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.

Sex Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why am I bored.

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

So why am I bored?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next month, sex education.

Ukulele on my mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How old am I?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Athletic shoes that don’t hurt.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s hot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can’t wait to see my next Edison bill.