Archive for March, 2020

A Place in the Sun

I went to Westridge Market this morning looking for a few things to make this really yummy sounding pear recipe. Pears, blue cheese, tart dried cherries, lemons and brown sugar. I already had the final ingredient, port wine, at home. Port is not my favorite mind bender, but until it spoils it can serve as a safety net if I exhaust my scotch, gin, vodka and bourbon. Oh, and the white wine too.

I visit the local markets frequently. It’s something to do while the virus tracks me down and a bit of a challenge. I’ve made a game of it, with toilet paper playing a leading role. Other less challenging roles are assigned to canned goods and baking supplies. All have been in short supply and the game has become more problematic as the days go by. Dire messages from the news-hungry media and the President’s semi-factual, self-taught pronouncements have encouraged me to stock up in anticipation of the rapid evolution of a new ice age populated only by cockroaches, termites and English sparrows.

This morning’s Play Station worthy episode began with an exploration of the offerings available on the Internet. I dove into the quest anticipating the usual disappointment. The object of my desire, toilet paper, was unavailable at Costco, Amazon or Vons. “Out of Stock” was the most popular response to my incessant clicking. “Available in June” was a close second. Visions of self-imposed constipation lit up my morning.

Convincing myself that there was a critical, not to be postponed, need for the components of my pear recipe, I drove to Westridge. Optimistic, I extracted two cloth grocery bags from my trunk, dropped them into one of several thousand empty shopping carts and wheeled my way into the store. Shelved stock was pathetic, except for liquor which seems to self-regenerate without human intervention. Usually abundant, now scarce, cans of tomatoes were standing apart from one another as though they too dreaded the touch of some other can’s corona-infested tin cladding.

The object of my search was two aisles removed from the unsocial tomato cans. Not wishing to seem obvious, but also wary of losing my place to others, I moved casually in a feigned disinterested manner.  I stared down the coveted aisle. Shelves normally laden with rolls of toilet paper were barren. I cruised aimlessly down the empty shelves and noted the signs that were taped to the metal. Written unceremoniously with a Sharpie, they severely admonished hoarders. Three Rolls to a Customer. Leave Some for the Next Guy. No Exceptions. I half expected that I’d find one that said Get Used to It or a page of instructions, complete with photos, demonstrating a more efficient way of wiping your fanny. There were so many signs that, for a moment, I thought I might take them home as substitutes for the real thing.

I wondered how, if they really had toilet paper, they would enforce the no more than three rolls per customer rule. Could a family of four, including two infants nestled in the shopping cart, buy twelve rolls? Might a couple split their groceries and check out separately doubling their bounty? Could the same purchaser check out three rolls, exit the store, come back five minutes later and get a second helping? Could seniors double-dip since they tended to make more daily visits to the throne than younger people?

As I stood there fantasizing, I glimpsed a flash of white set back in the shadows of the bottom shelf. My heart raced as I reached in and grasped it. A roll that had somehow eluded my competition was now mine. It bore no resemblance to any of the usual brands. It was clumsily wrapped in nondescript paper and looked as though it might have been previously fondled and rejected by several seekers less amorous than I.

I stared at the roll in my hand. I’ve learned a lot about toilet tissue while cruising the web. Number of layers and the thickness of each prominently jump to the top of the list of important characteristics. Some rolls have more sheets, but each sheet may be thinner. Or shorter. The status of your septic system may trounce all other considerations. These critical issues should cause one to pause as they review the qualities that most closely match their particular preferences.

Rolls made for commercial use often have narrow holes in the center of the roll that make it unsuitable for hanging on your common garden-variety tissue holder. Perhaps this deliberate impediment limits the number of rolls purloined by employees or visitors who don’t want a hundred feet of toilet paper cascading down the center of their bathroom. If you have ever attempted to re-roll a runaway roll, you know what I mean.

These industrial rolls are often sold in boxes of sixty or more. Rejected in normal times, these lifetime supplies from China are now in demand. However, one must often give up one full space in a two-car garage to house these monstrosities. And what about the impact on the neighbors’ sensitivities when seeing the over-sized cartons being wheeled off the large shipment FedEx truck. On the other hand, an otherwise cranky but needy neighbor can become your new best friend overnight.

There I was, holding an orphaned, undersized and rejected roll of paper. One that normally would have been consigned to the parking lot dumpster. But today, it was found gold. I placed it lovingly in the center of my shopping cart and began my march to the checkout station. And then I wondered what I was doing.

Had I become so besotted with my search for toilet paper that I had lost my sense of proportion? Was I so bereft of my senses that the acquisition of one runty ill-wrapped roll could consume me? Did I even know how many rolls I already had or even where I had stored them?

My accomplishment paled as I reached the checkout. I felt a twinge of embarrassment as I tossed my purchases onto the conveyor belt. I was sure the checker was thinking “Poor guy. Only one roll of toilet paper.  And then what?  I shudder to think.”

Bagging my purchases into my own ancient, germ-infested cloth bag revealed the extent of my shame. The toilet paper went first, to be buried by my other menial purchases before anyone but the checker could be made privy to my dismal situation.

Arriving home, I considered possible storage locations for the orphan. Housing it with rolls that had familiar pedigrees like Scott and Charmin just would not do. On the other hand, a dark, recessed place of its own seemed too harsh on the little fella.

I decided that anonymity was the best course of action. Unwrapping the roll gave it life and a certain air of mystery. Able to assume any identity, it is no longer an outcast as it hangs with honor waiting to serve me.

I think both of us are quite happy with the way it all turned out.

The most precious thing

What is the most precious thing in the world?

What are the characteristics that make it so? A short list might include beauty, timelessness, desirability and scarcity.

Until last week, my most precious list would have included a unique jewel much like the Hope Diamond. At 45 carats, about a third of an ounce, the Hope luxuriates in Washington DC’s Museum of National History. Legend has it that the diamond is cursed and the owner, or anyone else who touches it, will die. Sort of like forgetting to clean your doorknobs of the Corona virus. If the stone was in the Museum’s gift shop, its price tag would be about $350 million plus tax. Not sure if they offer gift wrapping.

The Mona Lisa is also in the running. Housed in the Paris Louvre, the lady with the mysterious smile is estimated to set you back nearly a billion bucks, plus tax. Framing is extra. The Italian noblewoman, believed to be Lisa Gherardini, was painted by da Vinci around 1503. She displays an enigmatic expression that undoubtedly reflects Lisa’s awareness that twenty-first century art connoisseurs would assuredly be foolish enough to pay her over inflated price.

Faberge eggs have captured the imagination since the 1800’s when they were produced in Czarist Russia. Most were made for royalty, but the majority did not survive the revolution, or the misguided melting of the undervalued eggs for their gold. One such egg, purchased at a flea market fifty years ago for $14,000, currently has an estimated value of over thirty million. The ignorant flea market purchaser kept it in his Midwest home located next to a highway and a Dunkin Donuts until an antique dealer spotted it sitting next to some cupcakes on the owner’s Formica kitchen counter.

These three items have at least one thing in common. None have any utilitarian value. If you awoke next Monday morning and discovered that your Faberge was cracked, your diamond shattered or the Mona Lisa looking like DC Comics’ Joker, you would probably shrug and say something like easy come, easy go. Then turn over in bed, snuggle with your sweetie, and your morning would go on as always, without the diamond, the painting or the egg.

The most precious list takes on a wholly different flavor when we are faced with something that can seriously impact how we live. The current Corona crisis helps put things in perspective. Especially at the grocery store. Tough times with real or imaginary shortages of taken-for-granted items, often reveal some of our baser instincts.

In 1967 we lived in Chicago when we had 27 inches of snow in a single day. The freeway shut down and people used it as boardwalk to the nearest market. Gallons of milk disappeared from store shelves, probably into homes where it was never consumed. It surely spoiled before it could be wolfed down by people who hadn’t had a glassful since they were in Mrs. Weintraub’s first grade class.

Moving to Los Angeles that same year to avoid future blizzards, we were welcomed with earthquakes. The worst was the 1994 Northridge quake. No electricity. No open markets. We became a third world country overnight. Hot dogs from our non-functioning freezer were roasted over our still operating gas stove. Candles provided light. Empty fifty-gallon metal barrels appeared on the street; their burning wood scraps providing a place for people to gather. We avoided driving our cars, fearful that we might never find fuel in gas stations that could no longer pump it. Hush hush messages were shared with friends whenever a secret stash of store-based vitals was discovered; we invariably arrived too late to grab anything that we didn’t really need anyway.

The blizzard cleanup and the quake reconstruction were short term impediments to our lifestyle. They were localized, allowing billions of people to be mere TV voyeurs watching the drama unfold without being directly affected by the events. We intuitively knew that our lives would be restored to normalcy before the next Olympics.

In agonizing contrast, the Corona madness has the entire world at its feet. Any permanent respite is impossible to predict with any certainty. At seven every morning we watch ABC’s George Stephanopoulos lean forward in his Good Morning America swivel chair and tell us how god-damn awful this thing is. How the rate of infection will soon fill every hospital bed, the Superdome and all the sea-going Maersk shipping containers with victims who have no ventilators and no hope. How anyone George interviews is deemed crazy by him if they say things are getting under control. We multi-task by staring at the streaming crawler spewing more bad news at the bottom of our TV screen…repeating these disasters every sixty seconds. Like lemmings, we are too paralyzed to turn it off and switch to the fifteenth episode of the fourth year of our favorite depressing Netflix series.

Images of food shortages race through our frontal lobe. Some of us remember World War 2 ration books, victory gardens and meatless Mondays. We mentally inventory our available foodstuffs. We have no idea when this worst of all flu seasons will end. We see the Vons’ parking lot filled from six in the morning into the night. Cars sliding snail-like up and down the aisles looking to catch a break. We think they must know something we don’t. So we join them.

We grab an available cart, ladling germs onto the palms of our hands. We enter through the automatic doors, thankful we don’t have to touch them. We grab a disinfectant tissue and wipe our hands and the cart’s push bar. We dispose of the tissue on top of the overflowing garbage can.

Once fully inside, we stop. Where are we going? Left or right? So much to choose from. Better make up our mind quickly before someone else snatches our number one item while we procrastinate like Lot’s wife. We finally decide.

We stare at the overhead signs. And then we spot it. Paper Goods. We move quickly. Our heart is pounding. We look down the chosen aisle. Our eyes shift right. A sea of off-white metal meets our gaze. Having never seen an empty Vons display rack, we are momentarily stunned, unable to move. How is this possible?

Now we know what the most precious item is. What will change sensible shoppers into glutinous hoarders. What we can’t do without. Names that had little importance two weeks ago have come to the top of our most precious list. Northern, Charmin, Kirkland, Angel Soft, Cottonelle, Scott. All gone.

The Hope Diamond, the Mona Lisa and Faberge eggs are still available. But who gives a shit?

I’ve had enough Corona

Went to the board meeting at the synagogue Monday night. It’s a once a month thing that lasts about two hours. I generally last about one hour and then begin to fidget.

The chairs are reasonably comfortable but even the cushiest Ethan Allen lounge chair begins to grind into my butt after about thirty minutes. Jackie tells me that I have no meat on my fanny; I trust her judgment since she’s had ample time to explore the terrain.

Fidgeting can also be accompanied by pen twiddling, paper shuffling and tiny facial grimaces whenever I think the speaker has outworn his welcome. The face thing began earlier than usual that evening when one of the board members launched into a dissertation on the ravages of the Corona virus. Although a physician with access to the latest medical advances, I found his warnings akin to what the dinosaurs must have discussed as they anxiously awaited the giant meteor that ended their 150 million years reign on earth. We’ve only been around for 300,000 years, so we’ve got a lot to learn. Especially since learning from history is not one of our strong points.

Although there is overwhelming scientific support for the meteor theory, there are also believers in a virus borne plague that may have decimated the dino population. Dead animals who contracted the malady, let’s call it the Budweiser virus, were in turn eaten by the survivors. Then they succumbed to the virus that had ridden the coattails of their ingested friends. And then there were none.

My doctor friend did not predict a dinosaur-like event. But visions of prophylactic measures ran through my brain as he itemized what we should do to assure our survival. High on the list was hand sanitizer. But would there be enough Purell to save us from the Corona virus? Or would we emulate our luckless T-Rex ancestor by wandering down Ojai Avenue like zombies, seeking the flesh of former friends to assuage our hunger.

The following day I attended my Creative Writing class. The room was packed with senior citizens who were ideal Corona candidates. Old, a bit klutzy and with already compromised immune systems. Not to worry, since some of us had come armed with the now ubiquitous life-saving Purell elixir. However, my comfort level dropped several levels when one of my classmates announced that Purell was to be avoided because it causes cancer. She assured us that she had confirmed this on the web.

Terrified, I was left with a choice. Risk the Budweiser-like elimination of all human beings or suffer an oncological nightmare rendered by the emperor of all diseases. I fidgeted in my seat, fumbled with an over-sized paper clip and was inattentive while my colleagues audibled their heart-felt essays. The class ended and I wondered if an afternoon martini might restore my confidence.

A trip to the athletic club temporarily put off the martini. Peter was on the neighboring treadmill. Of similar ages, we greet each other, review yesterday’s news and share thoughts about how this country should be run. Realizing the futility of it, we move on to more important things. Surrounded by a sea of Kleenex and sanitizer wipes. Peter’s treadmill is gleaming from his efforts to keep it clean and germ free. He feels impervious to the virus.

We simultaneously complete our workout. I blithely pick up my germ laden cellphone and am about to walk down the stairs to the locker room. Peter calls to me. “Take this cleansing wipe, spread it out and use it to hold onto the stair railing.”  Not wishing to offend, I gratefully accept the moist tissue and make my way to the locker room. I immediately violate any benefit of the rail wipe when I dial the combination lock and collect a boatload of happy, invisible germs onto my fingers.

I enter the shower stall and wonder how much scrub time I should devote to each part of my body. God knows what’s invading me through the soles of my feet. The soap dispenser is particularly nettlesome. It’s a twelve-ounce bottle that requires a downward push on a plunger to dispense a marble sized glob of soap. I wonder who had been there before me. Did they deposit alien germs on the plunger? Am I to be undone by someone who is ignorant of proper shower etiquette? Why is there no Purell sanitizer in the shower stall? Doesn’t the club know that failure to sanitize could spell doom for all humankind?

Newly sanitized, I listen to KPCC as I drive home. Generally interesting, this NPR station normally covers a wide array of stories. Of late, the mind-numbing focus has been on Corona where statistics abound and are updated every nanosecond. Interviews with health professionals fill vacant airtime. Their message universally includes the case count, the death count and the don’t count on any vaccine for a year mantra. It concludes with an admonition of “don’t panic.” All of which causes me to panic.

I now listen exclusively to KUSC, the classical music station where, blessedly, Mozart never heard of Corona, or any other virus, while composing The Magic Flute.

Jackie and I plan to marry on March 22. Seventy-five invitees have decisions to make. Should they risk virus oblivion or throw caution to the wind, drink wine, eat good food and laugh with friends. Thoughts about my own well-being regularly enter my consciousness. It is not a fear of contracting the dreaded illness. It’s being physically unable to attend my own wedding. An event that includes flowers, photos, a cake, a harpist and, potentially, a bunch of forfeited deposits.

I lie half awake this morning and wonder what would happen if I am sick on March 22. I decide that nothing short of a meteor direct hit will keep me from it. I see it now. Although bed ridden, I arrive at the wedding venue speeding down Ojai Avenue in a white LifeLine ambulance with sirens blaring. We have a reserved parking space right in front. I’m wheeled from the vehicle on a gurney. A drug infused IV is embedded in my right arm. I sign the Ketuba. I’m under the chuppah with lovely Jackie hovering over me. We recite our vows. Rabbi Lisa pronounces us married. I’m happy.

After all, who needs Purell when you’re in love?

Plays, Cemeteries and Dinner

Sunday was our day at the Ahmanson.

Daughter Nancy and I have been series subscribers since Ila died. Ila loved musicals and we often found ourselves several rows back from the stages at LA’s downtown Music Center, the Ojai Art Center and the Rubicon in Ventura. Before we moved to Ojai and the schlep became a bridge too far, we had great seats at the Hollywood Bowl including coveted reserved parking.

As her illness progressed, Ila found the noise, regardless of the decibel level, and the milling crowds too much to handle and we stopped attending live plays and movies. Even a simple visit to the band shell in Libbey Park was, for her, like living through the height of the Luftwaffe’s 1940 London blitz.

Our final venture into entertainment was a trip to Hollywood’s rococo Pantages Theater to see Beautiful, the musical about Carol King. Ila lasted less than five minutes into the performance. Signaling her discomfort, she covered her ears. We rose from our center section seats and excused ourselves to each of the fifteen people we trod on as we slogged past them. We then spent quality time seated on a lobby bench while daughter Nancy remained through the first act. Mercifully, we left the confines of the theater before the second act and drove home.

My day for the Ahmanson routinely begins with a trip to Conejo Mountain Memorial Park to visit Ila in the cemetery section reserved for Jews. Authors of bereavement guides are quick to remind me that Ila really isn’t there under a blanket of Saint Augustine grass; rather, she lives in our memories. To which I respond…how do you know?

With ten dollars, I buy cut flowers at the Park office, picking a bunch that I think Ila will like. I arrive at the grave site and arrange the flowers in the container embedded at the foot of the grave. I clear some dead leaves from the site onto a currently unoccupied neighboring plot. I stand and look at the inscription on the grave marker…We love you up to the sky and beyond.  I speak to her and ask how she’s doing, knowing there will be no audible response. I remind her of my upcoming marriage to Jackie and I feel guilty. I remember the bereavement group facilitator saying that Ila would want me to be happy…and I wonder.

I place a small stone on the corner of the grave marker. I had carefully selected it from the array in front of the house. It was smooth, a pleasing brown color and about two inches in diameter. There are several Jewish theories why a stone is left behind. Flowers are rarely put on Jewish graves; I’m an exception. Flowers are impermanent while stones, like memories, are lasting. My personal belief is a bit selfish; it’s a tradition that tells others I was here.

I took a photo of the grave and the flowers. I take one during each visit. I occasionally send one to the kids with a note that tells them that Nana says that she loves you. Some I just keep in my iPhone memory, helping to keep track of my visits. I say good-bye and tell her that I love her.

On the way to my car I pass Naida’s grave. Naida and Ila shared illnesses, became an odd couple of fast friends, and now lie together twenty feet apart. I bid Naida good-bye but am out of stones.

It took thirty minutes to arrive at Nancy’s Calabasas home where coffee and deli stuff waited. Finished downing a combination sandwich of Gelson’s corned beef and hard salami, we left for the Ahmanson, got there with time to spare and, despite murmurs about the Corona virus, found a packed theater waiting to see The Book of Mormon. We had seen it years ago, and although laden with some embarrassment at its rapid-fire jokes about a little understood religion, had thoroughly enjoyed it the first time.

As usual, our seats were centered, ten rows back from the stage where the scenery was highlighted by a horn blowing statue of the angel Moroni calling people to the gospel of Jesus. Early in the performance, it became apparent that I needed more than a golden horn to hear the lyrics of the show’s now familiar tunes.

Although fitted with hearing aids, more than half of the spoken words were a great mystery to me. Laughter rose throughout the theater while I too often sat idly by wondering what was so funny. Nancy tried to lessen the impact of my affliction on my psyche by assuring me that she too could not understand everything. Yet whenever I leaned toward her and said, “What did he say?” she was able to tell me, albeit too late to enjoy that joke while the audience had moved on to another unintelligible phrase. Resigned to the inevitable, I sat back, clasped my hands in my lap and settled for half a loaf.

Like senses competing for attention, my eyesight in dimly lit settings is no better than my aging ears. As though encouraging pratfalls, the Ahmanson puts a half height step at the end of the darkened aisle and another one at the foot of the exit ramp. My recourse is to slowly shuffle my feet while seeking those challenging steps. I sometimes lose the contest and half hurtle forward into the waiting arms of a stranger.

My adventure with senescence continued after the play with a dinner trip to the Wood Ranch restaurant in Agoura. Once again, my reading skills were tested by a dimly lit environment intended to create a relaxing atmosphere for everyone other than Mr. Magoo. Although a light beamed from the ceiling, it focused like a laser beam on the tiny center of the table. It required that I lean forward with my elbows in the complimentary bread bowl to stand a chance of capturing some lumens.

Dinner conversation was highlighted by the possible whereabouts of my misplaced hat and concluded with the realization that I had lost my Visa card. Capping my Emmy winning performance, I gracefully rose from the table and unknowingly dropped two napkins from my lap onto the floor. Perhaps a bibb next time.

Nancy and Kevin were unwilling to allow me to go solo to locate my car for fear that I might be found at dawn, frozen in the parking lot. Better safe than sorry has become the law of the land. I drove home without causing a pile-up on the 101 and, displaying an as yet intact smidgen of independence, refused to call the kids to let them know I had arrived safely.

I suppose I enjoyed the play.


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