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.

Coffee with friends

My apologies to Joe and Lorraine.

You may recall that my last article extolled the virtues of the Java and Joe coffee shop; except for the pastries which I dubbed atrocious. Included in my scientific evaluation are several varieties of muffin including the always faithful blueberry, the hypnotic almond-poppy seed, and the stick to the soles of your shoes, multi-napkin consuming, honey bran muffin.

Abetted by an assortment of Saharan-dry scones, all the pastries have a definite made yesterday taste. Wrapped in individual plastic wrap booties, they stare forlornly and beckon the unwary to taste me. Sparsely populating a half-dozen cubby holes in Joe’s display cabinet, their lonely appearance acts as a warning, much like a sea-cliff lighthouse that warns passing ships to stay away.

In my zeal to caution you about the perils of selecting either last week’s muffin or last month’s scone, I unforgivingly neglected to mention the coffee cakes. There are two offerings that deserve at least a three-star rating and a pat on the back for the baker. The first delicacy is a sour cream, cinnamon delight, and the second is a blessedly moist zucchini pieces de resistance. Both cakes have been sliced by hand, as evidenced by their random thickness. I regularly spend time hovering above the stacked slices, looking for the one that has my name on it. I always select one from the middle of the stack and recommend them highly. Please buy some when you next visit the establishment, thereby diminishing their number and assuring me of a fresh batch the next time I frequent the shop. And tell Lorraine that I sent you.

Today began with a trip to the athletic club for an hour of vista-less, mindless treadmilling. If it were not for the availability of ubiquitous Netflix at each machine, I would have given up my mind-numbing cardiovascular efforts long ago and stayed in a warm bed. My treadmill drudgery was followed by a twenty-five-minute workout with Ralph. It’s really supposed to be a thirty-minute session, but Ralph is as bored with it as I am. I don’t blame him for cutting it short and using the extra time to preen for his 8:30 yoga class.

I showered and then made the easy decision to skip shaving. It’s too big a hassle searching for hot water at the club sinks. The porcelain beauties are fitted with those cute little cutoffs that stop the water just when you need it most. Normally cold, you can sometimes coax warm water from the spigot by shielding the sensor with your hand. A tedious task that causes low level grumbling to escape from my lips. It’s a crap shoot that all too often ends with a shock of icy water on my face. Fortunately my beard is white, matching my skin pallor and, therefore, only visible to close-up visitors. So, with the exception of Jackie, no one else seems to notice. I sometimes skip three consecutive days of shaving and only succumb to the razor when people stop me on the club steps and offer me a hand out.

I dressed, said good-bye to the nearly empty locker room, and made the three-minute trip to Java and Joe. I found Dave and Jim sitting at a table finishing their morning brews. Not wishing to interrupt them while they were debating the merits of The Wall, I simply nodded politely and ordered my usual medium-size dark roast. Adding one pack of Splenda and an inch of half and half to the already delicious brew, I turned to find Rosalie, my real estate broker, staring at me. Not wishing to embarrass her with a cascade of questions focused on why hasn’t my house sold yet, I nodded (I do a lot of that, especially when I’m not sure if I know who I’m confronting) and made my way to a table next to Dave and Jim.

Dave was in the process of rearranging the chairs that surrounded the table in order to reduce the glare from a white truck parked across from the coffee shop. Completing the most strenuous effort of his morning, Dave asked if I’d like to join them. Always one to savor the company of others, I pulled up a chair. Not the black wrought iron one that tests your glutes’ patience, but the gray basket-weave variety that gives your tush a sporting chance.

Dave is well-read and a master of trivia. The two traits give him plenty to talk about and leave me in the comforting position of needing only an occasional head nod to keep things going while I finish my coffee. I had also selected a piece of yummy zucchini cake. A nice thick one today; where the Super Glue sticky edges of the cake coat my fingers, and require a periodic lick or two.

Dave reminded us that in 2019 we are celebrating hundredth anniversary of proving Einstein’s theory of relativity. Arthur Stanley Eddington’s 1919 expedition confirmed Einstein’s prediction for the deflection of light by the Sun during the total solar eclipse of May 29, 1919. In a nutshell, Arthur proved Einstein’s theory that gravity bends light. What a relief that must have been.

Moving to a loftier plain, we were introduced to Dave’s new hearing aids. The ear-trumpet of earlier years has been replaced by a miniature, transistorized marvel costing a bit more than your grandmother’s device. Our conversation was timely, as I had just yesterday made an appointment for a hearing test at our local provider.

I decided on hearing aids because I have tired of my continuous use of the word “What?” as the second most popular word in my vocabulary. In conversations that take place in settings with significant ambient noise, I find myself either saying “What?” or merely shaking my head in an assenting manner. The head shake is fraught with danger and should always immediately be followed with a shrug of the shoulders in order to confuse the true meaning of your response. I’ve become quite proficient at it.

Arlene arrived for her morning coffee. A striking, confident woman, we welcomed her with opened arms. A kiss on the cheek made our morning complete and we prepared to leave. We all had things to do, including getting older.

It was going to be a very good day.

They couldn’t care less

There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who care and those who couldn’t care less.

Last Tuesday, I made my usual 8:30 morning visit to Java and Joe. Love their dark roast coffee and the store’s second-hand thrift shop appearance. Their pastries are atrocious, and the stamped metal seats are akin to the Iron Maiden, a brutish device used by the Spaniards during the Inquisition to extract confessions from those who complained about their coffee. Nevertheless, the shop is welcoming, and one need not dress to impress. In business since 1994, the owners Joe Ruggiero and Lorraine Mariz, do their best to accommodate the weird tastes of Ojai folk who enter their domain.

It rained hard that morning and the shop was filled to capacity. A long line of dampened people stood patiently waiting their turn to place an order. My body and mind ached for that first, warm cup of coffee and I was heartened to be the third person in the queue. Not much longer now, I thought.

A young woman, no more than thirty, was at the head of the line. With an abundance of time on her hands, she embarked on a journey that tested my already thinning patience. Using the FBI’s most invasive interview techniques, she bombarded Joe with a series of questions about flavored brews that were obviously intended to extract a confession from him. Each answer proffered by Joe was followed up with another quiz show question designed to confuse and irritate. Waterboarding by the CIA would have been child’s play in her hands.

Having finally settled on the dark roast coffee of the day, she went on to the pastries. Discovering the secret contents of each became her obsession. I half expected her to ask that a banana be peeled in order to gaze detective-like at its contents. Having exhausted the full line-up of muffins, scones, cakes and bagels (with and without cream cheese), she declined all and, without any consideration for the thirst-ridden customers behind her, moved on to the pre-packaged oatmeal. She ordered the oatmeal and then, inexplicably, cancelled her order. Like an angry hippo, I began to mumble…loudly. My thirst began to worsen as I pictured myself as Humphrey Bogart in the role of the thirsty tank commander bedeviled by a bone-dry desert well in the movie Sahara. I was inconsolable.

Never having looked behind her, and why should she, the comely young woman could quite innocently assume that she was the only customer in the shop. But I believe she was fully aware of the poor unfortunates behind her. She just didn’t care. Embarking on what seemed to be a fortnight of useless coffee shop browsing, we were, at best, an annoyance to be ignored.

I eventually reached first base, ordered my coffee, combined it with a muffin that wasn’t quite as old as me, and settled down on a cold, basket-weave Iron Maiden for thirty minutes of quietly browsing the web.

Lest you think that women are the principal antagonists in this story, I finished my coffee and desiccated muffin, and moved on to Rabobank. An open teller window and it’s always friendly inhabitant, Julie, beckoned to me. I was delighted to dump the money gleaned from book sales at the Friends of Library bookstore on Julie’s counter, and wait while she verified the deposit. The machine that counts currency is fascinating and it has yet to be wrong. Counting coins by hand is another matter entirely, and takes an inordinate amount of time.

Rod entered the bank and took up the second, and last available teller window. A beaming Estelle was the teller in waiting at this cubicle. Always pleasant and efficient, young Estelle is pretty and seems to have only me in mind when I have the pleasure of trading hard currency with her. Small talk is part of the job but, aware of other customers waiting to step forward, is only appropriate while the processing of one’s business is continuing.

Rod did not readily subscribe to this informal banking rule. Instead, after concluding the successful cashing of what I’m sure was a bogus check, he launched into a discussion that was clearly intended to impress and perhaps result in an assignation with the lovely Estelle. Customers began to line up. Tempers began to mount as the passage of time seemed glacial.

I half expected a shoot-out. And I was sure Estelle would say something like “Thank you, Rod. But I think your time is up. Move on, buster.” However, I left before this second example of “I truly don’t care about you. It’s me that counts.” could reach its zenith.

Last Saturday, Jackie and I attended a Kirtan starring Julia Berkeley at the Ojai Yoga Shala. Kirtan is defined by Julia as a call and response chanting practice that clears the mind and opens the heart. I think of it as a groupie sing-along that has Indian music instead of the usual Glen Campbell and Joan Baez stuff.

It’s customary for one to sit cross-legged, your butt next to your closest neighbor, on a much too thin mat, on a hardwood floor. There comes a time during the performance when you grit your teeth, your back aches, and your ass feels like it has been denuded of all muscle and skin. However, it helps if prior to the festivities you consume one-half of those cute little licorice pieces eagerly distributed by the local pot palace on Bryant Street. Your fanny will thank you.

The young man sitting next to me, an ardent Kirtan devotee, was one of those people who I define as an over-achieving Clapper. It matters little what the song’s tempo is. Nor whether it is closer to a funeral dirge than a Pee Wee Herman ditty. His clapping, much like AK47 rifle shots, leaves me hoping for the blessed relief delivered to him by a compound stress fracture. Sometimes, the Clapper will continue his performance well after the song has ended.

My belief is that the Clapper, like his companions the Shrieker and the Whistler, lacked parental attention during his formative years. Fellow students avoided him, and members of opposite sex ran screaming from the room. Clapping brings much-needed attention to him, even if the attention is filled with death wishes.

The Clapper, in contrast to those neer-do-wells who simply ignore the sensitivities of the people around them, recognizes the availability of a ready-made audience and seeks its attention. Here again, a tiny bit of licorice tends to moderate the Clapper’s callousness. But not completely. Or maybe I’m too sensitive.

Or maybe I just need a bigger piece of licorice.

My instrument of choice

I played the trumpet in high school.

A couple of music classes led to mastering an instrument and playing in the high school band and orchestra. This avocation fit in nicely with my teenage persona which can best be described as mildly nerdy. I’m not sure how I got that way, but it probably had something to do with the friends I kept and the scarcity of girls, of any flavor, in my life. It was also abetted by my pudginess that didn’t start to evaporate until my senior year. By then it was too late to change my school mates’ perception of me.

The choice of the trumpet was made with little thought given to its complexities. After all, how difficult can it be to play the thing? It only has three valves and, given its size, is easily schlepped from home to school and back again. All I would have to worry about was the proper operation of the spit valve.

Alan, the best musician in our group, played the piano. Definitely un-schleppable, he would be dependent on the kindness of others. Realizing that playing the piano in a school parade was not in the cards, Alan also chose a backup. He latched onto the saxophone and seemed to master it over one week-end.

My other friends picked their instruments of choice before I had a chance to weigh in with my preference. Larry, a friend who always irritated me with his “My father’s car is better than your father’s car.” At the age of twelve, he was also better than me in identifying the make of any car cruising past us. Larry became an orthodox Jew aligned with the Chasidic sect; I also tend to bristle at them. Their ability to be prominently displayed in the local newspaper, while my more populous sect goes unnoticed, ticks me off. Larry chose the clarinet. Even lighter than the trumpet, his schlepping would be easier than mine. I can still see him sucking on his reed.

Russell was the smartest guy in the bunch. While others might spend their summer vacations chasing girls or playing softball. Russell read the dictionary from beginning to end. He also selected one of the most difficult instruments, the French horn. An awkward, medieval instrument, it reminds me of Marty Feldman playing the part of Igor in Young Frankenstein. Hunched over best describes both Marty and Russell. The horn is equipped with a very small mouthpiece that requires the development of a tough, untiring embouchure.

The embouchure is the way a musician applies his mouth to the mouthpiece of a brass or wind instrument. The smaller the mouthpiece, the greater the difficulty in developing a strong embouchure. While playing the king-sized tuba may seem like corralling a difficult partner, the large mouthpiece offers far less resistance and therefore is less tiring than the small mouthpiece of the comparatively smaller French horn.

Developing a strong embouchure requires practice, a lot of it. Practice requires diligence. Those who devote substantial time to practice generally develop greater skill at playing a musical instrument. And that universal truth was my Achilles heel. My practice sessions were intermittent and short. The clock moved ever so slowly. While my technique was acceptable, my lips tired easily and I struggled to complete a gig with my band mates. My trumpeting became spotty when I entered college. I’d pick up the instrument every so often, but my embouchure was shot and, like the once a month golfer, I soon became a trumpet has-been.

My musical whimsy resurged ten years ago when I was bitten by the guitar bug. My son Steven, an excellent guitarist, offered to teach me this ubiquitous instrument. Watching other amateurs master it gave me the confidence to forge ahead. Most importantly, the guitar seemed less likely to tax my aging body in the way that the trumpet did. The fingers of my left hand soon taught me the error of my ways. Five minutes of playing produced searing pain in the tips of my fingers. Steven promised that the pain would subside with the development of calluses; all I needed was enough practice. My previous experience with the trumpet came streaming back.  Sadly, I gave up a promising six string career and pledged that I would someday find my sweet spot in the musical world.

Jackie’s daughter, Sammy, is devoted to the ukulele. I have watched her maneuver through a sea of humanity at the airport with a Shaquille O’neal sized backpack and the ukulele lovingly slung over her arm. She takes it everywhere and plays it well. The instrument is small, without a lip crunching mouthpiece, and only four strings, two less than the guitar. Could this be my nirvana?

Debbie, a fellow temple member, teaches a ukulele class on Wednesday afternoon at the Ojai Library. Hearing of my interest in the instrument and playing on my easily influenced brain, she lovingly invited me to attend the class. With her cute little smile, she promised, “We just do it for fun. You don’t need to know how to play. You’ll love it.”

I went to the class and borrowed a spare ukulele. Flanked by two women who proved to be the Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin of the ukulele world, I got right into the swing of things with the “C” chord. Requiring but one finger on the fret, I marveled at the simplicity of the instrument. I became emboldened and sought out the C7 chord. Using the same finger that was already in my repertoire, I placed it on a different fret and produced another glorious sound. Was I ready for the big time?

Then, just as I was congratulating myself, Debbie handed me a xeroxed copy of Basic Ukulele Chords. There were thirty-five of them. “More to come, Freddy, after you’ve mastered the basic ones”, Debby intoned with a wry smile on her lips.

Calling up my last ounce of stick-to-it-ness, I have been practicing sort of regularly. I refuse to repeat my abortive experiences with the lip challenging trumpet and the finger searing pain inflicted by the guitar. Surely, I can master this instrument.

I can already play Happy Birthday. I hesitatingly make my way through My Darling Clementine, and I am picking through Amazing Grace. I shy away from anything that requires more than three chords. I hate the G chord and my strumming is atrocious. Simply holding the instrument without it twisting away from me like a dog that hates its master, is tougher than it looks.

So far I’m on track to star status…without sore fingers.


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