Archive for the 'Community' Category

He played with his elbows

We moved to Ojai in July 2000 and began the process of inserting ourselves in the community. Our nearest neighbors were gentle with us and made us feel welcome. Some became fast friends.

The Sunday movies at the Ojai Playhouse found other friends who enjoyed foreign films, and the challenge of the closed captioning that was partially blocked by those in front of us. Because the old seats were in a straight line rather than staggered, I could only read the left or right side of the captions; the center, usually obliterated by tall, wide men with hats, was a mystery. Ila and I often turned to each other and asked with some annoyance, “What did he say?” But it was a minor price to pay to be part of the community.

We marched in the July 4th parade, attended concerts and plays at the Art Center, and volunteered our services to organizations in need. We were willing to try almost anything to complete our metamorphosis from L.A. to Ojai.

And then we heard about the Ojai Music Festival.

In 2001 we leaped at the opportunity of this new adventure. We didn’t investigate Festival history or even the current offerings. We bought tickets to what we assumed was a typical classical music extravaganza, complete with an orchestra, singers, and lots of I know that one music. I was sure that Brahms, Beethoven, and Bach would be well represented.  Lots of people regularly attended the June event, so what could be bad.

We prepared ourselves with seat cushions that took some pain out of the Bowl’s wood benches designed by Torquemada in the 15th century. Seat numbers had been pretty much eroded by the last glacier that came down Ojai Avenue, and the seats were sized for people on perpetual diets. With cramped quarters, we quickly became close friends with those on either side of us.

A bell chimed and silenced the crowd. A piano was center stage. A performer entered stage right to polite applause, sat at the piano, remained motionless for an eternity, lifted his hands, and began to play.

At first, I thought the piano was out of tune. And then I noticed that he occasionally removed his hands from the keyboard and substituted his elbows. His hands returned to the keyboard, and then gave way to elbows. Hands and elbows trading places over and over. A cacophony of sounds attacked my ears. I was stunned and fearful. And so it continued; a baptism under fire. Like Dorothy, I realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

The performer with the talented elbows ended his performance. A rumbling spread through the audience. At first, I assumed they were as mystified as I was by what they had just heard. The rumble grew louder and more strident. People rose from their seats. I wondered if, like in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein movie, the villagers were going to lynch the pianist.

And then, the 60ish woman seated next to me rose to her full 5-foot-two height. But rather than encouraging the idea of a lynching, she began shouting Bravo, bravo, bravo. Over and over, infused with an ardor that would not be satisfied until her vocal cords ceased to function.

Ila and I stared at each other and sent silent messages that included rolling our eyes, shrugging our shoulders, and displaying our up-turned palms. Who were these people who surrounded us? Were they victims of mass hypnosis? Did they need medical attention?

It ended. We began the trek to our car and bumped into some friends who had been at the performance. Normally a levelheaded, calm person, Sally asked “Wasn’t that a marvelous concert? Wasn’t it amazing? Didn’t you just love it?”

Still feeling raw-edged due to my overexposure to the elbow man, I threw political correctness to the winds and said No. With that bit of honesty, I had firmly labeled myself a non-believer, an agnostic, antiquated, a has-been. Maybe even a Tony Bennett fan.

In the years that followed, and despite our better judgment, we continued to attend the Festival like it was some kind of virus. Like the flu season, it returned each June and evaded our best attempts at eradication. I’d either relax on the lawn or, after the Bowl’s reincarnation, sit on a nice green, waterproof, stiff plastic chair. I’d watch and listen, using the Elbow Man’s performance as a baseline measurement for weird, annoying music.

Anna, the Festival’s happy-faced fund raiser, has become my personal concierge in picking a performance that would least offend me. Because of Jackie’s work schedule, our choices this year were limited. Anna suggested the Sunday morning program featuring a pianist. Always one to foolishly let history repeat itself, I sent them a boatload of cash and got two tickets in row E.

We arrived, located our seats, and were surprised to find no one in rows A to D. After a thorough astronomical evaluation, we realized that those rows were exposed to full sunlight while Row E only allowed a solar invasion of my ankles. The movement of the Earth around the Sun, and the possibility of cremation, became something else to worry about besides the music.

The chimes sounded. The audience quieted and our attention was drawn to the lonely Steinway grand piano in the middle of the stage. The pianist entered stage right, sat at the piano, flexed, and then fell silent. He waited. Memories of the Elbow Man flooded through me.

Close enough to see his hands and elbows, I watched. I held my breath. He played.

I loved it.

No longer Eden

The man and the woman stood motionless on the crest of the hill. It was hot, too hot for the beginning of November. They wore thin faded shirts, brown shorts and wide-brimmed hats. Their scuffed hiking shoes had seen better days.

The man reached into the backpack at his feet, retrieved a dented water bottle and offered it to the woman. “Here, take this. Be careful, it’s all we have until we can find more.”

The woman took the bottle from the man as if it contained something breakable, unscrewed the plastic cap and put it to her lips. She drank slowly and longingly. Maybe a quarter cup. Then she handed it back to the man.

The man hefted it, guessed it was half full, and then taking it to his parched lips, he drank. A warm, almost too warm, liquid ran over his tongue and into his throat. He capped the bottle, held it for a moment, stared at it as though remembering something, and then put it in the backpack.

Spread out before them was a landscape devoid of greenery. Even the chapparal was brown and lifeless. A large black bird appeared overhead and flew aimlessly looking for something and seeing nothing.

The man and the woman scanned the horizon and remembered the rows of sweet orange and tangy lemon trees that had once been prominent. No tree had been spared. Even the silvery olives were gone, their hundred-year-old branches devoid of life. Their mouths, though aching for the saliva prompted by their thoughts, remained dry.

It seemed that only a few years had passed since the great drought had begun. Perhaps deceived by the incessant, mind-bending heat, the years had been compressed in their minds. The man and woman were not alone; the entire world had joined them in their misery.

First, it was the western states. The great, seemingly eternal Colorado River had stopped, like someone had flipped a switch. Castaic, the smallest lifegiving source, had gone quickly revealing the old structures that had once been covered with fifty feet of water. The great California reservoirs had emptied, puddled, then disappeared. Folsom, Shasta and Oroville, once full now gone. 

The mysterious underground aquifers with hidden treasure troves of liquid gold had ceased to send water regardless of the depth of wells. Huge irrigation pumps now stood idle and silent, rusting. Farmers had abandoned the fields that the man and woman now looked upon.

Home water use had been severely curtailed. Saddled with huge penalties for overuse, people did what they could, but not enough. Food supplies dependent on water dwindled. Farm animals unable to adapt became a novelty, then disappeared completely.

Air conditioning except when medically prescribed was forbidden. Red rectangular placards were placed on entry doors instead of on cars signifying the use of authorized coolers. Some remembered the days when no one had air conditioning, but no one had ever experienced this nonstop debilitating heat.

When the dams went dry, electricity was reduced to a trickle. Conversion to diesel powered generators was temporary because the pollution only worsened the heat.

Homes in once desirable communities were like albatrosses. Like the Okies of Dust Bowl days, people packed up and moved to places with water. Communities with resources blocked the entry of the migrants who were forced to live on the open road. But this too was short lived; climate change and annual increases of one-degree centigrade eventually produced perpetual droughts for everyone.

Unemployment soared as companies slid into bankruptcy, then closed. Like the Great Depression, the jobless begged. The government, with its feet stuck in concrete before the great drought, took over the distribution of food. We had finally achieved equal status with other countries; except we were now all third world.

The man and the woman had often talked about this. How could a once great county fall to its knees because of water? Surely everyone knew what needed to be done. Why had this opportunity been squandered?

No matter, it was too late now. The problem continued to feed upon itself. The future was undeniable. Our time on earth, like that of the dinosaurs, was ending. Not in a cataclysmic event, but rather a slow glacial slide to oblivion while we sat on our hands.

The man and the woman began to walk. Slowly, so as not to tire before finding some water over the next hill.

What day is it?

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, begins at sundown on September 18. Being something less than a Talmudic scholar, I had assumed that it was only Jewish holidays that began and ended at sundown.

I often wondered why Jews didn’t just look at an ancient clock and, like everyone else, start their day somewhere around 12 midnight. And then I discovered that Muslims also begin their holidays at sundown. There are 15 million Jews in the world and nearly two billion Muslims, a quarter of the Earth’s population. The calendar is one of the few things that we sort of agree on.

We further befuddle our Christian friends by using a lunar calendar as opposed to the Gregorian, or solar, calendar adopted by Pope Gregory in 1582. Its predecessor was the Julian Calendar developed by the same guy who said, “You too, Brutus?”

Put simply, the solar calendar uses the passage of the earth around the sun to measure the passage of time (or days.) The lunar calendar uses the passage of the moon around the earth to do the same thing. The time it takes for the Earth to shlep around the sun is about 365 days, or one solar year. A lunar calendar month, defined as the time between new moons, is about 29.5 days. The Hebrew lunar calendar, tinkered with by Maimonides in the 12th century, is about eleven days shorter than the solar calendar.

So who cares, and what difference does it make anyway? As far as I know, no one has missed a meeting of the G20 Summit leaders, with the possible exception of President Trump, because some attendees used one calendar while others used another.

The only time I think about lunar versus solar is when I ask myself the question, “When is Rosh Hashanah this year?” Which actually seems like a stupid question. No one ever says, “When is the 4th of July this year?” Or, “When is Christmas this year?”

The reason the question about Rosh Hashanah isn’t stupid, is that it doesn’t fall on the same date each year…at least not on the Gregorian calendar; the one that stares at me from my iPhone every day.

For example, Rosh Hashanah was on October 2 in 2016, but falls on September 18 in 2020. In 2016, we probably said something like, “Oh my, the holidays are so late this year. I probably will freeze my tuchas.” Or this year we might say, “It’s early. Bet it’ll be hot in shul.” On the other hand, an orthodox Jew might say, “Late, shmate. It’s the same date every year, the first of Tishrei. Dummy.”

Since living the townie life in Ojai, I have become dependent on Rabbi Mordy to keep me up to date on the holidays. Passover brings him to my door with a box of matzohs made in Israel. Hannukah brings chocolate money, or gelt, for my sweet tooth. This morning, eight days before Rosh Hashanah, my doorbell rang and there he was, his face mask covering most of his scruffy beard.

“L’shana tovah…Happy new year”, he said while maintaining six feet of separation. He handed me a goody bag with a muffin, an apple and a small bottle of honey; all the traditional items for the new year. And a face mask which hopefully is not.

We talked about the coming of the messiah and agreed that this maybe wasn’t such a good year for it given the virus, the fires, the protests and the political leaders who don’t seem to have a clue about what to do.

Twenty minutes after Rabbi Mordy left, the doorbell rang again. Looking through the side glass I saw two tall, masked young men. They didn’t look much like my image of the messiah, and throwing caution to the wind, I opened the door. Holding out a small bag, they said, “Hi. We’re from the Crew to say thank you for your support.” The Crew employs young people to do brush clearance and trail maintenance, while at the same time enhancing their lives.

I thanked them, waited, and wondered if they were going to say “L’shana tovah.”

It was going to be a good day, solar or lunar.

Oh, and if you need to know what year it is, it’s 5781. But that’s another story.

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 Mask is More than a Mask

You would have thought that the benefits of wearing a mask during this pandemic had finally become settled science. And that only loons would be resisting the call of the mask. But then you’d be wrong.

“Americans are rarely up in arms when they see signs that require them to wear shoes or shirts because abiding by those standards is part of our culture,” says NYU expert David Abrams, a professor of social and behavioral sciences.

“There’s a certain bravado of being angry and defying requirements to wear a mask,” he continued.

“Those who choose not to wear masks may feel a sense of solidarity, like they’re taking a stand against authority,” Professor Abrams concluded.

“Once Trump clearly did not wear mask in public, it transmitted a signal that if you’re a good supporter of the president you don’t wear a mask,” reported Chris Jackson of IPSOS public affairs.

Like the learned persons noted above, I’ve often wanted to be quoted in the media, but I’ve never said anything worthwhile. So, in my continuing quest for a memorable byline, I decided to wander through the Ojai metropolis hoping to capitalize and report on the wear/don’t wear issues facing my fellow citizens.

I thought that taking their photos would be a good way of breaking the ice with them. I therefore armed myself with my most impressive piece of camera equipment as a way of assuring potential interviewees that I was indeed the real thing, and someone to be reckoned with. It also would add credence to my encounters with young women who might have otherwise thought that I was merely a dirty old man hoping to take closeup pictures of their breasts and tight shorts.

I love taking photos of people but am a bit reluctant to approach strangers for fear of rejection. To minimize that possibility, I developed a sure-fire way of addressing the problem that featured an elaborate introduction.

“Hi. I’m taking photos of people wearing masks. Can I take yours?” It was a guaranteed winner.

Slinging my camera over my shoulder (it looks a lot cooler that way than draping it around one’s neck) my adventure began with a mid-morning stroll through the grassy plaza between Bonnie Lu’s and Rains, used primarily by pet owners who have nowhere else for their loved ones to take a dump.

My first encounter involved a young couple and their dog.

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“Why are you wearing a mask?” I pointedly asked, adding, “And why isn’t your obviously disinterested dog wearing one?”

The young man replied, “We formerly were terrorists from Afghanistan and have worn masks since we were three. The dog is a Trump supporter and refuses to wear one. He’s a Birther too. We only take him with us so he doesn’t get pissed and crap on the carpet.”

I next wandered over to the plaza fountain and discovered a bevy of young women who were enjoying the warm day and doing a lot of giggling.

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I asked the cute brunette, “What brings you to Ojai on this beautiful day and why are you covering up that lovely face?”

“We don’t work, and we live with our parents who support us financially. We’ve got everything we need in our big house in the Arbolada. I love these Acai bowls from Revel even though we all know they are worse for you than what you get at Ojai Ice Cream. But I ignore it like everything else in my life and hope it will all work out without me doing anything.”

“But what about the masks?” I said.

“Oh, the masks. We just think they are really cool looking. We pick up guys much more easily and never have to show them our faces. Maybe someday they’ll make a body mask too.”

Leaving the lovely ladies, I decided to circumnavigate the plaza and found this young man standing outside the Tortilla House on Signal Street.

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“You’re obviously an upstanding citizen. What brings you to the Tortilla House and why are you wearing a mask?”

“I’m a big Trumper and I only go to restaurants that fly the flag. I’d dump this shitty mask which has been proven to be of no medical value, but Jose the owner will call the cops on me. Can’t wait till Trump is re-elected and we can trash the masks, get rid of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, ban Yoga, and shut down every Vegan food joint in this town.”

I thanked him for his patriotic insights and moved on. Mid-way on Ojai Avenue, I found this trucker in front of Osteria Monte Grappa.

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“Welcome to our town,” I began. Why are you wearing a mask and aren’t you worried about exposing yourself to all these stores and people?“

“I have no idea if these masks are any good. But I figure what have I got to lose?” And my covered face makes me even more attractive to the girls. In fact, I just picked up a cute brunette near the plaza fountain.”

I was getting tired and decided to call it a day. On my way I found these two women near Rains department store.

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“Ladies, you look exactly like native Ojaians should look. Do you mind if I take your picture?”  (I had dropped any elaborate explanation of why I was doing this since no one seemed to care and everyone wanted their picture taken anyway.)

The more statuesque of the two said, “Yes, please take our picture with our masks. And could we have a copy? We’d love to send it to our kids who live in L.A. and who worry that we are exposing ourselves to the virus by shlepping all over town without proper precautions. They foolishly think we’re getting senile, especially when we tell them that President Wilson assures us that he has the Spanish Flu under control.”

I laughed, packed it in and, after discussing the pros and cons of The League of Nations, I said good-bye to the ladies and asked them who they would be voting for this November.

“Why Mr. Harding, of course.”

In retrospect, I consider my mask adventure a great success. Only a quarter of the people I met seemed to have any thoughts about the medical value of face coverings. Which is probably a good thing since all that does is cause arguments. And besides, the Swine Flu is right around the corner. Good thing President Ford is planning to vaccinate all of us.

It is a big deal

I’ve exposed myself.

Not to small children; and always fully clothed.

No, I’ve thrown caution to the wind and put myself in situations that are simply irresistible to the little Covid-19 viruses. They look at me like fresh meat; someone who is old and unable to resist their charms. Someone of the sort I often hear referred to as one who would have probably died anyway.

Jackie and I have visited the innards of restaurants and dined in what I laughingly call mask and wipe conditions. We’ve sat on our favorite Arcade bench on Sundays stuffing our faces with Acai Bowls while surrounded by hordes of visitors who’ve left the safety of the big city and brought their asymptomatic disease-ridden bodies to our normally pristine Ojai.

We sit apart from friends at weekly backyard tete-a-tetes, yet we feel little compunction touching a hand or sitting while a guest stands over us and delivers a dissertation filled with water droplets dredged from their innards.

Our beloved cars are no longer sanctuaries. I took a good friend to the doctor on Wednesday. Our sixty-mile round-trip was punctuated by sidelong glances at each other as we silently wondered if our travelling companions included the little Covid guys. It was a long trip.

Jackie and I ended our customary five-mile hike through the Arbolada with a visit to Java and Joes where we waited for our coffee and reminisced about the passing of one of its owners. Lorraine, a delightful personality had died just prior to the ascendancy of the virus and was blessedly relieved of that nightmare.

Having memorized the Java and Joe protocol, I invited Ralph to join me on Tuesday. A good friend with a perpetually smiling face, I enjoy his company. Since his coming over from the Dark Side because of Trump’s ascendancy, Ralph and I tend to agree on the larger issues more often.

So, I was surprised when half-way through our medium roast coffee, he said, “Why are they making such a big deal out of this George Floyd thing?  Protests, riots, speeches, cop blasting. The cops are always doing something stupid. That big funeral. When have they ever done anything like that for others? And anyway, what about the Mexicans. They’re always getting the short end of the stick. And they don’t riot in the streets.”

I had to take a breath and pause before answering. But all I could say was, “It was a tipping point. Blacks have been screwed so often that the Floyd thing just set them off.”

We finished our coffee in relative silence, hoping we hadn’t pissed each other off. I walked home thinking what a lame thing I had offered in defense of the events precipitated by Floyd’s killing. A killing that was launched by a counterfeit $20 bill. A killing shown on national TV just like it was the Super Bowl. A killing perpetrated by a cop who treated it like a sporting event. A killing that some of our elected leaders took far too long to condemn. A killing that some attempted to bury by focusing on the looting done by the demonstrators.

If I had been more knowledgeable at the coffee shop, I would have itemized the things that had contributed to Floyd’s murder and more specifically why African Americans are making, as Ralph said, such “a big deal” out of it.

Because the median White family has 41 times more wealth than the median Black family.

Because in the last quarter of 2019, the median White worker made 28 percent more than the typical Black worker.

Because the U.S. poverty rate for White men is 7 percent, yet it is 20 percent for Black women.

Because, for each 100,000 Americans, 55 Blacks have died from the coronavirus, compared to 23 Whites.

Because African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.

Because African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, but the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is 6 times that of whites.

Because on average, nonwhite school districts received $2,200 less per student than districts that were predominantly white.

Because, in 2019, African Americans were more than three times more likely to be killed by police but were less likely to carry guns.

Yes, I would have cited these statistics and convinced myself that Ralph would clearly understand why this is such “a bid deal.”

But then he might have paused and said, “You’re a Jew. You’ve had your share of holocausts and lesser acts of discrimination. Where are the Jewish protests and street riots? The flamboyant displays of anger and the resounding demands for action. The cop bashing.”

And if I had thought of it, I would have said, “The difference is that whenever I am threatened, I run toward the police, not away from them.”

Too much separation

Made margaritas last night. My special recipe calls for Jose Cuervo ready mix (it includes a modicum of tequila), another half-jigger of straight tequila (any old thing will do nicely), a wedge of lime and lots of ice.

The ice lends a cooling feel to your hand on hot late afternoons, except when it is poured into a cheap cardboard Dixie cup. Which is how we served it to four friends at 6pm yesterday on our patio in the waning heat of the afternoon. These Covid-19 gatherings have become more frequent since the virus became our guest… and progressively more inebriating.

Abiding by the rules of social distancing, we maintain six feet of separation, sort of. The first of our meetings was held in a school parking lot where space was plentiful but where the surroundings resembled East Berlin before the wall fell. We have since advanced to our participants’ backyards. To avoid depositing the virus in the sanctity of the home, we enter through a side gate. Lack of access to the host home during the patio party requires a degree of advance bladder planning.

Picking a seat on one’s patio is an adventure that involves thinking about the needs of your companions. Those who have some physical limitations are granted the seat of their choice. Seats are often reorganized after getting settled, sometimes more than once.

We began our parties by bringing our own snacks and beverages to avoid cross contamination as we foraged through piles of chips, a bucket of guacamole and freshly popped corn. That requirement has been less firmly applied of late as we bring snacks to share. That chink in the armor has been extended to the serving of alcohol. The use of  ever-increasing volumes of alcohol has loosened our tongues and our ability to maintain the six-foot rule. We brush by each other as we grab food and have difficulty remembering which paper plate is ours. Unlike glass, Dixie cups are never refilled; a fresh one is provided to minimize the mixing of the host’s germs with those of the guests.

A single cough or sneeze from one of our participants often quiets our otherwise noisy group as we mentally analyze the implications of this violation. Sheila, our host two weeks ago had, in addition to providing some lovely snacks, coughed twice and said, “It’s only an allergy.” To which I responded with Walter Cronkite inflection, “Six people were found dead on the Cohn’s patio this morning. The only survivor, Sheila, was heard to say, “But I was sure it was only an allergy.”

Regardless of the level of alcohol in my brain, I am sharply aware of all these risky moves. I used to calculate the number of days that I had to wait after each violation before my Covid-19 symptoms might appear. But there were so many of the violations that the practice was abandoned when I realized that an Excel spread sheet would be needed.

In addition to the peccadillos occurring on the patio, there were other less joyful opportunities elsewhere for virus mating. Around the home, door handles, car steering wheels, my computer keyboard and the mailbox were all highly suspicious and required enough hand soap to make Proctor and Gamble my new best friend.

Westridge market is a veritable cornucopia of opportunities. Selecting bananas, squeezing bagged loaves of olive bread, or reading the ingredients in a jar of avocado mayo was the least of it. The simple act of grabbing and dragging a shopping cart from a reluctant stack was enough to send me to the ER…regardless of whether it had been drenched in disinfectant.

Eating prepared meals to support local eateries was a crapshoot. Buying a Greek salad at Rainbow Bridge was unassuring despite its claim to being gluten free, organic, vegan and free range. Ordering take-out from Hakane Sushi was like participating in a Zombies Overrun New Jersey movie when I visualized the helping hands that had caressed my California roll. No amount of sake could erase that thought from my frontal lobe.

Pumping gas, a now infrequent event, includes the use of a paper towel kindly provided by the local Chevron station. Trying to wrap the towel around my hand is akin to tying my shoe with one hand. But then I forget about the germ-laden keyboard as I enter my zip code.

Face masks do little to comfort my anxiety. Wearing an NP-95 mask left over from the Thomas fire riddles me with guilt as I consider all the first responders who may be doing without. Wearing a home-made cloth one, while attractive, is surely unsuitable to keeping the virus from flying directly through my nostrils or embedding itself in my welcoming brown eyes. Much like Woody Allen in Sleeper, waking to a world that embraces smoking and banana cream pie, I assuage my concerns by fantasizing that the use of masks was really the cause rather than the prevention of the problem.

Our next patio party is Saturday. It’s one of the perks that come with pandemics.

What earthquake?

There was a 3.7 earthquake in Los Angeles this morning, and no one seemed to care.

My morning corona virus routine began with a treadmill romp in the exercise room. Walking at a three miles per hour blazing pace, I stared at the TV and soaked up the morning news on my local ABC station.

Miriam Hernandez was saying something about an earthquake and finished that intro with a hand-off to John Gregory who was standing at the epicenter of the quake in Windsor Hills. It is a small hole in the wall near Inglewood; a larger hole in the wall famous for the Fabulous Forum where Kareem and Magic taught basketball to lesser mortals who were foolish enough to challenge them.

The Lakers have long since departed the Forum for fancier digs downtown. The once fabulous venue now hosts events including the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards, Men’s Freestyle Wrestling World Cup and my favorite, the Super Flyweight World Championship.

The excitement generated by these events might normally have been eclipsed by a 3.7 quake. But there was John, standing alone in the street, attempting to rouse us from our coma-like, corona-induced slumber. He did his best with mind-grabbing one-liners including no injuries have been reported, no visible damage can be seen, and calls to 911 were underwhelming.

To put things in perspective and add an element of humor to his broadcast, John might have given us a quick tutorial on the Richter Scale.

Developed in 1935 by Charles Richter at the California Institute of Technology, it’s a logarithmic scale that probably means nothing to you, so I will skip any explanation of it. Suffice it to say, the scale measures a quake’s amplitude by the size of the wiggles on an earthquake recording…just like those on an EKG readout of your heart. Being logarithmic, each whole number increase in Dr. Richter’s amplitude scale is ten times greater than the previous number. At 6.7, the amplitude of the 1994 Northridge quake was 1,000 (10x10x10) times greater than the 3.7 one this morning.

Continuing to impress you with my knowledge of logarithms, the Richter Scale also measures the energy released by a quake. Even scarier than amplitude, each whole number increase is about 30 times greater than the prior number. Ergo, the Northridge quake released energy that was 27,000 (30x30x30) times greater than the one being featured by John this morning. More to the point, that is why my fish tank fell over in the Northridge quake while I slept blissfully through today’s puny tremor.

The quest for Covid-19 newsworthy items continues to dominate the media, further stretching John’s ability to satisfy our appetites with something like a mini-quake. However, I have noticed a slow creep of other news items that had once filled my TV screen, prior to Man vs. Covid-19.

For example, two days ago, a mass murder in Canada got a half-day of coverage, then exhausted its welcome when the police in a small New Jersey town got an anonymous tip about a body being stored in a shed outside one of the state’s largest nursing homes. Arriving there, the cops found 17 bodies lying about with Covid-19 etched on their foreheads. This was enough to shove any news about this Thursday’s NFL draft to a status well below the day’s most appealing pasta recipe.

Poor Joe Biden, who has never worn the mantle of Mr. Excitement, was pictured exhorting his admirers to storm the White House. He was quickly placed on the inactive list when he was upstaged by a Covid-19 mother in the Bronx tending to the needs of her six kids and a dog.

Donald Trump briefly tweeted into the spotlight when he decided to stop all border crossings. The business community angrily noted that this would cut the number of day laborers by two-thirds and further threaten the already fragile food chain. Realizing that he had just alienated his base and potentially caused irreparable damage to his favorite cereal, Captain Crunch, Mr. Trump said his tweet had been misinterpreted and was meant to apply only to crossings made from American Samoa.

Signs that the virus is losing some steam make new crises harder to find. Or maybe we are simply becoming bored with the whole thing. Face masks, while de rigueur, no longer attract the attention they once did. What started out as a quest for the holy grail has turned into a complete face-covering wardrobe with masks for day use and others specifically for nighttime entertaining.

Flag waving, horn honking moms wearing cowboy boots filled TV screens for a time, until mildly disinterested viewers realized that these protesters were a poor substitute for the Tea Party. Tired of schlepping the heavy flags and with a growing inability to understand how their deaths from the virus might make them more patriotic, they closed up shop and joined the ranks of those other patriots who refuse to vaccinate their children.

But not to worry about content as there will shortly be juicier Covid-19 adventures to fill the void. As noted in today’s Washington Post….

By the end of the week, Georgia residents will be able to get their hair permed and nails done. By Monday, they will be cleared for action flicks at the cineplex and burgers at their favorite greasy spoon.

And it will almost certainly lead to more novel corona virus infections and deaths.

As several states — including South Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida — rush to reopen businesses, the sudden relaxation of restrictions will supply new targets for the coronavirus that has kept the United States largely closed down…

An 8.0 quake will seem like a walk in the park.

A Place in the Sun

I went to Westridge Market this morning looking for a few things to make this really yummy sounding pear recipe. Pears, blue cheese, tart dried cherries, lemons and brown sugar. I already had the final ingredient, port wine, at home. Port is not my favorite mind bender, but until it spoils it can serve as a safety net if I exhaust my scotch, gin, vodka and bourbon. Oh, and the white wine too.

I visit the local markets frequently. It’s something to do while the virus tracks me down and a bit of a challenge. I’ve made a game of it, with toilet paper playing a leading role. Other less challenging roles are assigned to canned goods and baking supplies. All have been in short supply and the game has become more problematic as the days go by. Dire messages from the news-hungry media and the President’s semi-factual, self-taught pronouncements have encouraged me to stock up in anticipation of the rapid evolution of a new ice age populated only by cockroaches, termites and English sparrows.

This morning’s Play Station worthy episode began with an exploration of the offerings available on the Internet. I dove into the quest anticipating the usual disappointment. The object of my desire, toilet paper, was unavailable at Costco, Amazon or Vons. “Out of Stock” was the most popular response to my incessant clicking. “Available in June” was a close second. Visions of self-imposed constipation lit up my morning.

Convincing myself that there was a critical, not to be postponed, need for the components of my pear recipe, I drove to Westridge. Optimistic, I extracted two cloth grocery bags from my trunk, dropped them into one of several thousand empty shopping carts and wheeled my way into the store. Shelved stock was pathetic, except for liquor which seems to self-regenerate without human intervention. Usually abundant, now scarce, cans of tomatoes were standing apart from one another as though they too dreaded the touch of some other can’s corona-infested tin cladding.

The object of my search was two aisles removed from the unsocial tomato cans. Not wishing to seem obvious, but also wary of losing my place to others, I moved casually in a feigned disinterested manner.  I stared down the coveted aisle. Shelves normally laden with rolls of toilet paper were barren. I cruised aimlessly down the empty shelves and noted the signs that were taped to the metal. Written unceremoniously with a Sharpie, they severely admonished hoarders. Three Rolls to a Customer. Leave Some for the Next Guy. No Exceptions. I half expected that I’d find one that said Get Used to It or a page of instructions, complete with photos, demonstrating a more efficient way of wiping your fanny. There were so many signs that, for a moment, I thought I might take them home as substitutes for the real thing.

I wondered how, if they really had toilet paper, they would enforce the no more than three rolls per customer rule. Could a family of four, including two infants nestled in the shopping cart, buy twelve rolls? Might a couple split their groceries and check out separately doubling their bounty? Could the same purchaser check out three rolls, exit the store, come back five minutes later and get a second helping? Could seniors double-dip since they tended to make more daily visits to the throne than younger people?

As I stood there fantasizing, I glimpsed a flash of white set back in the shadows of the bottom shelf. My heart raced as I reached in and grasped it. A roll that had somehow eluded my competition was now mine. It bore no resemblance to any of the usual brands. It was clumsily wrapped in nondescript paper and looked as though it might have been previously fondled and rejected by several seekers less amorous than I.

I stared at the roll in my hand. I’ve learned a lot about toilet tissue while cruising the web. Number of layers and the thickness of each prominently jump to the top of the list of important characteristics. Some rolls have more sheets, but each sheet may be thinner. Or shorter. The status of your septic system may trounce all other considerations. These critical issues should cause one to pause as they review the qualities that most closely match their particular preferences.

Rolls made for commercial use often have narrow holes in the center of the roll that make it unsuitable for hanging on your common garden-variety tissue holder. Perhaps this deliberate impediment limits the number of rolls purloined by employees or visitors who don’t want a hundred feet of toilet paper cascading down the center of their bathroom. If you have ever attempted to re-roll a runaway roll, you know what I mean.

These industrial rolls are often sold in boxes of sixty or more. Rejected in normal times, these lifetime supplies from China are now in demand. However, one must often give up one full space in a two-car garage to house these monstrosities. And what about the impact on the neighbors’ sensitivities when seeing the over-sized cartons being wheeled off the large shipment FedEx truck. On the other hand, an otherwise cranky but needy neighbor can become your new best friend overnight.

There I was, holding an orphaned, undersized and rejected roll of paper. One that normally would have been consigned to the parking lot dumpster. But today, it was found gold. I placed it lovingly in the center of my shopping cart and began my march to the checkout station. And then I wondered what I was doing.

Had I become so besotted with my search for toilet paper that I had lost my sense of proportion? Was I so bereft of my senses that the acquisition of one runty ill-wrapped roll could consume me? Did I even know how many rolls I already had or even where I had stored them?

My accomplishment paled as I reached the checkout. I felt a twinge of embarrassment as I tossed my purchases onto the conveyor belt. I was sure the checker was thinking “Poor guy. Only one roll of toilet paper.  And then what?  I shudder to think.”

Bagging my purchases into my own ancient, germ-infested cloth bag revealed the extent of my shame. The toilet paper went first, to be buried by my other menial purchases before anyone but the checker could be made privy to my dismal situation.

Arriving home, I considered possible storage locations for the orphan. Housing it with rolls that had familiar pedigrees like Scott and Charmin just would not do. On the other hand, a dark, recessed place of its own seemed too harsh on the little fella.

I decided that anonymity was the best course of action. Unwrapping the roll gave it life and a certain air of mystery. Able to assume any identity, it is no longer an outcast as it hangs with honor waiting to serve me.

I think both of us are quite happy with the way it all turned out.

The most precious thing

What is the most precious thing in the world?

What are the characteristics that make it so? A short list might include beauty, timelessness, desirability and scarcity.

Until last week, my most precious list would have included a unique jewel much like the Hope Diamond. At 45 carats, about a third of an ounce, the Hope luxuriates in Washington DC’s Museum of National History. Legend has it that the diamond is cursed and the owner, or anyone else who touches it, will die. Sort of like forgetting to clean your doorknobs of the Corona virus. If the stone was in the Museum’s gift shop, its price tag would be about $350 million plus tax. Not sure if they offer gift wrapping.

The Mona Lisa is also in the running. Housed in the Paris Louvre, the lady with the mysterious smile is estimated to set you back nearly a billion bucks, plus tax. Framing is extra. The Italian noblewoman, believed to be Lisa Gherardini, was painted by da Vinci around 1503. She displays an enigmatic expression that undoubtedly reflects Lisa’s awareness that twenty-first century art connoisseurs would assuredly be foolish enough to pay her over inflated price.

Faberge eggs have captured the imagination since the 1800’s when they were produced in Czarist Russia. Most were made for royalty, but the majority did not survive the revolution, or the misguided melting of the undervalued eggs for their gold. One such egg, purchased at a flea market fifty years ago for $14,000, currently has an estimated value of over thirty million. The ignorant flea market purchaser kept it in his Midwest home located next to a highway and a Dunkin Donuts until an antique dealer spotted it sitting next to some cupcakes on the owner’s Formica kitchen counter.

These three items have at least one thing in common. None have any utilitarian value. If you awoke next Monday morning and discovered that your Faberge was cracked, your diamond shattered or the Mona Lisa looking like DC Comics’ Joker, you would probably shrug and say something like easy come, easy go. Then turn over in bed, snuggle with your sweetie, and your morning would go on as always, without the diamond, the painting or the egg.

The most precious list takes on a wholly different flavor when we are faced with something that can seriously impact how we live. The current Corona crisis helps put things in perspective. Especially at the grocery store. Tough times with real or imaginary shortages of taken-for-granted items, often reveal some of our baser instincts.

In 1967 we lived in Chicago when we had 27 inches of snow in a single day. The freeway shut down and people used it as boardwalk to the nearest market. Gallons of milk disappeared from store shelves, probably into homes where it was never consumed. It surely spoiled before it could be wolfed down by people who hadn’t had a glassful since they were in Mrs. Weintraub’s first grade class.

Moving to Los Angeles that same year to avoid future blizzards, we were welcomed with earthquakes. The worst was the 1994 Northridge quake. No electricity. No open markets. We became a third world country overnight. Hot dogs from our non-functioning freezer were roasted over our still operating gas stove. Candles provided light. Empty fifty-gallon metal barrels appeared on the street; their burning wood scraps providing a place for people to gather. We avoided driving our cars, fearful that we might never find fuel in gas stations that could no longer pump it. Hush hush messages were shared with friends whenever a secret stash of store-based vitals was discovered; we invariably arrived too late to grab anything that we didn’t really need anyway.

The blizzard cleanup and the quake reconstruction were short term impediments to our lifestyle. They were localized, allowing billions of people to be mere TV voyeurs watching the drama unfold without being directly affected by the events. We intuitively knew that our lives would be restored to normalcy before the next Olympics.

In agonizing contrast, the Corona madness has the entire world at its feet. Any permanent respite is impossible to predict with any certainty. At seven every morning we watch ABC’s George Stephanopoulos lean forward in his Good Morning America swivel chair and tell us how god-damn awful this thing is. How the rate of infection will soon fill every hospital bed, the Superdome and all the sea-going Maersk shipping containers with victims who have no ventilators and no hope. How anyone George interviews is deemed crazy by him if they say things are getting under control. We multi-task by staring at the streaming crawler spewing more bad news at the bottom of our TV screen…repeating these disasters every sixty seconds. Like lemmings, we are too paralyzed to turn it off and switch to the fifteenth episode of the fourth year of our favorite depressing Netflix series.

Images of food shortages race through our frontal lobe. Some of us remember World War 2 ration books, victory gardens and meatless Mondays. We mentally inventory our available foodstuffs. We have no idea when this worst of all flu seasons will end. We see the Vons’ parking lot filled from six in the morning into the night. Cars sliding snail-like up and down the aisles looking to catch a break. We think they must know something we don’t. So we join them.

We grab an available cart, ladling germs onto the palms of our hands. We enter through the automatic doors, thankful we don’t have to touch them. We grab a disinfectant tissue and wipe our hands and the cart’s push bar. We dispose of the tissue on top of the overflowing garbage can.

Once fully inside, we stop. Where are we going? Left or right? So much to choose from. Better make up our mind quickly before someone else snatches our number one item while we procrastinate like Lot’s wife. We finally decide.

We stare at the overhead signs. And then we spot it. Paper Goods. We move quickly. Our heart is pounding. We look down the chosen aisle. Our eyes shift right. A sea of off-white metal meets our gaze. Having never seen an empty Vons display rack, we are momentarily stunned, unable to move. How is this possible?

Now we know what the most precious item is. What will change sensible shoppers into glutinous hoarders. What we can’t do without. Names that had little importance two weeks ago have come to the top of our most precious list. Northern, Charmin, Kirkland, Angel Soft, Cottonelle, Scott. All gone.

The Hope Diamond, the Mona Lisa and Faberge eggs are still available. But who gives a shit?


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