Living with Limitations

The New York Times recently ran a guest editorial about the French artist Henri Matisse. It was written by Nick Riggle, a relatively young man who has challenges adjusting to his new life after two debilitating accidents.

Matisse also suffered the impact of aging and its effect on his body. His early works were primarily focused on traditional painting methods, and he received great acclaim for those including Joy of Life and Woman with a Hat.

At 71, Matisse suffered a life-threatening illness. Treatment extended his life by 13 years but left him unable to hold brushes, effectively ending that phase of his artistry. Rather than give up his abiding desire to continue the production of fine art, Matisse adopted a collage approach to its creation. With assistance, he could paint a sheet of paper and then cut pieces from the sheet which then were glued together to produce an image. Some of the finished pieces were colossal in size. Blue Nude, and The Swimming Pool are two examples. These pieces done in his seventies and eighties are often described as the high points of his career.

As I read the editorial, I compared what Matisse had done with the challenges in my own life. I am not a great artist with assistants, nor do I yearn to leap tall buildings in a single bound. but over the years I have experienced changes that require adjustments to what I once thought were simple tasks.

I walk a bit slower, stare at sidewalk cracks, and scan for those partially embedded rocks whose tops seek to catch the front tips of my shoes. It may take me a little longer to reach my destination, but I’ve adjusted.

My night vision is poor, so I don’t drive at night. I can always get a ride and am grateful for friends.

Our dimly lit home presents challenges. Buying flashlights and putting them in various places solves most of the problem. I can buy a pack of 18 flashlights with batteries from Amazon but, like pens, they seem to find their own hiding places.

I began to lose my hearing about 10 years ago. At first, I nodded a lot at my companions and hoped that I had not just agreed to lend them money. The acquisition of overpriced hearing aids solved most of the problem. I don’t pretend I can hear you and find that most people are OK when I say could you repeat that?

Sub-titles are an essential component of watching Netflix. I have trained my brain to stare at the captions even if I can hear perfectly. I watched the comedian Tom Papa last night and tried to stop fixating on the written words as they crawled across the bottom of the Roku screen. A failure, I read the punchline before Papa could say it. He wasn’t that funny.

Like Matisse, I have been fortunate in finding new ways to entertain myself, like the ukulele. The instrument is relatively undemanding and, when I am with seven or eight other players, I can hold my own.

I like to think that had I adopted the uke at a much younger age, I would be a much better player. Wishful thinking, probably, since I’m sure my disdain for practicing would have held me back regardless of my age or the cussedness of any instrument.

Getting caught up reading the Matisse op-ed piece, I wrote a response to it…Dear EditorI have recently taken up the ukulele at the age of 83. My fingers aren’t agile enough to play chords that require four fingers or are spread over too many frets. So, I just skip those chords, but I keep on singing. And I have a good time even if my body isn’t as good as it used to be.

Attempts to address my physical limitations with devices and substitutes, are nothing when compared to the challenges facing others. This could not have been more evident than when we visited Saint John’s hospital in Camarillo just before Christmas.

Five of us brought our ukuleles and our voices to the extended care unit where a dozen largely silent patients awaited our presentation of holiday music. Unit residents were mainly in wheelchairs, and some had a special breathing apparatus. They had positioned themselves within ten feet of us and seemed anxious for us to start.

We began with A Holly Jolly Christmas. An upbeat song written by Mitch Gabler and first performed in 1964 by Burl Ives, the album also had Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. I was a little nervous as I sang the Holly Jolly lyrics…

Have a holly jolly Christmas
It’s the best time of the year
Now I don’t know if there’ll be snow
But have a cup of cheer

I had doubts about the audience reaction to the lyrics. Would they feel less than jolly, and would some be unable to have a cup of cheer? Would they agree with the song’s claim that this was the best time of the year?

I occasionally looked up from the sheet music and scanned the faces.  Nearly all were covered with masks and guessing what was going on under them was nearly impossible. We played on.

The song ended and there was applause. Not polite applause. Real appreciation.

I relaxed and so did my band members. We quickly launched into Love Potion #9 and Robert played the kazoo. And then Feliz Navidad followed by Jingle Bell Rock, My Favorite Things, and a dozen more. We became more animated. I sang a few lines acapella when the feeling took me. Maybe it was just me, but as we played on, I was sure the applause had increased in volume and duration. We did an encore. And then one more.

I imagined the faces under the masks. I was convinced they were smiling. For while their physical capability was limited, their capacity to enjoy the music was unlimited.

I forgot about the F# and Bb chords that were always too much for me. I played as if all the notes were nested in a single fret. I had overcome my feelings of insufficiency. I had made people happy despite my limitations. I rivalled Lady Gaga. 

We ended the hour by sharing cake, pastry, and other sugar laden treats. I thought it odd that the hospital would be serving stuff like that. And then I remembered that we were celebrating the holidays. A perfect time to cheat and enjoy the sweets before heading back to real life in the extended care unit.

As we packed up and headed to the exit, I realized that we were not quite ready to bring our act to Carnegie Hall. But despite our limitations, we had found a way to bring a substitute to those who needed it. Matisse would have been proud of us.

One of the nurses reached out to me as I passed her. She grabbed my hand, thanked me, and wished me a merry Christmas. I promised her that it would be.

That’s Show Biz

The last time I performed for an audience was in my senior year at Von Steuben High School in Chicago’s Albany Park. That was 1956 and I was 17.

Me and my buddies Alan, Larry, and Russell wrote the class song. Sadly, I had little to do with it since it was clear which of my friends had a talent for composing, and it wasn’t me. I have little memory of how we did it, but it got done and we were assigned the job of presenting it to our fellow graduates.

We stole the melody from the Georgia Tech fight song…

I’m a Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech, and a hell of an engineer—
A helluva, helluva, helluva, helluva, hell of an engineer.

Here we were, four Jewish kids in a predominately Jewish neighborhood. I grew up thinking that we were in the majority and that everyone living in, or emigrating from Russia like my parents, was also Jewish. Why we picked Ramblin Wreck escapes me, but it was certainly out of character. Ha Tikvah maybe, but not the Georgia fight song.

I occasionally, 66 years later, still sing some of the lyrics we wrote…

We’re the class of pride and destiny and we’re shouting out our name

Cause we are proud of what are and put to song our fame.

And then I forget the rest and switch back to Ramblin Wreck.

That was pretty much the end of my career until I picked up the ukulele six months ago and after 66 years, was again primed for stardom. I learned enough chords to be respectable, and to be mute when appropriate. I have a small, soprano ukulele that minds its lilliputian manners and lets others grab the limelight.

In November, the Ojai Music Festival invited our ukulele group to play background music at the Holiday Home Look In. The music keeps the atmosphere lively while paying guests prowl the insides and outsides of the four private homes.

Guests come and go, are polite, quiet, and respectful. The festival docents are well trained and restrain guests from leaping into the swimming pools, raiding the hosts’ refrigerators, and stopping them from relieving themselves in the outdoor shrubbery. Our dozen ukulele players at times outnumbered the guests on the premises. We played for two hours, received kudos for our performance, and agreed we would do it again if asked.

Gina and Anna, the festival folks who make everything happen at the Look-In, asked us if we’d like to do background music for the docent appreciation party in December. Reflecting on our experience at the Look-In, we quickly fell in line and agreed to participate.

The event was at the Women’s Club located in the center of town. A building that was once threatened by destruction because of general malaise, wood rot and lack of funds, it has gained new life and is likely to be hosting events well after my own demise from rot.

I’ve been to the Club many times, mostly for musical acts that were once ubiquitous but now have decreased in frequency. I miss them, especially the one that featured the singing cowboy, Sourdough Slim. I have no idea how old Slim is since Google failed to produce the answer after an in-depth ten second search. It’s a well-kept secret that lets Slim cavort without the audience worrying about this probable septuagenarian falling over his guitar and accordion and strangling on the harmonica that hangs like a pendulum under his oversized ten-gallon hat.

Always an observer, I had never been on-stage at the Women’s Club until the ukulele showed up and allowed me to resurrect my musical career. Arriving just before show time, ten of us filed onto the stage defying the five dark narrow wooden steps, and the floor to ceiling drapes that forced an entry perilously close to the edge of things. I felt like an elderly Tom Cruise of Mission Impossible fame, avoiding a five-foot fall into the unknown abyss. In retrospect, I got some idea about how Sourdough must have felt and a new appreciation for performers.

The event was sponsored by the Festival in return for the work done by volunteer docents, florists, and others. We were asked to play for about 30 minutes, then break for a dinner that featured soup and bread, just like they fed to the political prisoner Ivan Denisovich in the book The Gulag Archipelago.

In contrast to our sublime performance at the Look-In, the Women’s Club show was more like the bar scene from the film The Blues Brother starring John Belushi of Animal House fame and Dan Aykroyd. Suffering beer bottles thrown by the boozers at Bob’s Country Bunker, the Brothers learn to accommodate to the will of the people and give them what they want. The chicken wire screen that blocked most of the bottles helped a lot.

We played for thirty minutes while the crowd got louder. I’m sure it was in part due to the age of the guests and their pervasive hearing aids. Since we were hardly able to hear ourselves, in part due to our own hearing aids, we could enjoy ourselves by skipping the finger challenging chords, yell at the audience, laugh with them, and accommodate.

Taking advantage of elderly, unpaid musicians, Anna and Gina urged us to play again following soup time and thank-yous. The wine that accompanied the soup had increased and amplified the audience chatter which gave us further license to do pretty much anything we wanted to.

Bedtime for many guests finally brought a steady exodus onto Ojai Avenue. Oblivious to the declining population, we played on and finally realized that the only people left were those who were cleaning up the place. We had shut it down with our ukuleles, gaining another show biz learning experience.

Next time I will drink the wine instead of worrying about its impact on my musical skills. I probably could even substitute the Ramblin Wreck for Jingle Bells. No one will notice.

Sex Education

We had a Men’s Club meeting at the Jewish Community of Ojai last night. It was the first in many years…probably prompted by the women of JCO who had inaugurated their own version of the male equivalent, called the Red Tent. 

A separation of the sexes, like physical education classes in middle school. No need for concern because nearly all the attendees at the Men’s Club and the Red Tent are well beyond their childbearing years, although participants might gleefully welcome a sex education refresher including a description of opposite sex body parts.

Like most JCO events, last night’s participants were the usual faces, people who go to Friday night services, attend other events and support JCO financially. Ten men who weren’t certain about what to expect but who knew that food would be one of the highlights.

Ralph organized the event, having said at a board meeting, “We need a Men’s Club”. Our JCO president, Margo, has a simple mantra for this open-ended suggestion that warns, “You want it? You do it.” This sometimes leads to silence and then is lost in the ether for the a few years. No shrinking violet, Ralph took the challenge and ran with it.

Max and I carpooled, arrived early, and surveyed the food on the kitchen counter. Kosher hot dogs and baked beans took center stage, supported by coleslaw and potato chips. No quiche here. I was reminded of the pork and beans the cowboys ate while sitting around the campfire in the 1974 Mel Brooks movie, Blazing Saddles. Silence prevailed as the cowboys scooped up the beans, the quiet broken only by periodic farts. I hoped we would find something more meaningful to do when the meeting started.

Eventually we were 10. I know some of these men for many years, others for just a few. We began the with the basics. Where we came from, what our kids did, what we do. I found I didn’t know them as well as I thought I did. A new appreciation was developing.

Fearful of ending the meeting too soon, early on we offered suggestions about the next meeting. Bowling, fishing, golf, hiking, and other things that men are expected to do, were mentioned but seemed to generate only polite interest.

My thoughts ran back to Jackie, and I was reminded of her insistence that women tend to focus on feelings while men generally embrace something less revealing. For example, at a basic level, women easily talk about sex while men mostly abandon open discussion of it following their girl-ogling teen years. 

I jumped in. Maybe we could help each other by talking about a problem one of us has?

Background chatter stopped. They quit crunching potato chips. Faces brightened. People leaned forward on their elbows. Morey asked, “Like what?”

I sat straighter in my seat. Cleared my throat. And I began…

We’ve been wrestling with staying in Ojai or moving to a new senior community in Healdsburg, 70 miles north of San Francisco and 400 miles from Ojai. It’s called Enso. Jackie is convinced we should move but I have mixed feelings. 

I like the people of Ojai and the house we share. I like walking to the center of town and saying hello to folks I know. I love it when people recognize me and massage my ego. 

I have things to do here…so why am I bored? 

I’m the longest serving member of the Ojai Library Foundation. I’m on the synagogue board of directors. I take publicity photos for the Music Festival. I drive the Help of Ojai bus. I try to keep fit. 

So why am I bored.

I discovered the ukulele six months ago and joined a local club; I can play enough chords to keep the other members from tossing me under the bus. A month ago, I added pottery classes to my schedule and enjoy making things that look like me, bent over and irregular. The pieces are lined up on my bar, but space is limited.

So why am I bored?

Four years ago, I moved from 4,000 square feet in the Upper Ojai to 2,700 feet in town. Enso promises 1,700 feet and assisted living if needed. Its ubiquitous memory care unit has its arms out to welcome someone like me…with a family history where dementia played a starring role in my ancestors’ golden years.

I’m 83. I’ll be 84 before they finish building Enso next fall, just in time to possibly push a walker around, meditate, eat soft foods, and become just a little bit Zen.

Bless her heart, Jackie yearns for more spirituality, a term that defies definition. This is as close as I can get…Spirituality involves the recognition of a feeling or sense or belief that there is something greater than myself, something more to being human than sensory experience. After I figure it out, maybe I could share that adventure.

Like-minded people are at the top of Jackie’s list, and she believes Enso will deliver like Abraham almost did when God commanded him to sacrifice his only son. Participating in Zoom sessions has introduced me to fellow Ensonites who are likeable, funny and a bit strange. All are bright, some younger, some older. Relatively healthy, all are ambulatory, a condition that is sure to change in the not distant future. Importantly, we all share the same concerns, a new place with unknown paths, and new people who may not take us in with open arms.

I fear moving with all its complications. What if I do it and am still bored?

I’m reminded of the Billy Joel song, Piano Man. I can’t listen to it just once walking down Daly Road. I need to hear it twice, maybe three times…

It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday
The regular crowd shuffles in
There’s an old man sittin’ next to me
Makin’ love to his tonic and gin

He says, “Son can you play me a memory?
I’m not really sure how it goes
But it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete
When I wore a younger man’s clothes”

La, la-la, di-di-da
La-la di-di-da da-dum

Living in the past. Fearful of doing something new. Such a short time.

They were still listening when I finished my monolog. Their suggestions flew at me. I listened. I didn’t hear a solution. But it felt good to share.

Then Milt took a turn in the box. And then Art. Each with a story to tell that I’d never have heard if we had just gone bowling.

Next month, sex education.

Ukulele on my mind

While Hawaii is often thought of as the place that invented the ukulele, it actually has Portuguese roots. In 1879, a seafaring immigrant, Joao Fernandez, jumped ship in Hawaii along with his uke, then called a machete de braga. He strummed all over the place and is credited with starting the Elvis-like frenzy that continues to this day.  Right here in Ojai.

I spend Monday mornings in the ukulele club. Meeting at the Ojai Library, the group attracts a dozen uke players. We arrive before opening and line up in the library courtyard waiting for Sam to open the door in concert with the 10am ringing of the bells in the post office tower.

We each carry one or more instruments, a music stand that regularly collapses during my strumming, and a three-ring binder filled with dozens of songs, some well beyond my limited capabilities.

The library staff is very helpful, and we usually find that Sam has arranged the Walmart $5 green plastic chairs in a circle next to the ancient fireplace. I’m usually early and have, like the others, laid claim to my “regular” seat. Newcomers arrive periodically and must find or manufacture a position in the circle. A new player offended me greatly last Monday by selecting my coveted seat; it took me fifteen minutes to get my thoughts back in order.

New songs are regularly introduced by the players and photocopied on the library’s new copy machine. I rarely take on that responsibility since it requires asking for the copier key, inserting it in the proper hole, placing the document face up on the machine and entering the desired number of copies. My aging memory and inability to retain and perform those instructions often cause me to decline the task by averting my eyes from the copy requester. Wearing hearing aids often prompts the requester to simply ignore me altogether.  I try to atone for this sin of omission by returning lots of chairs to the storeroom at the end of the session.

I’ve been playing for nine months. I can play maybe ten basic chords and regularly screw up others. I am often unable to remember the fingering difference between E, E minor, and E7.  F, F# and F#-minor is another example of my ignorance that leads me to often consult the list of chords tucked away in my ballooning binder.

My 83-year-old fingers are woefully short (I blame that condition on my parents.) Neither are they as flexible as they once were when I could tie a fly to a trout line. I simply skip any chords that require four fingers or a span defying stretch of more than three frets. Or I cheat and only use three fingers, hoping the result will be masked by the other players who can do it correctly.

Adding to the challenge, the sheet music comes from different sources. The chord names and lyrics are often Lilliputian size and defy my bifocals as I struggle to read them. I look like that perpetual motion drinking bird that tilts forward and backyard looking for the sweet spot.

My college friend Harry in Livermore has taken up playing classical guitar. He’s done it before but put it aside for more important things including wood working, yanking on a rowing machine, and salmon fishing. Salmon season has just ended, so he can now doggedly pursue the classical guitar with gusto.

We compare notes every Monday evening. He’s anal about calling at 7:30 when I’m immersed in the latest Netflix offering, or asleep on the couch after a hard day in the ukulele pits. We both are intelligent; he has a PhD and I do crossword puzzles. Combining our abilities, we have determined that improving our skills on our chosen instruments is largely dependent on the time devoted to practice. I guess I already knew that when I gave up the trumpet in high school having failed to emulate Harry James after six weeks of intensive training.

I spend two hours with the ukulele group each week. I arrive home invigorated, promising that I will practice every other day for an hour. I remove my uke from its zippered case and place it on the table next to my music stand. And there it too often remains until the next Monday when I put it back in the case and take it to the library for another two-hour session. I’m sure that time is moving much faster than it used to, giving me less opportunity to practice…the thought makes me feel a bit better.

Members of the group have different skill levels. Many seem to have little trouble fingering an F#-minor. Others are less skillful, like me, and sweat profusely at the thought of a Bb-7. On the other hand, I’m good at tuning the uke and am often asked for help by those less fortunate. I’m also the oldest person in the group and am pleased to hum a melody or sing the lyrics to songs that were written prior to the advent of the Gutenberg printing press.

Two or three players take this whole thing to another level and seem to speak in tongues. Barre, alternative-strumming, bending, flee-and-fluke, inversion, and my favorite…hammer-on often fill the air while my eyes glaze over. Discussion of the instrument itself is unreal as terms like purfling, nut-slots and kerfling are spoken while experiencing high ecstasy. I learned that a ukulele maker is called a luthier, opening my eyes to what was previously hidden from me.

But maybe I’m just jealous. They are marvelous players who deserve to be heard. Playing simple background notes while they flee-and-fluke is enough for me. I enjoy a simple strum while singing the lyrics, occasionally with gusto. I hear myself and am happy with the sounds I make. I even enjoy replacing the Walmart green chairs since it puts me at the same level as that of the skilled players.

On those days when I rouse myself to practice, I am the master of my fate. I can’t always remember the melody, so I rely on my iPhone and Spotify to substitute for my library friends. I’m more casual about the instrumental solos and can stop anywhere I please to repeat the verse. I often sing loudly and will repeat the whole song if I really like it, maybe more than twice. The time flies and I am often surprised when the hour passes. Only the pain in my fingertips or the ache in my hands remind me of my limitations.

I take pleasure in noting that songs once impossible are now achievable. I feel more at ease in the group but also feel stagnant in mastering some of the tougher pieces. It’s at those times that I think of Harry and the magic that practice can bring. And then I hesitate and think, maybe I’ll never learn the difference between purfling and kerfling, but I will always remember what a luthier is.

How old am I?

I was told I had a baby face. One that made me look younger than my chronological age. Never thought about it much until I spent my last two years of college at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. I was 19.

In addition to taking classes, eating inedible dorm food, and ogling the coeds, I also embarked on a career in beer drinking. Having come from a Jewish family where drinking was a novelty, I knew little of the finer points of becoming an alcoholic. My father was the only drinker, occasionally downing a shot of Canadian Club with his dinner and emitting a highly audible “aaaaahhh” that signaled the start of the meal for the rest of us.

I worked diligently and earned a minor in drinking along with a bachelor’s major in business. I was ably assisted in achieving that distinction by Prehn’s beer pub on Green Street, run by Paul Prehn, a former wrestling coach at the university. Paul later became a state athletic commissioner who selected the referee for the famous Dempsey-Tunney fight at Chicago’s Soldier Field, which now houses the Bears football team that occasionally looks like I did after downing several beers at Prehn’s.

I could have earned a double major rather than the beer minor if I had chosen to drink during the week instead of just on Saturday nights when Prehn’s was always filled with drunks and about-to-be drunks. The inside of Prehn’s looked much like the wooden tables and booths featured in the Godfather movie; the one where Al Pacino guns down the crooked police captain played by Sterling Hayden, and the mafia guy Sollozzo, played by the perfectly cast Al Lettieri.

Like Sollozzo, all the cast members in the Godfather looked like they belonged there, except maybe Pacino. His baby face belied his true destiny. Like him, my face made me look younger than 19 and prompted an ID check from Prehn’s waiters. I was irritated at being singled out for this treatment since everyone else in the bar on Saturday night was a student just like me. Mercifully, the irritation subsided as the bartenders got used to seeing my face. Or maybe my baby face aged with each sinful beer, just like the one in Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray.

I finished my schooling in 1960 and, without my gluttony to fill their cash box, Prehn’s shut down six years later. But I had learned much at this smelly, smokey classroom that served me well in the years ahead. Like always keeping an ID readily available.

My baby face continued to be a subject of interest wherever alcohol was served. I became an American classic joke as my friends laughed while I was researched and probed by waiters, waitresses, barmen and baristas.

And then, around 50, it came to a crashing halt while driving on Highway 5 to San Diego. I stopped for something to eat at the always freeway close Denny’s, where one can be assured of consistency if not quality. I had completed my meal and made my way to the checkout where I fumbled with my wallet seeking my credit card. The cashier, whose name tag revealed her to be Brenda, looked at me and said, “That’ll be $23 less the ten percent senior discount.”

Since we were three weeks away from Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, I only hesitated a moment thinking about whether I should tell Brenda of her ageing mistake, or risk serious moral turpitude by keeping it a secret. Two bucks is two bucks.

Since in those days I was mildly certain there really was an all-seeing god, I chose honesty and said, “Brenda, I’m only 50 and don’t qualify for the discount.”

Without hesitation and thinking I’d be pleased, Brenda smiled, “That’s OK. You look older, so I’ll give you the discount anyway.”

I wanted to tell her what she could do with her discount and the overcooked sausage on my Denny’s Special breakfast plate.

Years went by and I figured that I was over this looking older thing until a month ago, a couple of lunar cycles into my 83rd birthday.

I hate shopping for shoes. After trying on two pairs, I’m mentally exhausted and willing to do anything to get out of the store, so I buy one. I pay the penalty the next day at home by either feeling like I was wearing too-tight shoes created for the Iron Maiden in medieval torture chambers, or that were so large that Jackie and I could fit all four of our feet into the oversized gondolas called shoes.

So it was with my usual trepidation that I entered the Adidas store in the Camarillo Outlet Mall. Jackie’s face and demeanor spoke of great expectations, while I looked like I was in the middle of the Bataan Death March looking for water. 

It was Saturday and the mall had thousands of people looking for things they didn’t need. The Adidas store had a similar, though more focused, contingent. I entered the store dragging one foot in silent protest. Sensing a kill, Jackie grabbed onto an idling salesman named Jeffrey, and said with some confidence, “He needs shoes.”

Jeffrey looked at me, turned back to Jackie and said, “What kind of shoes does he wear?”

“Athletic shoes that don’t hurt.”

Jeffrey, thinking that more info might be useful, focused on Jackie again, “What size does he wear?”

I began to feel unnecessary and possessed of limited intelligence.  I might as well have just sent my feet to the store, while the rest of me stayed in the nursing home sipping watered down orange juice through a paper straw.

Maybe it was my demeanor. Maybe it was my sour expression. Or my hunched shoulders, over the hill sneakers, gray hair, and total disinterest. Or maybe he knew my eyesight was failing because of my bifocals and squinty eyes. The hearing aids probably firmed up Jeffrey’s evaluation. One that says this guy probably doesn’t even know he’s in a shoe store. Better focus on his daughter.

I eventually unscrewed Jeffrey’s head by quoting from Einstein’s theory of relativity, straightening my torso, and doing a dance like the one Ray Bolger did as the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz.

To further demonstrate my substantial capabilities, I tried on three, not just two, pairs of shoes, and tied each of them properly. I rejected them all, blessed Jeffery with the language of the 23rd Psalm, and left the store. Jackie offered to repeat the process in any number of shoe stores in the mall.

Instead, we bought her a pair of shoes and went home.

It’s hot

It’s hot. But you already know that if you live anywhere on the left side of the continent.

Weather reporters, including KABC’s cute but glum Briana Ruffalo, filled my Samsung screen with heat statistics that seemed to portend the end of the world. First it was the hottest day on record. Then it was the hottest month, and finally the hottest since man invented the thermometer.

Ginger Zee is ABC’s chief meteorologist…I always think of asteroids crashing into the Earth whenever I hear that title. Ginger is less volatile than others, perhaps because her maiden name is Zuidgeest and her married name is Colonomos, both of which sound like medical procedures that are best avoided.

Dallas Raines takes over in the evening and demonstrates his remarkable agility for a man born in the 19thcentury by leaping up and down, showing me a tight fist, and finally contorting his legs in a manner that makes him look like he just filled his pants. I probably would do the same thing if my assignment was to scare the hell out of viewers who think Armageddon is just around the corner.

The addition of wildfires to the mix only added to the devastation that I was sure was on the way. No doubt as punishment for our willful disobedience in rejecting the once popular Make America Great president who now finds himself on the verge of more indictments than Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew.

I’ve tried dealing with the heat in various ways. Adjusting the thermostat was at the top of my list until I received text messages from Edison complete with warning sounds that reminded me of my smoke alarm on steroids. They threatened to shut down my power if I didn’t turn off everything, including my nightlight, between the hours of 4pm to 9pm. Rolling blackouts followed by a visit from the Inquisition’s Torquemada were to be my punishment if I missed even one light bulb. 

Ever the planner, Jackie suggested, “Let’s turn the thermostat down and make this place a frozen palace. You know, just like the way we used to feel in Chicago waiting for a bus on Michigan Avenue in January. That way, when they turn off the power, we can be nice and cool waiting for it to go on again.”

With visions of an electric bill the size of Montana floating through my cerebral cortex, I offered several reasons why she might reconsider her plan. Promising to take her on a weekend in Beverly Hills and a bone-in ribeye steak at Mastro’s did the trick.

On Monday, having spent enough time indoors doing mindless tasks including sorting my sock drawer, I decided to challenge the 100-degree heat. So I made myself a giant smoothie with frozen fruit, nuts, and anything else that wasn’t moving in the refrigerator. I grabbed the Saturday NY Times crossword, my favorite ballpoint pen, my cellphone, and my stylish safari hat.  Even though shaded by the house, I wore the hat for insurance, like a guy who wears a belt with his suspenders. Ready for anything, you’d have thought I was going to the beach.

Instead, I opened the sliding door to the patio, pushed through the opening, and felt that I had been transported to another universe.  Just like a Marvel Comics sci-fi fantasy movie, the world was no longer cool and inviting. It was as though a crack in the earth’s crust had been caused by the villain Thanos, and the stupefying heat of its viscous core would melt anything coming within six feet of it. I thought…maybe I should forget this mission.

But, like Captain America, I would not be prevented from my quest. I closed the patio door behind me, severing my relationship with my home’s cool interior. I sat myself in one of the four patio chairs, sipped some of my smoothie for extra courage, picked up my lucky pen, and began what was supposed to be a journey to a better place.

The Saturday crossword is the toughest of the week. I sometimes wander through all the clues and come up empty-handed. If I sit back and meditate, I can usually return to the field of battle, wrestle with the puzzle’s editor, Will Shortz, and struggle to victory.

But this was a different day. I could not even read the clues. I was transfixed by the heat. There was no breeze; the leaves on the trees appeared painted on the background. The mountain in front of me looked two-dimensional; I almost reached out to touch it. With every other sane person indoors, the silence was like heat waves moving over my body. I felt as though I was being cooked. It was like I needed someone to turn me over to assure uniform browning and succulence.

I was afraid that the crossword puzzle would spontaneously burst into flames, leaving me at the mercy of the evil Thanos. Saving that adventure for another day, I gathered my stuff and, like the transporter on Star Trek, converted my body to pure energy, sent it in a flash to the cool inside of the house, and reconverted myself. Or something like that.

Can’t wait to see my next Edison bill.

Hawaii

Hawaii had served us well. Eleven of us came and eleven went home. Kids, grandkids, and faux family members spent a week living in a rented house on the Maui seashore. Although the house was not as pretty as its pictures, we sucked it up, went snorkeling with the sea turtles, played pool in the den, and wrestled with the petulant wi-fi.

And we ate. Costco was our dear friend as were the smaller shops in the neighborhood. We drank, made sandwiches out of anything that didn’t move, and nibbled away at stuff that came out of cellophane packages with a list of ingredients that should have made us sick but didn’t.

The weather was cooperative, reaching 90 degrees most days and what seemed like 100% humidity every day, all day. We had neglected to check on the house’s air conditioning. When we did, we discovered its absence. I spent a lot of time thinking about my childhood in Chicago, where much of the summer was like Hawaii but without the azure blue ocean and the gentle trade winds.

Every night had a planned event. With three rental cars, daytime was left to the imagination. We went to the obligatory luau where, after a few alcohol laden Mai Tais, we seemed to be as much on display as the performers were.

My favorite event was a dinner and magic show at Warren and Annabelle’s in Lahaina. Around nearly 25 years, it’s much like Hollywood’s Magic Palace but on a shrunken scale. I couldn’t stop laughing and remembered doing the same thing at a 1990 Jackie Mason show at the Fonda Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.

Everything you’ve heard about how expensive things are in Hawaii is true. Fortunately, everyone takes credit cards. I came to Maui with less than $200 in cash. I came home with all but $25 and a list of purchases on my credit card that scrolled off my smartphone and onto the kitchen floor.

The last full day of our adventure brought Jackie and me to the Montage, a hotel that believes everyone should live like a millionaire so that it can be deposited with them before leaving the Island. Apathetic about spending nearly $2,000 overnight for a bed and bathroom, we instead settled for his and her massages. Although the cost at the Montage made the Ojai Valley Inn look like a Motel 6, the outdoor setting, warm breezes, and expert masseuses left us with a memory that will linger a long time.

Then, with the food and the money gone, we were off to the airport for the flight home.

Kahului Airport is about 45 minutes from our rental house, just about enough time to learn how to pronounce its name. There are only 13 letters in the Hawaiian alphabet, five of which are vowels. The ratio of vowels to consonants probably accounts for the repeated use of the letters U and I in many words, like Kahului. The opposite title, the one for the most letters, is held by Cambodia with 74 including 12 vowels. Phnom Penh is my favorite word displaying their predilection for P’s, N’s and H’s.

Before we began our Hawaiian trip, we were warned by friends to allow a lot of time getting through Maui security on our return trip to the mainland. Many of those friends, having never even visited the Islands were echoing the warnings of their friends, who were echoing other friends, and so on. Jackie’s hairdresser, Joyce, was prominent on the list of those who believe that being early means getting there the night before your trip and sleeping on an airport bench. But Joyce can be discounted because of her failure to be on time for anything, including hair jobs.

Some of us were willing to ignore the warnings. But, having paid for most of the trip, my influence had some importance. It also confirmed the absence of any morning alcohol that might have made my companions less agreeable. A first-hand report from daughter Nancy who had left the previous day confirmed things, “Better get there three hours early or you’ll miss the plane and have to sleep in the parking lot. It’ll be awful. People will die.”

So we left, three and a half hours early. My normal we’re never going to make it to the airport routine starts with mild concern, then escalates to silent hysteria. I sat back and imagined likely disasters that included sea monsters rising from the deep Pacific and blocking Highway 30.

But Godzilla was busy with other assignments and things went well until we stopped for gas to avoid paying $20 a gallon to Enterprise Rentals. The gas station was super-saturated with others who refused to be robbed by car rental companies. We were only a mile from the airport, but I was sure we had crossed the Rubicon, would miss our plane, and much like Sisyphus, be doomed to cruising the highway for the rest of our days.

I had never seen anything like it. The TSA security line, like a sleeping Python, wound around the inside of the airport and didn’t seem to be moving. It exited the airport building and continued to twist itself up and down the sidewalk. We marched to the end of it, probably in Honolulu, and deposited ourselves. I guessed that the first person in line probably had arrived last winter.

We were surely doomed. I began to think about spending a night at the Montage and doing it all over again in the morning. Or maybe two nights.

They had even brought out the drug sniffing dogs. Even though I didn’t have any pot, I added it to my list of things that will make me miss our plane. I smiled at the doggie nearest me in the hope that it would recognize my innocence and lack of any criminal intent.

A TSA security woman came up to us and pulled us out of the line. Why would they do that, I thought. Maybe they had found out about my cheating on Mrs. Nudelman’s fourth grade reading test. Or for playing “Doctor” with Brenda Goldberg when I was ten. Too late for sure. We’re going to miss our plane.

And then she said, “Follow me.” We would have followed her anywhere; anything was better than the living hell we had just come from.

Suddenly we were at the front of the line. She had randomly selected me as an old guy who needed help. She hadn’t noticed by bulging muscles and had instead focused on the crevices in my face, much like those in the Grand Canyon. It was the luck of the draw.

I didn’t have to remove my shoes. I was waived through the x-ray machine like Lady Gaga.

We spent the next two and a half hours sitting at the gate.

Sometimes being old has its benefits.

Breaking My Chains

I usually take my Mercedes to the dealer in Oxnard. The car is seven years old, and I figure I’ve been there about twenty times since I bought it. I always cringe when the bill is presented expecting the worst. And it usually is.

Add to that a thirty mile drive taking 40 minutes each way. That’s forty trips in seven years totaling 2,400 miles. Or 120 gallons of gas at $5 a gallon, or $600. But, what the heck, it’s a Mercedes.

If I owned a Chevy, I’d probably go to the local repair shop. But Mercedes has developed a reputation that only a Mercedes dealer can perform services. I’m easily swayed by friends, the internet and strange lights in the sky, so I’ve also been cowed into thinking that my C300 will fall to pieces if touched by a generic mechanic who has grease smeared on his Hawaiian shirt and says things like duh, what?

I don’t even adjust the tire pressure when the dashboard warns me that I will die if any of the tires has the wrong PSI as prescribed on page 268 of the user manual. Instead, I wait for my next service at the dealer to correct the pressure, believing that doing otherwise will void the warranty and cause a tire to explode leaving a gaping hole in the middle of Ojai Avenue.

Jackie also has a Mercedes and a similar fear of aliens touching her car. This fear, unlike mine, does not include tire pressure adjustments. She will go any place with an air hose and a willing mechanic. She uses her cute smile to get the work done. No money changes hands and both parties are happy. Jackie because she has freshly topped-off air, and the guy with the Hawaiian shirt because he gets to ogle her for five minutes.

Since no mechanic is interested in ogling me, I wait for the Mercedes dealer to do the work and bill me for his time, and probably his air.

But all that changed a couple of months ago. I needed air and decided to break my Mercedes chains and visit Ojai Valley Imports, walking distance from my house. A strange name for this car repair shop since they don’t import anything and, based on my visual inspection, mostly service cars that look like they haven’t been washed since they came off the assembly line.

They did a five-star job of adding air to my tires without breaking anything. And the guy who did it had a clean shirt. And he charged me nothing. Maybe I am worth ogling.

But one success does not necessarily change a life-long habit. A month later my dashboard lit up with messages, lights and whistles announcing I was due for service at the Mercedes dealer money pit. I procrastinated for two weeks hoping the message would disappear. It did not and became the very first thing I saw every time I started the car. You are seven days beyond your service period. Then eight days. Then twenty days. It was unending.

If that wasn’t enough, the tire pressure indicator lit up again. Another annoying announcement that dogged me for a couple of weeks. Like unrelenting dripping water, the two messages overwhelmed me. I broke down and called Mercedes for an appointment.

My first call produced a transfer to the service department where I was disconnected before I could say anything. Maybe they checked my bank balance and figured I couldn’t afford them.

My second call connected me to Ralph, who seemed disinterested in my need for service. After promising that I would add large sums of money to my bank account, he granted me an appointment ten days later. Busy place.

And then I thought about the free air. And the walking distance from home to Ojai ImportsAnd I said, why not? What have I got to lose? A beat-up seven-year-old Mercedes? Jackie can always buy me a new car. Or better yet, she can drive me wherever life takes me.

So, I took a deep breath, put on my favorite hat, got in the car, and took what I thought would be a two-minute ride to Ojai Imports. It took only 90 seconds, and I began to wonder what I’d do with the rest of my day.

Tyrone wore a greaseless shirt, welcomed me without saying duh, and told me they could take me right away. No waiting, no return trips. He smiled and, sensing my unease said, “Don’t worry. We’ll be kind. We’ll be gentle.”

And they were.

In spite of breaking my Mercedes chains, the Creature from the Black Lagoon did not emerge from the abyss in Lake Casitas. Godzilla did not fly in from Tokyo and flatten the Chevron station and King Kong did not climb the post office tower with city council member Suza Francina in his giant hand.

I paid my bill, got in the car, and rested a minute staring at the dashboard. I thought…Can’t wait until the next time I need service.

Fantasy Island

Our latest trip to Healdsburg included another visit to Enso, the Zen inspired retirement community being built about two miles from the center of town.

It’s been about six months since we made a deposit on one of the 200 apartment style units that will house about 300 people with an average age of about 75. Six months ago, construction had been scheduled for completion in late summer of 2023. I had relaxed knowing that anything could happen in the intervening 18 months, a lifetime when you’re 83.

Disease, war, and famine are only a few of the unknowns. At the top of the list was my ambivalence about the whole idea of packing my bags, abandoning Ojai, and depositing myself in what might as well be a foreign country.

Right on schedule, with crews working six days a week, that 18 months has shrunk to a dozen…and I am getting nervous. What was a refundable deposit fantasy, is now becoming a real-life possibility, complete with the uncertainty about what Enso will be when it grows up. There are no current residents to ask about life at Enso. No one to ask so how’s the food? No one to ask so is the staff attentive? No one to ask so is there enough to do? No one to ask so just how Zen is this place anyway?

Our trip to Healdsburg was prompted by a beam signing event at the Enso sales office and a 30-minute bus ride through the construction site. A gaggle of more than 100 old people, some sporting canes, were wandering around the parking lot sounding like a bunch of kids being sent to summer camp.

Jackie was in her element, aggressively seeking out people she had met during the various Zoom meetings including the one on aging that she had sponsored. I was my usual semi-introverted self, hanging back in the shadows and wondering what I was doing here. I occasionally nodded at someone who nodded back, both of us unsure who we were nodding to. Some people stood next to me who, based on their facial expressions, were also wondering why they were here.

A steel I-beam laid across two horses. Sharpies were gobbled up and used to sign the beam which, supposedly, would be set in place at the top of one of the buildings now under construction. Jackie and I completed the assignment, took obligatory selfi-photos, and marveled at our achievement.

Two large buses stood in the lot looking like they would never get off the ground. We were among the first of about 50 to clamber aboard. Some needed help, but all made it to their seats, some with a satisfying grunt. The jovial driver told a couple bus jokes and we began our five-minute ride to the construction site.

I was astonished by what I saw. Until now, my understanding of the project was limited to a scale model that sat on a wooden surface the size of a ping-pong table in the Enso sales office. Using a controller, our sales rep Leslie could turn on a tiny light in any apartment. It was eerily lifelike. Had we tried really hard we probably could have entered the apartment, sat on the  sofa and had a glass of Sutter Home Rose, Jackie’s favorite wine. The whole project could have been lifted off the table by two people.

Instead, what stood before me now were multi-storied buildings whose structures were defined by thousands of I-beams, crossbeams, and all manner of supporting materials.  The panels that would someday cover the beams were not yet visible; I could see through the structures without being impeded by paneling. It was like looking through the standing skeleton of a prehistoric T-Rex at the LA County Museum.

The size of the structures was overwhelming. The ping-pong table had lulled me into complacency. I had expected that the real thing would be more Lilliputian like. Something cute and comfortable. Something soft and welcoming. I felt glum. My bubble had burst. I was now in a deepening funk.

As we rode through the site, Jackie and I tried to spot our apartment. That one. No, that one. Maybe that one. That one for sure. Shit. I gave up.

The tour ended without anyone having a stroke. A major accomplishment for 100 old people confined in a small space without eating for 30 minutes. We had seen what we came for. Some people were apprehensive. Ruling out the possibility that it was caused by full bladders, others seemed giddy with what they had seen. What did they know, anyway?

Back at the sales office people were hanging around the ping-pong table version of the project. Some were interested in the possibility of trading their current pick for something else. This parlor game was played often, sometimes resulting in a series of changes or switching positions on the waiting list. Like grass, it’s always greener in someone else’s pasture.

Jackie and two newly minted Enso friends had arranged a buy-your-own dinner at two Healdsburg restaurants for those braving the beam signing and bus tour. About 50 had responded positively to the suggestion. I worked on name tags and fantasized about what the wearers might look like.

At 5pm, Jackie deposited me and half the name tags at Campo Fina, a cute eatery in mid-town. I sat anxiously at the end of a long table and tried to look like I belonged there. People arrived and I dealt out the tags, made small talk and smiled a lot. They should have made me a partner in the restaurant.

Having finished similar work at Bravas Bar de Tapas (also cute), Jackie arrived, looked around and patted me on the head for the good job I had done. She was pleased that no one was injured and had to this point avoided food poisoning.

We sat among strangers. All were pleasant, and relatively free of sarcasm. After briefly sharing reactions to the bus tour, conversation flowed freely. It was like meeting people you might never see again. Short of our favorite sexual position, we could have discussed anything.

I could live among those people. Too bad it might be in a place bigger than a ping-pong table.

A History of Clocks

My clock died a few days ago.

It was an old Westclox with a digital read-out, two alarms and an AM/FM radio. A relatively unattractive clock, it was made of metal, painted gray, and sat on the nightstand by the side of my bed. 

I never could figure out how to set the alarm, so it sometimes made its own decisions about when it was time for me to get up. The radio never worked well, and I could only get religious stations that were so powerful that you could almost hear them without a radio. The digital display had only two dimmer settings, one really-dim and one really-bright. I never used the bright setting since it lit up most of the room and probably would have fried my brain with its cosmic rays.

Over the years the display dimmed from its original setting. In the last year I blamed my inability to read it on my aging eyes. Sometimes, I could only see one digit, then maybe two, and on occasion more. Periodic flickering was also a feature that Westclox did not plan for. Never relying on its alarm function, the clock only served to remind me of the incessant passage of time and my inability to sleep beyond 3am.

At the same time, my motion activated night light stopped working, and I was forced to grope my way to the bathroom without the benefit of its guidance. I wondered if the two devices had conspired against me.

I bet the clock was at least 30 years old and was in our Northridge home before we brought it to Ojai in 2000. It probably would have spent another 30 years next to my bed if I hadn’t picked up a few days ago to see if I could brighten up the display.

The clock depends on house current, so I was surprised when I turned it over to find one of those little doors that tiny AAA batteries hide behind. It also sported a crusty residue that announced, Your batteries are dead bozo, you left them in too long while they morphed into useless blobs, so they spilled their rotten guts all over the clock, and you might as well toss it in the garbage.

So I did.

I stared at the abandoned Westclox at the bottom of the green E.J. Harrison and Sons trash bin and thought about what that clock must have seen in the years spent next to my bed. Things that were private. Happy things, and things that are best forgotten. Sleeping while the clock worked, passing the time.

Its image took me back to other clocks, like the big round one high on the wall of Mrs. Beck’s elementary school Latin class. Latin? Why would a 13-year-old take Latin? I have no idea. So I invariably just watched the school clock move forward, waiting for the painful class to end. Amo, amas, amat.

It was one of those clocks whose big minute-hand moved in stages. Not a smooth progression, but one that took two distinct steps to move ahead one minute. Ka-chink it went, with an accompanying loud click. Then it hesitated a moment like it wasn’t sure it wanted to complete the stroke. Then, finally, the second Ka-chink and the beginning of the next minute. 

A good part of my elementary school life was spent sneaking looks at the clock on Mrs. Beck’s wall, waiting for that second Ka-chink. And it didn’t end in elementary school. There were other clocks in high school that also plagued me with similar Ka-chinks. In retrospect, I would have paid good money for a digital clock without Ka-chinks.

Some clocks plagued me without even seeing them. My Uncle Max’s, for example. My parents teamed up with Max to buy a two-flat on Chicago’s north side. Not the expensive north side, the one where the working stiffs lived. Uncle Max lived on the second floor while we were on the first. His bed was positioned right over my head.

Uncle Max worked at a junk shop (today it would be called a surplus materials recycler). He got up five days a week at 4:30. His wind-up clock kept reasonably accurate time and went off religiously at 4:30. That’s all it did, no radio, no dimmer, no USB port, no batteries, no nothing. Uncle Max wound it at night; at 4:30 it erupted, and he’d let the alarm run down to the bitter end.

The ringer sounded like it belonged on a cheap clock, which it was. Like most wind-ups, it would ring very fast at the beginning of the cycle, and then run progressively slower as it coasted to a stop. I’d lay there, roused by the ringer, and wait for it to end. Ring…ring…..ring.…..ring.…… I thought it would never stop. 

I liked Uncle Max, so I never mentioned the ringer and, like the clock on Mrs. Beck’s wall, it brings back the faces and sounds of people I loved.

Now I have a new clock. It arrived like so many other things in an Amazon Prime truck. It only cost $12, is made of black plastic, has a USB port, and plugs into the wall. It has ten different dimmer settings. It also has a little door under which I installed two AAA batteries. It tells perfect time, and I don’t need to squint at it. But it has no memories.

It may last 30 years, but I won’t. Someone else will have the job of keeping time…and tending to the batteries.


Pages

Archives

Recent Comments