More than Yoga

Jackie organized a yoga retreat last Saturday. It was held at my house which, biased though I may be, is an excellent setting for anyone who wants a calming atmosphere, great views of the Topa-Topa mountains and a silence that makes one feel that they are no longer in Kansas.

A multi-year yoga fanatic and sometime teacher of the mysterious art, Jackie would rather organize retreats than eat pastrami sandwiches. Although based upon our recent visit to Nate and Al’s in Beverly Hills, pastrami is a close second. And if you add crispy French fries, a dill pickle and soda from a real Coca Cola bottle, the contest most definitely becomes a toss-up.

The retreat had the benefit of Jackie’s organizing skills and unlimited ability to focus on something until  every bit of it surrendered to her unalterable vision. No half-measures here, only the best will satisfy this petite wonder-woman. A slick website announcing the retreat, complete with the ability to sign up and pay, was merely the beginning. Heaps of gluten-free food from Rainbow Bridge, dozens of personalized ball point pens, fragile eco-friendly glass water bottles, a notable professional yoga instructor, a personable hiking guide from the Ojai Athletic Club. and a flavor-filled flask of my organically grown olive oil would assure the participants that they would receive more than their money’s worth.

Up before dawn on the day of the event, I inflated four bright red balloons. I put them in strategic positions along the road that would lead the participants to the place where all their dreams would be fulfilled. No matter that it was thirty-six degrees outside. I would nevertheless cope with the challenge of tying a very small knot in the neck of each balloon to assure that the inflated markers would last for the next hour or two. After that, the miserable little bastards could shrivel up like my penis in a below zero Chicago winter.

I had not intended to participate in the two yoga classes scheduled for the day. My lack of skill and grace as I waddled and stumbled through two prior failed attempts at discovering the mystery of yoga caused me to studiously avoid a third encounter. I thought this resolution was inviolate until Jackie, in that sweet, yet overpowering whisper said “Oh, please join us. It’ll be such fun.” My lack of resolve quickly melted like a Hagen-Daz chocolate ice cream bar on a hot summer’s day.

The first of many challenges to succeeding at a semblance of yoga involved the proper selection and placement of the various toys that are part of the ritual. The floor mat that every hard-core yogi carries to yoga classes and perhaps, it seemed, to weddings and funerals, was obvious as to its purpose. Hard book-shaped support blocks that reminded me of the nail beds that yogis are known to lie upon for hours riveted my attention; had no one ever heard of rounded corners?

These accoutrements were followed by a relatively stiff but yielding bolster that would, I hoped, only be used for naps. Next, a long-buckled strap that might otherwise be useful in a particularly active sexual encounter left me with no clue as to its real purpose. Several blankets, neatly folded in a manner I was not destined to emulate, offered some hope that they were intended to create a welcoming sleepy time environment like my kindergarten days at Hibbard elementary school. The final toy was a weighted eyeshade that was. I thought, only to be used when the group leader felt that I should be relieved by a firing squad of my self-inflicted agony.

I joined in the fun. Abundantly aware that I was surrounded by nine women, I tried to emulate the poses, twists, bends and other contortions that are representative of the yoga experience. I struggled to convince myself that my inability to reasonably replicate even one of the poses could be generally attributed to my extraordinarily long legs. My failure to maintain what would otherwise be called a push-up was inexcusable. Unable to accurately ascertain my left side from my right side usually brought me face to face with another more knowledgeable participant. I gradually found myself separated from the rest of the crowd who were obviously not enamored by my occasional poking them in their up till now private parts.

“Restorative” was the adjective appended to “yoga” in the final hour of an excruciatingly long day. I was ready to pack it in but the smile on Jackie’s face and the occasional “good boy” that emanated from her sweet lips gave me the will to carry on in the face of what otherwise might be called “Fred’s Folly.”

The hour consisted of a series of comparatively restful poses. Lying on my back with the bolster tucked under my legs, blankets covering my body and the eyeshade shutting me off from the rest of the world proved to be my favorite. I could have spent the entire day like that and become a lifetime advocate of yoga.

When I thought that the blessed lying on my back might be unhappily stripped from my grasp, the sound of a flute filled the otherwise silent space. It had a calming influence that could be compared to a mother’s love for her child. As my eyes were covered, sound was the only sense that I experienced. It seemed familiar. And then, as if a revelation, I knew it was Charles.

At Ila’s funeral nearly seven months ago, Charles had appeared unbidden at the side of her plain oak casket. Dressed in immaculate white linen, his hair neatly groomed and holding an American Indian flute, he proceeded to turn what was until then an unsurprising farewell to my love of fifty-seven years into an event that many would long remember. The notes emanating from the instrument were slow, sweet and in perfect tempo. I was sure that Ila must be hearing what was intended as both a fond adieu and a loving thank you for many years of a meaningful relationship.

And here we were again, this time at the end of a day that I thought might conclude with no particular memory. Lying there, thoughts of what had been flowed out of my memory like the playing of a video of our life together. A life that is fading a bit. A life that is yielding to new relationships and history yet to be written.

But as long as the sound of the flute is heard, I will remember.

Time is a fickle thing

Went to the creative writing class last Thursday at Help of Ojai. Lots of nice people and lots of good words jumping from the carefully crafted pages brought to the class by the participants. Some laughs, some sadness, lots of praise. And lunch too.

I had the pleasure of sitting next to Jeff at the long table set for ten of us by the folks at the Soule Park dining room. An inviolate prerequisite for our selected lunch venue is the restaurant’s willingness to write separate checks. Food is important but separate checks are essential.

Due to the table configuration, conversation typically involves two, maybe three people. This time it was just Jeff and I. Listening to Jeff’s poems for four weeks had impressed with their construct and, most of all, their thoughtful content. A liberal like me and about as ancient, I had found a kindred soul.

We shared a little of our backgrounds and had a brief organ recital. I told Jeff that my loving wife, Ila, had passed away about seven months ago. And then the thought sprang on me as it often does…seven months, why does it seem like seven years?  I reminded myself that I regularly count the months, weeks and days since August 23, the day she left my embrace. And maybe that’s why time defies me and almost stands still. No matter the passage of time, the pain is never going away. It will lessen but thankfully never depart.

I think that just about everything else in my aging soul seems to be moving at the speed of light. Why do some things move at a glacial pace while others dare me to put a hand up in an effort to stop the world from spinning out of control…like those amazing ice skaters who dare you to keep up with them as they seem to be spinning into another universe.

There are some things that are so wonderful that I want them to never end. Yet they will, and they move so quickly that I am scared. Scared that I’m aging and know that one day I will be deprived of the things I love. How soon? Better not to know.

There are times that loved things move like honey from a spoon, slowly, creating anguish as I wait for the sweet taste to arrive. Yet when the joy of its taste is finally available, it moves quickly from me at roller coaster speed while I hold onto it, struggling to keep its sweetness just a little longer.

Jackie went to a seven-day retreat in San Diego last week. I told her I’d be ok in Ojai and that she should enjoy herself. Sunday was ok, Monday too. By Tuesday, I was looking for her in every part of my mind. In every ring of the phone and every sound that announced a text message. Wednesday produced little sleep. Thursday and Friday promised not her imminent return, but a prolonged feeling of deprivation that would never end. Text messages and phone calls produced a bit of relief and even some poetry. “It’s still raining. Very softly. Like your skin under my finger-tips.”

Sunday arrived. I drove the usual fifteen minutes to her home but it felt like thirty. I knocked but didn’t see her through the glass. I went in. Her hair dryer was making the sweetest noise I had heard in a week. I followed the sound to the bathroom. The sight of her drying hair framed in the light surrounding the mirror made my heart leap.

She was home and so was I. Time began its inevitable roller coaster ride. And we were both on it for as long as it would last.

What do you call her?

“What do you call her?”

That’s what Rhonda said to me last Friday evening. We were at the synagogue just before the start of services. People were milling about, wishing everyone Shabbat shalom, deciding which seat they wanted to plant themselves in, and just generally beginning to savor the arrival of the day of rest.

Rhonda looked around for Jackie and then looked at me somewhat quizzically. “Where’s Jackie. Is she OK?” I told her that she was fine but that it had been a long day and she needed some rest. And that’s when Rhonda lowered her voice and barely whispered “What do you call her when you introduce her to other people?”

Rhonda and Don were an item. A cute couple who have been totally immersed in each other for nearly a year. So it seemed a bit odd that she was interested in what I called Jackie when introducing her to my friends. Maybe Rhonda was still looking for that special word or phrase that best described her relationship with Don.

I would have thought that the two of them had figured that out some time ago. The uncertainty was more understandable for Jackie and me since our relationship is in a more formative stage, full of mysteries, revelations and history yet to be written.

In various social settings I had used various nouns and adjectives intended to catch the essence of our relationship. And, like many works in progress, I would often find myself hopelessly stumbling, unable to settle on something that would convey the depth of my feelings for her, and at the same time be easily understood by others. “Girlfriend, significant other, sweetheart, partner, and my love” were just some of the descriptive terms that I had used interchangeably as I wandered through a disordered minefield of words and feelings.

“Girlfriend” seemed a bit too juvenile. Like something drawn from my junior year at Chicago’s Von Steuben High School where entertaining a young lady at the second-floor water fountain could be grounds for calling her my girlfriend. Obviously not very meaningful, plus there was nothing that prevented me from immersing myself in multiple girlfriends at the same time. Nothing that is except the wrath of whoever thought she was my one true girlfriend.

“Significant other” seemed a reasonable alternative that has been adopted by those avoiding a more legally binding relationship. Then again, “significant” did not in itself grammatically convey any degree of “exclusivity” and furthermore seemed a rather bland description of a loving relationship. Certainly it was nowhere as definitive as “the only” or “none other.” But these alternatives also seemed to fail at adequately describing one’s status. “Hi, this is Jackie, my significant other.” Significant other what? Were there other women in my life that resided several hierarchies beyond “significant” and was Jackie still on the waiting list for an improvement in status?

“Partner” was certainly worthy of consideration. Unfortunately, due to contemporary usage, it raises the question of the sexual preference of my “partner”. Was Jackie another male, a female or something in between? The gender question answered itself in those instances when Jackie was present during introductions. Even so, “partner” seemed much too business-like. I pictured the two of us sitting behind a traditional partners’ desk, toting up the day’s receipts and then adjourning to separate bedrooms. Unattractive at best, lacking in the beauty of sexual relations and wholly unacceptable.

“My love” has a mystical aura, filled with opportunity, yet leaving the question of the exact nature of that love somewhat up in the air. Or is that intentional?

“Sweetheart” has a nice ring to it but has the same shortcomings as “my love.”

“Fiancee” is a possibility that leaves an expectation of things to come. However, it normally requires a somewhat formal announcement, complete with a ring that tends to remove all doubt about status.

“Wife” is very definitive…but if that were our present relationship there would be no need for this essay.

No, what we need is something that leaves little to the imagination, slides gently over the speaker’s tongue, and provides the listener with a warm, loving image of two people in a very special alliance.

But maybe the true nature of that relationship is best left to the imagination. The imagination of listener as well as speaker. Perhaps that is what love is about. Ever evolving, ever-growing, ever being defined. A relationship that leaves the participants in a state of uncertainty, taking nothing for granted. Striving to make it as satisfying as possible for both parties.

However, if I must find a phrase that best defines our current relationship, so be it. One that expresses feeling rather than description. One that is warm. That is heartfelt. That rolls off the tongue as though it were covered with honey.

“My beloved” sounds like a winner. Wait, far too formal and Elizabethan. “My love” is better. “Hello Max, this is my love”…nope that just won’t cut it. Oh, I’ve got it. “My special lady” says it all. Crap, that sounds like I’ve got another more deluxe model in the back room.

So I guess I’m destined to tirelessly wander through a thicket of descriptive terms, never finding the perfect one. Meanwhile I’ll just look into Jackie’s eyes for that bright light that tells me “it’s ok what you call me as long as you love me.”

She is Woman

When I was a young man I took a photography course at UCLA. Part of that adventure involved the hiring of three lovely women who agreed to pose for us in the all-together. Stay with me, it gets better.

One of my classmates had a large home and an empty swimming pool that was then being decorated with a rather gaudy mural. Although other parts of his garden beckoned us, the pool became the favorite spot to photograph the models. A dozen of us, intent on producing lovely images of the young women, crowded into the pool and shoved each other out-of-the-way as we all tried to get the best view.

It was too early in the Earth’s history for digital cameras to be even a glimmer in one’s imagination. Kodak still ruled the day and we had what we thought was an ample supply of rolls of Ektachrome, Kodachrome and Verichrome each with a whopping thirty-six exposure payload.

We weren’t twenty minutes into the shoot when I had run through all six of my rolls of film. I was desperate to remain an active shooter rather than a voyeur. So I reloaded one of my spent film spools and proceeded to double expose the entire roll.

When I got home and developed the film, I was shocked by the crude photographs. More like stag film outtakes than elegant female figures, they screamed profanities at me. Visions of being the next Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz or Man Ray went up in smoke…until I looked at the double-exposed film. Beautiful I thought. Perfectly composed. Female figures intertwined in loving repose. Not a hint of crudeness. Really lovely. And then I stopped and realized that this was nothing but an accident caused by poor planning, a rush to judgment, and then maniacally executed without any real thought.

Could I do it again? Maybe, but we’ll never know for I have let the years pass without attempting a repeat performance. As evidence of my prowess with the camera, one of those double-exposed photos taken on that sunny day in the Hollywood Hills was good enough to be hung in a UCLA hallway where, some weeks later, it was stolen by some unknown admirer. Rather than being upset, I felt honored.

My appreciation of the difficulty in properly photographing the female body went up several notches after my experience in that empty swimming pool. Posing, lighting and the demeanor of both the photographer and the model are critical to the success of the adventure.

But something else stuck in my mind that day and since. The beauty of the female body and its transfer to either photographic paper, a painter’s canvas or a sculptor’s bronze is a gift that should not be wasted. And if one is not proficient enough to execute any of those art forms, the human eye is another option. One that I have made full use of as I approach my eightieth decade.

I find myself continually drawn to the beauty encapsulated in every woman. Looking but not leering. Appreciating but not lusting. Well, maybe a little.

I’m fortunate. The woman dear to me is lovely. Body proportions designed to complement each other. Petite but not tiny. A derriere that leaves you hoping it does not pass too quickly. Breasts that demand a second look. Legs that reach to heaven and beyond. And lips that say “kiss me…again.”

And she knows it. Her mind is constantly at work, planning and enticing. I sometimes think I’ve been drugged. So blissful that I want to remain in that state of euphoria forever. Reveling in her presence and sharing her essence. For she is truly woman, doubly exposed and beautiful.

Writer’s Block

Writer’s block. That must be the reason I can’t finish what I start.

I’ve tried so many times to pen my thoughts. Write an introductory remark, something grabby to keep the reader from abandoning my blog to read any one of a zillion others, all seeking fame through writing.

So I start to write. Pretty good intro I think, but what’s next? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Maybe I’ll put the Word document away for a day or so until the mind clears and I can continue to write and…oh crap, who am I kidding. It seems so unimportant. So meaningless compared to other things in my life that yell “Focus on me…me, me…you’re not getting any younger you know. You’ve got limited time and I’m begging you to fill it with me before you fall apart completely, unable to think rationally or perform life’s functions.” Surely there must be something that’s of interest to my legion of readers. The economy, the buffoon in the Oval Office, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the unraveling of our social fabric, the buffoon in the Oval Office.

Oh, wait a minute, the Super Bowl. Dummy. You watched it from beginning to end. You reveled in watching the hated Patriots go down to defeat. You can write about how people take great pleasure in the dethroning of others. But it’s too late, Thousands of others have already written about the game and posted it on the web for the world to see. I’d be repeating their words without even knowing it. Come on, smart guy. There must be something else in your bag of tricks. Or is your life so dull that writing about it leaves an emptiness in your head, a sour taste in your mouth, a lifeless feeling of what’s the use?

How can that be? I went to Rotary, didn’t I? But I didn’t join. I started driving the old folks bus again. But I used my hernia as an excuse to delay my re-entry. I joined a creative writing group but can’t create. My presentations are limited to stuff I wrote months ago. Am I really that dull?

Wait. I love the woman in my life. And she’s far from dull. Always moving, always surprising, always ready to try anything. And encouraging me to ride along. I do so relish the opportunity. It’s changed my life in so many ways. Some frightening, most exhilarating, all new and challenging. Surely I can find something in those experiences that will interest you. Make you smile. Make you part of it. Make you lust for more.

Ah, but it’s so personal. I can’t possibly reveal everything about her. Certainly not in mixed company. It’s just not done. I’d blush and begin to mumble. And then you’d want more of what I really should keep veiled, accessible only to me. Only to pleasure me. To make my words so enticing and so mysterious that you say “Hey Fred, that’s not fair. Trust us, you can tell us anything. We promise not to tell on you. Come on, give us just a tiny bit more. You owe it to us. We all share our stories don’t we…maybe not as exciting as yours but nevertheless meaningful to us. Don’t be a spoil sport. Man up. Show us you can write. We’re waiting. Got other things to do. So come on…before we press the escape key and go somewhere else. You’ll be sorry.”

Oh crap. There it goes again. Thought I had something of interest to say to you but it’s slipped away. So many great words to share and I haven’t a clue what to say. Maybe tomorrow.

Are Banks Worse Than Phone Companies?

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending my synagogue’s monthly finance committee meeting. Not a particularly mind bending event you say? Well you don’t know what seven Jews can find to make mischief about.

The highlight of the meeting was the general lack of customer service provided by our current banking establishment. This led to my innocent remark about the quality of the electronic payment system offered by my bank. This in turn led one of our committee members to research the comments about my bank on the Yelp website. Not good.

Have you ever seen positive comments about banks? A lack of comments is considered a badge of honor. Beleaguered branch personnel are generally trying to understand and implement lengthy and incomprehensible rules made at the corporate level…rules that seem intended to drive customers to the breaking point with anguished calls for help like “are you crazy?…or, does the person making the rules even have a bank account?…and my favorite “I’m going to switch banks.” Sure you are…if you have a death wish.

While all this was going on, my monthly phone bill arrived from the usually clueless Frontier Communications. My Frontier land line and wi-fi have been missing in action since the fiery holocaust that descended on my home town on December 4, forced me to evacuate my home and mercilessly destroyed telephone polls, fiber optic lines and cell towers.

Obviously, expecting Frontier to send a nice condolence card and a note waiving all charges was too much to expect.  So I thought I’d better give them a courtesy call. I called Frontier’s “we’re here to help” number and settled down for a nap while my call moved ever so slowly toward the end of a very long line of angry customers.

Click…”I’m Matt and how can I help you.”  Matt, a pleasant “customer service” guy based in a red state wasn’t aware of the Southern California fiery holocaust. I asked him if he watched TV. “No, I don’t watch anything that might make me unhappy.” It got better.

I suggested that it might be appropriate to put collection of my debt on hold until they restored service. And a refund of a portion of the prior bill might also be in order starting with December 4, the day my house nearly burned to the ground.

After being on hold for an eternity while Matt searched every available record at Frontier, I was informed that I had to pay my bill and that I would get a refund after service was restored (he had no idea when that might occur.)  I said something like “you’ve got to be kidding.” I suggested that the worst thing that could happen would be that Frontier would cancel my account for non-payment. Since I didn’t have any service anyway, it would make little difference in changing the earth’s rotation or inclination. Matt had no idea what I was talking about.

Matt said he would escalate the call.

Maybe banks aren’t so bad after all.

Life begins…again

The change has been breath-taking. Little more than three months ago I lost the love of my life. Ila’s passing left an enormous hole in my heart and my life. Merely calling it “grieving” is an insult to the nearly sixty years that we loved and held each other, living life, rearing a family and knowing what each other was thinking without saying.

Nearly eight years ago, Ila fell ill with what may well be the worst malady of our times. Losing ones  mind and appetite for life is a tragedy that leaves those watching and caring with a feeling of helplessness and a progressive loss of hope.

Good friends, loving children, religious support and bereavement groups do much to soften the sense of loss and emptiness that fills the hours. The silence of the home is heavy and slow. Time seems to stand still. Music of any genre is a welcome respite from the quiet that envelops me. Phone calls from strangers who would otherwise be unwelcome break the monotony that depresses. I say always say “yes” to “would you like to…?”

And then, gradually, life returns and starts to normalize. People begin to look at me without the sympathy that formerly preceded a chance encounter. I try to fill my hours with an appetite that recognizes that the way out of sadness is paved with a renewal of old activities and an adoption of new ones that were never considered in a past life. Rough edges give way to periods of happiness. Accompanied by a feeling of guilt that says “is it too soon to be happy?”

Funny how things happen. Out of the blue and without warning.  A lovely woman, caring about my loss, suggests that a yoga class might help to work through the darkness. And maybe a hike would be a way to fill the time. And lunch would be a good idea to help replace the pounds that were lost due to an absence of the pleasures of eating. And slowly a relationship develops with her that both recognizes my loss and offers a new sense of being alive.

Suddenly Jackie is an indispensable part of my life. Hours are spent marveling about my luck.  I continue to attend the bereavement group and I incessantly ask if it’s ok to feel alive again. “Maybe you’ve spent enough time in purgatory” becomes a mantra. “How much time do you want to spend before embracing what has been delivered to you by fate, God or happenstance?”

So life has returned with a vengeance that leads me in directions never contemplated. Jackie has shown me the way and I grasp it and her with an urgency that recognizes the indisputable passage of time. I devour it and I’m happy.



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