Archive Page 2

Is it just a cold, or…

I’ve been nursing a cold for a few days.

I’m sure it’s my first since moving from the mountain into town, but Jackie insists I had a similar malady two years ago. No matter, I accept the discomfort with the style and grace that is a hallmark of my personality.

In other words, I am a lousy patient.

My colds follow a pattern. First a scratchy throat that I incorrectly label as a post-nasal drip. Then a more pronounced throat discomfort that belies my initial diagnosis. Next, a drippy nose that is held at bay by the multiple Kleenex boxes that occupy strategic places throughout the house.

An added attraction is the concern that this could be a disguised Covid virus cleverly inserting itself in a body already weakened by the trauma of a seasonal cold or flu. So, I check my temperature with the digital thermometer and find it normal. Distrusting the digital read out on the overused device, I seek human confirmation by asking Jackie to “feel my head.”

I am rendered speechless when she touches my forehead and says, “You do feel a little warm. Maybe you’ve been spending too much time on the patio. Drink some water.”

Is that all they teach you in nursing school? “Drink some water.”

My mind is riveted. I take my temperature again, 99.1. This is getting serious.  I take it once more, 99.6. I’m afraid to do it again. I try to remember what one does if they have Covid. Do you stay home, or tear off your clothes and run screaming down the street?

I imagine the ambulance screeching to a halt in front of the house. Loaded on a gurney, shoved in the bowels of the van, and taken to Ventura.

I mentally list all the things that need to be done. The appointments I’ll miss. The people who’ve been exposed to me. Taxes filed late. No pickleball.

I shake it off and remember the Covid test kit that President Biden kindly delivered to my mailbox. I should use it, I think. But then, what if the results are positive? Maybe it’s better not to know; then I could still play pickleball.

My civic pride and the genes borrowed from my parents get the better of me.

I get the test kit from the junk drawer in the kitchen. I open it and find an array of devices all cleverly designed to make it easy to mess it up. Calming myself, I realize there are two kits in the package and feel less challenged.

The instruction packet seems just a bit smaller than the Old Testament. Maybe that’s because it’s written in several languages including Sanskrit and Esperanza.

I read it. And then I read it again. It’s taking me too long, I think. I can hear the ambulance arriving if I don’t get this done soon.

I swab my nose, both nostrils. I am cautioned not to touch the tip of the swab. Why is that I think. Does the manufacturer think I have leprosy or teenage acne?

I go through the rest of steps, convinced I’ve done something wrong. Shoved it too far up my nose, swabbed in the wrong direction, moved it around too quickly, exposed it to some foreign substance. A million possibilities, but not a clue.

After wrestling with the little bottle and its multiple caps, I scoop up the precious liquid and deposit three drops in the test strip portal. It’s in God’s hands now, I think.

The instructions caution me to wait 15 minutes before looking at the results. I wonder if 10 would really be enough. Maybe they bump it up for those people who haven’t got the time to see if they’ve contracted a fatal illness.

Normally, 15 minutes passes quickly. Not this time. I could read Gone With the Wind and still have three minutes to go. I hang around the kitchen but avoid the test strip. I wait.

I can’t take it anymore. After 8 minutes I stare at the test strip. Only one line is visible. Two lines would spell disaster.

I age noticeably. I look in the bathroom mirror and I see Charlton Heston delivering the tablets to the Jews.

The kitchen timer beeps.

I check the test strip. Only one line. I take a closer look. Still only one line.

Well, so much for Covid.

I wonder when I had my last pneumonia shot. 

Las Vegas

The noise coming from the cheesy cab radio was odd. Not music. Not conversation. More like a garbled roaring sound, punctuated by the announcer’s voice speaking what could have been a foreign language.

The cab driver was disinterested in his passengers and only spoke when asked a question. Most of the time it was, “How long before we get there?”

His repeated stock response was, “Nine minutes.” I stopped asking the question when I realized he had no idea how long it would be, since he had not activated his GPS.

His official ID that hung from the visor assured me that he was an authorized driver. His name was Max.

Max looked like he was wearing last week’s unwashed clothes. A short-sleeved shirt, multicolored shorts, and plantar fasciitis provoking flip-flops. He was bald on top and sported long, uncombed curls on the sides. He was fixated on the radio and occasionally banged his fist on the steering wheel in response to the broadcaster’s periodic announcements. He muttered disappointedly when something disturbed him, which was often.

I listened more closely. The radio announcer was indeed speaking English. He seemed to be talking about cars. My curiosity got the better of me and I asked Max, “What are you listening to.”

Showing mild annoyance he said, “It’s the NASCAR race at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. I’ve got some money on it.”

My initial thought was, gee I didn’t know they had NASCAR races in Las Vegas. I was even more surprised that you could bet on them. And then I banished those naïve thoughts when I remembered we were in Vegas, where you can bet on anything until they take all your money, and probably even after that.

Unlike other cities, Vegas has more taxis than Ubers. It’s as though all the old, abandoned taxis from L.A., New York and Chicago have been sent here to die, just like the elephant graveyard. 

Our first taxi encounter is at the airport where we are greeted by a line of cabs that must have circled the earth twice. Despite the possibility of a riot fomented by people anxious to lose their life savings, the line was carefully organized and reined in by workers who, like other gaming mecca employees, are either current or former gambling addicts. Nice enough people, they seem to be just biding their time waiting for their shift to end and return to the tables and slots.

The airport cabs charge a flat fee of $28 for a ride to any of the hotels on the strip. I thought it was pretty cheap, until I discovered that it only took about five minutes to get to our hotel, the Palazzo.

The Palazzo is a newish tower adjacent to its older and somewhat faded sister hotel, the Venetian. True to their names, they have an architectural design that mimics the palatial mansion that Al Pacino lived in immediately prior to his assassination by the mob in the 1983 movie, Scarface.

Descendants of some of the characters in the movie can be found wandering the casinos, disguised as pit bosses. You can easily identify them since they are the only people wearing business suits, ties, and rings on their pinkies. Most everyone else is wearing shorts, tie-dyed shirts and, like Max the taxi driver, flip flops.

Our cab dropped us in front of the Palazzo where we were swept into what seemed like a moving sidewalk of moneyless guests departing, while arrivals like us still had what proved to be only temporary ownership of our finances.

Registration was easy as we were professionally handled by Ramon, a glib young man who might have come from a Wall Street investment banking firm before falling under the influence of the devil. He upgraded our room, itemized a bunch of perks, and took multiple images of my American Express card which might, in short order, be maxed out.

Although Max brazenly forsook his cab’s GPS for directions, we could have used one to get from the registration desk to our room. Instead, Ramon simply told us to hook a left and watch for the overhead signs. “You’ll be fine.”

Any Vegas hotel planner worth his salt will design it so that you can only reach your room (and a welcoming pee break) by marching through the casino. After an absence of 25 years, I had forgotten what the inside of a casino looked like. I was soon reminded.

Bright lights and noise are the principal components of the massive money eating enclosure. Devoid of any daylight, thereby assuring the victim that the time of day was irrelevant, the casino is a Walt Disney animated movie in garish technicolor. Noise comes at you from multiple sources including ten feet tall slots that advertise jackpots that probably paid off during the last ice age.

Periodic shrieks at the craps tables announce a lucky winner who, despite multiple selfie promises of, “Just one more time”, will assuredly re-deposit his winnings with the faceless croupier.

While I was intent on finding the yellow brick road to our room, Jackie fixated on the slots and slowed my march. Her eyes glazed over, and her breathing slowed. As though in a trance she said, “I see the machine I want.” It was the Wheel of Fortune. Her eyes brightened. Her pace quickened. Her hand was on her wallet. The machine pulled her in like it was a life-size electromagnet. It was love at first sight. I felt abandoned.

But that’s another story.

Robert

I’m in my fourth year at the Ojai Valley Athletic Club where I pay a monthly fee to use the facilities and, as a bonus, ogle the attractive women who make the visit much more enjoyable.

I joined the club after Ila died and have been a faithful member through the pandemic. Some Covid-mindful people thought I was foolishly risking my health by sharing the club’s air with others who were also deemed crazy. They were probably right.

Until I moved from the Upper Ojai in 2019, I’d get in my car at 6am, five days a week and drive eight twisting miles from the house on the hill to the club on Fox Street. Since becoming an urban Townie, I often walk a mile to the club in about twenty minutes.

Early on, Jackie told me I should get a personal trainer, someone who could show me how to improve my physical condition without doing permanent damage to my 80-year-old body.

And so, I met Robert.

A slender, physically fit specimen that I hoped to emulate one day, Robert trained the unfit, conducted yoga classes, led hikes, and spent lots of time schmoozing with everyone at the club. He knew their names, their kids’ names, and their dogs’ names. Everyone waved at Robert, and he took the time to wave back. My thirty-minute, twice weekly sessions shrank to twenty because of his constant socializing. He often was late, and I was often irritated. But he was a star, and I basked in it.

We started our training (I’m not sure why it’s called training…maybe because it’s like taking your dog to obedience class). Robert inventoried my body parts, found them all in their proper places, and measured my stamina. He entered the information on an official looking form and promised that we would periodically re-evaluate my condition to determine the level of my improvement or lack thereof. He said he would record the new data and compare it to the old data. I never saw the form again in our nearly three-year relationship.

I tried to focus on the physical stuff during our sessions but was often drawn into conversations with Robert about the news, books, and our past lives. I shared personal stuff with him, including dreams that your analyst would find interesting. And that, I finally realized, was as much a part of his standard routine as was the proper use of the club’s equipment.

We were comfortable in our deepening rut. But then he began to talk about his own health. His annual physical had shown some troubling signs. He didn’t complain; over the weeks it was more like a slow-motion description of progressive decline. 

His liver had been invaded; he was referred to UCLA, a place where you should only go when you have a condition that defies medical science.

Treatments began. Reports given by him during our sessions were promising. The bad guys were on the run.

Or so it seemed. The invaders had migrated to his head, wreaking new havoc.

Robert was a lot younger than me. These things, I thought, were supposed to afflict guys my age, not his.

And then, the unthinkable. He gave up his position at the club to devote full time to his illness. Selfishly, I wondered what I would do without a trainer.

Robert suggested I try someone else. So, I worked with a new guy for a few months, and then he left. I thought I’d try it without a trainer. I figured I’d just follow the last routine I learned from the new guy. But I found myself taking short cuts. I went to the club less frequently. I was sure I was slowly getting out of shape. I was bored.

Yesterday, Jackie suggested that I try a third trainer. I listened, like I always do, but said nothing, packed up my stuff and went to the club. I did my usual routine but found little pleasure in it. I showered and wandered by the front desk on my way out. I had decided to take one of the other trainers’ business cards that adorn the counter. But I hesitated, feeling like a deserter. I figured I’d get one next time.

I went home, made some oatmeal, and sat down at the computer. I thought about Robert and realized I hadn’t heard from him for a few weeks. We often text and occasionally speak on the phone. I sent a text…You’ve been quiet. What’s happening, bro?

Waiting for a return text, I roused my paranoia to its full height. I wondered if he’d had a relapse, a reoccurrence, a new invasion by the bad guys. I figured he’d respond when he could. Meanwhile, I’d worry.

And then, five minutes later, the phone rang. A voice much stronger than I remembered said, “I’m going for a haircut. I plan to start working part-time in April. Let’s get together next week and talk about training.”

I’ll have to remember to build in some time for his schmoozing.

The Great Un-masking

I’ve gone through several generations of face masks during the on-again, off-again Covid pandemic. The first was a skimpy little thing that I’m sure any microbe could have breached.

Realizing my risk of exposure, and the prospect of an early death, I graduated to a much sturdier mask that survived the Thomas Fire of 2018. Although robust, it plugged my nostrils and put a permanent fog on my eyeglasses. It was so tight that I felt like that alien character in Men in Black whose head shrunk six sizes when Will Smith blasted him with his laser gun.

Like all new emergencies, proper masks were in short supply. A cottage industry sprang up overnight offering homemade face coverings constructed of leftover bedsheets and old tee shirts. Despite Jackie’s penchant of tossing away anything that isn’t nailed down, I still have a few of those masks that had interesting designs but offered little protection from the clever Covid-19 virus that morphed as needed.

Fortunately, the behemoths of the medical supply industry leaped into the breach when they quickly realized that the prospect of falling down dead was a reasonable incentive that forced even the most resistant crazies to wear masks.

Soon we could find any style and color face mask on the Amazon website. I regularly stared at the offerings and wondered which ones would do a good job of repelling the little nasties, while letting me get through the day without the pain inflicted by the over-tight ear straps.

I became a face mask junkie. My favorite color was black; I thought I looked sexy and mysterious. I tried white and maroon, but they didn’t seem to do anything for my macho image. 

Masks that were labeled Amazon’s Choice or Best Seller often were losers. Like I thought someday my head would get smaller, or my ears would develop armor plating, I refused to junk the useless masks. I stowed them in a kitchen drawer; of course, Jackie found them and deposited them in E.J. Harrison’s green trash bin.

Masks found their way into my car and never left. The container on the driver-side door overflowed with them. It was as though I expected to live in the car and was afraid that I might run out of them. Occasionally, Jackie would say, “Do you really need all those masks? You already have two hanging from your steering wheel.” Embarrassed for a nanosecond, I would take a few to their final resting place in the Harrison bin.

I sneered at people who wore thin, useless bandanas. Usually, these were ill-fitting handkerchiefs that had never been washed. I’m sure it was the users’ way of turning up their noses at the whole idea of a mask. I’m sure they snickered under the snotty face covering, fully aware that the rest of us wanted to rip it off their face, to show our disdain for their disdain.

After two years, I thought I had the mask thing figured out. Right color, comfortable fit, and good protection. And then the Omicron variant arrived with the speed of light. Dr. Fauci and his foxy sidekick, Dr. Walensky, after watching related episodes of Gray’s Anatomy and General Hospital, quickly concluded that sturdier masks were needed. Enter the N95 and KN95 mask, which had been languishing in dark places.

Back in front of the Amazon screen, I searched for the new holy grail. The selection of N95’s was limited…no maroon. I bought twenty black ones and they arrived the next day. They comfortably cupped my face like my mother did…for a while. Then they didn’t. Particularly offensive was the elastic strap pulled taut around my right ear. Like a tight shoe, I removed the mask when no one was watching. I tried wearing the mask with only the left ear strap, not a good idea. I googled “painful ear straps” and got several references to the Spanish Inquisition.

The Omicron variant seemed happy infecting people while leaving them relatively unscathed. Even the unvaccinated stopped dying in droves. Drs. Fauci and Walensky had enough. They began making noises about junking masks even though Mississippi, and other 19th century mask-burning states, were still filling up hospital beds. Governor Newsom, reluctant to bring another recall election down on his head, decided to loosen up.

We are now into the third day of the great un-masking. Signs that used to say Masks Required for Entry are being replaced with signs saying Masks Required for the Unvaccinated. This afternoon I walked past the new normal and into the bank. Tellers were masked, I was not. I felt weird showing my bare face, and I almost put the mask back on.

I’m much sexier that way.

Patience

Jackie and I are enrolled in a Mussar class. It’s a Jewish spiritual practice that focuses on living a meaningful life.

Human traits like humility and patience are studied to see how we stack up. We get tools that include readings, meditation, journaling, and instruction, all designed to challenge and improve ourselves. Or at least understand what might be standing in our way. Accompanying humility and patience in this parade of traits are the usual ones, gratitude, silence, and generosity. Others are a bit more obtuse, like order and equanimity.

Mussar was developed in Lithuania as a group enterprise in the 1800’s. Many of the writings included come from the pens of Rabbis living then and earlier. Adopting Mussar means a lifetime of study leading to awareness, wisdom, and transformation.

In my case, I’ll be lucky to get through the next six weeks.

Our Mussar classmates number 10, nearly all are members of our temple. We meet via Zoom every two weeks and spend two hours discussing this week’s trait. The alternate weeks are devoted to private study and meetings with our team partner. My teammate is Jackie.

It can be administratively complex, and I spend way too much time trying to keep my traits straight. For example, we could be knee-deep in humility while prepping for patience. Or was it the other way around?

In one of the exercises, I pick a point on a scale that identifies how I rate myself on a given trait. For example, regarding humility, am I humble or more like Vladimir Putin? But am I so humble that I’m apathetic, or do I hog the limelight like Donald Trump?

Patience has two faces. It can mean how long you’ll wait for a bus on an ice-cold morning on a Chicago street corner before throwing yourself into oncoming traffic. Or it can mean how well you accept an irreversible outcome without liking it, like the trip to the hospital after you’ve been hit by that silent Tesla.

I’ve always thought of myself as a patient person. At least on the outside. I sit in library foundation board meetings, hoping for the end of time. I remain respectful but occasionally find myself muttering silently while others happily contribute their thoughts to the festivities. Age probably has something to do with it. Like my irreversibly thinning skin that belies my 82 years, my tolerance has its limits.

My eyes scan the room and I often wonder what others are thinking; are they as impatient as I am? Why doesn’t some colleague say, “Ok, that’s enough. We shouldn’t even be discussing this trivial item, much less interfering with my TV schedule. Let’s move on.” And then I think, why am I not saying this? Is it an overabundance of patience? Am I alone in my reverie? Or am I just a wuss?

I watch the meeting room wall clock move so slowly that I think an evil deity has made it run backwards. I calculate the time remaining before the meeting’s scheduled conclusion and worry that there is too much to cover in the remaining minutes. As we get closer to closure, I begin to congratulate myself for lasting this long without saying anything disruptive. I maintain my composure…and then, having reached my biblical limit, I react by saying something that I will regret immediately after I’ve said it.

One of Mussar’s tactics in dealing with a lack of patience, and the spewing of regretful thoughts, is to widen the space between anticipating your upcoming impatience and the actual act itself. This time-out provides a theoretical buffer zone in which one can reconsider doing something stupid. This tactic, however, also requires patience. It can lead to years of rabbinic study in a quest to solve this conundrum. The product of that study then leads to more study and consequentially an increase in required rabbinic patience.

But we are not all Rabbis. I demonstrated this fact last Sunday as Jackie and I worked on our taxes. Until our marriage, Jackie used a local bookkeeping service to record her monthly transactions and complete her tax returns. I had originally thought, “How much work can that be? My stuff surely is more voluminous and certainly more complex.”

I was wrong on both counts. Multiple employers, renting her house, and singlehandedly raising the GNP with the purchase of a myriad of personal care products and services, proved challenging.

I had lots of questions. I began to feel the pressure of meeting the IRS filing deadline. I used my new Mussar patience tactic and widened the space between anticipation and action. I silently analyzed my situation and quietly began with, “Sweetheart, I hate to interrupt your cell phone conversation about your girlfriend’s marital woes, but could you please tell me what this charge is for? I would be ever so grateful.”

As the call droned on and the unanswered questions mounted, my patience buffer zone grew smaller. Like the library clock on the wall, I had reached my allotted patience time. And I said, “If you would only stop yakking with your neurotic girlfriend, I could finish this inquisition and get back to playing my ukulele. I’ve got a life too, ya know.”

Wrong. Definitely not in the Mussar playbook. Like the speed of light, I instantly regretted what I had said. Especially the “ya know.”

So, I did the only thing I could do.

I humbled myself. A lot.

Dream away…

in my dreams I imagine the same things that lunatics imagine when awake…Rene Descartes 

I’m a big dreamer. It happens every night, usually a few hours before I wake for the last time.

I say last time because I fall asleep easily, enjoy five hours of bliss, and wake around 3am. I make a trip to the bathroom and return to bed feeling like I can go right back to sleep. Wishful thinking.

The next three hours of relative sleeplessness include meditative breathing. I take a few deep breaths, then return to normal while focusing on my breath. It often works and I fall back to sleep, except it doesn’t last. But I’ll take what I can get.

Thinking about an enjoyable experience often does the trick. I’m on a fly-fishing trip with my son David. I’m wearing waders and casting a surface fly. I see the flow of the water in the stream, the weightless fly resting on the surface, and the over-sized trout grabbing it. I see the line peel from the reel as the fish runs. He stops and gives up. I see the fish in the net and David cradling it. I see him remove the microscopic fly from the trout’s mouth. I see the fish swim away. I smile. It works, sometimes.

I like sleeping on my right side. Second place goes to my left. I hardly ever fall asleep on my back although I occasionally find myself there when I wake. It feels good as I lay on my side, but the comfort doesn’t last as I feel the mattress inevitably resist. I shift my position and hope I can sleep before I need to do it again.

Time seems to move quickly in the dark. I stare at the overbright clock by the bedside. It’s 3am and then, in what seems like a few minutes, it’s 4am. I think it’s because I don’t realize that I really am asleep. Not a deep sleep. More of a muddled sleep. One where I think about things. Things that trouble me. Things that seem more troubling than they will be when I fully wake. Stupid things about which I will scold myself and promise never to do it again. But, of course, I do.

It’s in those few hours before dawn that my dreams happen. Dreams that have people who are unknown to me, and others that are too well known. People who are kind, and some who are not.

Dreams that are happy and sometimes sexy. Others that cause me to wake in a sweat, toss the covers from my overheated body, breathe hard, and be glad that it was just a dream.

Dreams that I can only vaguely recall, and others that stay with me most of the day.

Dreams that others have too. I didn’t study for the test. Can’t find my way home.

Dreams I can’t decipher. Others that are far too meaningful.

Jackie says most of my unpleasant dreams display my anxiety. In the extreme, feelings of fear, dread, and uneasiness. Anxiety caused by repeating the past, or uncertainty about the future.

A single night can bring two dreams without a commercial break.

No two dreams are precisely the same, but many share the same message.

Rare ones, doled out miserly over the years, have me flying about twenty feet off the ground, admiring the landscape. It is so real that when I wake, I wonder if it was. Or maybe I was Tinkerbell.

It’s the bad ones that make me wish I was more like Ila, who claimed she never had dreams. As M.C. Escher, the Dutch graphic artist, said, “I don’t use drugs. My dreams are frightening enough.”

We dream several times every night; it’s a normal part of healthy sleep. It’s shown to be connected to better cognitive function and emotional health. It’s also reputed to produce more effective thinking and better memory retention. Sometimes, dreams make a lot of sense while others do not.

Last night I was a voyeur. It was like watching a movie at the Century 10 in Ventura; the only thing missing was popcorn. There was a grassy field with a hole in the ground, maybe an abandoned well. A man was stuck about twenty feet from the surface. His arms were at his side, and he could not move them. People stood around the hole and yelled encouragement. As though on cue, I joined the scene entering from from stage-left. I suggested we drill another hole next to the first one. Someone could descend to the same level as the stuck man, dig horizontally and pull the unlucky man into the new hole. And then my dream ended.

I did not feel rested, nor did my cognitive functions improve.

But I did wonder if the man ever made it out of the hole.

Taking the Bus

Tuesday is when I drive the Help of Ojai bus.

It’s usually a little nippy at 8 in the morning and Help has hardly enough time to warm the place before my arrival. I stand in my hall closet at home checking the temperature on my iPhone and debating my alternative garb. Shall I wear the sleeveless Patagonia vest, or the one with arms? Is the Cal baseball hat that I stole from my son enough, or should I wear my Carhartt wool beanie that covers my ears and holds the warmth streaming from my bald head, but wreaks havoc with my hearing aids?

I decide to go light this morning and slip on my vest, plop the Cal hat on my head, kiss Jackie good-bye and make the five-minute drive to Help. I could have walked there in 20 minutes, but I had already done three miles on the treadmill. Still recovering from my kettlebell induced back strain, I decide not to be macho and I drive.

Help moved a few months ago from their old location next to City Hall to a building that housed the Ojai Café Emporium for many years. A vacant restaurant seemed like an odd choice, and I sometimes mindlessly drive to Help’s old location, a habit formed over eighteen years of driving the bus.

The Emporium had a separate coffee shop that offered delicious pastries. They had four kinds of coffee but no Splenda sweetener; an odd omission that perpetually annoyed me. But I was particularly fond of their cinnamon rolls and the occasional pumpkin muffin. I wistfully remember the sugary sweets as I turn left off Montgomery and into the parking lot now festooned with a temporary looking Help of Ojai sign, but no muffins. Too bad.

The pandemic has slowed Help’s offerings at the new site. The communal gatherings are limited to avoid mass exposure to Covid. The interior of the building needs some glitz and glamor along with the now silent sounds of people being helped. The staff is getting used to the new digs and doing the good work that makes them a community gem.

My aging eyes take longer to acclimate to dark spaces after being in the sunny outdoors and I carefully make my way to the men’s room. It’s dimly lit and needs more concentrated light over the urinal; wearing a face mask contributes to the obfuscation of doing my business and leaves me wondering if I’ve hit the target. I make multiple prophylactic trips to the men’s room during my shift since I don’t want to be caught without a potty while driving the bus. Other than that, I think the new digs are coming along quite nicely.

I retrieve my rider list from Tina and make my way to Bus 8, a nine-passenger sheet metal behemoth that’s been sitting in the lot since yesterday afternoon. Hoisting myself into the sub-zero driver’s seat produces a shiver. My glasses immediately fog up because of the Covid mask and I find myself blindly searching for the heater controls. Removing the mask results in the loss of one over-priced hearing aid that had twisted itself around the elastic straps that held the facemask in place. I decide to forego the pleasure of the hearing aids until summer.

Settled in, I drive to my first pickup. Ralph is recovering from a stroke and needs a little help boarding. He’s exceptionally happy today, which he attributes to the half-jigger of bourbon that enhanced his morning coffee.

Dottie is my next client. With a tendency toward procrastination, she shuffles to the bus seemingly unaware that she is ten minutes overdue. Her delightful, “Good morning” makes me forget about her being late.

Steve has balance issues that he tries to mitigate with two walking sticks. He needs help loading his groceries from the Vons shopping cart onto the bus. Usually silent, his “thank you so much” brightens my morning.

Stephanie has been physically challenged for many years. Today’s trip to the doctor requires a wheelchair. It takes me awhile to hoist the chair on the lift and fasten it to the floor of the bus. I drop her off at the doctor and when her visit ends, I reverse the process going home. I don’t mind the effort, and I think about what it would be like if it were me in that chair.

Last pickup is Jan.  Her husband died a few weeks ago. It was only a month earlier when I regularly took them both to Swanner for physical therapy. They were like a duet. Now she is alone.

I bring the bus back to Help, hand the manifest and keys to Tina along with the five dollars of donations that hardly cover the gas I used driving forty miles.

I’ve been at it four hours. In and out of the bus, hauling groceries and doing other things that make it possible for people to do what needs to be done.

I should be tired. But I feel refreshed.

Healdsburg

We spent two days in Healdsburg three weeks ago, a town that I had not visited for over twenty years. Located in Sonoma County, it’s about seventy miles from the Golden Gate Bridge and light years from crowds, traffic and other traumas that make my chest tighten up.

We didn’t just wander into Healdsburg. No, it was part of a plan to soften my resistance to an over-60 community that is slowly taking shape two miles from the center of town.

Called Enso, the senior-living project two miles from the center of town will include 220 apartment style units that range in size from 800 to over 2,000 square feet. For a substantial up-front payment and a hefty monthly fee, Enso promises to house, feed, entertain, and take care of us until our minds and bodies call it quits. With Enzo’s close connection to the San Francisco Zen Center, we should be in good hands. I’m already letting my hair grow into a ponytail and will change my name to something like Whoisthisguy.

We were met at the Enso sales center by Leslie, a low key, pleasant woman whose job is to convince us to join the Enso circle. A three-dimensional scale model of the project rested on a table that reminded me of my friend Marty Kessler’s 4×8 model railroad platform. Using her iPad, Leslie lit up the various components of the project, including the last available living units (95 percent of the apartments are committed). We saw the activity center, dining rooms, pool, and exterior amenities. It was so real that I swear I saw a bunch of tiny Lilliputians sitting in the dining room.

In addition to housing our bodies (including assisted living and memory care), Enso will fill our lucid hours with the usual activities that one expects from an adult community, including a bent toward Zen, lessons in mindfulness, a hefty serving of spirituality…and maybe a pickleball game.

Our visit made me feel much better about Enso. Positive enough to select one of the few remaining apartments and plunk down a ten percent deposit. Enso will not open until construction is fully completed, maybe late 2023. Until then, we can change our minds, get our money back, and find a new adventure that also makes our friends wonder if I should be committed. Meanwhile, I’m wearing this silly Enso ring that looks and feels much like the rubber washer that adorns your bathroom faucet. Now that’s what I call commitment.

When I last visited Healdsburg, it was a sleepy town; maybe comatose is a better description. Sporting a little over 11,000 people, it’s about the same size as Ojai. And that’s where the resemblance ends. The town is surrounded by door-to-door wineries and populated with lots of good restaurants, high-end boutiques, and grocery stores that rival Gelson’s and Whole Foods. The usual citizens’ battle to maintain the town’s sleepy, rural character has been waged and lost. Surprisingly, the result appears well planned and, thankfully, underwhelming.

We stayed at the Trio, a new, slick, comfortable hotel. Jackie, my expert in judging hotel accommodations, found our room pleasing, the availability of extra toiletries exceptional, and the fitness center populated with the right equipment. We used the free hotel shuttle to get to restaurants, an especially useful amenity to avoid the intermittent heavy rain. The free afternoon wine tasting at the hotel was a surprise bonus.

Thursday, we got up at dawn and visited the fitness center. No one was there and I could adjust the thermostat to my liking and dial up Netflix on the treadmill screen. The Great British Baking Show was in its next to last episode of its ninth season. I marvel at the culinary creations of these amateur bakers and love the double entendres offered up by the two judges, Paul (intentionally naughty) and Pru (unknowingly). I completed an hour of treadmill marching without getting anywhere, and Jackie did the same on the elliptical and stationary bike.

It was late morning before we were ready for some sight-seeing. Healdsburg is the home of a gaggle of wineries including the Preston Winery, an older establishment that’s taken a lot of my money because of my membership in its wine club. It’s my only wine club membership, delivering six bottles of wine four times a year. I like their wines, or maybe it’s just because of old mushy memories of my last visit.

Ila and I had accidentally stumbled on the winery many years ago and I hadn’t been back since. I asked Jackie, “Could we go to Preston? I’d like to see if it’s changed since I was there with Ila.”

Jackie is very understanding about my memories of Ila and encourages me to express them, “Of course we can,”, she said. “it’ll be fun.”

Siri said we were only five miles from Preston when we began our adventure. My stomach rumbles encouraged us to find something to eat before we had gone very far. The Dry Creek General Store had been recommended by the hotel and appeared before us at the half-way mark. Its website highlighted the following tasty message…

Health & safety: Mask required · Staff required to disinfect surfaces between visits · Safety dividers at checkout · More details

What could be more appetizing, a bagel with Lysol? We stopped, masked up and found the entry. A fully stocked bar met our gaze. A single unmasked customer was nursing a drink of suspicious origin while having a lengthy unintelligible conversation on his cell phone.

We made good use of the restrooms, as though we might never see another before dark. We followed the path leading to the main store and found gold, or at least a surprising array of food. We went with a safe choice, a cheese-less turkey sandwich on wheat bread. I found the cashier behind the web-heralded safety dividers, paid with a contact-less Visa card, and grabbed a relatively uncomfortable high-legged table outside. The cashier promised she would find us there, but I had my doubts.

Five minutes later the safety-first turkey sandwich arrived, cut neatly in half as though the chef had used a laser ruler. More amazingly, it was delicious. I could have told you that it would be if you’d only asked.

Back on the road we were surrounded by wineries, all beckoning us to drive in, taste their wine and join their wine club. But we were on a mission to Preston that could not be altered.

The two-lane Dry Creek highway made an abrupt left and slowed to 15 miles per hour. We followed Siri’s prompts regardless of how silly they seemed, pssed more wineries, and finally found a sign announcing our arrival at Preston.

It was around noon on a weekday, and we were the only customers. Who drinks at noon, anyway? The buildings had changed from my long ago visit. Bigger and more of them, it all seemed grander than the last time. Too bad.

We spotted the entry to the tasting room and found three masked people, apparently employees, behind the tasting bar. One, a young lady, was writing something in a journal. Perhaps it was her memoir, an activity that obviously could not be interrupted to acknowledge our arrival.

A young man, who we later found out was beginning his employment with Preston, was staring into a computer that could have been displaying something forbidden to employees.

A third man stood facing me. I felt that he was waiting for me to say something. So, I did. “Hi, I haven’t been here for many years. But I’ve been a wine club member for a long time.”

Silence. So, I continued. “I really don’t know how many years I’ve been a member. And I’m curious. Could you check it for me?’

He moved in the direction of a computer, a good sign that he was still paying attention. Checking the screen, he said, “You’ve been a member for twenty-one years.”

Expecting some sort of trumpet blast, I waited for him to say something like, “Wow, twenty-one years. That’s amazing. Great to see you. How about a free glass of wine?”

Instead, he said, “Your credit card is expired. You missed getting the last shipment.”

I realize that he must have been a busy guy, what with trying to entertain the only two customers in the place. Or maybe he gets lots of people visiting Preston who have been wine club members for say, forty or fifty years. And I was a relative newcomer with only twenty-one years under my belt.

So, I asked him how much Preston wine I had downed in the last twenty-one years, maybe giving him a kick-start that would recognize my importance.

He said, “Let’s see, six bottles every three months for twenty-one years. That’s 504 bottles. Each bottle has six servings. That comes to 3,024 drinks.”

I thought that would shake him up and generate some atom of admiration.

Instead, he said, “Well, do you want me to update your credit card?”

I was going blind

It’s five months since my left eye was relieved of its cataract. After the surgery, repeat visits to the optometrist made life exciting and irritating as I waited for my new lens to find a permanent place on my eyeball. During the extended healing process, the lens had wandered about aimlessly, depriving me of new glasses that would finally correct my vision and let me stop bumping into things like a real-life Mr. Magoo.

Three weeks ago my optometrist, Dr. B, finally declared me stable and did the usual, “Is 2 better than 1…is 3 better than 2?” Satisfied with my answers, he wrote up the new prescription and escorted me to the fancy room where I could spend a lot of money on shiny new frames and lenses.

While Jackie looked on, Heidi took me under her wing and paraded a sea of frames that might suit my manly face and sexy brown eyes. With each pair, I turned to Jackie for a sign of approval. No, not sexy enough, try another. Nope, close, but not quite suitable for a man of my stature. “Wait”, Jackie said, “I think these are perfect for you.” Heidi agreed and started to list the add-ons…anti-scratch, UV protection, etc. She totaled my bill; it reminded me of my first new car.

A week later Heidi called. “Your new glasses are here, come on in.” I went back, put them on and stared at Heidi as she evaluated the fit. “Let me adjust them a bit and they will be perfect. You’ll love em.” She did, and I was. Funny thing though, they looked a lot like my old glasses.

I was a happy camper as I stared out the shop window and focused on distant objects. Bright and sharp. After five months I could see again without trying to force things into focus. My time in purgatory served, I drove home scanning the license plates of adjacent cars and marveling on my ability to read them without squinting.

I wear my glasses like I wear my shoes. Constantly adjusting the fit to eliminate any discomfort, I push the frames up the bridge of my nose to loosen them before they take root. I twiddle with the earpieces to eliminate hot spots. Despite this constant attention, new glasses invariably warrant a trip back to the optometrist for professional tweaking. Trusting me with that task would result in the bungling destruction of the fragile and very expensive frames.

Like other professional services coping with the new world of Covid, Dr. B requires an appointment just to tweak frames. So, I obediently made one three days hence for Wednesday afternoon at 3.

Since I was going, I figured I might as well take my old useless glasses and get new lenses. Just in case I needed a spare due to forgetting where I stowed the new ones, or I was stomped by an Asian Elephant on my way to my favorite Thai restaurant.

Armed with both pairs, I arrived at Dr. B’s before 3. Heidi went into her secret room, did some incantations, massaged my new glasses, handed them back to me, smiled and said, “Looks great.” I yanked on the frames; they stayed in place without jamming the earpieces into my skull. My handsome nose wasn’t pinched. It was all good.

We talked about the old glasses and decided they would do nicely as a spare even with the outdated prescription. Happy that I had dodged another financial bullet, I drove home.

It was late November, and the days were getting shorter. When I got home, the sun was nearly down. I donned my evening wear ($12 Amazon sweatpants and a three-year-old T-shirt from Rains Department Store’s 20% off sale). Time to relax and watch episode 134 of Grey’s Anatomy.

We always watch TV with closed captions. I’ve been doing it for so long that I am fixated on them; sometimes I can’t identify the characters because I’m too busy reading the captions. I’ve tried breaking myself of the habit, but the trauma is too much for me; I’m probably an addict in need of Captions Anonymous.

I was surprised and disappointed with the clarity of the captions. I had been able to decipher license plates today that were as far away as the next county, so what was going on now? I moved my glasses up and down my nose looking for a sweet spot. Maybe I was looking through the bottom of my bifocals. I squinted to no avail. Had I been too easy with Heidi? Too willing to accept less than perfection.

Jackie looked at me and said, “Why are fiddling with your new glasses?”

I told her and she sweetly offered a possible explanation, “Maybe you’re just tired and so are your eyes, what with the poking and squeezing you’ve been through today. After a good night’s sleep, you’ll see a whole lot better.”

I was not a happy camper, but I went to bed hoping Jackie was right, like always. If not, Heidi was going to get an earful.

Up at 6 and onto the treadmill. I switched on ABC-7 news. Tired of watching the weather forecast every three minutes (even if Leslie Lopez is a gorgeous weatherwoman), I focused on the crawler at the bottom of the screen. But I couldn’t read it even though it was on a 56-inch TV six feet from my face. Unfortuantely Jackie had, for one of the rare times in our relationship, been wrong.

I spent the morning staring fixedly at everything, hoping the problem would go away. It wouldn’t, so I called Dr. B’s office and said “There’s something wrong with these glasses, or with me. My vision is ca-ca. I need to see someone, soon. I made an appointment for the next day.

With nothing to do but wait, I focused on the problem. Random thoughts flew through my head. I wondered how quickly macular degeneration could become unmanageable. Or maybe my vision problem was related to my recent vertigo episode. Or maybe it really wasn’t vertigo, but was symptomatic of a brain tumor. I reviewed all the possibilities described in Webster’s Medical Dictionary.

The day and the night passed with no improvement. I slept fitfully and awoke the next morning, squinted at my face in the mirror, saw no improvement in it or in my eyes, and prepared myself for any eventuality.

I had my usual Peet’s coffee delivered by Keurig; this time tasteless despite doubling the Splenda dose. Reading emails, I skipped right over the solution to erectile disfunction, pleas for money from unknown politicians who were trying to save the world as I knew it, and a note from someone who claimed I had just inherited the gross national product of Botswana.

Time to go to see Heidi. I went into the garage, opened the driver side door and, despite my sleep-deprived feebleness, deposited myself behind the steering wheel.

Turning my head to the right, I saw a familiar glasses case on the passenger seat. Must be the case for the new glasses I was wearing, I thought. I picked it up and heard a rattle. Hmmm, not empty?

I opened the case and found a pair of glasses that looked like the ones I was already wearing. I examined them more closely. No scratches, no smudged lenses, no bite marks on the earpieces. What the hell? Could I be wearing my old glasses with the outdated prescription? The ones that made reading closed captioning nearly impossible. Had I been wearing the old ones while my new ones were sitting on my carseat for two days, and I was thinking I had a brain tumor?

And then I laughed.

Went to see Heidi anyway. She laughed too.

Starvation Palace…part 2

“Eat. Don’t lose any more weight. You skinny bones.”

Those harsh but loving words came from Jackie’s sweet lips to my floppy ears as we prepared for our nearly four-hour trip to the Optimum Health Institute.

Fifteen minutes from the heart of San Diego, OHI is the last bastion of greenery in a god-forsaken hodge-podge of garbage trucks, big box outlets, and 99 Cents stores. The single-family homes on Central Avenue verge on extinction, yet command stratospheric prices in this overheated real estate market.

Once caring for mental patients, the buildings on the OHI campus have been converted to housing those who seek rest, a spiritual mantra, the elimination of poor dietary habits, and a cleansing of every crack and crevice in your body, abetted by daily colonics.

The rooms are a cut above those found in a Dickens’ orphanage. A bed, dresser, small desk, and a comfy stuffed chair round out the opulent furnishings. Ventilation is provided by the Motel 6 variety of appliance, generating adequate cooling and heating if you can stand the noise.

Two sides of the complex are exposed to unending freeway noise. The other two sides provide entertainment for  maniacal Central Avenue hotrodders who were not paid enough attention to while in the reformatory, and the barking family dog who sounds like he wants to eat, preferably something human.

To maintain the pristine nature of the complex while Covid runs amuck, the institute frowns on anyone leaving the premises during confinement. Periodic spit tests assure the guests of the purity of the other campers. Gates keep people out but can be easily breeched upon entry if one can pass the famous ten questions beginning with “Have you…”. Forehead temperature is taken with a device that Fox News says may inject a microchip in your frontal lobe.

Hiking trails are foreign to this environment. Daily exercise may be had on campus, but Jackie prefers 24 Hour Fitness a mile from it. Not to miss the exhilaration of a daily hike, a brisk walk beginning on Central Avenue substitutes for the real thing. Alternating between cracked concrete, no concrete and asphalt in need of sealcoating, we parade in front of the homes and their blood-thirsty dogs, make a left on Massachusetts Avenue avoiding drivers who never heard of California’s pedestrian rights, and end the first leg of our trip at Walgreens.

 The presence of Walgreens, CVS and Rite-Aid only 500 feet apart attests to the power of the drug cartel and its influence on our daily lives. Chevron, Shell and a No-Name gas station wave flags announcing budget busting per-gallon prices that once were per-tank prices.  McDonalds, Taco Bell, and Chic Filet provide everything else needed for a happy, healthy existence.

We shade our eyes to avoid the temptation of El Pollo Loco and continue our loopy hike up Central Avenue. We arrive back at the OHI gates where Andrew dutifully takes our temperature to be sure we have not acquired the dreaded virus in the sixty minutes since our departure from the campus.

Food occupies much of our thoughts and our conversations with other deprived souls throughout the day. A detox diet that Mother Theresa would be proud of is designed to eliminate the nasties that have taken up residence in the dark shadows of our gut. Stimulants, fats, flour, sugar, and salt are banished for the duration of our visit. Oils are unseen except in the form of an occasional sliver of blessed avocado.

Raw vegetables are plentiful and plainly identifiable on our plate. Other raw vegetables are occasionally disguised as something else (like Kosher bacon) but always fail the taste test. Cooked foods are shunned as anything heated over 105 degrees is declared dead and of little use in delivering vital nutrients.

The affable kitchen staff enjoys a respite during the middle three days of our visit, as our nutrition is solely vegetable juice. Unfortunately, the variety of these juices is limited to green or red. Of course, you can mix the two and produce one that is sort of brown. I’m particularly fond of doing this since it reminds me of my mother who used to mix red and green Jello to produce an interesting dessert.

A cornucopia of spices is available to flavor our juice but except for cayenne powder seem to have little effect on taste. We can have as much juice as we want. A cucumber slice or one cherry tomato often garnishes each serving. Having several glasses can leave the impression that you’ve had a salad. I particularly like the cherry tomato option since it reminds me of the martini stuffed olives that I have sacrificed on the detox altar.

Being somewhat emaciated, I can’t afford to lose weight while prancing around OHI. As a result, I augment the detox regimen with bananas and organic peanut butter purchased clandestinely at the nearby Sprouts grocery. Without this dietary supplement, I’d soon look like Alec Guinness emerging from the Japanese confinement shed in The Bridge Over the River Kwai. I feel guilty doing this but my death from starvation at OHI would surely put a crimp in their public relations program.

When I’m not eating, I attend classes about eating as though this will fill my belly. I really like the one on fermented foods, like sauerkraut and dill pickles. It offers a glimpse of the world of microbes running wild in my gut. Living inside every person are trillions of microorganisms — bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other life forms. And eating sauerkraut keeps them carefree and happy as they munch their way through my colon.

And speaking of colons… OHI’s detox arsenal includes optional colonics. Those of us who were members of the Mickey Mouse Club and watched The $64,000 Question, probably remember that brown rubber bag and hose hanging on a hook on your parents’ bathroom door. That enema of old has been replaced by a more high-tech version with the same objective, complete with an infusion of wheat grass juice. What?

So, I bet you’re wondering, “Why does he spend a week at OHI when he could be anywhere else?”

You might also ask why he’s done it six times.

Or why he’s thinking about doing it again?

And I’d say, “Good question.”


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