Archive for February, 2019

Coffee with friends

My apologies to Joe and Lorraine.

You may recall that my last article extolled the virtues of the Java and Joe coffee shop; except for the pastries which I dubbed atrocious. Included in my scientific evaluation are several varieties of muffin including the always faithful blueberry, the hypnotic almond-poppy seed, and the stick to the soles of your shoes, multi-napkin consuming, honey bran muffin.

Abetted by an assortment of Saharan-dry scones, all the pastries have a definite made yesterday taste. Wrapped in individual plastic wrap booties, they stare forlornly and beckon the unwary to taste me. Sparsely populating a half-dozen cubby holes in Joe’s display cabinet, their lonely appearance acts as a warning, much like a sea-cliff lighthouse that warns passing ships to stay away.

In my zeal to caution you about the perils of selecting either last week’s muffin or last month’s scone, I unforgivingly neglected to mention the coffee cakes. There are two offerings that deserve at least a three-star rating and a pat on the back for the baker. The first delicacy is a sour cream, cinnamon delight, and the second is a blessedly moist zucchini pieces de resistance. Both cakes have been sliced by hand, as evidenced by their random thickness. I regularly spend time hovering above the stacked slices, looking for the one that has my name on it. I always select one from the middle of the stack and recommend them highly. Please buy some when you next visit the establishment, thereby diminishing their number and assuring me of a fresh batch the next time I frequent the shop. And tell Lorraine that I sent you.

Today began with a trip to the athletic club for an hour of vista-less, mindless treadmilling. If it were not for the availability of ubiquitous Netflix at each machine, I would have given up my mind-numbing cardiovascular efforts long ago and stayed in a warm bed. My treadmill drudgery was followed by a twenty-five-minute workout with Ralph. It’s really supposed to be a thirty-minute session, but Ralph is as bored with it as I am. I don’t blame him for cutting it short and using the extra time to preen for his 8:30 yoga class.

I showered and then made the easy decision to skip shaving. It’s too big a hassle searching for hot water at the club sinks. The porcelain beauties are fitted with those cute little cutoffs that stop the water just when you need it most. Normally cold, you can sometimes coax warm water from the spigot by shielding the sensor with your hand. A tedious task that causes low level grumbling to escape from my lips. It’s a crap shoot that all too often ends with a shock of icy water on my face. Fortunately my beard is white, matching my skin pallor and, therefore, only visible to close-up visitors. So, with the exception of Jackie, no one else seems to notice. I sometimes skip three consecutive days of shaving and only succumb to the razor when people stop me on the club steps and offer me a hand out.

I dressed, said good-bye to the nearly empty locker room, and made the three-minute trip to Java and Joe. I found Dave and Jim sitting at a table finishing their morning brews. Not wishing to interrupt them while they were debating the merits of The Wall, I simply nodded politely and ordered my usual medium-size dark roast. Adding one pack of Splenda and an inch of half and half to the already delicious brew, I turned to find Rosalie, my real estate broker, staring at me. Not wishing to embarrass her with a cascade of questions focused on why hasn’t my house sold yet, I nodded (I do a lot of that, especially when I’m not sure if I know who I’m confronting) and made my way to a table next to Dave and Jim.

Dave was in the process of rearranging the chairs that surrounded the table in order to reduce the glare from a white truck parked across from the coffee shop. Completing the most strenuous effort of his morning, Dave asked if I’d like to join them. Always one to savor the company of others, I pulled up a chair. Not the black wrought iron one that tests your glutes’ patience, but the gray basket-weave variety that gives your tush a sporting chance.

Dave is well-read and a master of trivia. The two traits give him plenty to talk about and leave me in the comforting position of needing only an occasional head nod to keep things going while I finish my coffee. I had also selected a piece of yummy zucchini cake. A nice thick one today; where the Super Glue sticky edges of the cake coat my fingers, and require a periodic lick or two.

Dave reminded us that in 2019 we are celebrating hundredth anniversary of proving Einstein’s theory of relativity. Arthur Stanley Eddington’s 1919 expedition confirmed Einstein’s prediction for the deflection of light by the Sun during the total solar eclipse of May 29, 1919. In a nutshell, Arthur proved Einstein’s theory that gravity bends light. What a relief that must have been.

Moving to a loftier plain, we were introduced to Dave’s new hearing aids. The ear-trumpet of earlier years has been replaced by a miniature, transistorized marvel costing a bit more than your grandmother’s device. Our conversation was timely, as I had just yesterday made an appointment for a hearing test at our local provider.

I decided on hearing aids because I have tired of my continuous use of the word “What?” as the second most popular word in my vocabulary. In conversations that take place in settings with significant ambient noise, I find myself either saying “What?” or merely shaking my head in an assenting manner. The head shake is fraught with danger and should always immediately be followed with a shrug of the shoulders in order to confuse the true meaning of your response. I’ve become quite proficient at it.

Arlene arrived for her morning coffee. A striking, confident woman, we welcomed her with opened arms. A kiss on the cheek made our morning complete and we prepared to leave. We all had things to do, including getting older.

It was going to be a very good day.

They couldn’t care less

There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who care and those who couldn’t care less.

Last Tuesday, I made my usual 8:30 morning visit to Java and Joe. Love their dark roast coffee and the store’s second-hand thrift shop appearance. Their pastries are atrocious, and the stamped metal seats are akin to the Iron Maiden, a brutish device used by the Spaniards during the Inquisition to extract confessions from those who complained about their coffee. Nevertheless, the shop is welcoming, and one need not dress to impress. In business since 1994, the owners Joe Ruggiero and Lorraine Mariz, do their best to accommodate the weird tastes of Ojai folk who enter their domain.

It rained hard that morning and the shop was filled to capacity. A long line of dampened people stood patiently waiting their turn to place an order. My body and mind ached for that first, warm cup of coffee and I was heartened to be the third person in the queue. Not much longer now, I thought.

A young woman, no more than thirty, was at the head of the line. With an abundance of time on her hands, she embarked on a journey that tested my already thinning patience. Using the FBI’s most invasive interview techniques, she bombarded Joe with a series of questions about flavored brews that were obviously intended to extract a confession from him. Each answer proffered by Joe was followed up with another quiz show question designed to confuse and irritate. Waterboarding by the CIA would have been child’s play in her hands.

Having finally settled on the dark roast coffee of the day, she went on to the pastries. Discovering the secret contents of each became her obsession. I half expected her to ask that a banana be peeled in order to gaze detective-like at its contents. Having exhausted the full line-up of muffins, scones, cakes and bagels (with and without cream cheese), she declined all and, without any consideration for the thirst-ridden customers behind her, moved on to the pre-packaged oatmeal. She ordered the oatmeal and then, inexplicably, cancelled her order. Like an angry hippo, I began to mumble…loudly. My thirst began to worsen as I pictured myself as Humphrey Bogart in the role of the thirsty tank commander bedeviled by a bone-dry desert well in the movie Sahara. I was inconsolable.

Never having looked behind her, and why should she, the comely young woman could quite innocently assume that she was the only customer in the shop. But I believe she was fully aware of the poor unfortunates behind her. She just didn’t care. Embarking on what seemed to be a fortnight of useless coffee shop browsing, we were, at best, an annoyance to be ignored.

I eventually reached first base, ordered my coffee, combined it with a muffin that wasn’t quite as old as me, and settled down on a cold, basket-weave Iron Maiden for thirty minutes of quietly browsing the web.

Lest you think that women are the principal antagonists in this story, I finished my coffee and desiccated muffin, and moved on to Rabobank. An open teller window and it’s always friendly inhabitant, Julie, beckoned to me. I was delighted to dump the money gleaned from book sales at the Friends of Library bookstore on Julie’s counter, and wait while she verified the deposit. The machine that counts currency is fascinating and it has yet to be wrong. Counting coins by hand is another matter entirely, and takes an inordinate amount of time.

Rod entered the bank and took up the second, and last available teller window. A beaming Estelle was the teller in waiting at this cubicle. Always pleasant and efficient, young Estelle is pretty and seems to have only me in mind when I have the pleasure of trading hard currency with her. Small talk is part of the job but, aware of other customers waiting to step forward, is only appropriate while the processing of one’s business is continuing.

Rod did not readily subscribe to this informal banking rule. Instead, after concluding the successful cashing of what I’m sure was a bogus check, he launched into a discussion that was clearly intended to impress and perhaps result in an assignation with the lovely Estelle. Customers began to line up. Tempers began to mount as the passage of time seemed glacial.

I half expected a shoot-out. And I was sure Estelle would say something like “Thank you, Rod. But I think your time is up. Move on, buster.” However, I left before this second example of “I truly don’t care about you. It’s me that counts.” could reach its zenith.

Last Saturday, Jackie and I attended a Kirtan starring Julia Berkeley at the Ojai Yoga Shala. Kirtan is defined by Julia as a call and response chanting practice that clears the mind and opens the heart. I think of it as a groupie sing-along that has Indian music instead of the usual Glen Campbell and Joan Baez stuff.

It’s customary for one to sit cross-legged, your butt next to your closest neighbor, on a much too thin mat, on a hardwood floor. There comes a time during the performance when you grit your teeth, your back aches, and your ass feels like it has been denuded of all muscle and skin. However, it helps if prior to the festivities you consume one-half of those cute little licorice pieces eagerly distributed by the local pot palace on Bryant Street. Your fanny will thank you.

The young man sitting next to me, an ardent Kirtan devotee, was one of those people who I define as an over-achieving Clapper. It matters little what the song’s tempo is. Nor whether it is closer to a funeral dirge than a Pee Wee Herman ditty. His clapping, much like AK47 rifle shots, leaves me hoping for the blessed relief delivered to him by a compound stress fracture. Sometimes, the Clapper will continue his performance well after the song has ended.

My belief is that the Clapper, like his companions the Shrieker and the Whistler, lacked parental attention during his formative years. Fellow students avoided him, and members of opposite sex ran screaming from the room. Clapping brings much-needed attention to him, even if the attention is filled with death wishes.

The Clapper, in contrast to those neer-do-wells who simply ignore the sensitivities of the people around them, recognizes the availability of a ready-made audience and seeks its attention. Here again, a tiny bit of licorice tends to moderate the Clapper’s callousness. But not completely. Or maybe I’m too sensitive.

Or maybe I just need a bigger piece of licorice.

My instrument of choice

I played the trumpet in high school.

A couple of music classes led to mastering an instrument and playing in the high school band and orchestra. This avocation fit in nicely with my teenage persona which can best be described as mildly nerdy. I’m not sure how I got that way, but it probably had something to do with the friends I kept and the scarcity of girls, of any flavor, in my life. It was also abetted by my pudginess that didn’t start to evaporate until my senior year. By then it was too late to change my school mates’ perception of me.

The choice of the trumpet was made with little thought given to its complexities. After all, how difficult can it be to play the thing? It only has three valves and, given its size, is easily schlepped from home to school and back again. All I would have to worry about was the proper operation of the spit valve.

Alan, the best musician in our group, played the piano. Definitely un-schleppable, he would be dependent on the kindness of others. Realizing that playing the piano in a school parade was not in the cards, Alan also chose a backup. He latched onto the saxophone and seemed to master it over one week-end.

My other friends picked their instruments of choice before I had a chance to weigh in with my preference. Larry, a friend who always irritated me with his “My father’s car is better than your father’s car.” At the age of twelve, he was also better than me in identifying the make of any car cruising past us. Larry became an orthodox Jew aligned with the Chasidic sect; I also tend to bristle at them. Their ability to be prominently displayed in the local newspaper, while my more populous sect goes unnoticed, ticks me off. Larry chose the clarinet. Even lighter than the trumpet, his schlepping would be easier than mine. I can still see him sucking on his reed.

Russell was the smartest guy in the bunch. While others might spend their summer vacations chasing girls or playing softball. Russell read the dictionary from beginning to end. He also selected one of the most difficult instruments, the French horn. An awkward, medieval instrument, it reminds me of Marty Feldman playing the part of Igor in Young Frankenstein. Hunched over best describes both Marty and Russell. The horn is equipped with a very small mouthpiece that requires the development of a tough, untiring embouchure.

The embouchure is the way a musician applies his mouth to the mouthpiece of a brass or wind instrument. The smaller the mouthpiece, the greater the difficulty in developing a strong embouchure. While playing the king-sized tuba may seem like corralling a difficult partner, the large mouthpiece offers far less resistance and therefore is less tiring than the small mouthpiece of the comparatively smaller French horn.

Developing a strong embouchure requires practice, a lot of it. Practice requires diligence. Those who devote substantial time to practice generally develop greater skill at playing a musical instrument. And that universal truth was my Achilles heel. My practice sessions were intermittent and short. The clock moved ever so slowly. While my technique was acceptable, my lips tired easily and I struggled to complete a gig with my band mates. My trumpeting became spotty when I entered college. I’d pick up the instrument every so often, but my embouchure was shot and, like the once a month golfer, I soon became a trumpet has-been.

My musical whimsy resurged ten years ago when I was bitten by the guitar bug. My son Steven, an excellent guitarist, offered to teach me this ubiquitous instrument. Watching other amateurs master it gave me the confidence to forge ahead. Most importantly, the guitar seemed less likely to tax my aging body in the way that the trumpet did. The fingers of my left hand soon taught me the error of my ways. Five minutes of playing produced searing pain in the tips of my fingers. Steven promised that the pain would subside with the development of calluses; all I needed was enough practice. My previous experience with the trumpet came streaming back.  Sadly, I gave up a promising six string career and pledged that I would someday find my sweet spot in the musical world.

Jackie’s daughter, Sammy, is devoted to the ukulele. I have watched her maneuver through a sea of humanity at the airport with a Shaquille O’neal sized backpack and the ukulele lovingly slung over her arm. She takes it everywhere and plays it well. The instrument is small, without a lip crunching mouthpiece, and only four strings, two less than the guitar. Could this be my nirvana?

Debbie, a fellow temple member, teaches a ukulele class on Wednesday afternoon at the Ojai Library. Hearing of my interest in the instrument and playing on my easily influenced brain, she lovingly invited me to attend the class. With her cute little smile, she promised, “We just do it for fun. You don’t need to know how to play. You’ll love it.”

I went to the class and borrowed a spare ukulele. Flanked by two women who proved to be the Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin of the ukulele world, I got right into the swing of things with the “C” chord. Requiring but one finger on the fret, I marveled at the simplicity of the instrument. I became emboldened and sought out the C7 chord. Using the same finger that was already in my repertoire, I placed it on a different fret and produced another glorious sound. Was I ready for the big time?

Then, just as I was congratulating myself, Debbie handed me a xeroxed copy of Basic Ukulele Chords. There were thirty-five of them. “More to come, Freddy, after you’ve mastered the basic ones”, Debby intoned with a wry smile on her lips.

Calling up my last ounce of stick-to-it-ness, I have been practicing sort of regularly. I refuse to repeat my abortive experiences with the lip challenging trumpet and the finger searing pain inflicted by the guitar. Surely, I can master this instrument.

I can already play Happy Birthday. I hesitatingly make my way through My Darling Clementine, and I am picking through Amazing Grace. I shy away from anything that requires more than three chords. I hate the G chord and my strumming is atrocious. Simply holding the instrument without it twisting away from me like a dog that hates its master, is tougher than it looks.

So far I’m on track to star status…without sore fingers.


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