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Ukulele Lady

Jackie’s daughter Sammy and I played our ukuleles last night.

I had picked up the uke only twice since moving from the big house on the hill eight months ago to the less grand tract house in mid-town. Prior to the move I had been more diligent, playing weekly with a pickup group at the library, and even marching in last year’s July 4th parade down Ojai Avenue.

Perhaps “playing with” is too strong a term. Most of the library group of six had more experience, more talent and just plain more everything than I did. Some members were kind and waited for me to catch up as their fingers danced slowly up and down the frets. Others were into themselves and left me in the dust wishing that the two-hour session would end before I collapsed from the pressure.

My favorite pieces, like the Banana Boat song made famous by Harry Belafonte, had no more than three chords, were slow apace and easy to sing. Fixated on learning the chords, I never realized that the uke had different strum patterns. I blissfully chose to ignore the prescribed ones and simply moved my right hand up and down as I wished, without regard to the proper strums selected by my more erudite companions.

Playing in the July 4th parade seemed like a good idea after I had carefully reviewed the two pieces that were to be repeated over and over as we marched a mile down the avenue. One of the tunes, George M. Cohan’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, made famous in the film with Jimmy Cagney, seemed like something I could handle. Only four chords and a melody, it was surely hard to screw up. Yet I did.

After three parade minutes of twisting my fingers into positions better suited to a Houdini escape act, I gave up. I spent the rest of the parade pretending I was strumming and, just to vary my act, occasionally waved the uke over my head as though it were a cheerleader’s pompom. None of the parade watchers knew the difference nor seemed to care. The crowd noise and horn blaring emitted by the fume belching antique car directly behind our merry group masked everything, especially the sounds emanating from our tiny ukes.

Ukulele is Hawaiian and means jumping flea. It is pronounced oo-koo-lay-lay, not you-ka-lay-lee. Its origin is largely attributed to the efforts of three Portuguese guys who landed in Hawaii around 1880. With nothing better to do, they fashioned this lightweight four stringer and, as evidenced by the number of young people schlepping it through airports and clogging up overhead baggage compartments, it has become a staple of hoedowns, block parties and late evening campfires where it can be played even while under the influence of various socially acceptable drugs.

Although shunned by the likes of concert violinists Jascha Heifetz and Pinchas Zukerman, the uke was embraced by Elvis Presley in his biggest movie, Blue Hawaii. The movie soundtrack that featured the uke was Number 1 on the Billboard Charts for twenty weeks in 1961. My personal uke favorite is Over the Rainbow, sweetly performed by the late Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, who, in physical appearance, might better have been a sumo wrestler.

Doing mother-daughter things in Santa Barbara, I was left alone at home to make dinner. Pasta ala Norma is one of Jackie’s favorites. Though uncomplicated, the recipe takes time. The star of the minimal list of ingredients is eggplant. It is finicky and must be treated with the same care given to a diva, to be sure it is neither over nor underdone.  I have made the dish several times and consider myself qualified to prepare it for important guests, like Sammy. Two packages of Southwestern Style chopped salad from Westridge topped with a tasty vinaigrette, matched with a loaf of bread from Lazy Acres, and a bottle of chardonnay gifted to us by friends, completed the menu.

It was 7:30 before we began our meal on the patio. It had cooled from the heat of the day and the setting was perfect. I thought the rigatoni pasta was a little large for the recipe, but the more appropriate ziti had been MIA from the Westridge shelves due undoubtedly to the limitations imposed by Covid-19. The ladies were effusive as they downed everything set before them. Satisfied with the accolades, I sat back as they cleared the table.

I was alone for some time while the noise in the kitchen abated. It finally grew quiet and I wondered where they were. Then I heard the quiet voice of Sammy’s ukulele as she cradled it and came onto the patio. Jackie followed unexpectedly with my uke and my lately abandoned song binder. “Oh, I’m not up to this. Another time. Soon. I promise.”

Jackie stayed on target. “Aw, come on. It’ll be fun. Do it for me. Please.”

Weakened by her charms, I opened the case and tuned the four strings. I flipped opened the binder.  All I Have to Do is Dream stared at me. I had practiced the poignant Everly Brothers tune a hundred times, especially when Jackie was away. I have never conquered the chorus that is maddeningly populated with too many E minor chords.

Samantha said, “Let’s try it.”

An hour later we had gone through a dozen songs. Samantha was kind, patient and made me feel welcome. She smiled real smiles, spoke heartfelt words, and had a good time.

Jackie proudly watched her daughter enjoy herself. It was reward enough and a respite from the struggle.

If I hadn’t worried about the neighbors calling the cops, we might still be there.

Maybe I’ve learned…

I was up at 4am  to take Jackie to the airport.

Still inky black outside. Added to my own questionable night vision, it made for a bit of stumbling around, light switch flipping, and getting my head on straight.

It takes 90 minutes to get to LAX when traffic is light. Given the corona virus reduction to the normal congealed traffic flow, we were confident that allowing a three-hour passage between our home and the boarding gate would put us there with time to spare.

Jackie checked her travel inventory three times before leaving the house. Smart phone, electronic boarding pass, driver’s license, hotel information and money…lots of it. Five hours of fitful sleep had little effect on her. Still beautiful and perky. We were stark contrasts in appearance and sparkle.

The eventual need for a parental trip to Eugene, Oregon was never in doubt. It was only when that was uncertain. Yesterday, Jackie heard from Sammy, her quarter-century-old daughter. She has been living for the last three months in Lost Valley, a forested facility that offers group living with food provided by the forest and gardens tended by the residents. No fats, sugar or gluten permitted here.

A wanderer seeking herself, Sammy has circumnavigated the better part of the planet. Tasting the offerings of Tucson, Ojai, Hawaii, and now Oregon, she was troubled by her inability to make a semi-permanent landing. Bright, capable, and likeable, her relationship with people was sometimes akin to that of the land.

Regular phone conversations between Sammy and Jackie were calm but often strained. Mother constantly sought ways to help daughter through the rough spots. Wanting to do it her way, daughter all too often rejected mother’s suggestions as being too directive. The desire for a closer mother-daughter relationship kept the mother perpetually engaged in searching for solutions and responding to daughter’s needs.

Yesterday was a turning point. Too difficult to go it alone, Sammy reached out for help. A burst of texts, phone calls and the involvement of others led to our 90-minute trip to LAX and Jackie’s arrival in Eugene four hours later. I am now at home in a quiet place that is much like a theater where one waits for the performance to continue. And for a happy Act One.

It’s been four months that Jackie and I have been living together, the last two as wife and husband. We have learned much about who we are, what we need and how much we love. Now we will add a third element to the equation as Sammy joins us. The relationship that Jackie and I have forged will assuredly undergo change.

I mentally list the possibilities. Some are funny. No more running around in my underwear. Muted sexual noises in the bedroom. Meals will taste different. TV programs will be vetted more closely. Laundry will require diligent sorting.

Some changes are serious and can have lethal consequences. Covid-19 will have three places to hide before pouncing to feast on one or all of us. Rules about visitors, how many and who they are, will need more analysis. Exposure to risks outside the home will be of greater concern.

Looking to share, I spoke with my daughter Nancy this afternoon. Willing to help in any way, she paused near the end of our conversation and said, “Who does this remind you of?”

“Steven, of course.” My son, talented and outgoing, he never met his potential. A gifted musician, he wrote, sang, and played a mean guitar. Dependent for financial support, he was nevertheless stubborn and unwilling to take parental advice. Calling us when in need. Usually avoiding us when happy. Concerned first with his own comfort, he marched to his own drummer. Against our advice, he spent the last months of his life looking for the magic bullet that would save him. He only found medical frauds willing to take advantage. I held his hand in his last week of life and I cried; he looked at me and tenderly said, “It’s okay, Dad.” It filled volumes.

I should have learned a lot from Steven. I should have learned how to give advice without sounding directive. I should have learned to let him live his own life, not mine. I should have been less argumentative and more loving.

Maybe I’ve learned. We’ll see.

Only 81

It’s my birthday. The 81st in a long line of memories.

Jackie woke me this morning with a new Patagonia backpack that replaces the one that mysteriously disappeared when we moved to our new house. A big birthday balloon that she somehow sneaked past me yesterday is now prominently displayed over my head. And other more personal gifts were bestowed on me before the day was but an hour long.

It was chilly and too early to jump out of bed and leap onto the treadmill. So we stayed and remembered. Remembered our first birthday together when Jackie organized a star-studded bash at the house on the mountain in celebration of my 79th. Never one to let grass grow under her feet, she would not wait for my 80th.

I recalled my 80th when we spent the weekend at the Beverly Wilshire where I walked into the hotel room and found myself swamped by eighty mylar balloons, a very large bottle of champagne, and reservations at some upscale eateries.

Pausing in our morning reverie, Jackie asked “How old do you feel?”

I took a nanosecond to mentally compile my physical short-comings and my state of mind. I calculated the total miles hiked during the past week, the number of Zoom yoga sessions, the resulting improvement in flexibility, my iffy eyesight, ever-changing blood pressure and the results of my recent annual visit with Dr. Halverson. Without further hesitation I said “Sixty-eight.” In retrospect I have no idea where that came from.

I guess that when you are 81, 68 seems young. Thirteen years of birthdays, good times, and bad ones. Joy and heartbreak. Highs and lows. The loss of my sweet Ila, the passing of my staunchly independent son Steven, and the death of my big brother Irv all weigh heavily on the downside. Starting a new life with Jackie has added sparkle, unexpected opportunities, and much love. On balance, thirteen years brought significant challenges, some growth, and a boatload of smiles.

Still too early to leave the warmth of the bed and Jackie’s body, I chronicled my early years. Grandparents took center stage. Jackie’s were gone before she was born. Luckier than she, I remembered my father’s mother; a frail woman who wore a sheitel, the wig that observant Jewish married women wore to conform to religious law. Grandma Hinda was one of a long line of vision impaired ancestors who unknowingly passed the malady to my father and then to my brother. A floating specter, I never heard her speak; she was gone before I was old enough to remember who she was.

My paternal grandfather never left the Ukrainian shtetl where he was born. All I have of him is a family photo that includes my five-year-old father and his four siblings…Rifka, Bella, Nate and Lou. His history is gone but he surely was of meager means who lived nervously through the pogroms thrust upon the Jews of that region by the all-powerful Czar who was intent upon blaming my innocent zaide for bad harvests, icy winters and defeats at the hands of other imagined infidels.

My maternal grandfather died in Chicago when I was too young to remember. My only image of him is the one found in an oval shaped photo affixed to his grave site marker in a cemetery vandalized many times, and what is now all but forgotten.

In contrast to the others, I vividly remember bubbe Cipa, my maternal grandmother who came to live with us when her husband died. Speaking broken English tinged with Ashkenazic Yiddish, she was my playmate and confidante. We shared a small, one window bedroom in Chicago’s West Rogers Park, where she rubbed my back, helped me get to sleep on humid nights and hummed a tune to soothe my senses. I often regret cheating her at gin rummy, even though she probably knew and chose to let me do it anyway.

Morris and Celia, my parents, never read a Dr. Spock book (to this day I’m not sure that my mother could  read) never attended a holistic seminar and had no knowledge of yoga, tai chi or gluten free. Had they even heard of Vegans they would have thought they were from Mars. Fully devoted to putting food on the table and shelter over our heads, their free time was a special event not often repeated. They loved me unconditionally and I never felt the need to hear it from their lips.

The passage of 80 to 81 seems of little significance. Yet it is when measured by its relationship to my remaining years. I find the thought comforting rather than depressing. It provides an urgency that was all but absent at 25 or even 65. The limitation on remaining life prompts me to enjoy, contribute and live it to the fullest. Whether I take advantage of it is up to me.

Thank you, Jackie, for the three birthdays we have shared. Each was different, but all were memorable. Each reminded me of my past. Each offered a glimpse of a beautiful future. It’s up to us to choose it.

Too much separation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Was That Masked Man?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What earthquake?

There was a 3.7 earthquake in Los Angeles this morning, and no one seemed to care.

My morning corona virus routine began with a treadmill romp in the exercise room. Walking at a three miles per hour blazing pace, I stared at the TV and soaked up the morning news on my local ABC station.

Miriam Hernandez was saying something about an earthquake and finished that intro with a hand-off to John Gregory who was standing at the epicenter of the quake in Windsor Hills. It is a small hole in the wall near Inglewood; a larger hole in the wall famous for the Fabulous Forum where Kareem and Magic taught basketball to lesser mortals who were foolish enough to challenge them.

The Lakers have long since departed the Forum for fancier digs downtown. The once fabulous venue now hosts events including the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards, Men’s Freestyle Wrestling World Cup and my favorite, the Super Flyweight World Championship.

The excitement generated by these events might normally have been eclipsed by a 3.7 quake. But there was John, standing alone in the street, attempting to rouse us from our coma-like, corona-induced slumber. He did his best with mind-grabbing one-liners including no injuries have been reported, no visible damage can be seen, and calls to 911 were underwhelming.

To put things in perspective and add an element of humor to his broadcast, John might have given us a quick tutorial on the Richter Scale.

Developed in 1935 by Charles Richter at the California Institute of Technology, it’s a logarithmic scale that probably means nothing to you, so I will skip any explanation of it. Suffice it to say, the scale measures a quake’s amplitude by the size of the wiggles on an earthquake recording…just like those on an EKG readout of your heart. Being logarithmic, each whole number increase in Dr. Richter’s amplitude scale is ten times greater than the previous number. At 6.7, the amplitude of the 1994 Northridge quake was 1,000 (10x10x10) times greater than the 3.7 one this morning.

Continuing to impress you with my knowledge of logarithms, the Richter Scale also measures the energy released by a quake. Even scarier than amplitude, each whole number increase is about 30 times greater than the prior number. Ergo, the Northridge quake released energy that was 27,000 (30x30x30) times greater than the one being featured by John this morning. More to the point, that is why my fish tank fell over in the Northridge quake while I slept blissfully through today’s puny tremor.

The quest for Covid-19 newsworthy items continues to dominate the media, further stretching John’s ability to satisfy our appetites with something like a mini-quake. However, I have noticed a slow creep of other news items that had once filled my TV screen, prior to Man vs. Covid-19.

For example, two days ago, a mass murder in Canada got a half-day of coverage, then exhausted its welcome when the police in a small New Jersey town got an anonymous tip about a body being stored in a shed outside one of the state’s largest nursing homes. Arriving there, the cops found 17 bodies lying about with Covid-19 etched on their foreheads. This was enough to shove any news about this Thursday’s NFL draft to a status well below the day’s most appealing pasta recipe.

Poor Joe Biden, who has never worn the mantle of Mr. Excitement, was pictured exhorting his admirers to storm the White House. He was quickly placed on the inactive list when he was upstaged by a Covid-19 mother in the Bronx tending to the needs of her six kids and a dog.

Donald Trump briefly tweeted into the spotlight when he decided to stop all border crossings. The business community angrily noted that this would cut the number of day laborers by two-thirds and further threaten the already fragile food chain. Realizing that he had just alienated his base and potentially caused irreparable damage to his favorite cereal, Captain Crunch, Mr. Trump said his tweet had been misinterpreted and was meant to apply only to crossings made from American Samoa.

Signs that the virus is losing some steam make new crises harder to find. Or maybe we are simply becoming bored with the whole thing. Face masks, while de rigueur, no longer attract the attention they once did. What started out as a quest for the holy grail has turned into a complete face-covering wardrobe with masks for day use and others specifically for nighttime entertaining.

Flag waving, horn honking moms wearing cowboy boots filled TV screens for a time, until mildly disinterested viewers realized that these protesters were a poor substitute for the Tea Party. Tired of schlepping the heavy flags and with a growing inability to understand how their deaths from the virus might make them more patriotic, they closed up shop and joined the ranks of those other patriots who refuse to vaccinate their children.

But not to worry about content as there will shortly be juicier Covid-19 adventures to fill the void. As noted in today’s Washington Post….

By the end of the week, Georgia residents will be able to get their hair permed and nails done. By Monday, they will be cleared for action flicks at the cineplex and burgers at their favorite greasy spoon.

And it will almost certainly lead to more novel corona virus infections and deaths.

As several states — including South Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida — rush to reopen businesses, the sudden relaxation of restrictions will supply new targets for the coronavirus that has kept the United States largely closed down…

An 8.0 quake will seem like a walk in the park.

Let’s get physical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A Place in the Sun

I went to Westridge Market this morning looking for a few things to make this really yummy sounding pear recipe. Pears, blue cheese, tart dried cherries, lemons and brown sugar. I already had the final ingredient, port wine, at home. Port is not my favorite mind bender, but until it spoils it can serve as a safety net if I exhaust my scotch, gin, vodka and bourbon. Oh, and the white wine too.

I visit the local markets frequently. It’s something to do while the virus tracks me down and a bit of a challenge. I’ve made a game of it, with toilet paper playing a leading role. Other less challenging roles are assigned to canned goods and baking supplies. All have been in short supply and the game has become more problematic as the days go by. Dire messages from the news-hungry media and the President’s semi-factual, self-taught pronouncements have encouraged me to stock up in anticipation of the rapid evolution of a new ice age populated only by cockroaches, termites and English sparrows.

This morning’s Play Station worthy episode began with an exploration of the offerings available on the Internet. I dove into the quest anticipating the usual disappointment. The object of my desire, toilet paper, was unavailable at Costco, Amazon or Vons. “Out of Stock” was the most popular response to my incessant clicking. “Available in June” was a close second. Visions of self-imposed constipation lit up my morning.

Convincing myself that there was a critical, not to be postponed, need for the components of my pear recipe, I drove to Westridge. Optimistic, I extracted two cloth grocery bags from my trunk, dropped them into one of several thousand empty shopping carts and wheeled my way into the store. Shelved stock was pathetic, except for liquor which seems to self-regenerate without human intervention. Usually abundant, now scarce, cans of tomatoes were standing apart from one another as though they too dreaded the touch of some other can’s corona-infested tin cladding.

The object of my search was two aisles removed from the unsocial tomato cans. Not wishing to seem obvious, but also wary of losing my place to others, I moved casually in a feigned disinterested manner.  I stared down the coveted aisle. Shelves normally laden with rolls of toilet paper were barren. I cruised aimlessly down the empty shelves and noted the signs that were taped to the metal. Written unceremoniously with a Sharpie, they severely admonished hoarders. Three Rolls to a Customer. Leave Some for the Next Guy. No Exceptions. I half expected that I’d find one that said Get Used to It or a page of instructions, complete with photos, demonstrating a more efficient way of wiping your fanny. There were so many signs that, for a moment, I thought I might take them home as substitutes for the real thing.

I wondered how, if they really had toilet paper, they would enforce the no more than three rolls per customer rule. Could a family of four, including two infants nestled in the shopping cart, buy twelve rolls? Might a couple split their groceries and check out separately doubling their bounty? Could the same purchaser check out three rolls, exit the store, come back five minutes later and get a second helping? Could seniors double-dip since they tended to make more daily visits to the throne than younger people?

As I stood there fantasizing, I glimpsed a flash of white set back in the shadows of the bottom shelf. My heart raced as I reached in and grasped it. A roll that had somehow eluded my competition was now mine. It bore no resemblance to any of the usual brands. It was clumsily wrapped in nondescript paper and looked as though it might have been previously fondled and rejected by several seekers less amorous than I.

I stared at the roll in my hand. I’ve learned a lot about toilet tissue while cruising the web. Number of layers and the thickness of each prominently jump to the top of the list of important characteristics. Some rolls have more sheets, but each sheet may be thinner. Or shorter. The status of your septic system may trounce all other considerations. These critical issues should cause one to pause as they review the qualities that most closely match their particular preferences.

Rolls made for commercial use often have narrow holes in the center of the roll that make it unsuitable for hanging on your common garden-variety tissue holder. Perhaps this deliberate impediment limits the number of rolls purloined by employees or visitors who don’t want a hundred feet of toilet paper cascading down the center of their bathroom. If you have ever attempted to re-roll a runaway roll, you know what I mean.

These industrial rolls are often sold in boxes of sixty or more. Rejected in normal times, these lifetime supplies from China are now in demand. However, one must often give up one full space in a two-car garage to house these monstrosities. And what about the impact on the neighbors’ sensitivities when seeing the over-sized cartons being wheeled off the large shipment FedEx truck. On the other hand, an otherwise cranky but needy neighbor can become your new best friend overnight.

There I was, holding an orphaned, undersized and rejected roll of paper. One that normally would have been consigned to the parking lot dumpster. But today, it was found gold. I placed it lovingly in the center of my shopping cart and began my march to the checkout station. And then I wondered what I was doing.

Had I become so besotted with my search for toilet paper that I had lost my sense of proportion? Was I so bereft of my senses that the acquisition of one runty ill-wrapped roll could consume me? Did I even know how many rolls I already had or even where I had stored them?

My accomplishment paled as I reached the checkout. I felt a twinge of embarrassment as I tossed my purchases onto the conveyor belt. I was sure the checker was thinking “Poor guy. Only one roll of toilet paper.  And then what?  I shudder to think.”

Bagging my purchases into my own ancient, germ-infested cloth bag revealed the extent of my shame. The toilet paper went first, to be buried by my other menial purchases before anyone but the checker could be made privy to my dismal situation.

Arriving home, I considered possible storage locations for the orphan. Housing it with rolls that had familiar pedigrees like Scott and Charmin just would not do. On the other hand, a dark, recessed place of its own seemed too harsh on the little fella.

I decided that anonymity was the best course of action. Unwrapping the roll gave it life and a certain air of mystery. Able to assume any identity, it is no longer an outcast as it hangs with honor waiting to serve me.

I think both of us are quite happy with the way it all turned out.

The most precious thing

What is the most precious thing in the world?

What are the characteristics that make it so? A short list might include beauty, timelessness, desirability and scarcity.

Until last week, my most precious list would have included a unique jewel much like the Hope Diamond. At 45 carats, about a third of an ounce, the Hope luxuriates in Washington DC’s Museum of National History. Legend has it that the diamond is cursed and the owner, or anyone else who touches it, will die. Sort of like forgetting to clean your doorknobs of the Corona virus. If the stone was in the Museum’s gift shop, its price tag would be about $350 million plus tax. Not sure if they offer gift wrapping.

The Mona Lisa is also in the running. Housed in the Paris Louvre, the lady with the mysterious smile is estimated to set you back nearly a billion bucks, plus tax. Framing is extra. The Italian noblewoman, believed to be Lisa Gherardini, was painted by da Vinci around 1503. She displays an enigmatic expression that undoubtedly reflects Lisa’s awareness that twenty-first century art connoisseurs would assuredly be foolish enough to pay her over inflated price.

Faberge eggs have captured the imagination since the 1800’s when they were produced in Czarist Russia. Most were made for royalty, but the majority did not survive the revolution, or the misguided melting of the undervalued eggs for their gold. One such egg, purchased at a flea market fifty years ago for $14,000, currently has an estimated value of over thirty million. The ignorant flea market purchaser kept it in his Midwest home located next to a highway and a Dunkin Donuts until an antique dealer spotted it sitting next to some cupcakes on the owner’s Formica kitchen counter.

These three items have at least one thing in common. None have any utilitarian value. If you awoke next Monday morning and discovered that your Faberge was cracked, your diamond shattered or the Mona Lisa looking like DC Comics’ Joker, you would probably shrug and say something like easy come, easy go. Then turn over in bed, snuggle with your sweetie, and your morning would go on as always, without the diamond, the painting or the egg.

The most precious list takes on a wholly different flavor when we are faced with something that can seriously impact how we live. The current Corona crisis helps put things in perspective. Especially at the grocery store. Tough times with real or imaginary shortages of taken-for-granted items, often reveal some of our baser instincts.

In 1967 we lived in Chicago when we had 27 inches of snow in a single day. The freeway shut down and people used it as boardwalk to the nearest market. Gallons of milk disappeared from store shelves, probably into homes where it was never consumed. It surely spoiled before it could be wolfed down by people who hadn’t had a glassful since they were in Mrs. Weintraub’s first grade class.

Moving to Los Angeles that same year to avoid future blizzards, we were welcomed with earthquakes. The worst was the 1994 Northridge quake. No electricity. No open markets. We became a third world country overnight. Hot dogs from our non-functioning freezer were roasted over our still operating gas stove. Candles provided light. Empty fifty-gallon metal barrels appeared on the street; their burning wood scraps providing a place for people to gather. We avoided driving our cars, fearful that we might never find fuel in gas stations that could no longer pump it. Hush hush messages were shared with friends whenever a secret stash of store-based vitals was discovered; we invariably arrived too late to grab anything that we didn’t really need anyway.

The blizzard cleanup and the quake reconstruction were short term impediments to our lifestyle. They were localized, allowing billions of people to be mere TV voyeurs watching the drama unfold without being directly affected by the events. We intuitively knew that our lives would be restored to normalcy before the next Olympics.

In agonizing contrast, the Corona madness has the entire world at its feet. Any permanent respite is impossible to predict with any certainty. At seven every morning we watch ABC’s George Stephanopoulos lean forward in his Good Morning America swivel chair and tell us how god-damn awful this thing is. How the rate of infection will soon fill every hospital bed, the Superdome and all the sea-going Maersk shipping containers with victims who have no ventilators and no hope. How anyone George interviews is deemed crazy by him if they say things are getting under control. We multi-task by staring at the streaming crawler spewing more bad news at the bottom of our TV screen…repeating these disasters every sixty seconds. Like lemmings, we are too paralyzed to turn it off and switch to the fifteenth episode of the fourth year of our favorite depressing Netflix series.

Images of food shortages race through our frontal lobe. Some of us remember World War 2 ration books, victory gardens and meatless Mondays. We mentally inventory our available foodstuffs. We have no idea when this worst of all flu seasons will end. We see the Vons’ parking lot filled from six in the morning into the night. Cars sliding snail-like up and down the aisles looking to catch a break. We think they must know something we don’t. So we join them.

We grab an available cart, ladling germs onto the palms of our hands. We enter through the automatic doors, thankful we don’t have to touch them. We grab a disinfectant tissue and wipe our hands and the cart’s push bar. We dispose of the tissue on top of the overflowing garbage can.

Once fully inside, we stop. Where are we going? Left or right? So much to choose from. Better make up our mind quickly before someone else snatches our number one item while we procrastinate like Lot’s wife. We finally decide.

We stare at the overhead signs. And then we spot it. Paper Goods. We move quickly. Our heart is pounding. We look down the chosen aisle. Our eyes shift right. A sea of off-white metal meets our gaze. Having never seen an empty Vons display rack, we are momentarily stunned, unable to move. How is this possible?

Now we know what the most precious item is. What will change sensible shoppers into glutinous hoarders. What we can’t do without. Names that had little importance two weeks ago have come to the top of our most precious list. Northern, Charmin, Kirkland, Angel Soft, Cottonelle, Scott. All gone.

The Hope Diamond, the Mona Lisa and Faberge eggs are still available. But who gives a shit?


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