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.

Now that’s what I call music

Susan and I were in the library bookstore waiting for the Servpro man. We’ve been trying to locate a mysterious odor that’s bedeviled us for over a year, and had high hopes that our search would end with the Servpro man’s arrival.

Chatting while waiting led to my description of the Sunday Music Festival closing concert that included Stravinsky and Gershwin. “Gershwin? Now that’s what I call music”, Susan said with her voice and her infectious smile.

I know what she means. Call it avant garde, cutting edge, new age or atonal, the Ojai Music Festival is either fabulous or unfathomable, depending on your willingness to absorb all it can throw at you. A festival that points with pride to a symphony composed for kitchen plates, and pianists who play with their elbows, it minimally deserves kudos for the bravery it shows in the face of potential brickbats.

Last year we bought tickets to all the events, spanning four days and nights. I laughingly remember the locker room conversation I had at the athletic club with a fellow member immediately following last year’s festival. He, like most Ojai citizens, hadn’t gone to the festival but had been close enough to hear the performers practicing at Libbey Bowl. I asked, “How did you know it was practice?”

Having learned our lesson, Jackie and I cravenly decided to limit our exposure. We only bought tickets to a single two-hour performance, the Sunday late afternoon closing event. Anna, who works for the festival, had touted me on this one, saying “Try it, you’ll only be moderately disappointed.” She wasn’t being funny since she knows my limits and is wary of over-promising.

With some trepidation and armed with our $150 tickets, we coasted into the bowl and located our seats. On the left, five rows from the stage, on the aisle. A note was stuck to my seat that said “Fred, thank you for your generous support of the festival this year. You help make it possible.” Oh, so now it’s my fault, I thought.

We waved at those we knew, traded hugs with those closer by. We sat on blow-up seat cushions that I had long ago learned were the make or break feature of any event at the bowl. We were early and, as punishment for our ignorance of protocol, periodically shifted in our aisle seats in order to allow others who were fashionably late, to pass down the row to their seats.

I picked up the 126-page program book. A feat by itself. Readily admitting to my need for recognition, I flipped to the donor pages and found my name. Two years ago, Ila’s name was also there. It now was sadly conspicuous by its absence. I also thought back to the loss of our son, Steven, eight years ago and the beginning of our annual donation in his memory. A stubborn musician with unfulfilled aspirations, I think he would have appreciated our support of the dozen festival interns, a fledgling group of budding musicians.

Though the bowl was nearly full, no one sat in front of us. Somehow making us feel special, we waited. It was very warm. People were dressed casually. Some had removed their shoes. It was comfortable and without tension. The occasional bird made welcoming sounds. Just enough breeze blowing to take the edge off the heat.

The musicians, members of the Dutch ensemble, Ludwig, entered the stage casually, without caring about the attendant noise of adjusting their chairs and music stands. Fifty men and women in relaxed clothing, they mirrored the attire of the audience before them. Young and energetic, they had survived nearly four days of demonstrating their prowess and were ready for the finale.

Barbara Hannigan, the conductor and an accomplished soprano, entered stage right to an obviously enamored audience. Clapping hands and some early over-anxious risers greeted her.

The performance began with Stravinsky’s Pulcinella.  Described as a comedic ballet interspersed with songs, it has twenty-one movements, from overture to finale. I normally dread anything more than three movements since I am forced to count them down, 21, 20, 19…while lusting for the blessed finale. It can make for a very long afternoon.

Yet I was surprised by my reaction. Rather than being atonal or unfathomable, I found it boring. I wanted something more cutting edge. Something more challenging. Something to hold my attention. Was I becoming one of them? Them that I had criticized for admiring the emperor’s new clothes. Them that had bedeviled me for years as lovers of the unlovable. Then there was a break. Time for me to recover from what surely must have been caused by the heat.

Back in our seats, we quickly dispatched Haydn’s Symphony Number 49 and awaited the closing piece, Gershwin’s Girl Crazy Suite. Based on a 1930 musical with music by George and lyrics by Ira, I craved hearing what Barbara Hannigan had done with it. I was not disappointed.

Beginning with But Not For Me, we were in for a treat…

They’re writing songs of love, but not for me
A lucky star’s above, but not for me

And then Hannigan drove the musicians through Strike Up the Band.

I fell madly in love with her when she conducted the musicians while facing the audience, and sang Embraceable You. The musicians became an accompanying chorus and I was enthralled.

Embrace me, my sweet embraceable you
Embrace me, you irreplaceable you

I’ve Got Rhythm brought a toe tapping frenzy to the audience, and a fantasy of leaping onto the stage to dance with Barbara like I was Fred Astaire, instead of Fred Rothenberg.

And then, before I knew it, it was all over. Two hours had passed in a blink and I had never once thought, like in past years, when will this thing end?

Dear Anna was wrong…I wasn’t moderately disappointed.

It was Susan, waiting for the Servpro man, who was right…now that’s what I call music.

 

Coffee, comfort and caring

Legend has it that coffee beans were discovered by the Ethiopian goat herder, Kaldi. Watching his goats eat the berries from the plant, the goats became excited and were unable to sleep. And so, being a Republican, Kaldi started a business that now delivers these very same beans to Java and Joe.

Maybe not, but here are some other facts:

  • Americans drink 400 million cups of coffee every day.
  • Half of us would give up our daily shower rather than give up coffee in the morning.
  • More than half of us would rather gain ten pounds, than give up our coffee for life.

Maybe that’s why many of us coffee addicts are fat and smelly.

Having successfully concluded this morning’s treadmill exercise without falling off the athletic club’s machine, I stopped by Java and Joe for my usual medium dark roast. I look forward to the first hot sip of that full-bodied brew, much like that first sip of a cold beer. Sometimes I have a muffin, complete with high gluten flour and a week’s supply of granulated sugar. Sometimes, it’s just the high caffeine coffee that I crave.

The cherubic faces that greeted me behind the counter today did not include either Joe or Lorraine, the shop owners. That visual clue activated my memory cells and reminded me that Lorraine was undergoing a medical procedure this morning that would probably lay her low for at least a month.

Everyone that’s a regular at the coffee shop has known of Lorraine’s health challenge for months. Invariably, someone ahead of me in the coffee queue would ask Lorraine “How are you today? When are you scheduled for your procedure? I’m sure everything will be fine. How long will you be recuperating? We love you.” If I was alone in the queue, the questions were often posed by me. Balancing my concern for her well-being with a possibly unwelcome intrusion into her life can be difficult.

Lorraine is a mature woman with a motherly attitude. Efficient is an understated description of her prowess. Her welcoming smile brightens my day. Even with a cloud hanging over her, much like the one dogging the Al Capp character Joe Btfsplk, Lorraine manages to keep her sunny smile and upbeat conversation in spite of chemotherapy and the attendant floppy hats. Over the last few months, there was little evidence that contradicted her usual sunny demeanor.

Perhaps it’s the coffee shop itself that plays a supportive role in this great adventure. Open twelve hours every day, it is full of mismatched furniture, and a concrete floor with an unintentional paisley design that defies description. An old sign taped to the wall warns of dire results should the microwave and the toaster be switched on at the same time. Greeting cards are stuffed into racks that require the skill of a contortionist to view them. Muffins and scones, ordinarily displayed with aplomb, are sometimes hidden from prying eyes.

But none of these shortcomings seem to matter to those of us who are regulars. Or maybe it’s because of these imperfections that we come back time after time. We are comfortable with the shop’s eccentricities, since they are also reflective of ourselves. Distastefully, the thought of going somewhere else is anathema. The habitual returning faces are familiar to us and form a comforting tapestry that allows us to slide easily into an otherwise frenetic day.

Much like that of the athletic club, the coffee shop provides the social contact I treasure. I often sit alone at a table, but I do not feel alone. Like a voyeur, I sometimes mentally participate in the conversations that surround me. Because we are creatures of habit, I can sometimes predict what’s coming next. I watch them as they walk through the door, hoping that I will be blessed with a familiar face. One with which I can share a few sentences or, if I’m very lucky, a seat at my table.

Even in solitude, I can explore my memories of fellow coffee enthusiasts that are etched in my mind. David, whose accounting office is up the stairs and who donates his skills to many of Ojai’s non-profits. Tom, who did Ila’s hair in his adjacent salon and who responded graciously to her repetitive questions and stories as though he’d never heard them before. Right up until the very end. The fireman who shared his stories of the devastating December fires. The strangers who seemed as anxious as I was to have a conversation without boundaries. And, if I was very lucky, watching Jackie glide through the door with her irresistible smile.

The morning was quiet, and my attention was drawn to the greeting cards. I like the ones with the pithy, sometimes predictable sayings. Some are flat out wrong like We only regret what we don’t do in life. I only wish it were so. Or, Why do I feel as stupid now as I did at 20? I certainly know more than I did at 20, I just keep ignoring what I learned. But some are spot on like, My housekeeper judges me. And one of my perennial favorites, Be yourself. Everybody else is taken.

Many years ago while driving the Help of Ojai bus, I transported a wheel chair bound patient to the Ojai hospital. Finished, I was stowing the chair lift when a physician stopped to speak with me. He told me how much he personally valued the service we provided and then said something that has stuck with me. His smile softened and he quietly said, “Remember, we all walk down the same path.”

As I age, his words become more relevant and gain greater importance. I realize that life is fragile and, like Lorraine, could take me down a more difficult path. But it also makes life more precious. Like my other favorite card says, Whatever you are meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.

Be well Lorraine. I love you.

I didn’t sleep well last night

I didn’t sleep well last night.

Maybe it was the chicken thigh that I chewed on at eight pm. I bought it at Westridge after my two- hour library foundation board meeting. The meeting starts at six, and it takes me about twenty minutes to drive down the hill to town. Five o’clock is too early for me to eat before the meeting. So, I eat too late and more often than not regret it. As usual, the chicken had resided far too long in the warm mystery liquid at the bottom of the heated display case. Its skin had taken on the characteristics of an old plastic book cover that protects library books from everything but a nuclear blast.

Downing the chicken without joy, I went to bed around ten, just after watching the latest episode of Bosch, the Amazon Prime series based on Michael Connelly’s character, Harry Bosch.  A hard-bitten police detective, Harry seems to have too much time on his hands and spends much of it getting into trouble while solving cases that have become more complex with each new series.

Played by Titus Welliver, a name that somehow seems inappropriate for the character, Harry lives in one of those Hollywood Hills homes that is unbelievably cantilevered into space through some ingenious architectural engineering. It appears to float dangerously and gives cowards like me every reason to avoid such places. The house, though beautiful, appears ready to crash down the hill into another miraculous, seemingly unsupported, home. The night views of the sparkling city seen from Harry’s outdoor deck are unforgettable. Which is more than I can say for the story plot lines.

This is the fifth season for Harry and other assorted cops and miscreants. The combination of a too late eaten chicken thigh and the the program’s unfathomable twists and turns challenge my mental capacity. I usually find myself nodding off for a few minutes in the middle of an episode, making it nearly impossible to follow the story line. Rewinds are common. I probably shouldn’t watch murder mysteries late at night while gnawing on an aged chicken leg.

I never have trouble falling asleep. Staying asleep is my problem. Three am brings a startling mental wake-up call. Since I’m now up, a trip to the bathroom seems like a good idea even if I don’t feel the urge. A sip of water that has resided a bit too long in my aging plumbing adds to the festivities. Then it’s back to bed feeling half awake and ready for more sleep. Sometimes sleep arrives. But not last night. Instead, my mind wanders aimlessly in semi-sleep mode. I bounce from thought to thought. I exhaust the comfort of lying on my left side and switch to my less preferred right side. Then onto my back. Never on my stomach. Adjust the covers. Fluff the pillow. Repeat again at ten minute intervals.

My muddled thoughts often border on the ridiculous. Thoughts that would be laughable when fully awake are now cause for sleeplessness. Minor infractions during the day are replayed in my mind. I make mountains out of molehills. Some particularly onerous thoughts cause my heart to beat faster and pulsate in my right ear. I employ thought control to rid myself of the offending thoughts. Miraculously, I calm my thumping heart and trash the misguided belief that I am about to have a heart attack in my bed where I will lie lifeless until the cleaning lady arrives next Tuesday.

On my left side I can, with some effort, focus on the eerie glow of the alarm clock. And I am surprised at how quickly time has passed. It’s almost four. I calculate the number of hours until it’s time to get up. I’m sometimes pleased that there is time left. Sometimes not. Sometimes sleep comes. Sometimes not.

Desperate for blessed sleep, I’ve developed a few routines to get me off the moody thinking and onto something more upbeat. I tried counting sheep (doesn’t everyone?) and found myself covered with sheep shit. I employed a yoga like breathing routine that, while forcing me to concentrate on my breath, reduced my stress but made me more alert and even less sleepy. I tried reading but, like a bad book, it did not produce the desired result.

One cure for my sleeplessness evolved from a fishing trip to northern California. Marching with my son David along a meandering stream, we happened upon a beautiful cold-water pool. Stepping into it even with warm underwear and neoprene waders, it was chilling. We cast our fly lines as quietly as possible. And then it struck. A five-pound wild Rainbow Trout. The animal would not be easily landed. Jump after jump he struggled to spit out the barbless fly. I was lucky. He tired and I landed him. People had gathered near the pool to watch the contest. They murmured their admiration when my son netted the prize, removed the tiny fly from the fish’s gaping mouth and released the creature to once more offer a memorable challenge to a worthy angler.

I think about that adventure when I can’t sleep, and it often brings welcome relief from my muddled thoughts. Much like the fish, I’m thankful that I am set free. Until next time.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom

I just got home from a pre-Mothers’ Day brunch with Jackie, Dianne, Judy, Cathy and Edie. It’s become an annual ritual where we share stories about our mothers, complain about their faults and, less frequently, extol their virtues. I am somewhat of an anomaly in the group and am occasionally referred to as a Normy, or someone who is out of step with the other group members.

Today’s brunch topic was “nurturing.” Defined as caring for and encouraging the growth or development of someone, we all shared stories about our mothers that fit that definition. My story may have stretched it a bit, but it was the first thing that popped into my head.

When I was fifty, I lived in Los Angeles with Ila and our three kids. My mother, Celia, having years before rejected our suggestion to move to Southern California, still lived in her two-flat brownstone in West Rogers Park, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood on Chicago’s north side.

My father had, some time before, passed way in the same year that the Bears won the Super Bowl. The end of more than sixty years of marriage had left my mother alone in her home. My brother watched over her, but most of her day, and all of her nights, were spent by herself.

In addition to family life cycle events that brought me and my family back to Chicago, I would occasionally come to town on business. I’d often stay with my mother and sleep in the spare bedroom, the same room that, as a teenager, I had shared with my grandmother.

On this particular visit, my plane was an hour late. Our now ubiquitous cell phones had not yet been invented and making a pay phone call from O’Hare Airport seemed like too much of a stretch. So I hustled a cab and I arrived at my mother’s doorstep around eight that evening.

The brownstone’s entry door had a glass panel that allowed a visual inspection of her visitors before buzzing them into the hallway. I pressed the buzzer and waited. The door opened and my eighty-year-old, five-foot two mother appeared.

There are different kinds of smiles. Some are welcoming while others express irritation. Some are contrived while others are sincere. Some are hidden while others are expansive.

As I looked at my mother’s face through that glass panel, her smile showed relief, welcoming and love. I had seen that smile a thousand times and had always felt warm in its embrace. She buzzed me in, we hugged, and I was home.

My mother came to this country in 1925 as a teenage refugee from Zhytomyr, a town in Ukraine that then boasted of a population of about seventy-five thousand people. Beset by pogroms, my mother’s Jewish family suffered the usual set of indignities and, more to the point, state-sponsored murder.

Arriving in Chicago and speaking little English, Celia went to work at the Brach Candy Company where she was proud to often remind us that she had risen to the exalted position of “fore-lady.” Although she learned to speak English, her eastern European accent was etched into our conversations. I was never quite convinced of her reading skills even as she turned the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times. Her handwriting was shaky and her signature nearly illegible. But she excelled at adding up columns of figures entered on the paper bags that customers took home, stocked with the food purchased at my father’s grocery and deli.

She made many of the items at the deli including chopped liver and coleslaw. I’d watch her make potato salad as she peeled the Idaho spuds that were still boiling hot. Any thought of health department rules were cast aside as she dipped her arms into the huge pot up to her elbows to mix the mayo and other tasty ingredients into the soon to be savored, high calorie delight.

When I was a kid, our home, a three bedroom flat in an Albany Park ghetto, was everyone’s home. Seeming strangers stayed with us for a day, then a week, then a month. When Celia wasn’t working at the deli, she was cooking at home. Without complaint, she fed all who came, washed their underwear and made them feel at home.

Parties, both planned and unplanned, were more often than not held at our place. Complete with food and drink, they went on late into the night. I often found my ten-year old body at rest on the cot in the dining room while a penny-ante card game went on at the table next to my bed.

People came and I watched. I saw my mother welcome all who entered through her door. I heard her greet them with genuine happiness and a smile on her face. I heard her laugh and I watched as she made sure everyone had what they needed. And only when everyone else had their share did she take hers.

I don’t remember much of what she said to me as I matured. Perhaps because she didn’t often tell me what to do or how to act. But I learned from watching how she treated others. How she never complained about having too little or working too much. How, even on the toughest days, she had a genuine smile for her husband and for me.

My mother would not have known the meaning of the word “nurturing” but she practiced it every hour of the day, every day of her life. And I am who I am because of her.

Happy Mother’s Day mom. I love you.


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