Archive for the 'Human Nature' Category

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?

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom

I just got home from a pre-Mothers’ Day brunch with Jackie, Dianne, Judy, Cathy and Edie. It’s become an annual ritual where we share stories about our mothers, complain about their faults and, less frequently, extol their virtues. I am somewhat of an anomaly in the group and am occasionally referred to as a Normy, or someone who is out of step with the other group members.

Today’s brunch topic was “nurturing.” Defined as caring for and encouraging the growth or development of someone, we all shared stories about our mothers that fit that definition. My story may have stretched it a bit, but it was the first thing that popped into my head.

When I was fifty, I lived in Los Angeles with Ila and our three kids. My mother, Celia, having years before rejected our suggestion to move to Southern California, still lived in her two-flat brownstone in West Rogers Park, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood on Chicago’s north side.

My father had, some time before, passed way in the same year that the Bears won the Super Bowl. The end of more than sixty years of marriage had left my mother alone in her home. My brother watched over her, but most of her day, and all of her nights, were spent by herself.

In addition to family life cycle events that brought me and my family back to Chicago, I would occasionally come to town on business. I’d often stay with my mother and sleep in the spare bedroom, the same room that, as a teenager, I had shared with my grandmother.

On this particular visit, my plane was an hour late. Our now ubiquitous cell phones had not yet been invented and making a pay phone call from O’Hare Airport seemed like too much of a stretch. So I hustled a cab and I arrived at my mother’s doorstep around eight that evening.

The brownstone’s entry door had a glass panel that allowed a visual inspection of her visitors before buzzing them into the hallway. I pressed the buzzer and waited. The door opened and my eighty-year-old, five-foot two mother appeared.

There are different kinds of smiles. Some are welcoming while others express irritation. Some are contrived while others are sincere. Some are hidden while others are expansive.

As I looked at my mother’s face through that glass panel, her smile showed relief, welcoming and love. I had seen that smile a thousand times and had always felt warm in its embrace. She buzzed me in, we hugged, and I was home.

My mother came to this country in 1925 as a teenage refugee from Zhytomyr, a town in Ukraine that then boasted of a population of about seventy-five thousand people. Beset by pogroms, my mother’s Jewish family suffered the usual set of indignities and, more to the point, state-sponsored murder.

Arriving in Chicago and speaking little English, Celia went to work at the Brach Candy Company where she was proud to often remind us that she had risen to the exalted position of “fore-lady.” Although she learned to speak English, her eastern European accent was etched into our conversations. I was never quite convinced of her reading skills even as she turned the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times. Her handwriting was shaky and her signature nearly illegible. But she excelled at adding up columns of figures entered on the paper bags that customers took home, stocked with the food purchased at my father’s grocery and deli.

She made many of the items at the deli including chopped liver and coleslaw. I’d watch her make potato salad as she peeled the Idaho spuds that were still boiling hot. Any thought of health department rules were cast aside as she dipped her arms into the huge pot up to her elbows to mix the mayo and other tasty ingredients into the soon to be savored, high calorie delight.

When I was a kid, our home, a three bedroom flat in an Albany Park ghetto, was everyone’s home. Seeming strangers stayed with us for a day, then a week, then a month. When Celia wasn’t working at the deli, she was cooking at home. Without complaint, she fed all who came, washed their underwear and made them feel at home.

Parties, both planned and unplanned, were more often than not held at our place. Complete with food and drink, they went on late into the night. I often found my ten-year old body at rest on the cot in the dining room while a penny-ante card game went on at the table next to my bed.

People came and I watched. I saw my mother welcome all who entered through her door. I heard her greet them with genuine happiness and a smile on her face. I heard her laugh and I watched as she made sure everyone had what they needed. And only when everyone else had their share did she take hers.

I don’t remember much of what she said to me as I matured. Perhaps because she didn’t often tell me what to do or how to act. But I learned from watching how she treated others. How she never complained about having too little or working too much. How, even on the toughest days, she had a genuine smile for her husband and for me.

My mother would not have known the meaning of the word “nurturing” but she practiced it every hour of the day, every day of her life. And I am who I am because of her.

Happy Mother’s Day mom. I love you.

A little credit, please

I have this cute little app on my cellphone that alerts me whenever there’s a charge to my credit card. It pops up with abandon, but that’s what happens if you’re a spendthrift. Unfortunately, it popped up once too often about three weeks ago.

My Citibank credit card was issued eons ago when Ila and I visited our favorite eating place, Costco. Where else can a guy take his girl for a sumptuous repast and feel like he’s gotten a bargain? Two kosher dogs smothered with deli mustard and onions, coupled with unlimited Diet Coke, is yours for the asking at a mere $3.50. The same price as one grande coffee from Starbucks.

Must have been a special Costco deal that prompted us to sign up for that Citibank card many years ago. Maybe it was three hot dogs for the price of two, or a lifetime supply of deli mustard in a sealed five-gallon container that defied opening. In any event, we became the proud possessors of his and her cards. A dozen years later and a million dollars poorer, my card was still swiping and inserting all over America.

Anyway, three weeks ago as I was having my morning coffee, my iPhone X emitted the characteristic sound that tells me I’ve received a text message. My speed at opening text messages is legendary. A twin to my penchant for being early to social events, reading a text message has the same assigned priority as diving under the kitchen table during a nuclear attack.

“Good morning”, the text seemed to say. It then went on to blithely inform me that eleven hundred dollars had been charged to my card by some merchant whose identity was unknown to me. I found the elusive merchant on the web and assured myself that nothing it offered had any appeal for me. Uh oh. My card’s been hacked.

I’ve had this happen before and so I didn’t panic, much. Doing my civic duty, I alerted Citi to the fraudulent activity and, promising me a shiny new card, they immediately sent my now useless card to the depths of Hades. Phyllis, the customer service rep, also suggested that I temporarily use my other card, the one that had gone unused since well before Ila’s passing, while the newly minted replacement was wending its way to my mailbox. Good idea, I thought, and dutifully shredded my old, now worthless, card.

Always the obedient one, I found Ila’s card and began to abuse it by inserting it, chip first, in an array of card readers designed to extract funds at an unprecedented rate from my meager assets. No grass was going to grow under my chip.

Not satisfied with merely enriching Ojai’s business community, Jackie and I toured New York and I left my temporary Citi card imprint all over Manhattan. It’s only plastic, I told myself. From bagels to buggy rides to Bloomingdale’s, my card impressed them all.

Returning home and feeling that I needed to punish myself for my wanton display of monetary foolishness, I visited the Citi website, logged in to my account and tried to find a history of the purchases I had made during our trip. I found the charges made to my old, now defunct, card but I was unable to view the purchases made with Ila’s card. My initial reaction was that Ila, in some kind of weird parlor trick foisted on me by her ether-like persona, was playing games with my head. Maybe to teach me another lesson and remind me of her continuing presence.

After assuring myself that there must be an earthbound explanation to my inability to view the transactions, I called Citi. The kindly customer service person, Cindy, informed me that Ila was the principal cardholder and that I had not been authorized by her to see the charges made to her card.

I asked Cindy how we might correct that oversight and was told “Just put your wife on the phone and we can get her verbal authorization to view her card activity.” Still suffering from jetlag and beset by muddled thinking, I said “That would be a neat trick because she passed away a year and a half ago.”

Sarcasm has always been the bane of my existence. And this time it bit me in the ass. “My condolences. But because of your wife’s passing we are going to close your account. All your cards are now ca-ca.” Cindy evidenced not an iota of sympathy. The thought of being without my card was like withdrawing from a year long course of opiate binging. No amount of pleading, begging or requests for mercy would sway Cindy from following the Citi procedures manual with a steadfastness equal to that of a dog on a bone.

Cindy suggested that I apply for a new Costco card where I would be the principal subscriber. I reluctantly agreed and was routed to Marilyn in the new accounts cabal. “What’s your Costco membership number?”, she asked.

“Oh, you mean the number that was on the back of my old, now shredded, card?”

A search of the Costco internet site and two phone calls later, I was rewarded with a new Citi card. Remembering that I would need to pay the charges on the old cards, I called Citi again and asked my new friend, Rachel, how I might go about settling my old account. “I’d be happy to do that for you right now. Just give me your bank routing number and your account number.”

Wishing to end the agony of this journey into the depths of credit card hell, I did as I was told and received a confirmation number as evidence of my obedience. And I waited for the funds to be miraculously withdrawn from my bank account. And I waited.

Days later with no funds withdrawn and fearing a mountain of late charges and the descent of my credit rating into the low teens, I once again called Citi and spoke with Judy. Feeling as though I was destined to meet every Citi customer service rep, I inquired about my supposed fund withdrawal. “Oh, your account has been turned over to our collection agency. You will need to speak with them.”

Collection agency? Citi’s monthly bill hadn’t even been generated and I was to be dunned? I called the agency and spoke to Ralph. A nice change of pace. “I’d just like to pay my bill.” Hardly responsive to my plea, Ralph informed me that I had the right to employ the services of the attorney who was handling my wife’s estate.

“Look Ralph, I just want to pay my bill. Please take my money.”

Set on a course that permitted no side trips, Ralph offered to settle the bill at eighty percent of what I owed. I said “Look Ralph, I just want to pay what’s owed. I don’t need any incentive.”

As though I was speaking Latin or some other dead language, Ralph insisted that I take his offer. Not wishing to prolong things and sensing that Ralph had bigger fish to fry, I graciously accepted his offer. And I dreamed about how I might most efficiently dispose of this new-found wealth.

And, to that end, my new Costco card arrived yesterday.

What did he say?

A few weeks ago, Jackie asked me if I’d like to see Eckhart Tolle in person. I said something like “Is he a rapper?”

After that display of my sublime ignorance and a well-deserved shrug of her shoulders, Jackie gave me some facts about the man who commands large audiences and is generally thought of as a particularly adept spiritual teacher.

In 2008, the NY Times called Tolle the most popular spiritual author in the U.S. where his book The Power of Now has sold millions of copies. In 2008, he and Oprah Winfrey participated in ten live webinars that drew thirty-five million people. He became an Oprah favorite in 2016 when he made her list of 100 Super Souls including visionaries and influential leaders. OK, enough already. I didn’t need any more convincing. Oprah did the trick. I had to see him in action.

Not so fast, Jackie warned. To get the full impact of his spoken word, I needed to read his book before seeing him in  person. Sensing that I might conveniently forget her suggestion once I was out of her sight, Jackie immediately dialed up Amazon on her iPhone and downloaded The Power of Now to my Kindle. To her everlasting credit, she’s done this kind of thing before. Tablecloths, exercise pants, shaving kits, and Lou Malnoti frozen pizzas flown overnight from Chicago have miraculously appeared at my doorstep. I’ve learned to be careful with my words and I try to avoid phrases like “Gee, isn’t that nice” or, ”What a handsome shirt”, or especially, “I’ve always wanted something like that.”

Aspiring to even greater status in my sweetheart’s mind, I dutifully started reading. It began with…

When your consciousness it directed outward, mind and world arise. When it is directed inward, it realizes its own Source and returns home into the Unmanifested.

Although it was a book with only one hundred and thirty pages, I was obviously in for a long, hard slog.

I finished my assignment a day before our trip to see the savior in person and, after much soul searching, realized that the primary message of The Power of Now is as simple as 1, 2, 3.

  1. Don’t worry about the past, you can’t do anything to change it.
  2. Don’t worry about the future, you can’t control it.
  3. Live peacefully in the moment

So there. I saved you fifteen bucks on the book and a whole lot more on the live event.

The Saturday evening program was held in the three thousand seat Pasadena Civic Auditorium, a very impressive and costly venue. We planned to stay overnight and had booked a room at the adjacent Sheraton. Arriving at the hotel around five o’clock after an exciting two hour drive from Oxnard, I demonstrated my driving acumen by attempting to park my car in the narrow “Deliveries Only” driveway. Reaching the end of the driveway, I was hemmed in by a unforgiving concrete wall and a massive semi-truck that did not allow for a turn-around. Forced to back all the way up the ramp, I threw caution to the wind, summoned The Power of Now, exited onto Euclid Avenue and made a u-turn that Evel Knievel would have been proud of.

Parking in the hotel lot without further damage to my ego, we registered, and then debated whether to head directly to the hotel bar for an extended stay, or go meekly to our room. Since both Jackie and I are anally compulsive about being on time, we chose the room option. Much to my regret as I would later learn.

Having made ourselves presentable, we walked to the Civic Center and entered the lobby about twenty minutes before showtime. It teemed with people waiting in a drink line that was long enough to reach to the moon and back. Another mob of souls, with too much disposable income, was four deep at the book sale tables where Tolle’s army of credit card swipers withdrew vast sums of money from the ravenous buyers’ Visa cards.

Jackie had promised her daughter, Samantha, that she would get Tolle to sign her book. In response to her cute query about how that might be accomplished, the reaction from the Tolle card swiper was akin to “Are you crazy? He’d be here all-night signing books. Foolish girl.”

At fifteen minutes before showtime, three thousand seats were half empty. They’ll never fill this cavernous hall, I thought. Foolish Fred. Ten minutes later, it was nearly overflowing. People kept coming and were being seated fifteen minutes after the appointed hour. Oblivious to those around them, they were in the Now, peaceful in their tardiness.

Just like the warm-up singer in a Las Vegas showroom, Marianne Williamson appeared on the stage in a stunning off-white pants suit. I thought “Jackie might like that.” But I quickly avoided thinking about it, fearful that my subliminal message might somehow activate Jackie’s Amazon ordering mode. As a suffering second fiddle, people were still being seated while Marianne spoke.

Along with her reputation as another highly respected spiritual leader, Marianne is currently one of a stampeding horde of seekers for the office of the President of the United States. Blithely skipping around the stage, her thirty-minute message boiled down to don’t be a stinker and love your neighbor. Reasonable campaign material I thought, and a vast improvement over the current occupant of the Oval Office.

And then he arrived. A small man of about seventy, he looked a bit like a combination of ET and a Tolkien Hobbit.  He immediately plunked his thin frame onto an over-stuffed chair that my grandmother might have had in her dated living room. He assumed a somewhat stooped pose, admired the flowers next to his chair, and looked out at the audience of nearly three thousand hungry disciples. A large TV screen above his head made him appear even smaller.

He was silent and peaceful, yet he commanded my attention. Then, quietly, he spoke the same words that I had struggled to read in his book. He occasionally told one sentence off the cuff jokes that no one should have laughed at; but they did. He talked about the horizontal plane that we all live on complete with our fears, challenges and never-ending desires. He spoke of the vertical plane that would, if we could comprehend it, allow us to live peacefully in the now.

The thirty minutes passed in a wink. I didn’t learn how to achieve The Power of Now. But I did learn why people buy his books and why they pay to hear him speak. Why he gets a standing ovation before he speaks and another after he’s spoken. But I can’t explain it. Maybe that’s why people keep coming back.

The Deli Man

This is to remind you that the Yahrzeit of Morris Rothenberg will be observed on March 22, 2019.

The letter startled me as I had forgotten that my father had died in March. The letter went on to say that the annual Yahrzeit commemorates his death and commands me to say the Kaddish prayer, light a twenty-four-hour candle, and make a contribution to a worthy cause.

The Yiddish word Yahrzeit, of German origin, literally means anniversary time. I have no trouble pinpointing the year of my father’s death since it was in the same year that the Chicago Bears last won the Super Bowl. Perhaps their hapless attempts and failures since then are merely god’s little joke that perpetuates my ability to remember his passing. The Bears will, I’m sure, graciously continue their incompetent streak until I’m gone from this earth. Something to root for.

My father escaped the pogroms of the Soviet Union, fled to the promised land and worked hard to provide for his family. Never well-to-do, he did what was needed without complaint. He savored the little pleasures that were to him miraculous, given what he had known back in his Ukrainian shtetl.

His first job in Chicago was as a “puller.” Barely knowing any English, he would stand outside a men’s Maxwell Street clothing store and shout at passersby, “Hey, come in, good deal.” His attempts at “pulling” men into the store were sometimes accompanied by the removal of the unsuspecting man’s hat and tossing it through the open door into the store. My dad was small, and I’m surprised he survived that affront without at least a black eye. I guess he did whatever was needed to make a buck.

By the time I arrived in our crowded Albany Park apartment, Morris was in the deli business. First as a counter man at the Purity Delicatessen on Chicago’s Lawrence Avenue. The Purity was anything but. His stories about its cleanliness and treatment of customers would not survive today’s health department inspections. My favorite anecdotes involved clever ways of freeing up tables from those who had overstayed their welcome. A rat’s demise caused by a fall into the deep fat fryer was no reason to change the already overburdened oil.

By the time I was five or six, he had partnered with two other deli-tested guys, Ben and Morrie. They bought Oberman’s Delicatessen on Howard Street near the “L” and sold corned beef, pastrami, cole slaw and potato salad prepared by my mother, and other Jewish delights that make a deli a deli. They had no employees, regularly enlisted their wives’ help, and worked long hours.

Each of the three partners had one day off every week and every third Sunday. For as long as I can remember, Wednesday was my dad’s day off. Since I was in school on Wednesdays, my only extended time with him occurred every third Sunday. Much of that valuable time was spent lying next to my dad on a day bed in the dining room listening to Sunday afternoon radio programs.

We listened to Nick Carter, Master Detective. Then on to The Adventures of Sam Spade starring Howard Duff and created by Dashiell Hammett for the Maltese Falcon. And, my favorite, The Shadow with its chill provoking opening lines spoken by Frank Readick, Jr. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”

The Shadow may have known many things, but I remember little, other than the warmth of my father’s body and his hand on my shoulder. It was enough to permanently etch the memory of Sunday afternoons in my mind.

Gifts were not big on our agenda. Birthdays often passed with little notice. An exception occurred in my ninth year. My father came home on the first day of Chanukah with a large cardboard box. In it was a potpourri of toys, all used. An electric train took center stage, even though it had but one car and only enough tracks to complete a small circle. I watched the train circumnavigate the circle a thousand times. There were also two toy telegraph sending units that did nothing but click when you depressed the key. Because it had the Morse Code imprinted on the housing, I learned how to send an SOS. No one came to my rescue; but I didn’t need rescuing from anything, especially from my father.

Not schooled in any formal way, he wrote beautifully. He added up columns of numbers with lightning speed on the brown paper bags that Oberman’s customers took home laden with their corned beef, rye bread and dill pickles. He was an accomplished card player who fancied four-handed pinochle and ten-cent poker. He wasn’t a pushover. He never spanked me, and I never heard him fight with my mother who he loved dearly for nearly sixty years. I owe my own generosity, honesty and work ethic to him. Not because of what he said but because of what he did.

He suffered the ravages of old age including macular degeneration. I’d watch him sit sideways at the TV, viewing his beloved White Sox through the corner of his eye. Baseball was the only sport played slowly enough to allow him to reasonably focus on the images on the screen.

I missed my flight back to Los Angeles that day in 1986 when I overstayed my time in his hospital room. I kissed him good-bye. It was the last time I saw him.

I will celebrate his Yahrzeit next week by remembering what he did for me and for others. And by remembering how much I loved him. He was truly a mensch for all ages.

Feeling mortal

According to Merriam-Webster, the word mortal means causing or having caused death. After the events of the last seven days, I more fully understand what it means.

When I was younger, I played a silly game with myself. I’d think of my age and calculate the percentage of my life still ahead of me. For example, when I was twenty-five, I figured I’d live to the conservative age of seventy-five. So, I still had two-thirds of my life to live. It was comforting.

When I was fifty, I figured I had used up two-thirds of my probable seventy-five-year sojourn on this planet.  Since I was not a believer in the afterlife or of a micro-managing deity, it gave me little comfort to feel closer to the end than the beginning.

I’ll be eighty in a couple of months. And I no longer play that game.

When I was much younger and working for a living, I’d, more often than not, be the youngest person in the weekly staff meeting. Now younger people offer to carry groceries to my car in the Von’s parking lot, others hold open the door for me at the athletic club, and I’m always respectfully addressed as “sir.”

Last week I was driving up Sulphur Mountain Road to my house in the Upper Ojai. It had rained earlier in the day and the bone-chilling combination of high humidity and low temperature made me shiver. Even the car heater wasn’t good enough. The thick, dark cloud cover added to the dank conditions that were usually only found in Dracula movies starring either Bela Lugosi or Gary Oldman.

About a quarter-mile from my driveway, the road was partially blocked by three police cars and a troop of officers. They seemed on break, just standing idly by with their hands in their pockets, as though waiting for something to happen. I slowed the car and stopped alongside the patrol cars. And one other car that looked strangely familiar.

My neighbor Ron’s sons, Eric and Max, walked toward me. I rolled down my window and asked what was going on. Eric said “That’s my father, lying on the shoulder, covered by the yellow plastic tarp. He died here about thirty minutes ago.”

You’ve probably felt like this before. Someone says something that is so incongruous that, at first, you don’t fathom its meaning. Then it sinks in and, depending how close you’ve been to those involved, you experience some level of shock.

Ron had been our good neighbor for nearly twenty years. We had eaten together, shared stories at neighborhood parties and helped each other overcome life’s roadblocks. An inveterate and former pipe smoker, Ron had been ill for some years and his death was ordained. Nevertheless, its abrupt end on the muddy shoulder of the road he had traversed hundreds of times was unexpected. I thought he might go on indefinitely, despite the lung disease that eventually brought him to ground. I’ll miss him.

Earlier that same day, I had attended the weekly creative writing class at Help of Ojai. For many months, I’ve spent Thursday mornings listening to the stories, poems and life experiences crafted by a dozen or more gifted writers. I also offer my own brand of writing to those who are kind enough to listen. The two-hour weekly session ends with a sometimes agonizing quest to identify a restaurant that eight or more of us can abide. It’s a challenge that, at times, is more difficult than getting past the constructive criticism leveled at us by the incisive, grammatically correct class participants.

Creatures of habit, most of us regularly occupy the same seats at the large, square table, unless one is tardy and confronted by a full house. I sit next to Johan who generally is one of the first people to arrive.  Reared in South Africa, Johan offers insights into a country that only a native can tell. In truth, his writing is occasionally difficult to warm to and he is often bestowed with criticisms that are well-meant but which can also be disheartening. His ability to absorb these barbs is often tested, and I find myself caring for his fragile ego.

Last Thursday I found myself confronted by an empty chair on my right that is normally staked out by Johan. About ninety, his absence due to a cold or minor ache or pain would normally be unremarkable. Nevertheless, I did feel an eerie vacuum created by the empty chair. I missed his repartee, his signature hat and his cellphone that seemed to have a mind of its own, demonstrating it every so often by interrupting various readers with its strident, irreverent sound. At times, I thought Johan would strangle the offensive device. We ended our class and trooped to Ca’Marco for lunch…without Johan.

The next day, Friday, I arrived at Help of Ojai for my morning bus driving shift. Tina, a delightful woman who schedules the bus trips, said “I’m sorry about Johan.” My first thought was that he had been struck down by the flu or some other malady that laid him low, maybe even hospitalized. After telling Tina that I didn’t know anything about Johan, she told me that he had passed away the day before. I immediately visualized the empty chair and said, “I just sat next to him last Thursday.” And I thought, how could something like this happen so quickly, without so much as a by-your-leave. Without warning, a last good-bye, or another reading of the 123rd paragraph of his novel.

The passing of Ron and Johan on the same day caused me to focus on my own mortality. I suppose that’s normal. To measure your years alongside theirs. To think about the fickleness of death. To realize that life is fragile. To cause us to seize the opportunity, that we might otherwise delay if we were immortal. But, blessedly, our mortality brings with it the urge, even if momentarily, to do before we cannot. To love with all our heart. To be loved.

Maybe I’ll start that counting game again.

Choo, choo

We spent a week at Rancho LaPuerta over the Christmas holiday.

It started last summer under the massive oak tree that has been resting peacefully for some two hundred years in front of Jackie’s house in the Arbolada. Sitting in the two comfy chairs beneath its canopy, the blessed silence was interrupted with a question from Jackie, “Would you like to spend a week at Rancho LaPuerta?”

Recovering from my semi-stupor, I suggested that the answer to her question required some additional information, “What is Rancho LaPorta?”

“LaPuerta, LaPuerta, not LaPorta” she admonished. “LaPuerta means door while LaPorta means porthole.” Thank goodness for her spot-on translation. Spending a week squeezed into a porthole was definitely not my idea of fancy travelling.

Further interrogation revealed that Rancho LaPuerta is an upscale fitness spa located in Tecate, Mexico, about an hour’s drive from the San Diego airport. So far so good. Additionally, the spa served real food instead of the Bugs Bunny diet enjoyed by Jackie at her regular stomping grounds, the Optimum Health Institute. I was sold enough to suggest a phone call to the spa.

Jackie is not one to postpone tasks. Once assigned, they are quickly disposed of. Grasping her iPhone X with those cute little fingers, she deftly connected to the Rancho. Ten minutes later, my Visa card’s available balance surviving on fumes, we were booked into the Rancho.

Conveniently, Jackie’s plans immediately prior to our Rancho excursion included a one week visit to Optimum Health in San Diego. She would drive to OHI. I would then meet her in San Diego, drive her car to the San Diego airport and take the Rancho’s private bus from there to the Mexican border. To get to San Diego, I could fly from LAX, or take the Amtrak train from Ventura.

Ever since our trip to Costa Rica, I have had sufficient time to hone my dislike of airports and airplanes. The opportunity of a relaxing trip on the train was too tempting to pass up. Checking the Amtrak schedule, I found a 7:30am departure from Ventura that, five and a half hours later, would deposit me in San Diego more than two hours ahead of the Rancho’s bus trip from the airport to the border. Enough time for Jackie to scoop me up from the train and dump us at the airport. It was the last scheduled Rancho bus trip of the day, Missing the bus would cause complications too horrible to contemplate. And my Spanish is not so good, por favor.

I booked a seat on Amtrak 768. And over the next few weeks, I endured the horror stories related to me by the hapless souls who had banked on Amtrak to get them where they needed to be, yet failed miserably. No matter, surely I would be the exception to the rule.

Joy is Ojai’s airport and train station driver of choice. A delightfully gabby woman who combines wit with daredevil driving, she picked me up at 6:35am on departure day. It was Saturday and traffic on the 33 was almost non-existent. The uneventful trip brought us to the Ventura train station twenty minutes ahead of schedule. Piece of cake.

Except for an overhang, the train platform is exposed to the elements. But twenty minutes on a chilly morning seemed like a doable wait. Rolling my suitcase up the platform ramp, I deposited myself in a spot where the sun offered some warmth. There’s a digital time display on the platform that also informs riders of train arrival time. It said Train 768 will be twenty minutes late. I quickly calculated that I now had less than two hours of leeway before I would run out of time. My pulse reacted from the adrenaline rush. Then my logic took over and said “It’s only twenty minutes late, dummy. Not to worry.”

I stared at the clock as it ticked down 768’s arrival time. Then, without so much as a by your leave, the display blanked out and returned with a new arrival time…8:10am. Another twenty minutes charged to my declining spare time balance. Like a watched pot, I’m convinced that the digital clock moved ever slower as I gazed at it. Minutes seemed like hours. My life passed before my eyes.

768 arrived at 8:25, nearly an hour late. Hoping I had seen the worst, I hopped aboard, stowed my bag and found a window seat that gave me full view of the surroundings as we passed and stopped at too many stations. Oxnard, Camarillo, Moorpark, Simi Valley, Chatsworth, Van Nuys. Was there a place on earth that this train was not going to stop? At each stop I mentally shoved the passengers on and off the train, hoping to gain back some precious minutes.

And then the conductor said, “We will be making an equipment change in Los Angeles.” A what? What’s wrong with this equipment, I thought. It’s been good enough to get us this far. Why not just keep things the way they are? I’ve got no time to spare. I’ve got to catch a bus.

And so we changed equipment. Amtrak employees wandered around the train platform like lost sheep. And I lost the last remaining hour of my spare time. Not yet finished teasing me, 768 lost another twenty minutes on the last leg of the journey. I started practicing my Spanish. Donde esta el banyo?

I had been texting Jackie, keeping her updated on our lack of progress, my accelerating heart rate and my rising blood pressure. Poor sweetheart, she had been waiting anxiously at the train station like a war-time wife. When I did arrive, she embraced me like a soldier returning home from the Battle of the Bulge. Her iPhone was hot to the touch from pleading with the bus company to delay their departure.

She drove to the airport like a woman possessed, only to see the bus already making its way to the Mexican border. It was, like in the movies, all I could do to stop her from blocking the twenty-ton bus with her tiny car.

And I thought, where was Mussolini when you really needed him?

 


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