Archive for the 'Community' Category

More than weeds

I don’t usually take candid photos. I’d rather focus on a project that’s several months in duration.

About ten years ago, Ila and I had the pleasure of producing a book called The Faces of Help of Ojai. With the cooperation of the Help staff, we chose about twenty people who volunteered there. Our objective was to take their photos, interview them and publish a book that had their pictures and their words. We hoped the book would tell the reader why people volunteer and would encourage them to follow in their footsteps.

We set up in a small room at Help and blocked out the light coming through the windows. Each subject seated themselves comfortably in front of artificial lighting. I snapped photos while Ila asked the volunteer a series of predetermined questions. We recorded the conversation and extracted a couple of paragraphs that became part of the volunteer’s book page along with a photo.

We published and distributed about five thousand copies of the thirty-page book. I still get a charge whenever it pops up unexpectedly and I remember how much Ila and I enjoyed working together on the project. I was especially pleased to see it displayed today at my bereavement group session. Sadly, many of the book’s featured volunteers have passed away.

Another project involved photographing oil wells. I used unusual angles and close-ups. I enhanced the faded colors of the rigs and emphasized their graininess. Ila was my sous-chef, carried some of my equipment and was welcome company. The project took about four months. When we finished, I took the portfolio to the Union Oil Museum in Santa Paula thinking they might like to exhibit some of them. The response from the museum administrator was “Why would we display pictures of oil wells?” Scratching my head, I went home, put a couple of photos on the wall and deemed the project completed.

About seven years ago I became fixated on the wild flowers that a perfect rainy season had brought to the area around our home in the Upper Ojai. The vistas were filled with plants whose names were a mystery to me. These plants and their flowers must be photographed and identified, I thought. Arming ourselves with a clipper and a bucket of water, Ila and I spent the next few weeks collecting samples of the best they had to offer. Placed in the bucket, Ila nurtured them as though a bouquet of the finest roses.

Each of the plants was quite small, about a foot high. Its blossoms no larger than a quarter. I used a very small vise to stand the plant erect. A black background was placed behind the plant. Using a macro lens, I photographed about thirty of the tiny plants from about eighteen inches away. The plants in the photos could have easily been assumed to be much larger than reality.

We printed the photos as large as my printer would allow. The resulting fourteen by twenty-one-inch prints revealed the intricacies of the stalk, the leaves and, most of all, the flowers. Veins in the leaves were easily distinguishable, much like the avenues though which our blood flows. Tiny hairs on the stalks reminded me of the hair on the back of my neck. Flowers revealed the uniform structures that supported them. Lacy filaments cascaded throughout. The colors were vibrant.

And all the while I thought of these little beauties as weeds. Interlopers that would normally be viewed as pests in an otherwise manicured landscape or garden. So that’s what we called our collection…Weeds. I posted them on my website, produced brochures that we sent to friends and framed a few.

Years passed and the Weed collection remained dormant. I went on to other things, but continued to wonder what would happen to Weeds. Just another project that absorbed part of my life seemed too little. Yet I did little to promote its resurrection. Ila passed away. So, it seemed, had Weeds.

My friend, Barbara, had been working on developing a collection of art for the new Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura. Devoting over six years to the project, she and her committee had accumulated more than six hundred pieces that would grace the rooms and corridors of the new facility. Barbara had seen Weeds and asked if I wanted to see them on the hospital walls. Would I? It was the opportunity I had been looking for.

The new emergency department has twenty-five examining rooms. I had twenty-five weed photos. A match made in heaven. I printed the photos and Barbara had them framed. They were hung.

A week ago, the new hospital opened its arms and invited the public to see the six hundred pieces now housed permanently on its walls. Jackie and I got there an hour after the affair began. We listened to some speeches and, when the formalities were completed, we went directly to the emergency department. Greeted by a security officer, we were told that the department was closed for the evening.

Closed? After seven years was I to be denied entry? Would I need to be injured or ill to visit the emergency department to see Weeds? Mercifully, my guardian angel appeared in the form of Haady Lashkari, the administrator of the Ojai Valley Community Hospital. With just a little bit of sugar delivered by Jackie, he graciously interceded with security and we were admitted to the emergency department for a guided tour. The framed photos were there, reminding me of the winding path we had taken to get here. I thought of all the patients who might be comforted by the photos.

Ila would have been pleased.

Is anyone listening?

Many years ago, in a country far, far away, there lived an old man who thought he had seen it all. He had been through every kind of natural and man-made disaster but had managed to cheat death and live a peaceful existence. Until now.

His neighbors and friends, having been impacted by global warming, immigration, declining food stocks and 24/7 exposure to events around the world, had grown increasingly sullen, insular and argumentative.  Mere differences of opinion could not be solved by peaceful discussion. A profound loss of common decency was replaced by strident self-interest. This rapidly deteriorating state-of-affairs was something the old man hadn’t  seen before. His neighbors, once unified and caring, had turned surly. They no longer spoke to one another. They only sought the company of those who were like-minded and who shared similar opinions of right and wrong.

People separated into two distinct groups, each easily identifiable by the color of their clothing. One group wore red. Red shirts, red pants and red shoes. The other wore blue, including their underwear. The Blues walked down the left side of the only street in the country, while the Reds filled the right. Some Reds and some Blues, more strident than others in their group, wore large felt hats emblazoned with their group motto Me First. They also carried large signs that, in appropriately colored letters, shouted their group’s demands. They carried the signs wherever they went; into the supermarket, the church and the schools.

Their children were indoctrinated from the age of three by TVs, computer screens and smart phones. Talking heads poured forth their vitriol twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Panel discussions deteriorated into near brawls. Children freely mocked other children without punishment.

Each group embraced leaders who promised to ignore the pleadings of the other group.  Once amiable and social despite their differences, the leaders of each group now shunned their counterparts and never crossed the street. Eye contact became rare; verbal intercourse was only used in dire circumstances. The unwillingness of the groups to speak with each other left the street in disrepair and eventually all public conveyances had to be removed from active service. Unable to move without restraint, people became even more insular.

The only meaningful activity was voting in elections that occurred every two years. Pitting Blues against Reds, these elections were preceded by attack-ads that focused on the personal traits and imaginary foibles of one’s opponent. Real issues, in particular the much-needed repair of the only street in the country, were either ignored or promises made that were either impractical or required solutions that were well beyond the available financing. Elections regularly caused the in-party to lose control. Every two years, any positive steps taken by the party last in power were undone by the incoming party.  Soon, fed up by the lack of any solution, the street issue faded into obscurity.

Although elections occurred only every two years, campaigning was non-stop. Fundraising for candidates began the day after the bi-annual election. Pleas for funding soon eclipsed the funds raised in the last election. People, fearing that the other side would eclipse their own meager resources, poured money into the pockets of their chosen candidates. Property taxes, income taxes and other revenue sources were regularly reduced by the party in power in order to fund candidates.

Other public services began to diminish. Schools closed, police and fire personnel were laid off and the street continued to crumble. Each side blamed the other for this lack of service. Those who won an election would initially promise to create greater unity with the other party. This commitment soon faded, and threats continued to be hurled across the potholed street by both Reds and Blues. Blues who were seen consorting with Reds were deemed traitors. Reds suffered the same consequences. Meaningful discourse ended.

Financially bankrupt, their infrastructure in ruins and unwilling to compromise, the country became insolvent and unmanageable.  Other countries surrounding it viewed the dire situation as an opportunity for expansion. Efforts to fend off the attackers weakened the country and left it without recourse. It gave up and was absorbed by its strongest neighbor.

The old man, now close to death, walked the barely recognizable street. He confronted his former countrymen, whose Red and Blue uniforms were now in tatters and indistinguishable. He asked, “How did this happen?” But no one listened.

Has the pendulum swung too far?

“I want all Jews to die.”

That chilling statement was made by Robert Bowers, the man who shot and murdered eleven Jews on Saturday at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

My second thought, immediately following the realization that a new horror had emerged, was Thank God the shooter wasn’t Muslim or Hispanic. Adding more fuel to the xenophobic rantings of the president of the United States and others who condemn or ridicule people for their religious beliefs or who fear for their lives was unnecessary in the already supercharged atmosphere surrounding the mid-term elections.

There is little doubt that the president’s Twitter rants, rallies and politics have exacerbated and made fair game of the practices once held in check by more socially conscious and healing-attuned public servants. Poking fun at the handicapped, demeaning women, excusing the behavior of neo-Nazis and outright bald-faced lies have opened the door to even more despicable acts by others who once were forced to occupy the deep, dark recesses of this America we all love. The improving economy and Wall Street have, until now, served as cover for Republican congressmen who are unwilling to confront this man. Even otherwise observant Christians and Jews, who would normally be repelled by his statements and immoral conduct, are reluctant to reject him due, in part, to their affirmation of his Supreme Court selections and his social agenda.

Trump’s failure to accept any blame for what is happening to the social fabric of this country is evidenced by his continuing assault on the press and his pronouncement of “fake news” on anything that does not fit his view of the world. Despite Saturday’s horror in Pittsburgh, he continued to Tweet on Monday “There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open and obvious hostility and report the news accurately and fairly.” Like the failure of his self-appointed commission to bring to light any voter fraud, he offers little evidence of fraudulent reporting. He fails to note that the anger of his base towards the media is fomented by his own “fake news”, offered as red meat to those who believe he can do no wrong.

Anti-Semitism is an unwilling cousin to the xenophobic hysteria surrounding the immigrant caravan headed toward our southern border. Clutching it tightly as a wedge issue in the election, Trump and others have cited unproven and wildly exaggerated claims about the caravan’s composition. At a political rally in Kentucky earlier this month, Mr. Trump declared that Democrats “want to open America’s borders and turn our country into a friendly sanctuary for murderous thugs from other countries who will kill us all.”

George Soros, a Jew, has been widely and falsely claimed to be the principal supporter of the caravan. On October 22, a pipe bomb was found at Mr. Soros’s house; the police have charged a Trump supporter, Cesar Sayoc, with mailing the bombs to Mr. Soros and other Democrats who Trump frequently criticizes.

It is no coincidence that the rise in anti-Semitism has dramatically worsened in the first two years of the Trump presidency. It also coincides with increased Jew hating in Europe. The Anti-Defamation League reported that the U.S. experienced a nearly sixty percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017 versus 2016. The League said…

“A confluence of events in 2017 led to a surge in attacks on our community – from bomb threats, cemetery desecrations, white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, and children harassing children at school,” said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, ADL CEO and National Director. “These incidents came at a time when we saw a rising climate of incivility, the emboldening of hate groups and widening divisions in society.

The road to the right continued to broaden with Sunday’s presidential election in Brazil which brought Jair Bolsonaro to lead the government. He has exalted the military, advocated torture, promised to pack the supreme court and threatened to destroy, jail or exile his political opponents. Per the NY Times, he won by tapping into a deep well of resentment at the status quo in Brazil — a country whiplashed by rising crime and two years of political and economic turmoil — and by presenting himself as the alternative.

When I was a child, I lived in a Chicago ghetto where I believed that everyone in my world was Jewish, other than the janitor. When it was Passover, there was only a vast emptiness in my elementary school. Since my parents and friends were from Russia, I assumed that everyone in that country was Jewish. Except for the language, I might as well have been living in Israel. I was comfortable with my identity.

That changed in high school and reversed itself completely in college. I learned that I was a member of a very small minority with different holidays, different foods and a different house of worship. I became increasingly aware of my Jewish history and I was less comfortable with who I was. I felt different. Terms like The Holocaust, anti-Semitism and bigotry became frequently used parts of my vocabulary. I married, reared our children in the synagogue and counted on it as my go-to sanctuary. I have generally been on the fence about calls for more protection in the temple during the high holidays and I have objected to armed guards during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

I used to talk about the pendulum and how it will always swing in the opposite direction after reaching its maximum horizontal position. How good times would eventually give rise to bad times and how it would again reverse itself after running its course.

Today, with the murder of eleven pious Jews, I have my doubts.

What year is this?

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, was yesterday. Literally translated, it is the head of the year.

Jewish holidays, the anniversary of a death, and other events are based on the lunar, rather than the solar, or secular, calendar. For someone observing the event based on the lunar calendar, Rosh Hashanah, like all Jewish holidays, falls on a different secular date every year. This date may vary by several weeks at summer’s end. Hence, we Jews say things like “the holiday is early this year” or “goodness, Rosh Hashanah is late this year.”

But, according to Rabbi Mike, it really depends on your point of view. When I tell him that Rosh Hashanah is early this year, he says “No it’s not, it’s on the same day and month that it was last year, the first of Tishrei.” For good measure, he also notes that the year is 5779, not 2018.

There are twelve months including the month of Tishrei in the Jewish year. Each is thirty days long, except for one month. The determination of Jewish years began somewhere in the middle ages. The Torah wasn’t particularly helpful in solving the question of when did the world begin. So the sages used some fancy footwork. Their Ingredients included the Torah-stipulated ages of the patriarchs, the rise and fall of kingdoms, seasonal occurrences, and gut feelings. So here we are in 5779.

The Jewish lunar calendar has been used for hundreds of years, and if it were not occasionally adjusted to match up with the secular or solar calendar, our seasonal events would soon be totally out of whack. The fourth of July would be in December and Hannukah would be in the summer. To address the issue, Jews occasionally add a day or subtract a day from some months. Jewish leap years can have as many as 385 days, or an extra month.

The secular, or Gregorian calendar, introduced by Pope Gregory in 1582, has its own, though less complicated, eccentricities.  Gregory’s invention largely replaced the Julian calendar introduced by Julius Caesar in 45 BC. The Gregorian calendar has 365 days with an extra day every four years (leap year) except in years divisible by 100 but not divisible by 400. Keep that in mind at your New Year’s Eve party in 2100.

Not everyone has adopted either the Jewish or Gregorian calendar. For example, based on the ancient Coptic calendar, the Ethiopian Calendar is seven to eight years behind the Gregorian calendar, due to alternate calculations in determining the date of the birth of Jesus. For those who yearn to be younger, take a trip to Addis Ababa.

In spite of the calendar’s quirks, Jackie and I managed to get to the Temple on the right day and at the right time. This was a special day in many ways. For me, it centers on the friends who gather with us. Friends who may only visit the Temple on Rosh Hashanah and those who are regulars. The day is warmed by the presence of all.

Conversation with the Kaplan grandchildren who are in Temple for the first time since the death of their grandfather. Alan, the Temple president, sweeping the crumbs from the floor during the blessing of bread and wine. Welcoming our new Rabbi who, in an earlier life, was not Jewish. John, who graciously offered me his kipah, or skullcap, that I had admired a few weeks ago. Listening to Phil simply and eloquently read poetry from the prayer-book. Thanking the choir members for their dedication to making the day richer.

And Jackie, who repeatedly practiced the blessings said when you are called to the Torah for an Aliyah, an honor reserved for one who has shown special devotion to serving the Temple and its congregants. In recognition of our special relationship, and especially sweet, was that Jackie and I were asked to offer these blessings together.

As proof of her penchant for leaving nothing to chance, Jackie had printed the blessings and downloaded an audio recording. I was also drafted in the preparations and practiced the blessings with her at home, in the car and while we walked the streets of Ojai.

On the morning of Rosh Hashanah, Jackie donned a black, sleeveless dress. Tempting but appropriate, she shone. Topping it off with daughter Sammy’s bat mitzvah tallit, or prayer shawl, she was immaculate, lovely and ready.

At Temple, Jackie sat anxiously next to me and awaited our Aliyah. Forsaking the laminated blessing  sheet available to us in front of the ark, she tightly clutched her now wrinkled, printed blessings, as though someone was going to snatch them from her. I could hear her heart beat.

Third in a line of those with an Aliyah, we were at last called to the pulpit. The congregation quieted. Jackie touched the corner of her tallit to the Torah portion being read. And then took the same corner to her lips. We chanted the first blessing. The Torah portion was read by Rabbi Mike. We chanted the final blessing…We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, who has given us a Torah of truth, implanting within us eternal life. We praise You, O God, Giver of the Torah.

We went back to our seats. I smiled. She smiled. It didn’t matter whether Rosh Hashanah was early this year.

Fireworks on the Fourth

It was like the big bang, the birth of the universe. Booming, flashing and bright as the sun. That’s what it was like, watching the Fourth of July fireworks at Nordhoff High School.

It had been a long day, starting with the parade down Ojai Avenue. A taste of small town Americana that forces the corners of your mouth to perpetually curve upward and your hands to wave at every passing antique car, sleek coated stallion and smiling participant. I was continually reminded of our family camping trips to small towns where the county fair was the highlight of our adventure. Dusty, disorganized and unprofessional. But loveable, kind and welcoming.

I hadn’t been to the Ojai parade in many years. I’d been lodging a silent protest ever since the fourth had fallen on a Sunday and the parade organizers had shifted the parade to July 5th to accommodate church-goers. Unfair, I had thought then. But time erases all wounds, and my childish pouting had long ago ceased to be important.

Jackie had, in her can-do fashion, latched onto lawn chairs in the shade, along with free food and drink. Right up front and personal, where we might as well have been in the parade. Periodic breaks to greet passing friends made it seem even homier.

The parade ended around noon and we had time to visit the local Asian massage parlor. Little English is spoken there, and business is transacted with electronic devices, accompanied by a fair amount of hand waving and pointing. Not the best massage in town, but probably the cheapest. It’s mildly unwelcoming on the outside. Inside it’s surprisingly large, dimly lit, quiet and mysterious. Sort of like an opium den that’s had a Martha Stewart makeover.

Jackie’s friend, Susan, was visiting from San Francisco and staying at a motel near the high school. Because of the expected not-so-Ojai traffic jams, we decided to park at the motel and walk the quarter-mile to the fireworks. We picked up Susan and got a five second tour of her room where the three of us filled the available space. The jacuzzi tub next to the bed seemed particularly threatening . But the nightly room charge was cheap, unless you based it on the cost per square foot.

We walked to the high school, showed our tickets and donned a wrist band whose purpose was never revealed. We entered the stadium infield, found an unoccupied spot of grass, spread our blanket, and jockeyed for position. I was dubbed the Cream of the Oreo and was accordingly allocated the enviable position between the two women.

Having completed these logistics, we arose and searched for the source of the hypnotic odors wafting through the air, promising us assuredly unhealthy food. Drawn like moths to a flame, we tracked down two food trucks that had been nearly cleansed of all greasy deposits. Reading the menu and fearing for our lives, we retreated to our blanket and settled in for the nearly two-hour wait while the sun set and darkness became pervasive.

Lying on the grass, I had the distinct feeling that I was about to be trampled by small children. I wondered if I blended in too well and wished I had four bright orange Caltrans pylons to set about me. Even a small Ethiopian flag on a pole would be better than risking the maiming of irreplaceable body parts. Amazingly, I escaped major injury even though children (and quite a few inebriated adults) seemed blissfully unaware of the aging body spread before them.

It was getting darker but not yet inky-dark. Susan, complaining of stiff joints, went off to sit on the stadium bleacher benches. Alone, but for two or three similarly incapacitated persons, she remained there for the balance of the evening. This was an unexpected gift for Jackie and me, since we could now wrap ourselves in the blanket to supplement the inadequate cold weather gear that Jackie had insisted we did not need. Keeping warm against the descending night was brightened by the prospect of cuddling. With that special bonus, I was no longer concerned about the time spent waiting for the show to begin.

A ten-minute warning burst from a loud-speaker so close to my head that I thought I was wearing Bose headphones attached to my iPhone and set to max volume. Then another announcement blast erupted with five minutes to showtime. Just time enough to figure out the mechanics of the glow sticks I had purchased earlier. Mechanics that a four-year-old could have handled faster than me. Sticks aglow, we wrapped them around our necks and clipped the ends together. It was eerie, as we appeared to have our heads disconnected from our bodies. Much like Charles Laughton in the Canterville Ghost 1944 movie where he terrorized unwelcome visitors, including Robert Young, by carrying his seemingly cut off head in a silver tray held in front of his chest.

The show began. Slowly at first, then growing in intensity. Laying on the blanket, head looking straight up into the sky, I felt like I was in the show, not watching it. Bodies were involuntarily inert, barely getting “Oh my, look at that” out of our mouths before the next volley. Periodic booms that I usually complain about, were a welcome companion to the flashing and bursting of the fireworks. Kids who would normally display extreme attention deficit disorder were stark still, as though mesmerized. Aging adults, who thought they had seen it before, were enthralled. We were all viewing a cosmic birthing from within the birth canal.

And just when the show needed an extra lift, the finale arrived as if from another planet. Multiple rockets and bursting bombs filled the sky producing gigantic, multi-limbed alien life forms. Sonic booms again assaulted my ears and isolated my brain from the rest of my body. My only connection with reality was Jackie’s warm body touching mine. I felt like a kid again.

Then it ended silently, like the spinning down of a treadmill in cool-down mode.  It gave me time enough to absorb the grandeur without feeling like I’d overeaten. We lay silently on the blanket, not ready to end the night. People around us began to rise slowly from the chilled, damp ground. There was no sense of urgency to leave the site of the spectacle. No rush to our cars. Taking time to re-enter life. Strangers spoke to other strangers, wasn’t that something!

Yes, it was. And there could be no encore, for this had been perfection.

Ojai Music Festival…the aftermath

My sweet neighbor June is busily washing towels and sheets. They were used by her friends who I graciously allowed in my guesthouse this past weekend. Friends who came from as far away as the East Coast to revel in the glories of the Ojai Music Festival.

June is not only in the laundry business, she cooks for her friends, edits the Festival program and attends nearly every minute of the five days of the Festival. During all that time I never heard a complaint emanate from her lips. Nor did she ever appear tired. A major accomplishment when compared to my napping during much of the Festival’s sturm und drang.

Thursday night started innocently enough when Patricia Kopatchinskaja, this year’s music director, made her way through the throng of concert goers gathered near the entrance to the Bowl. Much like a stalking lion, she moved stealthily from station to station, stopping only long enough to call forth indecipherable shrieks from her violin. Like lemmings, her ardent followers tracked her, were mesmerized by her, and undoubtedly felt that this was something to write home about. I, on the other hand, worried about things that were yet to come.

I entered the Bowl and found my seat about halfway down the aisle. I have learned the importance of sight lines. Without going into nauseating detail, a “theater with good sight lines” means that most, if not all of the viewers, can actually see what’s going on in front of them. Unfortunately, my sight line was partially blocked by a tall, middle-aged gentleman who also had the unfortunate habit of moving laterally left to right causing me to continually re-adjust my fanny and head position. He was like a camera shutter, opening for one hundredth of a second while staying closed most of the time.

Mindful of others, I found my seat movements constrained by the good neighbor policy. I visualized those behind me, those behind them, etc. moving like a wave in unison to my shifts. I therefore sheepishly limited my movements to very teensy ones. This permitted periodic glimpses, like treats, of the on-stage action. Most of the time I might as well have been listening to the radio.

Toward the end of the Friday concert, I weighed the pros and cons of asking the gentleman to be more mindful of the minions behind him (I thought it might help if I told him it wasn’t just me who might as well have been blindfolded.)  I tapped him on the shoulder, explained my plight and asked for special dispensation. He grudgingly obliged, but not before he launched into a scathing evaluation of the construction of the bowl, the placement of the seats, and the Bowl management’s reluctance to make major structural changes proposed by him. I later discovered that this gentleman was Mark Swed, classical music critic for the Los Angeles Times. He is what he is.

Friday night brought us the world premiere of Michael Hersch’s elegy, I Hope We Get to Visit Soon. As Mark Swed described it in his LA Times review, a relentlessly grim musical immersion in a cancer ward, was the weekend’s major world premiere. After enduring the 77-minute performance for two solo singers and instrumental ensemble, without a trace of grace one woman stood on the lawn repeatedly shouting, “I hated that so much I want to fight with someone”, as we funereally filed out of the Libbey Bowl.

The elegy is based on Michael Hersch’s experience with a friend who endured what could be described as a plague of attempted cancer cures. The onstage dialog of false hope and failures was artfully accompanied by some twenty musicians who produced intermittent, painful screeching. The performance took me from a state of disbelief (why would someone put this to music) to sadness, then to despair and finally numbness of all my limbs. When it ended, what seemed like an eon of silence gave way to a mild smattering of quiet hand clapping. Fearful that the composer might do away with himself, I joined in the merriment and was comforted by the bravos and bravas that finally issued forth from those who had regained the use of some of their bodily functions.

Jackie’s turn arrived on Saturday. A first-time Festival goer, she was treated to, as she put it, a unique, one-time experience. Not wishing to burden herself with the mid-day emanations from the Bowl stage, she immersed herself in her own world through clever use of her iPhone X. Getting with the program, I too searched for other ways of occupying my own time.

The Bowl is partially covered with shade cloth that tends to mercifully diminish the sun’s onslaught. The shade consists of three long pieces of fabric that are hooked together. When we took our seats at 1pm, we were covered and protected by this marvel of man. However, as any schoolboy knows, the earth rotates. Continuing my alternative exploration, I noted a six-inch gap between each of the long shade strips. I also noted the sun’s relentless approach to the gap. My sextant and compass predicted that the sun’s rays would be on me before the end of the afternoon concert. And they were. First my big toe, then my foot, then my ankle. I felt like a vampire who, when fully exposed to the sun, would explode and shower Mark Swed with my innards. Fortunately, the concert ended at my thigh.

Saturday afternoon began with Kafka Fragments. A series of forty-one snippets artfully performed by a high-pitched soprano and a manic violinist. Have you ever done the Countdown Experience? This requires the musical knowledge to know when a movement, or in this case a snippet, ends. Then you maintain your sanity by counting the number of snippets yet to be played before the whole thing ends and you can go home…or the nearest bar. Forty, thirty-nine, thirty-eight…

The Saturday evening finale applied a heavy-handed touch to exploring the chaos and misfortune of the world. Incorporating the best of drought, famine, state collapse and mass migration, we were treated to a cleverly staged presentation of all the worst of life. The highlight performer was a woman who reminded me of a character from Rocky Horror Picture Show. Though slight of arm, she wielded massive hammers on a coffin, while pictures of death and desolation populated the surrounding Bowl walls. The crowd went wild with appreciation. The sounds of applause, whooping and bravos echoed through my ears all the way to the parking lot. I placed Jackie’s limp body in the passenger seat and we went home.

I can’t wait to buy tickets for next year.

Ojai Music Festival

Avant-garde can be both a noun and an adjective. As the latter, it means favoring or introducing experimental or unusual ideas. As any one of these ideas is untried, a certain percent of them will fall flat, fail to succeed, or in contemporary usage, be just plain ca-ca.

The Ojai Music Festival wends its way into town this weekend. It brings with it several truckloads of what can be termed avant-garde or contemporary music. A thousand people, mostly from other than Ojai, will squeeze into Libbey Bowl and sit enraptured while artists do their best to be unique and engaging. Local businesses will also be ecstatic as the town swells with well-heeled patrons of the arts.

Before the new Libbey Bowl was constructed a few years ago with its high impact, relatively uncomfortable plastic seats, concert goers sat on high impact, very uncomfortable wooden benches. A once homey feel, the old benches were fraught with the possibility of slivers in your fanny.

Before its recent facelift, you also had the option of bringing lawn chairs, sitting on the grass at the back of the Bowl and, if you were lucky, got a reasonable, though pixie-like, view of what was happening on the stage. The Bowl renovation left things as they were, minus the view.

When Ila and I arrived in Ojai eighteen years ago, we had never heard of the Festival. Our sources of information about the Festival were limited. But always ready to try something new, we bought bench seat tickets, dressed warmly and attended a Saturday night concert. Not sure where our seats began or ended, we simply allowed ourselves to be shouldered at will by our bench mates. We took it in stride, sat back and anticipated classical music. We expected Beethoven, Brahms and Bach. Shostakovich was perhaps as far out as it would get.

What we did get can best be described by my recollection of the first performer. A man, neatly dressed, entered stage left and sat at what appeared to be an expensive Steinway piano. So far so good. But not for long. He began to play…with his elbows. Or so it seemed. I’ve told this story so many times that I don’t really know if he was actually using his elbows. Perhaps he was just clever enough to finger the keys in a way that sounded like he was using his elbows.

Taking a well deserve break at half-time, we mingled with the crowd and tried to look erudite. Our friend Ralph, fresh from yelling Bravo! blocked our way and said “Wasn’t that wonderful? Wasn’t it inspiring?” Never having been mistaken for someone who could be an Ambassador to the Vatican, I said “No it wasn’t.” Ralph waved me off as someone who definitely was ill-suited to premium bench seats.

We were not to be dissuaded. Still searching for the Holy Grail, Ila and I continued to attend the Festival each June. We confessed to our low-level erudition and had demoted ourselves to the lawn area. We didn’t see much, but then no one seemed to mind if I closed my eyes and feigned being erudite; as long as I didn’t snore.

A number of years ago, one of my riders on the Help of Ojai bus was a man in his nineties. During one of our  trips together, Mike and I talked about music and I asked him if he had ever been to the Music Festival. “I haven’t been there yet but I do regularly attend concerts in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. Maybe it’s time I tried the one at Bowl.”

About ten minutes before the opening afternoon of the 2010 performance, here came my ninety-ish bus-mate Mike. He had spotted me and carefully picked his way to us through the mass of other less erudite concert goers. He unfolded his chair, a bit of a task given his age and the built-in complexity of those medieval instruments of torture, and plunked himself down next to me. We listened to the first half of the performance without identifying a piece that would offer lasting memories. At its conclusion, Mike got up, folded his chair and said “I’ve heard quite enough.” He wandered out of the Bowl, never to be seen again.

Years ago, I had the pleasure of breakfasting with Bill Kraft. Bill was, and still is, an elderly gentleman who in his earlier days had been the lead tympanist for the Los Angeles Symphony. After sharing our mutual genealogies, I took the opportunity to tell him about my difficulty with the Festival’s avant garde music. “Bill, I don’t know what’s the matter with me. Try as I might, I cannot fathom the music, much less appreciate and like it.” Bill unhesitatingly drew himself up to his full five-foot-four height and said “You don’t have to like it. It’s okay to dislike it. You are not a lesser human being for not liking it. And studiously avoid anyone who tells you that you must develop a liking for it.”

I still buy Festival tickets every year.


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