Archive for the 'Aging' Category

Living with Limitations

The New York Times recently ran a guest editorial about the French artist Henri Matisse. It was written by Nick Riggle, a relatively young man who has challenges adjusting to his new life after two debilitating accidents.

Matisse also suffered the impact of aging and its effect on his body. His early works were primarily focused on traditional painting methods, and he received great acclaim for those including Joy of Life and Woman with a Hat.

At 71, Matisse suffered a life-threatening illness. Treatment extended his life by 13 years but left him unable to hold brushes, effectively ending that phase of his artistry. Rather than give up his abiding desire to continue the production of fine art, Matisse adopted a collage approach to its creation. With assistance, he could paint a sheet of paper and then cut pieces from the sheet which then were glued together to produce an image. Some of the finished pieces were colossal in size. Blue Nude, and The Swimming Pool are two examples. These pieces done in his seventies and eighties are often described as the high points of his career.

As I read the editorial, I compared what Matisse had done with the challenges in my own life. I am not a great artist with assistants, nor do I yearn to leap tall buildings in a single bound. but over the years I have experienced changes that require adjustments to what I once thought were simple tasks.

I walk a bit slower, stare at sidewalk cracks, and scan for those partially embedded rocks whose tops seek to catch the front tips of my shoes. It may take me a little longer to reach my destination, but I’ve adjusted.

My night vision is poor, so I don’t drive at night. I can always get a ride and am grateful for friends.

Our dimly lit home presents challenges. Buying flashlights and putting them in various places solves most of the problem. I can buy a pack of 18 flashlights with batteries from Amazon but, like pens, they seem to find their own hiding places.

I began to lose my hearing about 10 years ago. At first, I nodded a lot at my companions and hoped that I had not just agreed to lend them money. The acquisition of overpriced hearing aids solved most of the problem. I don’t pretend I can hear you and find that most people are OK when I say could you repeat that?

Sub-titles are an essential component of watching Netflix. I have trained my brain to stare at the captions even if I can hear perfectly. I watched the comedian Tom Papa last night and tried to stop fixating on the written words as they crawled across the bottom of the Roku screen. A failure, I read the punchline before Papa could say it. He wasn’t that funny.

Like Matisse, I have been fortunate in finding new ways to entertain myself, like the ukulele. The instrument is relatively undemanding and, when I am with seven or eight other players, I can hold my own.

I like to think that had I adopted the uke at a much younger age, I would be a much better player. Wishful thinking, probably, since I’m sure my disdain for practicing would have held me back regardless of my age or the cussedness of any instrument.

Getting caught up reading the Matisse op-ed piece, I wrote a response to it…Dear EditorI have recently taken up the ukulele at the age of 83. My fingers aren’t agile enough to play chords that require four fingers or are spread over too many frets. So, I just skip those chords, but I keep on singing. And I have a good time even if my body isn’t as good as it used to be.

Attempts to address my physical limitations with devices and substitutes, are nothing when compared to the challenges facing others. This could not have been more evident than when we visited Saint John’s hospital in Camarillo just before Christmas.

Five of us brought our ukuleles and our voices to the extended care unit where a dozen largely silent patients awaited our presentation of holiday music. Unit residents were mainly in wheelchairs, and some had a special breathing apparatus. They had positioned themselves within ten feet of us and seemed anxious for us to start.

We began with A Holly Jolly Christmas. An upbeat song written by Mitch Gabler and first performed in 1964 by Burl Ives, the album also had Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. I was a little nervous as I sang the Holly Jolly lyrics…

Have a holly jolly Christmas
It’s the best time of the year
Now I don’t know if there’ll be snow
But have a cup of cheer

I had doubts about the audience reaction to the lyrics. Would they feel less than jolly, and would some be unable to have a cup of cheer? Would they agree with the song’s claim that this was the best time of the year?

I occasionally looked up from the sheet music and scanned the faces.  Nearly all were covered with masks and guessing what was going on under them was nearly impossible. We played on.

The song ended and there was applause. Not polite applause. Real appreciation.

I relaxed and so did my band members. We quickly launched into Love Potion #9 and Robert played the kazoo. And then Feliz Navidad followed by Jingle Bell Rock, My Favorite Things, and a dozen more. We became more animated. I sang a few lines acapella when the feeling took me. Maybe it was just me, but as we played on, I was sure the applause had increased in volume and duration. We did an encore. And then one more.

I imagined the faces under the masks. I was convinced they were smiling. For while their physical capability was limited, their capacity to enjoy the music was unlimited.

I forgot about the F# and Bb chords that were always too much for me. I played as if all the notes were nested in a single fret. I had overcome my feelings of insufficiency. I had made people happy despite my limitations. I rivalled Lady Gaga. 

We ended the hour by sharing cake, pastry, and other sugar laden treats. I thought it odd that the hospital would be serving stuff like that. And then I remembered that we were celebrating the holidays. A perfect time to cheat and enjoy the sweets before heading back to real life in the extended care unit.

As we packed up and headed to the exit, I realized that we were not quite ready to bring our act to Carnegie Hall. But despite our limitations, we had found a way to bring a substitute to those who needed it. Matisse would have been proud of us.

One of the nurses reached out to me as I passed her. She grabbed my hand, thanked me, and wished me a merry Christmas. I promised her that it would be.

How old am I?

I was told I had a baby face. One that made me look younger than my chronological age. Never thought about it much until I spent my last two years of college at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. I was 19.

In addition to taking classes, eating inedible dorm food, and ogling the coeds, I also embarked on a career in beer drinking. Having come from a Jewish family where drinking was a novelty, I knew little of the finer points of becoming an alcoholic. My father was the only drinker, occasionally downing a shot of Canadian Club with his dinner and emitting a highly audible “aaaaahhh” that signaled the start of the meal for the rest of us.

I worked diligently and earned a minor in drinking along with a bachelor’s major in business. I was ably assisted in achieving that distinction by Prehn’s beer pub on Green Street, run by Paul Prehn, a former wrestling coach at the university. Paul later became a state athletic commissioner who selected the referee for the famous Dempsey-Tunney fight at Chicago’s Soldier Field, which now houses the Bears football team that occasionally looks like I did after downing several beers at Prehn’s.

I could have earned a double major rather than the beer minor if I had chosen to drink during the week instead of just on Saturday nights when Prehn’s was always filled with drunks and about-to-be drunks. The inside of Prehn’s looked much like the wooden tables and booths featured in the Godfather movie; the one where Al Pacino guns down the crooked police captain played by Sterling Hayden, and the mafia guy Sollozzo, played by the perfectly cast Al Lettieri.

Like Sollozzo, all the cast members in the Godfather looked like they belonged there, except maybe Pacino. His baby face belied his true destiny. Like him, my face made me look younger than 19 and prompted an ID check from Prehn’s waiters. I was irritated at being singled out for this treatment since everyone else in the bar on Saturday night was a student just like me. Mercifully, the irritation subsided as the bartenders got used to seeing my face. Or maybe my baby face aged with each sinful beer, just like the one in Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray.

I finished my schooling in 1960 and, without my gluttony to fill their cash box, Prehn’s shut down six years later. But I had learned much at this smelly, smokey classroom that served me well in the years ahead. Like always keeping an ID readily available.

My baby face continued to be a subject of interest wherever alcohol was served. I became an American classic joke as my friends laughed while I was researched and probed by waiters, waitresses, barmen and baristas.

And then, around 50, it came to a crashing halt while driving on Highway 5 to San Diego. I stopped for something to eat at the always freeway close Denny’s, where one can be assured of consistency if not quality. I had completed my meal and made my way to the checkout where I fumbled with my wallet seeking my credit card. The cashier, whose name tag revealed her to be Brenda, looked at me and said, “That’ll be $23 less the ten percent senior discount.”

Since we were three weeks away from Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, I only hesitated a moment thinking about whether I should tell Brenda of her ageing mistake, or risk serious moral turpitude by keeping it a secret. Two bucks is two bucks.

Since in those days I was mildly certain there really was an all-seeing god, I chose honesty and said, “Brenda, I’m only 50 and don’t qualify for the discount.”

Without hesitation and thinking I’d be pleased, Brenda smiled, “That’s OK. You look older, so I’ll give you the discount anyway.”

I wanted to tell her what she could do with her discount and the overcooked sausage on my Denny’s Special breakfast plate.

Years went by and I figured that I was over this looking older thing until a month ago, a couple of lunar cycles into my 83rd birthday.

I hate shopping for shoes. After trying on two pairs, I’m mentally exhausted and willing to do anything to get out of the store, so I buy one. I pay the penalty the next day at home by either feeling like I was wearing too-tight shoes created for the Iron Maiden in medieval torture chambers, or that were so large that Jackie and I could fit all four of our feet into the oversized gondolas called shoes.

So it was with my usual trepidation that I entered the Adidas store in the Camarillo Outlet Mall. Jackie’s face and demeanor spoke of great expectations, while I looked like I was in the middle of the Bataan Death March looking for water. 

It was Saturday and the mall had thousands of people looking for things they didn’t need. The Adidas store had a similar, though more focused, contingent. I entered the store dragging one foot in silent protest. Sensing a kill, Jackie grabbed onto an idling salesman named Jeffrey, and said with some confidence, “He needs shoes.”

Jeffrey looked at me, turned back to Jackie and said, “What kind of shoes does he wear?”

“Athletic shoes that don’t hurt.”

Jeffrey, thinking that more info might be useful, focused on Jackie again, “What size does he wear?”

I began to feel unnecessary and possessed of limited intelligence.  I might as well have just sent my feet to the store, while the rest of me stayed in the nursing home sipping watered down orange juice through a paper straw.

Maybe it was my demeanor. Maybe it was my sour expression. Or my hunched shoulders, over the hill sneakers, gray hair, and total disinterest. Or maybe he knew my eyesight was failing because of my bifocals and squinty eyes. The hearing aids probably firmed up Jeffrey’s evaluation. One that says this guy probably doesn’t even know he’s in a shoe store. Better focus on his daughter.

I eventually unscrewed Jeffrey’s head by quoting from Einstein’s theory of relativity, straightening my torso, and doing a dance like the one Ray Bolger did as the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz.

To further demonstrate my substantial capabilities, I tried on three, not just two, pairs of shoes, and tied each of them properly. I rejected them all, blessed Jeffery with the language of the 23rd Psalm, and left the store. Jackie offered to repeat the process in any number of shoe stores in the mall.

Instead, we bought her a pair of shoes and went home.

Fantasy Island

Our latest trip to Healdsburg included another visit to Enso, the Zen inspired retirement community being built about two miles from the center of town.

It’s been about six months since we made a deposit on one of the 200 apartment style units that will house about 300 people with an average age of about 75. Six months ago, construction had been scheduled for completion in late summer of 2023. I had relaxed knowing that anything could happen in the intervening 18 months, a lifetime when you’re 83.

Disease, war, and famine are only a few of the unknowns. At the top of the list was my ambivalence about the whole idea of packing my bags, abandoning Ojai, and depositing myself in what might as well be a foreign country.

Right on schedule, with crews working six days a week, that 18 months has shrunk to a dozen…and I am getting nervous. What was a refundable deposit fantasy, is now becoming a real-life possibility, complete with the uncertainty about what Enso will be when it grows up. There are no current residents to ask about life at Enso. No one to ask so how’s the food? No one to ask so is the staff attentive? No one to ask so is there enough to do? No one to ask so just how Zen is this place anyway?

Our trip to Healdsburg was prompted by a beam signing event at the Enso sales office and a 30-minute bus ride through the construction site. A gaggle of more than 100 old people, some sporting canes, were wandering around the parking lot sounding like a bunch of kids being sent to summer camp.

Jackie was in her element, aggressively seeking out people she had met during the various Zoom meetings including the one on aging that she had sponsored. I was my usual semi-introverted self, hanging back in the shadows and wondering what I was doing here. I occasionally nodded at someone who nodded back, both of us unsure who we were nodding to. Some people stood next to me who, based on their facial expressions, were also wondering why they were here.

A steel I-beam laid across two horses. Sharpies were gobbled up and used to sign the beam which, supposedly, would be set in place at the top of one of the buildings now under construction. Jackie and I completed the assignment, took obligatory selfi-photos, and marveled at our achievement.

Two large buses stood in the lot looking like they would never get off the ground. We were among the first of about 50 to clamber aboard. Some needed help, but all made it to their seats, some with a satisfying grunt. The jovial driver told a couple bus jokes and we began our five-minute ride to the construction site.

I was astonished by what I saw. Until now, my understanding of the project was limited to a scale model that sat on a wooden surface the size of a ping-pong table in the Enso sales office. Using a controller, our sales rep Leslie could turn on a tiny light in any apartment. It was eerily lifelike. Had we tried really hard we probably could have entered the apartment, sat on the  sofa and had a glass of Sutter Home Rose, Jackie’s favorite wine. The whole project could have been lifted off the table by two people.

Instead, what stood before me now were multi-storied buildings whose structures were defined by thousands of I-beams, crossbeams, and all manner of supporting materials.  The panels that would someday cover the beams were not yet visible; I could see through the structures without being impeded by paneling. It was like looking through the standing skeleton of a prehistoric T-Rex at the LA County Museum.

The size of the structures was overwhelming. The ping-pong table had lulled me into complacency. I had expected that the real thing would be more Lilliputian like. Something cute and comfortable. Something soft and welcoming. I felt glum. My bubble had burst. I was now in a deepening funk.

As we rode through the site, Jackie and I tried to spot our apartment. That one. No, that one. Maybe that one. That one for sure. Shit. I gave up.

The tour ended without anyone having a stroke. A major accomplishment for 100 old people confined in a small space without eating for 30 minutes. We had seen what we came for. Some people were apprehensive. Ruling out the possibility that it was caused by full bladders, others seemed giddy with what they had seen. What did they know, anyway?

Back at the sales office people were hanging around the ping-pong table version of the project. Some were interested in the possibility of trading their current pick for something else. This parlor game was played often, sometimes resulting in a series of changes or switching positions on the waiting list. Like grass, it’s always greener in someone else’s pasture.

Jackie and two newly minted Enso friends had arranged a buy-your-own dinner at two Healdsburg restaurants for those braving the beam signing and bus tour. About 50 had responded positively to the suggestion. I worked on name tags and fantasized about what the wearers might look like.

At 5pm, Jackie deposited me and half the name tags at Campo Fina, a cute eatery in mid-town. I sat anxiously at the end of a long table and tried to look like I belonged there. People arrived and I dealt out the tags, made small talk and smiled a lot. They should have made me a partner in the restaurant.

Having finished similar work at Bravas Bar de Tapas (also cute), Jackie arrived, looked around and patted me on the head for the good job I had done. She was pleased that no one was injured and had to this point avoided food poisoning.

We sat among strangers. All were pleasant, and relatively free of sarcasm. After briefly sharing reactions to the bus tour, conversation flowed freely. It was like meeting people you might never see again. Short of our favorite sexual position, we could have discussed anything.

I could live among those people. Too bad it might be in a place bigger than a ping-pong table.

A History of Clocks

My clock died a few days ago.

It was an old Westclox with a digital read-out, two alarms and an AM/FM radio. A relatively unattractive clock, it was made of metal, painted gray, and sat on the nightstand by the side of my bed. 

I never could figure out how to set the alarm, so it sometimes made its own decisions about when it was time for me to get up. The radio never worked well, and I could only get religious stations that were so powerful that you could almost hear them without a radio. The digital display had only two dimmer settings, one really-dim and one really-bright. I never used the bright setting since it lit up most of the room and probably would have fried my brain with its cosmic rays.

Over the years the display dimmed from its original setting. In the last year I blamed my inability to read it on my aging eyes. Sometimes, I could only see one digit, then maybe two, and on occasion more. Periodic flickering was also a feature that Westclox did not plan for. Never relying on its alarm function, the clock only served to remind me of the incessant passage of time and my inability to sleep beyond 3am.

At the same time, my motion activated night light stopped working, and I was forced to grope my way to the bathroom without the benefit of its guidance. I wondered if the two devices had conspired against me.

I bet the clock was at least 30 years old and was in our Northridge home before we brought it to Ojai in 2000. It probably would have spent another 30 years next to my bed if I hadn’t picked up a few days ago to see if I could brighten up the display.

The clock depends on house current, so I was surprised when I turned it over to find one of those little doors that tiny AAA batteries hide behind. It also sported a crusty residue that announced, Your batteries are dead bozo, you left them in too long while they morphed into useless blobs, so they spilled their rotten guts all over the clock, and you might as well toss it in the garbage.

So I did.

I stared at the abandoned Westclox at the bottom of the green E.J. Harrison and Sons trash bin and thought about what that clock must have seen in the years spent next to my bed. Things that were private. Happy things, and things that are best forgotten. Sleeping while the clock worked, passing the time.

Its image took me back to other clocks, like the big round one high on the wall of Mrs. Beck’s elementary school Latin class. Latin? Why would a 13-year-old take Latin? I have no idea. So I invariably just watched the school clock move forward, waiting for the painful class to end. Amo, amas, amat.

It was one of those clocks whose big minute-hand moved in stages. Not a smooth progression, but one that took two distinct steps to move ahead one minute. Ka-chink it went, with an accompanying loud click. Then it hesitated a moment like it wasn’t sure it wanted to complete the stroke. Then, finally, the second Ka-chink and the beginning of the next minute. 

A good part of my elementary school life was spent sneaking looks at the clock on Mrs. Beck’s wall, waiting for that second Ka-chink. And it didn’t end in elementary school. There were other clocks in high school that also plagued me with similar Ka-chinks. In retrospect, I would have paid good money for a digital clock without Ka-chinks.

Some clocks plagued me without even seeing them. My Uncle Max’s, for example. My parents teamed up with Max to buy a two-flat on Chicago’s north side. Not the expensive north side, the one where the working stiffs lived. Uncle Max lived on the second floor while we were on the first. His bed was positioned right over my head.

Uncle Max worked at a junk shop (today it would be called a surplus materials recycler). He got up five days a week at 4:30. His wind-up clock kept reasonably accurate time and went off religiously at 4:30. That’s all it did, no radio, no dimmer, no USB port, no batteries, no nothing. Uncle Max wound it at night; at 4:30 it erupted, and he’d let the alarm run down to the bitter end.

The ringer sounded like it belonged on a cheap clock, which it was. Like most wind-ups, it would ring very fast at the beginning of the cycle, and then run progressively slower as it coasted to a stop. I’d lay there, roused by the ringer, and wait for it to end. Ring…ring…..ring.…..ring.…… I thought it would never stop. 

I liked Uncle Max, so I never mentioned the ringer and, like the clock on Mrs. Beck’s wall, it brings back the faces and sounds of people I loved.

Now I have a new clock. It arrived like so many other things in an Amazon Prime truck. It only cost $12, is made of black plastic, has a USB port, and plugs into the wall. It has ten different dimmer settings. It also has a little door under which I installed two AAA batteries. It tells perfect time, and I don’t need to squint at it. But it has no memories.

It may last 30 years, but I won’t. Someone else will have the job of keeping time…and tending to the batteries.

Taking the Bus

Tuesday is when I drive the Help of Ojai bus.

It’s usually a little nippy at 8 in the morning and Help has hardly enough time to warm the place before my arrival. I stand in my hall closet at home checking the temperature on my iPhone and debating my alternative garb. Shall I wear the sleeveless Patagonia vest, or the one with arms? Is the Cal baseball hat that I stole from my son enough, or should I wear my Carhartt wool beanie that covers my ears and holds the warmth streaming from my bald head, but wreaks havoc with my hearing aids?

I decide to go light this morning and slip on my vest, plop the Cal hat on my head, kiss Jackie good-bye and make the five-minute drive to Help. I could have walked there in 20 minutes, but I had already done three miles on the treadmill. Still recovering from my kettlebell induced back strain, I decide not to be macho and I drive.

Help moved a few months ago from their old location next to City Hall to a building that housed the Ojai Café Emporium for many years. A vacant restaurant seemed like an odd choice, and I sometimes mindlessly drive to Help’s old location, a habit formed over eighteen years of driving the bus.

The Emporium had a separate coffee shop that offered delicious pastries. They had four kinds of coffee but no Splenda sweetener; an odd omission that perpetually annoyed me. But I was particularly fond of their cinnamon rolls and the occasional pumpkin muffin. I wistfully remember the sugary sweets as I turn left off Montgomery and into the parking lot now festooned with a temporary looking Help of Ojai sign, but no muffins. Too bad.

The pandemic has slowed Help’s offerings at the new site. The communal gatherings are limited to avoid mass exposure to Covid. The interior of the building needs some glitz and glamor along with the now silent sounds of people being helped. The staff is getting used to the new digs and doing the good work that makes them a community gem.

My aging eyes take longer to acclimate to dark spaces after being in the sunny outdoors and I carefully make my way to the men’s room. It’s dimly lit and needs more concentrated light over the urinal; wearing a face mask contributes to the obfuscation of doing my business and leaves me wondering if I’ve hit the target. I make multiple prophylactic trips to the men’s room during my shift since I don’t want to be caught without a potty while driving the bus. Other than that, I think the new digs are coming along quite nicely.

I retrieve my rider list from Tina and make my way to Bus 8, a nine-passenger sheet metal behemoth that’s been sitting in the lot since yesterday afternoon. Hoisting myself into the sub-zero driver’s seat produces a shiver. My glasses immediately fog up because of the Covid mask and I find myself blindly searching for the heater controls. Removing the mask results in the loss of one over-priced hearing aid that had twisted itself around the elastic straps that held the facemask in place. I decide to forego the pleasure of the hearing aids until summer.

Settled in, I drive to my first pickup. Ralph is recovering from a stroke and needs a little help boarding. He’s exceptionally happy today, which he attributes to the half-jigger of bourbon that enhanced his morning coffee.

Dottie is my next client. With a tendency toward procrastination, she shuffles to the bus seemingly unaware that she is ten minutes overdue. Her delightful, “Good morning” makes me forget about her being late.

Steve has balance issues that he tries to mitigate with two walking sticks. He needs help loading his groceries from the Vons shopping cart onto the bus. Usually silent, his “thank you so much” brightens my morning.

Stephanie has been physically challenged for many years. Today’s trip to the doctor requires a wheelchair. It takes me awhile to hoist the chair on the lift and fasten it to the floor of the bus. I drop her off at the doctor and when her visit ends, I reverse the process going home. I don’t mind the effort, and I think about what it would be like if it were me in that chair.

Last pickup is Jan.  Her husband died a few weeks ago. It was only a month earlier when I regularly took them both to Swanner for physical therapy. They were like a duet. Now she is alone.

I bring the bus back to Help, hand the manifest and keys to Tina along with the five dollars of donations that hardly cover the gas I used driving forty miles.

I’ve been at it four hours. In and out of the bus, hauling groceries and doing other things that make it possible for people to do what needs to be done.

I should be tired. But I feel refreshed.

I was going blind

It’s five months since my left eye was relieved of its cataract. After the surgery, repeat visits to the optometrist made life exciting and irritating as I waited for my new lens to find a permanent place on my eyeball. During the extended healing process, the lens had wandered about aimlessly, depriving me of new glasses that would finally correct my vision and let me stop bumping into things like a real-life Mr. Magoo.

Three weeks ago my optometrist, Dr. B, finally declared me stable and did the usual, “Is 2 better than 1…is 3 better than 2?” Satisfied with my answers, he wrote up the new prescription and escorted me to the fancy room where I could spend a lot of money on shiny new frames and lenses.

While Jackie looked on, Heidi took me under her wing and paraded a sea of frames that might suit my manly face and sexy brown eyes. With each pair, I turned to Jackie for a sign of approval. No, not sexy enough, try another. Nope, close, but not quite suitable for a man of my stature. “Wait”, Jackie said, “I think these are perfect for you.” Heidi agreed and started to list the add-ons…anti-scratch, UV protection, etc. She totaled my bill; it reminded me of my first new car.

A week later Heidi called. “Your new glasses are here, come on in.” I went back, put them on and stared at Heidi as she evaluated the fit. “Let me adjust them a bit and they will be perfect. You’ll love em.” She did, and I was. Funny thing though, they looked a lot like my old glasses.

I was a happy camper as I stared out the shop window and focused on distant objects. Bright and sharp. After five months I could see again without trying to force things into focus. My time in purgatory served, I drove home scanning the license plates of adjacent cars and marveling on my ability to read them without squinting.

I wear my glasses like I wear my shoes. Constantly adjusting the fit to eliminate any discomfort, I push the frames up the bridge of my nose to loosen them before they take root. I twiddle with the earpieces to eliminate hot spots. Despite this constant attention, new glasses invariably warrant a trip back to the optometrist for professional tweaking. Trusting me with that task would result in the bungling destruction of the fragile and very expensive frames.

Like other professional services coping with the new world of Covid, Dr. B requires an appointment just to tweak frames. So, I obediently made one three days hence for Wednesday afternoon at 3.

Since I was going, I figured I might as well take my old useless glasses and get new lenses. Just in case I needed a spare due to forgetting where I stowed the new ones, or I was stomped by an Asian Elephant on my way to my favorite Thai restaurant.

Armed with both pairs, I arrived at Dr. B’s before 3. Heidi went into her secret room, did some incantations, massaged my new glasses, handed them back to me, smiled and said, “Looks great.” I yanked on the frames; they stayed in place without jamming the earpieces into my skull. My handsome nose wasn’t pinched. It was all good.

We talked about the old glasses and decided they would do nicely as a spare even with the outdated prescription. Happy that I had dodged another financial bullet, I drove home.

It was late November, and the days were getting shorter. When I got home, the sun was nearly down. I donned my evening wear ($12 Amazon sweatpants and a three-year-old T-shirt from Rains Department Store’s 20% off sale). Time to relax and watch episode 134 of Grey’s Anatomy.

We always watch TV with closed captions. I’ve been doing it for so long that I am fixated on them; sometimes I can’t identify the characters because I’m too busy reading the captions. I’ve tried breaking myself of the habit, but the trauma is too much for me; I’m probably an addict in need of Captions Anonymous.

I was surprised and disappointed with the clarity of the captions. I had been able to decipher license plates today that were as far away as the next county, so what was going on now? I moved my glasses up and down my nose looking for a sweet spot. Maybe I was looking through the bottom of my bifocals. I squinted to no avail. Had I been too easy with Heidi? Too willing to accept less than perfection.

Jackie looked at me and said, “Why are fiddling with your new glasses?”

I told her and she sweetly offered a possible explanation, “Maybe you’re just tired and so are your eyes, what with the poking and squeezing you’ve been through today. After a good night’s sleep, you’ll see a whole lot better.”

I was not a happy camper, but I went to bed hoping Jackie was right, like always. If not, Heidi was going to get an earful.

Up at 6 and onto the treadmill. I switched on ABC-7 news. Tired of watching the weather forecast every three minutes (even if Leslie Lopez is a gorgeous weatherwoman), I focused on the crawler at the bottom of the screen. But I couldn’t read it even though it was on a 56-inch TV six feet from my face. Unfortuantely Jackie had, for one of the rare times in our relationship, been wrong.

I spent the morning staring fixedly at everything, hoping the problem would go away. It wouldn’t, so I called Dr. B’s office and said “There’s something wrong with these glasses, or with me. My vision is ca-ca. I need to see someone, soon. I made an appointment for the next day.

With nothing to do but wait, I focused on the problem. Random thoughts flew through my head. I wondered how quickly macular degeneration could become unmanageable. Or maybe my vision problem was related to my recent vertigo episode. Or maybe it really wasn’t vertigo, but was symptomatic of a brain tumor. I reviewed all the possibilities described in Webster’s Medical Dictionary.

The day and the night passed with no improvement. I slept fitfully and awoke the next morning, squinted at my face in the mirror, saw no improvement in it or in my eyes, and prepared myself for any eventuality.

I had my usual Peet’s coffee delivered by Keurig; this time tasteless despite doubling the Splenda dose. Reading emails, I skipped right over the solution to erectile disfunction, pleas for money from unknown politicians who were trying to save the world as I knew it, and a note from someone who claimed I had just inherited the gross national product of Botswana.

Time to go to see Heidi. I went into the garage, opened the driver side door and, despite my sleep-deprived feebleness, deposited myself behind the steering wheel.

Turning my head to the right, I saw a familiar glasses case on the passenger seat. Must be the case for the new glasses I was wearing, I thought. I picked it up and heard a rattle. Hmmm, not empty?

I opened the case and found a pair of glasses that looked like the ones I was already wearing. I examined them more closely. No scratches, no smudged lenses, no bite marks on the earpieces. What the hell? Could I be wearing my old glasses with the outdated prescription? The ones that made reading closed captioning nearly impossible. Had I been wearing the old ones while my new ones were sitting on my carseat for two days, and I was thinking I had a brain tumor?

And then I laughed.

Went to see Heidi anyway. She laughed too.

Happy Birthday, Nanny

Dear Nanny,

60 years? I could say where have they gone, but I remember them. Not every one, but enough to know.

You made your presence acutely known well before your birth. Bouts of morning sickness regularly filled your mother’s day; I’d often come home from work, look at her bloodshot eyes, and know that she’d had a tough time.

She was 20 and I was 21. Your arrival nine months and two days after we took our marriage vows was unplanned, unexpected, and overwhelming. Our ignorance of the nuances of birth control was soon followed by a display of gross incompetence dealing with a newborn. It’s surprising you survived your first year.

We lived in a one-bedroom apartment on the second floor on Chicago’s north side. It was small with ridiculous blue carpeting in the living room. The dining area was big enough to seat four people, but we had few guests.

During her pregnancy, mom tackled all 1,711 pages of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. She read it diligently. At night she’d balance the book on her expanding stomach; you’d go along for the ride as she breathed in and out. I attribute your own voracious reading appetite to that ponderous German history book that rested not six inches from the top of your head.

You slept in a small port-a-crib next to our bed. It had a bumper pad that wrapped itself around the inside. One of my favorite memories is seeing your tiny hand squeezing its way under the pad and through the crib slats. It was as though you were saying “I want out of here.” A sure sign of your need to get things done without messing around.

We soon bought a small house in Highland Park. You had your own bedroom, and mommy and daddy had some privacy…just enough to present you with a little brother. You were a good baby. Quietly, but with purpose, you sucked your thumb with a vengeance; a sign that you would become a highly analytical and very contemplative grown-up.

You had a little pink blanket that you dragged around the house and took to your bed. I love the photo of you sitting in a small rocking chair asleep, sucking your thumb, and holding tight to your precious bankie. A sure sign that you would save most of your money and not spend it on shiny toys or bad investments.,

The blanket shredded piece by piece, eventually leaving only a three-inch-wide, twelve-inch-long strip of satin that had once bound the edges of the blanket. You wound the strip tightly around your fingers. One day you simply decided you’d had enough and consigned the strip to its final resting place. A sign that you would stick with projects until they were completed to your satisfaction.

On your fifth birthday you had a fairy tale dress-up party. You wore a Little Bo Peep shepherd’s dress and carried one of those sticks with a curved end used to herd sheep. A sure sign that you were going to be a good manager who kept things running smoothly.

We had a basement in the little house with steps that led from the kitchen down to a bare concrete slab. You were only a toddler when you fell off the last step, hit your jaw and bit your tongue. You still have a tiny scar on top of it. Never one to waste a lesson learned, you developed a keen sense of safety and became a good listener, one who only says what needs to be said.

Your baby brother, David, was quick to learn that you were someone to look up to. He followed you around the house intoning, “Where’s my Nee. I want my Nee.” It was only much later that he developed a penchant for chasing rather than following you. More often, others fell in line behind you, a leader.

You learned nearly all you needed during your first five years. You simply developed more fully as you grew older. A sense of fairness mixed with truthfulness touches everything you do. Not one to casually give compliments when undeserved, you easily offer them when earned. Never one to shirk responsibility, you freely offer your time and skills to anyone who needs a hand. Things you learned as a child are now well spent as an adult.

As I age, you become more the adult and I more the child. I value your thoughtfulness and your concern for me. Maybe I can also learn more about life from what you’ve taught me.

Happy sixtieth, Nanny. I love you very much.

Daddy

Drops and Pokes

If my eyes were formerly feeling lonely, I have now moderated that condition by letting a horde of strangers in white coats peer into them, flood them with all manner of drops, and poke them as though one were testing the ripeness of an avocado.

In previous episodes, I chronicled the events that precipitated these invasive activities and eventually concluded with my optometrist, Dr. Brockman, announcing that I was now “ripe”, a euphemism that conveyed his conclusion that I was primed for cataract surgery.

Live long enough and you too will experience at least one, and probably two, such surgeries.

In addition to cataracts, I am keeping glaucoma at bay. Once a rampant blindness provocateur, it’s controllable with multiple medications dropped into the eyes one or more times a day. Untreated, glaucoma will damage the optic nerve leading to loss of vision. The malady is precipitated by abnormally high pressure in the eye, called ocular hypertension, that inflates your eyeball like a balloon and squeezes the life out of your optic nerve.

Squeezing drops into my eyes is a hit or miss activity that normally results in much of the liquid dripping down my cheek. I have tried different approaches including tilting my head way back to where it almost touches my butt, experimenting with the distance between the dropper and my eye, and soliciting Jackie’s assistance. Employing Nurse Jackie is the most reliable method, but she often is preoccupied; lately she is focused on watching all 356 episodes of Grey’s Anatomy.

Theories abound as to the causes of glaucoma. Some folks recommend avoiding headstands; however, I have learned that eye pressure is independent of blood pressure. Other soothsayers blame bananas, coffee, and banging your head against the wall (my mother did a lot of that and did not suffer from glaucoma.)

Most eye practitioners put the entire blame on our parents for passing on the dreaded ballooning gene. Thank goodness for that; at least I can continue standing on my head.

Easily discernable symptoms of glaucoma are generally absent. Eye pressure is measured with numbing drops placed onto the eye, and then a tap or two on your eyeball transmits a pressure reading to the observer. I consider myself an expert in evaluating the skills of those who tap on my eyeballs, having been subjected to the process by optometrists, ophthalmologists and retina specialists.

Almost anyone in the doctor’s office, from a board-certified physician (whatever that is) to the newly hired receptionist is apparently authorized to attack your eyeball with a vengeance. Additionally, I have found that occupational status has little to do with the efficiency and comfort attendant to the process. The receptionist in my ophthalmologist’s office gave me the best balloon job I’ve ever had.

Completing the trifecta of eye afflictions is macular degeneration. Like cataracts and glaucoma, the disease runs rampant through my family. My earliest recollection of it begins with my father’s mother who, like my parents, was a Lithuanian refugee. Skinny, just short of five feet, and wearing a sheitel (head covering used by orthodox Jewish women), she moved like a specter through her kitchen, never uttering a sound. Perhaps I was too young to remember but I’d swear she was a mute. Her eyes glistened in a way that made her appear sightless. All in all, I was too frightened of her to ask.

Macular degeneration results in severely blurred or a complete loss of vision in the center of the field of vision. Peripheral vision remains, so that you can spot someone creeping up on you (unless glaucoma is part of the daily double.) Seeing faces, driving, eating and other daily activities are featured challenges in most Mission Impossible movies.

My father, Morris, had macular degeneration. One of my embedded memories is of him sitting sideways on a folding chair in front of the TV, watching a White Sox game out of the corner of his right eye. Glaucoma complicated the process of defining the images and required that the players on the TV screen move very slowly so he could tell what was going on. Baseball easily filled this requirement; watching the Bulls or the Blackhawks was out of the question.

Irv, my brother, suffered from all the aforementioned maladies and, like Mr. Magoo, tended to bump into stationary objects. As I have begun to do, he walked very tentatively in darkened areas, sticking his toe out well ahead of the rest of his body to feel for objects that might be on a collision course.

My cataract surgery was relatively uneventful except for the complete loss of vision in my left eye. My hysteria abated over the next 48 hours as my AWOL sight gradually returned. However, lack of significant improvement in my visual acuity over the next week or two resulted in a follow-up trip to the surgeon. Further drops, pokes and machine games resulted in a highly sophisticated diagnosis of “Looks good to me.” And a referral to a retina specialist.

The retina maven resided in the largest office of the three specialties (who knew that the retina could be so important). I dutifully filled out several reams of forms that asked for everything but my preferred coitus position. I was then interviewed by a young lady who seemed on the verge of asking that question, but I was put at ease when she only asked for my bank account and social security numbers.

The anticipated drops and pokes were accompanied by the largest array of eye testing devices I had seen in any office. One of the devices looked much like the evil storm trooper featured in a Star Wars movie. A human sized, white rectangular device, I half expected Darth Vader’s breathy voice to emerge from it.

My face was squashed into the front of the trooper and my head positioned in ways that were not intended by our Creator. The technician, obviously dissatisfied with my eyelid, lifted and jerked it in order to get really good photos, ones that would no doubt be one day found on a list of Facebook Favorites.

Finished with the activities that were intended to offend my eyes, I was escorted to a nice room that could, in a pinch, be called a home away from home. Several impressive computer screens lined the shelf in front of me displaying the photos taken by the storm trooper.

The door opened slowly and I half-expected to see Darth Vader. Instead, I met the Marx brothers. The first, using his given name, introduced himself as Damien the ophthalmologist and leader of the band. The second, Susan, was apparently the only one who could make the computer screens come to life. The third, who reminded me of my grandmother who could not speak, was introduced as Roberta, the medical student. It almost seemed like an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, without the blood.

Damien was a slap-happy sort who seemed to enjoy giving me bad news. He did, however, display good judgment by starting with the good news. He gleefully announced that my being 81 put me in the pediatric section of his practice; most of his other clients had survived the sinking of the Titanic.

He went on. “You’ve got a lot of macular degeneration. Not enough to be concerned about…yet. And there’s a bunch of other stuff that you won’t understand so I’ll not get into it. Go home, eat olive oil, nuts, fish, and the other things that Italians like…but maybe not so much pasta and watch how much wine you slug down. And maybe take those pills you’ve been taking for the last two years; they’re probably good for you. Ok, we’re done. Come back in six or eight months. Oh, and happy almost birthday.”

I split the difference with the receptionist and made an appointment seven months later. I exited the building with dilated pupils the size of basketballs. Jackie drove up and I plopped down in the passenger seat. “How’d it go?” she asked.

“Not bad, same old drops and pokes. But at least I met the Marx brothers.”

The Eyes Have It

I had cataract surgery on my right eye a few years ago. It was a relatively uncomplicated procedure that didn’t hurt, wasn’t life threatening and, I think, improved my vision.

Cataracts have been around since ancient times, ever since humans began to live longer than their prehistoric ancestors. It’s a disease that afflicts at least half the population by the age of 80. If you have good genes and live to 95, one hundred percent of you will be victims.

Cataract disease causes the lens of the eye to cloud over; eventually you will think you’re in a London fog. If you’ve never been to London, think of driving your car down Highway 99 in the Central Valley through a Tule fog, same thing.

Factors, in addition to aging, that affect the formation of a cataract include diabetes, smoking, obesity, high blood pressure and, sadly, unbridled alcohol consumption. Injuries, like having your spouse fist you out, can also speed the formation of a cataract.

The outpatient procedure is pretty straight forward; under a local anesthetic, the ophthalmologist surgically removes the clouded lens and replaces it with a nice plastic one from Ben Franklin. The best thing about the procedure is that you can watch the doctor stick you in the eye while a glorious light show is playing in your brain. Anxiety reducing Valium pills are an added treat.

Cataract replacement, like LASIK surgery, can also improve your vision and eliminate the need for glasses. I am often reminded of the late comedian, Dick Shawn, who self-billed himself as The Second Greatest Entertainer in the Whole Wide World. His old standup comedy routine included the following prediction, “Ya know, pretty soon you won’t need glasses; they’ll just grind your eyeballs.” I thought he was just being funny, but maybe not.

Eye problems run amok in my family. Glaucoma and macular degeneration are like visiting relatives who don’t know when to go home. Accordingly, I visit my optometrist, Doctor Brockman, every three months to see what else we need to do to protect me from their onslaught. He often delivers a line that would have fit quite nicely into Dick Shawn’s routine, “My job is to keep your eyes working until you die.”

My latest visit to Doctor B included the compulsory reading of the ubiquitous eye chart. I always wear my glasses when reading the chart since we long ago determined that trying without them is a waste of time. Recognizing the inanity of it, I also gave up trying to memorize the lines on the chart; now I only do that when I visit the DMV.

Doctor B has prepared me for the eventual need for cataract surgery.  It was no surprise when I couldn’t find the eye chart, much less read it, that he said, “It’s time.”

Given a choice of ophthalmologists and noting the surprising absence of any Jewish names, I lofted a dart at the presumed location of the eye chart and selected Doctor Shabatien. I guessed that he or his ancestors probably came from the Middle East near Israel, a hotbed of Jewish doctors. Close enough.

Doctor S was very busy and, as I was in no hurry to have my eye sliced, booked an appointment for an evaluation four weeks out. I figured I could just use my right eye in the interim, enlarge the Netflix movie captions, ask Jackie to read the small print on my meds, and have her to guide me through the darkness of the hallway leading to my bed…a place of refuge where eyes are superfluous.

The day of my evaluation came and we scurried to Doctor S’s in Ventura, arriving 20 minutes early. Jackie and I share the same annoying habit of arriving everywhere ahead of time. I’ve tried being late to no avail; the best I’ve ever done is 12 minutes ahead of schedule. I often arrive a day early just to avoid the traffic.

I was promptly escorted to one of Doctor S’s exam rooms. His assistant, Rita, was pleasant and efficient. She began with the dreaded eye chart; I became ecstatic when I actually saw it on the wall in front of me. Reading it was another kettle of fish; I might as well have been blind, a condition that I might have acquired on the elevator to Doctor B’s office.

Rita tried to coax enough vision from either of my eyes to avoid declaring the operation a failure and labeling me as untreatable. Squinting and silent prayer eventually produced enough vision that allowed me to identify two of the four characters on the fourth line of the chart. Rita congratulated me on my perseverance and gave me a cookie.

Other tests were performed; I had no idea why nor how I scored. It seems that Rita was capable enough to perform the tests but was not permitted to discuss the results. As this prohibition was hopefully not life threatening, I did not press it and lamely decided to wait for Doctor S to arrive and give me the bad news.

Rita applied eye dilating drops and then left me to pursue other adventures. I sat in the rigid exam chair designed by Barcalounger rejects and visualized what the world would look like when I ventured outdoors. With pupils as big as Ford F-250 hubcaps, light is unimpeded, and you feel like you have Superman’s x-ray vision.

Time passed and Rita returned. “I’m really sorry but the doctor is going to be late. He went to his Lancaster office by mistake. He’s on his way here, maybe an hour and a half. Would you like to stay, come back later or maybe reschedule for another day?”

I thought about the other times I’d waited for doctors. But never because they went to the wrong office. I thought about his honesty in saying that he just screwed up. No emergency, no my dog ate my schedule, no traffic was a bitch. So, I decided to stick around and think of him as just being a little tardy. And I got a free cup of coffee.

I’ve been shot

In spite of many real or imagined misgivings, I got my first Covid vaccination shot last week.

After months of watching TV horror stories about the scarcity of the vaccine, the lack of resources to stick it in my arm, and the uncertainty of when old guys might be eligible, I was sure that I was destined to remain a vaccine virgin for the foreseeable future.

Maybe not. While engaging in my evening sport of reading mindless Facebook postings, my iPhone announced an incoming missive from the County of Ventura.

“Dear Old Person”, it began. “You and the other over the hill citizens are now eligible to get shot. Use your smart phone to contact us and make an appointment. Better hurry, there’s a lot of you old farts out there.”

Since passing well beyond the age of consent, I have learned to pay close attention to directives from the government bureaucracy. It controls just about everything out there, and I find it much easier to do as I am told. Sort of like depending on a wife who lovingly believes it’s her job to guide me through my day and put me down at night.

Dutifully and without hesitation, I found the Ventura County sign-up site on my iPhone and was astonished to see every appointment slot for the next two weeks wide open. Comparing notes with Nurse Jackie, we chose a mid-afternoon slot two days hence at the Ventura Fairgrounds. So far so good.

Jackie is a bit antsy about getting flu shots; I think she may be a closet anti-vaxxer. Last year was the first time that she finally opted to tank up with the seasonal vaccine that’s intended to ward off the run-of-the-mill flu. She survived that encounter without injury and, I thought, was ready for the bigger challenge of the Covid vaccination. Overcoming her multiple bouts of squeamishness required repeated doses of “Don’t worry, Sweetheart, you will be fine. I promise.” A liberal helping of inducements, like bribing a four-year-old, sealed the deal.

A born pessimist, I spent the two days before the vaccination conjuring up various scenarios, all of which were mildly depraved.  I thought, “They will run out of vaccine just before my turn at the needle. They will lose my reservation and, with all appointment slots taken, I will need to wait a month for a new one.” Worst of all, I was certain that I had developed every symptom of the Covid virus, would be disqualified from participation…and, of course, die.

Often feeling fluish and sure that I had a temperature over 101, I made several dozen attempts at taking it with my battery driven instant read thermometer. The bliss of seeing 98.6 popup on the little LCD window soon became my favorite avocation; unfortunately, the bliss was short-lived, and I reverted to my customary misery after only a nanosecond or two.

The big day arrived, and Jackie and I arm wrestled over when we should leave for the Fairgrounds and our 3:40 pm appointment. I was certain that being even 5 minutes late would consign us to the trash heap of no-shows, banished forever due to our chronic tardiness. We compromised and departed almost an hour before our appointment. The trip took only 25 minutes, which Jackie duly noted…several times.

The line of cars on the access road to the Fairgrounds stretched into Santa Barbara County, or so it seemed. We inched along the road without the need of the accelerator pedal. I watched the dashboard clock grind down at cosmic speed until it reached and then surpassed our 3:40 appointment time. I was sure I was going directly to hell.

The entrance to the parking lot was ushered by a very nice man whose job it seemed was to provide information and, secondarily, severely back up the traffic while he shared anecdotes with the drivers. He encouraged us to stick with the program, telling us they were an hour behind schedule and not to worry about being late. Jackie stared at me with that “I told you so” look.

We parked, made careful note of where we were, and headed off in the direction of the inoculation site. We had plenty of company.

This was just the second day following the opening of the vaccination event to folks over the age of 75. I swear that everyone that age in the Northern Hemisphere was at the Fairgrounds. People with canes, walkers and wheelchairs filled the void. It was the first time in years that I was at an event where I was younger than other people.

The blessed volunteers guided people from lane to lane as we moved slowly toward the Fairgrounds’ entry door. For all I knew, inside it might as well have been Valhalla, Shangri-La or any other place of happiness. The eagerness of the elderly to get the vaccine belied the thought that old, chronically impaired people have nothing to live for.

I admit that the secrecy of what lay beyond the entry door played tricks with my imagination. I wondered if we were really being guided to the end of our road, much like those people in the futuristic 1976 film Logan’s Run who were exterminated at the age of 30.

Or perhaps we were signing up to have Charleton Heston turn us into food for the living in the film Soylent Green.

But no, there were only angels behind the Fairgrounds’ door. Angels who took our names, examined our id’s, helped us fill out forms, escorted us to our seats, administered our shots and sat us down for 15 minutes while they made sure we had no adverse reactions.

Angels who did everything efficiently, kindly and with a smile. Angels who put themselves at risk by exposing themselves to us.

Even though the process took nearly three hours, it was a model of good planning, dedicated workers and friendly faces. We all took it in stride. No one butt into line, no one complained, and everyone followed instructions. People helping people.

It was dark when we left the building, and with the aid of our iPhone flashlights we found our car. As we drove to the exit, we found the same happy usher who had guided us at the beginning of our journey. He smiled and asked if we were ok.

“Sure”, I said. “Thanks to you and the other angels.”

I’ve only got another two weeks before I get my second shot.

Better charge the batteries in my thermometer. 


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