Archive for the 'Human Nature' Category



I am my brother

My brother would have been ninety-three today.

Irv was born in 1927, two years before the Great Depression. I waited another twelve years for the economy to improve before emerging from my mother’s womb.

A twelve-year age difference was a bridge too far. We never played baseball together, developed sibling rivalry or did mischief that one would expect of brothers living in a Jewish ghetto on Chicago’s north side. I don’t know what he looked like as a teenager, nor do I remember hearing his voice echoing down the long wallpaper covered hallway in my parent’s second floor, two-bedroom apartment. I might as well have been an only child.

Lying about his age, Irv joined the army in 1944, never saw action but managed to develop a life-long relationship with tinnitus, one of several genetic dysfunctions that I shared with him. His army service was brief, some of it spent in Japan and Korea. He learned photography, took those skills home after the war and relied on them for years by chronicling life cycle events for others. I remember a picture of him in his army uniform and jauntily positioned cap. He was this handsome, bright-eyed guy who wore a natural smile as though it was ingrained in his DNA. He was better looking than me. People constantly mistook me for the older brother. He never corrected them.

He disdained the free college education offered to veterans, instead opting to get married, have children, divorce twice and finally land Jeri, the love of his life. In the early years, my parents were uncomfortable with Irv’s lifestyle, lent him money, but never offered advice that would have been immediately forgotten. Comparing me to him often led them to believe that I must be the older one.

At twelve, I baby sat for his daughter, Sharon. At seventeen, I regularly borrowed Irv’s Studebaker, that quirky looking, bullet nosed, dimly remembered two-door coupe with a stick shift. Four years later, he was in the bridal party that joined me with Ila. I still hardly knew him. Meaningful conversations were non-existent, and togetherness was largely a function left to family events to which he was usually late.

Irv’s second marriage was done on the rebound. Like the Studebaker, Anna-Marie was quirky. If he had asked me, I would have said don’t do it. But he didn’t ask, and life went on until the quirkiness lost its glamour.

Irv was a salesman who was honest and compelling. He sold mirrors, a process that was dependent on being invited into the customer’s home to measure walls and select styles. It was during one such adventure that he met Jeri, promised her unbounded love and did so for the rest of his life.

Ila and I moved to California and visited our Chicago relatives two or three times a year. My father became ill and was hospitalized. Irv was there to help our parents. It was as though he had turned a corner in his life, met his elder brother responsibilities, and took them on without looking back or complaining.

I was in California and of little help. My father died and our mother was alone. Irv visited her daily. He ran errands and delivered groceries for years until dementia took its toll on her. She entered a succession of facilities that included independent living, assisted living and fully assisted housing. Irv continued to watch over her while I made limited appearances. Her death finally freed him from responsibilities that he had willingly endured, while I continued to feel guilty by my self-limited role.

He aged and, like our father, developed macular degeneration. He gave up golf, driving, reading and other daily activities that we take for granted before they are taken from us. He needed assistance walking. His trips with Jeri to visit us in California became more difficult. During those trips he gradually displayed a loss of memory and an inability to perform certain functions. Sitting with him while he tried to add a column of numbers proved too much for him. He cried and I saw my brother in what had once been the role played by our mother.

The years he spent caring for our parents had also developed a closer bond between us. Our age difference now meant nothing. Conversations became more meaningful. Aging and illness were freely discussed. We looked at each other and knew what the other was thinking just by the expressions on our face, the tilt of our heads or the rolling of our eyes. We liked the same foods. We both lost our hair. Our laughs were identical. People still thought he was the younger one.

Luckily, I had chances to pay back the kindnesses that he had heaped on our parents. And I took them. I also aged alongside my brother and caught glimpses of what our parents must have suffered.

I look in the morning mirror and see Irv. I see his handsome, smiling face. But like Dicken’s Scrooge visiting the future, I also see what may yet come. I am concerned about my eyesight and daily test my ability to read road signs. I lay in bed in the early morning and silently count backwards from one hundred by seven; I dread making a mistake. I add columns of numbers without a calculator. I have more difficulty completing the New York Times crossword puzzle and wonder if maybe Will Shortz just made it tougher without telling me. I stupidly transform minor irritations into complicated medical cases that can only be treated at the Mayo Clinic.

I am becoming my brother… and I love him even though he will always look younger than me.

Happy birthday, Irv.

Lunch with Yoram

Yoram, my good friend from the Upper Ojai, and I celebrated our still functioning lungs with lunch at the Ojai Café Emporium. We often go there when we’ve exhausted other venues. The food is tolerable, the prices manageable and the waiters are especially kind to old people.

I ordered a small-size Famous Ojai salad. Reputedly containing bits of turkey, I had trouble finding them amidst an oversupply of bacon bits. The quite tasty molasses muffin and two pats of room temperature butter made up for the missing turkey chunks.

Yoram had no trouble decimating a generous tri-tip sandwich surrounded by a large clump of sweet potato fries. He washed it down with several glasses of Arnold Palmer iced tea and lemonade that mentally challenged my own bladder control.

Sticking to our usual routine, we quickly disposed of our critical analysis of the recent Oscars show, had a Trump inspired dissertation on “what is this world coming to”, and offered a brief synopsis of our latest physical complaints, headed by our growing inability to remember just about anything.

The conversation moved on to wives, or in my case, about-to-be wives. Men are somewhat limited in this subject. For example, I have often told Jackie that men never talk about having sex with their wives, or anyone else for that matter. Women, I am told, can spend an inordinate time on that subject which often includes frequency (sometimes none), ability to maintain erections (sometimes none) and the size of the male member used during the act (sometimes accompanied by admiring oooohs and aaaahs from those women in attendance.)

Men are more often focused on living conditions in the home. To that point, Jackie and I have just completed the first month of living together in sin. It’s been a bit of a challenge accommodating to each other’s way of keeping house. That we are still in love is testimony to our ability to stay strong and laugh at what might otherwise be an early termination of a perfect union.

Usually it’s the small stuff. The garbage disposal for example. When I lived in the Upper Ojai, I had the joy of dealing with an anemic septic system. After several lessons in humility, and being unsure of the cause of my problems, I studiously avoided putting anything through the garbage disposal. I became a happy guy with multiple bags of trash that were dealt with by assigning that responsibility to E.J. Harrison and Sons, our local mafia connected, but ever so helpful, sanitation engineers.

Free-will advocate Jackie believes that anything not breathing is a candidate for the disposal. And in some cases, not breathing is optional. I began our home-buddies’ relationship by whispering suggestions to her that might help reroute the trash from the disposer to the compactor. And then the disposer died, probably from too much gluten-free trash. We installed a new one that made the house shake with abandon. This disposer had no enemies. Wood planks, concrete blocks and railroad spikes were no match for the new beast in town.

Dazzled by its prowess, I gradually participated in, and then reveled in the wanton destruction of anything that did not move. Jackie and I bonded in our love for the once-despised machine. We had dodged a bullet in our relationship.

The washing machine was another stress producer. I had replaced the old machine inherited during the purchase of the Andrew home with a very white, very tres chic matched set that looked like it was begging to be used. My old wash day habit included waiting until there was only one pair of unsullied Kirkland boxer shorts left in my dresser drawer. I had it timed perfectly so that I could go from weekend to weekend before refreshing my supplies. Water and soap conservation led my reasons for avoiding too-often machine processing.

Jackie never has soiled clothing in her possession for more than eight hours. A machine load to her often includes one cute pair of black Lululemon yoga pants and a loose fitting, yet revealing, top. That’s it. Like the garbage disposal, I decided that it was better to join ‘em than to fight ‘em.

Her daily journey to the laundry room now includes one pair of my shorts, a t-shirt and one pair of white socks. Because I have but one t-shirt to contribute, it returns clean to the top of my shirt drawer where it is worn again the next day. People at the athletic club think I’m destitute because I wear the same t-shirt every day. To help justify the frequent natural resource robbing wash cycles, I occasionally contribute a large green bath towel to the load. You could eat off it. Yet another bullet dodged on the way to marital bliss.

Other challenges exist as we head toward formal matrimony in just thirty-nine days. The proper protocol for thermostat setting is a work in progress as I try to accommodate to temperatures that would challenge an Emperor Penguin. TV shows, especially those mind-numbing series depicting inane, beautiful young men and women, currently populate the hit list in our home. Gone are those special programs that challenged my mind such as Ant-Man versus Wasp, Bad Boys 2, Ninja Assassin and The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl.

But, despite the odds, I’m confident she’ll come around to my way of thinking. Right after hell freezes over.

I nearly died

I nearly died.

I woke at 5 am, having been summoned by the alarm on Jackie’s iPhone. It’s both a blessing and a curse. Although I could sleep a bit longer, the too-early awakening lets me inhale the remains of last night’s memories before she leaves. If I’m lucky, I get a kiss before I brush my teeth.

A working girl, Jackie easily exits the warm bed, performs some rudimentary magic on her cute body and then heads into the darkness and drives to the athletic club. This inviolate routine brings her there precisely two minutes prior to its 5:30 am opening. She selects a parking space that might as well be reserved for her and assumes the prime position at the club’s front door. First in the gym is a badge of honor that she covets.

I, on the other hand, have not worked in twenty-one years and believe it is my right to sleep late. Not willing to flaunt or take advantage of my enviable position, I arise at 5:45am, toss the warm covers and immediately feel the stabbing chill of a house that has been deprived of fossil fuels for the last eight hours.

We have a treadmill, an elliptical, a stationary bike and a weight machine. Our third bedroom is devoted to these devices and, with its cool rubber flooring, looks like a display at a fitness store. A creature of habit, I disdain these home-bound devices and drive five minutes to the club where I socialize with others who habituate the establishment. I occasionally cross paths with Jackie, and proudly give her a kiss for all to see. I wish her well as she heads to her Pilates session, squeezes in an hour of hot yoga with twenty other female masochists, drives thirty miles to Camarillo and manages to get to work looking refreshed and radiant. I tire merely thinking about it and consider a nap.

I have a key-less locker at the gym that sets me back twelve dollars a month. An extravagance that could be avoided if I were willing to use an unassigned keyed locker. But that would require handing over my car keys to ensure that I return the locker key. It also means playing locker roulette since I would have a different, though indistinguishable, locker each day of the week. An exhausting thought.

My locker alienates me. It’s just a bit too small and, often without warning, regurgitates some of what I have put in it. Especially prone to this phenomenon is my shaving kit which seems intent on painfully landing on the toes of my left foot as it cascades to the floor.

I often prematurely lock it, requiring re-entry of the combination; something that I shall surely forget as I age. I have visions of marching bare-assed to the front desk to beg Erin for the now forgotten three numbers that will admit me to the locker and its assortment of clothing that will mask my embarrassment.

It accumulates unwanted items including a spare pair of ugly, baggy gym shorts, weight-lifting gloves that have their own sewn-in pain inducers and an orphaned metal shaving mirror that Jackie gave me two years ago. I dread discarding it for fear that she may one day ask about it.

As I put on my gym stuff, I banged my left index finger on the sharp edge of the locker door. Thinking nothing of it, I proudly walked without the aid of the railing, up the stairs to the treadmills. As I began my one-hour routine I noticed a drop of blood on my locker bitten finger. And then another drop. Was I going to bleed to death? I staunched the flow with an old used tissue that had resided peacefully in my shorts pocket. Gradually, thoughts of life’s passing cascaded through my mind.

Should I stop my routine and get some antiseptic from the front desk? Maybe a band-aid. Was this hole in my finger the easiest route for the Corona virus? Would I be the first in the county to be diagnosed with it? An eighty-year-old man close to death in the Ojai Valley Community Hospital. The club shut down tightly until everyone is screened. The media will have a field day. All that treadmilling, twice a week work outs with Robert, and healthy, tasteless food. All for naught.

Admit it. You’re a hypochondriac. The older we get, the more we see death in everyday events. The grim reaper standing ready to announce our demise without prior notice. Home in a two-bed window-less room, our last earthly habitat. Caregivers, friends and relatives tending to an almost lifeless body.

An insatiable desire for candy portends diabetes. A nagging cough, a symptom of tuberculosis. A momentary stab in the belly, stage four pancreatic cancer. A pink tint to your stool, hemorrhoids, colitis or worse. Feeling not quite right, kidney disease run amok. A headache, a debilitating stroke. Momentary tremor, Parkinson’s. A spot on the nose, malignant melanoma. My god, it’s a wonder we have time for anything else.

I gutted out the last forty-five minutes on the treadmill and thought about all the things that I had yet to accomplish. A promising life snuffed out by a locker door. Failure to take it seriously enough to seek emergency medical treatment. I could have asked Erin for a second opinion but was too proud to admit that I had ignored impending doom until it was too late.

I took a longer than usual shower. Shaved before the water could warm to conserve whatever time I had left on this earth. But then, dressing slowly, I figured why rush? It’s a done deal. The virus had already embedded itself. Whatever will be, will be. Take it like a man. Suck it up. Handle it with your usual grace and self-confidence. Nobody lives forever.

Then again, who says so?

Photographic Doldrums

My first camera was a Kodak Brownie. Introduced in 1900 and still available as a curiosity on eBay and at swap meets, it’s one of the few things older than me.

Its original list price was a dollar. My dad got me one when I was about twelve at the budget busting price of about ten dollars. Fond of bringing me used toys on Hanukkah, I think the camera may have had a prior owner.

A basic cardboard or plastic box with a handle on top, it had a viewfinder that you held up to your eye and a single fixed focal length lens that didn’t zoom. You were stuck with an unalterable lens opening and a fixed focus. The camera lens blinked in a fiftieth of a second, making it almost impossible to photograph anything that moved, including my usually stationary Uncle Max.

Using a roll of 120 film, you could take sixteen photos before you had to rewind the film, remove it from the camera and insert a new roll. I remember being very selective before popping off a shot in order to conserve the precious film and avoid the developing charges at the local photo shop. It was a far cry from today’s digital disks that have a nearly unlimited capacity that invites haphazard shooting in the hope that one will be a keeper.

In the early sixties, the next phase of my hobby included a Canon F1 single lens reflex camera. A good deal more expensive than the old Brownie, it was still a film camera capable of thirty-six exposures using interchangeable lenses, variable shutter speeds and adjustable apertures. My friend Harry opted for a Nikon camera and we soon became embroiled in extensive comparisons of the virtues of Canon versus Nikon. In retrospect, the quality of our photos had little if anything to do with our equipment.

A darkroom entered my life with its red safelight, bulky Durst enlarger, pans of chemicals and my perpetually stained fingers. I became relatively adept at developing film and producing black and white prints. I bulk loaded my own film rolls that became a badge of excellence in conversations with friends. I doubt that I saved much money, but I never ran out of film. The darkroom also offered a quiet, unassailable fortress where I warned my kids of the dire consequences of entering it and exposing daddy’s stuff to the perils of white light.

I entered the digital age years ago and quickly discarded the darkroom. I became conversant with the advances in the new technology, megapixels and ISO ratings. I purchased the next generation camera when it became available. Owning several Canon digital SLRs, I traded time in the darkroom for a seat in front of my computer monitor, editing my masterpieces with the latest version of Photoshop. Time moved rapidly and my sweetheart, Ila, often had to drag me kicking and screaming into the real world.

My passion extended to taking hundreds of photos of my kids. I’d often pose Nancy, David and Steven and, instead of requiring the traditional “say cheese”, I’d substitute “say gonorrhea.” It always resulted in blank stares from passersby and a smile on the kids’ faces.

Throughout the years, I regularly took photos. I’d occasionally take short breaks but always returned to my avocation. My photos were well received, and I’d often be asked to shoot an event for some of the non-profits in our town. My images are currently available for viewing in several locations. I thrived on the recognition.

A change occurred when Ila became ill. My zeal waned as her condition worsened. In her last years, I backed away from photography. My cameras began to age along with me. I tried to overcome my lethargy by keeping a camera in the car. By taking it on walks as though it were a dog. Snapping only a few shots, they soon became resident in rarely visited file folders on my computer’s hard drive. I gave away my large format photo printer that had been a constant companion. I don’t keep my camera batteries charged nor do I clean my camera lenses. My visits to photo websites are infrequent. As I tried to regain my former self, I’d seek out photo workshops on the web but never complete the enrollment process.

I renewed my membership in the local photo club in order to gain incentive from exposure to others. But I found myself unable to submit images for critiquing. I took little pleasure in seeing others show their very credible work. I was envious but unable to participate. I’d be depressed at the close of the usual monthly meeting, yearning for what seemed unattainable.

Jackie’s encouragement is boundless. She urges me to re-enter my once adored milieu. She seeks out opportunities for me, but I leave them languishing. I promise myself to do better, but nothing happens. I try to think of subject matter, something with long term viability, but I draw a blank. I fall back on other things to fill my time.

Maybe it’s a phase. Something that will end. Before I do.

Houses and Shirts

“You bought your new house quicker than you buy your shirts.”

That’s what Jackie said to me, more than once. And it’s probably the truth, especially since I can’t remember when I bought my last shirt. Maybe it’s the blue one with an interesting design that still has the Rains Department Store price tag hanging from the dark blue button just below the collar. I regularly stare at that shirt as it hangs forlornly in the closet, wonder if I should put it on, and then let the feeling pass without taking action. I generally follow up this timidity by selecting a least frayed t-shirt, and a somewhat manly pullover sweater.

It took eighteen months to sell my old house. Eighteen months of unanticipated anxiety. Eighteen months of thinking that it would never sell. Eighteen months of entertaining potential buyers, all of whom disappeared into the ether without so much as a by your leave. Doomed, I thought, to living a lonely, monk-like existence frequented only by chipmunks, and ravenous birds that would eat enough seed to deplete my kids’ inheritance. Eighteen months of fantasizing that I’d live there until I grabbed my chest and keeled over in the kitchen while stirring brown sugar into my oatmeal. Not to be found until my desiccated body was discovered by the pest control guy.

“How do you like living in your new house? Do you miss the old house?”

It’s a question often voiced by friends. To which I generally respond, after the obligatory moment’s hesitation, with something like “Yes, the new house is nice, still getting used to it. Do I miss the old house? Not really.” Never one for prolonging conversation, I let the questioner silently figure out how I really feel without asking me to expand on my broad-brush evaluation of my current circumstances.

My old house was a mile up Sulphur Mountain Road. Surrounded by oak trees and acres of solitude, visitors were infrequent. Noise was practically non-existent and, when it did come visiting, was eminently noticeable and usually unwelcome. Hiking trails meandered through the oaks and passed through neighboring equally silent properties, adding to the lonesomeness. In twenty years, we never had a Halloween costumed trick or treater. Who would dare come? Only someone who has no fear of the inky darkness, the eerie rustling of oak branches or the diving Great Horned Owl that might mistake you for a tasty midnight snack.

I half-jokingly say that I moved from one hundred and ten acres to a tenth of an acre, where my less remarkable new house sits on a corner. Cars pass my home on two sides. I accept the whoosh of their presence as a sign that I am not alone. My next-door neighbors have two small children as do my neighbors across the street. Their voices are welcome as a sign of burgeoning life.

A man my own age and his ten-pound curly haired dog often pass by the window where I sit and travel through the internet on my computer. His routine repeats itself daily. I’ve spoken with him at length but, to my chagrin, cannot remember his name. I struggle to ask him, but am embarrassed to do so.

My neighbor on the opposite corner also walks his dog, Charlie. A small pooch, he tends to lead the much larger man who is, supposedly, much smarter. The man has a bad back and we repeatedly discuss the latest unhelpful advances in medical science. I occasionally want to invite him in for a glass of wine; but at 10:00 am, I don’t want to be thought an alcoholic.

I have a small mailbox that the postman delights in over-filling. I think he’s a masochist, made hostile by the brickbats thrown at the U.S. Postal service by ignorant people like me. He takes his deserved revenge on the system by making it nearly impossible for me to pull the wedged mail from the all too small container. I avoid complaining for fear it could get worse.

My new house was built thirty years ago. Not old as homes go, it’s more like a young adult looking for someone to love it. Multiple owners have come and gone leaving indistinguishable marks of their short-term presence. The main living area has a moderately sized living room capable of serving about ten people, so long as they are friends who don’t mind accidental touching while drinking my cheap wine. The kitchen, remodeled seven years ago, offers enough appliances to challenge me with their complicated arrays of led lights, push buttons that have no give, and oven settings that encourage me to eat out more often.

A long hallway leads from the main living area to the bedrooms. It is dark, challenging my failing eyesight. Shell shocked from Edison’s warnings and their unfathomable multi-tiered pricing structures, I foolishly refuse to flip the switch that would add light to the hallway and reveal the coveted art pieces that line its walls.

I bought the home after deeming it move-in ready. In good condition, it required little expenditure of resources. However, a feeling of “this is not my house” has permeated my existence ever since I set foot in it. A familiar feeling, it was also there when we purchased our San Fernando Valley home nearly fifty years ago. It was fifteen years into that occupancy before people stopped saying, “Oh, you live in the Peterson house.”

I’d cringe at their remark and want to reply, “No, the Petersons died in the Charge of the Light Brigade and we commandeered their home from the British.”

I probably don’t have another fifteen years to wait for a similar evolution of “Oh, you live in the Collins home.” I need to turn their house into my house right now.  I need to speed things up, much like the time lapse photos of tulip bulbs opening wide in the blink of an eye, cars moving along the freeway at the speed of sound, or clouds streaking across the sky as if powered by jet engines. And I believe I have found ways to do just that.

First and foremost, Jackie moves in as a full partner to this madness on the 13th. Turning my house into our house.

A second part of the solution, in full implementation, is to spend money in rapid-fire fashion at close to the speed of light. New floors, window coverings, paint, lighting, bathroom fixtures, water filtration systems, patio covers, landscaping and more. With each alteration or upgrade and each check in payment for it, an ever so slight transformation is taking place. More of the house is morphing into ours, not theirs.

My growing awareness of where things are also impacts my feelings about the house. I no longer search aimlessly for the silverware. I don’t need to open multiple cabinets to discover my favorite one-quart pot. I’ve almost figured out the dishwasher’s cryptic directions. I flip fewer wall switches in my quest to turn on the desired light fixture. I know when the junk mail will arrive, and when the trash man will collect it.

And I plan to wear my new shirt next week.

 

Shopping isn’t for sissies

I took my aging Mercedes to the dealer on Monday. It was my first service that was not free, having crossed the fifty thousand-mile warranty mark about two months ago. It was not even close to being free.

My original focus of the service was an oil change, checking the air in the tires and washing the car. Two-thousand-five-hundred dollars later, I had a clean car, oil you could fry fish in, and three pages of other things that defy description. Truthfully, I was somewhat relieved that it was only two-thousand-five-hundred dollars, since I had heard that Mercedes often sells one’s spouse into slavery to collect the bill.

Never quite trusting that Mercedes trained mechanics really know what they’re doing, I spent the day following the service listening for odd noises, sensing the feel of the road through the newly aired tires, and planning my moves should the car merely decide to be grouchy and strand me in the middle of the apparently always-to-be road excavations on Ojai Avenue.

It takes about forty minutes to drive from my home to the Mercedes dealer in Oxnard. Never one to pass up an opportunity, I decided to visit Costco which has conveniently placed itself walking distance from the Mercedes Bank and Trust. I had forgotten that it was Veterans’ Day and was confronted with a parking space so far removed from Costco’s front door that required use of my hiking shoes. A horde of shoppers augmented the holiday festivities; some of whom seemed way too happy while standing motionless in the checkout lines.

The principal item that prompted my visit to this shopping colossus was toilet paper. Ever since Jackie and I have become an item, I have graciously accepted the responsibility for buying the toilet paper for the two of us. It binds us. And the savings helps move the day of her retirement ever closer by augmenting her IRA and, eventually, her Social Security. Jackie has more than once commented on my selflessness, which, now that I think about it, seems to coincide with the periodic exhaustion of thirty rolls of Kirkland’s best.

The man-sized packs of Kirkland’s best are located on the right side of the overactive thyroid building, right next to the dog food. I cruised down the aisle, feeling the excitement that accompanies the purchase of toilet paper. Normally, one can find dozens of the thirty-roll packs lined up, each ready to be loaded in that nice little space at the bottom of the shopping cart. The same cart that always looks in need of a steam cleaning and a new set of wheels.

I reached the dog food but didn’t see Kirkland’s best. I thought I must have missed it in the reverie generated by thoughts of septic-tank-safe tissue. I retraced my steps all the way back to the Huggies and Nappies. And back again to the dog food. I was finally confronted by a large empty space that had once housed the object of my quest.

How is that possible? In thirty years of buying that stuff, there had always been an inexhaustible supply. Enough for every starving child in India. Plenty of tissue that lets you, given its paltry cost, double and triple up on the folding before applying it one’s nether parts.

I looked left and right. Charmin met my gaze on the right. Soft, cushy, expensive Charmin. Its presence at Costco has always been static, seeming to neither diminish nor increase. Perhaps it’s there simply to push us to Kirkland’s best which, except for its bargain price, would otherwise remain dusty and homeless.

To my left was something called Marathon. The name made me think it was intended for those who spend an inordinate amount of time on the porcelain throne. Perhaps reading is the user’s favorite pastime or they just want to avoid their spouse and kids.

The Marathon packaging was dull, listless and uninviting. It did occur to me that the packaging has little to do with the quality of the contents, but it was just another reason to bemoan the absence of Kirkland’s best.

I gave Marathon an opportunity to redeem itself from its poorly designed packaging. I caressed the thirty-roll parcel. I yearned to read about Marathon’s features and accept this newcomer. Unfortunately, the package was relatively devoid of glorious descriptors that could have included “Softness that makes you come back for more.” Or, “Absorbs the messy things that you leave behind.”  Or my favorite, “Using a roll a day keeps you regular.”

I decided on the Charmin, filled my cart with other things I really didn’t need, and proceeded to the checkout. Every lane was open. Every lane had six or more people with carts filled to overflowing. I scanned each lane, counted the number of items in each cart, and finally, gauged the agility and maximum warp speed of the shoppers ahead of me.

Having made my evaluation, I settled into a lane and waited. Two minutes later, I looked around and did a re-evaluation. There, two lanes away was a much better prospect. One that would surely be faster than the one I was in. One that would allow me to spend my remaining years somewhere other than Costco. So I moved.

Big mistake. There’s one factor that cannot be predetermined. That of random chance. The act of god that shuts down the lane for the same time that it took the glaciers to scrape across North America. A lane delay that gives you the opportunity to watch the people you just abandoned move forward at the speed of light and leave Costco well in advance of the next ice age; one in which I am sure to participate.

My turn came. I charged the obligatory minimum of three hundred dollars to my fraying Visa Card, and pushed my now over-filled cart to the outer reaches of the Costco archipelago.

Early that evening I delivered the Charmin to sweet Jackie. Suitably impressed by my purchase of the expensive stuff, she kissed me tenderly, stowed the thirty rolls in her closet and we sat at the dining table recounting the day.

We agreed that you know you’re settling into a very special relationship when you get excited talking about the qualities of toilet tissue.

Chumash Revenge

I wondered about the size of their electric bill.

Lorraine’s sister Liz celebrated her sixtieth birthday this past weekend. One of four Sandoval sisters, Liz is the first to reach that scary plateau. A sweet woman, Liz was kind enough to include Jackie and me in the A-list of invitees.

We bivouacked in Solvang, a town about ninety minutes from Ojai. With a Danish flavor, Solvang is cutesy and funky, having somehow survived the move into the twenty-first techno century. Looking a bit jaded, the town offers lots of places to eat Danish pastries, shop for useless merchandise, and eventually produce a nagging feeling of so, what do I do next?

To fill the insatiable need for something to do, the Chumash Indians have conveniently provided a place to quickly address that empty feeling.

Today, the Chumash are estimated to have a population of less than 5,000 members. Many current members can trace their ancestors to the five islands of Channel Island National Park. Suffering the same fortunes as other Native Americans, their members died off rapidly with the coming of Spanish sailing ships with their cargo of influenza and smallpox, eagerly distributed by the unwelcome visitors.

As though in retribution for the damage done to them, the Chumash now inflict economic hardship on a monumental scale never envisaged by their ancestors. With neither bows and arrows nor war clubs, today’s Chumash conquer their historical oppressors in unprecedented numbers.

Highway 246, taken due east from Solvang for seven minutes, brings one to the Chumash Casino and Resort. A first-time visitor with Jackie in tow, I was concerned about missing the turn-off. My fear was unfounded as the stark white monolith dramatically appeared on the horizon. It was probably visible from the moon and beyond.

It was Saturday and the parking lot seemed filled to capacity. A drab, multi-level, solid concrete lot that defies your sense of direction, you could easily lose your car and prolong your stay. Thereby affording you another chance to win it back from the gaming tables where you had just lost it.

As with any new adventure, we clicked our heels together and blithely skipped through  the third level lot where a sign proudly proclaimed “Casino.” Not unexpectedly, we were confronted with patrons going in the opposite direction, who seemed less animated than those of us headed into the casino. Their dour, lifeless expressions did not bode us well.

Cash is a relatively unknown commodity in Jackie’s world. Plastic proliferates, while U.S treasury bills are as rare as unicorns. As we approached the bowels of the casino, Jackie proudly announced that she had twenty dollars with which to make her fortune. “I feel lucky” became the watchword of her faith. Why should I spoil her fun by reminding her that they only build these big buildings because everyone eventually contributes handsomely to that common cause? Besides, I thought, how much damage can one do with only twenty dollars?

We were confronted by a vast armada of slot machines, some 2.300 of them as proudly announced on the casino’s website. But these were not your mother’s machines. These were something designed by alien beings who intended to rob you of your senses while emptying your wallet. Some were eight feet tall. Others were eight feet wide. All were adorned with multi-colored lights and accompanied by sounds that defied description. A cacophony that allowed me to stow my hearing aids for fear of further hearing loss. Intending to further dull one’s senses, there were no clocks or windows, and no way of telling night from day.

Jackie began a quest for the one special machine that would make her financially independent.  Obstacles were thrown at her. Seeking a simple machine that had only three symbols of cherries, lemons and plums across its face seemed impossible. Most of the bandits had far more symbols, whole fruit baskets of symbols strewn over multiple rows.

Jackie’s pace quickened as she scanned the horizon. I was pressed to keep up as she raced through the rows and semi-circles filled with the electronic behemoths. A machine for nearly everyone’s economic status, they were all too willing to take your pennies, depriving you of even the barest necessities.

Hailing a passing attendant, Jackie described her needs. Three classic symbols and the ability to bet a dollar a pull. A dollar a pull? How far, I thought, would that take her twenty dollars? She repeated her requirements and was escorted to a dank, dark place where the ancients had once played.

She scanned the row of machines and then, as if it was meant to be, selected one. She plunked her cute fanny onto the comfy chair in front of it. Without any further investigation of the machine’s rules and regulations, she deftly inserted her $20 bill into the slot from which it would never again emerge. Gotta give her credit for her moxie, I thought. “Twenty Credits” popped up on the screen. So far so good.

With nary a hesitation, she punched the button that spun her future. A loser. I glanced at the place where “Twenty Credits” had once occupied a place of honor. It now read “Eleven Credits.” Wait a minute, I thought. What’s going on here. I tried to get Jackie’s attention. Too late, she punched the button again. Now only “Two Credits” appeared in the murky depths of the bandit’s screen. Horrified that she had bet $9 with each punch, Jackie emerged from her ten second reverie and entered a period of despair.

I could not stand seeing the anguish on her face. A once proud woman now bent at the knee. A life of anticipated riches disappearing in moments. I reached into my pocket and produced a twenty-dollar bill. A smile appeared on her face. Her eyes twinkled. All was right with the world.

Eventually tiring of enriching the Chumash, we began our trip back to reality by making several wrong turns that took us further into the casino, instead of the sanctuary of the parking lot. Just enough of a delay for me to marvel again at the magical sea of machines with their strident sounds and bright lights.

I wondered about the size of their electric bill. As if it made a difference.


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