Archive for the 'Aging' Category

Plays, Cemeteries and Dinner

Sunday was our day at the Ahmanson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I suppose I enjoyed the play.

The Eyes Have It

It’s a good thing he liked baseball.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s too bad I don’t like baseball.

I am my brother

My brother would have been ninety-three today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy birthday, Irv.

I nearly died

I nearly died.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then again, who says so?

Dinner and Beanies

Jackie had just put on her pajamas and covered herself with the old lumberjack smock that her mother had worn. No matter, she cannot hide her beauty and sexuality under frumpy clothing. But that’s a story for another day.

Settling down for a vegetable laden dinner, its preparation was interrupted by the phone. Sheila, who lives five walking minutes away, announced that her turkey meatloaf was about done, and would we like to come over to share it with her and Sid.

Sid was recovering from a confrontation with a chain link fence. No longer able to drive a car, he had adopted an electric scooter complete with a ten-foot high flag that announced his presence to those who shared the road with him. Ever the competitor, Sid roamed the streets of Ojai with little regard for his own safety. At ninety-one he was invincible and ready to take on those who might challenge him.

Unfortunately, Sid’s injuries were not caused by man. His attention had been diverted upon entering the Soule Park driveway. He had sideswiped the unyielding metal fence that lined the driveway and had been rewarded with cuts on both hands, requiring twenty-three stitches to staunch the bleeding.

Sheila is a habitual hostess. When Jackie responded to her turkey dinner invitation by suggesting they come to our house, I could visualize the somewhat bewildered expression on Sheila’s face. Taking a few moments to absorb this surprising change of plans, Sheila agreed to do the unexpected and promised to arrive around six, with the turkey and Sid.

Chilly evenings are the norm. We compensate by burning politically incorrect fossil fuel, and by donning multiple layers of the aforementioned frumpy garments. Sid has an insatiable appetite for heat and often wears those ubiquitous checkerboard nylon jackets that in some secret way contain body heat without any readily discernable goose down, wool or polyester. I have two, just in case.

Wearing tonight’s checkerboard jacket du jour, Sid’s arrival was punctuated by his announcement of “It’s cold in here, can we have some heat?” I dutifully added a degree or two by burning more than my daily allotment of fossil fuel. Sid found a comfy warm spot under a ceiling vent and looked as though he planned to remain there the rest of the evening. Fortunately, the heating system, having complied with the extra demands made of it, shut down leaving Sid with the job of discovering other places where heat might still be available.

Dinner went well. The turkey meat loaf exceeded expectations. Deigning the turkey, Jackie had her usual two cubic feet of salad. We all shared spaghetti squash, and Sheila and I polished off a very nice bottle of red wine whose gender and proper name is lost to me.

Sid was still cold when I noticed that his head was bare. Both of us are bald. Sid tends to cherish his remaining follicles while I mow them down without mercy. I learned at an early age that an uncovered bald head is the quickest way to chill the body. Maybe that’s why I have a gaggle of hats intended to limit the amount of heat that escapes me. Much of the hall closet is home to warm hats, especially those comfy wool knit beanies that can be found littering the Amazon website.

These are not your grandfather’s beanies. Ralph Lauren Polo, North Face and Lacoste have jumped into the market. Ranging in price from nine dollars to thirty-nine dollars, there’s a beanie for everyone’s head. My favorite brand is Carhartt because of its working man’s label and its generous helping of wool that allows me to pull my cap nearly down to my buttocks.

“Sid, why don’t you wear a hat.” I asked.

“I don’t like hats.” He responded.

I excused myself from the table and went to the hall closet. Kicking aside the beanie overflow that littered the floor, I selected one of my favorite Carhartts, a black beauty with Sid’s name written all over it.

Unwilling to take no for an answer, I stealthily approached Sid from the rear.  I quickly placed the beanie on Sid’s head, pulled it over the top quarter of his ears and adjusted its rakish angle to suit his face shape. He looked ten years younger and a lot cuter. The hat remained perched on Sid’s head for the rest of the evening and I quietly bumped the thermostat down two degrees.

I gifted the beanie to Sid, and he wore it home. Uncertain about its continued placement on my friend’s head, I wondered if this was just a one-off event.

Morning came and it was bright and chilly. I backed my car out of the garage and proceeded to the stop sign at the corner of Andrew and Daly. I looked left. I saw someone on a scooter heading up Daly Road. He had the right-of-way and I waited for him to pass. It was Sid with his ten-foot high flag.

And something else. A black Carhartt beanie perched rakishly on his head. It was going to be a warm day.

Man’s best friend

Is it really man’s best friend?

I’ve been driving the Help of Ojai bus ever since we moved to Ojai twenty years ago, except for a couple of years when Ila was ill. My usual shift starts at eight on Friday mornings and ends a little after noon.

My clients are generally older and have given up driving. Being homebound is all too often a sad result. I pick them up at home and deliver them to physician offices, the grocery, hairdressers and other destinations which might otherwise be unreachable. For some folks, the bus is the only way they can get out of the house.

During my rewarding career as a bus driver, I’ve had my share of mishaps including varying degrees of bodily injury; to me, not to my clients. One that stands out vividly occurred several years ago.

Many of my riders are mildly incapacitated; some use a walker. Walkers come in various shapes, colors and sturdiness. Some are festooned with saddlebags and other accouterments. Some are simple in design while others require a degree from MIT to fold them flat in order to load them onto the bus. All of the beasts sadistically defy me as I try to lift them up the steps of the bus and through the narrow entry door.  I put them in a place that varies with my mood, so long as they can be safely stowed without the risk of them hurtling through the confines of the nine-passenger metal behemoth with which I deftly negotiate the streets of Ojai.

The walker folding process requires a certain degree of dexterity. The two sets of legs are folded using a scissors like movement that involves paying close attention to the location of one’s fingers, lest they become painfully pinched in the process. And that’s what happened to me.

My client that morning required the use of a walker as well as the lift. Being relatively non-communicative added to the challenge. Seating her went without a hitch, and I then began to flatten the walker. The scissor-like motion reached its high point when the tip of my little finger lodged securely between the two legs. Ignoring the searing pain for the moment, I attempted to open the scissors and free my finger. Alas, two hands are required to open the legs.

My client, comfortably seated and ignorant of the drama unfolding behind her, was of no use. Being the proud owner of two feet, I stood unsteadily on one of them and used the other as a wedge shoved between the walker’s legs. After what seemed like a fortnight of acrobatics, I was able to extract my pinky from the jaws of the monster. Profuse bleeding was the next cause for alarm. It was staunched with a box of Kleenex and the on-board first aid kit stocked for such mindless mishaps. Driving with one hand became de rigueur for the rest of the morning.  I can show you my scar if something like that excites you.

This Friday started out normally. Go to the gym at 6am. Treadmill for an hour while watching season two of the Kominsky Method on Netflix, shower and then head over to Help of Ojai. Have a quarter section, or two, of a yummy turkey sandwich made by Glenda, some surprisingly good coffee prepared by Meagan and then check out the bus for unwelcome critters, discover a nearly empty gas tank and a windshield that could only be cleaned with a Brillo pad.

Check out the manifest. The usuals…Melvia, Karen, Rosie, George, Betty…and one new name, Joyce. Going to the doctor, Joyce was to be picked up at 9:30 for her ten o’clock appointment. The early morning crowd delivered safely to their chosen locations, I headed over to Joyce’s mobile home park.

I arrived two minutes early, opened her gate and rapped on the door. A small, furry dog exited through the doggy door and took up a position close to my left leg. A cute little guy with a reassuringly mild disposition, he just begged to be stroked. And so I did, while waiting for Joyce to emerge.

I could hear Joyce calling for Charlie to come back in the house. Having none of that, Charlie sprinted away from me, ran through the gate that I had obligingly left open, and disappeared down the driveway. Joyce arrived and I pointed in Charlie’s general direction. Joyce called out. And, after what seemed like an eternity, he reappeared at the foot of the driveway. We beseeched him to come closer. He did but stopped short of the gate as though pondering his alternatives.

He moved slightly forward. I detected some misgivings in his tiny brown eyes. Seizing the fleeting opportunity, I reached down and gently cradled his ten-pound body in my two hands. What had once been a small, cuddly friend of man, became an enraged bull mastiff. He opened his jaws and clamped them on the root end of my thumb which had, prior to this event, been minding its own business. The pain took me back to my years’ ago adventure with the iron walker.

Charlie was intent on becoming a permanent part of my right hand. Perhaps he had second thoughts. Perhaps he felt that he had inflicted enough punishment commensurate with my indiscretion. He loosened his vice-like grip and bounded happily over to Joyce who said one or two “bad dogs” and without any further ado, deposited a newly cherubic Charlie in the place from whence he came.

Bleeding was becoming a habit of mine deserving of a Purple Heart. Charlie’s teeth had produced two punctures that appeared quite similar to those that might have been inflicted by a king cobra. My customary use of Kleenex seemed to only aggravate the flow. Thankfully, Joyce produced a large band-aid from her purse, and wrapped securely, I was able to deliver her to her appointment, drive one-handed back to Help and apply a vat of antiseptic ointment to calm my distress.

I had forgotten to ask Joyce if Charlie was up to date with his shots. Scary thoughts about rabies proliferated in my frontal cortex. Magnifying the possible implications of a frothing-at-the-mouth dog, followed by equally terrifying rabies shots, occupied my time until we were able to confirm that neither I nor Charlie would be appearing in a re-run of The Wolfman.

Walkers and dogs are often thought of as man’s best friends. But sometimes it might be better to remain more platonic.

I’m a Townie

The ride up the Dennison Grade last Thursday was interminable.

I had made that trip, sometimes twice a day, for nearly twenty years. More than seven thousand round trips. I start by driving one mile down Sulphur Mountain Road, carefully avoiding collisions on the all too narrow road. I turn left on Highway 150 after assuring myself that speeding cars are not lurking in the shadows of the ancient oaks that line the road. I cruise by the seasonal yellow mustard fields on the Black Mountain Ranch. I wind down the seemingly endless Dennison Grade, ticking off the twenty-three turns. I reach the bottom of the hill where Boccali’s restaurant gives me the first evidence of a civilization set apart from the Upper Ojai. Not yet finished, I drive another two miles into the middle of town. A one-way total of eight miles. Consuming thirty-six minutes of my life during each round trip.

And I had loved nearly every minute of it. Until last Thursday.

Two weeks earlier, I had sold my house on Sulphur Mountain Road and had moved into town. I traded those thirty-six driving minutes for the freedom to walk to restaurants, stores and community events. In those two weeks I thought that my car’s fuel gauge had malfunctioned; it didn’t seem to move. I walked to a friend’s house for dinner last Tuesday and thought “In twenty years I’ve never gone out to dinner without first getting into my car.”

I had lived those many years in the Sulphur Mountain house. My sweetheart and I built it. She died in it. With her death and my inevitable aging, it became clear that I needed to move from the mountain to the town. With her passing, the house seemed to have doubled in size. It had become too silent. Even the birds seemed to visit less frequently. The olive groves, once a delightful diversion, now seemed a burden. The mountain vistas lingered, but the inevitable night abruptly shut them down.

Jackie loved the spaciousness of the mountain house during her too infrequent visits. Spoiled by the advantages of town living, her zeal for dragging that very cute fanny up and down the Dennison Grade waned. Night driving on the darkened roads proved too much of a burden. She never said, “You should move.” But my feelings for her helped push me off the mountain and into “Townie” living.

It took fifteen months to sell the mountain home, and one day to buy the home in town. Escrow on both homes closed the same day; think of it as a whirlwind love affair. The town home is about half the size of the mountain home and its diminished storage capacity was a challenge. Twenty years of accumulated detritus required a hardened heart as I waded through it. And in every room, closet, drawer and cabinet I was confronted by memories. Photographs seemed to emerge from everywhere. Birthday and anniversary cards numbered in the hundreds. Like buried land mines, Ila had stowed them in dark recesses that hid them from prying eyes.

Letters between two lovers had been placed in the backs of her dresser drawers; I could not bear reading them. And in every instance a decision was needed. Toss or keep. At first, I kept nearly everything. As I realized the futility of it, I began to toss more. Would the children be deprived of some legacy if I tossed rather than kept? Probably not, I lied to myself. So I tossed more and more. Without ceremony. Without a proper burial. Like junk, the cards, letters and photos were deposited in king-sized black plastic garbage bags. Lugged to the garage, they awaited a trip to the dumpster. There were times I wanted to run after them. But didn’t.

Packing boxes soon littered the house. My god, I thought, who needs seven frying pans. A fish poacher that had been used once with disappointing results. Twelve different fruit extracts, only one of which had ever crossed our palates. What were we thinking when we saved scores of empty plastic containers with mismatched lids? Silverware that hadn’t seen the light of day more than twice in twenty years. Ten flower vases that had once held the precious flowers I sent her.

The movers arrived with the cast from Spartacus. Brawny guys, lean and mean guys and one that looked like he needed a good meal. They wrapped artwork, hung clothes in garment boxes and dragged everything onto two trucks. “It’ll never fit in the new house” I thought. But it did. All sixty-five boxes, a rowing machine and Jackie’s treadmill in a pinch.

Oliver and I unpacked. As we did so, I felt the urge to toss some more. And I did, setting aside items that might find their way into more needy hands. We filled cabinets. We stuffed clothes in bedroom dressers and filled every square inch of kitchen space with only three frying pans and a blessedly diminished horde of other items. It was sort of like running a video of the packing phase, only backwards. Empty boxes and discarded wrapping paper were enough to start an Ojai version of the Chicago Fire.

I’m settling in. I can hear cars go by. They make a whooshing sound, just like the surf rolling in off the Pacific. People are as close as a hundred feet away. Their faces visible. They stop, we chat, just like neighbors are supposed to do. There are two youngsters next door at Danni’s and James’ house. My doorbell rang last Sunday, and Danni’s brother was there asking me if it was alright to come into my yard to retrieve a ball the kids had tossed. “Sure,” I said. “Please do, and then do it some more.”

I always wanted a porch. And now I have one. It’s an overstuffed chair that cost $5 at a garage sale. It sits in my garage. I open the overhead door, grab a sandwich and sit in that chair. I can see some of the Topa Topa mountains. But more importantly, I can see and hear the sounds of life.

I drove up to the mountain house last Thursday to check my old mailbox. The ride was interminable. I’m glad I’m a Townie.


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