Archive for the 'Aging' Category

What did you say?

What did you say?

I’d been doing more of that lately. Sitting in restaurants and trying to have a conversation was a challenge. I might as well have been talking to myself.

Casual conversation, even when there were only two of us, was hit or miss. I would have been better off with the kind of signal flags they used to wave at incoming F-14s on an aircraft carrier.

Turning up the volume, either through shouting or groping the TV remote, did as much good as farting in a windstorm.

Volume wasn’t the problem. I heard loud and not-so-loud things but I still couldn’t decipher what was being said. I spent most of my allotted time saying “Pardon me, what did you say?” Or “Come again, I didn’t hear you.” Or I’d pretend I could hear and stupidly say yes, no or maybe so. Turned out it didn’t matter much which expression I picked so long as the question didn’t include religion, politics or my sexual habits.

When any of those sensitive topics was at the core of the conversation, I’d use a different approach. I’d simply nod knowingly. Not up or down as in yes or no. It was more of a shoulder shrug coupled with a slight oblique shift either left or right that seemed to satisfy the listener’s needs. God knows what I had agreed to in the many years I had used this method that I had dubbed the Nodge.

Jackie seemed to tire easily as our evenings together wore on. Our conversations were heavily punctuated with what, huh, and come again? In no uncertain terms, she eventually said “You need a hearing aid.” Unable to resist such an eloquently worded request, I promised to call for an appointment—right away.

In a vain attempt to slow down the inevitable, I decided to do some research. Googling hearing aids produced as many hits as the search term, porn, might have. My initial reaction to scanning the hearing sites that Google had kindly delivered was one of sticker shock. My next reaction was one of bewilderment. Unable to discern obvious differences between various manufacturers and models, I turned from the saturated world of the Internet to my friends.

“You should go directly to Costco. They’re cheaper than anyone”, said Ralph. “And you can spend your wait time cruising the aisles eating the free samples.”

Mike demurred. “Sure they’re cheaper, but they just take a really good hearing aid and dumb it down. Besides, you probably need to buy a dozen of them.  All wrapped in bullet proof plastic that defies you to open them.”

Like a voyeur, I began looking behind people’s ears. Men were easy marks. Women, with their long hair, were a mystery, just like everything else about them. Since much of my time is spent with old people, it seemed as though everyone had hearing aids. The aid-less seemed to be an exception. I began to stop and talk to strangers who seemed quite willing to discuss their march from “What did you say?” to “You don’t need to shout. I can hear you quite well.”

When no one was looking, I’d stand in front of the mirror at the athletic club and stare at my not inconsequential, Dumbo sized ears and wonder what I’d look like with a canoe positioned in what would never again be just a space between my ear and my skull. Being a handsome, debonair bald men, I could not depend on shaggy hair to mask my otolaryngology disability.

Further research seemed useless and Jackie was getting wise to my game. So I decided to end things quickly by offering myself up to our local hearing aid provider. A kind young man in an austere setting took me under his wing. Wanting to justify the upcoming sale of the latest in hearing aid technology, Wayne administered a hearing test.

Feeling much like the Alexandre Dumas character Edmund Dantes in the Chateau d’If prison, I was herded into a not-so-quiet padded cell. Wayne placed a set of headphones long rejected by iPhone users on my head and left the cell. What followed was a series of beeps, some spoken words and a vain attempt on my part to cheat and pass the test. I later learned that no one passes the test.

Never once saying “You need a hearing aid”, Wayne proceeded to dissect the elements of my hearing test. Ten minutes of gazing at graph lines proved that I had lost about half of my high-end hearing capability. Big surprise. The little cilia sensory cells had departed my inner ear and, much like fingers and toes, would not return.

Wayne offered me a selection of devices whose price differences seemed indecipherable. They all looked the same and all seemed capable of Blue-Toothing their way through the world of audio connectivity. With the latest technology, I was but an iPhone app away from nirvana.

Available in various hues of black and white, I selected one that would come closest to my skin color. Like it would fool anyone with half a brain. Special order, of course. Thoughts of running away during that waiting period flitted through my mind. Bending to the inevitable, four days later I returned to Wayne’s place of business where the devices were installed in my receptive ears.

Later that day, I visited my attorney in Ventura. We were alone in his conference room when I heard a phone ring. He seemed to ignore it so suggested he answer it. “Answer what?” he said. It took me awhile to realize that it was my iPhone ringing through my hearing aids. How cool.

Last Sunday twenty of us went to the Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. We sat in the nosebleed seats and listened to the LA Philharmonic play Gershwin and Ravel. From ten thousand feet, I could hear the piccolo, a small chime and the clicking of a stick on a block of rosewood. It was so magnificent that I teared up and felt like I did years ago at the opera

All twenty of us went to dinner at an Italian restaurant. It was family style and we passed simple but delicious platters of food around, drank inexpensive red wine and talked freely about the day’s events. I listened and heard the words. I neither nodded nor shrugged.

We got home at nine and Jackie, seeming less tired than usual, said “Thank you for hearing. I love you.”

Because of you

I flew Contour Airlines from Santa Barbara to the Bay area this weekend to celebrate my buddy Harry’s 80th birthday. Two months older than me, Harry and I have been the closest of friends for more than sixty years.

I highly recommend the Santa Barbara airport and Contour Airlines. Arriving mid-afternoon on Friday after a forty-five-minute easy drive from Ojai, I parked in the half-empty long-term parking lot, took a five-minute walk to the Spanish influenced terminal building and found the airport nearly deserted. I thought that perhaps I had missed an Ebola evacuation announcement.

I got my boarding pass from a very friendly Contour employee and made my way to the dreaded TSA security gauntlet. I was one of two people in line. The super-friendly supervisor asked if I would mind being a guinea pig for the new TSA employee at the screening monitor. With time to spare, I did my civic duty and opened my toiletries bag, watched it being hand searched, worried about what illegal or embarrassing item I might have forgotten about, zipped it back up without incident, and was thanked for my participation.

With little to do in the cavernous terminal, I casually sauntered over to the customer-less Peet’s Coffee kiosk, grabbed a cup of dark roast, sat in a very comfortable chair, played with my Spell Tower game and waited for boarding to begin. Boarding started when promised, and the plane departed and landed on time in Oakland. It was nirvana.

My wife to be, Ila, and Harry’s intended, Judy, were girlfriends at Chicago’s Boone grade school in the late forties. I started dating Ila during her high school senior year and, coincidentally, fell in love with Harry. The four of us remained inseparable until sweet Ila died in 2017.

I was Harry’s roommate at the University of Illinois. Studying metallurgy, Harry endured long hours of study, late nights, and early morning risings. He had this annoying habit of setting the alarm clock well in advance of his required wake up time, and then employing the snooze feature of our clock in order to bag several ten-minute naps. Even though I could have slept later than Harry, I suffered through his chronic, snooze habit in deference to his extended study nights.

Never lazy, Harry had several temporary jobs during summer vacations. Working in the Café Brauer snack-bar at the beach, he honed his not inconsiderable people skills, now in daily evidence at Noah’s bagels in Livermore, by ogling the girls who made the mistake of thinking that he was not a letch. Another summer vacation job tested Harry’s skills as a house painter. Unwilling to take the time to laboriously mask the crevices between the window and its frame, he simply made them un-openable by painting them shut at the home of my future in-laws. His follow-up job was unsealing the windows.

Graduating college and tearfully forsaking the life of a house painter while pocketing his newly minted PhD in material science, Harry began working at Argonne National Laboratories in Chicago’s southern suburbs while Ila and I set up shop in the northern suburbs. The distance between us, although minor by today’s freeway standards, tended to limit our time together.

In 1967 I accepted a job in San Francisco and we resigned ourselves to maybe seeing each other once a year. However, six months later, Harry called me and excitedly announced that he had taken a position with GE and was moving to the Bay Area. Now we could be, as nature intended, together once again. Unfortunately, I had just accepted a position in Southern California. And that’s how things have remained for over fifty years.

Though three hundred and fifty miles apart, we celebrated holidays, vacations, bar mitzvahs and other life cycle events together. Ila’s difficult illness limited those events and our time together lessened considerably. When Ila died, Harry stayed with me for days while I tried to cope with the emptiness. As always, being together was enough. Conversation to fill the vacuum was unnecessary. We had, years before, developed an alert system whenever we had something to say. Harry would reach over and touch my wrist announcing he was about to speak. I would stop whatever I was doing, straighten up and look alert. And I would listen.

Many years ago when the number of our face to face meetings was diminishing, Harry began to call me every Monday night at 7:30. A call to assure himself that everything was ok. A call to announce that he cared about me. We usually don’t have much to say during these calls. A “How are you” and “What’s new” followed by “I’m fine” and “Nothing much” often ends the call almost before it begins. But the warm feeling of reaching out lasts for the rest of the evening.

Harry’s eightieth was held in a Chinese restaurant near his Livermore home. His continuing concern for me was in evidence when we were blind-sided by the traffic and were fifteen minutes late. As we pulled into the parking lot, my cellphone rang and Harry said “Where are you? Everyone else is here.” I had been missed.

About forty people were there. Mostly old friends and close family. Many faces were familiar, but they seemed to have aged faster than I had. Harry, contrary to his preferred seat of the pants approach, had prepared some detailed remarks about the event and the people there who had touched his life. I blushed when he seemed to spend an inordinately significant portion of his presentation reminiscing about our time together.

One at a time, about half of the guests rose to say a few words. Harry’s wit and sarcasm took center stage in their remarks, and all offered anecdotes that highlighted his lasting friendship and his uniqueness. When it was my turn, I found myself stretching to say something important. Yet I found that what seemed important to me may have sounded trivial to those at the tables.

I recalled an evening in our senior year when, as a rite of passage, and surrounded by a horde of onlookers, Harry had to serenade Judy while standing outside her dorm. He had memorized and practiced that Arthur Hammerstein song for weeks on end in our small room; I could have delivered it in his stead. When his time came, he couldn’t remember the beginning of the song he had labored on as though it was his doctoral thesis. He had asked me to be his best man and I was standing beside him. He frantically leaned over to me and said, “What’s the words?”

I touched his wrist and whispered in his ear, “Because of You.”

The Deli Man

This is to remind you that the Yahrzeit of Morris Rothenberg will be observed on March 22, 2019.

The letter startled me as I had forgotten that my father had died in March. The letter went on to say that the annual Yahrzeit commemorates his death and commands me to say the Kaddish prayer, light a twenty-four-hour candle, and make a contribution to a worthy cause.

The Yiddish word Yahrzeit, of German origin, literally means anniversary time. I have no trouble pinpointing the year of my father’s death since it was in the same year that the Chicago Bears last won the Super Bowl. Perhaps their hapless attempts and failures since then are merely god’s little joke that perpetuates my ability to remember his passing. The Bears will, I’m sure, graciously continue their incompetent streak until I’m gone from this earth. Something to root for.

My father escaped the pogroms of the Soviet Union, fled to the promised land and worked hard to provide for his family. Never well-to-do, he did what was needed without complaint. He savored the little pleasures that were to him miraculous, given what he had known back in his Ukrainian shtetl.

His first job in Chicago was as a “puller.” Barely knowing any English, he would stand outside a men’s Maxwell Street clothing store and shout at passersby, “Hey, come in, good deal.” His attempts at “pulling” men into the store were sometimes accompanied by the removal of the unsuspecting man’s hat and tossing it through the open door into the store. My dad was small, and I’m surprised he survived that affront without at least a black eye. I guess he did whatever was needed to make a buck.

By the time I arrived in our crowded Albany Park apartment, Morris was in the deli business. First as a counter man at the Purity Delicatessen on Chicago’s Lawrence Avenue. The Purity was anything but. His stories about its cleanliness and treatment of customers would not survive today’s health department inspections. My favorite anecdotes involved clever ways of freeing up tables from those who had overstayed their welcome. A rat’s demise caused by a fall into the deep fat fryer was no reason to change the already overburdened oil.

By the time I was five or six, he had partnered with two other deli-tested guys, Ben and Morrie. They bought Oberman’s Delicatessen on Howard Street near the “L” and sold corned beef, pastrami, cole slaw and potato salad prepared by my mother, and other Jewish delights that make a deli a deli. They had no employees, regularly enlisted their wives’ help, and worked long hours.

Each of the three partners had one day off every week and every third Sunday. For as long as I can remember, Wednesday was my dad’s day off. Since I was in school on Wednesdays, my only extended time with him occurred every third Sunday. Much of that valuable time was spent lying next to my dad on a day bed in the dining room listening to Sunday afternoon radio programs.

We listened to Nick Carter, Master Detective. Then on to The Adventures of Sam Spade starring Howard Duff and created by Dashiell Hammett for the Maltese Falcon. And, my favorite, The Shadow with its chill provoking opening lines spoken by Frank Readick, Jr. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”

The Shadow may have known many things, but I remember little, other than the warmth of my father’s body and his hand on my shoulder. It was enough to permanently etch the memory of Sunday afternoons in my mind.

Gifts were not big on our agenda. Birthdays often passed with little notice. An exception occurred in my ninth year. My father came home on the first day of Chanukah with a large cardboard box. In it was a potpourri of toys, all used. An electric train took center stage, even though it had but one car and only enough tracks to complete a small circle. I watched the train circumnavigate the circle a thousand times. There were also two toy telegraph sending units that did nothing but click when you depressed the key. Because it had the Morse Code imprinted on the housing, I learned how to send an SOS. No one came to my rescue; but I didn’t need rescuing from anything, especially from my father.

Not schooled in any formal way, he wrote beautifully. He added up columns of numbers with lightning speed on the brown paper bags that Oberman’s customers took home laden with their corned beef, rye bread and dill pickles. He was an accomplished card player who fancied four-handed pinochle and ten-cent poker. He wasn’t a pushover. He never spanked me, and I never heard him fight with my mother who he loved dearly for nearly sixty years. I owe my own generosity, honesty and work ethic to him. Not because of what he said but because of what he did.

He suffered the ravages of old age including macular degeneration. I’d watch him sit sideways at the TV, viewing his beloved White Sox through the corner of his eye. Baseball was the only sport played slowly enough to allow him to reasonably focus on the images on the screen.

I missed my flight back to Los Angeles that day in 1986 when I overstayed my time in his hospital room. I kissed him good-bye. It was the last time I saw him.

I will celebrate his Yahrzeit next week by remembering what he did for me and for others. And by remembering how much I loved him. He was truly a mensch for all ages.

Feeling mortal

According to Merriam-Webster, the word mortal means causing or having caused death. After the events of the last seven days, I more fully understand what it means.

When I was younger, I played a silly game with myself. I’d think of my age and calculate the percentage of my life still ahead of me. For example, when I was twenty-five, I figured I’d live to the conservative age of seventy-five. So, I still had two-thirds of my life to live. It was comforting.

When I was fifty, I figured I had used up two-thirds of my probable seventy-five-year sojourn on this planet.  Since I was not a believer in the afterlife or of a micro-managing deity, it gave me little comfort to feel closer to the end than the beginning.

I’ll be eighty in a couple of months. And I no longer play that game.

When I was much younger and working for a living, I’d, more often than not, be the youngest person in the weekly staff meeting. Now younger people offer to carry groceries to my car in the Von’s parking lot, others hold open the door for me at the athletic club, and I’m always respectfully addressed as “sir.”

Last week I was driving up Sulphur Mountain Road to my house in the Upper Ojai. It had rained earlier in the day and the bone-chilling combination of high humidity and low temperature made me shiver. Even the car heater wasn’t good enough. The thick, dark cloud cover added to the dank conditions that were usually only found in Dracula movies starring either Bela Lugosi or Gary Oldman.

About a quarter-mile from my driveway, the road was partially blocked by three police cars and a troop of officers. They seemed on break, just standing idly by with their hands in their pockets, as though waiting for something to happen. I slowed the car and stopped alongside the patrol cars. And one other car that looked strangely familiar.

My neighbor Ron’s sons, Eric and Max, walked toward me. I rolled down my window and asked what was going on. Eric said “That’s my father, lying on the shoulder, covered by the yellow plastic tarp. He died here about thirty minutes ago.”

You’ve probably felt like this before. Someone says something that is so incongruous that, at first, you don’t fathom its meaning. Then it sinks in and, depending how close you’ve been to those involved, you experience some level of shock.

Ron had been our good neighbor for nearly twenty years. We had eaten together, shared stories at neighborhood parties and helped each other overcome life’s roadblocks. An inveterate and former pipe smoker, Ron had been ill for some years and his death was ordained. Nevertheless, its abrupt end on the muddy shoulder of the road he had traversed hundreds of times was unexpected. I thought he might go on indefinitely, despite the lung disease that eventually brought him to ground. I’ll miss him.

Earlier that same day, I had attended the weekly creative writing class at Help of Ojai. For many months, I’ve spent Thursday mornings listening to the stories, poems and life experiences crafted by a dozen or more gifted writers. I also offer my own brand of writing to those who are kind enough to listen. The two-hour weekly session ends with a sometimes agonizing quest to identify a restaurant that eight or more of us can abide. It’s a challenge that, at times, is more difficult than getting past the constructive criticism leveled at us by the incisive, grammatically correct class participants.

Creatures of habit, most of us regularly occupy the same seats at the large, square table, unless one is tardy and confronted by a full house. I sit next to Johan who generally is one of the first people to arrive.  Reared in South Africa, Johan offers insights into a country that only a native can tell. In truth, his writing is occasionally difficult to warm to and he is often bestowed with criticisms that are well-meant but which can also be disheartening. His ability to absorb these barbs is often tested, and I find myself caring for his fragile ego.

Last Thursday I found myself confronted by an empty chair on my right that is normally staked out by Johan. About ninety, his absence due to a cold or minor ache or pain would normally be unremarkable. Nevertheless, I did feel an eerie vacuum created by the empty chair. I missed his repartee, his signature hat and his cellphone that seemed to have a mind of its own, demonstrating it every so often by interrupting various readers with its strident, irreverent sound. At times, I thought Johan would strangle the offensive device. We ended our class and trooped to Ca’Marco for lunch…without Johan.

The next day, Friday, I arrived at Help of Ojai for my morning bus driving shift. Tina, a delightful woman who schedules the bus trips, said “I’m sorry about Johan.” My first thought was that he had been struck down by the flu or some other malady that laid him low, maybe even hospitalized. After telling Tina that I didn’t know anything about Johan, she told me that he had passed away the day before. I immediately visualized the empty chair and said, “I just sat next to him last Thursday.” And I thought, how could something like this happen so quickly, without so much as a by-your-leave. Without warning, a last good-bye, or another reading of the 123rd paragraph of his novel.

The passing of Ron and Johan on the same day caused me to focus on my own mortality. I suppose that’s normal. To measure your years alongside theirs. To think about the fickleness of death. To realize that life is fragile. To cause us to seize the opportunity, that we might otherwise delay if we were immortal. But, blessedly, our mortality brings with it the urge, even if momentarily, to do before we cannot. To love with all our heart. To be loved.

Maybe I’ll start that counting game again.

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.

Yoga Music

A month ago, I took a series of four yoga classes at Ojai Yoga Shala on Matilija Street just across of Java and Joe.

Before leaping into it, I read the material on the Shala website where I became cautious when I saw the names of the various classes. Earth Chakra Workshop, Soulful Sunday, Vinyasa and, my favorite, Sweet Vinyasa. Most seemed too challenging. And then I found Gentle Flow and was hooked. It was designed for guys like me. Old, a little creaky and with a C-minus in flexibility.

I threw caution to the wind and, despite a won’t-go-away shoulder problem, I put myself into the hands of the Shala’s Alana Mitnick. She deftly guided me through the basics and left me feeling like I had almost mastered the first one percent of the mysteries of Yoga. The most difficult part of the evening involved exiting Shala’s dimly lit building without embarrassing myself by falling down those pesky steps that are designed to further shorten a senior’s active career.

My aging eyes are no match for moonless nights. They can be a recipe for disaster when coupled with Ojai’s insistence on the obliteration of outside lighting that might ruin the delights of viewing the evening skies. Enhancing one’s viewing pleasure also runs counter to Ojai’s other predilections of sharing the road with bicycle riders, and the leap-before-you-look mindset adopted by the I-challenge-you pedestrians who death defyingly enter the street within or without a crosswalk. Dueling with a two-ton mass of metal is a favorite hobby for many locals.

Last week, furthering my yoga career and taking full advantage of my house which hasn’t seen a prospective home buyer since the Armistice, Jackie planned and delivered a two-hour yoga retreat that attracted twenty-three yogis. The attendees included a number of what appeared to be pre-teens, as well as buffed out young men and lithe, charming young women. I had the over-fifty category all to myself.

The yoga part of the evening was led by Tiffany, a young lass with a soft voice and a matching demeanor. Since it was my home that Jackie had donated to the event, I was invited to participate in the session. I asked Tiffany, “Is this going to be a gentle flow session or do I need to ask my mother if I’m allowed to join in?” She smiled and said, “Not to worry, I will be kind and you won’t suffer.” She should have appended the word “much.”

I found a cloistered spot next to Jackie and unrolled my yoga mat. I have always wondered if there is a correct side to the mat. However, given my beginner status, it probably doesn’t matter. My tush firmly grounded, the games began. It was no surprise to discover that I could barely hear the posing instructions emanating from sweet Tiffany’s mouth. My declining ability to hear the high-end of the sound spectrum matches my inability to see well in dark surroundings.

If I had been an accomplished yogi, I probably could have figured out Tiffany’s commands. It was not to be and I resorted to watching those around me for clues. This only succeeded in over stretching my neck and produced an annoying ache that fit in nicely with my aging eyes and diminished hearing.

Being a nanosecond behind the young, lithe bodies surrounding me only added to my discomfort. By the time I figured out what Tiffany was saying, the group had already moved to the next yoga pose. I’m quite sure my poses bore little resemblance to the real thing but I probably shouldn’t have worried since I was unable to perform most of the poses anyway. I merely grunted and moped while others twisted their bodies in ways that surely must delight chiropractors.

The Down Dog pose is pretty much just a push-up. Something that I gave up in my first year of college. However, looking for some degree of accomplishment, I did what seemed to be several dozen Down Dogs. And I further injured my left shoulder in doing so. After what seemed like a fortnight of yoga, blessed relief arrived in the form of laying flat on my mat, not stretching anything, and just being inert as I mentally inventoried my body parts.

And then it began. Cello music. Tiffany had invited a friend to end the two-hour session with his cello. An accomplished musician, Jeremy had spent many years in the pit at New York’s Metropolitan. He moved to Ojai a week before last year’s Thomas Fire and was now a composer. His choice of music for our yoga retreat was perfect. Robust but calming, it enriched us all.

Lying on my back, staring at the dim ceiling lights, with only the cello making itself known, added a bit of mystery to the night. Confirmed by Jeremy, the acoustics were wonderful. I had never heard them before in this great room. It was as though a new chapter had been added to my life with this house. The music ended, people arose and smiled. Not just a dutiful smile, it was spontaneous and heartfelt.

I asked Jeremy if we could do this again, maybe without the Down Dogs.

Coffee with Norm

I hadn’t seen Norm in almost two years. And then on Wednesday I bumped into him in the dairy aisle at Vons.

I had to look twice to be sure it was him. Older and grayer, he carried himself with a bit of a stoop and a little shuffle in his gait. Always kind-hearted and sensitive, his somewhat older persona fit his indelible character.

We had once been very active in the Ojai photography milieu but both of us had mostly abandoned that activity for reasons that could not be clearly enunciated by either of us. Norm had a creative streak that produced some clever and cutting-edge photos. He was one of the first to create photos without the benefit of a camera. This novel idea led to a discussion some ten years ago about whether his artwork was truly a “photo” that met the requirements for submission to the annual Ojai Art Center photo contest. It did, and it won.

Norm was kind enough to send me an email the day after our Von’s tryst that told me how much he enjoyed our brief conversation surrounded by the milk, butter and sour cream. I wrote back and, with some hesitancy, asked him if he’d like to have a cup of coffee. I knew that the death of his wife, Phyllis, nearly three years ago coincided with his withdrawal from the art scene and I wondered if he might not respond to my invitation. But he did, quickly, and we settled on Java and Joe at nine o’clock two days later.

I was already sipping my usual dark roast coffee with Splenda and cream when Norm arrived, right on time. No surprise, since he was always punctual. A lot like me, Norm did not crave the center of attention and tended to cede the podium to those more verbose than he. I hoped we’d have enough to talk about before my coffee cup was empty.

I felt a bit awkward when I told him of my engagement to Jackie. Due to what seemed a reclusive demeanor, I had assumed that Norm had not fully recovered from the death of his wife, dear Phyllis. Also talented, she had been both a prolific artist and an art teacher. Conducting classes at the Art Center, she had a large following. Her illness had gradually robbed Phyllis of her ability to continue in her usual mode. So, she moved the classes to their home. Then, as she became frailer, she employed the computer and on-line instruction. Norm told me about the last year of her life when they would combine trips to Santa Barbara hospitals and doctors with lunch at favorite restaurants, walks on the beach and much conversation. It was a happy second honeymoon for them even though the outcome was ordained.

I need not have worried about Norm’s anticipated discomfort as I talked about “my Jackie.” For he had some time ago taken up with a woman in Camarillo. Introducing her to his family led to serious consideration of their relationship. However, it was not to be and their togetherness ended short of any more formal binding. Currently happy, it was like he had attended my bereavement group when he spoke of feeling guilty while enjoying himself when Phyllis could not.

We had a bit of an organ recital and lamented on those parts of our body that did not respond as quickly as they did years ago. About five years older than me, Norm had some physical setbacks but is able to work in his garden and be entertained by his children who show up regularly to check on him. He commented on my activities with “You seem to have a full schedule.” Funny, since I often don’t feel that way. Maybe it’s my lifelong need, sometimes a curse, to stay busy.

I looked up from our conversation and saw Jackie bounce into the coffee shop. Her appearance, complete with a certain impish demeanor, immediately brightened my day. Introducing her to Norm added to my enjoyment. Her hand lovingly rubbing my shoulder completed the unexpected treat. Jackie shared some words with Norm and, knowing the right time to depart, did so with an infectious smile. When she was gone, Norm looked at me and said, “She’s just like you described her, only more so.”

We spoke of photography and the increasing difficulty of aging muscles to bear the weight of the usual assortment of professional level camera equipment. Smart phones and their increasing ability to emulate the photos taken with traditional cameras occupied the next few minutes. Norm’s visits to hospitals and doctors with Phyllis had generated an interest in watching others as they sat in waiting rooms. Using his smart phone, he shared with me some of the photos he had taken of these kindred spirits. I remarked on both the unique concept and his ability to capture the moment that showed their pain, boredom or exhilaration. I was both enthralled and jealous of his art. But probably not enough to ignite my own juices.

Norm reminisced about the time we had once spent every June, hanging selected photos on the Art Center walls in anticipation of the annual show. He and I sometimes were a team, measuring, nailing, hanging and leveling the submissions. In the midst of our thoughts he said “I remember you and Ila sitting on the couch during a break. You held hands and sang together. The sight was something so warm that I wished we could have hung it on the wall. You seemed so happy.” I couldn’t remember the occasion, but he was so pumped about it that I didn’t want to break the spell. “Yes, we did that a lot.”, I said.

Like a lot of things that grow fuzzy with age, we tend to alter their true story in ways that satisfy a need, improve its reception by the listener, or we simply forget. Some stories are told so many times that they become real. I sometimes start them with the preface “I’ve told this story so many times that I’m not sure what’s real and what’s made up.” But it doesn’t matter, so long as I can tell it.

Time passed and the extended silence between our sentences signaled the end of our conversation. I asked Norm to call me if he wanted to do this again. Wondering if we would, we deposited our coffee cups in the trash and walked to our cars. At our age, tomorrow is a lifetime.


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