Archive for the 'Memories' Category

A Bike Story

My first bicycle was a Schwinn. Black and white with shiny fenders, it gleamed in the sunshine as it stood waiting for me in the alley behind my folks’ second floor porch in Chicago’s Albany park, a mecca for transplanted Russians and other Jews.

I walked around the bike that my father had brought home the prior evening and had placed out of harm’s way in one of the darkened basement sheds allocated to tenants. I had whined for weeks about wanting a bike, so its appearance on my birthday was not a shock.

At eleven, I was not yet aware of my parents limited financial resources. Surrounded by family, friends, and other neighborhood denizens, I was primarily exposed to people living in similar circumstances. In retrospect, I’m sure that the bike took a healthy bite out of father’s paycheck.

SchwinnThe Cadillac of bikes, its company was established 1895 by Ignaz Schwinn, a German immigrant, and his meat packer partner Adolph Arnold. It survived the Great Depression and continued producing bikes in the U.S. under various corporate guises until it finally succumbed to the allure of Chinese productivity. The Paramount, Stingray, and Schwinn-Twinn came and went. Advertising kept Schwinn in the public eye; the company was an early sponsor of TV’s Captain Kangaroo.

I walked around the sturdily built bike with fat balloon tires and its lever-actuated bell mounted on the handlebar. In 1950, this bike would have been called snazzy, flashy, and sleek. I daydreamed about where it would take me while I built up my confidence. Finally, I lifted my left leg over the horizontal bar that announced the bicycle’s gender as a “boy’s bike.”

Swinging the kickstand up from the asphalt, I brought the left side pedal to its full vertical position and placed my foot on top of it. I pushed the pedal forward. The bike moved a few feet. I tried to hop up onto the thickly cushioned seat. And then I fell over.

The bike shivered as it came to rest on its left side, the front wheel spinning slowly for what seemed an eternity. Then it stopped and all was silent. I had scraped my knee but, in comparison to the shame I felt, it was no big deal. The bike had escaped relatively unscathed except for a scratch on the chrome plated handlebar near the bell. It was a reminder that stayed with me each time I mounted the Schwinn that took me through my college years.

I bought a ten-speed racing bike when our kids were safely in school. For not much reason other than it seemed like the thing to do. Like all bikes of its genre, it was fitted with a seat that produced pain at the same level as the Spanish Inquisition’s torture rack. The seat was a combination of metal tubing covered with some animal skin. That’s it. No padding. No springs. Not a good combination for a guy with a skinny ass and a low tolerance for pain.racing bike seat

When I began riding the bike with the Torquemada designed seat, I complained to whoever would listen. Some people commiserated while others said, “Keep at it. You’ll get used to it.” And I thought, “Why should I?”

My bike riding consisted largely of shifting gears that never seemed to do what I wanted, and repositioning my ass trying to share my discomfort equally with the various pressure points in my butt and my tailbone.  And so, unlike my dear Schwinn, the ten-speed ended up in our Northridge garage, gathering dust and losing air in the tires until they were flat. I finally sold it to someone with a highly cushioned ass, for a whole lot less than I paid for it. Good riddance.

Twenty years passed in Northridge while I avoided a further encounter with a bike. The next move to our Ojai home high up on the hill put an end to any thought of mounting one. The terrain was much too steep; merely walking up Sulphur Mountain Road required the skill of a gazelle and the lungs of a blue whale. People with bikes who tried it were known to stop mid-way, cry unconsolably, and admit defeat.

I moved to town almost a year ago. To a house without steps, on a flat lot, in a flat neighborhood and with a flat one-mile walk to the Ojai Post Office. Surrounded by scores of bikers, Jackie and I talked about being part of that in-crowd. We were particularly attracted to electric assisted E-bikes. Not a fully operational motor scooter, the E-bike merely compliments one’s own pedal power with an array of assisted options. Given my age, I felt no shame with the idea of sharing the load with a lithium ion battery.como ebike

A week ago, we called the MOB bike shop and found that they would be happy to have us try the E-bike that afternoon at 2. Choosing to ignore the current 99-degree temperature, we jumped at the offer. Arriving at the shop, I casually informed Jackie that my car thermometer was recording the first triple digits of the summer. Consistent with her penchant for following through with commitments, she said, “It’s an electric bike. We’ll go slow. Only for ten minutes. Don’t be a pussy. You’ll be fine.”

Tim took our temperature to rule out Covid-19; I was mildly disappointed when I passed the test. Handing us over to young Melanie, we signed the usual waivers relieving the shop of any liability including the crime of wantonly exposing octogenarians to bodily harm. She gave us general instructions that I immediately forgot, fitted us with fashionable helmets, and adjusted our seat heights to a position based on information only known to her.

Jackie was the first to fall from the bike not ten feet from the shop’s front door. Light as a feather, she landed unscathed. I figured I could do better. Mounting the bike, I depressed the left pedal. Moving forward I brushed against Jackie, lost my balance, and fell stage-right while the bike attempted a quick escape by falling stage-left. I scraped the same knee that was a victim in the Schwinn incident seventy years ago, including my embarrassment.

The shop owner, who had been watching this Marx Brothers routine, came closer to me than Covid-19 precautions allow and said, “You know, while the bike is valuable, the safety of our customers is our top priority.”

Translated, he meant, “Don’t you think you’re a little old for this? You’ll probably kill yourself. Be smart. Get your ass out of here before it’s too late.”

Rising to my full five-foot-eight and a half inches (I used to be five-ten), I thanked the owner for his concern, assured Jackie that I was in full control of my senses, and reclaimed the wayward bike.

We walked the bikes across Ojai Avenue, mounted them and rode with some trepidation to the bike path. We entered the path, dodged oncoming fearless bikers, and were successful at avoiding further mishaps.

We returned the bikes, once again walking them across the Avenue. I glanced at the owner and with some smugness said, “Thank you for your concerns but I’ve got everything under control.” Lying does not become me and I think he knew better; but, sensing a possible sale, he nodded his agreement.

My knee is nicely scabbed over. We’re going riding again tomorrow. Think I’ll wear long pants.

Who’s in charge anyway?

Brandi of Fancy Free Photography just sent us a link to our wedding photos. Viewing them, I smiled so much that the persistent rain clouds parted, and I felt physically uplifted. My breathing quickened, my eyes refused to blink, and my fingers clambered over my Dell keyboard as I scrolled haphazardly through the evidence of our wedding day.

Almost two hundred pictures leaped off the screen. Jackie, me, the two of us, our guests, the Rabbi, and the harpist cascaded down and across the screen, everyone a keeper. I could not get enough of them. They are worth the price of admission, but they hardly do justice to the herculean efforts that changed the occasion from a standard wedding of two lovers to an odyssey that might never have happened.

A year ago, as we shared Jackie’s sauna in her castle dungeon of a garage, we spoke of marriage and promised ourselves to each other. Even then it seemed like the beginning of a quest, complete with digitized monsters and other obstacles that block the hero’s path as he seeks the prize at the end of the latest video game.

Some gamers have what it takes to overcome a myriad of challenges. Taking the correct path, acquiring the latest weaponry and being quick on the draw are vital components. But the key to gamer success is accepting setbacks and then coming back for more. Nothing can divert their attention from the final objective. Difficulties on the way are quickly analyzed, corrections made, and then they’re back at it. Time is of little consequence. It simply must be done. No excuses or exceptions are permitted.

Jackie is a black-belt at overcoming obstacles and achieving her goals. Her talents would make short work of 2019’s most popular video games. Resident Evil, Call of Duty, Apex Legends, Sekiro, and Devil May Cry are child’s play for this woman. Older games like Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto 2 would be rejected out of hand as not being worth her time.

I’ve seen it up front and close. I consider myself diligent and loathe to procrastinate, but compared to Jackie I’m a slug. I look like a three-toed sloth compared to her cheetah-like movements. One better stay out of her way when she’s set her teeth. Best to just lean back, relax and watch things evolve.

I participated in determining the number of wedding guests. What started out as a family-only affair quickly grew large enough to repopulate Pompei following the eruption of Vesuvius. Other than that, my contributions to the event’s details consisted largely of cheering Jackie on with “Sounds good to me. Whatever you say, sweetheart. And, I’m available when needed.”

The wedding venue Azu, food selections, the officiating Rabbi, photographer, florist and harpist all fell nicely in place. Plans were completed and deposits paid. Then the corona virus appeared, uninvited and apparently angry at its exclusion from our guest list.

As the magnitude of the virus epidemic became pandemic, alterations to our wedding plans went from annoying to maddening.

Out of town guests dropped like flies. Who could blame them when their seat companion might be Senor Corona? Weddings are seldom first choice in most people’s vacation plans. Some guests, anxious to find any reason to stay home, might have been grateful for the rising rates of hospitalization reported by a media starved for news.

Much like a CNN talking head on election night, we constantly evaluated input from friends and relatives and considered postponing the blessed event. But, like a peregrine falcon zeroing in on a rabbit, Jackie stayed focused. “We are doing this now. No postponement. I’m not planning this thing again.” My weak contribution of a series of yes dears sealed my fate.

Pronouncements emanated from the Oval Office and the Governor’s Mansion. All seemed to have been conjured up solely to deep-six our wedding. No large gatherings. No gatherings of more than ten. Stay six feet apart. Stay home. This means you, Jackie.

The guest list declined by a quarter, then another quarter. In a show of solidarity, people dropped out who were never even on the guest list. I had visions of the attending, sad-faced guests wishing us well while contracting the virus from eating wedding cake, then falling at our feet. We decided to move the wedding to our house, thereby eliminating the potential cost of body removal from Azu’s bill. The guest list was trashed and a blizzard of E-vite mailings uninvited most of the remaining stalwarts.

The harpist was the first to quit. Jackie found another in the middle of the night. The florist threatened to throw the boatload of flowers over our fence to avoid contracting the malady, but Jackie sweetly reminded her of the contract she had signed. The cake baker left a terse message declining the pleasure of producing it; Jackie decided that cookies were good enough. The officiating Rabbi developed a nasty malady that prevented her attendance. Jackie called half of Ventura County and found a replacement who felt rabbinically protected from the heathen virus. Jackie was not to be denied.

On the off chance that either President Trump or Governor Newsom might swoop down on us, we performed the wedding in two shifts, each with few than six people. Others, stuck at home, could view the shrunken event via Zoom; at least we saved money on the food.

The threat of rain abated an hour before the event, and it remained bright and warm until an hour after its conclusion. I attribute that heavenly blessing to Jackie’s can-do reputation which goes well beyond these earthly environs.

Looking at the photos, you’d think that we always planned it that way. Maybe we did, but we just didn’t know it at the time. It wasn’t your common garden-variety wedding. But then with Jackie in charge, you knew it was going to be spectacular.

The Eyes Have It

It’s a good thing he liked baseball.

My father, Morris, was a victim of macular degeneration. Not the treatable kind, it slowly robbed him of everything but a bit of peripheral vision and the ability to discern light from dark.

He’d spend nearly all his time indoors in their West Rogers Park two-flat that my folks shared with my Uncle Max and Aunt Jenny. He avoided restaurants as though they served nothing but e-coli. A proud man, he felt embarrassed fingering the food on his plate in order to tell the difference between the mashed potatoes and the green beans. Unable to cut his brisket without the aid of a compass, he relied on my mother to create those bite sized pieces that somehow found their way onto his fork and into his mouth.

Until it too failed him, his limited peripheral vision allowed him to focus on a hand of cards in his weekly gin rummy game with Cousin Harry. The cards were large and he held them to the side of his face so he could see them. The game moved slowly but he never lost his card playing skills and managed to best Harry most weeks.

Morris wore bifocal glasses even when they were no longer of any help. He really couldn’t tell if the lenses were dirty but that made no difference to his penchant for keeping them clean. He ran through packs of Sight Savers, those crinkly two by three sheets of tissue that miraculously clean lenses without streaking or smudging. Now pre-moistened, they were originally dry. He kept a pack of them in his pants pocket and often used them despite being unable to view the results of his efforts.

He was a rabid White Sox fan and listened to Bob Elson and Harry Caray doing the play by play on the radio. But, even with his affliction he dearly loved watching the Sox on TV. We had an RCA console that sat on the living room floor. My father would drag a padded folding chair to within a foot of the screen and turn it sideways. He’d then position himself on the chair so that he could watch the TV through the corner of his right eye. Looking at him you might assume that he was ignoring the game.

Always a baseball fan, he had tried football and basketball when he was younger but found them wanting. Perhaps the complexity of football was too much for a former Ukrainian. Maybe basketball too infantile. Baseball was his milieu.

His peripheral vision was not without its limitations. He could not follow images on the screen if they moved rapidly; baseball delivered what he needed. Images that seemed to be stuck in place. Chunks of time between batters that accommodated his need to refocus. Trips by the catcher or manager to the mound that were performed without a hint of urgency. A never-ending array of statistics thrown at the viewer to fill the down time while the other objects on the screen got their act together. On Sundays a double header consuming as many as eight hours provided the stimulus that was otherwise absent for my father.

He knew all the players and the scores of yesterday’s games. He’d criticize plays on the field even though he probably didn’t see the play or the offender. He’d rag on me about the Cubs who hadn’t won a World Series since the Bronze Age. I felt his agony when the Sox blew one in the ninth inning. I occasionally pretended to share his joy when they came from behind and won the game.

My brother Irv suffered the same afflictions…being a Sox fan and having macular degeneration. Unless pushed, he avoided restaurants and their wide array of traps and pitfalls. He didn’t watch much TV and relied on audio books. He gave up golf when he couldn’t see the ball on the tee. I sat with him through every minute of the 2005 World Series when, after 88 years, the Sox won it in four straight over Houston, while my Cubs still languished in the Bronze age. He died before the Cubs won it in 2016 and I have never forgiven him.

I’ve never been as much of a baseball fan as they were. But since I share my genes with them, thoughts of macular generation occasionally enter my mind. Like the other night at the restaurant.

Nocciola is a high-end restaurant with prices to match. We hosted my daughter Nancy and my faux son-in-law, Kevin. A lovely setting, it was dimly lit. Menus of a weight befitting the restaurant’s stature were passed. My initial exploration of its Italian focused offerings revealed that the Italian names of dishes including Crescione, Quaglia, Plin and the one dedicated to Old Blue Eyes, Anatra, were large, bold and plainly visible. The English language describing the content of the dish was not. For all I knew I could have been reading the menu upside down. Fortunately, Jackie’s smart phone provided much needed light and I was able to avoid starvation.

The food arrived and my selection appeared to be floating at the bottom of a dark well. I told the waiter that I had hoped to enjoy a last meal before succumbing to hoof and mouth disease. Accordingly, it would be nice to see the food I was eating. A kindly soul, he elevated the lighting a few lumens and I was able to conclude the task at hand without the necessity of asking Jackie to cut my food.

When I was nearly finished, the lights dimmed. Perhaps the manager concluded that the old man had eaten enough to get the idea of where each element of the dish was located. And, not wishing to offend normally sighted guests, had returned the lights to their Devil’s Island setting.

It’s too bad I don’t like baseball.

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.

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.

I’m a Townie

The ride up the Dennison Grade last Thursday was interminable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hat Makes the Man

My father wore a fedora hat. For those who may not have seen many 1940 gangster movies, yet want to see old time fedoras, I direct you to any movie starring George Raft, Jimmy Cagney or Brian Donlevy. They, and just about every man in their movies, wore a fedora, especially if there was a scene inside a police station or a newspaper office.

My sources tell me that the name “fedora” is derived from the character Fedora  Romanoff , played by Sarah Bernhardt in an 1887 play. Fedora’s etymology stems from the Greek word theodoros, meaning gift of god. Although I can’t quite see the connection, I suppose it’s better than calling it the Gaga hat in honor of the Lady of the same name. In any event, Bernhardt wore the hat in the play and it was soon adopted by other women. It wasn’t seen on men’s heads until the 1920’s, when England’s Prince Edward wore it.

There was no utilitarian reason to wear the Fedora. It did little to keep one’s head warm and provided no shielding in case some bad guy got a bead on your noggin. It was merely a fashion that for several decades found its way onto a man’s head, including that of my father.

More recently, you may have spied a fedora on Professor Henry Jones’ head, aka Indiana Jones, aka Harrison Ford. Without that hat to compliment his whip, Indiana would have looked like a two-bit lion tamer instead of the adventurous hero we all paid good money to see. His attachment to the hat was played out in multiple scenes where the wayward hat very nearly escaped his grasp, only to be snatched back by our hero in the nick of time.

My father’s hat was dark brown with a black swath of cloth, maybe silk, curled around the bottom of the crown. He seemed at ease wearing it and, despite his diminutive stature, often appeared to fit with my idea of what a dashing movie star should look like. When he died, the hat continued to be the living embodiment of him. I tried wearing it but it was late in the fedora life cycle and I felt somewhat foolish parading about with it on my inappropriate head. The hat eventually found its way into my son’s hands where it rests today in some dark corner of his closet, waiting for societal rediscovery of the pleasures of wearing one.

Jackie and I just returned from a whirlwind tour of Croatia, Edinburgh and London. It would take quite some time to explain just how that itinerary evolved. Let’s just say it happened and save the details for another day.

We ended our journey in London, where I was relieved of whatever funds remained unspoken for. We walked constantly, much like those poor survivors of the Bataan death march. Often being led astray by Google Maps and Siri, we occasionally walked in circles thereby turning a one-mile trip into a two-mile adventure. Perhaps driving on the wrong side of the English road confused the usually faithful device.

Aimless wandering brought us to Jermyn Street near the site of the British Parliament. The street was populated with men’s shops. Dozens of them, each with a somewhat narrow focus. Suits but not shoes. Shirts but not underwear. And then there was this hat store.

Bates, Gentlemen’s Hatter since 1898 was emblazoned on the shop window. I scanned the display for a moment too long and, as a consequence, heard Jackie say, “you should get a hat.”

My hat buying experience generally goes something like this. Buy a hat, put it in the closet, let it rot. But we were on vacation and I needed a respite from marching. So we entered the store and met Ralph, a kindly, easy going salesman. Without much prompting, I said “I’d like one of those hats that lay flat on your head.”

Ralph responded, “you mean a flat cap.” Some things are too easy.

The best way of describing a flat cap is to envision the corner newsboy hawking the latest edition of the London Times. With his knickers and flat cap, he looks much like Mickey Rooney who played alongside Spencer Tracy in Boys Town. Or, on a more mature scale, any of the hundreds of coal miners descending to their death in How Green Was My Valley.

Ralph took me to a cabinet that appeared to contain hundreds of flat caps and suggested I just try one on for size. Sure I thought, I know how that goes. He lovingly cradled one in his hands and offered it to me like it had some magical properties. I put it on. It was indeed magical.

I have tried on dozens of hats. Baseball caps, wool hats, berets, straw hats and fedoras. Each fitting was always accompanied by dozens of random adjustments intended to make the hat feel comfortable on my head. The best I ever achieved was “acceptable.” Perhaps that’s why my closet is stuffed with unworn hats of all shapes and colors. Most have seen the light of day only once.

The Bates flat cap fit perfectly. It was as though I had been designed for it and had been guided from California to Croatia to Edinburgh to London to Jermyn Street to fulfill my destiny. I might never remove that hat. It was me.

I did not ask “how much.” I would have pawned Jackie’s ring to possess that hat. I lusted for it. It had a case. A case for a flat cap. Decadent. I forked over my Visa card and hoped there was enough left in reserve to cover it.

“I’ll wear it, please.” And I silently thought “forever.”

The Moose Lamp

My son Steven would have been fifty-two this month. But his life was cut short at forty-three by his death in 2011.

Memories of him floated to the top today when I attended my bereavement group, an event that takes place every Tuesday from 10:30 until noon. Housed in a small, Ikea style conference room in the west end of Ojai, there are no frills. The lighting is dim and there are no cookies. In addition to an outpouring of feelings, there are tears, extended silences and, blessedly, enough occasional laughter to raise one’s spirits a notch or two.

I’ve become a regular who began participating after my sweet wife Ila passed away almost two years ago. During that time, my attendance has morphed from a focus on Ila to one that includes both she and Steven. I often picture them together, arguing; and I smile. Always looking for a bargain, I also take advantage of this group therapy to talk about my relationships with other loved ones.

The number of Tuesday gatherers varies from as few as three to as many as nine. Mostly women who have lost their husbands, we have others who’ve lost parents and children. Regulars, loosely defined as those who have been coming more than three months, usually predominate. New faces join periodically while some regulars stop coming. Others leave, rest, and then return months later. Some come once and are never seen again. It’s not for everyone.

It’s not clear why some people come every week while others attend less frequently. The reasons they come are clear and fairly consistent, but the frequency with which they appear seems governed by inexplicable, unsaid reasons.

For me, one who disdains being idle, the meeting is a block of time that I don’t have to otherwise fill. It also provides the social exposure that I treasure. My home on the hill, while in a beautiful setting, does not easily offer personal interaction. The quarter-meter plan that once allowed TV watchers to deposit quarters in boxes attached to their sets is not an available option. And, more importantly I can comfortably say things that would remain unsaid in other settings.

I arrived at today’s meeting a few minutes late. Making the non-obligatory excuse for my tardiness, I described my trip from Vons to the vacuum cleaner repair shop in Ventura and back. A trip of fifty-eight minutes that I claimed to be a new world record. Satisfied that I had been forgiven, I took my usual chair at table, sat back and scanned the crowd.

A man who I had not seen before sat opposite me. When newcomers join the group, the rest of us introduce ourselves. I’m Fred. My wife died almost two years ago. I’ve been coming regularly and, yada, yada, yada. Depending on the urgency of the need to get something off one’s chest, an introduction can often take as much time as chanting the first five books of Moses, in Hebrew.

Some people are eloquent and engaging. Others, less so. The man opposite me merely said his name and added succinctly, “My thirty-year old son passed away in December.” Nothing else. Then he shifted in his chair and assumed a slouched position that non-verbally said ‘I don’t know why I came here and I shall remain silent for the next ninety minutes.”

Time rolled on. People told stories and described feelings that might go unheard in confessionals or even in a bed shared by two lovers. Yet the man opposite me seemed unmoved. His lids occasionally hid his eyes and he often furtively glanced at his smart phone. Yet, even with his seeming detachment, he appeared troubled.

Our group leader is a master at drawing people out. Never asking directly, she has the uncanny ability to elicit words from an otherwise reticent participant. “Fred, do you think you could share something about your son Steven that might be of value to our newest member?”

Of course, I thought. The moose lamp. And I told its story.

Steven bought a ten-inch high table lamp at a garage sale. Maybe he paid as much as two dollars. It had a tiny bulb and a shade that had the image of a moose on it. When you turned the lamp on, its light shone in a way that accentuated the moose. Tacky at best, Steven kept it on a table in his apartment and switched it on every night. And turned it off when he went to bed. Never very sentimental, he nevertheless loved the moose lamp.

In the last month of his life, I was with him in his home when I stumbled and caught my foot in the lamp’s cord. The lamp fell off the table with a sound that presaged disaster. I picked it up as though it were a baby, flicked the lamp’s switch and was horrified to watch it stay dark. My son David was standing next to me and I said, “I don’t care what it costs, I want that lamp repaired and working before Steven is gone.”

David picked up the lamp, looked at the cord and sarcastically said, “Well we might first try plugging it in.” We did and the light shone through the moose and into my eyes. Laughter replaced tension.

Steven died a few weeks later. Aside from his guitars, the only valuable object in his apartment was the moose lamp. I wanted it and I took it. The two-dollar lamp now sits on an expensive table in my living room. I look at it each time I pass. I light it when the feeling takes me there. Memories flood back of Steven’s stubbornness and ego-centrism. But the lamp also reminds me of the special moments when I loved him most. Memories that assure me that his passing need not always be filled with sadness.

I don’t know if my story of the moose lamp helped the man opposite me. But it made my day.

Coffee, comfort and caring

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

Maybe not, but here are some other facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be well Lorraine. I love you.

I didn’t sleep well last night

I didn’t sleep well last night.

Maybe it was the chicken thigh that I chewed on at eight pm. I bought it at Westridge after my two- hour library foundation board meeting. The meeting starts at six, and it takes me about twenty minutes to drive down the hill to town. Five o’clock is too early for me to eat before the meeting. So, I eat too late and more often than not regret it. As usual, the chicken had resided far too long in the warm mystery liquid at the bottom of the heated display case. Its skin had taken on the characteristics of an old plastic book cover that protects library books from everything but a nuclear blast.

Downing the chicken without joy, I went to bed around ten, just after watching the latest episode of Bosch, the Amazon Prime series based on Michael Connelly’s character, Harry Bosch.  A hard-bitten police detective, Harry seems to have too much time on his hands and spends much of it getting into trouble while solving cases that have become more complex with each new series.

Played by Titus Welliver, a name that somehow seems inappropriate for the character, Harry lives in one of those Hollywood Hills homes that is unbelievably cantilevered into space through some ingenious architectural engineering. It appears to float dangerously and gives cowards like me every reason to avoid such places. The house, though beautiful, appears ready to crash down the hill into another miraculous, seemingly unsupported, home. The night views of the sparkling city seen from Harry’s outdoor deck are unforgettable. Which is more than I can say for the story plot lines.

This is the fifth season for Harry and other assorted cops and miscreants. The combination of a too late eaten chicken thigh and the the program’s unfathomable twists and turns challenge my mental capacity. I usually find myself nodding off for a few minutes in the middle of an episode, making it nearly impossible to follow the story line. Rewinds are common. I probably shouldn’t watch murder mysteries late at night while gnawing on an aged chicken leg.

I never have trouble falling asleep. Staying asleep is my problem. Three am brings a startling mental wake-up call. Since I’m now up, a trip to the bathroom seems like a good idea even if I don’t feel the urge. A sip of water that has resided a bit too long in my aging plumbing adds to the festivities. Then it’s back to bed feeling half awake and ready for more sleep. Sometimes sleep arrives. But not last night. Instead, my mind wanders aimlessly in semi-sleep mode. I bounce from thought to thought. I exhaust the comfort of lying on my left side and switch to my less preferred right side. Then onto my back. Never on my stomach. Adjust the covers. Fluff the pillow. Repeat again at ten minute intervals.

My muddled thoughts often border on the ridiculous. Thoughts that would be laughable when fully awake are now cause for sleeplessness. Minor infractions during the day are replayed in my mind. I make mountains out of molehills. Some particularly onerous thoughts cause my heart to beat faster and pulsate in my right ear. I employ thought control to rid myself of the offending thoughts. Miraculously, I calm my thumping heart and trash the misguided belief that I am about to have a heart attack in my bed where I will lie lifeless until the cleaning lady arrives next Tuesday.

On my left side I can, with some effort, focus on the eerie glow of the alarm clock. And I am surprised at how quickly time has passed. It’s almost four. I calculate the number of hours until it’s time to get up. I’m sometimes pleased that there is time left. Sometimes not. Sometimes sleep comes. Sometimes not.

Desperate for blessed sleep, I’ve developed a few routines to get me off the moody thinking and onto something more upbeat. I tried counting sheep (doesn’t everyone?) and found myself covered with sheep shit. I employed a yoga like breathing routine that, while forcing me to concentrate on my breath, reduced my stress but made me more alert and even less sleepy. I tried reading but, like a bad book, it did not produce the desired result.

One cure for my sleeplessness evolved from a fishing trip to northern California. Marching with my son David along a meandering stream, we happened upon a beautiful cold-water pool. Stepping into it even with warm underwear and neoprene waders, it was chilling. We cast our fly lines as quietly as possible. And then it struck. A five-pound wild Rainbow Trout. The animal would not be easily landed. Jump after jump he struggled to spit out the barbless fly. I was lucky. He tired and I landed him. People had gathered near the pool to watch the contest. They murmured their admiration when my son netted the prize, removed the tiny fly from the fish’s gaping mouth and released the creature to once more offer a memorable challenge to a worthy angler.

I think about that adventure when I can’t sleep, and it often brings welcome relief from my muddled thoughts. Much like the fish, I’m thankful that I am set free. Until next time.


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