urban Townie, I often walk a mile to the club in about twenty minutes.

Early on, Jackie told me I should get a personal trainer, someone who could show me how to improve my physical condition without doing permanent damage to my 80-year-old body.

And so, I met Robert.

A slender, physically fit specimen that I hoped to emulate one day, Robert trained the unfit, conducted yoga classes, led hikes, and spent lots of time schmoozing with everyone at the club. He knew their names, their kids’ names, and their dogs’ names. Everyone waved at Robert, and he took the time to wave back. My thirty-minute, twice weekly sessions shrank to twenty because of his constant socializing. He often was late, and I was often irritated. But he was a star, and I basked in it.

We started our training (I’m not sure why it’s called training…maybe because it’s like taking your dog to obedience class). Robert inventoried my body parts, found them all in their proper places, and measured my stamina. He entered the information on an official looking form and promised that we would periodically re-evaluate my condition to determine the level of my improvement or lack thereof. He said he would record the new data and compare it to the old data. I never saw the form again in our nearly three-year relationship.

I tried to focus on the physical stuff during our sessions but was often drawn into conversations with Robert about the news, books, and our past lives. I shared personal stuff with him, including dreams that your analyst would find interesting. And that, I finally realized, was as much a part of his standard routine as was the proper use of the club’s equipment.

We were comfortable in our deepening rut. But then he began to talk about his own health. His annual physical had shown some troubling signs. He didn’t complain; over the weeks it was more like a slow-motion description of progressive decline. 

His liver had been invaded; he was referred to UCLA, a place where you should only go when you have a condition that defies medical science.

Treatments began. Reports given by him during our sessions were promising. The bad guys were on the run.

Or so it seemed. The invaders had migrated to his head, wreaking new havoc.

Robert was a lot younger than me. These things, I thought, were supposed to afflict guys my age, not his.

And then, the unthinkable. He gave up his position at the club to devote full time to his illness. Selfishly, I wondered what I would do without a trainer.

Robert suggested I try someone else. So, I worked with a new guy for a few months, and then he left. I thought I’d try it without a trainer. I figured I’d just follow the last routine I learned from the new guy. But I found myself taking short cuts. I went to the club less frequently. I was sure I was slowly getting out of shape. I was bored.

Yesterday, Jackie suggested that I try a third trainer. I listened, like I always do, but said nothing, packed up my stuff and went to the club. I did my usual routine but found little pleasure in it. I showered and wandered by the front desk on my way out. I had decided to take one of the other trainers’ business cards that adorn the counter. But I hesitated, feeling like a deserter. I figured I’d get one next time.

I went home, made some oatmeal, and sat down at the computer. I thought about Robert and realized I hadn’t heard from him for a few weeks. We often text and occasionally speak on the phone. I sent a text…You’ve been quiet. What’s happening, bro?

Waiting for a return text, I roused my paranoia to its full height. I wondered if he’d had a relapse, a reoccurrence, a new invasion by the bad guys. I figured he’d respond when he could. Meanwhile, I’d worry.

And then, five minutes later, the phone rang. A voice much stronger than I remembered said, “I’m going for a haircut. I plan to start working part-time in April. Let’s get together next week and talk about training.”

I’ll have to remember to build in some time for his schmoozing.

The Great Un-masking

I’ve gone through several generations of face masks during the on-again, off-again Covid pandemic. The first was a skimpy little thing that I’m sure any microbe could have breached.

Realizing my risk of exposure, and the prospect of an early death, I graduated to a much sturdier mask that survived the Thomas Fire of 2018. Although robust, it plugged my nostrils and put a permanent fog on my eyeglasses. It was so tight that I felt like that alien character in Men in Black whose head shrunk six sizes when Will Smith blasted him with his laser gun.

Like all new emergencies, proper masks were in short supply. A cottage industry sprang up overnight offering homemade face coverings constructed of leftover bedsheets and old tee shirts. Despite Jackie’s penchant of tossing away anything that isn’t nailed down, I still have a few of those masks that had interesting designs but offered little protection from the clever Covid-19 virus that morphed as needed.

Fortunately, the behemoths of the medical supply industry leaped into the breach when they quickly realized that the prospect of falling down dead was a reasonable incentive that forced even the most resistant crazies to wear masks.

Soon we could find any style and color face mask on the Amazon website. I regularly stared at the offerings and wondered which ones would do a good job of repelling the little nasties, while letting me get through the day without the pain inflicted by the over-tight ear straps.

I became a face mask junkie. My favorite color was black; I thought I looked sexy and mysterious. I tried white and maroon, but they didn’t seem to do anything for my macho image. 

Masks that were labeled Amazon’s Choice or Best Seller often were losers. Like I thought someday my head would get smaller, or my ears would develop armor plating, I refused to junk the useless masks. I stowed them in a kitchen drawer; of course, Jackie found them and deposited them in E.J. Harrison’s green trash bin.

Masks found their way into my car and never left. The container on the driver-side door overflowed with them. It was as though I expected to live in the car and was afraid that I might run out of them. Occasionally, Jackie would say, “Do you really need all those masks? You already have two hanging from your steering wheel.” Embarrassed for a nanosecond, I would take a few to their final resting place in the Harrison bin.

I sneered at people who wore thin, useless bandanas. Usually, these were ill-fitting handkerchiefs that had never been washed. I’m sure it was the users’ way of turning up their noses at the whole idea of a mask. I’m sure they snickered under the snotty face covering, fully aware that the rest of us wanted to rip it off their face, to show our disdain for their disdain.

After two years, I thought I had the mask thing figured out. Right color, comfortable fit, and good protection. And then the Omicron variant arrived with the speed of light. Dr. Fauci and his foxy sidekick, Dr. Walensky, after watching related episodes of Gray’s Anatomy and General Hospital, quickly concluded that sturdier masks were needed. Enter the N95 and KN95 mask, which had been languishing in dark places.

Back in front of the Amazon screen, I searched for the new holy grail. The selection of N95’s was limited…no maroon. I bought twenty black ones and they arrived the next day. They comfortably cupped my face like my mother did…for a while. Then they didn’t. Particularly offensive was the elastic strap pulled taut around my right ear. Like a tight shoe, I removed the mask when no one was watching. I tried wearing the mask with only the left ear strap, not a good idea. I googled “painful ear straps” and got several references to the Spanish Inquisition.

The Omicron variant seemed happy infecting people while leaving them relatively unscathed. Even the unvaccinated stopped dying in droves. Drs. Fauci and Walensky had enough. They began making noises about junking masks even though Mississippi, and other 19th century mask-burning states, were still filling up hospital beds. Governor Newsom, reluctant to bring another recall election down on his head, decided to loosen up.

We are now into the third day of the great un-masking. Signs that used to say Masks Required for Entry are being replaced with signs saying Masks Required for the Unvaccinated. This afternoon I walked past the new normal and into the bank. Tellers were masked, I was not. I felt weird showing my bare face, and I almost put the mask back on.

I’m much sexier that way.

Patience

Jackie and I are enrolled in a Mussar class. It’s a Jewish spiritual practice that focuses on living a meaningful life.

Human traits like humility and patience are studied to see how we stack up. We get tools that include readings, meditation, journaling, and instruction, all designed to challenge and improve ourselves. Or at least understand what might be standing in our way. Accompanying humility and patience in this parade of traits are the usual ones, gratitude, silence, and generosity. Others are a bit more obtuse, like order and equanimity.

Mussar was developed in Lithuania as a group enterprise in the 1800’s. Many of the writings included come from the pens of Rabbis living then and earlier. Adopting Mussar means a lifetime of study leading to awareness, wisdom, and transformation.

In my case, I’ll be lucky to get through the next six weeks.

Our Mussar classmates number 10, nearly all are members of our temple. We meet via Zoom every two weeks and spend two hours discussing this week’s trait. The alternate weeks are devoted to private study and meetings with our team partner. My teammate is Jackie.

It can be administratively complex, and I spend way too much time trying to keep my traits straight. For example, we could be knee-deep in humility while prepping for patience. Or was it the other way around?

In one of the exercises, I pick a point on a scale that identifies how I rate myself on a given trait. For example, regarding humility, am I humble or more like Vladimir Putin? But am I so humble that I’m apathetic, or do I hog the limelight like Donald Trump?

Patience has two faces. It can mean how long you’ll wait for a bus on an ice-cold morning on a Chicago street corner before throwing yourself into oncoming traffic. Or it can mean how well you accept an irreversible outcome without liking it, like the trip to the hospital after you’ve been hit by that silent Tesla.

I’ve always thought of myself as a patient person. At least on the outside. I sit in library foundation board meetings, hoping for the end of time. I remain respectful but occasionally find myself muttering silently while others happily contribute their thoughts to the festivities. Age probably has something to do with it. Like my irreversibly thinning skin that belies my 82 years, my tolerance has its limits.

My eyes scan the room and I often wonder what others are thinking; are they as impatient as I am? Why doesn’t some colleague say, “Ok, that’s enough. We shouldn’t even be discussing this trivial item, much less interfering with my TV schedule. Let’s move on.” And then I think, why am I not saying this? Is it an overabundance of patience? Am I alone in my reverie? Or am I just a wuss?

I watch the meeting room wall clock move so slowly that I think an evil deity has made it run backwards. I calculate the time remaining before the meeting’s scheduled conclusion and worry that there is too much to cover in the remaining minutes. As we get closer to closure, I begin to congratulate myself for lasting this long without saying anything disruptive. I maintain my composure…and then, having reached my biblical limit, I react by saying something that I will regret immediately after I’ve said it.

One of Mussar’s tactics in dealing with a lack of patience, and the spewing of regretful thoughts, is to widen the space between anticipating your upcoming impatience and the actual act itself. This time-out provides a theoretical buffer zone in which one can reconsider doing something stupid. This tactic, however, also requires patience. It can lead to years of rabbinic study in a quest to solve this conundrum. The product of that study then leads to more study and consequentially an increase in required rabbinic patience.

But we are not all Rabbis. I demonstrated this fact last Sunday as Jackie and I worked on our taxes. Until our marriage, Jackie used a local bookkeeping service to record her monthly transactions and complete her tax returns. I had originally thought, “How much work can that be? My stuff surely is more voluminous and certainly more complex.”

I was wrong on both counts. Multiple employers, renting her house, and singlehandedly raising the GNP with the purchase of a myriad of personal care products and services, proved challenging.

I had lots of questions. I began to feel the pressure of meeting the IRS filing deadline. I used my new Mussar patience tactic and widened the space between anticipation and action. I silently analyzed my situation and quietly began with, “Sweetheart, I hate to interrupt your cell phone conversation about your girlfriend’s marital woes, but could you please tell me what this charge is for? I would be ever so grateful.”

As the call droned on and the unanswered questions mounted, my patience buffer zone grew smaller. Like the library clock on the wall, I had reached my allotted patience time. And I said, “If you would only stop yakking with your neurotic girlfriend, I could finish this inquisition and get back to playing my ukulele. I’ve got a life too, ya know.”

Wrong. Definitely not in the Mussar playbook. Like the speed of light, I instantly regretted what I had said. Especially the “ya know.”

So, I did the only thing I could do.

I humbled myself. A lot.


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