Mumble, mumble

I braced for impact.

Norm and I were driving the 150, on our way to the Dylan concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl. It was just after 5 and the sun played peekaboo as 71-year-old Norm steered his five-year-old Lexus around the curves of the two-lane highway that I mostly avoided. It was otherwise idyllic but for the speeding on-coming traffic carrying impatient people home at the end of a long day.

We rounded a curve. The oncoming leather clad biker, head down, went out of his lane and passed the car in front of him like it was standing still. I thought, He’s never going to make it back to his lane. We’re gonna hit him.

A month ago, Norm called me. “You a Dylan fan? He’ll be at the Santa Barbara Bowl on June 22.”

He had invited Jackie earlier in the day, probably because she’s a lot prettier than me. Her work schedule stopped her from taking Norm up on his offer, but she told him that I might like to go.

I thought for a few seconds, about Dylan, about Mister Tambourine Man, and Blowin’ in the Wind. And then I remembered Don’t Think Twice-It’s All Right.  Sure, “I’ll go if you drive. My eyesight is for shit when the sun goes down.”

The tickets were $130 each. A reasonable price I thought to see a legend. I didn’t even ask where the seats were. In the Bowl, I hoped.

I had only seen Dylan once, twenty-five years ago at the Hollywood Bowl, on stage with Paul Simon. We sat about half-way up the Bowl and got a pretty good view of what was happening. Paul Simon was classical, with his easy music, and lyrics that made sense the first time you heard them. I heard everything clearly.

I don’t remember what Dylan sang back then. I heard the music, but I didn’t understand anything he said. He might as well have been singing in Hungarian. He mumbled. He held his guitar and stomped around the stage, in that ragdoll fashion that made him clearly recognizable even if you were looking at the show from the moon. He was one of those unique people who could be a star just by showing up.

On that night 25 years ago, Leonard Nimoy, the big eared Mister Spock of Star Trek fame, was sitting near us. At intermission I wandered over to him. “Excuse me, Mister Nimoy, my son Steven is a big fan of yours. I wonder if you could give him your autograph. He’ll go crazy.”

Nimoy looked at me like Mr. Spock would and said nothing. I’m sure he thought I wanted it for me. He held out his hand and I gave him the program. He signed. Steven kept it for years. When Steven died, it too disappeared.

We survived our Highway 150 encounter with the delinquent biker and got to Santa Barbara two hours before showtime. Parking was a couple of blocks away at the high school. I hoped that Norm would remember the car’s location since it escaped my brain as soon as I closed my door.

I’d never been to the bowl in Santa Barbara, so everything was new to me. It’s nestled in the hills along with homes worth millions.

I looked at the people waiting in line at the entrance. I was no longer the oldest person at the party. Gray hair, no hair, and walking sticks were the costumes of choice. And why not? Dylan was 81. It reminded me of people walking to Lourdes for the cure.

The Bowl holds over 4,500 people, nearly five times the size of the bowl in Ojai. There’s an uphill trek required from the entrance to the base of the bowl. A shuttle is available for those whose trekking days are limited to one that goes from the couch to the refrigerator.

We made it up the hill under our own power and, given the absence of pot, got a couple of glasses of wine to numb our senses. I promptly spilled several dollars’ worth as we climbed the remaining steps to the seating area.

Our seats were seven rows from the stage and an army of frightening loudspeakers were arranged in vertical rows before us. Hearing aids would be unnecessary. The stage was littered with instruments. Norm pointed to the stand-up keyboard, “That’s where Dylan will be. We’re lucky, we’ve got a straight-line view of him.”

We sat and exchanged pleasantries with our neighbors. Two women and a man in their early seventies. Norm is in the music business and has a Wikipedia mind full of musical trivia. Our neighbors next to us exhibited similar knowledge, and soon were talking about concerts from the Dark Ages and beyond. I, with little more than memories of a few Dylan songs, was left in the dirt. I sat back, tried to meditate away their conversation, and waited for Dylan to make an entrance.

It was getting dark, and I wondered how I’d make it down the steps in total darkness at the end of the show, while avoiding 4,000 people who didn’t know that I was vision challenged. I also shuddered to think about needing to pee while the show was in progress; I did not want to become part of the concert by performing cartwheels down the ramp while singing Simple Twist of Fate.

The show began. Dylan came out and made his way to the keyboard. I could only make out the top of his head with his signature flyaway hair, still curly after 25 years. He would leave the keyboard only three times during the concert, each time seeming uncertain of his balance and in need of a mic stand to steady himself. He was doing what 81-year-olds do.

I closed my eyes, thought about 25 years ago, and listened to the first song. I didn’t recognize it; it was from his latest album Rough and Rowdy Days, but it didn’t matter. I just listened. His voice was less sweet and a little scratchier, like a reformed smoker. The song ended and everyone stood up and clapped, yelled, and whistled, including me.

I listened to the second song. Same reaction.

And then I realized that I hadn’t understood anything he said. He was mumbling, just like the last time.

I was quiet during the rest of the two-hour performance. He didn’t sing anything I recognized. No Like a Rolling Stone, no Lay Lady Lay, no Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. I felt betrayed.

The show ended. Norm loved it, and the guy next to me said, “Wasn’t that great?”

I wanted to say no. But I just mumbled.

Bottoms up

Jackie called me from the athletic club where she teaches yoga every Saturday morning. Good for me since my monthly bill reflects a hefty discount for employees and their spouses. 

We spend most of her club pay eating frozen yogurt at Bliss, a local dispensary that just recently decided to close an hour later on weekends. Keeping the lights on until nine makes Bliss the  cutting-edge place for night owls in a town where most people are asleep by 8:30.

Her call was about the Ojai Wine Festival. “It’s next Saturday, want to go? Should be fun.”

Like other activities conjured up by Jackie, it was meant to fill our dance card with enough events to keep me from dozing comfortably on the patio, wasting my life away with a book, a NY Times crossword puzzle, and Netflix.

I thought for a second. About all the things she’s arranged for us. About how any resistance is doomed to failure. About how my initial response to almost anything new is at best lukewarm. And about how much I enjoy the activity once I get there.

Having convinced myself that the wine festival was in my best interests, I said “Sure,” with as much passion as as I could muster.

The annual festival is organized by Rotary and the proceeds are used to help the community. So, while I blanched at the $100 per person price tag, I kept thinking “It’s for a worthy cause.” And maybe the wine. And maybe because Jackie paid for the tickets anyway.

The event is held at Lake Casitas. Instead of the usual entry, the one leading to the camping sites, car parking was about a quarter mile away. In an unpaved field populated by gophers, their holes dared me to break an ankle. We held hands as we dodged the holes and promised to care for whoever broke a bone first.

The festival runs from noon to 4, and we arrived at the entrance around 1. Glenda, my favorite retired Help of Ojai employee, was workingat the gate. She gave us a wine glass to sample the offerings of the wineries, beer joints and other mysterious libations. Glenda waved us in to join the hundreds of others who were already doing mega-sampling.

We spotted my doctor, Jim Halverson, standing in a booth labeled Information; we wandered over. Other festival goers were less inquisitive, so we had Jim all to ourselves. I thought that it was easier to visit him at the Festival compared to booking an appointment in his office. I thought, maybe next year he could hang out at the Festival in a booth labeled Consultations.

There were 30 wineries serving up their stuff. We rejected the idea of a systematic approach to be sure we didn’t miss one but rejected that idea in favor of just looking for the shortest lines. Our knowledge of wines ends with Sutter Home Rose with their bottles usually housed in the darkest corner of the wine rack at Westridge Market. Attractively priced (cheap), Sutter Home owns a permanent spot in our refrigerator.

Arriving at the front of the line, we are entitled to a one ounce pouring. Some of the wineries have a bottle top that precisely measures the delivery of the ounce, while others do it without the benefit of mechanical assistance. We often cheer the technically disadvantaged pourer in the hope of getting a bigger helping.

Getting that one ounce seemed like a lot of work for a small return. And sometimes you need to think big, so I calculated how much wine I could collect if I worked hard, and began my quest at the noon opening, and ended it at the 4pm closing.

I figured that it takes about seven minutes to start at the back of a line, move to the front of the line, and get my one ounce. Then get in the next winery’s line, drink the previous winery’s ounce while waiting in line, and then get the next ounce.

To get through all 30 wineries, I’d need 210 minutes or three and a half hours. That would leave 30 minutes to pee, snack on crappy kettle corn, and be wheeled out of the festival by the paramedics. I’d call that a successful day.

We fell woefully short of that goal. I doubt that we drank a full glass of wine. But we did eat crappy kettle corn and pee in the porta-potty.

We made our way to the exit a little after three. People were still arriving. If my calculations were correct, they could only get nine ounces of wine. Hardly worth the hundred buck ticket price, but maybe enough to get a buzz on and smile innocently at the Highway Patrolman when driving out.

Bottoms up

He played with his elbows

We moved to Ojai in July 2000 and began the process of inserting ourselves in the community. Our nearest neighbors were gentle with us and made us feel welcome. Some became fast friends.

The Sunday movies at the Ojai Playhouse found other friends who enjoyed foreign films, and the challenge of the closed captioning that was partially blocked by those in front of us. Because the old seats were in a straight line rather than staggered, I could only read the left or right side of the captions; the center, usually obliterated by tall, wide men with hats, was a mystery. Ila and I often turned to each other and asked with some annoyance, “What did he say?” But it was a minor price to pay to be part of the community.

We marched in the July 4th parade, attended concerts and plays at the Art Center, and volunteered our services to organizations in need. We were willing to try almost anything to complete our metamorphosis from L.A. to Ojai.

And then we heard about the Ojai Music Festival.

In 2001 we leaped at the opportunity of this new adventure. We didn’t investigate Festival history or even the current offerings. We bought tickets to what we assumed was a typical classical music extravaganza, complete with an orchestra, singers, and lots of I know that one music. I was sure that Brahms, Beethoven, and Bach would be well represented.  Lots of people regularly attended the June event, so what could be bad.

We prepared ourselves with seat cushions that took some pain out of the Bowl’s wood benches designed by Torquemada in the 15th century. Seat numbers had been pretty much eroded by the last glacier that came down Ojai Avenue, and the seats were sized for people on perpetual diets. With cramped quarters, we quickly became close friends with those on either side of us.

A bell chimed and silenced the crowd. A piano was center stage. A performer entered stage right to polite applause, sat at the piano, remained motionless for an eternity, lifted his hands, and began to play.

At first, I thought the piano was out of tune. And then I noticed that he occasionally removed his hands from the keyboard and substituted his elbows. His hands returned to the keyboard, and then gave way to elbows. Hands and elbows trading places over and over. A cacophony of sounds attacked my ears. I was stunned and fearful. And so it continued; a baptism under fire. Like Dorothy, I realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

The performer with the talented elbows ended his performance. A rumbling spread through the audience. At first, I assumed they were as mystified as I was by what they had just heard. The rumble grew louder and more strident. People rose from their seats. I wondered if, like in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein movie, the villagers were going to lynch the pianist.

And then, the 60ish woman seated next to me rose to her full 5-foot-two height. But rather than encouraging the idea of a lynching, she began shouting Bravo, bravo, bravo. Over and over, infused with an ardor that would not be satisfied until her vocal cords ceased to function.

Ila and I stared at each other and sent silent messages that included rolling our eyes, shrugging our shoulders, and displaying our up-turned palms. Who were these people who surrounded us? Were they victims of mass hypnosis? Did they need medical attention?

It ended. We began the trek to our car and bumped into some friends who had been at the performance. Normally a levelheaded, calm person, Sally asked “Wasn’t that a marvelous concert? Wasn’t it amazing? Didn’t you just love it?”

Still feeling raw-edged due to my overexposure to the elbow man, I threw political correctness to the winds and said No. With that bit of honesty, I had firmly labeled myself a non-believer, an agnostic, antiquated, a has-been. Maybe even a Tony Bennett fan.

In the years that followed, and despite our better judgment, we continued to attend the Festival like it was some kind of virus. Like the flu season, it returned each June and evaded our best attempts at eradication. I’d either relax on the lawn or, after the Bowl’s reincarnation, sit on a nice green, waterproof, stiff plastic chair. I’d watch and listen, using the Elbow Man’s performance as a baseline measurement for weird, annoying music.

Anna, the Festival’s happy-faced fund raiser, has become my personal concierge in picking a performance that would least offend me. Because of Jackie’s work schedule, our choices this year were limited. Anna suggested the Sunday morning program featuring a pianist. Always one to foolishly let history repeat itself, I sent them a boatload of cash and got two tickets in row E.

We arrived, located our seats, and were surprised to find no one in rows A to D. After a thorough astronomical evaluation, we realized that those rows were exposed to full sunlight while Row E only allowed a solar invasion of my ankles. The movement of the Earth around the Sun, and the possibility of cremation, became something else to worry about besides the music.

The chimes sounded. The audience quieted and our attention was drawn to the lonely Steinway grand piano in the middle of the stage. The pianist entered stage right, sat at the piano, flexed, and then fell silent. He waited. Memories of the Elbow Man flooded through me.

Close enough to see his hands and elbows, I watched. I held my breath. He played.

I loved it.

Watch your step

I visited my son, David, over the Memorial Day weekend. Jackie was going to her favorite spa, Starvation Palace, near San Diego and I felt the need to surround myself with replacements while she luxuriated in the wonders of wheat grass juice.

I had long ago learned to avoid traveling to the Bay Area on a holiday weekend, so I began my trip to Berkeley on Thursday, a few days before people would begin bumper car games on HIghway 101.

Late last year I spent a week at David’s when I attempted to dislodge my hips from the rest of my body by pretending I really wasn’t 83 and could swing 15-pound kettlebells between my legs during a workout designed by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Still recovering from that misguided adventure, I promised to avoid all heavy lifting during the upcoming visit other than what was required when drinking vast quantities of alcohol. 

In stark contrast to David’s home, our Ojai house was designed to eliminate trips and falls. There are no steps in its 2,700 square feet. Walking from the curbside mailbox to the front door can be done by a slug that spends a lifetime crawling on its belly. But I exaggerate; there is a three-inch-high step from the garage to the kitchen. After several dozen attempts, I’ve met and conquered the challenge offered by it…even in the dark.

David’s house reeks with challenges best avoided by old people. The front of his lovely home is accessed by two tiers of concrete steps. I always let him, or grandson Isaac, carry my bags so that I can fully concentrate and thereby avoid a subdural hematoma.

Reaching his family room requires a scary walk down eight highly polished wood steps which are framed by a decorative but inconsistent railing. Adding to the adventure is the occasional blockade thrown at me by the family dog, a kind but lazy 100-pound Malamute named Koda. Walking up the stairs often requires a similar negotiation with the dog. I’m sure she hates me and lays in wait for these opportunities.

My bedroom is at mid-level and sports five steps leading down to the bathroom. My nocturnal needs can only be satisfied by a walk in the dark down these steps. Lying in bed at 2am gives me pause while I balance my need to pee versus navigating the steps that promise relief.

That bathroom has an ancient shower housed in a white enamel tub. I have been persona non grata to that tub ever since falling in it five years ago. Not one to tempt fate a second time, David insists that I shower in the master suite at the top level of the house, some 18 steps up, and eventually down, from mid-level to top. Walking up is easy; most people don’t fall upstairs. Coming down I envision hurtling headfirst, and breaking most of my limbs, along with jamming my nose into my brain. It makes me wonder why I need to take a daily shower.

A trip to see my favorite son and his family usually includes a day of fishing. As a younger man I was relatively unconcerned about floating in a sea of dangers. I am now more reluctant to trust my life to poorly maintained boats and an ocean that couldn’t care less about my safety. In fact, like Koda the Malamute, I think the sea hates me and lies in wait for my first bonehead move.

Casting my cares to the wind, we chartered the Osprey, a 30-foot cruiser owned by the intrepid Captain James. David invited three friends to join us. Dennis is my age (ancient), Pat is happy (an early morning beer helps), and Greg is without fear. Seas willing, we planned to cruise under the Golden Gate, take a left and search for migrating salmon.

The Osprey is docked in Richmond, about 30 minutes from Berkley. Up at 4:30, we forced oatmeal down our throats, loaded up Greg’s car and arrived at the dock just before a planned 6am departure.

The boat floats under a protective canopy and, even in early morning light, it still looks like midnight to a guy with my eyes. Low tide contributed to the adventure by making the gangplank stand nearly erect at 90 degrees. I took Lilliputian sized steps on my way down to the dock where I found myself behind everyone else.

The boat was riding stern first into the dock. I watched as everyone went aboard. Piece of cake. My turn now.

I stepped from the dock onto what I thought was the boat deck. Instead of a solid surface under my left foot, I found myself in mid-air and then into the water, feet first. It was over my head filling my clothing. Hands reached down and pulled me up and onto the Osprey deck.

It was cold and I was shivering. I thought about what Leonardo DiCaprio must have felt like, treading water after the Titanic hit the iceberg. Or Gertrude Ederle swimming across the English Channel with nothing on but Vaseline.

I was sure it was the end of the fishing trip. The ambient temperature was around 50 degrees and, as Jackie will attest, I become inoperative at less than 75 degrees even with a blanket.

But only a tidal wave can deter hard core fishermen. Captain James started pulling off my drenched clothes. The other guys joined in, some much too gleefully. I was soon naked and looking like the Mermaid statue in Copenhagen’s harbor, except for the breasts. Feeling like a sour dill pickle in cold brine, I was certain I was in the final stages of hypothermia.

The captain had a spare pair of oversized Levi’s. Dennis gave me a sweatshirt. Greg provided some socks, and the captain found an ancient set of sneakers that almost fit.  Pat’s belt barely held up the 42-inch Levi’s. David gave me his jacket.

I looked like I had been dressed at Good Will.

Oh, the fishing was outstanding.

It’s my birthday

We celebrated my 83rd birthday with a weekend at the Ojai Valley Inn. Only 5 minutes from our home, yet it seemed far, far away. It’s the second time that we stayed overnight at Ojai’s premiere hotel. Bring lots of money.

Insisting on treating me to the weekend, Jackie had researched high-end hotels. Her first selection was the El Encanto in Santa Barbara where a single night is a brain hemorrhaging $1,600. Sanity returned and we picked the Inn, where the $600 price tag seemed a bargain after flirting with the El Encanto. As a reward for our infrequent conservatism, we decided to stay an extra night; so much for being frugal.

Jackie had wrangled an early noon check-in after pleading with every supervisor at the Inn including the Crowns, owners of the establishment. That made the per-hour cost of our visit an even better bargain.

There are lots of playful opportunities at the Inn to consume one’s assets. Extras can rapidly fill several pages of small type on the checkout bill.  A massage was first in line, at a cost approximating the purchase price of my 1960 Chevy Bel Air.

There are five eating venues at the Inn, and we visited four of them. The hotel was full, but the eateries were cooperative. We assumed that many Inn guests were visiting local Ojai restaurants, but it seemed inappropriate for us to even consider them. We wanted to maintain the illusion that we were far from home.

The Oak Grill is primarily an outdoor seating restaurant. Given my worsening night vision, I am in terror of dimly lit dining. Daylight is my friend and lunch on an outdoor patio is Valhalla. Unfortunately, evening dinners do not include much, if any, daylight. Indoor dining has similar problems due to the overworked fondness for romantic lighting.

We contacted the Grill and were offered either 5:30 or 7:30 seating. The late afternoon option seemed like a early bird senior special. I’m not ready to take on that role, complete with its Velcro shoes, a dinner jacket that looks like it was last worn by a racetrack tout, and salt-free, easily chewable entrees.

We picked the 7:30 option and hoped that the earth might slow its rotation around the sun to maximize the light. If we ate quickly, I might get through our meal with my dignity intact.

Seated at 7:45 on the patio and offered menus by Rod, a very pleasant young waiter. Behind schedule by 15 minutes. Nervous time intensifying.

I scan the menu and, with the aid of the Jackie’s iPhone light, can read my options. I realize that, given the failing daylight, I better avoid a selection that requires a great deal of attention.

Multiple items on the same plate are a crapshoot. I stab at the food in the darkness and, like a spear fisherman, hope that I will come away with a prize. The fork may be empty or have an unexpected delight. At times like these, I think back to my father and brother, both of whom experienced the same challenges. Somehow these memories make the trip a little easier.

An appetizer of six fried shrimp arrives. I can see them but can’t tell head for tail. I reach out and grab one, rotate it to the proper position, and eat. Delicious. I could make a meal of these simple creatures without seeing them. Make a mental note.

Jackie asks Rod for more light. But they only have little wax candles floating inside a glass container. The light is negligible and held in check by the container. Rod delivers a second light, also useless. The wind blows and one goes out. The next blow extinguishes the remaining candle. He brings a third. Lights all three. They go out one by one. Rod relights them. I marvel at his patience. Even though they are useless, he seems to enjoy the effort.

Our entrees arrive. I’ve forgotten what I ordered. Shredded meat, maybe pot roast. I’m clueless.

Jackie tries to reveal the mystery meal with her iPhone. It’s superbright like a volcanic eruption. I’m sure everyone is watching the spectacle. I think again of my father, a proud man.

Jackie positions her iPhone light behind my water glass in front of me. She rotates it like a lighthouse lamp. The intensity of the light changes as she moves, slides, and elevates the phone. She adjusts. I play my part like I was helping her hang a photo on the wall. We find a sweet spot. I can see what’s on my plate. I eat without fumbling. Jackie is a genius. Rod is happy. The world is good.

What a wonderful birthday.

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?


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