Archive for February, 2020

The Eyes Have It

It’s a good thing he liked baseball.

My father, Morris, was a victim of macular degeneration. Not the treatable kind, it slowly robbed him of everything but a bit of peripheral vision and the ability to discern light from dark.

He’d spend nearly all his time indoors in their West Rogers Park two-flat that my folks shared with my Uncle Max and Aunt Jenny. He avoided restaurants as though they served nothing but e-coli. A proud man, he felt embarrassed fingering the food on his plate in order to tell the difference between the mashed potatoes and the green beans. Unable to cut his brisket without the aid of a compass, he relied on my mother to create those bite sized pieces that somehow found their way onto his fork and into his mouth.

Until it too failed him, his limited peripheral vision allowed him to focus on a hand of cards in his weekly gin rummy game with Cousin Harry. The cards were large and he held them to the side of his face so he could see them. The game moved slowly but he never lost his card playing skills and managed to best Harry most weeks.

Morris wore bifocal glasses even when they were no longer of any help. He really couldn’t tell if the lenses were dirty but that made no difference to his penchant for keeping them clean. He ran through packs of Sight Savers, those crinkly two by three sheets of tissue that miraculously clean lenses without streaking or smudging. Now pre-moistened, they were originally dry. He kept a pack of them in his pants pocket and often used them despite being unable to view the results of his efforts.

He was a rabid White Sox fan and listened to Bob Elson and Harry Caray doing the play by play on the radio. But, even with his affliction he dearly loved watching the Sox on TV. We had an RCA console that sat on the living room floor. My father would drag a padded folding chair to within a foot of the screen and turn it sideways. He’d then position himself on the chair so that he could watch the TV through the corner of his right eye. Looking at him you might assume that he was ignoring the game.

Always a baseball fan, he had tried football and basketball when he was younger but found them wanting. Perhaps the complexity of football was too much for a former Ukrainian. Maybe basketball too infantile. Baseball was his milieu.

His peripheral vision was not without its limitations. He could not follow images on the screen if they moved rapidly; baseball delivered what he needed. Images that seemed to be stuck in place. Chunks of time between batters that accommodated his need to refocus. Trips by the catcher or manager to the mound that were performed without a hint of urgency. A never-ending array of statistics thrown at the viewer to fill the down time while the other objects on the screen got their act together. On Sundays a double header consuming as many as eight hours provided the stimulus that was otherwise absent for my father.

He knew all the players and the scores of yesterday’s games. He’d criticize plays on the field even though he probably didn’t see the play or the offender. He’d rag on me about the Cubs who hadn’t won a World Series since the Bronze Age. I felt his agony when the Sox blew one in the ninth inning. I occasionally pretended to share his joy when they came from behind and won the game.

My brother Irv suffered the same afflictions…being a Sox fan and having macular degeneration. Unless pushed, he avoided restaurants and their wide array of traps and pitfalls. He didn’t watch much TV and relied on audio books. He gave up golf when he couldn’t see the ball on the tee. I sat with him through every minute of the 2005 World Series when, after 88 years, the Sox won it in four straight over Houston, while my Cubs still languished in the Bronze age. He died before the Cubs won it in 2016 and I have never forgiven him.

I’ve never been as much of a baseball fan as they were. But since I share my genes with them, thoughts of macular generation occasionally enter my mind. Like the other night at the restaurant.

Nocciola is a high-end restaurant with prices to match. We hosted my daughter Nancy and my faux son-in-law, Kevin. A lovely setting, it was dimly lit. Menus of a weight befitting the restaurant’s stature were passed. My initial exploration of its Italian focused offerings revealed that the Italian names of dishes including Crescione, Quaglia, Plin and the one dedicated to Old Blue Eyes, Anatra, were large, bold and plainly visible. The English language describing the content of the dish was not. For all I knew I could have been reading the menu upside down. Fortunately, Jackie’s smart phone provided much needed light and I was able to avoid starvation.

The food arrived and my selection appeared to be floating at the bottom of a dark well. I told the waiter that I had hoped to enjoy a last meal before succumbing to hoof and mouth disease. Accordingly, it would be nice to see the food I was eating. A kindly soul, he elevated the lighting a few lumens and I was able to conclude the task at hand without the necessity of asking Jackie to cut my food.

When I was nearly finished, the lights dimmed. Perhaps the manager concluded that the old man had eaten enough to get the idea of where each element of the dish was located. And, not wishing to offend normally sighted guests, had returned the lights to their Devil’s Island setting.

It’s too bad I don’t like baseball.

I am my brother

My brother would have been ninety-three today.

Irv was born in 1927, two years before the Great Depression. I waited another twelve years for the economy to improve before emerging from my mother’s womb.

A twelve-year age difference was a bridge too far. We never played baseball together, developed sibling rivalry or did mischief that one would expect of brothers living in a Jewish ghetto on Chicago’s north side. I don’t know what he looked like as a teenager, nor do I remember hearing his voice echoing down the long wallpaper covered hallway in my parent’s second floor, two-bedroom apartment. I might as well have been an only child.

Lying about his age, Irv joined the army in 1944, never saw action but managed to develop a life-long relationship with tinnitus, one of several genetic dysfunctions that I shared with him. His army service was brief, some of it spent in Japan and Korea. He learned photography, took those skills home after the war and relied on them for years by chronicling life cycle events for others. I remember a picture of him in his army uniform and jauntily positioned cap. He was this handsome, bright-eyed guy who wore a natural smile as though it was ingrained in his DNA. He was better looking than me. People constantly mistook me for the older brother. He never corrected them.

He disdained the free college education offered to veterans, instead opting to get married, have children, divorce twice and finally land Jeri, the love of his life. In the early years, my parents were uncomfortable with Irv’s lifestyle, lent him money, but never offered advice that would have been immediately forgotten. Comparing me to him often led them to believe that I must be the older one.

At twelve, I baby sat for his daughter, Sharon. At seventeen, I regularly borrowed Irv’s Studebaker, that quirky looking, bullet nosed, dimly remembered two-door coupe with a stick shift. Four years later, he was in the bridal party that joined me with Ila. I still hardly knew him. Meaningful conversations were non-existent, and togetherness was largely a function left to family events to which he was usually late.

Irv’s second marriage was done on the rebound. Like the Studebaker, Anna-Marie was quirky. If he had asked me, I would have said don’t do it. But he didn’t ask, and life went on until the quirkiness lost its glamour.

Irv was a salesman who was honest and compelling. He sold mirrors, a process that was dependent on being invited into the customer’s home to measure walls and select styles. It was during one such adventure that he met Jeri, promised her unbounded love and did so for the rest of his life.

Ila and I moved to California and visited our Chicago relatives two or three times a year. My father became ill and was hospitalized. Irv was there to help our parents. It was as though he had turned a corner in his life, met his elder brother responsibilities, and took them on without looking back or complaining.

I was in California and of little help. My father died and our mother was alone. Irv visited her daily. He ran errands and delivered groceries for years until dementia took its toll on her. She entered a succession of facilities that included independent living, assisted living and fully assisted housing. Irv continued to watch over her while I made limited appearances. Her death finally freed him from responsibilities that he had willingly endured, while I continued to feel guilty by my self-limited role.

He aged and, like our father, developed macular degeneration. He gave up golf, driving, reading and other daily activities that we take for granted before they are taken from us. He needed assistance walking. His trips with Jeri to visit us in California became more difficult. During those trips he gradually displayed a loss of memory and an inability to perform certain functions. Sitting with him while he tried to add a column of numbers proved too much for him. He cried and I saw my brother in what had once been the role played by our mother.

The years he spent caring for our parents had also developed a closer bond between us. Our age difference now meant nothing. Conversations became more meaningful. Aging and illness were freely discussed. We looked at each other and knew what the other was thinking just by the expressions on our face, the tilt of our heads or the rolling of our eyes. We liked the same foods. We both lost our hair. Our laughs were identical. People still thought he was the younger one.

Luckily, I had chances to pay back the kindnesses that he had heaped on our parents. And I took them. I also aged alongside my brother and caught glimpses of what our parents must have suffered.

I look in the morning mirror and see Irv. I see his handsome, smiling face. But like Dicken’s Scrooge visiting the future, I also see what may yet come. I am concerned about my eyesight and daily test my ability to read road signs. I lay in bed in the early morning and silently count backwards from one hundred by seven; I dread making a mistake. I add columns of numbers without a calculator. I have more difficulty completing the New York Times crossword puzzle and wonder if maybe Will Shortz just made it tougher without telling me. I stupidly transform minor irritations into complicated medical cases that can only be treated at the Mayo Clinic.

I am becoming my brother… and I love him even though he will always look younger than me.

Happy birthday, Irv.

Lunch with Yoram

Yoram, my good friend from the Upper Ojai, and I celebrated our still functioning lungs with lunch at the Ojai Café Emporium. We often go there when we’ve exhausted other venues. The food is tolerable, the prices manageable and the waiters are especially kind to old people.

I ordered a small-size Famous Ojai salad. Reputedly containing bits of turkey, I had trouble finding them amidst an oversupply of bacon bits. The quite tasty molasses muffin and two pats of room temperature butter made up for the missing turkey chunks.

Yoram had no trouble decimating a generous tri-tip sandwich surrounded by a large clump of sweet potato fries. He washed it down with several glasses of Arnold Palmer iced tea and lemonade that mentally challenged my own bladder control.

Sticking to our usual routine, we quickly disposed of our critical analysis of the recent Oscars show, had a Trump inspired dissertation on “what is this world coming to”, and offered a brief synopsis of our latest physical complaints, headed by our growing inability to remember just about anything.

The conversation moved on to wives, or in my case, about-to-be wives. Men are somewhat limited in this subject. For example, I have often told Jackie that men never talk about having sex with their wives, or anyone else for that matter. Women, I am told, can spend an inordinate time on that subject which often includes frequency (sometimes none), ability to maintain erections (sometimes none) and the size of the male member used during the act (sometimes accompanied by admiring oooohs and aaaahs from those women in attendance.)

Men are more often focused on living conditions in the home. To that point, Jackie and I have just completed the first month of living together in sin. It’s been a bit of a challenge accommodating to each other’s way of keeping house. That we are still in love is testimony to our ability to stay strong and laugh at what might otherwise be an early termination of a perfect union.

Usually it’s the small stuff. The garbage disposal for example. When I lived in the Upper Ojai, I had the joy of dealing with an anemic septic system. After several lessons in humility, and being unsure of the cause of my problems, I studiously avoided putting anything through the garbage disposal. I became a happy guy with multiple bags of trash that were dealt with by assigning that responsibility to E.J. Harrison and Sons, our local mafia connected, but ever so helpful, sanitation engineers.

Free-will advocate Jackie believes that anything not breathing is a candidate for the disposal. And in some cases, not breathing is optional. I began our home-buddies’ relationship by whispering suggestions to her that might help reroute the trash from the disposer to the compactor. And then the disposer died, probably from too much gluten-free trash. We installed a new one that made the house shake with abandon. This disposer had no enemies. Wood planks, concrete blocks and railroad spikes were no match for the new beast in town.

Dazzled by its prowess, I gradually participated in, and then reveled in the wanton destruction of anything that did not move. Jackie and I bonded in our love for the once-despised machine. We had dodged a bullet in our relationship.

The washing machine was another stress producer. I had replaced the old machine inherited during the purchase of the Andrew home with a very white, very tres chic matched set that looked like it was begging to be used. My old wash day habit included waiting until there was only one pair of unsullied Kirkland boxer shorts left in my dresser drawer. I had it timed perfectly so that I could go from weekend to weekend before refreshing my supplies. Water and soap conservation led my reasons for avoiding too-often machine processing.

Jackie never has soiled clothing in her possession for more than eight hours. A machine load to her often includes one cute pair of black Lululemon yoga pants and a loose fitting, yet revealing, top. That’s it. Like the garbage disposal, I decided that it was better to join ‘em than to fight ‘em.

Her daily journey to the laundry room now includes one pair of my shorts, a t-shirt and one pair of white socks. Because I have but one t-shirt to contribute, it returns clean to the top of my shirt drawer where it is worn again the next day. People at the athletic club think I’m destitute because I wear the same t-shirt every day. To help justify the frequent natural resource robbing wash cycles, I occasionally contribute a large green bath towel to the load. You could eat off it. Yet another bullet dodged on the way to marital bliss.

Other challenges exist as we head toward formal matrimony in just thirty-nine days. The proper protocol for thermostat setting is a work in progress as I try to accommodate to temperatures that would challenge an Emperor Penguin. TV shows, especially those mind-numbing series depicting inane, beautiful young men and women, currently populate the hit list in our home. Gone are those special programs that challenged my mind such as Ant-Man versus Wasp, Bad Boys 2, Ninja Assassin and The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl.

But, despite the odds, I’m confident she’ll come around to my way of thinking. Right after hell freezes over.

I nearly died

I nearly died.

I woke at 5 am, having been summoned by the alarm on Jackie’s iPhone. It’s both a blessing and a curse. Although I could sleep a bit longer, the too-early awakening lets me inhale the remains of last night’s memories before she leaves. If I’m lucky, I get a kiss before I brush my teeth.

A working girl, Jackie easily exits the warm bed, performs some rudimentary magic on her cute body and then heads into the darkness and drives to the athletic club. This inviolate routine brings her there precisely two minutes prior to its 5:30 am opening. She selects a parking space that might as well be reserved for her and assumes the prime position at the club’s front door. First in the gym is a badge of honor that she covets.

I, on the other hand, have not worked in twenty-one years and believe it is my right to sleep late. Not willing to flaunt or take advantage of my enviable position, I arise at 5:45am, toss the warm covers and immediately feel the stabbing chill of a house that has been deprived of fossil fuels for the last eight hours.

We have a treadmill, an elliptical, a stationary bike and a weight machine. Our third bedroom is devoted to these devices and, with its cool rubber flooring, looks like a display at a fitness store. A creature of habit, I disdain these home-bound devices and drive five minutes to the club where I socialize with others who habituate the establishment. I occasionally cross paths with Jackie, and proudly give her a kiss for all to see. I wish her well as she heads to her Pilates session, squeezes in an hour of hot yoga with twenty other female masochists, drives thirty miles to Camarillo and manages to get to work looking refreshed and radiant. I tire merely thinking about it and consider a nap.

I have a key-less locker at the gym that sets me back twelve dollars a month. An extravagance that could be avoided if I were willing to use an unassigned keyed locker. But that would require handing over my car keys to ensure that I return the locker key. It also means playing locker roulette since I would have a different, though indistinguishable, locker each day of the week. An exhausting thought.

My locker alienates me. It’s just a bit too small and, often without warning, regurgitates some of what I have put in it. Especially prone to this phenomenon is my shaving kit which seems intent on painfully landing on the toes of my left foot as it cascades to the floor.

I often prematurely lock it, requiring re-entry of the combination; something that I shall surely forget as I age. I have visions of marching bare-assed to the front desk to beg Erin for the now forgotten three numbers that will admit me to the locker and its assortment of clothing that will mask my embarrassment.

It accumulates unwanted items including a spare pair of ugly, baggy gym shorts, weight-lifting gloves that have their own sewn-in pain inducers and an orphaned metal shaving mirror that Jackie gave me two years ago. I dread discarding it for fear that she may one day ask about it.

As I put on my gym stuff, I banged my left index finger on the sharp edge of the locker door. Thinking nothing of it, I proudly walked without the aid of the railing, up the stairs to the treadmills. As I began my one-hour routine I noticed a drop of blood on my locker bitten finger. And then another drop. Was I going to bleed to death? I staunched the flow with an old used tissue that had resided peacefully in my shorts pocket. Gradually, thoughts of life’s passing cascaded through my mind.

Should I stop my routine and get some antiseptic from the front desk? Maybe a band-aid. Was this hole in my finger the easiest route for the Corona virus? Would I be the first in the county to be diagnosed with it? An eighty-year-old man close to death in the Ojai Valley Community Hospital. The club shut down tightly until everyone is screened. The media will have a field day. All that treadmilling, twice a week work outs with Robert, and healthy, tasteless food. All for naught.

Admit it. You’re a hypochondriac. The older we get, the more we see death in everyday events. The grim reaper standing ready to announce our demise without prior notice. Home in a two-bed window-less room, our last earthly habitat. Caregivers, friends and relatives tending to an almost lifeless body.

An insatiable desire for candy portends diabetes. A nagging cough, a symptom of tuberculosis. A momentary stab in the belly, stage four pancreatic cancer. A pink tint to your stool, hemorrhoids, colitis or worse. Feeling not quite right, kidney disease run amok. A headache, a debilitating stroke. Momentary tremor, Parkinson’s. A spot on the nose, malignant melanoma. My god, it’s a wonder we have time for anything else.

I gutted out the last forty-five minutes on the treadmill and thought about all the things that I had yet to accomplish. A promising life snuffed out by a locker door. Failure to take it seriously enough to seek emergency medical treatment. I could have asked Erin for a second opinion but was too proud to admit that I had ignored impending doom until it was too late.

I took a longer than usual shower. Shaved before the water could warm to conserve whatever time I had left on this earth. But then, dressing slowly, I figured why rush? It’s a done deal. The virus had already embedded itself. Whatever will be, will be. Take it like a man. Suck it up. Handle it with your usual grace and self-confidence. Nobody lives forever.

Then again, who says so?


Pages

Recent Comments