Archive for May, 2018

A Look Inside

My annual physical is usually uneventful. A little high blood pressure partnered with an aging prostate have been my only close, chronic companions for many years. But this year a new friend came calling.

If you’re old enough, you’ve probably done that little test that involves the toilet, a flip card with three distinct slots and some wooden sticks like the ones that remain after you down a cherry popsicle. It’s a routine exercise that looks for suspicious characters who can wreak havoc in your colon.

A call from Barbara in Dr. Halverson’s office began the adventure. “Hello Fred, it’s Barbara. We found some microscopic blood in your stool and Dr. Halverson wants you to have a colonoscopy.” Barbara makes the calls that you’d rather not receive. She does it so well that at first you think she’s inviting you to a birthday party. And then it dawns on you. This is no party. This is serious business. Oh crap, I said without thinking of the possible pun. Images and scary thoughts floated through my head at lightning speed. All were X-Rated.

I called Dr. Covington’s office. The doctor and my colon have been close friends for about twenty years. He’s peered inside of it twice during routine colonoscopies without discovering anything of concern. But this was different. You need a preliminary office visit after which we can schedule the procedure. The impersonal voice on the phone wasn’t concerned about my colon and booked me for a visit two weeks hence. I thought Two weeks. Too much time to think. Too many scenarios to ponder.

But, like time will do, two weeks passed and I presented myself to Natasha, Dr. Covington’s physician assistant who took my blood pressure and scrolled through my medical history. “Yes, you should have a colonoscopy”, Natasha announced. It was comforting to know that the medical establishment was of a common mind. The procedure was etched into Dr. Covington’s schedule and I continued to consider possible outcomes, the most probable of which would not be found in a Dr. Seuss book.

The night before the procedure is laughingly called prep time. The Medicine Shop had kindly provided all of the essentials. Two six-ounce bottles of ghastly liquid, a sixteen-ounce plastic mixing container and a set of instructions and no-no’s that I dutifully read several times. Some years ago, before cooler heads prevailed, I had the pleasure of downing a silo full of liquid intended to wash out the colon. That grueling experience would have been adopted as an Olympic event had it not been replaced by the more innocuous six-ounce bottles. On this occasion, the current, less onerous procedure proved quite effective.

In the morning, my good friend and neighbor Yoram drove me to the colonoscopy center. The parking lot was full, populated by cars whose owners had empty, squeaky clean colons. The waiting area, behind a fortified door fit for a bank, was packed with apprehensive patients and their keepers.

Looking at the rows of glum faces, I spotted my friend Alan and his wife, Margo. “They’re running about a half-hour behind schedule.” Settling in for the long haul, I made idle chit-chat with Margo while Alan waited for his call to duty. His turn came and he walked the green mile through the double doors and into the preparation area.

My turn came about thirty minutes later. Lifting myself from the chair, I followed Nurse Ratched into the prep area where I removed my clothes, dutifully slipped beneath the sheet and waited. My personal assistant, a lovely RN, arrived and poked my arm with a probe seeking the fountain of youth. Or, save that, a working vein. Failing to do that, she then focused on my hand and deftly slipped the needle into the most sensitive part of my arm and announced, like Ponce de Leon, Eureka, I have found it.

My friend Alan, having completed the expedition into his colon, lay next to me. We spoke of the grand and glorious things that had been revealed by his colonoscopy, the current state of politics in this country, and the benefits of old age…which did not take very long.

We were one hour behind schedule when I was wheeled into a room that looked like it needed redecorating. Two lovely assistants made sure I knew who I was and told me that this would be over quickly. They donned outfits complete with face masks that reminded me of the costumes worn by the nuclear reactor bad guys in the James Bond movie Doctor No. I felt a little apprehensive, as all I had on was a K-Mart bed sheet.

Dr. Covington appeared and introduced himself for the third time in twenty years. I excused his lapse of memory for faces, since he normally focuses on the opposite end of his guest’s body. He said “Here come the meds.” And the next thing I knew I was standing by my gurney putting on my shoes.

It was all over but the shouting. Friend Yoram relayed the news from Dr. Covington. No bleeding, one small polyp removed. Nothing to worry about…except the seven days’ wait for the biopsy results. I sent some text messages. All is well and the usual stuff you add to relieve the stress. We had a hazy lunch at a restaurant that I will never be able to find again.

That evening I went to bed early. Awaking around 3am, I tried to reconstruct the last fifteen hours. I vaguely recalled Yoram’s prognosis but I questioned the accuracy of my memory. Had I really heard the findings as I now recalled them or was I hallucinating? I remembered the text messages and got out of bed to check my phone. There they were…including one that reminded me of the seven days of waiting for the biopsy results. Like opening an old scab.

Is life at my age a series of medical events, each one with the potential to seriously alter hopes and dreams? Does one live life fullest between annual physicals? Does time pass too quickly, with a cloud hovering over us like Al Capps’ Joe Btfsplk?

Seven days passed and I was able to push the biopsy to the furthermost corner of my mind. Not completely forgotten, but not preeminent.

Tuesday the phone rang and I missed the call. A message had been left by an 805 number I did not recognize. I listened to the call.  Hello, this is Doctor Covington’s office… Time stopped and I reviewed the possible second sentence scenarios at warp speed. I thought the rest of the message would never find its way to my ear. But it did. The polyp was benign. See you in five years.

The clouds lifted. It was time for a song. One that celebrates life and makes us live it while we can.

Bravo!

Saturday I went to the Art Center. On Montgomery just south of Ojai Avenue, the Center has been around many years. The “Art” in Art Center is all-encompassing. Paintings decorate the walls whenever there is a special exhibit. Photographs have their place in the sun once or twice a year. Music fills the vacant space when featured artists ply their wares to those of us who can manage the folding chairs that so often cause my fanny to wish the show was over.

The Art Center also hosts legitimate theater. Musicals, comedies and dramas are staged by volunteers who take their roles seriously, without pay, both behind the scenes and as performers.

It was with some trepidation that I pondered Sheila’s invitation to accompany her and Sid to Bakersfield Mist, the current offering at the Center. While the cast works hard for all plays, some performances are occasionally shaky and leave me with memories that make it harder to give the next offering a fair shake. I go anyway, hoping to find my concerns unwarranted.

Evening performances are challenging…for me, not the performers. A glass of wine with dinner tests my ability to remain upright in my seat. I begin to lose my focus, my lids feel like they weigh five pounds each, and my head slowly begins a downward spiral that culminates in the loss of all my senses. Except for occasional sensory interruptions, I could remain comatose through an entire first act. I dread repeating the event that occurred some years ago when I sat in the front row, fell asleep and then awoke to find the leading man staring directly at me with laser-like precision. I remained rigidly awake and unblinking for the balance of the performance.

So, bursting with low expectations, I went to the Center. And I was rewarded with a delightful, sorrowful play that was one-act, ninety minutes long, without intermission. Periodically testing my bladder content did not ruin the performance. The cast had only two actors, both perfectly suited to their roles.

Ninety minutes shot by. The audience erupted and stood up as one, without the customary survey of the crowd to determine whether a standing ovation was warranted. I admit that I normally feel pushed into the obligatory standing mode without really meaning it. On this occasion, I did not need any prodding. Bravo.

Acting and reacting is not limited to the legitimate theater. The Gables is a retirement facility on the other end of Montgomery in mid-town Ojai. A complex of buildings from the 1950’s, it is walking distance to the Art Center, but miles away in the people it serves and the activities offered to them.

On Friday, the Music Festival brought the Bravo Program to the Gables. Bravo caters to school aged children. In large part, the program fosters an appreciation for music to kids as young as five or six. I have regularly been asked to take photos of these educational activities, which usually occur in Ojai Valley public school classrooms.

On this occasion, the Gables had invited third grade children from two local schools to entertain the seniors in residence. I and my camera arrived in the Gables community meeting room just as the senior participants were taking their chairs. Most were in their 70’s and 80’s, and all were women. Some were in wheelchairs. Others had personal assistants.

About twenty kids were accompanied by two young, inordinately lovely teachers. Bounding into the room with all the energy of eight-year-olds, they took up positions in the space made by the admiring seniors. Laura, the Bravo leader, engaged the children in a few warm-up musical exercises that included songs and a bit of dancing.

Prompted by Laura, the kids then made their way to the seated seniors. Selecting a senior of their choice, each child offered a hand, introduced themselves and engaged the seniors in conversation. A bit cautious at first, the children and the seniors warmed to the occasion. An explosion of smiles filled the room and the sound of both young and old voices merged into a playful crescendo.

Seniors who were able, rose from their seats and assumed what could best be described as a conga line. Along with the children, they began a twisty-turny parade that brought delight to the faces of the marchers as well as to the less able sitters.

I found myself taking photos with abandon. Happiness shone from elderly faces that perhaps have had too few similar opportunities. I hardly knew where to point my camera as the choices were unlimited. Children of that age are unbridled and have sweet faces that demand to be captured in a photo. On this day, these lucky seniors shared those characteristics and the beauty of the moment.

Frowns and any reluctance to participate were not in attendance. Seniors became enthusiastic children willing to learn, while children became aware of their ability to brighten lives that perhaps needed it.

Toward the end of the morning, Laura asked the children if anyone wanted to say something about their trip to the Gables. Half of the eight-year-olds met expectations by freely speaking their mind with uncensored abandon. I liked meeting old people. I think they’re just like us. It was really nice performing for real people. I’m really happy they’re still alive.

The next day I began the usually tedious job of selecting and editing the most promising photos. However, on this occasion I was disappointed when my work ended. Through the marvel of Photoshop I had relived those precious moments when young and old had come together to brighten the other.

Lives had been enriched…mine included.  Bravo.

Memories for Sale

I’m selling my house.

After eighteen years and precious memories, things have changed and I feel compelled to try something else. My sweet wife, Ila, passed away nine months ago. The house is quiet. Too quiet. Too much time to think. Too much time.

It’s a big house, more than I need. How many bathrooms can I use simultaneously? How many acres can I traverse in a day. And how big a bed do I need when all I want to do is lie closer to the woman I love?

And I want to be nearer town. Closer to people. Closer to the noise of everyday living.

Yesterday I went to Java and Joes, the little coffee shop in the middle of town that has great coffee and the occasional stale muffin. It’s a slow-moving place with the usual assortment of regulars. I sat outside and watched the cars go by. Dogs on leash. People carrying stuff from Rains and Rainbow Bridge. I don’t know who they are, but I welcome their company. It’s like a battery recharge. Something that makes me part of the scene, rather than being alone.

Anticipating a positive outcome to my own sales effort and the need to find another home, it seemed appropriate to find out what was available on the market. Led by an intrepid real estate broker, Jackie and I looked at some candidates. Comparing my home to the ones we visited was disappointing at best. A feeling of why am I doing this dogged me both during and after the visitations. Our broker’s admonition of it’s a tight market, not much inventory, failed to make me appreciate my situation.

As a further step in preparing for a new home, I have taken to watching HGTV while I treadmill at the gym. I am mesmerized watching homes being renovated quicker than possible, even under the best conditions. I snicker as the disasters involving wood rot, crumbling structural beams and faulty plumbing are discovered and corrected in record time, and at a cost that is well under Southern California prices. Homeowners bounce between major depression and glee as each episode invariably ends with a happy outcome.

Couples seeking a new home are doggedly focused on the number and size of the bathrooms. Young couples with small children seem particularly possessed with the need for a bathroom for each of their kids. Four bedrooms, four baths, for four people is the ubiquitous mantra. God forbid that little Susie might become socially maladjusted if forced to wait in the hallway while little Jimmy diddles on the toilet.

I grew up in a three-bedroom apartment that was shared by my parents, my older brother, my aunt and uncle, and my grandmother. Other relatives, usually homeless, often appeared without notice and stayed for weeks. On the floor if necessary. I slept peacefully on a couch in the dining room, while my elders played poker and smoked cigarettes not two feet from my head. And we had one bathroom with one sink, a toilet and a shower.

It all seemed normal to me. If someone was in the bathroom, I retreated to wait my turn. If it was urgent, I would ask through the door “will you be long?” I learned to pace myself and always take advantage of vacancies. Maybe that’s why, even today, I hardly ever pass up the opportunity when a public toilet is within easy reach.

Friends have mixed feelings when I tell them that I’ve listed the house and its three bathrooms. Some don’t know what to say, but others are very supportive. Some, who think they can see into the future, promise me a positive outcome.

As I look out at the Topa Topa mountains that have become familiar faces over the last eighteen years, I find myself see-sawing between euphoria and depression. I alternate between welcoming potential buyers and hoping that they lose their way as they climb Sulphur Mountain Road.

I had my seventy-ninth birthday on Saturday. Sweet Jackie did herself proud by organizing a first-class party. She showered me with gifts and whispered words of love. Attuned to my mixed emotions about the house, she repeatedly checked my mood by asking, “Do you feel like it’s your birthday?” I’d think about her question and hesitate. It was as though the party was marking the end of an era. One that was filled with good times and sorrow. Something I couldn’t and wouldn’t forget.

The next day I got a note from my Chicago cousin Judie who had seen the over-the-top photos taken by my real estate broker…Just as I remember it. Nostalgic for me. But I understand why in your heart you hope no one wants to buy it. Even though that’s what should happen. It will be easier on you.

Maybe it will, after a while.

Sweet sounds

The iPhone messaging application announces the arrival of a text message with a unique sound. More than a tinkle but less than a bell, it can be best described as the sound produced when an expensive teaspoon, held between your fingertips, contacts a very fine crystal goblet.

I receive iPhone texts throughout the day. From some friends, some vendors, and some who may have stumbled across my phone number and which I delete without reading. I find the sound of an arriving text captivating. Not knowing who the sender is until I look at the phone display tends to heighten my curiosity and draw my attention from whatever else I may be doing. It can be very addicting.

I believe I have developed a knack for identifying the genre of the caller by the sound of the arriving text. Business messages tend to produce a sound full of sharp edges, and are insistent on a response. Friend’s texts produce a milder, friendly, sound that announces the arrival of someone who just wants to talk.

People I love can be identified by a soft, melodious sound that announces the arrival of a text that I may have anxiously awaited. A message that has words that make my heart beat faster and my mind imagine what they are, even before I have opened the text.

Jackie’s messages have a unique sound. Sweet and soft with a hint of the mischief to come. Or with words that will fill my day with big smiles. I find myself anticipating their arrival throughout the day. Much like a child who can’t wait to find out what’s under the wrappings of a gift, I long for their arrival and am severely disappointed when hours go by without getting one. Sometimes her message may not contain the words I had hoped for. Sometimes they don’t lift my spirits. Selfish boy, I tell myself…she must be busy…no time to compose…wait until next time.

There’s something about a text message that changes the dynamic from that of a phone call. I tend to be anxious during phone calls and have little patience for idle chatter. The call itself is also somewhat challenging given the technology of smart phones. Unless I am very patient, I find myself talking at the same time as the recipient. Then I hesitate, much like the simultaneous arrival of two cars at a four-way stop, waiting for someone to say something. Calls tend to betray emotions that may be misunderstood, due to voice volume and the speed of the exchange. Long pauses raise my anxiety level. Too quick responses often lead to “why did I say that?” moments.

Texts, despite their bad press, tend to moderate those problems. There is more time to think, compose responses, type, re-type, delete. I can read what I’m saying and can avoid most “I shouldn’t have said that” moments. No one really notices any pause in the recipient’s response and if they do, it’s usually attributed to the passage of data over thousands of miles of electronic circuitry.

When apart, Jackie and I sometimes call each other in the evening to review our day and say nice things that make the transition to sleep a pleasant one. Last night, knowing she had put in a long day, I waited for her to find the energy to call me…and waited. At 9, I thought she might be asleep after more than two hours of driving from Goleta to her home. Enough waiting. “Are you asleep?” I texted, sent it and waited. No response. Believing she was asleep, I typed “Sleep well pretty one.” But before I could send it, her response arrived. “Grading papers and eating soup.” Not very encouraging. And definitely not sexy. Enough already. I picked up the phone and called her.

Our voice call was complicated by advanced technology, or lack of it. Muddled voices led to a series of adventures in phoning. Cell phone to cell phone did not improve matters. Jackie’s cell phone to my land line was even worse. Land line to land line produced a cacophony of sounds, much like you’d hear during overtime at a Laker game. Running out of options, my cell phone to her land line finally did the trick, but did little to erase the memory of the effort to get there.

Our voice call was memorable for its lack of anything remotely helpful in assuring a pleasant night’s sleep filled with the things that lovers think about. We were both a bit grouchy and we focused on the negative aspects of the day. Running out of tricks, I wished I could reach through the world-wide-web and softly stroke her face and kiss her lips. That technology may be on the horizon but perhaps is best left undeveloped. We ended our less than satisfying call and I slogged my way to a cold bed.

Sleeping went well until 3am. I recounted our call and, in my semi-comatose state decided to try texting my way to sleep with loving words. ”Wish you were here so that I could wrap my arms around you. You have my heart and I long for your touch.” Not bad for fuzzy thinking, I thought. Wonder if she’ll respond.

Then it was 4am. No tell-tale tinkle from the iPhone. Now 5am and no tinkle. Tinkle still not evident at 6am. Had I miscalculated. Had I been too aggressive at 3am? What did I do wrong? Does she still love me?

7am produced the sweetest sound. Like a silver spoon on crystal. Having read the time stamp on my long-ago text, she had responded with “What are you doing up in the middle of the night.” Lovelier words were never spoken.

It’s sometimes the sweet sound of a text, rather than its content, that kindles a flame in my heart.


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