Archive for the 'Community' Category

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?

Dinner and Beanies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t like hats.” He responded.

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

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

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

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

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

Three Jews on a Treadmill

Sounds like the beginning of a joke…There were these three Jews on a treadmill

Two months ago, I moved from Sulphur Mountain Road in the Upper Ojai to the more gentrified mid-town. Prior to moving, my drive time from the mountain to town was eighteen minutes. After Ila died, I made the thirty-six-minute round-trip to the Ojai Athletic Club every day just to get out of the all too quiet house and find social interaction. It was lonely up on the hill without someone to share my life.

I had used a rowing machine at our mountain home nearly every day. Five thousand meters of rowing in thirty-five minutes, that got me nowhere. A nagging shoulder injury caused a forced migration from the rowing machine to the treadmill and, thanks to Jackie, membership in the athletic club.

My daily routine on the hill was religiously repeated day after day. Up at 5:45. In the car by 6:15 and at the club by 6:35. Flash my membership card at the electronic reader and react with hidden glee at its assurance that I was still welcome.

Exchange pleasantries with the ever-changing person behind the front desk. Enter the men’s locker room. Change into my Lulu Lemon shorts. Grab the headphones that Jackie bought for me…got to be careful what I wish for, or it will surely end up in an Amazon box at my front door.  March up the stairs to the second floor without the aid of the handrail…it’s a macho thing…and deposit myself on one of the six treadmills that line the far wall.

Moving to mid-town replaced my old eighteen-minute car ride to the town epicenter with an eighteen-minute walk. But old habits are hard to break, so I still hop into the car for a three-minute ride to the club. Not enough time to warm up the innards of my car on cold mornings, necessitating the wearing of a wool cap that sometimes draws giggles from the club’s front desk.

Even though my shoulder has healed, and the club sports two rowing machines, I am still on the treadmill. To further cement my place on it, I sold my own Concept 2 rowing machine last week to a nice guy who schlepped to my house from Glendora, a one-hundred-fifty-mile round trip.

The club opens at 5:30 am and draws people who exercise indoors or, god forbid, swim outdoors in near freezing ambient hell, then head for work. When her teaching responsibilities require it, Jackie often prides herself at being first in line at the club’s front door, in the dark, with little to wear but a very pretty smile on her face.

The sweet spot for me is between 6:30 and 7. That’s when the locker room empties, and parking spaces open up close to the club entrance. Finding an idle treadmill is easy. Sometimes I get the pick of the litter, the one on the end in front of the windows that open onto the pool where crazy people do laps. Or, in a pinch, I take the one next to it. My decision whether to turn on the overhead fan is challenging. Shall I suffer a cold draft until my body warms up, or be an overheated wimp.

Each of the treadmills has its own video monitor. I can watch live TV, but I nearly always opt to sign into my Netflix account where I am entertained with mindless comedies, serious documentaries or, my favorite, the Great British Baking Show. I avoid the news which, I have found, generally provokes me to mumbling angry epithets that attract the unwanted attention of those within earshot.

The same faces regularly populate the area around the treadmills and the other, sometimes fathomless, exercise equipment. It’s comforting to see these faces nearly every day. It brings order to an otherwise chaotic and all too often sad world.

My sixty-minute treadmill routine at a four percent grade generally starts before the others arrive. About fifteen minutes into it, Sheila appears. My age, but not yet aging, Sheila is a whirlwind of activity both on and off the treadmill. We are also members of the synagogue where she leads the Friday night service on alternating weeks. Her petite, bouncy, figure and perky cropped hair are a welcome addition to my sixty-minute trip to nowhere.

Norm, also in the octogenarian category, is a lot less bouncy. But he makes up this unfortunate difference with a strong torso, friendly smile and a blessed sense of humor. I relish our conversations which, on occasion, include prolonged inexplicable laughter over a comment that often has its grounding in something Jewish.

Silence, or the soft-spoken word, is the desired state when in motion. This unwritten treadmill rule is often violated by heavy footed young men and women who strive for unattainable recognition by generating massive decibels that offend nearly everyone in range of them. Fortunately, a good pair of over-the-ear headphones tends to mitigate the otherwise mind-numbing racket.

This morning, Sheila, Norm and I find ourselves together on three of the six treadmills. The other three are unused and blessedly quiet. Norm correctly notes, with some humor, that we are three Jews on treadmills, which seemed to me apropos of life as a Jew. Moving with determination to escape stereotyping, and maybe worse, with only a modicum of success.

Ojai has a significant number of Jews who have blended into the community. Except for the synagogue, we find ourselves fully integrated in the life of the town. Yet there is something special when three of us find ourselves on the treadmill. A certain comfort, often indescribable, takes hold. A certain calm descends and allows us to enjoy a moment devoid of tension.

Perhaps it’s genetic. Perhaps it’s our strange customs that have been etched into us over thousands of years. Maybe it’s the same for people of other faiths. Maybe they relish time together on the treadmill. I hope so.

The Movies Are In Town

The Ojai Film Festival began this week. Steve Grumette, the festival’s artistic director, locked himself in his room from mid-August through September, viewing some five hundred entries. Assisting him in this herculean effort was a distinguished panel of movie buffs who finally selected the eighty-three films that made it to this year’s screen.

Steve and his comrade in arms, Jon Lambert, have been key actors in the event ever since the first festival in 2000. Since then, thousands of films have been delivered to them by aspiring directors, screen writers and actors.

This year’s festival runs ten days, from early morning to late at night. Tickets can be purchased for a single showing of about two hours, or for the entire festival. For some, viewing every one of the eighty-three films is akin to participating in a scavenger hunt with prizes awarded at each showing. People who participate at this level can be easily identified by the “All Events” pass hanging around their necks as well as their albino skin, beady red eyes and a paranoid aversion to sunlight.

A very professional looking brochure describes the films, show times and where they can be seen. True aficionados carefully analyze the showings and meticulously plan their visitations. I, on the other hand have but one requirement that takes precedence over all the other variables. It’s the venue and its physical comfort that are uppermost in my priorities.

Over the years, the festival has shown the films in various locations. This year there are but two; the Ojai Art Center and the Sane Living meeting room. The Sane Living meeting room was once the local mortuary which, due to a lack of enough deaths in the community, closed its doors. The building then experienced several reincarnations. The latest is a very attractive facility that features a vegan restaurant and the aforementioned meeting room. Regardless of the attractiveness of the facility, I shall forever think of it as The Funeral Home.

I do not sit well on anything other than a well upholstered chair. Anything less and my fanny begins to sing to me after about thirty minutes. And not sweet lullabies. No, more like a Sousa march that is urging me to get up from my chair and relieve the discomfort that has taken up permanent residence in my nether regions.

The Funeral Home offers folding chairs that can best be found in aisle five at Costco. A semi-cushioned seat falsely beckons one with the allure of the Greek Sirens. Past experience has taught me that my fanny cannot make it through a full-length film. Random shuffling on my seat begins at the thirty-minute mark. Alternately crossing my legs and shifting back to front gives only momentary respite. At the forty-five-minute mark, all is lost. I am totally focused on my aching buttocks and have no idea what’s happening up on the silver screen.

It is for this reason that I eliminated The Funeral Home from consideration. My attention was completely focused on The Art Center. The Center with its penchant for artistic as well as physical well being has recently installed new, fully padded seats. I could probably endure a double feature albeit with a great deal of squirming, pant leg stretches, and an infinite number of pee breaks.

On Thursday evening, Jackie and I journeyed to the Center. In our quest to be the skinniest couple in America, our sustenance that day had consisted of only a small Acai bowl ably prepared in the Arcade by Revel. I don’t really believe that Acai bowls are any more healthful than a double-double chocolate sundae with a gob of whipped cream. But it makes me feel better to fool myself into believing in the yet unproven health benefits of Acai.

We both love popcorn. Jackie can convince the snack bar server at most theaters to prepare a fresh batch of the stuff. I’m not exactly sure how she does it, but I think it has something to do with feigning a chronic illness that requires that the popcorn be consumed in less than ten minutes from time it is popped.

As the Film Festival was not popping corn, we took it upon ourselves to clandestinely stow two bags of Boom Chicka Popcorn in a cleverly disguised tote. One bagful covered with Sea Salt and the other with Salted Caramel. I took the precaution of doubling up on my blood pressure medication.

Upon arriving at the Art Center, we were informed that food was unwelcome in the theater. The Festival had promised to keep the new seats pristine and were, therefore, only permitting entry with nothing more than water bottles. With nowhere to stash the Boom Chica Popcorn, we, however, felt obliged to take it to our seats where we silently swore to forego its marvelous taste. That oath lasted about ten minutes. The craving was overwhelming, and we silently ripped a San Andreas fault-sized tear in one of the bags. Realizing that chewing the delectable morsels could give us away, we ate them one kernel at a time, first soaking them into submission with our own saliva. Not yummy, but acceptable.

The first film was a five-minute animated short called Surfer Joe. The two guys who produced the film spent more time answering questions than the time consumed in running the film.

The second film, Lessons, ran ten minutes. I have no recollection of what it was about.

The third, and anchor film, was called Whitefish Season and its scheduled run time was ninety-eight minutes. Made in the middle east, the film was subtitled. Given my hearing loss, ably attested to by the two monoliths ensconced behind my suitably large ears, I hunger for subtitles. However, perhaps because of the supersonic talking speed adopted by the mostly shrieking actors, the subtitles whizzed by at the speed of light. As I was unable to tear my eyes away from the subtitles at the bottom of the screen, the film might as well have been a book. Some twenty minutes into the film, and never seeing a whitefish, Jackie and I looked at each other, retrieved what remained of our Boom Chica Popcorn and exited the theater.

Overcoming our depression, we returned to the theater on Saturday and saw Nose to Tail.  A handsomely crafted film, it chronicles one day’s unimaginable nightmares suffered by its protagonist, an aging chef. The film more than made up for the disappointments of our prior day. We celebrated by devouring a full platter of ribs at the Deer Lodge.

The people who made, and then submitted, the five hundred films are to be congratulated for their willingness to stand up and be panned by people like me. Their courage to do something different and to risk being unheralded or worse is cause for true celebration.

“The saddest journey in the world is the one that follows a precise itinerary. Then you’re not a traveler. You’re a fucking tourist.”
― Guillermo del Toro

I’m a Townie

The ride up the Dennison Grade last Thursday was interminable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that’s what I call music

Susan and I were in the library bookstore waiting for the Servpro man. We’ve been trying to locate a mysterious odor that’s bedeviled us for over a year, and had high hopes that our search would end with the Servpro man’s arrival.

Chatting while waiting led to my description of the Sunday Music Festival closing concert that included Stravinsky and Gershwin. “Gershwin? Now that’s what I call music”, Susan said with her voice and her infectious smile.

I know what she means. Call it avant garde, cutting edge, new age or atonal, the Ojai Music Festival is either fabulous or unfathomable, depending on your willingness to absorb all it can throw at you. A festival that points with pride to a symphony composed for kitchen plates, and pianists who play with their elbows, it minimally deserves kudos for the bravery it shows in the face of potential brickbats.

Last year we bought tickets to all the events, spanning four days and nights. I laughingly remember the locker room conversation I had at the athletic club with a fellow member immediately following last year’s festival. He, like most Ojai citizens, hadn’t gone to the festival but had been close enough to hear the performers practicing at Libbey Bowl. I asked, “How did you know it was practice?”

Having learned our lesson, Jackie and I cravenly decided to limit our exposure. We only bought tickets to a single two-hour performance, the Sunday late afternoon closing event. Anna, who works for the festival, had touted me on this one, saying “Try it, you’ll only be moderately disappointed.” She wasn’t being funny since she knows my limits and is wary of over-promising.

With some trepidation and armed with our $150 tickets, we coasted into the bowl and located our seats. On the left, five rows from the stage, on the aisle. A note was stuck to my seat that said “Fred, thank you for your generous support of the festival this year. You help make it possible.” Oh, so now it’s my fault, I thought.

We waved at those we knew, traded hugs with those closer by. We sat on blow-up seat cushions that I had long ago learned were the make or break feature of any event at the bowl. We were early and, as punishment for our ignorance of protocol, periodically shifted in our aisle seats in order to allow others who were fashionably late, to pass down the row to their seats.

I picked up the 126-page program book. A feat by itself. Readily admitting to my need for recognition, I flipped to the donor pages and found my name. Two years ago, Ila’s name was also there. It now was sadly conspicuous by its absence. I also thought back to the loss of our son, Steven, eight years ago and the beginning of our annual donation in his memory. A stubborn musician with unfulfilled aspirations, I think he would have appreciated our support of the dozen festival interns, a fledgling group of budding musicians.

Though the bowl was nearly full, no one sat in front of us. Somehow making us feel special, we waited. It was very warm. People were dressed casually. Some had removed their shoes. It was comfortable and without tension. The occasional bird made welcoming sounds. Just enough breeze blowing to take the edge off the heat.

The musicians, members of the Dutch ensemble, Ludwig, entered the stage casually, without caring about the attendant noise of adjusting their chairs and music stands. Fifty men and women in relaxed clothing, they mirrored the attire of the audience before them. Young and energetic, they had survived nearly four days of demonstrating their prowess and were ready for the finale.

Barbara Hannigan, the conductor and an accomplished soprano, entered stage right to an obviously enamored audience. Clapping hands and some early over-anxious risers greeted her.

The performance began with Stravinsky’s Pulcinella.  Described as a comedic ballet interspersed with songs, it has twenty-one movements, from overture to finale. I normally dread anything more than three movements since I am forced to count them down, 21, 20, 19…while lusting for the blessed finale. It can make for a very long afternoon.

Yet I was surprised by my reaction. Rather than being atonal or unfathomable, I found it boring. I wanted something more cutting edge. Something more challenging. Something to hold my attention. Was I becoming one of them? Them that I had criticized for admiring the emperor’s new clothes. Them that had bedeviled me for years as lovers of the unlovable. Then there was a break. Time for me to recover from what surely must have been caused by the heat.

Back in our seats, we quickly dispatched Haydn’s Symphony Number 49 and awaited the closing piece, Gershwin’s Girl Crazy Suite. Based on a 1930 musical with music by George and lyrics by Ira, I craved hearing what Barbara Hannigan had done with it. I was not disappointed.

Beginning with But Not For Me, we were in for a treat…

They’re writing songs of love, but not for me
A lucky star’s above, but not for me

And then Hannigan drove the musicians through Strike Up the Band.

I fell madly in love with her when she conducted the musicians while facing the audience, and sang Embraceable You. The musicians became an accompanying chorus and I was enthralled.

Embrace me, my sweet embraceable you
Embrace me, you irreplaceable you

I’ve Got Rhythm brought a toe tapping frenzy to the audience, and a fantasy of leaping onto the stage to dance with Barbara like I was Fred Astaire, instead of Fred Rothenberg.

And then, before I knew it, it was all over. Two hours had passed in a blink and I had never once thought, like in past years, when will this thing end?

Dear Anna was wrong…I wasn’t moderately disappointed.

It was Susan, waiting for the Servpro man, who was right…now that’s what I call music.

 


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