Alan and I arrived together at the library last night. It was the fourth Tuesday of the month, the day that the Ojai Valley Library Friends and Foundation board meets.

It was overcast most of the day and occasional drizzle made it feel as though winter was still with us, so I wore my Patagonia jacket to the meeting even though the temperature was in the mid-60’s. I’ve learned that most of the board members like it cooler indoors than I do, so I keep my jacket on in the meeting room until abundant sweat cascades down my cheeks.

Wearing warm things while others are happy in their flip-flops and t-shirts is attributable to my senior citizen status, lack of much body fat, and my mother’s caution that you can always take off what you’ve got on, but you can’t put on what you don’t have. I use that line when Jackie leaves the house with nothing much on, knowing full well that she will ignore me.

We walked toward the library entrance and stopped midway. Alan looked at the wall and noted the hundred plaques that were embedded in it. I had passed them hundreds of times since they were installed nearly twenty years ago, each in recognition of a contribution made to help in the acquisition of what is now the OVLFF bookstore and meeting room.

“Is your name on a plaque?” I said it was but didn’t spend much time looking for it. Alan found his with little effort and it seemed to bring back his memories. The relatively inexpensive masonry plaques have not aged well even though shaded by the covered entry to the library.  I made a mental note to talk about it at tonight’s board meeting; maybe we could pay a handyman to clean them up. And then I forgot about it, an unsurprising common occurrence.

Next to the plaques is a prominent piece of art made up of large mosaic tiles. It’s a scene depicting the local Topa Topa mountains in the background and a prominent bird, likely a California quail, in the foreground. Unlike the aging masonry plaques, those tiles are enameled and have held up nicely over the years.

I asked Alan if he knew the history of the piece but, given his comparatively brief tenure on the OVLFF board, did not. Without much prompting, I launched into its history that featured the artist and my involvement in the commission of the work by OVLFF two decades ago. It seemed like just yesterday that I had argued and pled with the artist, worried that we had spent donated money without any real assurance that we’d receive anything in return. But we eventually did and treasured the result.

My historical rambling reminded me that I’ve been on the board over twenty years, longer than any other current member. I’ve attended 200 board meetings, made 400 bank deposits, and written almost 3,000 checks. All of which tends to be mind-numbing and devoid of any glitz.

Our current board includes marvelous people who are passionate about books and the library. I’m sure they would lay down their lives protecting the institution from book-Nazis and others intent on interfering with the unbridled distribution of ancient and contemporary masterpieces. They want to expand the reach of the library into the community and to fill the edifice beyond that permitted by the fire marshal. They are undeterred in their mission. For some, it is life itself. Compared to them I am a literary slug.

Hard copy books have disappeared from our home. The Kindle now reigns supreme. I have an avalanche of unread digital books that sit idle in my Amazon Prime inventory. Browsing through it is a nightmare since I can’t be sure if I’ve previously read or rejected any of them. I’m easy prey to any suggestion about a book I should read, which reinforces my feeling that I have different tastes compared to those who actually read all the books they purchase. 

It usually takes me weeks to finish a book. I often forget its title while reading it; the author’s name might as well be Anon. I feel cast adrift while others discuss the latest books and recite footnotes from memory; I can’t differentiate between an op cit and an ibid.

All of which has helped turn a board meeting into an agonizing experience. Judy starts the meeting promptly at six and, bless her heart, strives mightily to end it at seven. She delicately balances the rights of people to speak at length while her own internal timer ends the dissertation of the most verbose.

Other than announcing a blazing fire on the premises, I generally lapse into total silence at the end of my two-minute presentation of the financial report. Anything beyond two minutes causes a mass glazing over of the eyes and unanimous exploration of the board members’ Facebook accounts.

I do, however, manage to keep myself awake by muttering. Maybe all 84-year-old men mutter under their breath to express their displeasure in group settings. Most importantly I have found there is an art to doing it properly without appearing senile.

One must not look directly at the person who has generated the need for my muttering, and its volume should be barely audible to make it unintelligible. It should only last a few seconds, so it does not become a substitute annoyance. Carefully spaced repetition of muttering is permissible if the annoying party prolongs their offending dissertation. I’m sure that the younger board members would also mutter but they do not have the excuse of old-age and are looking forward to many years of stimulating board meetings.

Occasionally, a truly worthwhile matter is brought to the board for serious discussion. Last night, for example, the proper use of the hyphen consumed the bulk of our allotted hour. The bookstore’s name is Twice-Sold Tales, a clever play on Twice-Told Tales a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne later made into a 1963 horror film starring Vincent Price.

One of resolute board members had found an inconsistency in the use of the hyphen in various bookstore publications. Armed with that information, she asked that the board adopt a pledge to always use the hyphen and abandon the grammatically incorrect absence of it. Another board member, rising from his slumber, objected. Back and forth it went until sensing the futility of supporting the hyphen-less version, the objector crumbled and joined the side of the hyphen-ers.  It was a win-win all around. I found the entire discussion so fascinating that I had not muttered, even once.

Too bad Vincent Price is dead. It would have made a great remake of the original film.

An Ojai Sunday

It was warm and bright. I thought reading a book would be all the action I needed to make it a perfect Sunday. But Jackie had other ideas.

We dressed, had morning coffee, and walked to town. Only 15 minutes separated us from the Farmers’ Market and our regular two-ounce container of wheatgrass juice. The juice, with its hint of sweetness, is available from the young man who also sells a variety of sprouts. Both of nature’s goodies are claimed to extend one’s life, enhance the workings of the gut, and reawaken our sexual appetites. Best of all they are steps from our front door and only six bucks for two servings, once a week. 

Jackie bought a small bag of sprouts that were destined to remain in her waist-belt for the rest of the day, soaking up her delicious body heat and turning them into easily digestible wilted things. We made our usual circumnavigation of the market, stopping to greet familiar faces whose names I had forgotten. We left the market with a box of mixed berries, blue, raspberry, and black.

Crossing Matilija, we passed the woman who plays the didgeridoo. Sitting in her usual Sunday spot at the entry to the parking lot, she could be seen blowing into the instrument that owes its fame to the Australian Aboriginals. With vibrating lips and a technique called circular breathing, air is blown through a five-foot-long tube producing a sound that brings back memories of the Crocodile Dundee movie and its star, Paul Hogan. I give the didgeridoo player high marks for producing a unique sound that need only be heard once.

Moving through the parking lot and onto the grass directly opposite the fountain, we came upon the Hare Krishna contingent getting ready for their noon chanting. No longer looking like they had been thrown out of Los Angeles International Airport, they could be mistaken for me or you. The leader of today’s festivities was Bill, a member of our synagogue’s Saturday morning Torah study group. He invited me into the musical gathering where I picked up two wooden rhythm sticks and joined in.

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, also known as the Hare Krishna movement, is a Hindu religious organization. Monotheistic, adherents believe that that humans are eternal spiritual beings trapped in a cycle of reincarnation. Like Judaism, the nature of the cycle for individual beings is determined by karma, the law of the consequences of our past actions.

These were people I knew well, quite the opposite of my first impression when I found them on the Farmers’ Market grass years ago. As I clunked the wooden sticks together I smiled and wondered what my friend Harry would say if he stumbled onto me singing Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, and reading pamphlets with odd looking cover art. We played for a while, finished off the berries and headed to the Inn.

Brunch at the Ojai Valley Inn found us seated in a mass of humanity. The background noise overwhelmed my hearing aids and had me looking for a way out. Jackie’s daughter Sammy is highly sensitive to noise and joined me in a rebellion. Supremely devoted to the happiness of their guests, the Inn moved us to a terrace table that eliminated the noise, gave us an unobstructed view of the golfers, and displayed the beauty of the Topa Topa mountains. An unlimited supply of lox, bagels and cream cheese turned a potential disaster into a scene from the 1937 movie, Lost Horizon, some of which is reputed to have been filmed on Ojai’s Dennison Grade, viewing the mysterious Shangri-La. I half expected Ronald Colman to pour my coffee.

Walking back to town, we were surprised to find that the Art Center was hosting a 2pm musical benefit for the musicians of Ukraine. Displaced by the war, these artists were now living in Poland and subsisting on a limited number of musical engagements. We bought tickets and found second row seats in what turned out to be a packed house.

The quartet of a pianist, 2 violinists, and a cellist were originally from Eastern Europe and their program focused on similarly located composers of the 19th and 20th centuries. The first piece, heavy, slow, and likely to cause a deep coma, left me wondering if I could last  the entire 90 minutes.

In addition, I had foolishly picked seats that obscured any view of the performers. I might as well have been listening to the radio. Shifting in my seat produced little improvement. So, I decided to just go with the flow.

I leaned back in my chair and closed my eyes. I listened. The music improved. I stopped fidgeting. I breathed deeply. I visualized the pianist’s fingers rising and falling on the keyboard. I occasionally thought of my parents who were from the Ukraine. I relaxed. My ears opened further, and I heard high pitched sounds. Two birds were singing just outside the open door to the patio. It was as though they had been written into the score.

It was a wonderful Sunday in Ojai.

The Blue Thing

The piece of exercise equipment had been in the same place in my backyard for over a year. I’m not even sure what it was called. A six-foot-long, two-foot-wide, six-inch-high strip of blue plastic with a rubber tread running down its center.

It was owned by Robert, my exercise trainer. I had used it to improve my balance by stepping on it and raising my left foot. I’d balance on my right foot for fifteen seconds and then, if I was lucky, lower it gracefully and repeat the process with my left foot. If I managed to complete the routine without falling off the blue thing, Robert would say, “Good, very good.” If not, he’d be silent. Like other faculties, balance is a disappearing act for the elderly.

Robert was my trainer for several years. Twice a week for thirty minutes we’d meet at the Ojai Valley Athletic Club, and he, like an orchestra leader, would put me through a routine of ropes, balls, weights, and sinister looking machines. I came to know the devices and the routine and often wondered why I was still paying for Robert’s services. Maybe it was because he was my psychiatrist as well as my trainer.

And then Robert fell ill. No big deal at first. He could still manage nicely while he was going through his own escalating routine of invasive surgery, lethal radiation, and destructive chemicals. But his absences from the club multiplied and he eventually stayed home.

Both of us suffered his absence and we often spoke and texted. It was during one of those phone conversations that he suggested coming to my house where we might find a quiet spot to continue some sort of training.

He lived ten minutes away and was still able to drive. He’d arrive at my place around nine. I’d anticipate his appearance and go to his car to help unload his bag of tricks, a few hand weights, elastic ropes, and that blue plastic thing. As his health deteriorated, my share of unloading the equipment got bigger while his time sitting in a comfortable patio chair grew more frequent.

It was the highlight of the week for both of us. I got a little exercise, and he increased his self-worth. I had a psychiatrist who made house calls, and he got closer to the old athletic club setting where he had once been on top of the world.

I was the only one using his exercise equipment and we both quickly tired of moving it in and out of his car. The biggest and clumsiest piece was that blue thing. It was like sticking a surfboard in his car. So, he suggested that we just leave it at my house until it wasn’t needed anymore.

Eventually the house calls grew less frequent, and then they stopped. The blue thing stayed on the patio.  Jackie wondered if I should find a new trainer, but I procrastinated. I had made myself a promise that I would not look for a new trainer until either Robert died, or he came back to get the blue thing.

The silent blue thing sat there, unused. Through summer and winter, I expected it to fall apart from exposure to sun and rain. I half hoped it was invincible, like Robert.

And then he died.

Jackie and I debated the fate of the blue thing. I was inclined to further procrastination. But a promise is a promise even if I’m the only one who knows it.

The blue thing is gone now. And I have a new trainer.

I ache all over.

Whale Watching

“Groupon is offering a big discount on whale watching trips. I bought two for us. Should be great fun.”

Delighted by her find, Jackie called Channel Island’s Sportfishing in Oxnard to reserve space on next Sunday’s afternoon trip on the Ranger 85, a boat that accommodates about seventy passengers.

Her enthusiasm waned a bit when she was told that Groupon discounts couldn’t be used on weekends. But never one to back away from a challenge, she ponied up the extra bucks and got us tickets. No doubt envisioning a whale jumping into her lap, she excitedly counted the days until we’d board the Ranger.

Our last boat trip, in a larger vessel, took us from San Pedro to Catalina to celebrate 2021 New Year’s Eve. It was a rough trip. The wind blew, the boat rocked, water exploded over the bow, and I kept Jackie supplied with seasick bags. Never one to shun adversity in the face of a new adventure, the Catalina experience did not deter Jackie from wanting to seek out and make friends with the largest mammals on earth.

Many whales migrate along the California coast. Some like the Gray whale move from Mexico to the Bering Sea in the summer and reverse their journey in the winter. Others like the Humpback have much longer trips that keep them moving relentlessly, losing some of their body weight by postponing snacks until reaching their destination.

A female Humpback is about fifty feet long and, despite her fasting, weighs thirty tons. Males are smaller and, like me, tend to do what they are told. Gray whales are a little shorter and some spend the winter in protected areas of the Baja peninsula where a thriving business takes you right up to them for a gentle pat on their backs.

I did not want to spend another trip watching Jackie fill up seasick bags and suggested that we both share a scopolamine patch. That’s the medication that also makes you tell the truth, like the Germans used on Anthony Quayle in the 1961 movie The Guns of Navarone. Jackie was lukewarm about the idea, wanted to keep hiding some personal stuff, and grudging acceptance eventually degenerated until the idea of any med, even one available over the counter at Rite-Aid, was rejected without compromise. I prepared several dozen plastic bags.

Having fished on party boats coming out of Channel Islands, I’ve learned that the weather offshore can be colder than inshore. Accordingly, my mother’s mantra about dressing warmly leaped at me, “You can always take off what you’ve got on, but you can’t put on what you don’t have.” And she had never fished.

Sunday morning arrived in Ojai, bright and sunny. A fooler, I thought. For sure it’s going to be cold on the ocean. The incessant wind will bring the temperature down to the vicinity of that experienced by Robert Peary when he stumbled onto the North Pole. I thought, we’ll probably see more icebergs than whales. Don’t let Jackie out of the house unless she dresses like my mother.

She emerged from the bedroom wearing an armless jacket; the one that looks like it’s made of squares filled with a quarter inch of insulation. It always reminds me of the coats that the Chinese wore in Korea when we were beating each other to death.

I stared at her sockless feet. I suggested that she wear mukluks, two wool shirts, and a warm hat with earflaps. I repeated my mother’s mantra…twice. No movement.

You’re gonna be cold, I said.

I’ll be fine, she said.

No, you’re not, I said.

I’ll be fine, she said.

I’m not sharing my clothes with you on the boat, I said.

I’ll be fine, she said.

Two “I’ll be fines” always means, “Leave me alone”.

So I did.

We arrived at the dock. People were in various stages of dress. The ones with the proper clothing had probably heard my mother’s mantra. The others, dressed like people on Easter break in Miami Beach, had either never heard my mother’s mantra or were too macho to put on anything more than flip-flops; they could be easily identified along with Jackie who sought a warm spot inside the building. I half-expected to find pictures of them frozen and hanging alongside the photos of trophy fish that anglers had caught years ago.

We boarded the Ranger with forty others and immediately noted that there were only eight sheltered seats inside the boat’s galley. But that didn’t matter much since the whales were outside the boat. They were waiting to display their spouting, breaching, and other tricks they had learned to entertain underdressed, freezing humans, and to take revenge on the people who had killed Moby Dick and his relatives.

Jackie put up a good front, shooing me away every time I said, are you cold?

I’m not sure why I did that. I certainly wasn’t going to give her one of my four layers of clothing or my wool hat. Maybe I was just getting even by pointing out her disdain for my mother’s mantra.

My pity eventually overwhelmed my taste for revenge. I held her hand, nestled up to her and blocked the wind. I stopped asking if she was cold.

We went inside. All the seats were occupied by people wearing flip-flops. They were drinking large mugs of hot chocolate laced with Jameson’s Irish Whiskey.

I was sure I was the oldest person on the boat, so I just stood there looking pathetic and sorely in need of a place to rest my bones.

A young couple who probably wished they were in Miami Beach stood and gave us their seats. I grunted, stumbled theatrically onto the seat, and thanked them for their kindness.

Every few minutes noises on deck could be heard announcing the spotting of another whale, all too far away to properly enjoy the massive creature. We decided to end our day sitting in the warmth of the cabin.

We had seen several whales, but only parts of them. Backs were plentiful and two tails. For all we knew, it could have been the same whale repeating her performance. Or a whale without a head.

I wondered how these animals could bear the cold pacific water and chilled wind. And then I thought…maybe they know my mother’s mantra.

Blood Pressure

I take my blood pressure nearly every day. It’s a habit I fell into fifteen years ago when Doctor Halverson said, “Hmmmm, you need a little something to help reduce your systolic pressure. That’s the big number.”

I’ve gone through a few blood pressure measurement devices. My current favorite is the cuff that goes around the wrist. Then you press a button, the device constricts, and about thirty seconds later, you get three readings including systolic, diastolic, and heart rate. Sometimes the readings produce a happy face. Other times I frown.

I don’t like frowning and, in violation of the blood pressure taking rules, wait about twenty minutes and do it again, maybe twice. I find that with each iteration, the numbers are more to my liking, so that’s what I record on my log.

I bring the log to my annual physical and watch Doctor Halverson scan it and then smile at me with his perpetually smiley face. In 15 years, I have never told him my secret; then again, I’m sure he knows and factors it into his calculations.

My routine doesn’t change much. I take my morning supplements, make a mug of Peet’s dark roast in my Keurig, bring the mug to my desktop, and log into the New York Times. If I haven’t already sensed my stress level building, I grab the pressure cuff and do my thing. Today, my systolic rang in at 155; frowny face appeared.

Putting the cuff aside, I scanned the Times home page and found an article titled The Truth About the Internet’s Favorite Stress Hormone. Perfect, I was already stressed so how much worse could it get? I launched into the article. Cortisol was the star of the show.

The pituitary gland, sometimes called the master gland, works with the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol into the bloodstream. When stressed, the amount of cortisol increases to cope with the stress produced by any number of things. Back when cavemen dragged cavewomen home to meet mama, cortisol helped the hairy bastards deal with the stress of hungry neighbors like the 23-foot long Quincana, a relative of the crocodile. Or the 11-ton wooly mammoth.

Except for the occasional stupidity of visitors to illegal animal parks, we generally don’t use much cortisol running away from hungry beasts, even in the middle of Ojai Avenue. But, in natures way, there are replacement stressors to take up the slack.

And that’s where the NY Times shines. Take this morning for example. The market is a mess, Trump is consuming half of the Justice Department’s annual budget, Putin and Xi Jinping are best buddies, Ron DeSantis is expanding his Don’t Say Gay xenophobia to hide his ignorance of foreign affairs, Netanyahu is proceeding with his plan to bury Israel’s supreme court, and a bunch of publicity hungry congressmen want to ban Tik-Tok, making its 150 million U.S. users very peeved. It’s almost too much for my adrenals and cortisol to bear.

But you got to watch your cortisol intake. Too much cortisol has been blamed for contributing to high blood pressure and a lack of sleep, so fighting wooly mammoths just before bedtime is not a good idea. Since cortisol is also blamed for depression and PTSD, it’s probably unwise to dwell on the news, like that offered by the Times (or even the Ojai Valley News for that matter).  As a bonus, some people develop a lump of fat at the back of the neck while others put on weight or feel fatigued.

Reading the article brought on more stress as I mentally tested myself against the reported possible disorders. A second cup of coffee did nothing to alleviate my anxiety while raising my cortisol level. I thought about my occasional sleeplessness, waking at 2am and then failing to fall back to sleep. My unfounded concerns which at the time of night warrant an Emmy, coupled with an extra shot of cortisol are, I’m sure, the cause of my bleary-eyed condition the following morning.

I finished the offending article and as further punishment clicked into Fox News. I occasionally visit this alien site and compare its headlines with the Times. I was rewarded with a gold star as my cortisol soared to even greater heights.

Giving my adrenals a sabbatical, I returned to the Times and was pleased to see that no giant asteroids were predicted today. Feeling like I was on a roll at the roulette wheel in Vegas, I grabbed my pressure cuff and spun it. It said “126 over 68.” Perfect.

I probably ran out of cortisol while scanning the Fox News page. Bet I sleep all night.

Planes, trains and automobiles

Two months ago, we planned a trip to Starvation Palace in glorious Lemon Grove. If you’ve ever spent time in The Hood, you have some idea of what Lemon Grove is like. Calling it blue collar isn’t even close.

Starvation Palace is my nom-de-plume for the Optimum Health Institute or OHI, a sort of spa getaway just north of San Diego tucked between assorted drug dispensaries, car repair shops, the largest recyclable collector in southern California, and an athletic club that should pay you to attend their sordid digs.

But, hey, where else can you escape the world by entombing yourself for a week in a getaway that might be described as fantasyland with just a touch of Little Shop of Horrors. I call it my home away from home.

It was Jackie’s winter break and, to fill her idle moments, she booked a second week in a different “let them eat cake” spa four hours away from OHI in Desert Hot Springs. Believing I’d lose half my body weight downing wheat grass juice at OHI, I opted out of week number two in the desert and planned my trip back to sanity.

It made no sense to drive back to Ojai since Jackie had to go in a different direction. And, besides, it was her car. The Amtrak train seemed a logical alternative. At $55, I could buy a business class ticket and rest comfortably for five hours while someone else did the grunt work.

Buying the ticket came with a warning on the Amtrak website. Infrastructure repairs along the railroad tracks between Irvine and San Clemente would mean getting off the train and boarding a bus. Past San Clemente we’d get off the bus and get back on the train. I briefly thought about renting a car and driving in the Sunday traffic on the 5. But I could probably walk faster, and visions of a fatal stroke made that option unappealing. So, I punched the enter key and bought the ticket.

The week at OHI passed without serious injury or lapsing into a coma due to low blood sugar.  On Sunday morning we packed our bags, loaded the car, and took our 15-minute ride to San Diego’s train station. Called the Santa Fe Depot, it was built for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. It’s an impressive structure with sandstone colored soaring towers and tiled domes. Heavy on Mexican heritage, I half expected that Duncan Renaldo, the Romanian actor who played the Cisco Kid on TV, would come sweeping out of the depot chasing a band of desperados.

I kissed Jackie good-bye, rolled my retro-suitcase into the building, and ended my fantasy. It was much like a Greyhound bus station. The first thing I noticed was the absence of any clock on the wall that might tell passengers how long they had been languishing waiting for a delayed train.

An Amish contingent of at least 15 characteristically dressed people was grouped on two of the hard wooden benches. I wondered if they were headed north to work on the train repairs; unfortunately, it was too late to do me any good. Several of them were using cellphones; even the bare earth Amish can’t get along without them.

A voice boomed from the walls. Information about the trains. Number 777 was on time and leaving at noon, 90 minutes from now. And there was more.

It was Sunday, and because there was no work on weekends, Amtrak had decided to dump the bus part of the trip. That’s a relief. No injuries dragging suitcases off and on vehicles. No fighting for seats, and no added delays due to freeway traffic. I took a deep breath and admired my luck.

So, I thought I’d have a cup of coffee as a reward for my good fortune.

There was a small shop at the corner of the building. It sold drinks, ready-made sandwiches, and an assortment of stuff that you always forget to bring on your trip. It looked a lot like ones you see in the lobbies of seedy office buildings. Manned by a guy who looked like he’d rather be somewhere else, I took a chance and ordered a small coffee. I searched out the sugar and cream, removed the plastic top from the cup, added the things that make coffee drinkable, and replaced the top.

A few Formica-topped tables sat haphazardly around the shop. Chairs were randomly distributed, and I picked one that seemed recently cleaned…maybe a couple of days ago.

I sat. I brought the cup to my lips and…I felt a stream of hot liquid falling into my lap, through my pants and into my underwear. With so many opportunities, I hardly knew where to start. Stopping the flow seemed prudent, so I did. And then I realized that the lid had come loose and no longer sealed the cup.

A large dark stain appeared in my groin, making me look even more like an old guy who needed lots of Depends. I was sure everyone, including the Amish women, was staring at me. I looked for napkins to soak up the mess but couldn’t find any. I headed to the Men’s Room.

Toilet paper was useless, leaving its own white specks on my pants. I spotted a hand dryer, sidled up to it, and started it by waving my hand in its general vicinity. I pulled my pants close to the air outlet. And it stopped after five seconds. I waved again and it started, then stopped. I figured it was programmed by the same guy who decided to hide the napkins.

I continued the pant-holding-wave routine for a few minutes hoping no one would wonder about my sanity. Not wishing to push my luck and a trip to the nearest psychiatric hospital, I left the confines of the Men’s Room, found an unused bench, sat, spread my legs, and let nature do its thing.

It stayed damp on the train for five hours. But at least I didn’t have to get on a bus.

What did you say?

Three years ago, I visited the local Ojai audiologist because Jackie said I should.

To get my attention and gain my acceptance, she smiled sweetly, rose to her full five-foot height and said, “It’s enough already. I can’t stand repeating myself. It’s annoying. You need hearing aids. Go see that guy across the street of the hospital.”

I said I would and then conveniently forgot about it.

Jackie has many wonderful qualities, including putting up with me. But, like an elephant, a really big elephant, she never forgets. She also works quickly, completing tasks well ahead of schedule. For example, she takes the garbage cans out to the street nearly two days before their collection, in probable violation of the Andrew Street beautification rules.

In a gentle way, she quizzes me about tasks that have been assigned to me, knowing full well that I have not done them. So, after several nudges over a two-week period, I succumbed to her suggestion and made a date with the ear guy.

I felt confident that my problem was not physical. It was surely, I thought, simply due to my inattention when being spoken to. Just a case of establishing priorities when doing my thing.

The audiologist was nice enough and I was mildly cooperative. I took the press the button when you hear the beep test, confident that my hearing was normal. No old guy hearing aids for me. So, I was shocked when he said, “your high-end hearing is for shit. You need hearing aids, the bigger the better. The expensive ones, not the crap they sell at Costco.”

He sealed the deal by saying, “Now you can tell your wife that you don’t ignore her when she talks to you. It’s simply a case of high-end hearing loss. All’s forgiven.”

Three more years passed. I became an intermittent hearing aid user. I would often forget them and was grilled by Jackie about their absence whenever she felt she had reached her limit of repeating things like, “What time is it.” Or, “There’s a nuclear event scheduled at 4pm, what would you like for dinner?”

My hearing loss became more pronounced and my excuses for not wearing them more pathetic. I realized that I was missing what everyone in the free world was saying, including the real possibility of a nuclear event.

 I didn’t understand that my hearing would, like most of my other body parts, suffer the incessant ravages of old age and become a candidate for significant medical intervention.

There was a new audiologist in the neighborhood with a growing reputation for being pleasant, taking Medicare insurance, and occasionally improving one’s hearing. Pleasantness was the deal maker. I made an appointment.

I arrived at Dr. Nelson’s office 15 minutes early and, unlike most other medical professionals, found him ready to begin our adventure ahead of schedule. Good sign.

I have never had the pleasure of viewing San Quentin’s gas chamber, but the hearing test cubicle seemed to fit my imagined description. Three solid walls and a fourth with a glass panel, much like one that would allow the viewing of the execution by prison officials, reporters, and the public. A heavy thick door muted incoming sounds, much like those that might emanate from the condemned soul.

Examining the contents of my ear canals, Dr. Nelson discovered a motherlode of wax and discarded auto parts in my left one. Using a probe like the one employed by Humphrey Bogart while digging for gold in the 1948 film, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the doctor extricated the baseball sized debris and displayed it to my eternal wonderment.

In contrast to the single test of three years ago, I was the beneficiary of a battery of them. One involved creating a vacuum in the ear canal accompanied by thumping sounds like Boris Karloff might make chasing people in The Mummy. Another had me repeat words that people like me often mistake for something else. Like bear and beer.

The press the button when you hear the beep test was, like three years ago, the highlight of the morning. Consisting of listening to tones played at varying volumes and pitches, I press the beeper to acknowledge my recognition of them. Missing one indicates the loss of a part of the hearing spectrum, and a candidate for hearing aids.

I tend to cheat when taking the test by pressing the beeper when there really is no sound. Sort of like memorizing an eye chart and pretending I can see. The beep equipment is diabolical enough to thwart these attempts, and the psychology of cheating seems to fly in the face of the purpose of the test. It’s a tool to help me hear better, not to gain admission to Harvard.

We finished the tests and adjourned to Dr. Nelson’s office where we looked at graphs and charts, fiddled with the keyboard, and explained things to me that I promptly forgot or maybe never absorbed in the first place.

In conclusion, I simply needed to turn up the volume on my hearing aids and make a few voodoo adjustments that are known only to a practicing Haitian princess.

And then we entered the magic code, inserted the devices, and tested my hearing. The first attempt produced sounds akin to being inside a half-filled bag of Lays Potato Chips, extra crispy. Fiddling with it produced a sound like being sheathed in two yards of holiday gift-wrap cellophane. Dr. Nelson was patient. Probably learned by having a practice that is largely to devoted to Medicare recipients and other similarly inclined complainers.

He suggested that I take my devices home and try them out. We both agreed that my brain probably needed some adjustments, and all would be well when I got used to my new ears, hopefully before being admitted to hospice care.

I made my way to the parking lot and seated myself in its once friendly confines. The sound of the car door closing was my first clue that this would be a challenge. A large, booming noise rattled me, and I was reminded of an F-16 jet breaking the sound barrier.

I arrive home. Our garage door is made of eight 20-foot-wide aluminum panels. When they roll up or down, they used to make a slight tinny sound. Not anymore. More like the shootout at the OK corral.

Entering the house, I drop my keys on the granite countertop and I hear glass breaking.

My iPhone rings, connected to the hearing aids via blue tooth. A shock courses through my body. I’m sure I’ve touched an overhead power line.

Jackie comes home and deposits a large, stiff brown paper bag on the floor and unloads the contents on the counter.  Breaking glass again and again.

Removing stuff from the countertop she drops a stainless-steel salad fork on the hardwood floor.  A combination of shock and breaking glass.

Enough is enough. I remove the hearing aids and my body relaxes from the military pose that I’ve been in since leaving Dr. Nelson’s office.

Bedtime and I sleep restlessly, thinking I won’t get to see him before our San Diego trip. I’m sure he’s booked, and I’m stuck with these clarion call hearing aids for a week. Or I can take them off and annoy people by asking what did you say? for a week.

Finally, it’s morning. I call. He can squeeze me in. I arrive. He fiddles. I’m happy.

And more importantly, so is Jackie.

I need to pee

My friend Ralph moved to Santa Barbara about a year ago when the attraction of a senior living facility finally outweighed the charms of Ojai.

In Ojai, Ralph lived near Vons, about a five-minute drive for me. Before his Santa Barbara departure we often met at his home around 5:30 for drinks and lively conversation. Ralph made an excellent martini. Glasses chilled in the freezer, respectable gin, a whisper of vermouth, and two or three olives depending on their size impaled on a toothpick made specially for the task. He was a master at mixing just the right drink proportions including the ice cubes that chilled the ubiquitous stainless-steel container that cradled the solution.

I often stood next to him in his kitchen where he deftly shook the container until the drink was at its proper temperature, avoiding excessive ice melt that could overwhelm the drink if mixed by someone less experienced. He poured the liquid slowly without any trembling. He carefully measured the pour so that we each had precisely half of what had been prepared. Occasionally, I received a tiny bit more than half while Ralph, like a proper host, never had more than I did.

Sitting on his couch while Ralph occupied a matching easy chair, we mostly talked politics, movies, and the latest absurdities imposed by the City Council on its citizens. We spoke slowly while savoring the occasional sips we took when there was a break in the conversation. I tended to drink more quickly than Ralph did, and I made a special effort to keep from getting too far ahead. It took about thirty minutes to consume the drink, nibble on the olives and run out of things to talk about. A bit light-headed, we always had dinner while allowing my alcohol level to decrease to where I hoped it did not exceed the legal limit.

Things changed with Ralph’s move to Santa Barbara. The five-minute in-town ride became, on a good traffic day, an hour’s freeway race. My declining night vision made it impossible to make the drive at night, so lunch visits became the norm. While I love Ralph’s company, I felt like I was on the clock, checking to make sure that I got back on the road before Santa Barbara’s rush hour that usually began at two and didn’t end before midnight.

To maintain this schedule, I would leave Ojai at 10:30, begin lunch with Ralph at 12:30, and get back in my car at two. Martinis fell by the wayside. Drinking one around noon seemed obscene. Even if I could stomach it, my alcohol level would make me a prime target for the Highway Patrol, I’d fail the breathalyzer test, be unable to walk a straight line, and spend my remaining years in solitary at San Quentin.

Adding to my misery is Highway 101 between Ventura and Santa Barbara which has been under repair or adding more lanes since well before the last ice age. Few projects have lasted as long, with the possible exception of the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona which has been under construction since 1883.

Even the Great Wall of China still struggles to keep pace with the 101-highway project. Begun in 217 BC, the wall stretched over four thousand miles and endured three major renovations. Although largely abandoned, it is still under continuing maintenance.  There’s even speculation that some unlucky workers were entombed in the wall…as possible punishment imposed by travelers like me who were late to lunch with friends.

Most of us hardy travelers have acclimated to what seems like a highway project without end. Expectations of up to 75 minutes to traverse the gauntlet of dozers, articulated trucks, asphalt pavers, boom lifts, and backhoes was the norm…until last Wednesday.

Half-way through the odyssey, traffic ground to halt. Probably a fender-bender I thought. After due consideration the skies parted, and we began to move. Hope that’s the big one for today, I wished. But it was just the beginning.

When we did move, it was at an intergalactic pace averaging five miles an hour. At that speed, and with nothing better to do, I calculated an arrival time at Ralph’s of 2pm, just in time to pee and hop back in the car for the trip home.

Peeing became a focal point and I wondered about my bladder’s ability to outlast the remainder of the trip. Never one to unnecessarily test my bladder control proficiency, I began to think of ways that I might get some relief when the time demanded it. The more I thought about it, the tighter my bladder became. My brain was in control and it began the inescapable signaling of the need for relief.

Exiting the freeway to find a friendly urinal was not an option. Like my bladder, those roads were filled with cars whose unlucky owners were there for the duration.

I thought, wouldn’t it have been nice if I’d kept a plastic water bottle in the car like Jackie had suggested. Not for peeing, but for drinking. I could have opened the window, dumped the useless drinking water, and filled the empty bottle with the despised urine. I visualized inventing a new yoga pose to accomplish such a transfer.

Another option was to stop the car on the shoulder to relieve myself. This would involve walking around the front of the car, moving to the passenger side, and sort of angling my body back towards the front. This would prevent people behind me from seeing my frontal performance, leaving such a delight to several dozen construction workers including some burly women who would surely pummel me if the concrete buttress didn’t stop them.

Trying to pee after staunching the flow for too long is often a time-consuming affair, giving lots of onlookers the opportunity to view the show. At least with my gray hair and wrinkles, they could always write off the act by saying it was just some old guy who couldn’t hold it any longer, bless his heart.

I was excited each time the traffic moved. Maybe this was the end of the beginning. I thought, you’ve waited a long time but just hold on a bit longer. This nightmare is sure to end.

And it did. Two and a half hours after I began, I pulled up to the curb outside Ralph’s condo. He had promised me a vacant parking space, but that was long ago. There were none. Instead, I drove five hundred feet and parked the car on an adjoining street. I sat for what seemed like an eternity wondering if I could stand up and walk to Ralph’s before the heavens opened and my pants revealed the unthinkable.

I willed my brain to think “empty”. I rose from my seat, closed the door, and began the march to my coveted destination…slowly like Alec Guinness did in The Bridge Over the River Kwai. I made it to Ralph’s, pushed aside his welcoming hand, nearly tore the screen door off its hinges and raced to the guest bath.

Relieved, I ate lunch while silently visualizing what the return trip might look like. We finished and I gave Ralph a hug, filled all my pockets with his thick four ply Kleenex and began my way home.

The gods were kind, there was minimal traffic, and I got home in less than an hour…without a pee break.

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.



Recent Comments