Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Paradise in Wrinkles and Cream

The ‘season’ has begun in Palm Springs. For roughly six months out of the year, snowbirds and tourists and a plethora of visitors gather to celebrate the warm desert climate, wonderful mountain vistas and a myriad of outdoor activities. They bring with them their suntan lotion, wrinkle cream and youthful dreams of a hedonistic nature. 

The population in the Coachella Valley swells by two-thirds during ‘the season.’ Hotels start to fill up, especially on weekends and for special events. Restaurants start demanding reservations again. Last year, a couple of motels near us charged $650.00 per night for the Coachella Music Festival.

It means local theater comes back alive. The museums always have new exhibits and stimulating programs. Musical venues flourish and special events pepper each weekend.

Most of the newbees or returnees come to avoid the harsh Canadian winters or arctic blasts blowing off the frozen Midwestern tundra. Some come to play golf. Some come to sleep in. Some come to wrap themselves in a new persona. This is often the case around the holidays when your typical family arrives with kids in tow. Once off the tarmac, the grandparents have the kids and the couples begin to swing - figuratively speaking.

Caustic year-round natives call it the “Palm Springs state of mind.” It’s a throw back to that Hollywood fantasy era where the hard liquor cocktail hour began at 4:00, women were treated like second class objects, everyone smoked and most wanted to emulate a hedonistic lifestyle-if only in their minds. In reality, it was a carefully crafted facade churned out by Hollywood tabloids for the gullible masses of tourists.

Palm Springs 1945

 Middle-age men seem particularly susceptible to this affliction. You see them in the hotel bars and on the golf course, acting as if this was their new lifestyle…forget the wife and kids at home. Vegas has little on this place for creating the tempting setting for such foolish behavior.
The irony, of course, is that old Palm Springs died a long time ago. It began its slow agonizing slide to complacency back in the late 60’s when the wise city fathers didn’t want any more development. Their actions or inactions pushed new developments down valley to the gated communities of Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert. It continued with the city’s outdated fashion mall and desperate clinging to old ideas and fading memories of its self-imposed glorious past.

Sonny Bono stopped the slide back in the 1970s and other mayors have since sought to define and then redefine what Palm Springs is supposed to be all about. There seem to be two schools of thought here. Both parties are sincere and fervent in their zeal. 

Palm Springs 1938

Palm Springs 1948

The old guard, which consists mainly of old time residents, wants to keep Palm Springs a little village the way they imagined it was back in the 1950’s. They don’t want new development coming in and changing what they perceive to be the small town feel of Palm Springs. 

But new development elsewhere has put enormous pressure on the city fathers to find a place, a brand and an image for Palm Springs that fits today’s modern standards for urban growth.

Despite the wishes of the traditionalists (old guard), Palm Springs is going through a metamorphosis of sorts. Despite the walk of the stars down Palm Canyon Drive and some of the other fading vestiges of old Hollywood, memories of that period in Hollywood history are fast fading among the younger crowds now flocking to the valley. 

Now there is a new approach among the local progressives of blending the best of old Palm Springs with the newest development trends. These folks feel that Palm Springs must adapt with the times if the city is going to grow and prosper.

                                                            Palm Springs Measure J Website

Measure J was the catalyst for just that growth. Measure J is a dedicated local revenue measure (tax) passed by voters in November 8th of 201. Its goal is to maintain local community services and revitalize downtown Palm Springs. It increased the local sales and use tax by 1%.  For all intents and purposes, Measure J seems to be justifying all of its hype. It has pumped new monies into the economy and shown clear concrete improvements around town.

And hype begets hype when it comes to building up a steady stream of favorable comments about the city and its environs. New restaurants and shops are opening. New hotels or refurbished ones are coming on line. Along with a strong post-recession rebound, there seems to be a definite movement in the right economic direction.

Interestingly enough, one of the first groups to rediscover the allure of Palm Springs were the post-hippies and bohemians of the New Age. West coast hipsters decided that Palm Springs suited their taste for art and design and open-mindedness. Having the Coachella Festival down the valley didn’t hurt the city’s image among the younger set either. Nor did the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Modernism Week, Stagecoach Music Festival, El Paseo, Indian Canyons, Sunnylands, the Aerial Tramway, over 48 sanctioned golf courses and a bazillion swimming pools.

As I mentioned in my blog Christmas Redux, these hipsters have taken a little different approach than my hippies of the sixties but their intent is still the same. 

Palm Springs is an open-minded town that pretty much lets everyone do their own thing. Even if it means acting silly on vacation and indulging in the more pleasurable things in life. But isn’t that what our short time on this earth should be about?

...Every once in a while.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

My Third Place is Hide and Seek

Communal gathering spots have never held much interest for me. I don’t find inspiration in crowded coffee shops or large arenas. Some would argue that these social gathering spots are the anchor of community life and as such facilitate and foster interpersonal interaction and group consensus. That may be true for the majority of folks but not all of us.

Aside from home (often referred to as one’s first place and the workplace (often referred to as the second place), many folks have a third place or third space for their social gatherings. It’s where they go to socialize among like-minded souls of a similar bent. But my experience has been that group mindset can be wrong as often as it is right. Like-minded souls can still foster perpetuate group-think no matter the logic. 

I’ve always been suspicious of going with the flow if for no other reason than the fact that alternate views can often be so much more stimulating. Or perhaps I just chose to make up my own mind.

My prejudice toward the ‘old men at the coffee shop’ is legendary. I’ve come to see those old codgers as relics well past their prime who seem to be unhappy with anything and everything around them. They talk ‘at’ one another but never ‘to’ one another. They listen only to the extent that they are waiting for a chance to butt in. There are seldom any new ideas exchanged. It’s just the same old same old rehashed and regurgitated back out again. This may not be a fair criticism but I have yet to find any example to prove me wrong. 

Probably my greatest criticism against group-think is the absence of fresh thoughts and ideas. I need a third place to find my inspiration. What I keep looking for are those pockets of time and place that lend themselves to creativity. 

Many folks think that creativity comes from chaining oneself to their desk and just focusing on the computer screen until inspiration hits. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s moments like that when you need to escape your present reality and create a new one. You need to do anything and everything to distract yourself from the task ahead. By unchaining your mind from the restraint of forced thought, you unleash your subconscious powers. Einstein is quoted as saying that “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.”

Jonah Lehrer, who was recently fired from the New Yorker for making up quotes from Bob Dylan, has nevertheless written an interesting book entitled: “Imagine: How Creativity Works.”

In his book, Lehrer describes how Dylan, being burnt out in his role as political folk music icon, put away his guitar and retreated to upstate New York to paint and write. Yet within a short period of time, he found that he couldn’t stop writing lyrics, churning out 25 pages of lyrics in a short period of time.

Dylan’s moment of insight came out of the blue when he least expected it. Yet I would argue that, in fact, he had set himself up for something new to happen simply by stepping away from the old familiar and exposing himself to something new. 

For myself, it might be on a long distance run, a multi-city bike tour, Hiking the canyons around Palm Springs, a quiet coffee shop or my own morning coffee ritual on the patio. It might even be at the library reading magazines or looking at a picture book.

My ‘third place’ is that neutral ground where I can get away from my roles at home, with the kids, the grandkids, friends and associates and just get to be myself. It is a state of mind located almost anywhere but the old familiar. It can be the high desert, the ocean or the mountains surrounding Palm Springs. Anyplace I can hunker down with my reading or writing material.

It’s that cauldron of unexplainable unexpected elements that come together and become a recipe for creative thought. More often than not, it’s totally unplanned. It might be a song I’ve heard for umpteen times but all of a sudden an image appears in my minds-eye and a story is suddenly born.

Fortunately, inspiration can be found anywhere and everywhere my mind finds it. It’s not the shell but the contents that fascinates me the most. It’s anyplace I can explore, investigate, probe or visit that becomes ripe for creative interpretation. It can often be in the most vapid, esoteric works of art. The non-digital, unplugged works of art fascinate me the most. Over time I’ve come to realize that my ‘third place’ can be found in books and film and music. More often than not, literature of almost any kind takes precedence of other forms of stimulation.

But the best place for my imagination to run wild with my grandchildren. Unencumbered by monetary and social restraints, we’re free to pretend to our hearts content. I’m perfectly adapted to such silliness as I proudly attested to in RidingShotgun with Peter Pan. The old adage of ‘acting your age’ doesn’t apply here.

I’ve engaged with my grandchildren here and in Colorado in silly, nonsensical play of every kind. We’ve flown to the moon and chased pirates across the living room floor. We’ve hidden under a blanket and told scary stories. We’ve gone snipe-hunting on a golf course at night and heard bears and lions and elephants all around us. We’ve chased sharks around the pool and dove for treasure lying on the bottom there. We’ve engaged in a hundred thousand silly unremarkable exercises of horse-play and pretend skits that expanded and grew and nurtured and matured their imagination when they weren’t looking. 

Creativity came under a blanket of stars and on the top of the San Jacinto’s. It came in a handful of squished play dough and scratched across a piece of paper. It came anytime and every time silliness and ‘why not’ was left free to run with wild abandon. 

We went day-dreaming in the middle of the day and found inspiration there. Tall tales kept bursting forth from the little people there. It set my mind to wondering…

And even an old codger can learn from the most uninhibited of us all.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

I Found Susan's House

Ever since I posted one of my first blogs entitled: “Looking for Susan’s House,” I’ve been thinking about that early morning bike ride and my quest to find Susan’s place. The search was as much revisiting my past after forty-four years as it was finding an old rundown duplex in a sketchy part of town. 

The feedback to that initial blog was very positive. It almost felt as if my readers had also heard the same Sirens call as I did in that first blog. Of course, I have no idea what I would have said if I ever met Susan again.

“Hello, Susan, how are you? I’ve had a good life…I hope you have too.” 

No, I think I would worry about her answer. As resilient as she was and as much as attitudes were changing back then, it was still a tough road for many immigrants and Hispanics to travel.

So this fall, I returned to my meandering route through that neighborhood bordering the University of Minnesota. It was just part of a much larger circuitous bike ride that particular morning. There are still a lot of good memories lingering back there in the hood even after all these years.  Once there, I thought I’d give my search for Susan’s house one more try.

I was about to give up my search for a second time when I rode past an old red brick row house and immediately recognized it as the spot where I used to turn left to go to Susan’s house. Even after forty plus years, the memory of that trail marker still stood out like a homing beacon. Now I knew exactly where Susan’s house was.     

Only it wasn’t.

A large apartment building now took up a good part of her old block. Not surprisingly, at some point back in time, a developer had come along and put up an apartment building where Susan’s house used to stand. Any sign of Susan’s home or her neighbor’s homes had been erased forever. 

 While I didn’t find Susan’s house, I did find something more profound. Just as Susan’s house had disappeared under the guise of progress and development, so too had most of the other vestiges of my existence back in that neighborhood. Everywhere I rode, the old buildings were gone or had been refurbished into something else.

From my first apartment to my first job, my first second (volunteer) job and so forth, the old familiar was now gone. Even the venerable village of Dinky town, famed for Bob Dylan’s coffee house start, fraternity panty raids and late night romantic liaisons had morphed into something totally different.

Dinkytown (c. 1960s)

Dinkytown (c. 1970s)

What had been once a rundown artistic bohemian neighborhood had slowly evolved into a sad morass of fast food chains, a U of M t-shirt shop, a drug store turned fu-fu restaurant and a poor excuse for a coffee shop (c. 2013). 

 Even more development is now threatening to wipe out the last remaining vestiges of edgy urban living. All in the name of progress.

  I still have a great fondness for my first apartment building. That whole period in my life was really a preamble for things to come from career choices, traveling, friendships, writing and finally love and family. The building, like my apartment inside, was nothing to brag about but it provided me a place to sleep, a place to write and a place to experience life on so many different levels.

 My unit on the second floor of that rundown relic had been carved out of a once spacious master bedroom. One hundred years earlier the building had probably been someone’s elegant home on University Avenue. By the time I moved in, it was a chopped-up, divided, subdivided and probably illegal set of apartments for whoever could afford the cheap rent. 

 There was a group of Paki’s downstairs. They were all graduate students who were probably as suspicious of me as I was of them. I hadn’t been educated on race relations back then and that probably didn’t help my cautious nature either. I don’t know who lived on the other side of my living room wall but the nighttime noises indicated it was either Charley Harper or one of his protégés. The front of the building housed a strange assortment of folks who came and went with such regularly they might have been renting by the evening or weekend. 



The overall mantra of the place seemed to be “Say Hi,” don’t ask questions and ignore what’s going on unless you think the place might burn down. In retrospect, I think I was nuts to live in such a dump but it suited my lifestyle back then and my frame of mind. I thought of my place as bohemian chic. Visitors might have had a different impression. Shortly after I moved out, they tore the building down and left it an empty field.

Having found the spot where Susan and I once sat on her creaky front porch and waxed philosophically about life and love and the future, I thought I would venture back on campus and find the spot of my first job after college and Europe. It was working as a writer for the Minnesota Department of Public Health. What a surprise, that too was gone. The old building overlooking the Mississippi is black dirt now and the operation has moved to the other side of campus.

Site of old Public Health Building

New Public Health Building

 My boss was Mrs. Ford. She was a warm-hearted cranky old woman who smoked unfiltered camels like a sailor and loved to talk about the good old days when her husband, a college professor and department head, was the big man on campus. Sadly for Marie, those days had long since passed and so she spent most of her waking hours reminiscing about campus events where she was one of the star attractions. She also wasn’t too fond of young men who had mustaches and sported longish hair. We got along well because I listen to her stories and she was always trying to make me over. 

The Newman Center on campus was the quasi-hippie hangout and folk mass center for those of us struggling with the residue of twelve years of Catholic education. We were a motley collection of wandering minds that were just starting to ask a lot of questions that the high-ups couldn’t or wouldn’t answer. 

 At mass, I was so cool in my pressed jeans, white turtle neck sweater, herringbone sport coat and love beads that Susan gave me. It was a little bit hippie, a little bit chic and thorough mod. The camaraderie, warmth and genuine friendship we felt at the coffee clutch after mass was some-thing I’ve never experienced in another Catholic setting ever again.

There was someone else in my life at that time. Someone who had captured my imagination, my mind, my sexuality and my sensuality. Rainbow images filled my mind whenever I heard her name. It was ‘Suzanne’ who took me down to her place by the river. But she had already been claimed by this Canadian named Cohen. So I and the others paid tribute to her every Sunday at mass and dreamt wonderful dreams about that mysterious woman. To this day, that song can make my toes curl. Another classic by Cohen ‘Hallelujah’ does the same thing to me.

New Newman Center
 It didn’t take long for the folk mass to gain in popularity before the archdiocese decided to move the entire operation off campus. With that move, they lost whatever magic they had in attracting those cafeteria Catholics like myself. It was never the same after that.

After a couple of months on at the Public Health Department, I ventured down Como Avenue to the studios of KTCA; Twin Cities public television. They weren’t hiring at the time but they were glad to use my volunteer services in the evenings. That worked for me. I learned the craft of television from the ground up. It became my first real job where I never felt like I was working and it was where I met my future wife. 

Old KTCA Television Station

TPT Television Station
 That building is now another local station and Twin Cities Community Television which became Twin Cities Public Television which became KTCA which finally morphed into TPT moved to their new building in downtown Saint Paul back in the late 80’s.

As significant as that old television building was in my life, even more prominent was a bar on the West Bank. That den of loud music, sweet-smelling haze and questionable characters figured prominently in my novel “Love in the A Shau.” On the surface the Triangle Bar was a rundown three-two bar with mediocre music, cheap beer and loud crowds that came to see, be seen and smoke a joint in the corner.

Triangle Bar (c. 1960s)

Former Triangle Bar Building today (c. 2013)

During its heyday, the Triangle Bar was the flash point for the burgeoning music scene centered on the West Bank. Since they didn’t card, the bar attracted a lot of U of M students. I’m guessing the term ‘jail bait’ was first coined there. Not me, I either went there alone or with Susan.

But beyond the surface of that melting pot of hippies, junkies, college drop-outs, undercover cops and other assorted flotsam from civilization, came a wonderful collection of lost souls and seekers. Every night brought another stimulating conversation with some colorful character who usually gave a false last name, lied about their background but presented fascinating suppositions on life and love and war and college and our future in general. It was a true college education outside of the classroom. The bar died in the 70’s along with the whole hippie scene.

That period in my life which I’ve euphemistically labeled my lost years encompassed a lot of lost real estate, friends who have come and gone, several women I truly cared about and ultimately marriage and a lifestyle that has sustained and nurtured me for many years. The loss of those buildings was probably the most visible manifestation of my own change and evolution
I never really had a goal in seeking out Susan’s house for a second time. It was just an excuse for exercise and a nostalgic trip back in time. It’s always interesting to wander back to that neighbor-hood north of Dinky Town and see the continuing changes there. But, like attending the Minnesota State Fair, traveling back there once every ten or fifteen years is just about right. 

Deep down, I never really expected to find anyone or anything there from my past.  Still, I’ve got a couple of pictures, fragmented memories and just enough foolishness left in me to think of it as a great period in my life. A time when I was young and dumb and poor. What better ingredients to fertilize the mind of an aging writer. 

Oh, the stories I could tell.