The Movies Are In Town

The Ojai Film Festival began this week. Steve Grumette, the festival’s artistic director, locked himself in his room from mid-August through September, viewing some five hundred entries. Assisting him in this herculean effort was a distinguished panel of movie buffs who finally selected the eighty-three films that made it to this year’s screen.

Steve and his comrade in arms, Jon Lambert, have been key actors in the event ever since the first festival in 2000. Since then, thousands of films have been delivered to them by aspiring directors, screen writers and actors.

This year’s festival runs ten days, from early morning to late at night. Tickets can be purchased for a single showing of about two hours, or for the entire festival. For some, viewing every one of the eighty-three films is akin to participating in a scavenger hunt with prizes awarded at each showing. People who participate at this level can be easily identified by the “All Events” pass hanging around their necks as well as their albino skin, beady red eyes and a paranoid aversion to sunlight.

A very professional looking brochure describes the films, show times and where they can be seen. True aficionados carefully analyze the showings and meticulously plan their visitations. I, on the other hand have but one requirement that takes precedence over all the other variables. It’s the venue and its physical comfort that are uppermost in my priorities.

Over the years, the festival has shown the films in various locations. This year there are but two; the Ojai Art Center and the Sane Living meeting room. The Sane Living meeting room was once the local mortuary which, due to a lack of enough deaths in the community, closed its doors. The building then experienced several reincarnations. The latest is a very attractive facility that features a vegan restaurant and the aforementioned meeting room. Regardless of the attractiveness of the facility, I shall forever think of it as The Funeral Home.

I do not sit well on anything other than a well upholstered chair. Anything less and my fanny begins to sing to me after about thirty minutes. And not sweet lullabies. No, more like a Sousa march that is urging me to get up from my chair and relieve the discomfort that has taken up permanent residence in my nether regions.

The Funeral Home offers folding chairs that can best be found in aisle five at Costco. A semi-cushioned seat falsely beckons one with the allure of the Greek Sirens. Past experience has taught me that my fanny cannot make it through a full-length film. Random shuffling on my seat begins at the thirty-minute mark. Alternately crossing my legs and shifting back to front gives only momentary respite. At the forty-five-minute mark, all is lost. I am totally focused on my aching buttocks and have no idea what’s happening up on the silver screen.

It is for this reason that I eliminated The Funeral Home from consideration. My attention was completely focused on The Art Center. The Center with its penchant for artistic as well as physical well being has recently installed new, fully padded seats. I could probably endure a double feature albeit with a great deal of squirming, pant leg stretches, and an infinite number of pee breaks.

On Thursday evening, Jackie and I journeyed to the Center. In our quest to be the skinniest couple in America, our sustenance that day had consisted of only a small Acai bowl ably prepared in the Arcade by Revel. I don’t really believe that Acai bowls are any more healthful than a double-double chocolate sundae with a gob of whipped cream. But it makes me feel better to fool myself into believing in the yet unproven health benefits of Acai.

We both love popcorn. Jackie can convince the snack bar server at most theaters to prepare a fresh batch of the stuff. I’m not exactly sure how she does it, but I think it has something to do with feigning a chronic illness that requires that the popcorn be consumed in less than ten minutes from time it is popped.

As the Film Festival was not popping corn, we took it upon ourselves to clandestinely stow two bags of Boom Chicka Popcorn in a cleverly disguised tote. One bagful covered with Sea Salt and the other with Salted Caramel. I took the precaution of doubling up on my blood pressure medication.

Upon arriving at the Art Center, we were informed that food was unwelcome in the theater. The Festival had promised to keep the new seats pristine and were, therefore, only permitting entry with nothing more than water bottles. With nowhere to stash the Boom Chica Popcorn, we, however, felt obliged to take it to our seats where we silently swore to forego its marvelous taste. That oath lasted about ten minutes. The craving was overwhelming, and we silently ripped a San Andreas fault-sized tear in one of the bags. Realizing that chewing the delectable morsels could give us away, we ate them one kernel at a time, first soaking them into submission with our own saliva. Not yummy, but acceptable.

The first film was a five-minute animated short called Surfer Joe. The two guys who produced the film spent more time answering questions than the time consumed in running the film.

The second film, Lessons, ran ten minutes. I have no recollection of what it was about.

The third, and anchor film, was called Whitefish Season and its scheduled run time was ninety-eight minutes. Made in the middle east, the film was subtitled. Given my hearing loss, ably attested to by the two monoliths ensconced behind my suitably large ears, I hunger for subtitles. However, perhaps because of the supersonic talking speed adopted by the mostly shrieking actors, the subtitles whizzed by at the speed of light. As I was unable to tear my eyes away from the subtitles at the bottom of the screen, the film might as well have been a book. Some twenty minutes into the film, and never seeing a whitefish, Jackie and I looked at each other, retrieved what remained of our Boom Chica Popcorn and exited the theater.

Overcoming our depression, we returned to the theater on Saturday and saw Nose to Tail.  A handsomely crafted film, it chronicles one day’s unimaginable nightmares suffered by its protagonist, an aging chef. The film more than made up for the disappointments of our prior day. We celebrated by devouring a full platter of ribs at the Deer Lodge.

The people who made, and then submitted, the five hundred films are to be congratulated for their willingness to stand up and be panned by people like me. Their courage to do something different and to risk being unheralded or worse is cause for true celebration.

“The saddest journey in the world is the one that follows a precise itinerary. Then you’re not a traveler. You’re a fucking tourist.”
― Guillermo del Toro

Man’s best friend

Is it really man’s best friend?

I’ve been driving the Help of Ojai bus ever since we moved to Ojai twenty years ago, except for a couple of years when Ila was ill. My usual shift starts at eight on Friday mornings and ends a little after noon.

My clients are generally older and have given up driving. Being homebound is all too often a sad result. I pick them up at home and deliver them to physician offices, the grocery, hairdressers and other destinations which might otherwise be unreachable. For some folks, the bus is the only way they can get out of the house.

During my rewarding career as a bus driver, I’ve had my share of mishaps including varying degrees of bodily injury; to me, not to my clients. One that stands out vividly occurred several years ago.

Many of my riders are mildly incapacitated; some use a walker. Walkers come in various shapes, colors and sturdiness. Some are festooned with saddlebags and other accouterments. Some are simple in design while others require a degree from MIT to fold them flat in order to load them onto the bus. All of the beasts sadistically defy me as I try to lift them up the steps of the bus and through the narrow entry door.  I put them in a place that varies with my mood, so long as they can be safely stowed without the risk of them hurtling through the confines of the nine-passenger metal behemoth with which I deftly negotiate the streets of Ojai.

The walker folding process requires a certain degree of dexterity. The two sets of legs are folded using a scissors like movement that involves paying close attention to the location of one’s fingers, lest they become painfully pinched in the process. And that’s what happened to me.

My client that morning required the use of a walker as well as the lift. Being relatively non-communicative added to the challenge. Seating her went without a hitch, and I then began to flatten the walker. The scissor-like motion reached its high point when the tip of my little finger lodged securely between the two legs. Ignoring the searing pain for the moment, I attempted to open the scissors and free my finger. Alas, two hands are required to open the legs.

My client, comfortably seated and ignorant of the drama unfolding behind her, was of no use. Being the proud owner of two feet, I stood unsteadily on one of them and used the other as a wedge shoved between the walker’s legs. After what seemed like a fortnight of acrobatics, I was able to extract my pinky from the jaws of the monster. Profuse bleeding was the next cause for alarm. It was staunched with a box of Kleenex and the on-board first aid kit stocked for such mindless mishaps. Driving with one hand became de rigueur for the rest of the morning.  I can show you my scar if something like that excites you.

This Friday started out normally. Go to the gym at 6am. Treadmill for an hour while watching season two of the Kominsky Method on Netflix, shower and then head over to Help of Ojai. Have a quarter section, or two, of a yummy turkey sandwich made by Glenda, some surprisingly good coffee prepared by Meagan and then check out the bus for unwelcome critters, discover a nearly empty gas tank and a windshield that could only be cleaned with a Brillo pad.

Check out the manifest. The usuals…Melvia, Karen, Rosie, George, Betty…and one new name, Joyce. Going to the doctor, Joyce was to be picked up at 9:30 for her ten o’clock appointment. The early morning crowd delivered safely to their chosen locations, I headed over to Joyce’s mobile home park.

I arrived two minutes early, opened her gate and rapped on the door. A small, furry dog exited through the doggy door and took up a position close to my left leg. A cute little guy with a reassuringly mild disposition, he just begged to be stroked. And so I did, while waiting for Joyce to emerge.

I could hear Joyce calling for Charlie to come back in the house. Having none of that, Charlie sprinted away from me, ran through the gate that I had obligingly left open, and disappeared down the driveway. Joyce arrived and I pointed in Charlie’s general direction. Joyce called out. And, after what seemed like an eternity, he reappeared at the foot of the driveway. We beseeched him to come closer. He did but stopped short of the gate as though pondering his alternatives.

He moved slightly forward. I detected some misgivings in his tiny brown eyes. Seizing the fleeting opportunity, I reached down and gently cradled his ten-pound body in my two hands. What had once been a small, cuddly friend of man, became an enraged bull mastiff. He opened his jaws and clamped them on the root end of my thumb which had, prior to this event, been minding its own business. The pain took me back to my years’ ago adventure with the iron walker.

Charlie was intent on becoming a permanent part of my right hand. Perhaps he had second thoughts. Perhaps he felt that he had inflicted enough punishment commensurate with my indiscretion. He loosened his vice-like grip and bounded happily over to Joyce who said one or two “bad dogs” and without any further ado, deposited a newly cherubic Charlie in the place from whence he came.

Bleeding was becoming a habit of mine deserving of a Purple Heart. Charlie’s teeth had produced two punctures that appeared quite similar to those that might have been inflicted by a king cobra. My customary use of Kleenex seemed to only aggravate the flow. Thankfully, Joyce produced a large band-aid from her purse, and wrapped securely, I was able to deliver her to her appointment, drive one-handed back to Help and apply a vat of antiseptic ointment to calm my distress.

I had forgotten to ask Joyce if Charlie was up to date with his shots. Scary thoughts about rabies proliferated in my frontal cortex. Magnifying the possible implications of a frothing-at-the-mouth dog, followed by equally terrifying rabies shots, occupied my time until we were able to confirm that neither I nor Charlie would be appearing in a re-run of The Wolfman.

Walkers and dogs are often thought of as man’s best friends. But sometimes it might be better to remain more platonic.

Chumash Revenge

I wondered about the size of their electric bill.

Lorraine’s sister Liz celebrated her sixtieth birthday this past weekend. One of four Sandoval sisters, Liz is the first to reach that scary plateau. A sweet woman, Liz was kind enough to include Jackie and me in the A-list of invitees.

We bivouacked in Solvang, a town about ninety minutes from Ojai. With a Danish flavor, Solvang is cutesy and funky, having somehow survived the move into the twenty-first techno century. Looking a bit jaded, the town offers lots of places to eat Danish pastries, shop for useless merchandise, and eventually produce a nagging feeling of so, what do I do next?

To fill the insatiable need for something to do, the Chumash Indians have conveniently provided a place to quickly address that empty feeling.

Today, the Chumash are estimated to have a population of less than 5,000 members. Many current members can trace their ancestors to the five islands of Channel Island National Park. Suffering the same fortunes as other Native Americans, their members died off rapidly with the coming of Spanish sailing ships with their cargo of influenza and smallpox, eagerly distributed by the unwelcome visitors.

As though in retribution for the damage done to them, the Chumash now inflict economic hardship on a monumental scale never envisaged by their ancestors. With neither bows and arrows nor war clubs, today’s Chumash conquer their historical oppressors in unprecedented numbers.

Highway 246, taken due east from Solvang for seven minutes, brings one to the Chumash Casino and Resort. A first-time visitor with Jackie in tow, I was concerned about missing the turn-off. My fear was unfounded as the stark white monolith dramatically appeared on the horizon. It was probably visible from the moon and beyond.

It was Saturday and the parking lot seemed filled to capacity. A drab, multi-level, solid concrete lot that defies your sense of direction, you could easily lose your car and prolong your stay. Thereby affording you another chance to win it back from the gaming tables where you had just lost it.

As with any new adventure, we clicked our heels together and blithely skipped through  the third level lot where a sign proudly proclaimed “Casino.” Not unexpectedly, we were confronted with patrons going in the opposite direction, who seemed less animated than those of us headed into the casino. Their dour, lifeless expressions did not bode us well.

Cash is a relatively unknown commodity in Jackie’s world. Plastic proliferates, while U.S treasury bills are as rare as unicorns. As we approached the bowels of the casino, Jackie proudly announced that she had twenty dollars with which to make her fortune. “I feel lucky” became the watchword of her faith. Why should I spoil her fun by reminding her that they only build these big buildings because everyone eventually contributes handsomely to that common cause? Besides, I thought, how much damage can one do with only twenty dollars?

We were confronted by a vast armada of slot machines, some 2.300 of them as proudly announced on the casino’s website. But these were not your mother’s machines. These were something designed by alien beings who intended to rob you of your senses while emptying your wallet. Some were eight feet tall. Others were eight feet wide. All were adorned with multi-colored lights and accompanied by sounds that defied description. A cacophony that allowed me to stow my hearing aids for fear of further hearing loss. Intending to further dull one’s senses, there were no clocks or windows, and no way of telling night from day.

Jackie began a quest for the one special machine that would make her financially independent.  Obstacles were thrown at her. Seeking a simple machine that had only three symbols of cherries, lemons and plums across its face seemed impossible. Most of the bandits had far more symbols, whole fruit baskets of symbols strewn over multiple rows.

Jackie’s pace quickened as she scanned the horizon. I was pressed to keep up as she raced through the rows and semi-circles filled with the electronic behemoths. A machine for nearly everyone’s economic status, they were all too willing to take your pennies, depriving you of even the barest necessities.

Hailing a passing attendant, Jackie described her needs. Three classic symbols and the ability to bet a dollar a pull. A dollar a pull? How far, I thought, would that take her twenty dollars? She repeated her requirements and was escorted to a dank, dark place where the ancients had once played.

She scanned the row of machines and then, as if it was meant to be, selected one. She plunked her cute fanny onto the comfy chair in front of it. Without any further investigation of the machine’s rules and regulations, she deftly inserted her $20 bill into the slot from which it would never again emerge. Gotta give her credit for her moxie, I thought. “Twenty Credits” popped up on the screen. So far so good.

With nary a hesitation, she punched the button that spun her future. A loser. I glanced at the place where “Twenty Credits” had once occupied a place of honor. It now read “Eleven Credits.” Wait a minute, I thought. What’s going on here. I tried to get Jackie’s attention. Too late, she punched the button again. Now only “Two Credits” appeared in the murky depths of the bandit’s screen. Horrified that she had bet $9 with each punch, Jackie emerged from her ten second reverie and entered a period of despair.

I could not stand seeing the anguish on her face. A once proud woman now bent at the knee. A life of anticipated riches disappearing in moments. I reached into my pocket and produced a twenty-dollar bill. A smile appeared on her face. Her eyes twinkled. All was right with the world.

Eventually tiring of enriching the Chumash, we began our trip back to reality by making several wrong turns that took us further into the casino, instead of the sanctuary of the parking lot. Just enough of a delay for me to marvel again at the magical sea of machines with their strident sounds and bright lights.

I wondered about the size of their electric bill. As if it made a difference.

I’m a Townie

The ride up the Dennison Grade last Thursday was interminable.

I had made that trip, sometimes twice a day, for nearly twenty years. More than seven thousand round trips. I start by driving one mile down Sulphur Mountain Road, carefully avoiding collisions on the all too narrow road. I turn left on Highway 150 after assuring myself that speeding cars are not lurking in the shadows of the ancient oaks that line the road. I cruise by the seasonal yellow mustard fields on the Black Mountain Ranch. I wind down the seemingly endless Dennison Grade, ticking off the twenty-three turns. I reach the bottom of the hill where Boccali’s restaurant gives me the first evidence of a civilization set apart from the Upper Ojai. Not yet finished, I drive another two miles into the middle of town. A one-way total of eight miles. Consuming thirty-six minutes of my life during each round trip.

And I had loved nearly every minute of it. Until last Thursday.

Two weeks earlier, I had sold my house on Sulphur Mountain Road and had moved into town. I traded those thirty-six driving minutes for the freedom to walk to restaurants, stores and community events. In those two weeks I thought that my car’s fuel gauge had malfunctioned; it didn’t seem to move. I walked to a friend’s house for dinner last Tuesday and thought “In twenty years I’ve never gone out to dinner without first getting into my car.”

I had lived those many years in the Sulphur Mountain house. My sweetheart and I built it. She died in it. With her death and my inevitable aging, it became clear that I needed to move from the mountain to the town. With her passing, the house seemed to have doubled in size. It had become too silent. Even the birds seemed to visit less frequently. The olive groves, once a delightful diversion, now seemed a burden. The mountain vistas lingered, but the inevitable night abruptly shut them down.

Jackie loved the spaciousness of the mountain house during her too infrequent visits. Spoiled by the advantages of town living, her zeal for dragging that very cute fanny up and down the Dennison Grade waned. Night driving on the darkened roads proved too much of a burden. She never said, “You should move.” But my feelings for her helped push me off the mountain and into “Townie” living.

It took fifteen months to sell the mountain home, and one day to buy the home in town. Escrow on both homes closed the same day; think of it as a whirlwind love affair. The town home is about half the size of the mountain home and its diminished storage capacity was a challenge. Twenty years of accumulated detritus required a hardened heart as I waded through it. And in every room, closet, drawer and cabinet I was confronted by memories. Photographs seemed to emerge from everywhere. Birthday and anniversary cards numbered in the hundreds. Like buried land mines, Ila had stowed them in dark recesses that hid them from prying eyes.

Letters between two lovers had been placed in the backs of her dresser drawers; I could not bear reading them. And in every instance a decision was needed. Toss or keep. At first, I kept nearly everything. As I realized the futility of it, I began to toss more. Would the children be deprived of some legacy if I tossed rather than kept? Probably not, I lied to myself. So I tossed more and more. Without ceremony. Without a proper burial. Like junk, the cards, letters and photos were deposited in king-sized black plastic garbage bags. Lugged to the garage, they awaited a trip to the dumpster. There were times I wanted to run after them. But didn’t.

Packing boxes soon littered the house. My god, I thought, who needs seven frying pans. A fish poacher that had been used once with disappointing results. Twelve different fruit extracts, only one of which had ever crossed our palates. What were we thinking when we saved scores of empty plastic containers with mismatched lids? Silverware that hadn’t seen the light of day more than twice in twenty years. Ten flower vases that had once held the precious flowers I sent her.

The movers arrived with the cast from Spartacus. Brawny guys, lean and mean guys and one that looked like he needed a good meal. They wrapped artwork, hung clothes in garment boxes and dragged everything onto two trucks. “It’ll never fit in the new house” I thought. But it did. All sixty-five boxes, a rowing machine and Jackie’s treadmill in a pinch.

Oliver and I unpacked. As we did so, I felt the urge to toss some more. And I did, setting aside items that might find their way into more needy hands. We filled cabinets. We stuffed clothes in bedroom dressers and filled every square inch of kitchen space with only three frying pans and a blessedly diminished horde of other items. It was sort of like running a video of the packing phase, only backwards. Empty boxes and discarded wrapping paper were enough to start an Ojai version of the Chicago Fire.

I’m settling in. I can hear cars go by. They make a whooshing sound, just like the surf rolling in off the Pacific. People are as close as a hundred feet away. Their faces visible. They stop, we chat, just like neighbors are supposed to do. There are two youngsters next door at Danni’s and James’ house. My doorbell rang last Sunday, and Danni’s brother was there asking me if it was alright to come into my yard to retrieve a ball the kids had tossed. “Sure,” I said. “Please do, and then do it some more.”

I always wanted a porch. And now I have one. It’s an overstuffed chair that cost $5 at a garage sale. It sits in my garage. I open the overhead door, grab a sandwich and sit in that chair. I can see some of the Topa Topa mountains. But more importantly, I can see and hear the sounds of life.

I drove up to the mountain house last Thursday to check my old mailbox. The ride was interminable. I’m glad I’m a Townie.

The Hat Makes the Man

My father wore a fedora hat. For those who may not have seen many 1940 gangster movies, yet want to see old time fedoras, I direct you to any movie starring George Raft, Jimmy Cagney or Brian Donlevy. They, and just about every man in their movies, wore a fedora, especially if there was a scene inside a police station or a newspaper office.

My sources tell me that the name “fedora” is derived from the character Fedora  Romanoff , played by Sarah Bernhardt in an 1887 play. Fedora’s etymology stems from the Greek word theodoros, meaning gift of god. Although I can’t quite see the connection, I suppose it’s better than calling it the Gaga hat in honor of the Lady of the same name. In any event, Bernhardt wore the hat in the play and it was soon adopted by other women. It wasn’t seen on men’s heads until the 1920’s, when England’s Prince Edward wore it.

There was no utilitarian reason to wear the Fedora. It did little to keep one’s head warm and provided no shielding in case some bad guy got a bead on your noggin. It was merely a fashion that for several decades found its way onto a man’s head, including that of my father.

More recently, you may have spied a fedora on Professor Henry Jones’ head, aka Indiana Jones, aka Harrison Ford. Without that hat to compliment his whip, Indiana would have looked like a two-bit lion tamer instead of the adventurous hero we all paid good money to see. His attachment to the hat was played out in multiple scenes where the wayward hat very nearly escaped his grasp, only to be snatched back by our hero in the nick of time.

My father’s hat was dark brown with a black swath of cloth, maybe silk, curled around the bottom of the crown. He seemed at ease wearing it and, despite his diminutive stature, often appeared to fit with my idea of what a dashing movie star should look like. When he died, the hat continued to be the living embodiment of him. I tried wearing it but it was late in the fedora life cycle and I felt somewhat foolish parading about with it on my inappropriate head. The hat eventually found its way into my son’s hands where it rests today in some dark corner of his closet, waiting for societal rediscovery of the pleasures of wearing one.

Jackie and I just returned from a whirlwind tour of Croatia, Edinburgh and London. It would take quite some time to explain just how that itinerary evolved. Let’s just say it happened and save the details for another day.

We ended our journey in London, where I was relieved of whatever funds remained unspoken for. We walked constantly, much like those poor survivors of the Bataan death march. Often being led astray by Google Maps and Siri, we occasionally walked in circles thereby turning a one-mile trip into a two-mile adventure. Perhaps driving on the wrong side of the English road confused the usually faithful device.

Aimless wandering brought us to Jermyn Street near the site of the British Parliament. The street was populated with men’s shops. Dozens of them, each with a somewhat narrow focus. Suits but not shoes. Shirts but not underwear. And then there was this hat store.

Bates, Gentlemen’s Hatter since 1898 was emblazoned on the shop window. I scanned the display for a moment too long and, as a consequence, heard Jackie say, “you should get a hat.”

My hat buying experience generally goes something like this. Buy a hat, put it in the closet, let it rot. But we were on vacation and I needed a respite from marching. So we entered the store and met Ralph, a kindly, easy going salesman. Without much prompting, I said “I’d like one of those hats that lay flat on your head.”

Ralph responded, “you mean a flat cap.” Some things are too easy.

The best way of describing a flat cap is to envision the corner newsboy hawking the latest edition of the London Times. With his knickers and flat cap, he looks much like Mickey Rooney who played alongside Spencer Tracy in Boys Town. Or, on a more mature scale, any of the hundreds of coal miners descending to their death in How Green Was My Valley.

Ralph took me to a cabinet that appeared to contain hundreds of flat caps and suggested I just try one on for size. Sure I thought, I know how that goes. He lovingly cradled one in his hands and offered it to me like it had some magical properties. I put it on. It was indeed magical.

I have tried on dozens of hats. Baseball caps, wool hats, berets, straw hats and fedoras. Each fitting was always accompanied by dozens of random adjustments intended to make the hat feel comfortable on my head. The best I ever achieved was “acceptable.” Perhaps that’s why my closet is stuffed with unworn hats of all shapes and colors. Most have seen the light of day only once.

The Bates flat cap fit perfectly. It was as though I had been designed for it and had been guided from California to Croatia to Edinburgh to London to Jermyn Street to fulfill my destiny. I might never remove that hat. It was me.

I did not ask “how much.” I would have pawned Jackie’s ring to possess that hat. I lusted for it. It had a case. A case for a flat cap. Decadent. I forked over my Visa card and hoped there was enough left in reserve to cover it.

“I’ll wear it, please.” And I silently thought “forever.”

Starvation Palace

I weighed 135 pounds this morning. Four pounds less than a week ago.

A week since the crowded Amtrak train pulled into the downtown San Diego station after nearly six hours on the rails. As the train ground to a halt, I looked for her through the window. And there she was, wearing that floppy black and white hat that reminds me so much of Jackie Kennedy. Only this time it was Jackie Sherman, the woman I love.

The doors opened and I stepped onto the platform. Like a soldier returning from the front, I took her in my arms and kissed that sweet face. I had sorely missed her and was glad that my time away from her smile was finally over. It had been a long week.

I stowed my bags in her car and we took the fifteen-minute trip to Optimum Health Institute in Lemon Grove, a town that is the antithesis of its San Diego neighbor and sorely in need of an interior decorator. It was my third time at the OHI health retreat and I found myself unexpectedly looking forward to my visit.

My first OHI visit two years ago was filled with apprehension. The recurring thought during my seven days there was, “What am I doing here?” I had felt surrounded by people who wanted relief from real health challenges or who simply wanted to drop unwanted pounds. Neither of which seemed to match my needs. Regardless of the goal, the principal solution professed by the institute was the same; a change in your eating habits. Coupled with meditation and non-denominational faith, the solution seemed obvious.

Careful to avoid claims of miraculous cures of incurable maladies, OHI simply focused on the elimination of much of what I enjoyed. Salt, sugar, oil, animal products, alcohol and caffeine topped the list of the greatest offenders. In addition to the acceptable foods, a strict protocol prescribed the way in which they should be combined during mealtime so not to offend each other as they proceeded from your mouth through your gut.

Wheatgrass juice is a staple component of the OHI diet. Its legendary benefits are accepted by all and we are expected to slug down a two-ounce serving twice a day. We process the wheatgrass in a room specifically designated for that purpose. Great handfuls of what appears to be Kentucky Bluegrass in need of mowing are carefully run though a juicer that could, if one is careless, add some human protein to the mix; an OHI diet no-no. One’s juicing skills are honed over time and the process takes on an almost religious bearing. Drinking the juice takes some practice as its taste has been occasionally compared to motor oil and other unmentionables. As for me, I love the stuff.

After three visits to OHI, I consider myself quite adept at the processing of the grass. As an added benefit, extracting the liquid leaves behind a poultice that has, by itself, been deemed to cure aches, pains and a plethora of sexual inadequacies. But then, I wouldn’t know anything about that.

The elimination of tasty foods and the imbibing of the holy juice are intended to cleanse one’s system which contains rotting food and other nasties that have lived in us for years. They hide in secret, otherwise unreachable, places in our gut, especially in our colon. Toward that end (no pun intended), multiple colonics are a featured component of the cleansing process. Generally unmentionable in polite company, OHI participants are gleefully verbose about the process and its benefits. Four ounces of freshly processed wheatgrass juice are a vital element of the colonic. Only this time the magic elixir is squirted up one’s butt to lay down a coating that is sure to destroy the pests that have been living quite happily somewhere in the dark. Those campers who are seen toting the precious liquid in a see-through plastic container are readily identifiable as being on their way to the very popular colonic ladies.

The OHI carte du jour features a basic assortment of simple food that would be familiar to anyone who has spent quality time in a Siberian gulag. Raw vegetables are featured at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Occasionally, something composed of raw vegetables tries, without success, to appear tasty. But like kosher bacon, one is not fooled for long. Six salad dressings of different colors are available; however, lacking oil and salt, I was hard pressed to taste the difference between them. Cooking vegetables is prohibited as anything heated beyond 105 degrees is determined to be substantially lacking in nutrition.

The elimination of anything that might cause fluid retention, such as salt, results in the elimination of prodigious amounts of body fluid.  Multiple trips from one’s bed to the bathroom becomes a nightly occurrence. Banging into unfamiliar furniture and the inability to find the correct light switch only adds to the festivities. Drinking four quarts of water during the day exacerbates the nightly adventure. I often believed that I would become totally dehydrated, much like that misbegotten bad guy who drank from the wrong cup as he searched for the holy grail in that Indiana Jones movie. Needless to say, I lost weight.

OHI leaves any claims of miracle cures to the participants, many of whom are all too happy to let everyone know about them. During my first OHI visit, I was highly skeptical of the entire proceedings. However, unwilling to be ostracized and banished from my sweetheart’s loving arms, I avoided snarky smirking as I sat through the classes and the testimonials of those who had been cured..

My second trip to the institute was easier. I knew what was in store for me. The classes were a bit more advanced and the food regimen unsurprising. Forsaking any hope for a more pleasing diet led me to clandestinely bootleg a daily cup of Starbuck’s dark roast and create a room stocked with bananas, peanut butter, grapes, nutritional shakes and chewy power bars. Careful to maintain appearances, all these were in addition to the OHI supplied Bugs Bunny diet of raw greens. I lost more weight.

And so now we come to my third and most recent trip. I found myself looking forward to it; a revelation in itself. Now an upper classman, my apprehension was gone. The food was no better, but it met my low expectations. Starbucks was still on my diet along with the other frowned upon supplements. What did change dramatically was my understanding and acceptance of the health improvements attested to by my fellow campers. I no longer smirked. I listened attentively. I heard them praise the program and describe the changes that had improved their lives. These were sane, intelligent people. And I thought, who am I to judge them? Who am I to demean their beliefs? Who am I to doubt their truthfulness?

And who am I to risk missing another trip to Lemon Grove with the beautiful lady in the black and white Jackie Kennedy hat?

The Moose Lamp

My son Steven would have been fifty-two this month. But his life was cut short at forty-three by his death in 2011.

Memories of him floated to the top today when I attended my bereavement group, an event that takes place every Tuesday from 10:30 until noon. Housed in a small, Ikea style conference room in the west end of Ojai, there are no frills. The lighting is dim and there are no cookies. In addition to an outpouring of feelings, there are tears, extended silences and, blessedly, enough occasional laughter to raise one’s spirits a notch or two.

I’ve become a regular who began participating after my sweet wife Ila passed away almost two years ago. During that time, my attendance has morphed from a focus on Ila to one that includes both she and Steven. I often picture them together, arguing; and I smile. Always looking for a bargain, I also take advantage of this group therapy to talk about my relationships with other loved ones.

The number of Tuesday gatherers varies from as few as three to as many as nine. Mostly women who have lost their husbands, we have others who’ve lost parents and children. Regulars, loosely defined as those who have been coming more than three months, usually predominate. New faces join periodically while some regulars stop coming. Others leave, rest, and then return months later. Some come once and are never seen again. It’s not for everyone.

It’s not clear why some people come every week while others attend less frequently. The reasons they come are clear and fairly consistent, but the frequency with which they appear seems governed by inexplicable, unsaid reasons.

For me, one who disdains being idle, the meeting is a block of time that I don’t have to otherwise fill. It also provides the social exposure that I treasure. My home on the hill, while in a beautiful setting, does not easily offer personal interaction. The quarter-meter plan that once allowed TV watchers to deposit quarters in boxes attached to their sets is not an available option. And, more importantly I can comfortably say things that would remain unsaid in other settings.

I arrived at today’s meeting a few minutes late. Making the non-obligatory excuse for my tardiness, I described my trip from Vons to the vacuum cleaner repair shop in Ventura and back. A trip of fifty-eight minutes that I claimed to be a new world record. Satisfied that I had been forgiven, I took my usual chair at table, sat back and scanned the crowd.

A man who I had not seen before sat opposite me. When newcomers join the group, the rest of us introduce ourselves. I’m Fred. My wife died almost two years ago. I’ve been coming regularly and, yada, yada, yada. Depending on the urgency of the need to get something off one’s chest, an introduction can often take as much time as chanting the first five books of Moses, in Hebrew.

Some people are eloquent and engaging. Others, less so. The man opposite me merely said his name and added succinctly, “My thirty-year old son passed away in December.” Nothing else. Then he shifted in his chair and assumed a slouched position that non-verbally said ‘I don’t know why I came here and I shall remain silent for the next ninety minutes.”

Time rolled on. People told stories and described feelings that might go unheard in confessionals or even in a bed shared by two lovers. Yet the man opposite me seemed unmoved. His lids occasionally hid his eyes and he often furtively glanced at his smart phone. Yet, even with his seeming detachment, he appeared troubled.

Our group leader is a master at drawing people out. Never asking directly, she has the uncanny ability to elicit words from an otherwise reticent participant. “Fred, do you think you could share something about your son Steven that might be of value to our newest member?”

Of course, I thought. The moose lamp. And I told its story.

Steven bought a ten-inch high table lamp at a garage sale. Maybe he paid as much as two dollars. It had a tiny bulb and a shade that had the image of a moose on it. When you turned the lamp on, its light shone in a way that accentuated the moose. Tacky at best, Steven kept it on a table in his apartment and switched it on every night. And turned it off when he went to bed. Never very sentimental, he nevertheless loved the moose lamp.

In the last month of his life, I was with him in his home when I stumbled and caught my foot in the lamp’s cord. The lamp fell off the table with a sound that presaged disaster. I picked it up as though it were a baby, flicked the lamp’s switch and was horrified to watch it stay dark. My son David was standing next to me and I said, “I don’t care what it costs, I want that lamp repaired and working before Steven is gone.”

David picked up the lamp, looked at the cord and sarcastically said, “Well we might first try plugging it in.” We did and the light shone through the moose and into my eyes. Laughter replaced tension.

Steven died a few weeks later. Aside from his guitars, the only valuable object in his apartment was the moose lamp. I wanted it and I took it. The two-dollar lamp now sits on an expensive table in my living room. I look at it each time I pass. I light it when the feeling takes me there. Memories flood back of Steven’s stubbornness and ego-centrism. But the lamp also reminds me of the special moments when I loved him most. Memories that assure me that his passing need not always be filled with sadness.

I don’t know if my story of the moose lamp helped the man opposite me. But it made my day.


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