What did he say?

A few weeks ago, Jackie asked me if I’d like to see Eckhart Tolle in person. I said something like “Is he a rapper?”

After that display of my sublime ignorance and a well-deserved shrug of her shoulders, Jackie gave me some facts about the man who commands large audiences and is generally thought of as a particularly adept spiritual teacher.

In 2008, the NY Times called Tolle the most popular spiritual author in the U.S. where his book The Power of Now has sold millions of copies. In 2008, he and Oprah Winfrey participated in ten live webinars that drew thirty-five million people. He became an Oprah favorite in 2016 when he made her list of 100 Super Souls including visionaries and influential leaders. OK, enough already. I didn’t need any more convincing. Oprah did the trick. I had to see him in action.

Not so fast, Jackie warned. To get the full impact of his spoken word, I needed to read his book before seeing him in  person. Sensing that I might conveniently forget her suggestion once I was out of her sight, Jackie immediately dialed up Amazon on her iPhone and downloaded The Power of Now to my Kindle. To her everlasting credit, she’s done this kind of thing before. Tablecloths, exercise pants, shaving kits, and Lou Malnoti frozen pizzas flown overnight from Chicago have miraculously appeared at my doorstep. I’ve learned to be careful with my words and I try to avoid phrases like “Gee, isn’t that nice” or, ”What a handsome shirt”, or especially, “I’ve always wanted something like that.”

Aspiring to even greater status in my sweetheart’s mind, I dutifully started reading. It began with…

When your consciousness it directed outward, mind and world arise. When it is directed inward, it realizes its own Source and returns home into the Unmanifested.

Although it was a book with only one hundred and thirty pages, I was obviously in for a long, hard slog.

I finished my assignment a day before our trip to see the savior in person and, after much soul searching, realized that the primary message of The Power of Now is as simple as 1, 2, 3.

  1. Don’t worry about the past, you can’t do anything to change it.
  2. Don’t worry about the future, you can’t control it.
  3. Live peacefully in the moment

So there. I saved you fifteen bucks on the book and a whole lot more on the live event.

The Saturday evening program was held in the three thousand seat Pasadena Civic Auditorium, a very impressive and costly venue. We planned to stay overnight and had booked a room at the adjacent Sheraton. Arriving at the hotel around five o’clock after an exciting two hour drive from Oxnard, I demonstrated my driving acumen by attempting to park my car in the narrow “Deliveries Only” driveway. Reaching the end of the driveway, I was hemmed in by a unforgiving concrete wall and a massive semi-truck that did not allow for a turn-around. Forced to back all the way up the ramp, I threw caution to the wind, summoned The Power of Now, exited onto Euclid Avenue and made a u-turn that Evel Knievel would have been proud of.

Parking in the hotel lot without further damage to my ego, we registered, and then debated whether to head directly to the hotel bar for an extended stay, or go meekly to our room. Since both Jackie and I are anally compulsive about being on time, we chose the room option. Much to my regret as I would later learn.

Having made ourselves presentable, we walked to the Civic Center and entered the lobby about twenty minutes before showtime. It teemed with people waiting in a drink line that was long enough to reach to the moon and back. Another mob of souls, with too much disposable income, was four deep at the book sale tables where Tolle’s army of credit card swipers withdrew vast sums of money from the ravenous buyers’ Visa cards.

Jackie had promised her daughter, Samantha, that she would get Tolle to sign her book. In response to her cute query about how that might be accomplished, the reaction from the Tolle card swiper was akin to “Are you crazy? He’d be here all-night signing books. Foolish girl.”

At fifteen minutes before showtime, three thousand seats were half empty. They’ll never fill this cavernous hall, I thought. Foolish Fred. Ten minutes later, it was nearly overflowing. People kept coming and were being seated fifteen minutes after the appointed hour. Oblivious to those around them, they were in the Now, peaceful in their tardiness.

Just like the warm-up singer in a Las Vegas showroom, Marianne Williamson appeared on the stage in a stunning off-white pants suit. I thought “Jackie might like that.” But I quickly avoided thinking about it, fearful that my subliminal message might somehow activate Jackie’s Amazon ordering mode. As a suffering second fiddle, people were still being seated while Marianne spoke.

Along with her reputation as another highly respected spiritual leader, Marianne is currently one of a stampeding horde of seekers for the office of the President of the United States. Blithely skipping around the stage, her thirty-minute message boiled down to don’t be a stinker and love your neighbor. Reasonable campaign material I thought, and a vast improvement over the current occupant of the Oval Office.

And then he arrived. A small man of about seventy, he looked a bit like a combination of ET and a Tolkien Hobbit.  He immediately plunked his thin frame onto an over-stuffed chair that my grandmother might have had in her dated living room. He assumed a somewhat stooped pose, admired the flowers next to his chair, and looked out at the audience of nearly three thousand hungry disciples. A large TV screen above his head made him appear even smaller.

He was silent and peaceful, yet he commanded my attention. Then, quietly, he spoke the same words that I had struggled to read in his book. He occasionally told one sentence off the cuff jokes that no one should have laughed at; but they did. He talked about the horizontal plane that we all live on complete with our fears, challenges and never-ending desires. He spoke of the vertical plane that would, if we could comprehend it, allow us to live peacefully in the now.

The thirty minutes passed in a wink. I didn’t learn how to achieve The Power of Now. But I did learn why people buy his books and why they pay to hear him speak. Why he gets a standing ovation before he speaks and another after he’s spoken. But I can’t explain it. Maybe that’s why people keep coming back.

What did you say?

What did you say?

I’d been doing more of that lately. Sitting in restaurants and trying to have a conversation was a challenge. I might as well have been talking to myself.

Casual conversation, even when there were only two of us, was hit or miss. I would have been better off with the kind of signal flags they used to wave at incoming F-14s on an aircraft carrier.

Turning up the volume, either through shouting or groping the TV remote, did as much good as farting in a windstorm.

Volume wasn’t the problem. I heard loud and not-so-loud things but I still couldn’t decipher what was being said. I spent most of my allotted time saying “Pardon me, what did you say?” Or “Come again, I didn’t hear you.” Or I’d pretend I could hear and stupidly say yes, no or maybe so. Turned out it didn’t matter much which expression I picked so long as the question didn’t include religion, politics or my sexual habits.

When any of those sensitive topics was at the core of the conversation, I’d use a different approach. I’d simply nod knowingly. Not up or down as in yes or no. It was more of a shoulder shrug coupled with a slight oblique shift either left or right that seemed to satisfy the listener’s needs. God knows what I had agreed to in the many years I had used this method that I had dubbed the Nodge.

Jackie seemed to tire easily as our evenings together wore on. Our conversations were heavily punctuated with what, huh, and come again? In no uncertain terms, she eventually said “You need a hearing aid.” Unable to resist such an eloquently worded request, I promised to call for an appointment—right away.

In a vain attempt to slow down the inevitable, I decided to do some research. Googling hearing aids produced as many hits as the search term, porn, might have. My initial reaction to scanning the hearing sites that Google had kindly delivered was one of sticker shock. My next reaction was one of bewilderment. Unable to discern obvious differences between various manufacturers and models, I turned from the saturated world of the Internet to my friends.

“You should go directly to Costco. They’re cheaper than anyone”, said Ralph. “And you can spend your wait time cruising the aisles eating the free samples.”

Mike demurred. “Sure they’re cheaper, but they just take a really good hearing aid and dumb it down. Besides, you probably need to buy a dozen of them.  All wrapped in bullet proof plastic that defies you to open them.”

Like a voyeur, I began looking behind people’s ears. Men were easy marks. Women, with their long hair, were a mystery, just like everything else about them. Since much of my time is spent with old people, it seemed as though everyone had hearing aids. The aid-less seemed to be an exception. I began to stop and talk to strangers who seemed quite willing to discuss their march from “What did you say?” to “You don’t need to shout. I can hear you quite well.”

When no one was looking, I’d stand in front of the mirror at the athletic club and stare at my not inconsequential, Dumbo sized ears and wonder what I’d look like with a canoe positioned in what would never again be just a space between my ear and my skull. Being a handsome, debonair bald men, I could not depend on shaggy hair to mask my otolaryngology disability.

Further research seemed useless and Jackie was getting wise to my game. So I decided to end things quickly by offering myself up to our local hearing aid provider. A kind young man in an austere setting took me under his wing. Wanting to justify the upcoming sale of the latest in hearing aid technology, Wayne administered a hearing test.

Feeling much like the Alexandre Dumas character Edmund Dantes in the Chateau d’If prison, I was herded into a not-so-quiet padded cell. Wayne placed a set of headphones long rejected by iPhone users on my head and left the cell. What followed was a series of beeps, some spoken words and a vain attempt on my part to cheat and pass the test. I later learned that no one passes the test.

Never once saying “You need a hearing aid”, Wayne proceeded to dissect the elements of my hearing test. Ten minutes of gazing at graph lines proved that I had lost about half of my high-end hearing capability. Big surprise. The little cilia sensory cells had departed my inner ear and, much like fingers and toes, would not return.

Wayne offered me a selection of devices whose price differences seemed indecipherable. They all looked the same and all seemed capable of Blue-Toothing their way through the world of audio connectivity. With the latest technology, I was but an iPhone app away from nirvana.

Available in various hues of black and white, I selected one that would come closest to my skin color. Like it would fool anyone with half a brain. Special order, of course. Thoughts of running away during that waiting period flitted through my mind. Bending to the inevitable, four days later I returned to Wayne’s place of business where the devices were installed in my receptive ears.

Later that day, I visited my attorney in Ventura. We were alone in his conference room when I heard a phone ring. He seemed to ignore it so suggested he answer it. “Answer what?” he said. It took me awhile to realize that it was my iPhone ringing through my hearing aids. How cool.

Last Sunday twenty of us went to the Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. We sat in the nosebleed seats and listened to the LA Philharmonic play Gershwin and Ravel. From ten thousand feet, I could hear the piccolo, a small chime and the clicking of a stick on a block of rosewood. It was so magnificent that I teared up and felt like I did years ago at the opera

All twenty of us went to dinner at an Italian restaurant. It was family style and we passed simple but delicious platters of food around, drank inexpensive red wine and talked freely about the day’s events. I listened and heard the words. I neither nodded nor shrugged.

We got home at nine and Jackie, seeming less tired than usual, said “Thank you for hearing. I love you.”

Because of you

I flew Contour Airlines from Santa Barbara to the Bay area this weekend to celebrate my buddy Harry’s 80th birthday. Two months older than me, Harry and I have been the closest of friends for more than sixty years.

I highly recommend the Santa Barbara airport and Contour Airlines. Arriving mid-afternoon on Friday after a forty-five-minute easy drive from Ojai, I parked in the half-empty long-term parking lot, took a five-minute walk to the Spanish influenced terminal building and found the airport nearly deserted. I thought that perhaps I had missed an Ebola evacuation announcement.

I got my boarding pass from a very friendly Contour employee and made my way to the dreaded TSA security gauntlet. I was one of two people in line. The super-friendly supervisor asked if I would mind being a guinea pig for the new TSA employee at the screening monitor. With time to spare, I did my civic duty and opened my toiletries bag, watched it being hand searched, worried about what illegal or embarrassing item I might have forgotten about, zipped it back up without incident, and was thanked for my participation.

With little to do in the cavernous terminal, I casually sauntered over to the customer-less Peet’s Coffee kiosk, grabbed a cup of dark roast, sat in a very comfortable chair, played with my Spell Tower game and waited for boarding to begin. Boarding started when promised, and the plane departed and landed on time in Oakland. It was nirvana.

My wife to be, Ila, and Harry’s intended, Judy, were girlfriends at Chicago’s Boone grade school in the late forties. I started dating Ila during her high school senior year and, coincidentally, fell in love with Harry. The four of us remained inseparable until sweet Ila died in 2017.

I was Harry’s roommate at the University of Illinois. Studying metallurgy, Harry endured long hours of study, late nights, and early morning risings. He had this annoying habit of setting the alarm clock well in advance of his required wake up time, and then employing the snooze feature of our clock in order to bag several ten-minute naps. Even though I could have slept later than Harry, I suffered through his chronic, snooze habit in deference to his extended study nights.

Never lazy, Harry had several temporary jobs during summer vacations. Working in the Café Brauer snack-bar at the beach, he honed his not inconsiderable people skills, now in daily evidence at Noah’s bagels in Livermore, by ogling the girls who made the mistake of thinking that he was not a letch. Another summer vacation job tested Harry’s skills as a house painter. Unwilling to take the time to laboriously mask the crevices between the window and its frame, he simply made them un-openable by painting them shut at the home of my future in-laws. His follow-up job was unsealing the windows.

Graduating college and tearfully forsaking the life of a house painter while pocketing his newly minted PhD in material science, Harry began working at Argonne National Laboratories in Chicago’s southern suburbs while Ila and I set up shop in the northern suburbs. The distance between us, although minor by today’s freeway standards, tended to limit our time together.

In 1967 I accepted a job in San Francisco and we resigned ourselves to maybe seeing each other once a year. However, six months later, Harry called me and excitedly announced that he had taken a position with GE and was moving to the Bay Area. Now we could be, as nature intended, together once again. Unfortunately, I had just accepted a position in Southern California. And that’s how things have remained for over fifty years.

Though three hundred and fifty miles apart, we celebrated holidays, vacations, bar mitzvahs and other life cycle events together. Ila’s difficult illness limited those events and our time together lessened considerably. When Ila died, Harry stayed with me for days while I tried to cope with the emptiness. As always, being together was enough. Conversation to fill the vacuum was unnecessary. We had, years before, developed an alert system whenever we had something to say. Harry would reach over and touch my wrist announcing he was about to speak. I would stop whatever I was doing, straighten up and look alert. And I would listen.

Many years ago when the number of our face to face meetings was diminishing, Harry began to call me every Monday night at 7:30. A call to assure himself that everything was ok. A call to announce that he cared about me. We usually don’t have much to say during these calls. A “How are you” and “What’s new” followed by “I’m fine” and “Nothing much” often ends the call almost before it begins. But the warm feeling of reaching out lasts for the rest of the evening.

Harry’s eightieth was held in a Chinese restaurant near his Livermore home. His continuing concern for me was in evidence when we were blind-sided by the traffic and were fifteen minutes late. As we pulled into the parking lot, my cellphone rang and Harry said “Where are you? Everyone else is here.” I had been missed.

About forty people were there. Mostly old friends and close family. Many faces were familiar, but they seemed to have aged faster than I had. Harry, contrary to his preferred seat of the pants approach, had prepared some detailed remarks about the event and the people there who had touched his life. I blushed when he seemed to spend an inordinately significant portion of his presentation reminiscing about our time together.

One at a time, about half of the guests rose to say a few words. Harry’s wit and sarcasm took center stage in their remarks, and all offered anecdotes that highlighted his lasting friendship and his uniqueness. When it was my turn, I found myself stretching to say something important. Yet I found that what seemed important to me may have sounded trivial to those at the tables.

I recalled an evening in our senior year when, as a rite of passage, and surrounded by a horde of onlookers, Harry had to serenade Judy while standing outside her dorm. He had memorized and practiced that Arthur Hammerstein song for weeks on end in our small room; I could have delivered it in his stead. When his time came, he couldn’t remember the beginning of the song he had labored on as though it was his doctoral thesis. He had asked me to be his best man and I was standing beside him. He frantically leaned over to me and said, “What’s the words?”

I touched his wrist and whispered in his ear, “Because of You.”

Seventeen women and me

We hosted a yoga retreat at my house last weekend. For the uninitiated, a yoga retreat includes meditation and a series of body stretching poses meant to test the limits of your muscles, tendons and ligaments. After several ninety minute sessions, the desired result is a sort of nirvana that puts the mind at ease and, to the delight of the instructor, a craving for more of the same.

An added benefit for caveman voyeurs is the dress code. Consisting of stretchy tights and peek-a-boo bodices, it leaves little to the imagination and produces imagery that tends to satisfy a male’s basic prehistoric needs.

Jackie takes great delight in organizing these retreats and is constantly in tune with participant needs. Quick to respond to requests and ever mindful of her guests’ comfort, she is to yoga what Pearl Mesta “the hostess with the moistest” was when she produced lavish, well-choreographed  parties for the cream of society.

I, on the other hand, feel relieved when the event ends without a participant’s death or a serious blockage to my fragile septic system. Now that I think about it, septic system failures outrank death. I have learned through experience that toilet paper, even though conspicuously labeled Safe for Septic Systems, is anything but. Over the years, I have accumulated a long list of Don’ts and have placed them throughout my guesthouse. Most prominent among these no-no’s is We are on a very fragile septic system. Do not put anything in the toilet unless you’ve eaten it first.

Immediately after delivering a short sentence of welcome to the seventeen beauties, I repeat the afore-mentioned warning. Laughs generally ensue. So I say it again, just for effect. As I do not have hidden cameras in the bathrooms, I can only hope they take my admonition seriously. As further inducement, I have often considered displaying photos of raw sewage coursing through the guesthouse hallways but, as a gracious host, I have avoided taking that step.

Watching rolls of Kirkland toilet paper disappear down the lavatory maw has more than once prompted me to consider allocating a finite number of sheets of tissue to each participant at the beginning of their stay. Those who may require more could buy surplus tissue from less needy guests, much like buying carbon credits.

Words most often heard at yogi meal time include gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan and, my favorite…what’s in this thing? In order to avoid being a conspicuous outcast, I eat the same food as our guests. After several retreats, I find that it matters little what the dish looks like. They all tend to run together much like my late father-in-law’s approach to eating Chinese food. Take a helping of pot-stickers,  cashew chicken, and sweet and sour pork; then mix the whole thing together with a big dollop of rice. Yummy.

Yogis are picky eaters. We ran out of almond milk that had been intended for flavoring coffee. Several of our guests took exception to its mysterious disappearance. Not wanting to be viewed as miserly, and always the gracious host, I ran to my car and drove down the hill to fetch more. I grabbed a half-gallon of stuff whose label screamed Almond Milk. I was a happy man. Upon returning, I looked more closely at the misleading container and was horrified to see the words “vanilla flavoring” and worst of all “sugar” in its list of ingredients. With full disclosure, I served it anyway.

Although I am a myriad of yoga levels below the seventeen goddesses stretched out on my great room floor, I usually try to participate with them in some very basic poses. This was not to be as I had injured myself during my prior week’s visit to the Ojai Yoga Shala. The class was ment for those like me who frighten easily. Overstretching is anathema and, to prove it, the name of the class is Restorative Yoga. Obviously intended for those who may have already injured themselves by doing things you would never do to your own child, the class promises a care-free romp through very basic stuff.

Proving that I nevertheless can do the wrong thing despite the odds, a mix of Downward Dog, Happy Cow and Cat Pose was like child’s play leading me down the garden path. Even though I avoided sinister sounding poses like Bharadvaja’s Twist and the infamous Deaf Man’s Delight, I managed to pull a ligament in my right butt attempting to do the more benignly named Crescent Lunge. I spent the next week and the entire retreat avoiding further injury and doing way too many crossword puzzles.

Leaving Jackie all alone in the clutches of her guests, I took time out from the Saturday afternoon portion of the retreat to attend a memorial service for my friend and neighbor, Ron Helson. He was a career Army man, a Green Beret colonel, and a member of various police forces throughout Southern California. Ron ended his career as a private ballistics expert who, on many occasions, could be heard discharging weapons in close proximity to my home. At such times I felt a strange dichotomy, both frightened and yet secure in knowing that Ron was on patrol.

Attending his memorial service were various comrades in arms, many of whom were in uniform. Presentation by a color guard and words uttered about Ron highlighted his career and his involvement with firearms. The memorial service ended with a flag folding ceremony and a three gun salute that left my ears ringing.

The memorial service with its military man’s emphasis was in stark contrast to the seventeen beauties at the yoga retreat and, in my mind, highlighted some of our cultural differences. The brashness of one versus the quietude of the other.  Neither being right or wrong, yet both being in sharp opposition to the ways of the other.

I came back to the retreat in time to say good-bye. I hope they come back again. Next time I won’t worry so much about toilet paper.

Crazy For You

Jackie and I made a spur of the moment decision Sunday morning. The Nordhoff High School kids were performing in Crazy for You and we had two hours to kill before our dinner date with friends in Oxnard.

Buying tickets was easy. You can do just about anything in bed so long as you have a smart phone. Jackie’s near obsession with the phone came in handy as her fingers whizzed across the key pad, every so often stopping at the enter key. Slam-bam, two tickets purchased and printed, including reserved seats.

The show was at the Matilija Middle School auditorium. Once filled with over two hundred seats designed for ten-year-olds who gleefully watched their parents suffer in cramped quarters, the auditorium now has seats big enough to get me through a two-hour sitting without tush fatigue.  A sell-out, our last-minute ticket purchase landed us in the rear of the auditorium, next to a chilled, rock hard wall.

We parked Jackie’s car and walked to the theater where we found John Hoj, the man saddled with the responsibility of casting the show. Normally somewhat muted, John comes alive when confronted with this kind of challenge. We wished him luck, but we all knew it was too late for that. People were already seated and waiting for the adventure to begin.

The room was nearly full. Recognizable faces dotted the throng and we waved and touched people we knew. We found our seats and began to settle down. The two seats directly in front of us were empty, affording an unobstructed view. But, based on my long history of sitting behind big hair and tall bodies, I knew it was only a teaser. As ordained, a normal sized woman and a Charles Atlas of a man, wearing a baseball hat of course, arrived and ruined my reverie. Mr. Atlas shoe-horned his way into the seat, squirmed a bit, and thankfully removed his hat.

He proved to be a shape-shifter. Someone who moves sideways, up and down and even diagonally in his seat. Sitting behind him caused me to match his movements in order to maintain some semblance of a semi-obstructed view. Those behind me were obliged to emulate my movements. Seen from above, it must have appeared as though we were performing the wave. During the show I was afforded a reasonable view of the left and center stage. Goings-on at stage-right were an unsolvable mystery.

What I saw of the show was wonderful. Some of the kids are obviously the beneficiaries of much talent and a goodly sum spent on private instruction. The other kids were showbiz stalwarts who knew that the show must go on, even as extras. The presence of a dozen or more musicians backing all of them up lent a Broadway like feeling to the performance. Reminding myself that these actors were not professionals helped keep things in perspective.

The behind the scenes stars of the show are George and Ira Gershwin. Based on the song writing team’s 1930 musical Girl Crazy, this show incorporates other Gershwin tunes and was first performed in 1992 when it won Broadway’s Tony Award.

Every musical piece begged for another. I could not get enough. My foot tapping escalated to singing along with the cast. Jackie’s soft left hand applied gentle caresses to my right knee as a benevolent caution to keep it down. I was euphoric. My smile must have been visible to astronauts on the moon.

As each tune was sung, I pointedly compared the lyrics to my own feelings. Much of them centered on Jackie. Biding My Time, Shall We Dance and Someone To Watch Over Me were surely intended to yank my heartstrings and dig deep down into my cerebral cortex as I reveled in their familiarity.

Although Embraceable You is sung by the show’s female lead, Polly, I can put my male heart into the lyrics as I silently sing the words to Jackie…

Embrace me,
My sweet embraceable you,
Embrace me,
My irreplaceable you
Just one look at you — my heart grew tipsy in me.
You and you alone bring out the gypsy in me.
I love all
The many charms about you;
Above all I want my arms about you!
Don’t be a naughty baby
Come to Polly — come to Polly — do!
My sweet embraceable you.

Or, listening to the poignant words of They Can’t Take That Away From Me, I was reminded of the many times I’ve thought about losing her…

The way you wear your hat,
The way you sip your tea,
The mem’ry of all that —
No, no! They can’t take that away from me!

The way your smile just beams,
The way you sing off-key,
The way you haunt my dreams —
No, no! They can’t take that away from me!

We can never, never meet again
On the bumpy road to love,
Still I’ll always, always keep
The mem’ry of —

The way you hold your knife,
The way we danced ’til three.
The way you changed my life —
No, no! They can’t take that away from me!
No! They can’t take that away from me!

I used to go to the opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in LA where I’d listen to Tosca’s lament and feel every note of Madame Butterfly’s aria. Tears would fill my eyes and I’d wonder why.  The same thing happened to me last Sunday in Ojai.  And I knew why.

The Deli Man

This is to remind you that the Yahrzeit of Morris Rothenberg will be observed on March 22, 2019.

The letter startled me as I had forgotten that my father had died in March. The letter went on to say that the annual Yahrzeit commemorates his death and commands me to say the Kaddish prayer, light a twenty-four-hour candle, and make a contribution to a worthy cause.

The Yiddish word Yahrzeit, of German origin, literally means anniversary time. I have no trouble pinpointing the year of my father’s death since it was in the same year that the Chicago Bears last won the Super Bowl. Perhaps their hapless attempts and failures since then are merely god’s little joke that perpetuates my ability to remember his passing. The Bears will, I’m sure, graciously continue their incompetent streak until I’m gone from this earth. Something to root for.

My father escaped the pogroms of the Soviet Union, fled to the promised land and worked hard to provide for his family. Never well-to-do, he did what was needed without complaint. He savored the little pleasures that were to him miraculous, given what he had known back in his Ukrainian shtetl.

His first job in Chicago was as a “puller.” Barely knowing any English, he would stand outside a men’s Maxwell Street clothing store and shout at passersby, “Hey, come in, good deal.” His attempts at “pulling” men into the store were sometimes accompanied by the removal of the unsuspecting man’s hat and tossing it through the open door into the store. My dad was small, and I’m surprised he survived that affront without at least a black eye. I guess he did whatever was needed to make a buck.

By the time I arrived in our crowded Albany Park apartment, Morris was in the deli business. First as a counter man at the Purity Delicatessen on Chicago’s Lawrence Avenue. The Purity was anything but. His stories about its cleanliness and treatment of customers would not survive today’s health department inspections. My favorite anecdotes involved clever ways of freeing up tables from those who had overstayed their welcome. A rat’s demise caused by a fall into the deep fat fryer was no reason to change the already overburdened oil.

By the time I was five or six, he had partnered with two other deli-tested guys, Ben and Morrie. They bought Oberman’s Delicatessen on Howard Street near the “L” and sold corned beef, pastrami, cole slaw and potato salad prepared by my mother, and other Jewish delights that make a deli a deli. They had no employees, regularly enlisted their wives’ help, and worked long hours.

Each of the three partners had one day off every week and every third Sunday. For as long as I can remember, Wednesday was my dad’s day off. Since I was in school on Wednesdays, my only extended time with him occurred every third Sunday. Much of that valuable time was spent lying next to my dad on a day bed in the dining room listening to Sunday afternoon radio programs.

We listened to Nick Carter, Master Detective. Then on to The Adventures of Sam Spade starring Howard Duff and created by Dashiell Hammett for the Maltese Falcon. And, my favorite, The Shadow with its chill provoking opening lines spoken by Frank Readick, Jr. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”

The Shadow may have known many things, but I remember little, other than the warmth of my father’s body and his hand on my shoulder. It was enough to permanently etch the memory of Sunday afternoons in my mind.

Gifts were not big on our agenda. Birthdays often passed with little notice. An exception occurred in my ninth year. My father came home on the first day of Chanukah with a large cardboard box. In it was a potpourri of toys, all used. An electric train took center stage, even though it had but one car and only enough tracks to complete a small circle. I watched the train circumnavigate the circle a thousand times. There were also two toy telegraph sending units that did nothing but click when you depressed the key. Because it had the Morse Code imprinted on the housing, I learned how to send an SOS. No one came to my rescue; but I didn’t need rescuing from anything, especially from my father.

Not schooled in any formal way, he wrote beautifully. He added up columns of numbers with lightning speed on the brown paper bags that Oberman’s customers took home laden with their corned beef, rye bread and dill pickles. He was an accomplished card player who fancied four-handed pinochle and ten-cent poker. He wasn’t a pushover. He never spanked me, and I never heard him fight with my mother who he loved dearly for nearly sixty years. I owe my own generosity, honesty and work ethic to him. Not because of what he said but because of what he did.

He suffered the ravages of old age including macular degeneration. I’d watch him sit sideways at the TV, viewing his beloved White Sox through the corner of his eye. Baseball was the only sport played slowly enough to allow him to reasonably focus on the images on the screen.

I missed my flight back to Los Angeles that day in 1986 when I overstayed my time in his hospital room. I kissed him good-bye. It was the last time I saw him.

I will celebrate his Yahrzeit next week by remembering what he did for me and for others. And by remembering how much I loved him. He was truly a mensch for all ages.

Feeling mortal

According to Merriam-Webster, the word mortal means causing or having caused death. After the events of the last seven days, I more fully understand what it means.

When I was younger, I played a silly game with myself. I’d think of my age and calculate the percentage of my life still ahead of me. For example, when I was twenty-five, I figured I’d live to the conservative age of seventy-five. So, I still had two-thirds of my life to live. It was comforting.

When I was fifty, I figured I had used up two-thirds of my probable seventy-five-year sojourn on this planet.  Since I was not a believer in the afterlife or of a micro-managing deity, it gave me little comfort to feel closer to the end than the beginning.

I’ll be eighty in a couple of months. And I no longer play that game.

When I was much younger and working for a living, I’d, more often than not, be the youngest person in the weekly staff meeting. Now younger people offer to carry groceries to my car in the Von’s parking lot, others hold open the door for me at the athletic club, and I’m always respectfully addressed as “sir.”

Last week I was driving up Sulphur Mountain Road to my house in the Upper Ojai. It had rained earlier in the day and the bone-chilling combination of high humidity and low temperature made me shiver. Even the car heater wasn’t good enough. The thick, dark cloud cover added to the dank conditions that were usually only found in Dracula movies starring either Bela Lugosi or Gary Oldman.

About a quarter-mile from my driveway, the road was partially blocked by three police cars and a troop of officers. They seemed on break, just standing idly by with their hands in their pockets, as though waiting for something to happen. I slowed the car and stopped alongside the patrol cars. And one other car that looked strangely familiar.

My neighbor Ron’s sons, Eric and Max, walked toward me. I rolled down my window and asked what was going on. Eric said “That’s my father, lying on the shoulder, covered by the yellow plastic tarp. He died here about thirty minutes ago.”

You’ve probably felt like this before. Someone says something that is so incongruous that, at first, you don’t fathom its meaning. Then it sinks in and, depending how close you’ve been to those involved, you experience some level of shock.

Ron had been our good neighbor for nearly twenty years. We had eaten together, shared stories at neighborhood parties and helped each other overcome life’s roadblocks. An inveterate and former pipe smoker, Ron had been ill for some years and his death was ordained. Nevertheless, its abrupt end on the muddy shoulder of the road he had traversed hundreds of times was unexpected. I thought he might go on indefinitely, despite the lung disease that eventually brought him to ground. I’ll miss him.

Earlier that same day, I had attended the weekly creative writing class at Help of Ojai. For many months, I’ve spent Thursday mornings listening to the stories, poems and life experiences crafted by a dozen or more gifted writers. I also offer my own brand of writing to those who are kind enough to listen. The two-hour weekly session ends with a sometimes agonizing quest to identify a restaurant that eight or more of us can abide. It’s a challenge that, at times, is more difficult than getting past the constructive criticism leveled at us by the incisive, grammatically correct class participants.

Creatures of habit, most of us regularly occupy the same seats at the large, square table, unless one is tardy and confronted by a full house. I sit next to Johan who generally is one of the first people to arrive.  Reared in South Africa, Johan offers insights into a country that only a native can tell. In truth, his writing is occasionally difficult to warm to and he is often bestowed with criticisms that are well-meant but which can also be disheartening. His ability to absorb these barbs is often tested, and I find myself caring for his fragile ego.

Last Thursday I found myself confronted by an empty chair on my right that is normally staked out by Johan. About ninety, his absence due to a cold or minor ache or pain would normally be unremarkable. Nevertheless, I did feel an eerie vacuum created by the empty chair. I missed his repartee, his signature hat and his cellphone that seemed to have a mind of its own, demonstrating it every so often by interrupting various readers with its strident, irreverent sound. At times, I thought Johan would strangle the offensive device. We ended our class and trooped to Ca’Marco for lunch…without Johan.

The next day, Friday, I arrived at Help of Ojai for my morning bus driving shift. Tina, a delightful woman who schedules the bus trips, said “I’m sorry about Johan.” My first thought was that he had been struck down by the flu or some other malady that laid him low, maybe even hospitalized. After telling Tina that I didn’t know anything about Johan, she told me that he had passed away the day before. I immediately visualized the empty chair and said, “I just sat next to him last Thursday.” And I thought, how could something like this happen so quickly, without so much as a by-your-leave. Without warning, a last good-bye, or another reading of the 123rd paragraph of his novel.

The passing of Ron and Johan on the same day caused me to focus on my own mortality. I suppose that’s normal. To measure your years alongside theirs. To think about the fickleness of death. To realize that life is fragile. To cause us to seize the opportunity, that we might otherwise delay if we were immortal. But, blessedly, our mortality brings with it the urge, even if momentarily, to do before we cannot. To love with all our heart. To be loved.

Maybe I’ll start that counting game again.


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