Archive for the 'Food' Category

French Fries

The snack bar at the Ojai Valley Athletic Club is not known for its vegan dishes nor for any self-imposed limitation on the saturated fat globules served up to its otherwise health-conscious members.

The Club recently began a Tuesday dinner soiree that continued its happy-go-lucky diet of mind-numbing weekly specials that featured burgers, fries and, just in case you burned too many calories in the lap pool, a hearty pile of macaroni and cheese.

This heart stopping road to perdition was sidetracked this past Tuesday with a surprise offering that included a garden salad and salmon.  Jackie brought this dietary turnabout to my attention and offered to treat me to a night out two days later. Jackie’s daughter, Sammy, rounded out the guest list with her youthful friends, Esmerelda and Sergio.

A warm, soft, east wind surrounded us as we emerged from the club and stepped onto the stone-age designed back patio. Three young women were participating in a mind-bending yoga class designed for those who seek new ways to challenge how nature has constructed the human body. I felt a bit guilty thinking about food while they huffed and puffed, so I decided to think of them as part of the evening’s entertainment.

Jackie had ordered our meals in advance. We retrieved them from the pickup window, got two glasses of chardonnay and sat down at the indestructible wrought iron table. Opening the Covid-induced ubiquitous cardboard box revealed a leafy salad that had been blessed with a few microscopic bits of salmon.

Having just met Esmerelda and Sergio, I restrained myself from complaining about the relative absence of fish and went to work on the salad. Sammy had mystically anticipated the non-caloric salad and had compensated for it by conjuring up two large tubs of fries; I attacked them with little regard to the needs of our dinner companions.

We filled the air with words that smoothed the raw edges caused by making a first-time contact with relative strangers. One’s physical appearance became less important as our conversation continued. We discovered some commonality in our backgrounds and, though unsaid, I was sure we shared similar political views.

Prompted by Jackie, the vaccine moved front and center. “Have you had your shots?”

“No.”

“Do you plan to get them?”

“No.”

“Any special reason?”

“I don’t want anything put in my body that’s likely to cause a problem. For example, I’ve heard that…”

And then Sergio launched into a litany of the negative effects suffered by the millions who have already embraced the vaccine…or for that matter, any vaccine.

The salad wilted and the fries congealed.

I found it useless to pursue the matter as I had no facts to contest his claims of the danger of government supported vaccines, nor of a miracle Asian compound that had been shown to prevent Covid from entering the body and alternatively cure anyone who already has the disease.

In retrospect, I wish I would have said that the Federal Trade Commission regularly sends warnings to companies advising them to stop making unsupportable claims about curing Covid…or the absence of any deaths due to the vaccine…or the rise in the incidence of the disease attacking younger people…or…

And then I thought, “What the hell, it’s a beautiful evening, I’m here with very nice people, I ate some delicious French fries…and I’ve had both my shots. They’ll figure it out.”

At least they’re not Republicans.

Bowled Over

It was perfect. No wind, temperature in the 70’s, and a warm mid-day sun caressing my shoulders, easing both physical and psychological stress.

We had left home for a twenty-minute walk to the Ojai Arcade. Mid-way, Jackie used her phone app to impersonally order two Acai bowls from Revel, the specialty food shop that focuses on Acai bowls and Kombucha.

Acai is an ancient berry from the aptly named Acai palm tree that grows in the Central and South American tropics. The berries are crushed, pureed and frozen. The resultant purple puree looks and tastes much like ice cream but is less fattening and, according to the promoters of Acai, more nutritious. 

The puree base of the multi-faceted Acai bowl can be topped with nuts, granola, fruit, chocolate, honey and just about anything else that you find hiding in your kitchen cabinet and refrigerator. It can be quite addicting and I suspect that the nutritionally touted, loaded-up bowl delivers a surprisingly high caloric punch to the unsuspecting muncher.

Eating the bowl’s contents is done with a very sturdy green plastic spoon that could probably be used to jimmy steel doors. You hold the bowl in one hand and spoon its contents into your mouth. I am in a hurry to devour the taste sensation and often embarrass myself. My skill level is low, and I often spoon dollops of Acai and a cascade of roly-poly blueberries directly onto my multi-stained, old guy sweatshirt. I have yet to see Jackie duplicate my sloppiness, but I am still a novice perfecting my skills, while she is the princess of Acai.

Revel offers three kinds of bowls; I am addicted to the Awesome. It sports coconut, cacao nibs, cherry granola, fresh fruit du jour, sliced banana and a drizzle of captivating, oozy peanut butter.

Jackie is hooked on the Libbey Bowl, largely because of its clever Ojai name, cinnamon granola and blueberries. She often brings her own supplemental toppings and is a wizard at piling them onto an already unsteady creation.

The two bowls were prepared a few minutes after she ordered them and put into Revel’s freezer where they could be retrieved when we arrived at the food shop; the place that has consumed much of Jackie’s disposable wealth over the last few years.

It was Sunday and the Farmers’ Market, coupled with wandering out-of-town looky-loos, produced an overflow crowd seeking a respite from the virus. We got our bowls and matching green kryptonite spoons and made a dash for our favorite bench.

This particular bench is part of our routine and the bowls don’t quite taste the same without it. Our faces dropped when we found the bench occupied by two young people who, in addition to being from LA (you can tell by the way they dress), were preparing to spend the entire week obstructing access to our favorite spot.

Even the less-desirable benches were occupied, further adding to my rapidly declining culinary desire. The second-class seating consists of an irregular two-foot rock wall that meanders around the grassy area and is a favorite place for animals to deposit the deconstructed remains of their food and drink.

We picked a decent spot midway between Bonnie Lu’s Café and Rains Department Store, carefully placed our fannies on the hard, bumpy surface, and took the tops off our bowls. My appetite was returning rapidly, and I put the cold, hard seat out of my mind. I dug into the bowl, felt its welcoming pushback, and came away with a delectable mixture of purple Acai, bits of crunchy granola and a big, fat blueberry. Life was good…until Rochelle showed up.

Rochelle is not quite with the program. Jackie describes her as being socially inept, including the annoying habit of affixing herself semi-permanently to anyone who is not quick or agile enough to avoid the encounter.

She also doesn’t believe that facemasks have any value. Nor does she care whether I do. This was displayed with aplomb when she sat down beside me, brought her face to within two feet of mine, and most assuredly deposited invisible Covid-19 droplets into my Acai bowl.

With my appetite once again ruined, I reset my mask and expressed my irritation. “If you want to join us, Rochelle, kindly move six feet away and put on a mask.”

In response, I received a volley of useful information, “Masks are useless. Nobody ever died because they didn’t wear a mask. The flu is a hoax. The government wants to control us. I want my freedom to do as I like.”

My first thought was to respond with cold, hard facts. Realizing the folly of this approach, I focused on her point about freedom and asked “What if a stranger wanted to sit naked on your front porch and take a dump in your flower box?”

Stumped for a quick response, she gave me room for more catchy repartee. “Think of it this way, Rochelle. You don’t have to believe that a mask protects you from anything. But if you wore a mask, your friends, who are few and diminishing, would be more receptive to your uninterrupted intrusions.”

Using my highly developed powers of observation, I realized that she was about to deposit more droplets of increasing size into my acai bowl. A once pristine bowl that was now a toxic waste dump.

As if heaven sent, a friend of Rochelle’s appeared and moved into range. She had overheard our battle cries and sat down, complete with a makeshift bandana that sort of masked her nose and mouth…a good sign. Introduced as Marilyn, she calmly proclaimed that I had basic human rights that should not be encroached upon by Rochelle.

A harbinger of reason, I thought. Until she said, “You know, masks have been shown to cause carbon dioxide poisoning, and wearing a mask weakens your immune system. Mask wearers have been unable to absorb the good microbes in the air to enhance their ability to develop resistance to other diseases. And personally, I fully support that Palm Beach, Florida woman who said to her County Commissioners…I don’t wear a mask for the same reason I don’t wear underwear, things gotta breathe.”

I rose from my rock seat and wished Rochelle and Marilyn good health. I then deposited my nine- dollar acai bowl in the trash. But in spite of my misgivings, I wondered if there wasn’t some truth in what Marilyn had said.

Maybe I won’t wear any underwear tomorrow.

Elixir of Life

Jackie is at Starvation Palace.

Formally known as Optimum Health Institute, San Diego based OHI is a popular place for losing weight or grappling with an illness that may have defied traditional medicine’s array of high-tech equipment, wonder drugs and a plethora of health care professionals. In Jackie’s case, it is a place where she can escape the mundane and embrace the physical and mental detoxing that cleanses her body and nurtures her soul.

I’ve been there four times and probably rank as one of OHI’s more mundane customers. My two reasons for going there are first, that’s where Jackie is. Second, I like to personally prepare my twice a day servings of wheat grass juice.

You already know all about how she has captivated and seduced me, so let me dwell instead on the preparation and allure of wheat grass juice.

OHI has a preparation room that can accommodate six persons. Each person has access to an industrial strength juicing machine that should have multiple warnings, including disembowelment for the careless. The machine diabolically runs at an almost snail-like pace, lulling the user into a false sense of security. Each year, one or two guests have mysteriously disappeared from the campus, adding credence to the power of the juicer.

OHI’s gardens produce a portion of the dark green grass with occasional augmentation by a masked supplier who, like all suppliers and staff, has been vetted for adherence to the vegan lifestyle, the promise to never use anything stronger than baby aspirin, and an almost Zen-like adherence to the rules of Kundalini yoga.

The raw, dark green grass is stored in a refrigerator. Strongly admonished to wear a disposable latex glove on one hand, clumps of it may be taken for the juicing process. I often forget which hand is gloved and feel ashamed for touching the precious grass with my naked skin. I write it off to creeping senility and the fact that I am usually the oldest, most needy person on campus.

The grass is an elixir that has been credited with relieving nearly everything from teenage acne to stage four brain cancer. The precious harvest is not to be squandered. Unused grass is not to be returned to the refrigerator. One is cautioned to take only what is needed to make two ounces of juice. First year guests are often banished from the juicing room for multiple violations of this requirement.

Some of the juicing machines outperform others and, like a preferred chardonnay, guests usually have a favorite. Finding someone in your spot can be a real downer that may require an extra helping of deep transcendental meditation immediately following breakfast.

The juicer is turned on and the grass is fed into a hopper. A wooden push stick prods the grass into the bowels of the hopper. It is a slow process that occasionally entices the impatient user to push ever more forcefully on the wooden stick. This only aggravates the machine which then, like a three-year-old, refuses to process what has now become a glutinous glump of mashed grass. The guilty party then must find someone who can help alleviate the problem. Failing to find a good Samaritan, the irreverent violator may seek out another machine, leaving the inoperable juicer feeling unloved and abandoned.

The green juice exits the machine in a very thin stream. It is filtered through a metal sieve which rests upon a five cent Dixie cup much like the one that Nurse Ratched used to deliver pills to the lobotomized Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

One must pay close attention as the cup fills. A precise two ounces will do it. Too little will reduce the touted benefits. Too much will cause a biblical flood that will consume precious cleanup minutes that could better be spent on the lawn, doing nothing.

Like a pig, no part of the plant is wasted. The now desiccated grass is collected and often used as a poultice. Applied to any part of the body it can relieve muscle strain, shrink malignant melanomas, and improve sexual performance.

Many abhor the taste of the juice. I love it. When not at OHI, both Jackie and I seek out the green fountain of youth at Rainbow Bridge, Westridge and the Sunday Farmers Market. The Market doesn’t open until 9am but Jackie is an early morning arrival with six dollars clutched to her breast. The young juice seller is infatuated with Jackie and lustily participates in a gross violation of the rules to deliver the two small cups to her lovely hands. I stand well removed from the scene in order not to interfere with this act of love.

Bowing to the Governor’s fluctuating and at times unintelligible Covid-19 containment rules, OHI no longer allows guests to make their own juice. I have therefore cancelled my reservation. A week beyond the no-penalty refund date, OHI money lenders had at first said, “Too late, you lose.”

Invoking an excuse of, “I’m 81 and scared to death of the virus” relaxed their resistance to my request. Using a voice tinged with fear, aged hoarseness, and the inability to find the right words, earned me a full refund and an Emmy.

This morning I remembered my Amtrak reservation that was to bring me to OHI this Sunday.  I called to cancel it.  But that’s another story.

A two-hour wait

It was Bella’s Zoom assisted college graduation and we trooped to Santa Barbara on Sunday for a near-virtual celebration. We paid our serious respects to Covid-19 by taking separate cars; three for the six Sandoval aunts and grandparents, and one for Jackie, Sammy and me.

The 101 headed north was like its old self. Cars filling the three lanes tested my somewhat dormant driving skills.  Speed limits were largely ignored, and lane changes were executed by uncaring Mario Andretti wanna-be’s.

Following Siri’s instructions, we exited the 217 freeway and found ourselves surrounded by the UC Santa Barbara campus. The buildings were as lovely as the weather. Colorful, beckoning and blending into their surroundings. A perfect place conducive to study, whenever party time ended.

Very few students were dressed in graduation garb, including the traditional black robes and mortar boards with tassels.  A smattering of proud parents was taking photos. I day-dreamed about what was facing these graduates as they moved into the next phase of their lives. And I shuddered.

I thought about my own graduation sixty years ago. Held on a warm June day, several thousand of us filled the stadium at the University of Illinois in Champaign. The same stadium that saw my hero, Dick Butkus, graduate a couple of years later. He had finished battering his college football opponents and had gone on to terrorize the NFL as an all-star linebacker.

I saw my father wearing his little used hounds-tooth sport jacket, his bald head topped by the brown fedora that now resides in my son David’s Berkeley home. My father wasn’t big on congratulatory messages nor did he do much hugging or kissing, but I could see he was proud of his son by the glint in his eyes.

My years after college were predictable. Got my diploma, got a job, got married, got three kids. No mystery. No big career path surprise for most graduates. Those who followed a different route were few. Jobs were plentiful, the economy was healthy, and you were expected to follow a standard script, often amply endowed by parents who had bankrolled your education.

The kids at UC face other challenges. A world that has become much bigger. Information overload. An economy that is less welcoming, and a threat from alien viruses. They are more curious than we were and less willing to declare a path for life.

Regaining my concentration, we wound our way through the Eden-like campus that was quiet and practically devoid of cars. Exiting the campus, we drove through neighborhoods populated with somewhat seedy rentals; ones that appealed mostly to starving students. We found Bella’s bicycle strewn bachelor pad. We tooted our horns, waved our balloons, and displayed our hand-written congratulatory signs. All at a socially acceptable distance.

It only took five minutes to abandon those distancing rules. I felt little shame in asking to use the bathroom for a pee break and found my way impeded by another person with similar needs. So much for maintaining the pristine nature of Bella’s digs; one that catered to the somewhat haphazard household requirements of three college roommates and an exceptionally large Alaskan Malamute. My contribution to the disarray was but a drop in the bucket.

We bid Bella good-bye, now a somewhat wealthier woman, and thought about lunch. Given the current frenzy caused by Covid-19 and its peripatetic regulation alterations, we figured that finding a compliant place to eat would be akin to locating the holy grail.

Using the knowledge available only to Siri, we found Brophy Brothers at the harbor in Santa Barbara. It took ten minutes to drive there and a whole lot longer to absorb the sight of packed parking lots and much of the Earth’s population. We were astounded to find an empty spot practically at the water’s edge and congratulated ourselves at our good fortune.

Taking our Covid-19 threatened lungs in hand, we donned our facemasks and began the short walk to Brophy’s. It looked like Easter break in Miami Beach or Cancun. Hordes of young people paraded before us showing no evidence of any concern over their exposure to Covid. On the contrary,  young nubile women exposed much of their skin to public view, wearing bikinis that were at least two sizes smaller than their raging hormone filled bodies. My facemask served me well by camouflaging my perverted drooling.

Brophy’s welcomed our tired and hunger ravaged bodies. The view from the restaurant was captivating. The anticipation of perfectly fried, crispy calamari dipped in spicy mayo, lemon-garlic scampi drenched in melted butter, and a cold Cadillac Margarita teased my taste buds. With expectations like my own, Jackie stepped up to the host at the reception desk. Using her sweetest voice, she said, “Please, do you have a table for three?

The host responded with, “It’ll be two hours.”

He could have been more sympathetic and said, “I’m sorry and wish I could help you.”

Or “You’ve obviously come a long way and the old fella with you must be exhausted. But I’m afraid there is a busload of nuns ahead of you who’ve come all the way from the Vatican to savor our famous Brophy Bloody Mary.”

Dejected and still hungry, Jackie and Sammy arm wrestled over the next choice of dining pleasure. Both ladies, exhausted by the combat, agreed to try the strip mall where Jackie buys fresh pressed juice.

We walked back from Brophy’s to the car, bouncing off people who had apparently never heard of social distancing. With every step I felt my chest tighten, my throat become scratchy and my body temperature rise to 100.4 degrees. I was certain that I had become the first person to develop the virus after only a seven-minute exposure to an asymptomatic beach bunny.

We found Pani’s, a take-out joint right next to Vons and ordered three salads. They arrived in generic cardboard boxes. An impossibly resistant cellophane package eventually regurgitated a plastic knife and fork. While shoveling food in my mouth, I only slopped two dollops of oily salad dressing on my shirt, re-enforcing one of the negatives about getting old.

There was no one within thirty feet of us. It was heaven.

 

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.

Starvation Palace

I weighed 135 pounds this morning. Four pounds less than a week ago.

A week since the crowded Amtrak train pulled into the downtown San Diego station after nearly six hours on the rails. As the train ground to a halt, I looked for her through the window. And there she was, wearing that floppy black and white hat that reminds me so much of Jackie Kennedy. Only this time it was Jackie Sherman, the woman I love.

The doors opened and I stepped onto the platform. Like a soldier returning from the front, I took her in my arms and kissed that sweet face. I had sorely missed her and was glad that my time away from her smile was finally over. It had been a long week.

I stowed my bags in her car and we took the fifteen-minute trip to Optimum Health Institute in Lemon Grove, a town that is the antithesis of its San Diego neighbor and sorely in need of an interior decorator. It was my third time at the OHI health retreat and I found myself unexpectedly looking forward to my visit.

My first OHI visit two years ago was filled with apprehension. The recurring thought during my seven days there was, “What am I doing here?” I had felt surrounded by people who wanted relief from real health challenges or who simply wanted to drop unwanted pounds. Neither of which seemed to match my needs. Regardless of the goal, the principal solution professed by the institute was the same; a change in your eating habits. Coupled with meditation and non-denominational faith, the solution seemed obvious.

Careful to avoid claims of miraculous cures of incurable maladies, OHI simply focused on the elimination of much of what I enjoyed. Salt, sugar, oil, animal products, alcohol and caffeine topped the list of the greatest offenders. In addition to the acceptable foods, a strict protocol prescribed the way in which they should be combined during mealtime so not to offend each other as they proceeded from your mouth through your gut.

Wheatgrass juice is a staple component of the OHI diet. Its legendary benefits are accepted by all and we are expected to slug down a two-ounce serving twice a day. We process the wheatgrass in a room specifically designated for that purpose. Great handfuls of what appears to be Kentucky Bluegrass in need of mowing are carefully run though a juicer that could, if one is careless, add some human protein to the mix; an OHI diet no-no. One’s juicing skills are honed over time and the process takes on an almost religious bearing. Drinking the juice takes some practice as its taste has been occasionally compared to motor oil and other unmentionables. As for me, I love the stuff.

After three visits to OHI, I consider myself quite adept at the processing of the grass. As an added benefit, extracting the liquid leaves behind a poultice that has, by itself, been deemed to cure aches, pains and a plethora of sexual inadequacies. But then, I wouldn’t know anything about that.

The elimination of tasty foods and the imbibing of the holy juice are intended to cleanse one’s system which contains rotting food and other nasties that have lived in us for years. They hide in secret, otherwise unreachable, places in our gut, especially in our colon. Toward that end (no pun intended), multiple colonics are a featured component of the cleansing process. Generally unmentionable in polite company, OHI participants are gleefully verbose about the process and its benefits. Four ounces of freshly processed wheatgrass juice are a vital element of the colonic. Only this time the magic elixir is squirted up one’s butt to lay down a coating that is sure to destroy the pests that have been living quite happily somewhere in the dark. Those campers who are seen toting the precious liquid in a see-through plastic container are readily identifiable as being on their way to the very popular colonic ladies.

The OHI carte du jour features a basic assortment of simple food that would be familiar to anyone who has spent quality time in a Siberian gulag. Raw vegetables are featured at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Occasionally, something composed of raw vegetables tries, without success, to appear tasty. But like kosher bacon, one is not fooled for long. Six salad dressings of different colors are available; however, lacking oil and salt, I was hard pressed to taste the difference between them. Cooking vegetables is prohibited as anything heated beyond 105 degrees is determined to be substantially lacking in nutrition.

The elimination of anything that might cause fluid retention, such as salt, results in the elimination of prodigious amounts of body fluid.  Multiple trips from one’s bed to the bathroom becomes a nightly occurrence. Banging into unfamiliar furniture and the inability to find the correct light switch only adds to the festivities. Drinking four quarts of water during the day exacerbates the nightly adventure. I often believed that I would become totally dehydrated, much like that misbegotten bad guy who drank from the wrong cup as he searched for the holy grail in that Indiana Jones movie. Needless to say, I lost weight.

OHI leaves any claims of miracle cures to the participants, many of whom are all too happy to let everyone know about them. During my first OHI visit, I was highly skeptical of the entire proceedings. However, unwilling to be ostracized and banished from my sweetheart’s loving arms, I avoided snarky smirking as I sat through the classes and the testimonials of those who had been cured..

My second trip to the institute was easier. I knew what was in store for me. The classes were a bit more advanced and the food regimen unsurprising. Forsaking any hope for a more pleasing diet led me to clandestinely bootleg a daily cup of Starbuck’s dark roast and create a room stocked with bananas, peanut butter, grapes, nutritional shakes and chewy power bars. Careful to maintain appearances, all these were in addition to the OHI supplied Bugs Bunny diet of raw greens. I lost more weight.

And so now we come to my third and most recent trip. I found myself looking forward to it; a revelation in itself. Now an upper classman, my apprehension was gone. The food was no better, but it met my low expectations. Starbucks was still on my diet along with the other frowned upon supplements. What did change dramatically was my understanding and acceptance of the health improvements attested to by my fellow campers. I no longer smirked. I listened attentively. I heard them praise the program and describe the changes that had improved their lives. These were sane, intelligent people. And I thought, who am I to judge them? Who am I to demean their beliefs? Who am I to doubt their truthfulness?

And who am I to risk missing another trip to Lemon Grove with the beautiful lady in the black and white Jackie Kennedy hat?

Coffee, comfort and caring

Legend has it that coffee beans were discovered by the Ethiopian goat herder, Kaldi. Watching his goats eat the berries from the plant, the goats became excited and were unable to sleep. And so, being a Republican, Kaldi started a business that now delivers these very same beans to Java and Joe.

Maybe not, but here are some other facts:

  • Americans drink 400 million cups of coffee every day.
  • Half of us would give up our daily shower rather than give up coffee in the morning.
  • More than half of us would rather gain ten pounds, than give up our coffee for life.

Maybe that’s why many of us coffee addicts are fat and smelly.

Having successfully concluded this morning’s treadmill exercise without falling off the athletic club’s machine, I stopped by Java and Joe for my usual medium dark roast. I look forward to the first hot sip of that full-bodied brew, much like that first sip of a cold beer. Sometimes I have a muffin, complete with high gluten flour and a week’s supply of granulated sugar. Sometimes, it’s just the high caffeine coffee that I crave.

The cherubic faces that greeted me behind the counter today did not include either Joe or Lorraine, the shop owners. That visual clue activated my memory cells and reminded me that Lorraine was undergoing a medical procedure this morning that would probably lay her low for at least a month.

Everyone that’s a regular at the coffee shop has known of Lorraine’s health challenge for months. Invariably, someone ahead of me in the coffee queue would ask Lorraine “How are you today? When are you scheduled for your procedure? I’m sure everything will be fine. How long will you be recuperating? We love you.” If I was alone in the queue, the questions were often posed by me. Balancing my concern for her well-being with a possibly unwelcome intrusion into her life can be difficult.

Lorraine is a mature woman with a motherly attitude. Efficient is an understated description of her prowess. Her welcoming smile brightens my day. Even with a cloud hanging over her, much like the one dogging the Al Capp character Joe Btfsplk, Lorraine manages to keep her sunny smile and upbeat conversation in spite of chemotherapy and the attendant floppy hats. Over the last few months, there was little evidence that contradicted her usual sunny demeanor.

Perhaps it’s the coffee shop itself that plays a supportive role in this great adventure. Open twelve hours every day, it is full of mismatched furniture, and a concrete floor with an unintentional paisley design that defies description. An old sign taped to the wall warns of dire results should the microwave and the toaster be switched on at the same time. Greeting cards are stuffed into racks that require the skill of a contortionist to view them. Muffins and scones, ordinarily displayed with aplomb, are sometimes hidden from prying eyes.

But none of these shortcomings seem to matter to those of us who are regulars. Or maybe it’s because of these imperfections that we come back time after time. We are comfortable with the shop’s eccentricities, since they are also reflective of ourselves. Distastefully, the thought of going somewhere else is anathema. The habitual returning faces are familiar to us and form a comforting tapestry that allows us to slide easily into an otherwise frenetic day.

Much like that of the athletic club, the coffee shop provides the social contact I treasure. I often sit alone at a table, but I do not feel alone. Like a voyeur, I sometimes mentally participate in the conversations that surround me. Because we are creatures of habit, I can sometimes predict what’s coming next. I watch them as they walk through the door, hoping that I will be blessed with a familiar face. One with which I can share a few sentences or, if I’m very lucky, a seat at my table.

Even in solitude, I can explore my memories of fellow coffee enthusiasts that are etched in my mind. David, whose accounting office is up the stairs and who donates his skills to many of Ojai’s non-profits. Tom, who did Ila’s hair in his adjacent salon and who responded graciously to her repetitive questions and stories as though he’d never heard them before. Right up until the very end. The fireman who shared his stories of the devastating December fires. The strangers who seemed as anxious as I was to have a conversation without boundaries. And, if I was very lucky, watching Jackie glide through the door with her irresistible smile.

The morning was quiet, and my attention was drawn to the greeting cards. I like the ones with the pithy, sometimes predictable sayings. Some are flat out wrong like We only regret what we don’t do in life. I only wish it were so. Or, Why do I feel as stupid now as I did at 20? I certainly know more than I did at 20, I just keep ignoring what I learned. But some are spot on like, My housekeeper judges me. And one of my perennial favorites, Be yourself. Everybody else is taken.

Many years ago while driving the Help of Ojai bus, I transported a wheel chair bound patient to the Ojai hospital. Finished, I was stowing the chair lift when a physician stopped to speak with me. He told me how much he personally valued the service we provided and then said something that has stuck with me. His smile softened and he quietly said, “Remember, we all walk down the same path.”

As I age, his words become more relevant and gain greater importance. I realize that life is fragile and, like Lorraine, could take me down a more difficult path. But it also makes life more precious. Like my other favorite card says, Whatever you are meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.

Be well Lorraine. I love you.

Seventeen women and me

We hosted a yoga retreat at my house last weekend. For the uninitiated, a yoga retreat includes meditation and a series of body stretching poses meant to test the limits of your muscles, tendons and ligaments. After several ninety minute sessions, the desired result is a sort of nirvana that puts the mind at ease and, to the delight of the instructor, a craving for more of the same.

An added benefit for caveman voyeurs is the dress code. Consisting of stretchy tights and peek-a-boo bodices, it leaves little to the imagination and produces imagery that tends to satisfy a male’s basic prehistoric needs.

Jackie takes great delight in organizing these retreats and is constantly in tune with participant needs. Quick to respond to requests and ever mindful of her guests’ comfort, she is to yoga what Pearl Mesta “the hostess with the moistest” was when she produced lavish, well-choreographed  parties for the cream of society.

I, on the other hand, feel relieved when the event ends without a participant’s death or a serious blockage to my fragile septic system. Now that I think about it, septic system failures outrank death. I have learned through experience that toilet paper, even though conspicuously labeled Safe for Septic Systems, is anything but. Over the years, I have accumulated a long list of Don’ts and have placed them throughout my guesthouse. Most prominent among these no-no’s is We are on a very fragile septic system. Do not put anything in the toilet unless you’ve eaten it first.

Immediately after delivering a short sentence of welcome to the seventeen beauties, I repeat the afore-mentioned warning. Laughs generally ensue. So I say it again, just for effect. As I do not have hidden cameras in the bathrooms, I can only hope they take my admonition seriously. As further inducement, I have often considered displaying photos of raw sewage coursing through the guesthouse hallways but, as a gracious host, I have avoided taking that step.

Watching rolls of Kirkland toilet paper disappear down the lavatory maw has more than once prompted me to consider allocating a finite number of sheets of tissue to each participant at the beginning of their stay. Those who may require more could buy surplus tissue from less needy guests, much like buying carbon credits.

Words most often heard at yogi meal time include gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan and, my favorite…what’s in this thing? In order to avoid being a conspicuous outcast, I eat the same food as our guests. After several retreats, I find that it matters little what the dish looks like. They all tend to run together much like my late father-in-law’s approach to eating Chinese food. Take a helping of pot-stickers,  cashew chicken, and sweet and sour pork; then mix the whole thing together with a big dollop of rice. Yummy.

Yogis are picky eaters. We ran out of almond milk that had been intended for flavoring coffee. Several of our guests took exception to its mysterious disappearance. Not wanting to be viewed as miserly, and always the gracious host, I ran to my car and drove down the hill to fetch more. I grabbed a half-gallon of stuff whose label screamed Almond Milk. I was a happy man. Upon returning, I looked more closely at the misleading container and was horrified to see the words “vanilla flavoring” and worst of all “sugar” in its list of ingredients. With full disclosure, I served it anyway.

Although I am a myriad of yoga levels below the seventeen goddesses stretched out on my great room floor, I usually try to participate with them in some very basic poses. This was not to be as I had injured myself during my prior week’s visit to the Ojai Yoga Shala. The class was ment for those like me who frighten easily. Overstretching is anathema and, to prove it, the name of the class is Restorative Yoga. Obviously intended for those who may have already injured themselves by doing things you would never do to your own child, the class promises a care-free romp through very basic stuff.

Proving that I nevertheless can do the wrong thing despite the odds, a mix of Downward Dog, Happy Cow and Cat Pose was like child’s play leading me down the garden path. Even though I avoided sinister sounding poses like Bharadvaja’s Twist and the infamous Deaf Man’s Delight, I managed to pull a ligament in my right butt attempting to do the more benignly named Crescent Lunge. I spent the next week and the entire retreat avoiding further injury and doing way too many crossword puzzles.

Leaving Jackie all alone in the clutches of her guests, I took time out from the Saturday afternoon portion of the retreat to attend a memorial service for my friend and neighbor, Ron Helson. He was a career Army man, a Green Beret colonel, and a member of various police forces throughout Southern California. Ron ended his career as a private ballistics expert who, on many occasions, could be heard discharging weapons in close proximity to my home. At such times I felt a strange dichotomy, both frightened and yet secure in knowing that Ron was on patrol.

Attending his memorial service were various comrades in arms, many of whom were in uniform. Presentation by a color guard and words uttered about Ron highlighted his career and his involvement with firearms. The memorial service ended with a flag folding ceremony and a three gun salute that left my ears ringing.

The memorial service with its military man’s emphasis was in stark contrast to the seventeen beauties at the yoga retreat and, in my mind, highlighted some of our cultural differences. The brashness of one versus the quietude of the other.  Neither being right or wrong, yet both being in sharp opposition to the ways of the other.

I came back to the retreat in time to say good-bye. I hope they come back again. Next time I won’t worry so much about toilet paper.


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