Archive for the 'Aging' Category

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. 

Careful Where You Step

I wake slowly, stare out the window, and watch the night give way to the dawn. I welcome daylight and embrace it so I can avoid the pratfalls that afflict those whose night vision might better be labeled night blindness.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I have the pleasure of being in Robert’s hands at the Ojai Valley Athletic Club. My thirty minutes with him are devoted to strengthening my upper body, working on my balance, and enjoying his wit. I haven’t fooled myself into thinking that I can reverse the aging process; I merely want to take a break from it for a few more years.

Since moving to town, I have been blessed with the ability to walk to the club instead of driving to it. Takes about twenty minutes and gives my cardiovascular system a small nudge in the right direction. Before Covid, my sessions with Robert began at 8am; a respectable start time that lets me walk to the gym in the morning light.

Covid changed all that. First the club closed. Then it was open. Then it was closed. Then it was sort of open, with restrictions that seemed to change twice daily. Robert also had his own health issues that limited his ability to entertain me on a regular basis. Things changed.

I now start training at 7. My walk to the gym begins in darkness and ends in the dim morning light. The first 10 minutes are a thrilling adventure as I stare down at the ground and strain to see what is underfoot. My mind sends me the message, “Watch out, be careful.”

At those times I am reminded of my brother Irv who, like our father, suffered the genetically delivered curse of macular degeneration. I recall walking with Irv when every step brought him closer to a fall. I see him hesitate as he puts one foot in front of the other. I watch him use the toe of his shoe as though it were a cane, probing the next step as though there was a deep chasm in front of him that might send him off the cliff into oblivion. At times like that, I remember thinking, “Poor guy, how frustrating this must be for him.”

Now I’m getting a taste of it, and it makes me feel old. In addition to obstacle avoidance, labels with small print taunt me; surely no one other than Lilliputians can read them. I try to decipher them with my bifocals. Failing that, I try it without glasses. Then I repeat the options without success. Excuses for banging into furniture on my way to bed, like the absence of a full moon, no longer cut it. Thinking that cataract surgery on my left eye will improve things is a fool’s paradise. I probe with my toe, just like my brother did.

Unlike Dracula, I long for the sunrise and try to complete my foraging before dark. Starting a morning hike at 6 is no longer possible. So, like yesterday, when Jackie was already on her way to body management in Montecito, I suited up and began a solo trek just after dawn.

I told Jackie that my plan was to walk through the less challenging Arbolada; a moderate grade trip through residential neighborhoods. Predictable, safe and ambulance friendly. I promised to take my cellphone, since screaming help into the thin air at that time of the morning would only antagonize the neighbors.

Ten minutes into the hike I changed my plans. I felt strong, my aging left knee had not yet offended me, and I was ready for sterner stuff. Shelf Road beckoned and, macho-like, I took the challenge.

Reaching Shelf Road requires a quarter mile jaunt up Signal Street, a thoroughfare that looks benign. Uphill all the way, lungs expand and contract at the speed of hummingbird wings. Heartbeats are no longer separated by intervals; they are, like a firehose, streaming nonstop.

Reaching the beginning of the Shelf Road trail would normally be cause for celebration, but I’m much too busy reorganizing my body into a more coherent machine; one that bears some resemblance to what it was like when I began this death march.

The trail is wide and seems to be continuously uphill. Its composition is shale-like with bits of ankle-twisting rocks thrown in to encourage me to keep my eyes on the road. On a weekday at 7, there are a few hikers with a lot of annoying dogs who seem to enjoy adding another obstacle in my path.

At the half-way mark there are two benches that can give one respite and provide a view of the Valley. I came upon the benches, occupied by a young couple in serious conversation. I waved without panache and mumbled the obligatory, “Good morning. Nice day isn’t it?”

Without waiting for a detailed response, I cruised past them and said soundlessly, “I’m proud of myself. Didn’t die on Signal Street and made it half-way up the trail. The rest is a piece of cake. Home for coffee in thirty.”

As though god hated braggards, I was mightily smitten by the lord for my brashness. The toe of my right shoe clipped the top of a stone which, I am sure, was placed there by an elf for that very purpose. I hurtled forward without a nanosecond of hesitation and found myself laying prone on the trail.

The bench couple ran to me and, believing that I was an old guy without much sense, helped me to my feet and began exploring my body. Normally, inspection by a young woman would be welcomed; however, the blood emanating from my several cuts and bruises put me off.

The inspection concluded without discovery of broken bones, torn ligaments or bleeding that couldn’t be stopped with the application of the three pieces of Kleenex that constitute my first-aid kit.

One of the bloody tissues was nestled between my hat and my scraped skull. Looking like that fife player marching in the painting of The Spirit of 1776, I completed my trek home, washed the blood off my body, and applied several dozen band-aids. I looked a bit like the mummy in the Boris Karloff picture of the same name.

The following day I told Robert my story. He carefully studied my wounds and added shame to my physical woes. He pronounced me a lazy foot dragger. Insisting that I had to learn to lift my feet higher brought on a new series of exercises that consist largely of my stumbling over obstacles he put in my path; much like the dogs did on Shelf Road. Except I was paying for this indignity.

Think I’ll go for a walk…before it gets dark.

Like falling off a log

Looking like vehicles that may have been designed with Batman in mind, our two dark gray electric-assisted bikes are nestled in our garage.

Unlike the spaciousness of Bruce Wayne’s bat cave, the garage is barely wide enough for our two cars. I am blessed with the starboard side of the garage that forces me to exit into the teeny space between the cars. My aging ligaments complain as I unscrew myself from the driver’s seat while avoiding a serious mishap that might require a series of follow-up visits to my chiropractor.

The two bat-bikes are lined up smack against the wall on the passenger side of my car, the same wall on which multiple menacing storage cabinets are hung. Negotiating the passageway between my car and the overhanging cabinetry invites a bloodletting injury to the top of my bald head.

The challenge presented by the bikes started in the MOB bike shop parking lot. I had just witnessed Jackie falling off her demo bike, and my brain decided to emulate the event with a four-star performance of my own, complete with scraped knee and severely damaged self-esteem. It was not a good omen.

Unfazed by the mishap, we forged ahead with the purchase of two bikes. The first, Jackie’s, was acquired from the Ojai Bike Store. Robert, the owner for some thirty-five years, was well informed and apparently willing to spend his thirty-sixth year exclusively in our company. Every inch of his store is covered with bikes, including some that are surely owned by deceased bikers who had grown weary waiting for repairs. The store, needing even greater challenges, also sells and services skateboards.

Before we met Robert, we had visited the MOB Shop for a demo that required disinfecting our hands, taking our temperatures, and completing a scary waiver of liability. These precautions proved particularly ineffective as both Jackie and I took headers off the bikes before leaving the parking lot. Sensing a possible lawsuit, the owner strongly urged me to give serious thought to my age and the foolishness that I was about to embark upon. To which I gave little heed as I remounted the bike while hiding my fears beneath a fragile facade of supreme confidence.

Robert embraced none of these precautions at the Ojai Bike Store. He merely turned on the bike batteries, adjusted the height of our seats, loaned us a couple of helmets, and waived farewell as we rode up Canada Street, scaring myself and the local motorists who somehow sensed the need to avoid us at all costs.

Electric assisted bikes are all the rage; perhaps too few riders have yet been maimed by them to cool their attractiveness. Consequently, the demand for these beasts exceeds the supply; like the Dutch tulip bulb craze in the 1600’s, this too shall reverse itself in due time.

Robert had a bike that met Jackie’s specifications…small, cute and comfy. We bought it, and like the birth of a couple’s first child, gave little thought to what comes next. My turn was less productive; Robert searched manufacturer databases to find one for me but came up empty. He offered a somewhat iffy chance that one would arrive in October. Unpersuaded by this modicum of hope and anxious to get the show on the road, Jackie took matters into her own hands.

Using the full capabilities of her iPhone 11, she called every bike store in the northern hemisphere and located the perfect bike in Costa Mesa, a mere two-hour jaunt from Ojai. The distance and the logistics of shlepping the bike home was too much for me. But not for Jackie.

Overcoming the salesman’s initial reluctance, she convinced the store to ship the bike to its Santa Monica sister location. Then she called the Santa Monica store and convinced them to bring it to Ojai free of charge, and that’s why it is now sitting in our aforementioned garage.

You’ve probably heard the old canard that once you learn how to ride a bike you never forget. While the basics of biking may be etched in one’s brain, nuances are another thing. While I may be able to mount a bike after 45 years of sloth and move 100 feet in a straight line, making a U-turn is another matter. There just doesn’t seem to be enough turning room; perhaps the streets are narrower than they were when I was a kid. Or the bikes are bigger. In either case, I cannot complete the U-turn before slamming into my neighbor’s parked Mercedes; I must get off the bike, back it up, straighten my trajectory and remount the beast. A sorry sight indeed. And if that wasn’t enough, this morning I watched two bike riding eight-year-olds perform feats that would have shamed the Flying Wallendas

But I’m learning. On Saturday we biked to Boccali’s pizza joint. It was a beautiful day, and caught up in the majesty of it, we had a glass of wine and gobbled up some delicious bruschetta. An hour later we got back on our bikes and rode down Highway 150 where I decided to make a right turn onto Carne Road. It must have been one of those narrower than I remember it roads. Failing to negotiate the turn and believing that riding into the ditch would be a bad move, I pancaked the bike and ended up kissing the road with my elbow. To assuage my feelings of incompetence, Jackie said it was the wine.

Realizing that my once-learned, never-forgotten skills would be a work in process, she bought a pocket-sized first-aid kit the next day. Something to look forward to.

This morning I decided to hone my skills. I carefully squeezed into the narrow space between my car and the garage wall and approached the sleeping bike with mounting apprehension. Avoiding the menacing overhead cabinets, I grasped the handlebars like a rodeo cowboy and slowly moved it backwards toward the safety of the open driveway. In my zeal to prove myself, I forgot about the bike pedals and banged one of them into my left shin. Bleeding like a hemophiliac, I decided that my bike day was over.

After all, I don’t want to rush my skills development and have nothing to do tomorrow.

I Looked Both Ways Today

I looked both ways today. Twice.

Marion Weil died last Friday in a tragic bicycle accident. Although an investigation is proceeding, it seems that a motorist ran into Marion while she was with her much-used Como electric bike on Cuyama Road in Ojai.

The motorist apparently was headed west on Cuyama around 7pm; a time when the sunset is beautiful but also deadly for pedestrians and bicycles who are confronted by a glare-impaired driver headed directly into the sun with a two-ton metal behemoth. “I never saw her. The sun blinded me. I couldn’t avoid her.”

That evening, shortly after the accident, Jackie received a call from a friend. I was busy in the kitchen when her phone rang. I eavesdropped. “Hi, always good hearing from you. What’s up?” The casual banter ended abruptly and was replaced with, “No, I don’t believe it. Oh my god.”

The conversation went on for a minute or two and I became more intrigued by it. It was obviously something more serious than a jilted woman, the inability to get a hair appointment, or the latest on the faculty infighting at Cal State.

I became more anxious as I tried to guess what was going on. Jackie completed the call, turned to me and said, “Marion Weil was hit by a car. She’s dead.”

A nanosecond passed and I thought, “That’s not right. It’s a mistake.”

Marion had been in our back yard about a month ago. At first refusing our cheap wine, she relented and had her fill. Clever and quirky without wine, she added humor and cuteness when she’d had a couple. At 78 she was analytical, remembered everything, and made physical fitness one of her mantras. She most assuredly planned to live to the biblical age of six score years.

In the midst of the pandemic, here was a perfectly clad Marion, without a sense of time, enjoying herself while regaling us with her upcoming adventures. Never shy, she revealed herself freely, and simultaneously questioned us unmercifully. I thought she’d never leave, yet we felt that something was missing when she finally walked out the gate.

Marion’s whereabouts were generally unpredictable. We often drove by the structure that housed her and her tenant, the Livingston Visiting Nurse Association. We looked for her unpretentious car as an indication of her Ojai presence. We often joked that when Marion became incapacitated by old age, a doubtful event, she only needed to walk the 50 steps between her digs and the VNA to jump into Hospice.

It doesn’t matter how many days pass; it seems like she is still with us. I expect to see her car in front of the VNA when I drive down Matilija Street. Or receive a text from her suggesting that we gather again in our backyard to meet a new friend. Or announcing that she’s off to Orange County to visit her favorite niece, and that she would be gone for an extended time. Maybe until fall. Maybe beyond. She’d promise to keep us in the loop, of course.

In addition to bequeathing a legacy of community involvement and support, Marion has left me with something else. Call it being careful. Call it a warning. Call it a wakeup.

I look both ways, twice, when crossing the street. Even that seems too little. I listen for the sounds of oncoming traffic and then realize that electric cars are stealthy. I look into the shadows cast by the giant oaks, fearing that a block of steel, painted black, is waiting for me. Playing no favorites, I also search for the oncoming bicycle which, while less lethal, could end my Shelf Road hiking escapades.

Not wishing to further irritate a driver who may be just off an argument with the spouse, I wait until traffic has cleared before stepping into the street. Pedestrian right-of-way means little to a preoccupied, irritable driver. Once in the street, I scurry across to reduce my chances of becoming one with the machine.

But there is a further urgency. Besieged by the latest Covid-19 affliction statistics, ballyhooed vaccine development, and moving target social engagement rules, Marion had little time to devote to the possibility of death on a bicycle.

Yet here we are. A reminder that we plan, and god laughs. Just when you think it’s safe to come in from the cold, a glacier falls on your face. Or as Forest Gump said, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”

I think I’ll get a new bike.

A Bike Story

My first bicycle was a Schwinn. Black and white with shiny fenders, it gleamed in the sunshine as it stood waiting for me in the alley behind my folks’ second floor porch in Chicago’s Albany park, a mecca for transplanted Russians and other Jews.

I walked around the bike that my father had brought home the prior evening and had placed out of harm’s way in one of the darkened basement sheds allocated to tenants. I had whined for weeks about wanting a bike, so its appearance on my birthday was not a shock.

At eleven, I was not yet aware of my parents limited financial resources. Surrounded by family, friends, and other neighborhood denizens, I was primarily exposed to people living in similar circumstances. In retrospect, I’m sure that the bike took a healthy bite out of father’s paycheck.

SchwinnThe Cadillac of bikes, its company was established 1895 by Ignaz Schwinn, a German immigrant, and his meat packer partner Adolph Arnold. It survived the Great Depression and continued producing bikes in the U.S. under various corporate guises until it finally succumbed to the allure of Chinese productivity. The Paramount, Stingray, and Schwinn-Twinn came and went. Advertising kept Schwinn in the public eye; the company was an early sponsor of TV’s Captain Kangaroo.

I walked around the sturdily built bike with fat balloon tires and its lever-actuated bell mounted on the handlebar. In 1950, this bike would have been called snazzy, flashy, and sleek. I daydreamed about where it would take me while I built up my confidence. Finally, I lifted my left leg over the horizontal bar that announced the bicycle’s gender as a “boy’s bike.”

Swinging the kickstand up from the asphalt, I brought the left side pedal to its full vertical position and placed my foot on top of it. I pushed the pedal forward. The bike moved a few feet. I tried to hop up onto the thickly cushioned seat. And then I fell over.

The bike shivered as it came to rest on its left side, the front wheel spinning slowly for what seemed an eternity. Then it stopped and all was silent. I had scraped my knee but, in comparison to the shame I felt, it was no big deal. The bike had escaped relatively unscathed except for a scratch on the chrome plated handlebar near the bell. It was a reminder that stayed with me each time I mounted the Schwinn that took me through my college years.

I bought a ten-speed racing bike when our kids were safely in school. For not much reason other than it seemed like the thing to do. Like all bikes of its genre, it was fitted with a seat that produced pain at the same level as the Spanish Inquisition’s torture rack. The seat was a combination of metal tubing covered with some animal skin. That’s it. No padding. No springs. Not a good combination for a guy with a skinny ass and a low tolerance for pain.racing bike seat

When I began riding the bike with the Torquemada designed seat, I complained to whoever would listen. Some people commiserated while others said, “Keep at it. You’ll get used to it.” And I thought, “Why should I?”

My bike riding consisted largely of shifting gears that never seemed to do what I wanted, and repositioning my ass trying to share my discomfort equally with the various pressure points in my butt and my tailbone.  And so, unlike my dear Schwinn, the ten-speed ended up in our Northridge garage, gathering dust and losing air in the tires until they were flat. I finally sold it to someone with a highly cushioned ass, for a whole lot less than I paid for it. Good riddance.

Twenty years passed in Northridge while I avoided a further encounter with a bike. The next move to our Ojai home high up on the hill put an end to any thought of mounting one. The terrain was much too steep; merely walking up Sulphur Mountain Road required the skill of a gazelle and the lungs of a blue whale. People with bikes who tried it were known to stop mid-way, cry unconsolably, and admit defeat.

I moved to town almost a year ago. To a house without steps, on a flat lot, in a flat neighborhood and with a flat one-mile walk to the Ojai Post Office. Surrounded by scores of bikers, Jackie and I talked about being part of that in-crowd. We were particularly attracted to electric assisted E-bikes. Not a fully operational motor scooter, the E-bike merely compliments one’s own pedal power with an array of assisted options. Given my age, I felt no shame with the idea of sharing the load with a lithium ion battery.como ebike

A week ago, we called the MOB bike shop and found that they would be happy to have us try the E-bike that afternoon at 2. Choosing to ignore the current 99-degree temperature, we jumped at the offer. Arriving at the shop, I casually informed Jackie that my car thermometer was recording the first triple digits of the summer. Consistent with her penchant for following through with commitments, she said, “It’s an electric bike. We’ll go slow. Only for ten minutes. Don’t be a pussy. You’ll be fine.”

Tim took our temperature to rule out Covid-19; I was mildly disappointed when I passed the test. Handing us over to young Melanie, we signed the usual waivers relieving the shop of any liability including the crime of wantonly exposing octogenarians to bodily harm. She gave us general instructions that I immediately forgot, fitted us with fashionable helmets, and adjusted our seat heights to a position based on information only known to her.

Jackie was the first to fall from the bike not ten feet from the shop’s front door. Light as a feather, she landed unscathed. I figured I could do better. Mounting the bike, I depressed the left pedal. Moving forward I brushed against Jackie, lost my balance, and fell stage-right while the bike attempted a quick escape by falling stage-left. I scraped the same knee that was a victim in the Schwinn incident seventy years ago, including my embarrassment.

The shop owner, who had been watching this Marx Brothers routine, came closer to me than Covid-19 precautions allow and said, “You know, while the bike is valuable, the safety of our customers is our top priority.”

Translated, he meant, “Don’t you think you’re a little old for this? You’ll probably kill yourself. Be smart. Get your ass out of here before it’s too late.”

Rising to my full five-foot-eight and a half inches (I used to be five-ten), I thanked the owner for his concern, assured Jackie that I was in full control of my senses, and reclaimed the wayward bike.

We walked the bikes across Ojai Avenue, mounted them and rode with some trepidation to the bike path. We entered the path, dodged oncoming fearless bikers, and were successful at avoiding further mishaps.

We returned the bikes, once again walking them across the Avenue. I glanced at the owner and with some smugness said, “Thank you for your concerns but I’ve got everything under control.” Lying does not become me and I think he knew better; but, sensing a possible sale, he nodded his agreement.

My knee is nicely scabbed over. We’re going riding again tomorrow. Think I’ll wear long pants.

Only 81

It’s my birthday. The 81st in a long line of memories.

Jackie woke me this morning with a new Patagonia backpack that replaces the one that mysteriously disappeared when we moved to our new house. A big birthday balloon that she somehow sneaked past me yesterday is now prominently displayed over my head. And other more personal gifts were bestowed on me before the day was but an hour long.

It was chilly and too early to jump out of bed and leap onto the treadmill. So we stayed and remembered. Remembered our first birthday together when Jackie organized a star-studded bash at the house on the mountain in celebration of my 79th. Never one to let grass grow under her feet, she would not wait for my 80th.

I recalled my 80th when we spent the weekend at the Beverly Wilshire where I walked into the hotel room and found myself swamped by eighty mylar balloons, a very large bottle of champagne, and reservations at some upscale eateries.

Pausing in our morning reverie, Jackie asked “How old do you feel?”

I took a nanosecond to mentally compile my physical short-comings and my state of mind. I calculated the total miles hiked during the past week, the number of Zoom yoga sessions, the resulting improvement in flexibility, my iffy eyesight, ever-changing blood pressure and the results of my recent annual visit with Dr. Halverson. Without further hesitation I said “Sixty-eight.” In retrospect I have no idea where that came from.

I guess that when you are 81, 68 seems young. Thirteen years of birthdays, good times, and bad ones. Joy and heartbreak. Highs and lows. The loss of my sweet Ila, the passing of my staunchly independent son Steven, and the death of my big brother Irv all weigh heavily on the downside. Starting a new life with Jackie has added sparkle, unexpected opportunities, and much love. On balance, thirteen years brought significant challenges, some growth, and a boatload of smiles.

Still too early to leave the warmth of the bed and Jackie’s body, I chronicled my early years. Grandparents took center stage. Jackie’s were gone before she was born. Luckier than she, I remembered my father’s mother; a frail woman who wore a sheitel, the wig that observant Jewish married women wore to conform to religious law. Grandma Hinda was one of a long line of vision impaired ancestors who unknowingly passed the malady to my father and then to my brother. A floating specter, I never heard her speak; she was gone before I was old enough to remember who she was.

My paternal grandfather never left the Ukrainian shtetl where he was born. All I have of him is a family photo that includes my five-year-old father and his four siblings…Rifka, Bella, Nate and Lou. His history is gone but he surely was of meager means who lived nervously through the pogroms thrust upon the Jews of that region by the all-powerful Czar who was intent upon blaming my innocent zaide for bad harvests, icy winters and defeats at the hands of other imagined infidels.

My maternal grandfather died in Chicago when I was too young to remember. My only image of him is the one found in an oval shaped photo affixed to his grave site marker in a cemetery vandalized many times, and what is now all but forgotten.

In contrast to the others, I vividly remember bubbe Cipa, my maternal grandmother who came to live with us when her husband died. Speaking broken English tinged with Ashkenazic Yiddish, she was my playmate and confidante. We shared a small, one window bedroom in Chicago’s West Rogers Park, where she rubbed my back, helped me get to sleep on humid nights and hummed a tune to soothe my senses. I often regret cheating her at gin rummy, even though she probably knew and chose to let me do it anyway.

Morris and Celia, my parents, never read a Dr. Spock book (to this day I’m not sure that my mother could  read) never attended a holistic seminar and had no knowledge of yoga, tai chi or gluten free. Had they even heard of Vegans they would have thought they were from Mars. Fully devoted to putting food on the table and shelter over our heads, their free time was a special event not often repeated. They loved me unconditionally and I never felt the need to hear it from their lips.

The passage of 80 to 81 seems of little significance. Yet it is when measured by its relationship to my remaining years. I find the thought comforting rather than depressing. It provides an urgency that was all but absent at 25 or even 65. The limitation on remaining life prompts me to enjoy, contribute and live it to the fullest. Whether I take advantage of it is up to me.

Thank you, Jackie, for the three birthdays we have shared. Each was different, but all were memorable. Each reminded me of my past. Each offered a glimpse of a beautiful future. It’s up to us to choose it.


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