Archive for June, 2019

The Moose Lamp

My son Steven would have been fifty-two this month. But his life was cut short at forty-three by his death in 2011.

Memories of him floated to the top today when I attended my bereavement group, an event that takes place every Tuesday from 10:30 until noon. Housed in a small, Ikea style conference room in the west end of Ojai, there are no frills. The lighting is dim and there are no cookies. In addition to an outpouring of feelings, there are tears, extended silences and, blessedly, enough occasional laughter to raise one’s spirits a notch or two.

I’ve become a regular who began participating after my sweet wife Ila passed away almost two years ago. During that time, my attendance has morphed from a focus on Ila to one that includes both she and Steven. I often picture them together, arguing; and I smile. Always looking for a bargain, I also take advantage of this group therapy to talk about my relationships with other loved ones.

The number of Tuesday gatherers varies from as few as three to as many as nine. Mostly women who have lost their husbands, we have others who’ve lost parents and children. Regulars, loosely defined as those who have been coming more than three months, usually predominate. New faces join periodically while some regulars stop coming. Others leave, rest, and then return months later. Some come once and are never seen again. It’s not for everyone.

It’s not clear why some people come every week while others attend less frequently. The reasons they come are clear and fairly consistent, but the frequency with which they appear seems governed by inexplicable, unsaid reasons.

For me, one who disdains being idle, the meeting is a block of time that I don’t have to otherwise fill. It also provides the social exposure that I treasure. My home on the hill, while in a beautiful setting, does not easily offer personal interaction. The quarter-meter plan that once allowed TV watchers to deposit quarters in boxes attached to their sets is not an available option. And, more importantly I can comfortably say things that would remain unsaid in other settings.

I arrived at today’s meeting a few minutes late. Making the non-obligatory excuse for my tardiness, I described my trip from Vons to the vacuum cleaner repair shop in Ventura and back. A trip of fifty-eight minutes that I claimed to be a new world record. Satisfied that I had been forgiven, I took my usual chair at table, sat back and scanned the crowd.

A man who I had not seen before sat opposite me. When newcomers join the group, the rest of us introduce ourselves. I’m Fred. My wife died almost two years ago. I’ve been coming regularly and, yada, yada, yada. Depending on the urgency of the need to get something off one’s chest, an introduction can often take as much time as chanting the first five books of Moses, in Hebrew.

Some people are eloquent and engaging. Others, less so. The man opposite me merely said his name and added succinctly, “My thirty-year old son passed away in December.” Nothing else. Then he shifted in his chair and assumed a slouched position that non-verbally said ‘I don’t know why I came here and I shall remain silent for the next ninety minutes.”

Time rolled on. People told stories and described feelings that might go unheard in confessionals or even in a bed shared by two lovers. Yet the man opposite me seemed unmoved. His lids occasionally hid his eyes and he often furtively glanced at his smart phone. Yet, even with his seeming detachment, he appeared troubled.

Our group leader is a master at drawing people out. Never asking directly, she has the uncanny ability to elicit words from an otherwise reticent participant. “Fred, do you think you could share something about your son Steven that might be of value to our newest member?”

Of course, I thought. The moose lamp. And I told its story.

Steven bought a ten-inch high table lamp at a garage sale. Maybe he paid as much as two dollars. It had a tiny bulb and a shade that had the image of a moose on it. When you turned the lamp on, its light shone in a way that accentuated the moose. Tacky at best, Steven kept it on a table in his apartment and switched it on every night. And turned it off when he went to bed. Never very sentimental, he nevertheless loved the moose lamp.

In the last month of his life, I was with him in his home when I stumbled and caught my foot in the lamp’s cord. The lamp fell off the table with a sound that presaged disaster. I picked it up as though it were a baby, flicked the lamp’s switch and was horrified to watch it stay dark. My son David was standing next to me and I said, “I don’t care what it costs, I want that lamp repaired and working before Steven is gone.”

David picked up the lamp, looked at the cord and sarcastically said, “Well we might first try plugging it in.” We did and the light shone through the moose and into my eyes. Laughter replaced tension.

Steven died a few weeks later. Aside from his guitars, the only valuable object in his apartment was the moose lamp. I wanted it and I took it. The two-dollar lamp now sits on an expensive table in my living room. I look at it each time I pass. I light it when the feeling takes me there. Memories flood back of Steven’s stubbornness and ego-centrism. But the lamp also reminds me of the special moments when I loved him most. Memories that assure me that his passing need not always be filled with sadness.

I don’t know if my story of the moose lamp helped the man opposite me. But it made my day.

Now that’s what I call music

Susan and I were in the library bookstore waiting for the Servpro man. We’ve been trying to locate a mysterious odor that’s bedeviled us for over a year, and had high hopes that our search would end with the Servpro man’s arrival.

Chatting while waiting led to my description of the Sunday Music Festival closing concert that included Stravinsky and Gershwin. “Gershwin? Now that’s what I call music”, Susan said with her voice and her infectious smile.

I know what she means. Call it avant garde, cutting edge, new age or atonal, the Ojai Music Festival is either fabulous or unfathomable, depending on your willingness to absorb all it can throw at you. A festival that points with pride to a symphony composed for kitchen plates, and pianists who play with their elbows, it minimally deserves kudos for the bravery it shows in the face of potential brickbats.

Last year we bought tickets to all the events, spanning four days and nights. I laughingly remember the locker room conversation I had at the athletic club with a fellow member immediately following last year’s festival. He, like most Ojai citizens, hadn’t gone to the festival but had been close enough to hear the performers practicing at Libbey Bowl. I asked, “How did you know it was practice?”

Having learned our lesson, Jackie and I cravenly decided to limit our exposure. We only bought tickets to a single two-hour performance, the Sunday late afternoon closing event. Anna, who works for the festival, had touted me on this one, saying “Try it, you’ll only be moderately disappointed.” She wasn’t being funny since she knows my limits and is wary of over-promising.

With some trepidation and armed with our $150 tickets, we coasted into the bowl and located our seats. On the left, five rows from the stage, on the aisle. A note was stuck to my seat that said “Fred, thank you for your generous support of the festival this year. You help make it possible.” Oh, so now it’s my fault, I thought.

We waved at those we knew, traded hugs with those closer by. We sat on blow-up seat cushions that I had long ago learned were the make or break feature of any event at the bowl. We were early and, as punishment for our ignorance of protocol, periodically shifted in our aisle seats in order to allow others who were fashionably late, to pass down the row to their seats.

I picked up the 126-page program book. A feat by itself. Readily admitting to my need for recognition, I flipped to the donor pages and found my name. Two years ago, Ila’s name was also there. It now was sadly conspicuous by its absence. I also thought back to the loss of our son, Steven, eight years ago and the beginning of our annual donation in his memory. A stubborn musician with unfulfilled aspirations, I think he would have appreciated our support of the dozen festival interns, a fledgling group of budding musicians.

Though the bowl was nearly full, no one sat in front of us. Somehow making us feel special, we waited. It was very warm. People were dressed casually. Some had removed their shoes. It was comfortable and without tension. The occasional bird made welcoming sounds. Just enough breeze blowing to take the edge off the heat.

The musicians, members of the Dutch ensemble, Ludwig, entered the stage casually, without caring about the attendant noise of adjusting their chairs and music stands. Fifty men and women in relaxed clothing, they mirrored the attire of the audience before them. Young and energetic, they had survived nearly four days of demonstrating their prowess and were ready for the finale.

Barbara Hannigan, the conductor and an accomplished soprano, entered stage right to an obviously enamored audience. Clapping hands and some early over-anxious risers greeted her.

The performance began with Stravinsky’s Pulcinella.  Described as a comedic ballet interspersed with songs, it has twenty-one movements, from overture to finale. I normally dread anything more than three movements since I am forced to count them down, 21, 20, 19…while lusting for the blessed finale. It can make for a very long afternoon.

Yet I was surprised by my reaction. Rather than being atonal or unfathomable, I found it boring. I wanted something more cutting edge. Something more challenging. Something to hold my attention. Was I becoming one of them? Them that I had criticized for admiring the emperor’s new clothes. Them that had bedeviled me for years as lovers of the unlovable. Then there was a break. Time for me to recover from what surely must have been caused by the heat.

Back in our seats, we quickly dispatched Haydn’s Symphony Number 49 and awaited the closing piece, Gershwin’s Girl Crazy Suite. Based on a 1930 musical with music by George and lyrics by Ira, I craved hearing what Barbara Hannigan had done with it. I was not disappointed.

Beginning with But Not For Me, we were in for a treat…

They’re writing songs of love, but not for me
A lucky star’s above, but not for me

And then Hannigan drove the musicians through Strike Up the Band.

I fell madly in love with her when she conducted the musicians while facing the audience, and sang Embraceable You. The musicians became an accompanying chorus and I was enthralled.

Embrace me, my sweet embraceable you
Embrace me, you irreplaceable you

I’ve Got Rhythm brought a toe tapping frenzy to the audience, and a fantasy of leaping onto the stage to dance with Barbara like I was Fred Astaire, instead of Fred Rothenberg.

And then, before I knew it, it was all over. Two hours had passed in a blink and I had never once thought, like in past years, when will this thing end?

Dear Anna was wrong…I wasn’t moderately disappointed.

It was Susan, waiting for the Servpro man, who was right…now that’s what I call music.

 

Coffee, comfort and caring

Legend has it that coffee beans were discovered by the Ethiopian goat herder, Kaldi. Watching his goats eat the berries from the plant, the goats became excited and were unable to sleep. And so, being a Republican, Kaldi started a business that now delivers these very same beans to Java and Joe.

Maybe not, but here are some other facts:

  • Americans drink 400 million cups of coffee every day.
  • Half of us would give up our daily shower rather than give up coffee in the morning.
  • More than half of us would rather gain ten pounds, than give up our coffee for life.

Maybe that’s why many of us coffee addicts are fat and smelly.

Having successfully concluded this morning’s treadmill exercise without falling off the athletic club’s machine, I stopped by Java and Joe for my usual medium dark roast. I look forward to the first hot sip of that full-bodied brew, much like that first sip of a cold beer. Sometimes I have a muffin, complete with high gluten flour and a week’s supply of granulated sugar. Sometimes, it’s just the high caffeine coffee that I crave.

The cherubic faces that greeted me behind the counter today did not include either Joe or Lorraine, the shop owners. That visual clue activated my memory cells and reminded me that Lorraine was undergoing a medical procedure this morning that would probably lay her low for at least a month.

Everyone that’s a regular at the coffee shop has known of Lorraine’s health challenge for months. Invariably, someone ahead of me in the coffee queue would ask Lorraine “How are you today? When are you scheduled for your procedure? I’m sure everything will be fine. How long will you be recuperating? We love you.” If I was alone in the queue, the questions were often posed by me. Balancing my concern for her well-being with a possibly unwelcome intrusion into her life can be difficult.

Lorraine is a mature woman with a motherly attitude. Efficient is an understated description of her prowess. Her welcoming smile brightens my day. Even with a cloud hanging over her, much like the one dogging the Al Capp character Joe Btfsplk, Lorraine manages to keep her sunny smile and upbeat conversation in spite of chemotherapy and the attendant floppy hats. Over the last few months, there was little evidence that contradicted her usual sunny demeanor.

Perhaps it’s the coffee shop itself that plays a supportive role in this great adventure. Open twelve hours every day, it is full of mismatched furniture, and a concrete floor with an unintentional paisley design that defies description. An old sign taped to the wall warns of dire results should the microwave and the toaster be switched on at the same time. Greeting cards are stuffed into racks that require the skill of a contortionist to view them. Muffins and scones, ordinarily displayed with aplomb, are sometimes hidden from prying eyes.

But none of these shortcomings seem to matter to those of us who are regulars. Or maybe it’s because of these imperfections that we come back time after time. We are comfortable with the shop’s eccentricities, since they are also reflective of ourselves. Distastefully, the thought of going somewhere else is anathema. The habitual returning faces are familiar to us and form a comforting tapestry that allows us to slide easily into an otherwise frenetic day.

Much like that of the athletic club, the coffee shop provides the social contact I treasure. I often sit alone at a table, but I do not feel alone. Like a voyeur, I sometimes mentally participate in the conversations that surround me. Because we are creatures of habit, I can sometimes predict what’s coming next. I watch them as they walk through the door, hoping that I will be blessed with a familiar face. One with which I can share a few sentences or, if I’m very lucky, a seat at my table.

Even in solitude, I can explore my memories of fellow coffee enthusiasts that are etched in my mind. David, whose accounting office is up the stairs and who donates his skills to many of Ojai’s non-profits. Tom, who did Ila’s hair in his adjacent salon and who responded graciously to her repetitive questions and stories as though he’d never heard them before. Right up until the very end. The fireman who shared his stories of the devastating December fires. The strangers who seemed as anxious as I was to have a conversation without boundaries. And, if I was very lucky, watching Jackie glide through the door with her irresistible smile.

The morning was quiet, and my attention was drawn to the greeting cards. I like the ones with the pithy, sometimes predictable sayings. Some are flat out wrong like We only regret what we don’t do in life. I only wish it were so. Or, Why do I feel as stupid now as I did at 20? I certainly know more than I did at 20, I just keep ignoring what I learned. But some are spot on like, My housekeeper judges me. And one of my perennial favorites, Be yourself. Everybody else is taken.

Many years ago while driving the Help of Ojai bus, I transported a wheel chair bound patient to the Ojai hospital. Finished, I was stowing the chair lift when a physician stopped to speak with me. He told me how much he personally valued the service we provided and then said something that has stuck with me. His smile softened and he quietly said, “Remember, we all walk down the same path.”

As I age, his words become more relevant and gain greater importance. I realize that life is fragile and, like Lorraine, could take me down a more difficult path. But it also makes life more precious. Like my other favorite card says, Whatever you are meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.

Be well Lorraine. I love you.


Pages

Recent Comments