20/20

I really think I have the best eye doctor in the Midwest, perhaps in the country. Numerous publications cite him as such, and his grateful patients would follow him anywhere. I trek up to Northwestern to see him, and I know I was lucky to get him to take me on. I was one of the last.

His name is Robert Feder. My friend, Ann, raved about him when I told her I needed cataract surgery and was unhappy with what I had done locally with my other eye a few years earlier. Oh, the procedure was successful, but the recovery period was glacial. Five weeks passed before I could see clearly, and this was when I was still teaching, still grading papers. Friends and acquaintances were surprised. If they were to be believed, they were all out the day after surgery, shooting skeet, and judging beauty contests.

Perhaps my situation had been a one off. To give the local place the benefit of the doubt, I called and asked the typical recovery period. “Five weeks is the standard.” The standard for what? No thank you; once was enough. Ann cautioned me that Dr. Feder might not be taking any new clients. He was that popular and that busy. Instead of calling for an appointment, I decided to write him a letter, one of the few things in life at which I am aces. I played the writer card. At this point, I was deep into my book, and pled that my eyes were my essential tools. It worked.

My surgery was one of the last he performed, and I can understand why. In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised had he thrown down his instruments and thundered, “Never again!” You can’t be completely sedated for this procedure, and as several dentists have learned, I am slow to numb. Whoever administered whatever they administered didn’t give me enough. I could still feel what was happening. It wasn’t painful, but when something touches my eye, I twitch. Over and over, Dr. F. told me, “For this to work, you must lie completely still.” “I understand. I’ll try.” And then I’d twitch again.

Wonder of wonders, the next morning I saw with perfect clarity, everything sharp, colors true, and not a wisp of cloudiness. Since then, the good doctor has masterfully addressed and halted or reversed my issues of macular degeneration and rising eye pressure. My most recent visit had him beaming at my progress.

When I finished my book, I  gave him a signed copy, on which I thanked him for his efforts. He was so pleased, he called in his nurse to see the dedication. He’ll never read Safe Inside. I don’t kid myself. He’s too busy for that. The best I can hope for is that one day, a visitor to his home will say, “What’s this? Doesn’t look like a medical book,” and I’ll have found a new reader. Meantime, well . . . I’ll see.

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The good, the bad, and the terrific

Vice is a good movie on the strength of its performances. Amy Adams added a new string to her already varied bow with a calm, steely, no nonsense take on Lynn Cheyney as Lady Macbeth. Some years hence, I can imagine her making a complex and convincing Barbara Bush. The always enjoyable Sam Rockwell has, and gives, a good time as a gullible doofus Bush junior, in over his head. Steve Carell has his moments as a Donald Rumsfeld who unwittingly mentors his his own political executioner, and even Tyler Perry proved unrecognizable (which was fine by me) as Colin Powell.

And then there was Christian Bale, the ultimate chameleon, as Dick Cheyney, getting so far under the skin of his character that you fear he won’t find his way back. It’s a stellar cast, and if you can leave your political bent at the door, you’ll appreciate and enjoy what they do here. Liberals will have an easier time of doing so, but there is an abundance of evidence to suggest that, as veep, Cheyney made himself de facto president.

The film has many humorous underpinnings, not the least of which comes at the very end of the credits, so stay put. Happily, my companions, Tim and Lois, are (unless the flic is a dog to be bolted from) credit watchers. Me too. Having worked up an appetite, we adjourned to Carrabbas, where Lois and I tried the wood fired pizza. Tasty, but be sure to tell them to get it well done and crispy, otherwise . . .

Duel in the Sun is, I confess, a bad film. But it’s one of the best bad films ever made. It may be my guiltiest pleasure, and has borne many repeated viewings without the slightest diminution of pure fun. This time around, my viewing victim was my friend Jack, who turned out to be, as I expected, the perfect audience, howling at the overwrought nonsense, but also oohing and aahing at the epic felicities that Duel delivers in spades, and before CG.

After Gone with the Wind, David Selznick drove himself cuckoo trying to make something bigger and more spectacular. He also wanted to torment other men by dangling in front of them the beauty he had won away from Robert Walker, Jennifer Jones. Prior to Duel, she had won acclaim portraying sweet, pious, even saintly roles, such as in The Song of Bernadette . Pearl Chavez, however, was the sluttiest character since Jane Russell burned down the screen in The Outlaw. It was, if possible, even less subtle, as Jones struggles to stay inside off the shoulder blouses, and waggles her backside while scrubbing a floor. There is also some skinny dipping. If the role is embarrassingly written, it is even more embarrassingly played. Despite an Oscar nomination, (one can only imagine all the favors Selznick called in to secure it), it is Jones’ worst performance.

Needless to say, the Catholic Legion Of Decency was apoplectic. Needless again, at nine, I was keen to see what all the fuss was about. Picture my dismay when it was rated “adults only.” Double that when I found out that Barbara Conrad, who lived across the street and was no older than I, smugly announced that she had seen it with her parents. I seethed for weeks.

I didn’t catch up with it until some years later. When I did, I was impressed by its epic scope, its highly saturated technicolor, the striking western scenery, the clever cinematography, and the deliriously overheated score by Dimitri Tiomkin (actually, just about everything in this movie is overheated). There’s some hamming among the glittering cast, but Joseph Cotten and Herbert Marshall acquit themselves with dignity amid the sea of hysteria around them. Gregory Peck is unforgettable as a low down, sexy, no account named Lewt McCanless (has there ever been a more licentious moniker?).

At times, this western is like watching Selznick’s wet dream of Jones. It’s a lurid affair, but there are irresistible scenes along the way, like Peck’s tricks with his horse to impress Jones, and best of all, the stirring assembly of what looks literally like a cast of thousands of cowboys to resist the incursion of a railroad. You won’t expect the ending (which I won’t give away). It really has to be seen to be believed. Goofy? Implausible? I s’pose, but wow, unforgettable! Having worked up an appetite, Jack and I took ourselves to Kitaro, where, like everyone else so far, he loved it.

On to the terrific: Aquaman. Somewhat burned out on superhero films, I went to this largely to please my brother and Jack, who will never burn out on them. It quite blew me away. I haven’t had this good a time at a film of this type since Avatar. Like Black Panther, it is more character driven then you’d expect, and the characters are engaging far beyond what the plot requires. It has a lively sense of humor, and a still livelier sense of beauty in the underwater scenes. The lead is not the Aquaman of yore, a blonde surfer dude. Instead, we have Jason Momoa, a manly, dredlocked, serious hottie. The whole business, scene after scene, was so much better than what I thought I’d come to see, that the vigorous applause at the end came as no surprise. Few of the applauders stayed to catch the after credit scene. We did. Then, having worked up an appetite, we went home to a feast that Johnnie had brought from faraway Lincolnwood. Yum!

 

 

Back where we belong

In my case, that’s back in Dimitrios. In his, it’s snug in our garage. A day earlier than expected, I was able to reclaim him. The rented Avalon was more luxurious, but what is more comfortable, and comforting than being back in the vehicle that fits you like a glove, and where you know without looking, without even thinking, where everything is?

That’s how it is with Dimitrios and me. As soon as I saw the text that he was ready, I called to alert Hertz that I was on my way. I stopped only to fill Julio’s gas tank rather than pay a penalty. While doing so, something curious and irksome transpired. I checked the gauge before I got out, and it read: 345 miles to empty (a helpful way of putting it). I filled up and even topped off, though I know you’re not supposed to. It came to about $4.25. Deliberately, I hadn’t driven much. When I turned on the motor, I was still greeted with 345 to empty. Hmm. Oh well, probably as I drove, it would recalculate. But no, it didn’t. Why hadn’t I taken the receipt offered at the pump? I usually don’t bother, so I pressed no and instantly thought, “What if?” and tried to press yes. Too late.

Well, I wasn’t going to be a wuss. I wasn’t going to take this lying down, standing up, or in the missionary position. Thus began and argument with an imaginary Hertz clerk which continued for the rest of my journey. Was the gauge rigged in the house’s favor? I was not going to pay. They couldn’t make me. Actually, they could, having my credit card number on file. It would do them no good. I had no proof of my purchase, but when my itemized credit card bill came, I would. I would dispute it. They would lose, and their chicanery would go for naught. Ha ha! Take that! It was quite a conversation.

Once at the desk, I explained the situation in much quieter tones to a very pleasant woman named Monique. She told me she would check, and came back to tell me that the gauge had moved to full. “Sometimes it takes a while,” she said, smiling. I asked for a lift back to Service King, not wanting to wind up as road kill (162nd is a very busy thoroughfare). Monique was happy to oblige.

Dimitrios looked sleek and spiffy as always, shiny too. He had been bathed as well as repaired. I was invited to inspect him. I did so cluelessly, pretending to know what I was looking for, or at. All I knew was that my pal looked swell and sounded quiet again. I should have opened the trunk. When I did, back at home, I found a woman’s pink and red hat. Had the Service King staff been joy riding in Dimitrios with some hussy? What had gone on in the trunk? Whatever unseemly shenanigans took place, Dimitrios isn’t talking. No wonder I love this guy.

Stop me before I anthropomorphize more

I said a bittersweet goodbye to an old friend this afternoon. It was peculiarly sad. The peculiar part is that he is an appliance. My habit of investing things with sentient properties goes back many decades. This has usually been confined to my cars, which always seem to arrive supplied with names and genders. I’m not quite as loopy as Sally Middleton, the heroine of Voice of the Turtle, for whom even her toaster had feelings to be taken into account. That’s not a bad little rom-com, by the way. The movie is sometimes called One for the Book. It’s sweet, and funny, with a great turn by Eve Arden as the man crazy, perfectly named Olive Lashbrook. But I digress.

I might not have become so fond of my refrigerator, had it not been magnetized. As such, it became the perfect canvas for a photo gallery of my friends. At first, there were only a few, but in time, it became a massive rotogravure, covered from top to bottom (John’s images were everywhere, as were those of friends we made in Mexico). Only its handles protruded to give a clue as to its actual purpose. That, and a slight hum, and the occasional chunk of the ice maker. When it grew late, it made me happy to pause at the stairs to the bedroom, turn and say, “Goodnight, Fridge People.”

It, he, served me well for years, but then, there began to be issues, minor but multiple. It seemed to be time for a replacement. Tonight, however, it doesn’t seem that way at all, and I wonder if I should have put up with the inconveniences and hung onto my old faithful pal. He was that even after I had betrayed him. Today, having cleaned him out and denuded him of his coat of many photos, I sat waiting for the burly delivery men. I grew thirsty. Before I realized what I was doing, I filled a glass of ice cold, filtered water from his dispenser. He was still happy to serve me, on his way to oblivion. It seemed wrong. I put down the glass and gave him a sloppy hug.

ADDENDUM:

Something most curious happened after I posted this. Johnnie forwarded to me what Facebook sent her as a memory from five years ago. It was a photo of the old fridge as it looked on January 7, 2014. Nice, I thought, and how sweet. Then I lost my breath. Johnnie hadn’t taken that picture, nor had I. John had, and attached to it was a long message from him, explaining why. It was something he did every time, just before I would change the pictures. He told the significance of “making the fridge,” called it an honor, and named everyone who was represented there at the moment. He was still well, and my world was still whole. These were words I’d forgotten about, and it was most unlikely that I’d ever have seen them again. It broke my heart to read them, but the more I thought about it, he was speaking to me, from somewhere. My pessimism about what lies beyond was punctured, and I smiled.

On closer inspection

I’d make a dreadful damage assessor. As I said earlier, I spied with my little eye nothing amiss with the back of my car. As a precaution, and for insurance purposes, I took Dimitrios out to the collision facility at my dealer, in South Lake. If the repairs were as minor as I hoped, they wouldn’t exceed my deductible, and I’d simply have them fix it and be done with it. What a dreamer! There are, it seems, no such things as minor repairs. The estimate was $2500, and I was back on the phone to State Farm.

They said I could have the car repaired anywhere I liked, but they’d need to make their own estimate. This could be done, they assured me, at a place nearby that I could find easily. They don’t know me. It did sound easy to reach: near the veterans’ memorial park, and not far from a Walt’s grocery. I could picture it.

On the day of the appointment, the sun was blinding, even with shades on. No matter, I’d driven through the area many times. Or so I thought. Unfortunately, Walt’s is a chain, and, while I don’t imagine veterans’ memorial parks have been franchised, there’s clearly more than one of them around. I was nowhere near the address. I stumbled on a State Farm office and was told I was half an hour and two expressways away from my destination. Expressways have seen the last of me behind the wheel. I cancelled.

I called to reschedule and begged for an alternate route. The agent furrowed his brow (it’s amazing what you can hear if you listen closely) and finally came up with directions involving thirteen separate steps. This seemed both tedious and unlucky; still, I had no other option. The next day, Leon was over, and I asked if he’d mind reading the steps to me while I made a dry run to be sure I could actually get there. Resourceful Leon consulted Google and reduced the steps to three. Piece of cake.

The State Farm evaluator was a jolly fellow who works out of his van filled with computers, so many that it looked like my idea of the cockpit of a plane, or a space ship. He pointed out tiny depressions and tears in the textured part of the bumper that I had missed. This still seemed minor, but he explained that ‘texture’ can’t be fixed. It has to be replaced. Then he got down on the ground (it was a very cold day, and this gave me the shivers for him), scooted under the car and used a special phone to take pictures of damage I couldn’t possibly have seen.

Dimitrios is now in the hands of Service King, and I’m driving a sleek Toyota Avalon rental in a stunning shade of aubergine. I’m not paying for any of this, not even my deductible. The woman who hit me has the same insurance, and has admitted full responsibility. She didn’t have much choice given a passel of bystanders eager to denounce her recklessness.

I like the Avalon. I’ll like it more when I figure out how to turn the lights on, get the trunk open, and locate the gizmo to let me access the gas tank (there was no manual in the glove compartment). I drive it sparingly and carefully, keeping a nervous eye on the rear view mirror (though that wouldn’t have helped me escape the accident). I’ve named the rental car Julio. Perhaps a loaner shouldn’t get a name, but it really looks like a Julio. Dimitrios needn’t worry though. My heart belongs to him.

Triple play

Few things are as invigorating to me as live theater. At its best, there’s an electricity to it that can jump start my flagging spirits, refresh my zest for life, and renew whatever hopes remain to me for the human condition. At its worst, it’s good for a few laughs and some snarky conversation. Three times this month, I’ve experienced such stimulation. I’ve been meaning to write about them, but the holidays, a collision, and general laziness have gotten in the way. I’ll set it down tonight before it becomes ancient history.

The beginning of the month, my cousin, Donna, joined me for Massenet’s Cendrillon at Lyric Opera. I’ve seen two other operatic settings of Cinderella’s comings and goings, one by Prokofiev, the other by Rossini, both of which I preferred to Lyric’s current offering. Oh, there was much for the eye and ear to feast upon, beautiful voices in abundance, and sets and costumes so cleverly designed as to have you laughing before a note was sung. The step sisters were gowned to resemble pregnant spiders, and the prince, draped over his prince bed looked like a gloomy elf on a shelf. What kept me from losing myself in what was obviously intended as a holiday treat (and I may be in the minority on this), were several long and lugubrious scenes of extended lamentation by Cinderella, her father, and the prince. One “woe is me, I’m off to the river to throw myself in” aria after another, all prettily sung, but yikes! I tired of them well before they were over, and got the fidgets, I who can sit happily through five plus hours of Wagner without a murmur. It’s just that I like my Cinderellas a bit more sprightly than this. I wound up rooting for the stepmother, Elizabeth Bishop, who brightened the proceedings each time she spun out another ditty of self centered nastiness.

Next, I went with Donna, Tim, and Lois to the Oriental (soon to be renamed. Talk about self centered nastiness), to see the insanely funny The Play that goes Wrong. A delicious farce from start (and actually a bit before) to finish, it had us in almost painful stitches, especially when one of the actors broke character to admonish us, “You’re a terrible audience! This is a serious play. Stop that laughing. Stop it, I say!” The cast takes its lives in its hands as the set keeps falling down around their ears, We admired their dexterity but feared for their safety, An ambulance must have been on stand by at the rehearsals. Time well spent.

Finally, Tim, Ann and I saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Navy Pier. Tim and I found it a joyful romp, and fine Christmas fare. Ann would have preferred a more ethereal production, as would Chris Jones who thought it lacking in melancholy. He’d have been right at home at Cendrillon. Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most frequently staged plays, and it lends itself to a seemingly inexhaustible number of differing interpretations.  It contains such diverse elements that it seems difficult for any director to get them all right. I concede that this was neither the most magical nor wistful production I’ve seen, but there’s also an energy, a wacky exuberance to this play to which much justice was done.  The costumes were vivid and amusing, and the music was festive, without, I thought, doing damage to the text. Happily, whatever your taste, in a couple of years, someone will mount another one. I hope to be around to see what they’re up to.

Up a tree

That’s where I was, and what I’ve been. It’s why I haven’t been blogging, or doing much else until I was through. A couple of hours ago, I made the last of the stuffed animals comfortable in the parlor where they could inspect the Christmas tree at their leisure, as I intend to do as soon as I have some. All that remains is to tape up the Christmas cards in the cabana. I’ll get to that tomorrow, if I can pry myself out of bed in time.

I’d like to get the cards up before I pick up Ann, my Christmas Eve guest. Not that she’d mind if I hadn’t decked a single hall, but I’d like to make the house as spruce as possible for her, for me, and for anyone else who pops in over the holidays. Last year, I did it for John, because I’d promised him I would. It was important to him that I not be mopey over the holidays. As it turned out, I was very mopey indeed, but the house looked as festive as ever.

This second Christmas without him has softer edges, and will, I hope, be easier to take. I’ve had help. Adam lugged the disassembled tree, a battalion of ornaments, and myriad decorations from basement, attic, garage and shed. Talk about knowing where the bodies are buried! Steve and Johnnie came by while he was still here. They discovered what I’ve known for some time. He is indispensable. While the three of us pondered who should risk life and limb to climb the ladder and place the star and the smallest ornaments at the very top of the tree, Adam said, “Give them to me and tell me where you want them.” We watched in awe as he simply reached up and hung them without benefit of ladder or stool. He is almost six foot nine, and still growing.

If the top of the tree is a problem, the very bottom is another, though less risky. I usually have to lie flat on my back to string the lowest branches with lights. This time, Adam just scooted around the tree, lighting it most artfully. Several days later, after I had positioned every last ornament for maximum effect, Adam was back and joined by Leon. An unlikely pair, the hard scrabble street smart survivor and the home schooled Dutch boy, but they get on famously and are a pleasure to watch in action. They made short work of the outside lights and the miles of surge protectors and extension cords required for the fence around the tree and the carnival toys and miniature buildings to be lit or set in motion. Thanks gentlemen.

I’m not expecting many visitors. I’m not throwing the parties we used to. There’s a possibility that John’s young cousin may show up so I can meet his boyfriend. I’d like that a lot, but mostly, it’ll be me and the tree. Looking at it, I remember a much smaller, almost Charlie Brown-ish tree, sparsely ornamented. It was my mother’s, in her tiny apartment, in 1945, just after my parents divorced. A sad tree, but I loved it. It was the best she could do, and she did it for me and for Steve. I sat and stared at it the way I now stare at this overstuffed, crazy happy tree. It’s the best I can do. I do it for you, Mom.