Burt Ross: Celebrating Ten Years 

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Burt Ross

By Burt Ross

May 5 marks ten years since I wrote my first column for The Malibu Times. As I noted last week, I am happy to report that I have never missed a deadline, and neither the fire nor illness stopped me from getting my columns in on time. To celebrate my ten years, I have gathered some of my favorite columns for you to enjoy!  

 We All Scream

     Do you ever read a headline and just scratch your head? It happens to me all the time. Earlier this year, a headline in a monthly magazine caught my attention. It asked a question that I did not think needed to be asked, “Is ice cream good for you?” Let me repeat the question lest you think you are in la la land—“Is ice cream good for you?”  Really?

    It seems apparent that the publication has run out of things to write about, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they run other headlines such as “Do people enjoy root canal work?”, “Is it warmer in the sun or in the shade?” or possibly even “Is laughter good for the soul?” If you are having any difficulty answering these questions, please cease reading this column and get help.

     No, I didn’t read the article about whether ice cream is good for you, because I already know the answer, and so do you. Ice cream is not only good for you, it is the essence of happiness. Did you ever see somebody eat ice cream with a frown on their face? I have seen toddlers cry only to be pacified with the slightest taste of ice cream.

      When I had my tonsils removed, I was only allowed to eat ice cream whenever I wanted it and as much as I wanted. That almost made the surgery worthwhile.

     On the opposite end of the age spectrum, when an elderly person is ill and has trouble swallowing, there is nothing like ice cream to go down easily.

     Is there anybody who doesn’t like ice cream? It comes in an infinite number of flavors,and you can even get it without lactose, whatever that is. If you can’t find a flavor you like, my strong suggestion is you get a taste bud transplant.

     The stupid question posed by the magazine can easily be answered by simply shouting, “I scream. You scream. We all scream for ice cream!”

Flexible Ears

     What I love about life is that just when you think you have heard it all, it turns out you most certainly have not.

I was sitting in the barber’s chair when I think I heard my barber say, “You have attractive ears.” Even though I am getting up there in years, my hearing is still pretty good, but when I heard that, I started to question my ability to hear. “Come again,” I asked. Sure enough, she repeated, “You have attractive ears.”

     Now you need to understand that my ears have gone virtually unnoticed for over eight decades except when as a child, my brother teased me and said that my ears were so large, were I to jump off a building and flap my ears, I would fly like Dumbo. That’s the kind of witty repartee that brothers engage in while growing up. Other than that, I don’t recall anybody ever mentioning my ears in any manner whatsoever.

     Before I knew it, a second barber came over to my chair, and she too agreed that I had attractive ears. She touched the top part of one of them (I do have two) and observed, “The top part of your ear is very flexible.” I did not know what to say. I had no idea I have been sporting flexible ears all these years. I did not know that some ears were more flexible than others, nor did I know whether this was a positive or a negative, although my ear flexibility appeared to be a source of considerable admiration for this particular audience.

     Now in my younger days, occasionally somebody might comment on my eyes, but never on my ears. In old age, it has come to this. I could not wait to go home to tell my bride that she was one lucky lady because she had married a man with flexible ears.

Viva La Difference 

     Forgive me my fellow members of the male persuasion, but I feel compelled to state the obvious—women are smarter, more empathetic and caring, and, well how should I put it—just all around better people. Yes, I realize that this is a gross exaggeration with more emphasis on the generalization than on the gross part. Occasionally, we men just have to acknowledge the superiority of the fairer sex.

      Let me illustrate the point I am trying to make. When my bride and I were being driven around Kampala, Uganda, we were stalled in a massive traffic jam. Perhaps this congestion was no worse than what we regularly experience on our various highways in Southern California, but if you are going nowhere on a two lane road, it seems pretty much the same as going nowhere on a seven lane highway.

     We had no idea why traffic had come to a complete stop, but our driver thought the standstill was probably caused by an accident. There are very few stoplights in Uganda’s capital and biggest city, so accidents are commonplace.

     And now we are getting to the meat of the story. Upon hearing that there might have been an accident, my bride immediately said, “Oh, I hope nobody was hurt.” The thought had never entered my mind. I wish I had filtered what came out, but my mind’s censor must have been on holiday also. “I hope we are not late for lunch,” that’s what I coughed up.  And there my friends is la difference!

      It turned out that nobody was hurt. There was no accident, just Uganda’s leader leaving his fortified compound with an army convoy. And no, I wasn’t late for lunch.

Mama Gallo

When people ask me what I enjoyed most about being mayor back East, I don’t hesitate in telling them it was the people I met, and none more than Mama Gallo.

I used to do a lot of door to door campaigning. The cardinal rule was that under no circumstances should the candidate actually enter another person’s home. You are to stand at the front door, meet and greet, shake hands, talk quickly, and head to the next residence. There are thousands of homes in a town like Fort Lee, New Jersey, and you cannot afford to get bogged down.

And then I met Mama Gallo.  She was in her mid-80’s at the time, full of energy, blessed with a thick Italian accent she still had even after being in America for over 60 years. Mama lived with her daughter and her son-in-law. Her husband had been dead for many years.

Mama had a captivating smile and laugh. She asked me if I had eaten lunch, and when I hesitated, she physically pulled me into the dining room, sat me down, and fed me as if I were her grandson. Almost two hours later I left Mama’s and weighed at least three pounds more than when I had arrived.

I never stopped coming back to Mama’s. She became my adopted grandmother, and it was one of life’s pleasures to have known her for over 20 years. Yes, you heard correctly. If you are doing the math accurately, Mama lived to almost 106.

I threw Mama a big party when she turned 90, and a few years later I arranged for her and her daughter to fly to Rome, and then to visit her birthplace in Southern Italy, where long-lost relatives gave her a warm welcome. When she came home, Mama enthusiastically told me “I want to do that again!” So once again Mama returned to Italy, this time enjoying an audience with the Pope.

At her 90th birthday party, I  promised Mama that when she turned 100, I would give her an even bigger party. She made sure I honored my promise. Relatives came from Italy, our Congressman was there also, and Mama was absolutely elegant and spent much of the time on her feet greeting her friends and relatives.

About six months after the party, Mama suffered a severe stroke. She was bedridden for five more years. She could speak but almost always in Italian, with the exception of when we brought our kids to visit her. Delighted, she would happily sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” in English. Then, true to form, Mama would insist that her daughter Terry make sure the kinds had something to eat!

Ten Thousand Steps

     My niece-in-law wears some gadget on her wrist. It supposedly counts the steps she takes during the day. Her goal is to take at least 10,000 steps daily. I can assure you that this is a gadget I will never purchase. If somebody were so stupid as to buy it for me, I would immediately toss it into the trash.

    Why in heaven’s name do I want to know how many steps I take each day? Before you know it, there will be a contraption that reads how many breaths you take during the day, or how many times your heart beats. For all I know, these gadgets might exist already.

       Is there no limit to how much data we need to store? I have enough trouble remembering my passwords and not confusing my zip code with my area code. Do I really need to know how my body functions on a moment to moment basis?

      I gather my niece-in-law, whom I shall call Mary, because that is her name, apparently wants to take as many steps each day as she possibly can. I guess she considers all these steps as exercise. The step counter motivates her in this effort. I have an entirely different perspective, which I surmise does not surprise any of you. (Notice how surmise and surprise rhyme.)

    I do not believe God wants us to measure our movement, or God would have created us with some sort of movement calculator attached to our body. I believe that all this movement is quite unnecessary, and if it were beneficial, then why do we have all those beds, chairs, and sofas? Why do we have cars and airplanes if it were better to walk from LA to New York which is far more than 10,000 steps!

Amenities 

     I love the word “amenities.”  The word implies extras for free. I like extras, and I certainly like extras for free. And so you can understand how happy I was to be called for jury duty with the enticement of amenities.

     Now understand that schlepping to and from Timbuktu each day is not exactly convenient. If you do not know where Timbuktu is, that’s okay. Actually, that’s the point. Timbuktu is somewhere in Africa and not exactly close to Malibu.

     Amenities, depending on what they are, might possibly compensate for a person’s doing one’s civic duty. By this time I trust you are itching to discover what these amenities are which make it worthwhile to serve as a juror, and I will relieve your suspense in the next paragraph.

     For one thing, a sitting juror will be paid $50 per day. No, I did not say $50 an hour. If you spend 8 hours driving to and from Timbuktu and sitting as a juror, that comes to $6.25 an hour or considerably less than half the minimum wage.

       Putting the money aside, and there’s not much of it to put aside, what are the other amenities? For one thing, each and every juror will be given access at the appropriate time to more than one vending machine. Yes, you heard it here first —access to multiple  vending machines. My mouth is watering just in anticipation.

      And then the piece de resistance! Fasten your seat belts! The government will provide you with restrooms. Hallelujah! Restrooms—the best amenity ever.

Enough With The Texting 

     I’ve had it with texting. My thumbs are tired and threatening to go on strike. What happened to the good old telephone call? If we are not now isolated enough with shopping online, watching movies online, and now working remotely, we have come to forsake a connecting phone call for an impersonal text. We are beginning to communicate with emojis and texts as if the fewer words said, the better. We are in telegram mode.

     Now don’t get me wrong. There are times when a simple text is warranted. You are running ten minutes late to an appointment, and you simply text, “I’m running ten minutes late. Sorry.” This expression does not require a phone call. But if your friend’s father died, “How are you feeling?” is not an appropriate text. The moment a text requires a personal response or begs for a detailed explanation, a call is what is needed.

     I think we sometimes forget how much our voice is part of our identity, actually as much as our face is. If any of my friends or family who have passed on were to call me today (no small miracle), I would immediately recognize their voice, no matter how many years it has been since they were among the living.

     When I want to connect with somebody I care about, I call them. I will leave the texting to the millennials or whatever they now call the young ones.

 Counting Backwards

     Years ago, back in the “old country” of New Jersey, my bride and I met at a restaurant about ten minutes from our home. We were coming from two different places, so we arrived in two different cars.

      I had a margarita on ice with salt before dinner and then a couple of glasses of wine during the meal. When we were finished, my bride asked for my car keys. “Why?” I asked. She explained that I had too much to drink, and she would drive us home, and I could pick up the car the following day.

     A proud member of the male tribe, I protested. I explained to her that I had driven over a million miles in my day, and I could certainly drive a few minutes without killing anybody.

    Anybody who knows my bride knows that she would not be deterred by my explanation. She simply said, “Count backwards by seven from 100.” I laughed to myself. This gal is going to be embarrassed when I display my mathematical skills.

    I commenced, “100, 93, 86.”  I continued with increased confidence, “79, 72.” I recited these numbers with a bit of a smirk on my face. How dare my bride question my sobriety.

   And then something awful happened. After I had gone from 79 to 72, I then said, “62, 48.” I could tell that I was a bit off by the look on my bride’s face. Apparently 62 was not seven less than 72, and 48 was not seven less than 62.

     There was no way I could bluff my way out of this. I reached into my pants pocket and gave my car keys to my bride.

Gaining Weight 

     I am becoming obsessed with gaining weight, and I continue to struggle to combat this insidious problem.

     Each morning I weigh myself which normally means starting the day on a sour note. When I weigh myself, I try sucking my stomach in, but that does not seem to fool the scale, not even one little bit. By the way, when somebody takes a photo of me, I also suck in my stomach, which appears more successful than trying to trick the scale.

     I weigh myself in the morning because I weigh at least a couple of pounds less than I do before I go to bed. (I don’t know why since I really don’t think I burn up many calories while sleeping.) And then I had my eureka moment! If I sleep for, let’s say, seven or eight hours and lose two pounds, then why not simply stay in bed?

      Yes, it actually worked—the longer I stayed in bed, the more weight I lost. The problems with this strategy, commonly known as fasting, are twofold. For one thing, as the time wore on, I became increasingly hungry. Secondly, I was getting bored. Hungry and bored, I arose from my bed and started to eat. You can’t win.

     I know the most effective way to lose weight is to eat less and to eat healthy. Frankly, I don’t like eating less, and I certainly don’t like eating healthy. I know people suggest exercise, but unless I do something like running the marathon, which is definitely not about to happen, I won’t lose any weight.

    I  ride a stationary bike for 25 minutes each day. However, I really believe that if I go into a donut store, and simply take a whiff of the donuts without even eating one, I take in more calories than I burn on my stationary bike.

      I have not come up with a solution to this problem, but when I find it, I’ll be sure to let you know.

NEW***

A Real Book

     A while back, a good friend of mine bought me a gift certificate for Barnes and Noble. As I entered the relatively empty store in Thousand Oaks, I realized that I had not bought nor read a “real” book in a long time. I like to read, but years ago my bride bought me a Kindle, and ever since then I read books on this contraption.

    The kindle has many advantages compared to a real book. For one thing, you don’t have to leave the comfort or discomfort of your home to buy a book. You push a couple of buttons on your Kindle, and voila, the book is ready for you to read in a matter of seconds. You can transport an entire library when you go on a trip with virtually no weight added. You can adjust the font to your liking rather than having to live with the typeset preferred by the publisher. There are other advantages also, but there are also reasons to buy a real book.

      I looked around the Barnes and Noble store, but I knew what I wanted to buy before I got there. I stocked up on books by David Sedaris, because with all the bad news out there, I desperately wanted to laugh.

     I went home with my newly purchased books, sat down in a comfortable chair, and held one of the books in my hand. It brought back a lifetime of reading. The paper felt good in my hands. As I started reading, I noticed that I could easily see what page I was on and where in the book I was. Every time I picked up the book I could see the name of the bookand its author on the cover, unlike the Kindle which returns you to the last page you were reading. Often when I am reading on a Kindle, I forget the name of the book or its author, and don’t have the cover to refer to easily.

     But when you read both from the kindle and a real book, life can get interesting. I was reading David Sedaris’ “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” when I came upon a word which was new to me. The word “armature” if taken literally should mean an old arm, but that made no sense in the context of the paragraph, and so I did what I always do when I want to look up the definition of a word on my Kindle. I pushed down on the word and nothing happened. I pushed down again and finally realized that pushing down on a word printed on paper would produce zilch other than an indented page.

    I looked up the word “armature” on my computer, and the definitions I came up with are, “the rotating coil or coils of a dynamo or electric motor” or “a metal framework on which a sculpture is molded with clay or similar material.” Sometimes, looking up a word is not worth the effort.

   I guess I will continue to read real books as well as books on my Kindle, and I will enjoy the benefits of each.