Archive for the 'Health Care' Category

Drops and Pokes

If my eyes were formerly feeling lonely, I have now moderated that condition by letting a horde of strangers in white coats peer into them, flood them with all manner of drops, and poke them as though one were testing the ripeness of an avocado.

In previous episodes, I chronicled the events that precipitated these invasive activities and eventually concluded with my optometrist, Dr. Brockman, announcing that I was now “ripe”, a euphemism that conveyed his conclusion that I was primed for cataract surgery.

Live long enough and you too will experience at least one, and probably two, such surgeries.

In addition to cataracts, I am keeping glaucoma at bay. Once a rampant blindness provocateur, it’s controllable with multiple medications dropped into the eyes one or more times a day. Untreated, glaucoma will damage the optic nerve leading to loss of vision. The malady is precipitated by abnormally high pressure in the eye, called ocular hypertension, that inflates your eyeball like a balloon and squeezes the life out of your optic nerve.

Squeezing drops into my eyes is a hit or miss activity that normally results in much of the liquid dripping down my cheek. I have tried different approaches including tilting my head way back to where it almost touches my butt, experimenting with the distance between the dropper and my eye, and soliciting Jackie’s assistance. Employing Nurse Jackie is the most reliable method, but she often is preoccupied; lately she is focused on watching all 356 episodes of Grey’s Anatomy.

Theories abound as to the causes of glaucoma. Some folks recommend avoiding headstands; however, I have learned that eye pressure is independent of blood pressure. Other soothsayers blame bananas, coffee, and banging your head against the wall (my mother did a lot of that and did not suffer from glaucoma.)

Most eye practitioners put the entire blame on our parents for passing on the dreaded ballooning gene. Thank goodness for that; at least I can continue standing on my head.

Easily discernable symptoms of glaucoma are generally absent. Eye pressure is measured with numbing drops placed onto the eye, and then a tap or two on your eyeball transmits a pressure reading to the observer. I consider myself an expert in evaluating the skills of those who tap on my eyeballs, having been subjected to the process by optometrists, ophthalmologists and retina specialists.

Almost anyone in the doctor’s office, from a board-certified physician (whatever that is) to the newly hired receptionist is apparently authorized to attack your eyeball with a vengeance. Additionally, I have found that occupational status has little to do with the efficiency and comfort attendant to the process. The receptionist in my ophthalmologist’s office gave me the best balloon job I’ve ever had.

Completing the trifecta of eye afflictions is macular degeneration. Like cataracts and glaucoma, the disease runs rampant through my family. My earliest recollection of it begins with my father’s mother who, like my parents, was a Lithuanian refugee. Skinny, just short of five feet, and wearing a sheitel (head covering used by orthodox Jewish women), she moved like a specter through her kitchen, never uttering a sound. Perhaps I was too young to remember but I’d swear she was a mute. Her eyes glistened in a way that made her appear sightless. All in all, I was too frightened of her to ask.

Macular degeneration results in severely blurred or a complete loss of vision in the center of the field of vision. Peripheral vision remains, so that you can spot someone creeping up on you (unless glaucoma is part of the daily double.) Seeing faces, driving, eating and other daily activities are featured challenges in most Mission Impossible movies.

My father, Morris, had macular degeneration. One of my embedded memories is of him sitting sideways on a folding chair in front of the TV, watching a White Sox game out of the corner of his right eye. Glaucoma complicated the process of defining the images and required that the players on the TV screen move very slowly so he could tell what was going on. Baseball easily filled this requirement; watching the Bulls or the Blackhawks was out of the question.

Irv, my brother, suffered from all the aforementioned maladies and, like Mr. Magoo, tended to bump into stationary objects. As I have begun to do, he walked very tentatively in darkened areas, sticking his toe out well ahead of the rest of his body to feel for objects that might be on a collision course.

My cataract surgery was relatively uneventful except for the complete loss of vision in my left eye. My hysteria abated over the next 48 hours as my AWOL sight gradually returned. However, lack of significant improvement in my visual acuity over the next week or two resulted in a follow-up trip to the surgeon. Further drops, pokes and machine games resulted in a highly sophisticated diagnosis of “Looks good to me.” And a referral to a retina specialist.

The retina maven resided in the largest office of the three specialties (who knew that the retina could be so important). I dutifully filled out several reams of forms that asked for everything but my preferred coitus position. I was then interviewed by a young lady who seemed on the verge of asking that question, but I was put at ease when she only asked for my bank account and social security numbers.

The anticipated drops and pokes were accompanied by the largest array of eye testing devices I had seen in any office. One of the devices looked much like the evil storm trooper featured in a Star Wars movie. A human sized, white rectangular device, I half expected Darth Vader’s breathy voice to emerge from it.

My face was squashed into the front of the trooper and my head positioned in ways that were not intended by our Creator. The technician, obviously dissatisfied with my eyelid, lifted and jerked it in order to get really good photos, ones that would no doubt be one day found on a list of Facebook Favorites.

Finished with the activities that were intended to offend my eyes, I was escorted to a nice room that could, in a pinch, be called a home away from home. Several impressive computer screens lined the shelf in front of me displaying the photos taken by the storm trooper.

The door opened slowly and I half-expected to see Darth Vader. Instead, I met the Marx brothers. The first, using his given name, introduced himself as Damien the ophthalmologist and leader of the band. The second, Susan, was apparently the only one who could make the computer screens come to life. The third, who reminded me of my grandmother who could not speak, was introduced as Roberta, the medical student. It almost seemed like an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, without the blood.

Damien was a slap-happy sort who seemed to enjoy giving me bad news. He did, however, display good judgment by starting with the good news. He gleefully announced that my being 81 put me in the pediatric section of his practice; most of his other clients had survived the sinking of the Titanic.

He went on. “You’ve got a lot of macular degeneration. Not enough to be concerned about…yet. And there’s a bunch of other stuff that you won’t understand so I’ll not get into it. Go home, eat olive oil, nuts, fish, and the other things that Italians like…but maybe not so much pasta and watch how much wine you slug down. And maybe take those pills you’ve been taking for the last two years; they’re probably good for you. Ok, we’re done. Come back in six or eight months. Oh, and happy almost birthday.”

I split the difference with the receptionist and made an appointment seven months later. I exited the building with dilated pupils the size of basketballs. Jackie drove up and I plopped down in the passenger seat. “How’d it go?” she asked.

“Not bad, same old drops and pokes. But at least I met the Marx brothers.”

The Eyes Have It

I had cataract surgery on my right eye a few years ago. It was a relatively uncomplicated procedure that didn’t hurt, wasn’t life threatening and, I think, improved my vision.

Cataracts have been around since ancient times, ever since humans began to live longer than their prehistoric ancestors. It’s a disease that afflicts at least half the population by the age of 80. If you have good genes and live to 95, one hundred percent of you will be victims.

Cataract disease causes the lens of the eye to cloud over; eventually you will think you’re in a London fog. If you’ve never been to London, think of driving your car down Highway 99 in the Central Valley through a Tule fog, same thing.

Factors, in addition to aging, that affect the formation of a cataract include diabetes, smoking, obesity, high blood pressure and, sadly, unbridled alcohol consumption. Injuries, like having your spouse fist you out, can also speed the formation of a cataract.

The outpatient procedure is pretty straight forward; under a local anesthetic, the ophthalmologist surgically removes the clouded lens and replaces it with a nice plastic one from Ben Franklin. The best thing about the procedure is that you can watch the doctor stick you in the eye while a glorious light show is playing in your brain. Anxiety reducing Valium pills are an added treat.

Cataract replacement, like LASIK surgery, can also improve your vision and eliminate the need for glasses. I am often reminded of the late comedian, Dick Shawn, who self-billed himself as The Second Greatest Entertainer in the Whole Wide World. His old standup comedy routine included the following prediction, “Ya know, pretty soon you won’t need glasses; they’ll just grind your eyeballs.” I thought he was just being funny, but maybe not.

Eye problems run amok in my family. Glaucoma and macular degeneration are like visiting relatives who don’t know when to go home. Accordingly, I visit my optometrist, Doctor Brockman, every three months to see what else we need to do to protect me from their onslaught. He often delivers a line that would have fit quite nicely into Dick Shawn’s routine, “My job is to keep your eyes working until you die.”

My latest visit to Doctor B included the compulsory reading of the ubiquitous eye chart. I always wear my glasses when reading the chart since we long ago determined that trying without them is a waste of time. Recognizing the inanity of it, I also gave up trying to memorize the lines on the chart; now I only do that when I visit the DMV.

Doctor B has prepared me for the eventual need for cataract surgery.  It was no surprise when I couldn’t find the eye chart, much less read it, that he said, “It’s time.”

Given a choice of ophthalmologists and noting the surprising absence of any Jewish names, I lofted a dart at the presumed location of the eye chart and selected Doctor Shabatien. I guessed that he or his ancestors probably came from the Middle East near Israel, a hotbed of Jewish doctors. Close enough.

Doctor S was very busy and, as I was in no hurry to have my eye sliced, booked an appointment for an evaluation four weeks out. I figured I could just use my right eye in the interim, enlarge the Netflix movie captions, ask Jackie to read the small print on my meds, and have her to guide me through the darkness of the hallway leading to my bed…a place of refuge where eyes are superfluous.

The day of my evaluation came and we scurried to Doctor S’s in Ventura, arriving 20 minutes early. Jackie and I share the same annoying habit of arriving everywhere ahead of time. I’ve tried being late to no avail; the best I’ve ever done is 12 minutes ahead of schedule. I often arrive a day early just to avoid the traffic.

I was promptly escorted to one of Doctor S’s exam rooms. His assistant, Rita, was pleasant and efficient. She began with the dreaded eye chart; I became ecstatic when I actually saw it on the wall in front of me. Reading it was another kettle of fish; I might as well have been blind, a condition that I might have acquired on the elevator to Doctor B’s office.

Rita tried to coax enough vision from either of my eyes to avoid declaring the operation a failure and labeling me as untreatable. Squinting and silent prayer eventually produced enough vision that allowed me to identify two of the four characters on the fourth line of the chart. Rita congratulated me on my perseverance and gave me a cookie.

Other tests were performed; I had no idea why nor how I scored. It seems that Rita was capable enough to perform the tests but was not permitted to discuss the results. As this prohibition was hopefully not life threatening, I did not press it and lamely decided to wait for Doctor S to arrive and give me the bad news.

Rita applied eye dilating drops and then left me to pursue other adventures. I sat in the rigid exam chair designed by Barcalounger rejects and visualized what the world would look like when I ventured outdoors. With pupils as big as Ford F-250 hubcaps, light is unimpeded, and you feel like you have Superman’s x-ray vision.

Time passed and Rita returned. “I’m really sorry but the doctor is going to be late. He went to his Lancaster office by mistake. He’s on his way here, maybe an hour and a half. Would you like to stay, come back later or maybe reschedule for another day?”

I thought about the other times I’d waited for doctors. But never because they went to the wrong office. I thought about his honesty in saying that he just screwed up. No emergency, no my dog ate my schedule, no traffic was a bitch. So, I decided to stick around and think of him as just being a little tardy. And I got a free cup of coffee.

Hip Hip Hooray

Jackie had a hip replacement last Wednesday. Once done as an inpatient procedure involving several nights in the hospital, it is now performed in an outpatient setting. The patient goes home the same day with a hearty farewell and a best of luck.

Until a year ago, Medicare only covered the procedure if it was done as an inpatient. In an abrupt 180-degree turn, it is now covered only if done in an outpatient setting. Private health insurance, seizing on the opportunity to save a buck, soon followed Medicare’s lead.

Jackie’s odyssey began about a year ago when she began to complain of an uncomfortable feeling in her groin. I suggested that it might be due to too much sex, while she insisted that it was caused by too little sex. Attempting to help, I accelerated our conjugal visitations. Although the increased activity didn’t eliminate her discomfort, we broke new ground in our relationship.

The discomfort increased and casual conversation with others pointed to her left hip as the problem. Verification required a visit to an orthopedic surgeon; glorious recommendations were forthcoming from those who had already dealt with the problem.

Two prominent surgeons rose to the surface. Doctor Golden in Ventura received high marks for both his bedside manner and his technical skills. Doctor Yun in Santa Monica, somewhat younger and located in an area with a plethora of expensive hotels and elegant dining establishments, won the day. Some insensitive wags also suggested that Jackie might get egg rolls if she opted for Doctor Yun.

Instead of egg rolls, Doctor Yun supplied a 50-page binder that reviewed the entire hip replacement process in great detail beginning with a pre-operative Zoom class and concluding with post-operative instructions. Jackie’s eyes bugged out when confronted with the sections dealing with pain, bruising, swelling, urination, dislocation and infection. Her hourly mantra leading up to the day of surgery became “Why am I doing this?” In response I would occasionally offer to resume the now-discarded alternative of more frequent sex.

We arrived at the Ambrose on Tuesday. The Ambrose is a moderately priced comfortable hotel directly across the street of St. John’s hospital. Its location is perfect. Its only negative is the regular arrival of an alarm-blaring ambulance that causes one to muse about the medical condition of the vehicle’s occupant, and reminds you that your turn is coming.

The Ambrose watering hole has a wonderful happy hour with an unlimited supply of free wine and beer. It also provides the opportunity to share experiences with other hotel guests who have chosen the hotel because of its proximity to the hospital. Sharing diagnoses and life-threatening conditions of their loved ones takes the place of watching comparatively boring sporting events on ESPN.

Wednesday morning reveille was 3 a.m. Adequate time for a workout in the hotel’s Covid restricted gym, a hot shower with mysterious antiseptic solutions, and a one-minute ride to the hospital in complete darkness. As hotel visitors were persona non grata, our 5 a.m. arrival meant a tearful separation from each other. The brave girl marched into the hospital lobby and I swear that I could hear her mutter “Why am I doing this?” for hopefully the last time.

It was still dark when I drove back to the Ambrose. My deteriorating night vision hid stationary roadway obstacles, turned the presence of other drivers into a crapshoot, and made entry into the hotel’s underground parking lot an adventure worthy of passage through a celestial black hole.

Trying to go back to sleep was like stuffing a genie back into the bottle. Time passed and I was happy to get periodic calls Doctor Yun’s staff who told me how things were going. I tried doing crossword puzzles but failed miserably at answering some of the easier clues. Even the overused what’s a Dutch cheese, “Edam”, seemed like a trick question.

At 1 p.m. I was summoned to the hospital to retrieve my girl. With the help of a friendly hospital orderly, she managed to hobble out of the temporary wheelchair at the curb and slide her pretty bottom into the passenger seat. I forgot to unfasten my seatbelt and nearly strangled myself trying to lean over and kiss her still beautiful face.

Assuming she was hungry after avoiding food for eighteen hours, I asked her what she’d like. “I want to have my nails done.”

In preparation for surgery, Jackie had been required to remove her nail polish so an oximeter could measure the oxygen saturation in her blood. Done with all that, it was now time to put the polish back on. As I’ve learned, much like a Starbuck’s, there’s always a nail emporium within shouting distance.

My suggestion that she wait a day fell on deaf ears. “Sweetheart, they just removed a chunk of bone from your hip and replaced it with something that makes you a bionic woman. There will be discomfort that needs careful tending to.”

“My discomfort is in my nails. They feel naked. They are thin. They are vulnerable. They need attention. Food, rest and pain can be dealt with after my nail emergency.”

She found a nail shop around the corner from the hotel. Fortunately for the owner, they had an open slot. We drove a thousand feet. Jackie emerged from the car, embraced her walker and rolled into the shop. They coddled her, did her fingers and her toes, became the best of friends, and gave her a discount for daring to do this just seven hours after major surgery.

The end of the nail emergency brought a precious smile to her face. 

She didn’t say “Why am I doing this”….for a whole day.

I’ve been shot

In spite of many real or imagined misgivings, I got my first Covid vaccination shot last week.

After months of watching TV horror stories about the scarcity of the vaccine, the lack of resources to stick it in my arm, and the uncertainty of when old guys might be eligible, I was sure that I was destined to remain a vaccine virgin for the foreseeable future.

Maybe not. While engaging in my evening sport of reading mindless Facebook postings, my iPhone announced an incoming missive from the County of Ventura.

“Dear Old Person”, it began. “You and the other over the hill citizens are now eligible to get shot. Use your smart phone to contact us and make an appointment. Better hurry, there’s a lot of you old farts out there.”

Since passing well beyond the age of consent, I have learned to pay close attention to directives from the government bureaucracy. It controls just about everything out there, and I find it much easier to do as I am told. Sort of like depending on a wife who lovingly believes it’s her job to guide me through my day and put me down at night.

Dutifully and without hesitation, I found the Ventura County sign-up site on my iPhone and was astonished to see every appointment slot for the next two weeks wide open. Comparing notes with Nurse Jackie, we chose a mid-afternoon slot two days hence at the Ventura Fairgrounds. So far so good.

Jackie is a bit antsy about getting flu shots; I think she may be a closet anti-vaxxer. Last year was the first time that she finally opted to tank up with the seasonal vaccine that’s intended to ward off the run-of-the-mill flu. She survived that encounter without injury and, I thought, was ready for the bigger challenge of the Covid vaccination. Overcoming her multiple bouts of squeamishness required repeated doses of “Don’t worry, Sweetheart, you will be fine. I promise.” A liberal helping of inducements, like bribing a four-year-old, sealed the deal.

A born pessimist, I spent the two days before the vaccination conjuring up various scenarios, all of which were mildly depraved.  I thought, “They will run out of vaccine just before my turn at the needle. They will lose my reservation and, with all appointment slots taken, I will need to wait a month for a new one.” Worst of all, I was certain that I had developed every symptom of the Covid virus, would be disqualified from participation…and, of course, die.

Often feeling fluish and sure that I had a temperature over 101, I made several dozen attempts at taking it with my battery driven instant read thermometer. The bliss of seeing 98.6 popup on the little LCD window soon became my favorite avocation; unfortunately, the bliss was short-lived, and I reverted to my customary misery after only a nanosecond or two.

The big day arrived, and Jackie and I arm wrestled over when we should leave for the Fairgrounds and our 3:40 pm appointment. I was certain that being even 5 minutes late would consign us to the trash heap of no-shows, banished forever due to our chronic tardiness. We compromised and departed almost an hour before our appointment. The trip took only 25 minutes, which Jackie duly noted…several times.

The line of cars on the access road to the Fairgrounds stretched into Santa Barbara County, or so it seemed. We inched along the road without the need of the accelerator pedal. I watched the dashboard clock grind down at cosmic speed until it reached and then surpassed our 3:40 appointment time. I was sure I was going directly to hell.

The entrance to the parking lot was ushered by a very nice man whose job it seemed was to provide information and, secondarily, severely back up the traffic while he shared anecdotes with the drivers. He encouraged us to stick with the program, telling us they were an hour behind schedule and not to worry about being late. Jackie stared at me with that “I told you so” look.

We parked, made careful note of where we were, and headed off in the direction of the inoculation site. We had plenty of company.

This was just the second day following the opening of the vaccination event to folks over the age of 75. I swear that everyone that age in the Northern Hemisphere was at the Fairgrounds. People with canes, walkers and wheelchairs filled the void. It was the first time in years that I was at an event where I was younger than other people.

The blessed volunteers guided people from lane to lane as we moved slowly toward the Fairgrounds’ entry door. For all I knew, inside it might as well have been Valhalla, Shangri-La or any other place of happiness. The eagerness of the elderly to get the vaccine belied the thought that old, chronically impaired people have nothing to live for.

I admit that the secrecy of what lay beyond the entry door played tricks with my imagination. I wondered if we were really being guided to the end of our road, much like those people in the futuristic 1976 film Logan’s Run who were exterminated at the age of 30.

Or perhaps we were signing up to have Charleton Heston turn us into food for the living in the film Soylent Green.

But no, there were only angels behind the Fairgrounds’ door. Angels who took our names, examined our id’s, helped us fill out forms, escorted us to our seats, administered our shots and sat us down for 15 minutes while they made sure we had no adverse reactions.

Angels who did everything efficiently, kindly and with a smile. Angels who put themselves at risk by exposing themselves to us.

Even though the process took nearly three hours, it was a model of good planning, dedicated workers and friendly faces. We all took it in stride. No one butt into line, no one complained, and everyone followed instructions. People helping people.

It was dark when we left the building, and with the aid of our iPhone flashlights we found our car. As we drove to the exit, we found the same happy usher who had guided us at the beginning of our journey. He smiled and asked if we were ok.

“Sure”, I said. “Thanks to you and the other angels.”

I’ve only got another two weeks before I get my second shot.

Better charge the batteries in my thermometer. 

I’m on sensory overload

Normally a placid, accepting person with a don’t rock the boat mentality, my patience has been worn dangerously thin by the pandemic. So thin that I physically react to sharp sounds, like the shutting of doors and even the clink of new ice cubes as they exit the freezer cube tray and drop into the awaiting receptacle. I’m convinced that I no longer require my hearing aids since I hear everything within a three-block radius.

We’re in a race. A race featuring two competitors, the Covid-19 virus and the County of Ventura. Winner take all.

I’ve adjusted my life to the pandemic. I’ve tightened up my exposure to situations that seemed to almost dare the little Covids to bite me.

I can be seen wearing a tight fitting, blood clotting mask at 6am while I walk down Montgomery Street to the gym in the dark without encountering another soul.

I’ve have worn several layers of skin off my hands as I meticulously scrub them with soap and sanitizer, even though I have touched nothing but the inside of my coat pockets.

I now religiously launder masks that were previously left alone to accumulate substantial quantities of food particles in the belief that the stoppages caused by my meal detritus would produce a significant barrier to the entry of the virus.

I don’t touch door handles as I enter or exit business establishments. Instead, I use my well insulated upper arm to deftly shove the door open in a manner that offers me enough time to navigate through the opening before the door can slam itself into my fragile body.

I avoid using cash. Paper currency surely harbors the virus in its green ink. I always leave my coins on the counter as a tip, even at the dry cleaners, the pharmacy, and the grocery; I get a lot of smiles that way.

I created an Excel spreadsheet that records any encounter with a living being…including animals.  I carefully monitor the 14-day incubation period during which I wait to see if a confrontation can be dropped from my active list. It’s a sobering exercise that reveals the heart-stopping volume of such encounters and which does nothing to tame my blood pressure.

I visit with friends only via iPhone and Zoom, but I’m not totally convinced that the Covids haven’t found a way to participate clandestinely in the meetups. I have toyed with the idea of wearing a mask during these calls but decided that my friends would not understand and would strongly suggest that I seek professional help.

I’ve signed up to receive notices from the Ventura County Recovers website. Valuable information is communicated daily that includes new case counts, deaths and my favorite…where I stand in the pecking order to receive the vaccine. Old guys like me have been assigned to Phase 1B, Tier 1, right behind the phase that includes mortuary and cemetery workers. So, I can either get the vaccine or die in the process and be disposed of by my betters.

Veterinarians are treated no better than I, which is probably a mistake. If we lose veterinarians to the virus, Fido won’t be able to get his rabies vaccine, leaving the door wide open to a rabies pandemic. It offers me a double whammy: the option of dying from rabies-caused muscle paralysis or suffocating due to the diminished lung capacity offered by Covid.  Poor Fido, poor me.

None of this irritates me. What does make me want to leap from my chair and strangle someone is the unbelievably shoddy way that the vaccine has been produced, distributed and administered.

It’s not like we just heard about vaccines from some extraterrestrial source. No alien being rang the White House doorbell at the 11th hour and said “Surprise, here’s how you make vaccines…go for it.” We had fair warning; we weren’t left alone with just a three-day weekend to work out the details. We had plenty of time to whip out an Excel spreadsheet and document a viable plan. My newly retired daughter could have done it in a week, by herself, with a long lunch hour and without help.

Now we find ourselves dependent on quickly producing the vaccine and efficiently sticking it into 350 million people. We are dependent on each county doing the right thing. Dependent on each bureaucracy to treat people fairly. And, as a result of this Three Stooges planning method, what we have is a very mixed, everchanging, irritating comedy show.

Three days ago, at 6pm. I received an email from the county updating me with the latest bad news…You’re out of luck…no vaccines for you ancient beings for at least two, maybe three, weeks. Find something to do with your spare time.

Unwilling to leave my life to a chance encounter with an asymptomatic virus carrier for the next three weeks, I considered holding my breath for that period of time or laying low at the bottom of my jacuzzi to avoid ingesting any new Covids.

While I was weighing the benefits of each option, a second email from the county tooted its arrival on my iPhone at 7pm.  Good news…pay no attention to the bad news delivered by our 6pm email. Salvation has arrived! You old farts who have managed to be a burden on society for at least 75 years can sign up for your vaccination. Move your fat ass off the couch and make an appointment before we change our minds. More emails to follow.

As a dutiful ward of the state, I made an appointment for 3:40 today.

I’ve spent the last 36 hours worrying about them running out of vaccine at 3:30.

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.

Mysteries of the Mask

I think that women are more mysterious when wearing a mask.

Women need no help to look more mysterious since I have consistently found them to be unfathomable as well as beautiful. I do not wish to demean their intellectual powers by focusing on their appearance. Their intellectual prowess is legendary as they have proven time and again that they can outmaneuver me with a calculated blink of an eye or a kind word.

The mask merely adds an additional element to the mystery. Before Covid-19, I was challenged only by what lay beneath the usual items of female garb. Slinky pants and strategically buttoned blouses regularly beckoned my curiosity. Always mindful of the prohibition against ogling or leering, I averted my eyes and let my mind do the gawking.

The mask adds yet another opportunity for exploration. It seems to invite a prolonged glance and a peek-a-boo invitation to linger. The eyes are the thing. They, as Shakespeare said, are the windows to the soul. And the Roman philosopher Cicero said, “The face is a picture of the mind while the eyes are its interpreter.”

The masked face does little to hide the emotions of the wearer since they are transmitted by the eyes. When unhappy, we signal it by furrowing our brow, making the eyes look smaller. When happy, we raise our brows making our eyes look larger or bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Thoughts that may be erotic are also revealed by focusing on the eyes.

The wearing of a mask is perhaps most notoriously depicted in the 1953 film Salome. Although the plot line is somewhat muddled, Salome, as portrayed by Rita Hayworth, performs the Dance of the Seven Veils before the hopelessly in love King Herod, played by the chunky Charles Laughton. This is a prelude to the beheading of John the Baptist and the presentation of it on a platter, merely to satisfy the desires of the lovely Salome. The film, based on a story in the New Testament, takes great liberty in revising the bible. But no one notices since Rita is captivating in her see-through veil.

My personal mask experiences fall far short of the one suffered by John the Baptist. Since persistent ogling of masked Ojai women could cause Jackie to don a veil and shine up a platter, I have assured her that seeing her beautiful brown eyes appear just above the bed covers in the early morning light is a lovely mystery that will never be solved.

I keep an all-purpose mask hanging around my car’s turn signal wand. I also have two or three in a kitchen drawer. And more are on their way from Amazon. But no matter how many I own, I will more often than not forget to put one in my pocket when I leave the house.

Like today. Jackie and I went on our Bataan Death March at seven this morning. A ninety-minute, five mile hike that passes through a middle class neighborhood like ours, a somewhat seedy part of town where tear-downs sell for thirty times what a paid for my first house in 1962, and the Arbolada where no one can afford to live.

Despite her diminutive stature and lovely legs, Jackie sets a quick pace that I feel compelled to emulate. At 81 I need a bit of encouragement and Jackie supplies it in spades. “You are amazing. There is no one like you. You’re faster than me. When I met you, you couldn’t even roll down Signal Street.  Now you fly to the top of it.”  And other white lies to keep me from staying home and watching Netflix at 7am.

I thought we had ended the hike and were on our way home when I heard Jackie hum the first five bars of a Sousa march. I instantly knew the hike was not over and I waited for her instructions.  “Sweetheart, how about we walk over to Java and Joe for some coffee?”

More in need of an IV than a cup of coffee, I nevertheless said, “Sure, can’t wait to add another mile to our walk. Only pussies would think that sore feet and chest pains were justification for skipping such an opportunity.”

Unlike Red states where they believe the battle against the alien virus has been won or maybe never really existed,  we are compelled to wear a mask everywhere except mortuary embalming rooms, crowds made up solely of twenty-somethings, and persons old enough to remember who Mussolini was.

The re-opening of Java and Joe following a three-month hiatus was accompanied by Ventura County rules that I am sure were designed to make the coffee experience less joyful. Walking up to the glass entry doors, we are presented with signs that cover fully 95 percent of the available surface area. Welcome Back, But Don’t Loiter made me feel warm and fuzzy. Another, Forget About Cash, It’s Dirty, left a peculiar taste in my mouth.

I reached for my mask in my back pocket and, as is my custom, found none. Jackie, bless her type A personality, had two. I was granted temporary use of the spare and, despite our 24/7 sharing of breaths and a few body fluids, wondered what was hiding in the folds of the mask.

We entered the shop, found no one ahead of us and placed our order. What once seemed a trivial task, is now fraught with challenges. Masks on the faces of both the buyer and seller increase the probability that my coffee might be something other than what I ordered. And, it also makes me appear older and more senile when I constantly repeat the phrase, “What did you say?”

In the quest to avoid transfer of germs that may have taken up residence on the Splenda paper packet or the tiny half-and-half single serving container, the barista is forced to prepare your drink. The procedure eliminates the passage of germs from multiple users to your cup. But it does little to avoid transferring the barista germs to you. Especially given the other duties engaged in by these short timers.

It also removes some of the most satisfying do-it-yourself steps in the preparation process; the exact measurement of the sweetener, the pouring of the languorous creamy liquid, the perfect rotation of the wooden stirrer, and the proper click-sure placement of the black plastic top on the completed masterpiece.

I sorely miss my perfect coffee, however I will gladly suffer its indignities as long as I can freely indulge in the mysteries of a woman’s mask.

Too much separation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Was That Masked Man?

If you haven’t spent all your time violating social distancing rules and fingering the cops in Newport Beach, you probably know about Mr. Trump’s carefully thought out cure for Covid-19.  His willingness to experiment on others with ultraviolet light in combination with the injection of household disinfectants, proves that he is indeed a modern day Jonas Salk, and an expert in dreaming up innovative techniques that will allow us to get back to what we were doing before the virus. Like watching TV and boozing it with the neighbors, eating triple-decker Carl’s cheeseburgers in the comfort of their yellow plastic seats, and having sex with strangers who don’t wear masks.

I also have it on good authority that Mr. Trump is convinced that there are untapped benefits to the revival of other drugs and procedures that were once believed to cure many challenging conditions. Accordingly, he has ordered Dr. Deborah Birx, the president’s corona response coordinator, to research possible solutions for eliminating the virus.

You may recall seeing Dr. Birx on TV, head down and looking for a place to crawl under, as Mr. Trump described his enthusiasm for the Bright Light and Lysol Solution to Covid-19. Her less than enthusiastic reception to Mr. Trump’s scientific dissertation last Thursday was replaced on the following Sunday talk shows with a more nuanced response; one that undoubtedly resulted from a hastily convened private chalkboard presentation to her by the president.

Since then Dr. Birx has focused exclusively on the president’s priorities. Her plate is overflowing as she wades through trepanning (drilling holes in your skull to allow the escape of evil spirits), bloodletting with leeches, electroshock therapy, beneficial maggots, and frontal lobotomies like the one performed on Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Not to be upstaged, the vice-president, looking for something to do, has formed a special task force dedicated to the evaluation of the benefits of wearing face masks. A true American hero, Mr. Pence has established two volunteer groups. One in which everyone wears a face mask and a second which includes only him. Over time, Mr. Pence will compare the number of infections in the masked group with those of his own. He has studied the creation of double-blind tests and is convinced that his methodology is likely to produce one of the most exciting outcomes of the pandemic.

During a trip to the Mayo Clinic on Tuesday, Mr. Pence identified a further benefit to keeping his face uncovered. Doing so allows him to “look workers in the eye” while thanking them for their efforts. When reminded by his aides, who were all wearing masks, that a mask does not cover the eyes, Mr. Pence said “Really?” Asked by reporters whether his lack of a facial covering was a knee-jerk reaction to the president’s disdain for face masks, the vice-president reiterated the importance of his double-blind test and said that putting a mask on would invalidate the results, waste taxpayer money, and keep him from fulfilling god’s plan.

Mitch McConnell, who took time out from suggesting that cities and states declare bankruptcy rather than take federal government handouts, joined the face mask discussion. A frequent guest on Fox News Sunday, he took nearly all his allotted time with Chris Wallace to thank the president and vice-president for their leadership and their unselfish willingness to die because they refused to wear a fifty-cent mask.

Mr. McConnell then revealed that being patriotic, he had joined Mr. Pence in his double-blind test and was fully committed to seeing it through despite the probable dangers of wearing a face mask. He explained that he would religiously wear a mask, even while eating. When Chris noted that Mitch’s approval ratings had suffered a thirty-point drop in the latest polls, the Senator opined that the mask might have the additional benefit of helping him remain hidden from view and thereby retain his Senate seat.

Struggling to keep political pace with the president’s call for more virus research, Joe Biden had mixed feelings about wearing a face mask. Queried by Chuck Todd on this Sunday’s Meet the Press, he said he doesn’t want to look like a pussy and so he makes his on-screen appearances unmasked. Concern about contracting the virus coupled with his advanced age, inability to complete a sentence, and his questionable hair style, Mr. Biden admitted to being torn. Helpfully, Mr. Todd suggested that Joe might consider joining the vice-president’s double-blind face mask trial and so put the blame for wearing one on the rules of the trial.

To which Mr. Biden responded, “Why don’t you say something nice instead of being a smartass all the time?”

Let’s get physical

The year flew by and one of my markers came due.

Annual physicals at my age are always an adventure. Blood chemistries are my favorite part; they reveal aberrations, trends and a shitload of data that hopefully pops up in blue rather than the less welcome red icons.

My normal routine begins about three months prior to my physical. I’ve been congratulating myself for nine months but realize that happy times may be ending. Nine months of ignorant bliss evaporate as I mentally review the things I was worried about last year and prepare myself for results devoid of happy faces icons.

Blood pressure, PSA score, and hemoglobin levels are my A Team of things to worry about. The dire consequences of negative scores produce thoughts that make marching to the guillotine seem like a walk in the park. Visions of a heart attack, prostate cancer (complete with surgically produced impotency), and the requirement for round the clock kidney dialysis help me while away the hours until my day with Dr. H. My perennial low cholesterol, achieved despite shoving everything edible into my mouth, did nothing to cheer me.

The corona virus enhanced the joyous occasion and gave me something else to worry about whenever my dance card had an opening. As a level one hypochondriac, I think that all my symptoms, a cough, an achy shoulder, a warm forehead, a scratchy throat are all harbingers of the dreaded virus. On the other hand, a true affliction with Covid-19 might delay, or perhaps permanently postpone, my annual physical. Oh joy.

I had my blood drawn at Quest Lab three weeks ago. The phlebotomists were garbed in space suits while I was virtually naked. My veins were terrified of the creature with the needle and did the best they could by performing their much-practiced disappearing act. The alien creature won the battle with ax and jousting lance while I had the multi-toned black and blue marks to attest to the outcome. The vials of blood drawn from my conquered arm seemed a bit darker than usual. My clinically inaccurate observation once again filled a vacant spot on my dance card as I wondered if it portended dire results.

A week ago, I received an email from Quest announcing the on-line availability of my lab results. I was torn. In true pussy tradition, I decided to ignore the invitation and wait for Dr. H to announce them during my visit. I took this route knowing that his approach generally downplays the negative while cheering the positive. Had I taken the other option, negative scores would hang over my head for a full week before being coddled by Dr. H.  I congratulated my good thinking.

Wednesday, the day of my physical, arrived without any aberrant clinical symptoms; I got out of bed. Dressed and fortified by the vegetable juice stolen from Jackie’s personal stash, I drove to the clinic. Forewarned, I brought my flimsy face mask with the cute koala bear icons. It has four ties that must be fastened behind the head. It was the third time I had tried this acrobatic maneuver; fortunately, I completed the task before I could suffer a debilitating stroke from the effort.

I was a bit early for my 8am appointment and filled my time browsing the NY Times on my iPhone. The headlines had words that included catastrophic, pandemic, crisis and panic. They did little to soothe my already fragile psyche.

The door to the clinic opened and a creature who looked like an astronaut doing a space walk outside the International Space Station came out with a table and various implements. We spoke without the benefit of an interpreter, and I was heartened to discover that it was nurse Kathy.

She took my temperature and measured my oxygen saturation level with that cute little device that attaches to your finger. The device shoots beams of light through the blood in your finger and measures the changes in light absorption and eventually the amount of oxygen flowing to the farthest part of your body. I passed and was given a sticky note that looked suspiciously like the hall passes I got in high school.

I was weighed and measured. Still wearing my cute koala bear mask, I had my blood pressure taken and was escorted to an examining room. Devoid of magazines and deprived of my cell phone, I settled back for some serious meditation.

Dr. H arrived and, despite a professional looking face mask, seemed to be in good spirits. Not always a good sign, I wondered if I was being set up for a rude awakening and I refused to join in the gaiety.

He asked me some general questions about my aches and pains (none debilitating), my exercise routine (over the top), sleeping habits (whenever I can), and sexual habits (whenever I can). So far so good. Our adventure through the lab tests proved unexciting. Blood good, PSA stable.

We then did the old-fashioned thing. Dr. H listened to my heart and seemed to linger a bit longer than usual. A brief dissertation on heartbeat skipping led to a surprise EKG. What’s this heart crap, I thought. Blessedly, the results were devoid of any problems, and I thought that maybe someone was just reminding me not to take things for granted.

I smiled and silently thanked my parents for their genes. And I gave a big telepathic kiss to Jackie who had religiously forced me to eat my vegetables and dragged me on hikes along Shelf Road, uphill, both ways.


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