Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Desert Bloom

It doesn’t happen very often here in the desert. In fact, desert bloom is as rare as the heavy rains that precede it. This season a very active weather pattern was the final catalyst for ending a seven year drought that California has experienced.

After almost twenty years on and off in the desert, I’ve probably experienced desert bloom just three or four times. It’s a rarity that only comes after over-flowing arroyos, street closures, flooded roadways and an impassible north end of town blanket the city.

It only lasts a relatively short period of time, four or five weeks max, and then the brown returns. But when it’s here, residents are reminded that the brown, sun-scorched, seemingly dead vegetation all around us is simply dormant until the next rainfall comes along. In full bloom the desert plants are a wonderful kaleidoscope of color and texture and brilliance.

It doesn’t happen often but when desert bloom comes to the Coachella Valley and our surrounding mountains, it’s well worth the long wait.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Mexico, 1965

It was an escape across the border back when it was still safe to grab a southbound Greyhound, roam the countryside as a white guy, mix with the locals, eat their food, and drink their booze. Of course, I’d been warned about drinking the water, staying out of local bars and off remote beaches at night. In fact, anything an errant GI might want to do, I was warned not to. Mexico could be hot in more ways than one.

Back in ‘65, the trip was a wonderful distraction from being stuck in Fort Polk, Louisiana in the middle of summer. It was a two week pass from military confinement and promised all of its imagined freedom of the road. Past experiences had taught me never again to go back to Minnesota while on leave. The pain of returning to military life again wasn’t worth it.  That brief taste of freedom was something I couldn’t handle it emotionally or psychologically. The next time I ventured home it would be for good. So instead, Mexico beckoned me.

I picked up a Trailways Bus outside of base and took it down to the Texas border. From there we raced our Greyhound bus all the way down to Mexico City. Narrow roads and loose gravel didn’t stop our insane driver from passing other buses all the way down to the nation’s capital. A refusal by the passengers to close the windows meant there was no air conditioning all the way into town. Screaming kids, grumpy grandparents, and strange looking men kept me awake the whole trip.

In 1965, Mexico was like a third world country just slowly beginning to climb out of its centuries of poverty, corrupt governments, and a lack of economic steps for the masses.

Poverty was a way of life. Drug cartels hadn’t taken over the countryside yet. Marijuana was the worst drug around and there was no Fontaur to explode the tourism industry.

Parts of the countryside were the ‘wild west’ all over again. In the small villages, the rest stop was a quick jaunt to some decrepit toilet, brushing off the begging kids along the way and back on the bus again.

While the countryside seemed mired in poverty and some kind of medieval time warp, Mexico City proved a wonderful respite of old colonial buildings, narrow cobblestone streets and peasants kneel-walking in pilgrimages to the central cathedral in the main plaza.  Nearby the campus of the University of Mexico City was a respite from the craziness of the metropolitan area. Among the many monuments and plazas the elite of Mexican society gathered and rose above the masses. Outside of town, ancient pyramids drew inspiration for the flocks of tourists that roamed their sacred grounds.

I spent a week wandering the city to places where I dared roam only in the daylight. There was a Grey Line tour that took me further out of town and then on to Acapulco and a harbor cruise.

In that growing seaside tourist town, I hooked up with a wandering group of American kids like myself. We hung out at the beach. We drank beer all day and told tall tales about college back home. They worried about the draft and I laughed at them. I was careful about not drinking the water then like an idiot I ordered a Pepsi and it came with ice. Ten minutes later I was trapped in a toilet for hours. Lesson learned.

I don’t remember much about the bus ride back to base. It had been two weeks awash with bad food, good beer and over-imagined conversations that only hinted of romance with the opposite sex. I harbored lingering envy for my new-found friends who were heading back to campus. But held on to hope for me with only six months left of olive drab and khaki.

Not that long afterwards, I got transferred to Fort Lee, Virginia and an entirely different kind of lifestyle.

But that’s another blog entirely.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Some Things Never Change

There’s an old saying that goes something like ‘Some Things never Change.’ It’s a cliché that assumes the past will repeat itself, and current events are likely to come around again in the near future. Seasonal visitors to the Coachella Valley often pack this assumption with them as they plan out their winter vacations here. This desert playground and its inherent lifestyle is planned, probable and predictable.  Except this season, it was different for them and for us.

In fact, seasons like routines and the people who follow them do change, evolve, and morph into other experiences given enough time. It happened this season and it started with the weather.

While last year’s winter temperatures averaged about ten degrees warmer than normal, this year’s temps hovered about ten degrees below the norm. The Weather Service blamed it on very active weather patterns. Translated, the jet streams were going crazy and the desert went cold. Granted, one has to be very careful complaining about a daytime temp in the mid-sixties when many other parts of the country are suffering with below zero temperatures and snow cyclones. Nevertheless, it wasn’t the old desert like in years past.

Then on Valentine’s Day, the Coachella Valley experienced three and a half inches of rain in one afternoon. The average rain fall for the entire year is about five inches. There was flooding in all the arroyos and many of the major roadways were impassible.

In addition, there were subtle changes going on all around us. The old thrift stores, long a mecca for deals of every type, had changed their business strategies and approach. They were no longer the bargain bins they once were. There were also fewer estate and garage sales, no real reason why.

Downtown Palm Springs was finally filling in and with it came a new onslaught of tourists and travelers bent on experiencing the Palm Springs lifestyle. There were a couple of disappointing shows at our top-notch venue, the MaCallum Theater.

Like a lot of old friends and acquaintances here, Sharon and I tried to continue our old routine of work and play but it was different this time around. Several seasonal couples had moved on to other pastures and no longer spent winters in the desert. A few older friends had passed away. New relationships had been formed or left to wither away through an absence of communication. The yearlong residents had evolved with the seasons and no longer focused just on ‘the season’ to fill their days and nights. The old pattern of weekly dinner parties, card games and bunco was no longer the order of the day for them.

In past seasons Sharon and I have found our daily routine after a pretty short while here. Sharon used to go swimming almost every day with the other mermaids at a hotel nearby. Now the air temps made swimming a daily challenge for the mermaids. Then their hotel decided not to heat its pool in January and February while it underwent repairs. The water temp dropped to the 50s and the mermaids dropped out, waiting for warmer temps to arrive. It was a long two-month wait.

In years past, Sharon had taken a number of art classes in local venues. Now she found that new ones weren’t being offered. Her garage studio wasn’t much in use since the air temp was often too cold for the paints to dry properly.  Busy schedules and colder temperatures hindered her painting pals from coming over and group painting as they had in seasons past.

I used to sequester myself in my office and work on my ‘novel in progress’ each morning. Afternoons were taken up by working out at the local gym, occasional library visits, Palm Springs Writers Guild critique groups and an assortment of other activities. But even those daily activities had gradually morphed into other daily routines. Writing novels had been replaced with plays and marketing had taken on new prominence with my works.

My first timid tip-toe into local theater was beginning to grow into larger steps in that direction. My writing had expanded to include more complicated plays and screenwriting. There was a sense of urgency to reach out to newer theatrical venues locally and back home.

Script2Stage proved the perfect venue for my newest play ‘Polly’s Amorous Adventures’ and Sharon helped fill the house for both performances. Stage managing there brought new insights into other plays and their tone and structure. It was like a graduate course in playwriting.

Local writing groups seemed stuck in the past and lost some of their relevancy to me. I moved past their stayed agenda as my own list of projects grew. A new writing routine was becoming solidly in place. The season was rushing by.

After numerous distractions, I found myself with only nine weeks left in the desert. Suddenly there were two new plays to write and three more scripts to tighten up. Preparations had begun for my scheduled play ‘The Last Sentinel’ to be performed in Minnesota in August. There were several prospective venues in the Twin Cities to explore for my past plays.

Then the Coachella Valley for next season was starting to look promising. There would be new shows at the McCullum, new hiking trails to explore, newfound friends, and neighbors who were already talking about next season’s events and gatherings.

It’ll be different next time and yet so much will remain the same. More to see. More to do. More to accomplish. It’ll be watching the constantly shifting sands of time while running out the clock on life in the desert.