Coffee with Norm

I hadn’t seen Norm in almost two years. And then on Wednesday I bumped into him in the dairy aisle at Vons.

I had to look twice to be sure it was him. Older and grayer, he carried himself with a bit of a stoop and a little shuffle in his gait. Always kind-hearted and sensitive, his somewhat older persona fit his indelible character.

We had once been very active in the Ojai photography milieu but both of us had mostly abandoned that activity for reasons that could not be clearly enunciated by either of us. Norm had a creative streak that produced some clever and cutting-edge photos. He was one of the first to create photos without the benefit of a camera. This novel idea led to a discussion some ten years ago about whether his artwork was truly a “photo” that met the requirements for submission to the annual Ojai Art Center photo contest. It did, and it won.

Norm was kind enough to send me an email the day after our Von’s tryst that told me how much he enjoyed our brief conversation surrounded by the milk, butter and sour cream. I wrote back and, with some hesitancy, asked him if he’d like to have a cup of coffee. I knew that the death of his wife, Phyllis, nearly three years ago coincided with his withdrawal from the art scene and I wondered if he might not respond to my invitation. But he did, quickly, and we settled on Java and Joe at nine o’clock two days later.

I was already sipping my usual dark roast coffee with Splenda and cream when Norm arrived, right on time. No surprise, since he was always punctual. A lot like me, Norm did not crave the center of attention and tended to cede the podium to those more verbose than he. I hoped we’d have enough to talk about before my coffee cup was empty.

I felt a bit awkward when I told him of my engagement to Jackie. Due to what seemed a reclusive demeanor, I had assumed that Norm had not fully recovered from the death of his wife, dear Phyllis. Also talented, she had been both a prolific artist and an art teacher. Conducting classes at the Art Center, she had a large following. Her illness had gradually robbed Phyllis of her ability to continue in her usual mode. So, she moved the classes to their home. Then, as she became frailer, she employed the computer and on-line instruction. Norm told me about the last year of her life when they would combine trips to Santa Barbara hospitals and doctors with lunch at favorite restaurants, walks on the beach and much conversation. It was a happy second honeymoon for them even though the outcome was ordained.

I need not have worried about Norm’s anticipated discomfort as I talked about “my Jackie.” For he had some time ago taken up with a woman in Camarillo. Introducing her to his family led to serious consideration of their relationship. However, it was not to be and their togetherness ended short of any more formal binding. Currently happy, it was like he had attended my bereavement group when he spoke of feeling guilty while enjoying himself when Phyllis could not.

We had a bit of an organ recital and lamented on those parts of our body that did not respond as quickly as they did years ago. About five years older than me, Norm had some physical setbacks but is able to work in his garden and be entertained by his children who show up regularly to check on him. He commented on my activities with “You seem to have a full schedule.” Funny, since I often don’t feel that way. Maybe it’s my lifelong need, sometimes a curse, to stay busy.

I looked up from our conversation and saw Jackie bounce into the coffee shop. Her appearance, complete with a certain impish demeanor, immediately brightened my day. Introducing her to Norm added to my enjoyment. Her hand lovingly rubbing my shoulder completed the unexpected treat. Jackie shared some words with Norm and, knowing the right time to depart, did so with an infectious smile. When she was gone, Norm looked at me and said, “She’s just like you described her, only more so.”

We spoke of photography and the increasing difficulty of aging muscles to bear the weight of the usual assortment of professional level camera equipment. Smart phones and their increasing ability to emulate the photos taken with traditional cameras occupied the next few minutes. Norm’s visits to hospitals and doctors with Phyllis had generated an interest in watching others as they sat in waiting rooms. Using his smart phone, he shared with me some of the photos he had taken of these kindred spirits. I remarked on both the unique concept and his ability to capture the moment that showed their pain, boredom or exhilaration. I was both enthralled and jealous of his art. But probably not enough to ignite my own juices.

Norm reminisced about the time we had once spent every June, hanging selected photos on the Art Center walls in anticipation of the annual show. He and I sometimes were a team, measuring, nailing, hanging and leveling the submissions. In the midst of our thoughts he said “I remember you and Ila sitting on the couch during a break. You held hands and sang together. The sight was something so warm that I wished we could have hung it on the wall. You seemed so happy.” I couldn’t remember the occasion, but he was so pumped about it that I didn’t want to break the spell. “Yes, we did that a lot.”, I said.

Like a lot of things that grow fuzzy with age, we tend to alter their true story in ways that satisfy a need, improve its reception by the listener, or we simply forget. Some stories are told so many times that they become real. I sometimes start them with the preface “I’ve told this story so many times that I’m not sure what’s real and what’s made up.” But it doesn’t matter, so long as I can tell it.

Time passed and the extended silence between our sentences signaled the end of our conversation. I asked Norm to call me if he wanted to do this again. Wondering if we would, we deposited our coffee cups in the trash and walked to our cars. At our age, tomorrow is a lifetime.

More than weeds

I don’t usually take candid photos. I’d rather focus on a project that’s several months in duration.

About ten years ago, Ila and I had the pleasure of producing a book called The Faces of Help of Ojai. With the cooperation of the Help staff, we chose about twenty people who volunteered there. Our objective was to take their photos, interview them and publish a book that had their pictures and their words. We hoped the book would tell the reader why people volunteer and would encourage them to follow in their footsteps.

We set up in a small room at Help and blocked out the light coming through the windows. Each subject seated themselves comfortably in front of artificial lighting. I snapped photos while Ila asked the volunteer a series of predetermined questions. We recorded the conversation and extracted a couple of paragraphs that became part of the volunteer’s book page along with a photo.

We published and distributed about five thousand copies of the thirty-page book. I still get a charge whenever it pops up unexpectedly and I remember how much Ila and I enjoyed working together on the project. I was especially pleased to see it displayed today at my bereavement group session. Sadly, many of the book’s featured volunteers have passed away.

Another project involved photographing oil wells. I used unusual angles and close-ups. I enhanced the faded colors of the rigs and emphasized their graininess. Ila was my sous-chef, carried some of my equipment and was welcome company. The project took about four months. When we finished, I took the portfolio to the Union Oil Museum in Santa Paula thinking they might like to exhibit some of them. The response from the museum administrator was “Why would we display pictures of oil wells?” Scratching my head, I went home, put a couple of photos on the wall and deemed the project completed.

About seven years ago I became fixated on the wild flowers that a perfect rainy season had brought to the area around our home in the Upper Ojai. The vistas were filled with plants whose names were a mystery to me. These plants and their flowers must be photographed and identified, I thought. Arming ourselves with a clipper and a bucket of water, Ila and I spent the next few weeks collecting samples of the best they had to offer. Placed in the bucket, Ila nurtured them as though a bouquet of the finest roses.

Each of the plants was quite small, about a foot high. Its blossoms no larger than a quarter. I used a very small vise to stand the plant erect. A black background was placed behind the plant. Using a macro lens, I photographed about thirty of the tiny plants from about eighteen inches away. The plants in the photos could have easily been assumed to be much larger than reality.

We printed the photos as large as my printer would allow. The resulting fourteen by twenty-one-inch prints revealed the intricacies of the stalk, the leaves and, most of all, the flowers. Veins in the leaves were easily distinguishable, much like the avenues though which our blood flows. Tiny hairs on the stalks reminded me of the hair on the back of my neck. Flowers revealed the uniform structures that supported them. Lacy filaments cascaded throughout. The colors were vibrant.

And all the while I thought of these little beauties as weeds. Interlopers that would normally be viewed as pests in an otherwise manicured landscape or garden. So that’s what we called our collection…Weeds. I posted them on my website, produced brochures that we sent to friends and framed a few.

Years passed and the Weed collection remained dormant. I went on to other things, but continued to wonder what would happen to Weeds. Just another project that absorbed part of my life seemed too little. Yet I did little to promote its resurrection. Ila passed away. So, it seemed, had Weeds.

My friend, Barbara, had been working on developing a collection of art for the new Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura. Devoting over six years to the project, she and her committee had accumulated more than six hundred pieces that would grace the rooms and corridors of the new facility. Barbara had seen Weeds and asked if I wanted to see them on the hospital walls. Would I? It was the opportunity I had been looking for.

The new emergency department has twenty-five examining rooms. I had twenty-five weed photos. A match made in heaven. I printed the photos and Barbara had them framed. They were hung.

A week ago, the new hospital opened its arms and invited the public to see the six hundred pieces now housed permanently on its walls. Jackie and I got there an hour after the affair began. We listened to some speeches and, when the formalities were completed, we went directly to the emergency department. Greeted by a security officer, we were told that the department was closed for the evening.

Closed? After seven years was I to be denied entry? Would I need to be injured or ill to visit the emergency department to see Weeds? Mercifully, my guardian angel appeared in the form of Haady Lashkari, the administrator of the Ojai Valley Community Hospital. With just a little bit of sugar delivered by Jackie, he graciously interceded with security and we were admitted to the emergency department for a guided tour. The framed photos were there, reminding me of the winding path we had taken to get here. I thought of all the patients who might be comforted by the photos.

Ila would have been pleased.

I’m a fiance

Taken from the French, the word fiancé is the masculine term for a man who is engaged to be married. A fiancée (note the double e) is a woman who has chosen a similar fate.

I haven’t been a fiancé for almost sixty years since dear Ila and I linked our lives together. It feels a little strange and a bit lofty at my age to be calling myself a fiancé. So I thought there must be another term that means the same thing but would slide more easily off my tongue than “Hello, I’m Fred and this is my fiancée Jackie.”

According to Wikipedia, being engaged is not the same as dating. During this period, a couple is said to be betrothed, intendedaffiancedengaged to be married, or simply engaged. “Hello, I’m Fred and this is my betrothed, Jackie.” Or “Hello, I’m Fred and this is Jackie. We are intended.” Nope. Just doesn’t work.

I shared my new status with my bereavement group at Help of Ojai. When asked if anyone had anything to share with the group, I quickly said “I’m engaged.  And my fiancee’s name is Jackie.” The faces of those sitting around the table gave me cause for celebration. I asked if I sounded awkward saying fiancé. I was assured that I had done it well and could lay to rest my fear of using the term.

You may recall that I had the same difficulty finding a term that described our status before Jackie and I were engaged. Back then it was a toss-up between partner, sweetheart, significant other, beloved and lover. We have managed to live through that awkward period without significant damage. and I’m sure we’ll do the same while coping with uttering fiancé or fiancée.

The question most often asked after someone congratulates me for being engaged is “So when’s the wedding?” After some hesitation, I generally say something cute like one small step for mankind or you’ll be the second to know. According to my sources, the length of an engagement varies widely. The longest engagement on record was between Octavio Guillan and Adriana Mart¡nez. They finally took the plunge after 67 years in June, 1969 in Mexico City. Hopefully, they had time to consummate the marriage before one of them invoked the phrase until death us do part.

The ring also plays a significant role in engagements. The tradition dates back to the ancient Egyptians when a ring was thought to symbolize eternity. It was worn on the ring finger which was believed to have a vein running directly to the heart, later named vena amoris. Second century Romans believed that a ring signified the ownership of the woman.

The first recorded use of a diamond engagement ring occurred when Archduke Maximilian proposed to Mary of Burgundy. The diamond ring craze began in earnest when Cecil Rhodes founded DeBeer’s in the late 1800s. Pricey, but probably better than the early caveman who tied cords of braided grass around his chosen’s hands, wrists and waist to bring the hussy under his control.

We spent time looking for the perfect ring. And we found it in a small jewelry store in Santa Barbara. More a storeroom than a store, Tuon, the owner, made us feel confident that he could bring off the pairing of a diamond with a setting that did it justice.

Anxious to get the ring on Jackie’s finger before Thanksgiving, I called Tuon weekly. “Not to worry, it will be done”, Tuon assured me. His text on the Monday afternoon before Thanksgiving said “Come to the store Tuesday morning. I have what you seek.” Jackie had a full day at school Tuesday and gave me license to pick up the ring without her. I protested, ”But what if you don’t like it?”. Fearless as always, she sent me on my way.

It gleamed. It was perfect. It was her. I took a photo and sent it to Jackie’s iPhone. Her priceless shrieking told me we had done good. I unwound and took a deep breath. One small step…check.

Tuesday night seemed an appropriate time to formally propose and present the ring. I added a Where’s Waldo tie to my outfit that included tennies, a  tee-shirt and worn Levi’s. I knelt at her feet and said “Please do me the honor of marrying me. She giggled, put the ring on her finger and said with that twinkle in her eye “Yes I will.” Another small step…check.

No one has yet asked me “Why did you decide to get engaged.” I’ve thought about it. Jackie and I have spoken of it frequently. It’s not some crazy idea that just popped out. I am nearly eighty, some sixteen years older than sweet Jackie. Should I depart this world at ninety-five, Jackie will be my current age. I’ve tried to mentally list the reasons why I want to be engaged. After all, there are lots of people who live together happily without marriage. Maybe nearly sixty years with Ila left me with the belief that if you love someone, marriage is the logical conclusion.

I don’t think that logic is a vital component in the decision to marry. If we base it on logic, the odds seem to be arrayed against marriage. No, I think it’s simpler than that, perhaps genetic. Perhaps it’s like that caveman with the braided reeds who understood that a lasting relationship includes the warmth, the sharing and the relative certainty of marriage.

Time to work on a guest list.`

I’m feeling better, thank you.

I had a crappy day Tuesday. The culmination of two weeks of depressing events.

It started with the murder of eleven Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. A week later the mayhem at the synagogue was topped by an ex-Marine who slaughtered twelve innocents who were out for a good time.

The election, complete with its own tensions, was but a pit-stop in the course of events. Deadly fires took center stage by burning down Paradise and sending movie stars to evacuation centers in Malibu. Neither gunmen nor Mother Nature was rationally selective in their choice of victims.

In a reversal of fortune, daughter Nancy was forced to seek shelter elsewhere as drought fed flames threatened her Calabasas home. Last December, it was I who was the victim of the month as I escaped the Thomas Fire in Ojai and took refuge in Calabasas. Now it was her turn in the box. None of us are immune to what has become a state ready for burning regardless of season.

My friend lost his son to a drug overdose. A young life snuffed out in his prime. I attended a sad memorial service of remembrance.

When I could have used some warm hugs, my sweetheart Jackie was in Hawaii visiting her daughter. Friends, no matter how attentive or compassionate, are no substitute for a lover’s bright eyes, warm hands and soft words.

My sleep patterns were disturbed. I usually fall asleep quickly, wake around 3am, take a pee break and then fall asleep again for a couple of hours. But the last few weeks have found me unable to resume sleeping once awake. Instead, I’d toss and turn in a two-hour half-sleep filled with muddled thoughts. Unable to think clearly, my thoughts would crescendo into unshakable, pessimistic fantasies. Ones that would seem stupid in the light of day but quite real in the darkness of my bedroom.

I’d meet people at the gym, the grocery, the coffee shop and the library. “Good morning. How are you?” they’d ask. Fearful of ruining their day or causing them to retreat from me as though I had leprosy, I’d force a smile and falsely respond “Fine, how are you?” Knowing full well that they were probably as disturbed as I was, they would lie “Great. Thanks for asking.” And we’d move on separately to our next victim.

Tuesday is the day my bereavement group meets at the Help of Ojai west campus. I’ve been going to these meetings ever since my sweet Ila died. Most of the seven or eight attendees are women who have lost spouses or children. Faces change but many keep coming back. Men show up occasionally. Urged by Jackie to stick with it, I consider myself a regular.

There is no set agenda. No one is forced to speak, yet the ninety minutes fly by without a break. We usually begin by offering a brief glimpse into our own emotional state, events that may have impacted our lives or just a phrase that may say much with but a few words. It’s not necessary to mince words or hold back since those in attendance understand that what’s shared in that small room stays in that small room.

“I am having a crappy day” I heard myself say. I briefly rattled off a list of the contributing offenders and sat back waiting for something to happen. I half expected Dr. Phil or Dr. Ruth to appear with happiness in a bag. Nothing happened. On to the next person. Left in the ashes, I sulked.

Getting through the holidays was on the mind of many at the table. I’ve never found that Thanksgiving had any impact on my mood. Being Jewish leaves me fairly neutral about Christmas. Suddenly, Phyllis, our group leader turned to me and asked “Fred, when is Hanukkah?” I turned to her and without thinking said “Is this a test? How the hell would I know?” And added “When I find out, I’ll set fire to myself…like a beacon.”

It all seemed so outrageously funny that I started laughing. As did everyone else who, a moment before, had been consoling themselves about being alone for the holidays. We laughed loudly for what seemed like an hour. I hadn’t roared like that in two weeks. I felt wonderful. I forgot about being crappy, leaned back in my chair and smiled. And so did everyone else.

Jackie came home last night.

Is anyone listening?

Many years ago, in a country far, far away, there lived an old man who thought he had seen it all. He had been through every kind of natural and man-made disaster but had managed to cheat death and live a peaceful existence. Until now.

His neighbors and friends, having been impacted by global warming, immigration, declining food stocks and 24/7 exposure to events around the world, had grown increasingly sullen, insular and argumentative.  Mere differences of opinion could not be solved by peaceful discussion. A profound loss of common decency was replaced by strident self-interest. This rapidly deteriorating state-of-affairs was something the old man hadn’t  seen before. His neighbors, once unified and caring, had turned surly. They no longer spoke to one another. They only sought the company of those who were like-minded and who shared similar opinions of right and wrong.

People separated into two distinct groups, each easily identifiable by the color of their clothing. One group wore red. Red shirts, red pants and red shoes. The other wore blue, including their underwear. The Blues walked down the left side of the only street in the country, while the Reds filled the right. Some Reds and some Blues, more strident than others in their group, wore large felt hats emblazoned with their group motto Me First. They also carried large signs that, in appropriately colored letters, shouted their group’s demands. They carried the signs wherever they went; into the supermarket, the church and the schools.

Their children were indoctrinated from the age of three by TVs, computer screens and smart phones. Talking heads poured forth their vitriol twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Panel discussions deteriorated into near brawls. Children freely mocked other children without punishment.

Each group embraced leaders who promised to ignore the pleadings of the other group.  Once amiable and social despite their differences, the leaders of each group now shunned their counterparts and never crossed the street. Eye contact became rare; verbal intercourse was only used in dire circumstances. The unwillingness of the groups to speak with each other left the street in disrepair and eventually all public conveyances had to be removed from active service. Unable to move without restraint, people became even more insular.

The only meaningful activity was voting in elections that occurred every two years. Pitting Blues against Reds, these elections were preceded by attack-ads that focused on the personal traits and imaginary foibles of one’s opponent. Real issues, in particular the much-needed repair of the only street in the country, were either ignored or promises made that were either impractical or required solutions that were well beyond the available financing. Elections regularly caused the in-party to lose control. Every two years, any positive steps taken by the party last in power were undone by the incoming party.  Soon, fed up by the lack of any solution, the street issue faded into obscurity.

Although elections occurred only every two years, campaigning was non-stop. Fundraising for candidates began the day after the bi-annual election. Pleas for funding soon eclipsed the funds raised in the last election. People, fearing that the other side would eclipse their own meager resources, poured money into the pockets of their chosen candidates. Property taxes, income taxes and other revenue sources were regularly reduced by the party in power in order to fund candidates.

Other public services began to diminish. Schools closed, police and fire personnel were laid off and the street continued to crumble. Each side blamed the other for this lack of service. Those who won an election would initially promise to create greater unity with the other party. This commitment soon faded, and threats continued to be hurled across the potholed street by both Reds and Blues. Blues who were seen consorting with Reds were deemed traitors. Reds suffered the same consequences. Meaningful discourse ended.

Financially bankrupt, their infrastructure in ruins and unwilling to compromise, the country became insolvent and unmanageable.  Other countries surrounding it viewed the dire situation as an opportunity for expansion. Efforts to fend off the attackers weakened the country and left it without recourse. It gave up and was absorbed by its strongest neighbor.

The old man, now close to death, walked the barely recognizable street. He confronted his former countrymen, whose Red and Blue uniforms were now in tatters and indistinguishable. He asked, “How did this happen?” But no one listened.

Has the pendulum swung too far?

“I want all Jews to die.”

That chilling statement was made by Robert Bowers, the man who shot and murdered eleven Jews on Saturday at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

My second thought, immediately following the realization that a new horror had emerged, was Thank God the shooter wasn’t Muslim or Hispanic. Adding more fuel to the xenophobic rantings of the president of the United States and others who condemn or ridicule people for their religious beliefs or who fear for their lives was unnecessary in the already supercharged atmosphere surrounding the mid-term elections.

There is little doubt that the president’s Twitter rants, rallies and politics have exacerbated and made fair game of the practices once held in check by more socially conscious and healing-attuned public servants. Poking fun at the handicapped, demeaning women, excusing the behavior of neo-Nazis and outright bald-faced lies have opened the door to even more despicable acts by others who once were forced to occupy the deep, dark recesses of this America we all love. The improving economy and Wall Street have, until now, served as cover for Republican congressmen who are unwilling to confront this man. Even otherwise observant Christians and Jews, who would normally be repelled by his statements and immoral conduct, are reluctant to reject him due, in part, to their affirmation of his Supreme Court selections and his social agenda.

Trump’s failure to accept any blame for what is happening to the social fabric of this country is evidenced by his continuing assault on the press and his pronouncement of “fake news” on anything that does not fit his view of the world. Despite Saturday’s horror in Pittsburgh, he continued to Tweet on Monday “There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open and obvious hostility and report the news accurately and fairly.” Like the failure of his self-appointed commission to bring to light any voter fraud, he offers little evidence of fraudulent reporting. He fails to note that the anger of his base towards the media is fomented by his own “fake news”, offered as red meat to those who believe he can do no wrong.

Anti-Semitism is an unwilling cousin to the xenophobic hysteria surrounding the immigrant caravan headed toward our southern border. Clutching it tightly as a wedge issue in the election, Trump and others have cited unproven and wildly exaggerated claims about the caravan’s composition. At a political rally in Kentucky earlier this month, Mr. Trump declared that Democrats “want to open America’s borders and turn our country into a friendly sanctuary for murderous thugs from other countries who will kill us all.”

George Soros, a Jew, has been widely and falsely claimed to be the principal supporter of the caravan. On October 22, a pipe bomb was found at Mr. Soros’s house; the police have charged a Trump supporter, Cesar Sayoc, with mailing the bombs to Mr. Soros and other Democrats who Trump frequently criticizes.

It is no coincidence that the rise in anti-Semitism has dramatically worsened in the first two years of the Trump presidency. It also coincides with increased Jew hating in Europe. The Anti-Defamation League reported that the U.S. experienced a nearly sixty percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017 versus 2016. The League said…

“A confluence of events in 2017 led to a surge in attacks on our community – from bomb threats, cemetery desecrations, white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, and children harassing children at school,” said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, ADL CEO and National Director. “These incidents came at a time when we saw a rising climate of incivility, the emboldening of hate groups and widening divisions in society.

The road to the right continued to broaden with Sunday’s presidential election in Brazil which brought Jair Bolsonaro to lead the government. He has exalted the military, advocated torture, promised to pack the supreme court and threatened to destroy, jail or exile his political opponents. Per the NY Times, he won by tapping into a deep well of resentment at the status quo in Brazil — a country whiplashed by rising crime and two years of political and economic turmoil — and by presenting himself as the alternative.

When I was a child, I lived in a Chicago ghetto where I believed that everyone in my world was Jewish, other than the janitor. When it was Passover, there was only a vast emptiness in my elementary school. Since my parents and friends were from Russia, I assumed that everyone in that country was Jewish. Except for the language, I might as well have been living in Israel. I was comfortable with my identity.

That changed in high school and reversed itself completely in college. I learned that I was a member of a very small minority with different holidays, different foods and a different house of worship. I became increasingly aware of my Jewish history and I was less comfortable with who I was. I felt different. Terms like The Holocaust, anti-Semitism and bigotry became frequently used parts of my vocabulary. I married, reared our children in the synagogue and counted on it as my go-to sanctuary. I have generally been on the fence about calls for more protection in the temple during the high holidays and I have objected to armed guards during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

I used to talk about the pendulum and how it will always swing in the opposite direction after reaching its maximum horizontal position. How good times would eventually give rise to bad times and how it would again reverse itself after running its course.

Today, with the murder of eleven pious Jews, I have my doubts.

Diamonds are forever

We spent the last two weeks searching for a ring for Jackie. A very special ring.

  • The tradition of wearing an engagement ring on the left hand’s fourth finger originated in Egypt, when it was believed a person’s “vein of love” ran directly from the heart down to that finger.

Our odyssey began when we went to one of Jackie’s favorite, oft visited, places. The Optimum Health Institute, located just this side of San Diego, has long been a refuge for those seeking a cure or just some time off. It provides an escape from the rest of world, while providing health benefits that, for some, are the final opportunity to treat real or imagined illnesses without the side effects of traditional medicine.

For others, OHI is a way to drop unwanted pounds and jump-start a new flab-less life. One of the rituals for those who sport unwanted paunches is the morning weigh-in. The process of OHI weight reduction often includes a daily verbal update such as “I’ve lost ten pounds since yesterday.” Encouragement and praise by others are de rigueur and serve to keep the dieter on track. A spoil sport, I often assume the role of devil’s advocate, reminding the gleeful flab-shedder that he or she has been starved of salt, a major contributor to water retention. And, accordingly, the greatest weight loss in the early stages of the OHI starvation regimen is the loss of body fluid, not fat. Alas, my words are always ignored.

Carl, plump and in need of a second visit to the spa after falling off the wagon the first time, is a frenetic jeweler from Chicago. A gregarious, glib, teddy bear look-alike, Carl was all ears when I asked him about diamond rings. Sensing a kill, he zeroed in on me with facts and figures. Size (bigger is better), color (white good/yellow bad, clarity (a limited number of imperfections) and cut (pear, oval, marquis, round) were thrown at me along with hastily drawn diagrams, comparison tables and pretty pictures. I soon realized I was way out of my element.

  • The world’s adoration of this sparkling stone began in India, 400 BC. At that time, they were valued simply based on size.

Carl deals with a diamond wholesaler in San Francisco. After generally describing what we were looking for, he promised to call his wholesaler and have sample diamonds delivered to his room at the spa. He seemed unconcerned about the lack of spa security. Such a valuable commodity seemed ill-served by his lack of reverence for its safety.

  • Formed about 100 miles beneath the Earth’s surface, diamonds travel upwards and are eventually accessible to us because of volcanic activity.

As promised, the stones arrived the next morning in tiny individual paper packets that belied the value of their contents. Taking time out from our schedule of goal setting, meal planning, deep breathing exercises, meditation, and gaining emotional freedom through meridian tapping, we adjourned to Carl’s room for a display of his wares. We did a lot of oohing and aahing, punctuated by some amazement at the prices of the various stones. Carl displayed the stones by nestling them between his pudgy fingers, a practice that made the two carat stones appear small and of dubious value.

  • The largest diamond ever discovered was called the Cullinan diamond. It was found in South Africa in 1905 and weighed in at an amazing 3106 carats, or 1.33 pounds.

The price of the pretty, sparkly stones was out of our reach and were sadly and unceremoniously committed to Carl’s bedroom dresser drawer. He promised a new set of stones, smaller and more reasonably priced, by the next day. Good to his word, they promptly appeared the next morning as if they had been tele-ported over the internet.

The price of a diamond does not change proportionate to its weight. Two carat stones can be three or four times the cost of a one carat sparkler. The stone’s setting, generally white or yellow gold, sometimes platinum, and encrusted with very small diamond chips, adds additional cost.

  • A diamond chip is a piece of diamond that is not faceted. Diamond chips are usually small (less than 0.2 carats in weight) and are often used as accent stones surrounding a bigger center diamond. Since chips are not polished, their surface is not smooth but is rough to the touch.

More oohing and aahing was accompanied by Carl’s admonition intended to impress us with the good deal he was offering. Demeaning the value of any potential visit to a competitor’s store, we were cautioned to pay scant attention to the little, almost illegible, tags appended to the rings in a jewelry store’s cabinet. Solemnly, we were also told to pick our jeweler like we pick our family physician; someone you could trust.

  • As soon as you leave the jeweler with a diamond, it loses over 50% of its value. Not only is the demand for diamonds a marketing invention, but diamonds aren’t actually that rare.

The next day, looking for a well-deserved break from our meridian tapping, we drove to Del Mar, the place where people lose money at the race track. We visited Ralph, a jeweler who Jackie had stumbled upon a few years ago. An amiable, helpful sort, Ralph displayed some of his glittering rings. Jackie’s eyes lit up when she saw a beautiful ring with a round stone and an affordable price tag. Without prompting, Ralph reduced the price of the ring by a third. We were ready to buy…almost. “Please hold the ring for us and give us the weekend to decide”, we implored him. Ralph graciously agreed. Unfortunately, like car buyers, never let a fish go until it’s in the net.

We’ve got an appointment with a Santa Barbara jeweler on Friday.


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