Archive for the 'Community' Category

God, Rabbis and Hummingbirds

Went to temple last night. Rabbi Mike was conducting the first session of Taste of Judaism. I was half there. The other half was somewhere else.

I was invited to Sheila’s home for dinner before the class. Met Jeff who lost his wife six years ago. Sheila lost her son before that. So here we were, comrades in arms. Sheila is such a good cook and an even better host. As big as a minute and a veritable ball of energy, she never turns down an opportunity to do good.

Despite our common grief, we spent little time dwelling on it. For me, and maybe for them, the subject hung in the air begging to be let out of the shadows. Like India Ink, forever permanent.

Dinner over, we went to the temple. My first exposure to a crowd of people since the funeral. Some knew of my loss and stepped forward to greet me with hugs, warm kisses and kind words. Others did not know me, much less my grief. I wanted to make an announcement. “I’m Fred and I lost the love of my life two weeks ago. I’m in need of your attention.” Feeling selfish and needy was not warm and fuzzy. But there it was, something unshakable.

Rabbi Mike asked each of us to introduce ourselves and share our reasons for being there. I resisted the urge to say something like “My wife died two weeks ago and I just felt that I wanted to be among you.” So I said something else, truthful but not satisfying.

This first class in the series was devoted to the concept of God. On previous occasions I had been exposed to the Rabbi’s thoughts on the subject. How the creation of the world and everything in it could not have been random occurrences. How morality could not exist without a framework that defined right and wrong. And how belief in God did not require a definition of the term but merely a leap of faith. Not a micromanager, God relies upon us to do good and help others.

The best part of the ninety minutes was sharing in the delight that Rabbi Mike expressed as he taught us the things he held dear. It was in the smile on his face, the energy as he waved his arms, jumped from his chair and made finger shadows on the wall. A man like this was not to be denied.

I don’t know if there is a God but with Ila’s passing it is a comforting concept. I’ve been spending late afternoons on the patio, watching the shadows spread over Ila’s garden. Occasionally the quail family will hop up on the low wall surrounding the garden. They march to and fro putting on a display that I believe has been choreographed just for me.

To the left is a veritable field of native fuchsia filled with bright red blossoms that should have long ago dried and fallen from the spindly arms of the plants. But they seem ageless and are visited daily by hummingbirds. They dart through the air like rockets, appearing to be in competition with their kind. Pausing only briefly at the nectar filled blossoms, they leave the fuchsia only to return in a display of aerial prowess. On occasion, they will hover close to me as they contemplate their next move.

I’ve adopted the belief that one of those hummingbirds is endowed with some of Ila’s essence. I’m not sure which bird it is but it doesn’t matter. It’s enough that I believe it.

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Simple Pleasures

Did you ever listen to friends describe their latest adventures?

“Uzbekistan was amazing. So many things to see. The people were great. Can’t wait to do it again.”

“Our trip to New York was mind-blowing. Had to book tickets to Hamilton two years in advance…worth every penny. You should go.”

“The Falkland Islands were one of the top five events in my life. I’ll never forget the sheep in the road. Weather was perfect. Never knew there were so many ways to prepare mutton.”

Time was that I would think “Why aren’t I doing things like this?  I must be missing out on life.”

Probably so.

But things being what they are, Sweetie and I tend to find pleasure in simpler things. Things that don’t involve shleps to the airport, uncomfortable plane seats, annoying children and rude adults.

Like yesterday.

The library foundation bookstore is closing for a major rebuild. We wanted to sell lots of books so that we could avoid moving them to temporary storage while we build the new structure.  We volunteered for the 2:30 shift and arrived to find very little activity. One or two customers, much like a normal day. So since we weren’t really needed, we excused ourselves and went for a walk.

One of our favorite places is Rains department store. A venerable institution serving the community for over a hundred years. Weekends are pretty busy in the store but on most weekdays you can call the store your own. We hardly ever leave without buying something. Sort of like freshly marking our territory.

There’s a wooden bench just off the main aisle in the women’s department. I’m sure it’s intended to allow the ladies to sit and try on the shoes that are cloistered in the area around the bench. It looks uncomfortable but the bench’s shape sort of matches my fanny so I can sit for a while before I develop calluses or bone spurs. We often alight on that bench and stare at the dozen or so women’s shoes that beckon to be tried on.

Spending thirty minutes or so sitting on a wood bench in Rains’ shoe department may not sound very exciting. And it’s not. So to lighten things up, we sometimes pretend that we are on a cruise. At other times we pretend that we are waiting for a city bus to come rolling down the department store aisle. In either case, we must look odd to the sales people and to the customers. But, being old, most observers simply assume we’ve got nothing better to do and ignore us.

Yesterday was special, though. I began staring at the array of shoe boxes stacked directly ahead of me.  About thirty of them in about six stacks.  All the same brand. I zeroed in on the 3×5 stickers glued to the end of each box that announced the style number and shoe size of the contents. I wondered “Are all those labels glued to the box by hand or is there some clever piece of machinery that does it?” I compared the placement of each label and the amount of empty space surrounding each. My suspicion was that they were hand applied. But I couldn’t be certain. So I asked Sweetie for her wise counsel. Recognizing a unique opportunity, she smiled and immediately bought into the adventure. Carefully eyeballing the boxes and measuring her response, she said that she was certain beyond a reasonable doubt that a machine was doing the deed. Good enough for me.

Having some time remaining in our busy schedule, I then focused on the boxes themselves. I was surprised that each shoe size seemed to have a box whose dimensions were tailored to the size of the contents. What a revelation! Sweetie was not nearly as excited as me since she claimed to already be aware of the shoe box size protocol. Probably because she has more shoes than I do.

So there you are. A relatively inexpensive adventure that did not require a plane trip, questionable accommodations, tickets bought two years in advance, or the need to learn a foreign language.

Now won’t that be an amazing story to tell our friends when they return from the Galapagos?

Charlton is alive!

Revealed…Charlton Heston did not die in 2008

Thanks to a hidden microphone in a National Rifle Association conference room, it appears that Charlton Heston never died in 2008 as previously reported. Instead, he is alive, well and secretly housed at NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia where he serves as chief strategist and inspirational leader.

Comments caught on tape during an August meeting at the NRA seemingly prove that Heston, despite his reported dementia, has been and still is the principal architect of the NRA strategy for increasing gun ownership. “What better person to lead us than some guy who still thinks he’s Moses” can be clearly heard on the tape. References to Heston’s numerous movies apparently also serve as the principal basis of the NRA strategy. His roles in Planet of the Apes, Omega Man, True Lies, and Armageddon feature prominently at all NRA planning sessions.

“Fear drives gun sales and our job is to capitalize on any event that maximizes it. It’s not good enough to sit idly by while random maniacs shoot up schools.” said NRA commandant Wayne LaPierre. “Our gun manufacturers demand that we do more to find and arm the rapidly dwindling number of those who haven’t yet bought a gun. And, my year-end bonus depends on it.”

When confronted by the taped evidence, NRA officials claimed that it was a fabricated fantasy  digitally compiled by employees of Planned Parenthood. “It’s an effort to take the heat off of that Commie, organ harvesting, left-wing butcher shop.  Everyone knows that the NRA has never and will never do anything that increases gun violence.  We all know that guns keep violence in check.  It’s a fact that most of our members never even fire the damn things. Sleeping with them under their pillows is comfort enough.” Mr. LaPierre then added “all this bullshit about the outlandish murder rate in the U.S. compared to other countries is just not true. Those statistics were conjured up by the same nuts who believe in global warming.”

Republicans in Congress were quick to support the NRA in claiming that it was probably all a conspiracy developed by Planned Parenthood and its supporters. John Boehner promised, as a final chapter in his grand legacy as House Speaker, to schedule hearings that would “get to the very bottom of things.”

All satire aside, Dr. Ben Carson, a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination and an avid gun supporter, said “those kids in Roseburg should have rushed the shooter rather than just stand around.” Later, in a seeming contradiction to his call for someone else’s bravery, Dr. Carson recounted his less than heroic confrontation with a shooter in a Popeye’s fast food restaurant. “Guy comes in, puts the gun in my ribs. And I just said, ‘I believe that you want the guy behind the counter…I redirected him.”

On Friday, Carson doubled down on his call for a well-armed populace when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said “Just clarify, if there had been no gun control laws in Europe at that time, would six million Jews have been slaughtered?” Dr. Carson responded “I think the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed … I’m telling you that there is a reason that these dictatorial people take the guns first.”

Even with Dr. Carson’s call for someone else’s self-sacrifice when confronted by a heavily armed gunman, a simple-minded solution to the Holocaust, and an attitude reminiscent of Bruce Willis in Die Hard, he still rises majestically in the polls.

I bet Chuck planned the whole thing. And, Wayne, there’s no need to worry about your year-end bonus.

Charlton Heston as Moses

Loser…

I never should have let Myrna talk me into this.

“Oh come on, Fred.  We need some more pieces for the annual Art Center photo show. You don’t have to do anything special.  Just help us fill the wall space.  You can just dust off some old thing…pretty puhleeze.”

So I did.

And I got beat out of a prize by a photo of a dead goat straddling the running board of an old truck.  Talk about embarrassment.

I went through the same routine that I’ve repeated, without learning anything, for the last decade.  I shlepped to the Art Center on  Friday morning and spent three hours helping hang the fifty or so pieces submitted by people who were, for the most part, younger than my grandchildren.

Standing back with my objectivity brimming over, I was satisfied that I had honestly scanned my competition.  I then silently mused to myself “my photo is the odds-on favorite to take it all.“  The increased number of awards this year only served to bolster my chances.  I was a shoo-in.

I went to bed that night with visions of sugar plums dancing in my head.  I could actually see the crowd elbowing each other for a closer look at my show stopper.  A photo that was perfectly composed, in focus, leading the viewer’s eye to the spot I had designated.  Telling a compelling story about the subjects in the photo as well as providing insight into the mind of the photographer.  God, it was good.

On Saturday, I watched the time pass oh so slowly, anxiously awaiting the start of the Art Center reception.  At the appointed time, Sweetie and I drove to the Center, parked a mile from the door and began a long trek that I can now liken to the Bataan Death March.

We walked through the door and I was instantly drawn to my award-winning photo.  Ok, maybe not first but certainly second.  All right, ok, I’ll settle for an honorable mention.  So where was the award?  Usually it’s pasted to the wall right next to the photo.  Uh, maybe this year it’s real teeny tiny, tucked away unobtrusively, maybe even behind the photo.  Nope.  Not there.  Maybe it fell off.

Like the air being let out of a balloon, my expectations dissipated into the ether.  I was incredulous.  And then I was nauseated.  Then both at the same time.

I thought, ok, so you didn’t make the big time.  The judges must have seen something very special in the dozen photos that beat me out.   Something that I would, as a professional and a right-minded guy, see and understand.  And then I saw the dead goat.

I know you’re saying to yourself “Fred does this every year.  He goes in to the show with great expectations and then whines when he goes home empty-handed.  What a loser.”

Ok, I leave it to you.  Go to the Art Center before July 9.  And tell me if you really like the dead goat.  I’m at your mercy.

Nobody comes to shul…much

We’ve been going to shul more frequently of late. “Shul” is Yiddish for synagogue, temple, house of worship or whatever. The word “shul” is comforting to me, slides off my tongue easily and conjures up memories from my childhood. It brings flashes of the faces of my now long-gone relatives to whom “shul” was the only term they ever used in describing the Jewish house of worship and learning.

In a prior life, as president of our Northridge shul, I regularly avoided Friday night Sabbath services. I made up stories in my head to justify my absence from what seemed to me as an unwelcome intrusion in my otherwise busy week. I just couldn’t see much reason to participate with the other fifteen percent of the shul’s membership who were Friday evening regulars.

Fast forward to Ojai and to a shul that’s about one-tenth the size of our Northridge congregation. In the last fifteen years we’ve wandered through a series of rabbis, who generally stayed with us about two or three years. They moved on either because they wanted more than a small shul could offer or because they just didn’t fit. Our appearances at Friday night services mirrored our Northridge experience, few and far between. The usual exception, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, brought us to shul along with a sea of faces who also needed a map to find the front door.

Sheila, bless her heart, persevered in her position as an on-again, off-again shul president and perennial Friday night service cheer leader. She’s begged, encouraged and even scolded, with little success, miscreants like me to come to Friday evening services. With a small congregation and limited finances, we are able to have a “real” rabbi only two Fridays a month. The rabbi-led services usually generate a reasonable increase in attendance. Enough to warrant turning on the lights and air conditioning. The other Friday nights, led with gusto by Sheila, often found her talking to near-empty seats.

I often said to Sheila, given our congregants’ seeming indifference to schlepping to her capably led though unappreciated alternate Friday night services, that we simply cancel them. Nobody would notice and Sheila could stop whipping herself into a manic frenzy at the thought of another deserted shul night.

Her response was simple. Somebody might need that Friday night service.

That prescient thought was vindicated at last Friday night’s service. Sweetie and I arrived about five minutes before the loosey goosey standard six o’clock start time. Entering the shul we found ourselves facing the only other person in attendance, Sheila. At five minutes past six we were a group of five. Time to start. Even without a minyan.

Wait. Who are those people entering our shul? Two mature adults and five young people. Never saw them before.

Hello. Welcome to shul. What brings you here?

We operate a teen rehab center. These young people are in the program.

These two kids are from New Jersey and the others are from New York. Three of the five are Jewish and the others came along for the ride.

We needed some place to go other than our rehab center. We’re pretty limited since we have to stay away from stuff like, well, alcohol. And other things.

We needed a place that was welcoming and, well, kind of spiritual. We saw your website and the announcement about tonight’s service. So we came. Thanks for being here for us.

One young man led us in a prayer. We all shared the oneg following the service, drank grape juice during the blessing over the wine and touched the challah while holding hands and connecting. We talked for a long time.

They left…smiling.

Glad we were here. For them. And for us.

Thank you, Sheila.

Sourdough Slim and Other Characters

Sweetie and I joined six other aging but still competent Upper Ojai friends for a much-anticipated Sourdough Slim appearance at the Ojai Valley Women’s Club Thursday evening.  But I’ll get to that in a minute.

Recognizing the danger that excess stomach acid can produce when one is running late for the theater, we chose to have an early senior-style dinner at Il Giardino’s, about half a block from the Women’s Club.  Not being a big fan of that particular eclectic restaurant, I had agreed to it while gritting my teeth and expecting the usual combination of poor food and questionable service, topped with a general feeling of grouchiness.

Eight of us were banished to the Devil’s Island corner  of the outdoor patio.  Being the last to pick a seat, I had the pleasure of facing the wall which depicts a painted saga that is desperately in need of renovation by one or more otherwise unemployed Italian artisans.

We also were treated to the added attraction of live music performed by two young men who were oblivious to the hearing afflictions foisted upon elders due to the advanced atomic decibel readings achieved by today’s amplification systems.

Actually, surprise, surprise, the food was tasty, the company stellar and the two young musical aficionados graciously offered to turn things down after several of our party collapsed on the floor pleading for respite.  A good start, I’d call it, and totally unexpected.

Finishing with a flourish and with fifteen minutes to spare, several of our party with space remaining  in their large intestines made a quick stop at Bliss, the local do-it-yourself frozen yogurt eatery, and heaped calorie laden yummies on their already distended stomachs.

Having been clever enough to buy advance tickets to Sourdough’s performance, we entered the Women’s Club ahead of those who were either still enroute or who had the misfortune of thinking that purchasing tickets at the door would give them something other than a seat requiring the Hubble Telescope for a decent view of Slim.

This was the third time we’d attended a Sourdough Slim concert.  A masterful combination of Howdy Doody and Slim Pickens, Sourdough regaled the crowd with cowboy songs, jokes that have stood the test of time, and amusing facial expressions, all topped by a ridiculous ten-gallon hat that is as important to his repertoire as his music.  Accompanied by the formerly famous Robert Armstrong on a variety of instruments including the yet to be universally embraced musical saw, the aging but still standing  Sourdough keeps you rooting for him to complete his performance without suffering a massive coronary.

We picked seats that were close to the stage yet far enough removed to avoid becoming an unwilling part of the evening’s festivities.  I sat on a folding chair that had just enough cushioning to be comfortable for a full twenty minutes before wreaking havoc on my under-stuffed  fanny.  Looking for a comfortable spot to rest on, other than bone, was to be a major part of the festivities.

Two fiftyish party goers arrived and sat in the row in front of us.  Wearing over-the-top cowboy hats large enough to block out the sun, they mercifully sat to our right, out of our visual spectrum but close enough for those with adequate peripheral vision to observe the couple’s own performance that was in competition with that of the Sourdough.

The woman wore a tight red dress, short enough to allow a proper airing of her private parts yet tight enough to allow the substantial hills and valleys of her aging body to attract prying eyes to the various displays of her abundant cellulite deposits.  The man, balding and handle-barred moustached, spent much of the evening prodding and caressing the lady’s abundant flesh.

The lady in red, attired in cowboy boots that could have easily stomped a whole herd of cows, began the festivities by banging her heels to the rhythm of Slim’s music…well almost.  She then progressed to raising both her arms to the heavens, waving them with abandon and providing further evidence of her deepening dementia.  When this failed to draw the attention of those in the far reaches of the theater, she orally fixated us with randomly delivered whooping and hollering clearly intended to alert all, including the paramedics, to her presence.  I began to feel sorry for the lady in red who assuredly had been ignored as a child and, other than for her groping escort, was suffering the same fate as an adult.

The seat in front of me was occupied by a tall man with short legs and a long Yao Ming torso.  His shock of white hair was directly in line with my view of Slim.  Fortunately, the Cardiff Giant look-alike parted his hair down the middle affording me a limited view of the very top of Slim’s ten gallon hat.  I accepted my fate as being payoff for my many sins, and for most of the rest of the evening focused on Mr. Armstrong’s musical saw.

At least no one had a coronary.

sourdough slim

Dry as a bone…

Dry as a bone.

As I walked along the paths that pretend to delineate the approved lanes of travel around our house, I stared at the vacant spaces that once were occupied by living plants.  Plants that we had carefully selected and studiously placed when we moved here almost fourteen years ago.  Plants that had been carefully nurtured in alien nurseries and then transported to this hostile environment known as the Upper Ojai.

What seemed like miles of drip irrigation had kept them alive for years.  Not enough water to flood them but just enough to make sure they didn’t turn up their toes and seek the great plant heaven in the sky.  Mending breaks in the ubiquitous half-inch tubing caused by critters either seeking water or just something to gnaw on was a weekly adventure that made me a VIP customer at Aqua Flow.

In spite of our careful tending, plants died.  Some of old age.  Some of benign neglect.  We got familiar with the flora that seemed to be semi-self-sufficient and gradually became a bit jaded by the lack of water that came with undetectable plugged emitters and our procrastinated repairs to shredded tubing.  Rock rose and rosemary seemed particularly independent of our poor plant management techniques.  Lavender, in spite of its occasional mysterious die-offs, seemed happy to do without extra moisture.  Even the olive trees seemed to say “Don’t worry, I’m tough.  After all, the Romans planted me all over the world and they never visited Aqua Flow.  A shower or two during the rainy season is enough.”

Two years ago we had about fourteen inches of rain.  Last year, ten.  This year a measly one and one-half inches.  Even the air looks eerily dry and foreign.  Today, fourteen percent humidity.  Attested to by a myriad of static electricity jolts delivered as I exit the car or touch Sweetie.  When I scan the landscape and the Topa Topas, I wonder what the place will look like as a desert.  A place only semi-hospitable to tortoises, rattlers and scorpions.  A place abandoned by those who are uncomfortable living in tents and tending camels.

I wonder what will happen if (when?) our well goes dry.  I marvel at the series of millennia-old underground aquifers that we undoubtedly sit on and, like the world’s supply of crude oil, know can’t go on forever without significant rain.  With no way to actually measure the available life-giving resource in the ground, I stare at the well’s electronic control box that announces the periodic pumping of water and wait for the dreaded red light that announces “sorry boss, but we’re taking a break for a couple of decades.”

I imagine replenishing my five thousand gallon water storage tanks with the aid of a commercial water truck dragging its precious cargo up the hill.  And then I ask myself where in the world that water is coming from and how long it will last.  Forget the exorbitant rates they’ll charge.  That’s of secondary importance.

I think about Lake Casitas and the poor Joes who rely on the stored water in what is fast becoming a gigantic mud hole.  I think about the current misguided effort to allow swimming in what’s left of the lake and marvel at the public’s seeming lack of concern about the larger problem of keeping any kind of water coming into their homes.

I’m no saint when it comes to conserving water.  But I don’t come anywhere close to comparing with the water glutton in central California who bemoaned the restrictions placed on her ability to continue the one hour showers that begin each of her days.

I also blanch at the signs along the thousands of crop growing acres that line Interstate 5 from Bakersfield to points north.  Signs that say “Food grows where water flows.”  An obvious, mildly threatening reminder to keep our hands off the corporate farmers’ ancient rights to all the water they want.

I calculate the water savings that come with the prudent use of low flush toilets, restricted shower heads, turning off the tap while brushing teeth and letting plants other than cactus go belly up.  Ten percent of the state’s water supply is directly controlled by the general public while eighty percent grows the crops along the Interstate.  Dutifully playing my part in this doomsday scenario and reducing my pee breaks by twenty percent will massively impact the overall problem by a microscopic two percent.  Salvation is at hand.

And then yesterday I was reminded that the quantity of water isn’t the only worry.  My e-mail delivered a friendly message from the laboratory that, in accordance with California law, performs monthly tests of our well water.  Tests that determine its drinkability, or in this case, its un-drinkability.  “Hello there, homeowner.  You’ve got a total coliform count that can wreak havoc with your intestines.  You probably should pay closer attention to what you and your neighbors are spreading around.  Have a nice day.”

After locating a five gallon jug of bottled water that we had acquired to stave off the consequences of a potential 7.2 earthquake, and which was several years beyond its expiration date, I relaxed with a glass of wine.  And wondered “they can still grow grapes without water, can’t they?”

But I have hopes.  This Saturday the Reverend Karen Wylie will be leading a Bring in the Rain ceremony at Ojai’s Soule Park.  All of us will be drumming, dancing, meditating and praying for rain.  We’re encouraged to bring either a drum, rain stick or maraca.  Damn, too bad I sold that old trumpet that I played in high school.

drought


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