Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Girl with No Pulse

I met a woman recently at a gallery opening in the Uptown Design District of Palm Springs. She was beautiful, smart and charming. Yet I know absolutely nothing about her … just the way she wanted it.

You’ve probably seen women like her in social gatherings and not been able to distinguish her from any of the other guests around. She’s probably beautiful, stylish and very engaging. Women like that are often moneyed, elite and privileged. They can also be eye-candy, attention-getting and spontaneous. But unless you’re really observant, you’d never know what they are really like because you could never get an honest emotion out of them even if their life depended on it.

They’ll make you a master of the monologue and pretend to care because that way they don’t have to talk about themselves. It’s the perfect protective diversion away from anything that even remotely resembles an honest probe into their lives, their feelings, their emotions and their opinions.

These women have mastered the art of the façade and mixed signals. Whether it’s in films, the arts, politics or business, these women have an image to uphold and a façade to hide behind. They’re in your church, your school and at work. They may have even ‘friended’ you on Facebook. But they collect friends like trophies and don’t know the true meaning of the word. 

Women fascinate me. Always have…probably always will. As a writer, it’s great fun to create a new female character especially if she is a protagonist in one of my novels. They can cover a gantlet of emotions and, Myers-Briggs aside; provide a rich tapestry on which to paint my story.

But one kind of woman, more than any other, has always mystified and confused me. It’s the woman with no pulse. I can never tell what brings on this fear of self-disclosure. Is it low self-esteem or are they just ‘emotionally unavailable?’

It’s quite a feat for these women to do that for most of their lives. Yet I know several folks, especially women who have, for the most part, succeeded quite admirably in doing just that. For them, sharing emotions and true feelings is far too dangerous a thing to do.  Their conversations always remain superficial and always directed toward the other person.

With that in mind, I broached the subject of communication in my novel “Love in the A Shau” when the dorm mother is talking to my protagonist, Colleen, about her relationship with Daniel. Colleen is fearful of opening herself up to Daniel for fear of rejection or judgment on his part. The dorm mother reminds Colleen:

“Remember that the only way to achieve true intimacy with another person is to be open and vulnerable.” Then she goes on to explain that without intimacy, their relationship is all very surface and safe and really just a façade to hide behind.

Of course, to research this mysterious phenomena between the sexes I simply googled it. Not surprisingly there was a plethora of articles covering many different aspects of communication between men and women. One of the more poignant was from John M. Grohol, Psy.D. who wrote an article entitled: “Ten Reasons Why You Can’t Say How you Feel.”

In a way, I feel sorry for those folks with ice in their veins and an empty stove for a heart.

If I thought it would matter, I’d like to tell them: “Oh, come on, have a heart.”

Life is so much nicer that way.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

An Evil Wind Blows

One of the local jokes among residents of the Coachella Valley is about the Salton Sea. There have been so many newspaper articles over the years about the fish kills, rank odors and the morbid housing scene along its shores that no one would want to venture down there at any time. 

That’s too bad because the Salton Sea is a fascinating area teaming with wild life and only the occasional bad smell. It’s well worth a trip south from the tonie communities that make up the Palm Springs area. Of course speaking like a native, in the fourteen years that I’ve been coming to Palm Springs, I had never ventured down there myself. Ignorance was bliss and I was blissful…and wrong.

Recently my brother-in-law came to town and wanted to visit the Salton Sea. He’d seen a two hour documentary and was fascinated by California’s largest inland sea. I was a willing participant in our exploration south.

The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake measuring more than 35 miles long and 15 miles wide in spots. It has a surface area of over 380 square miles and sits at 332 feet below sea level. The sea was created back in 1905 as the result of an accidental break in a canal cut into the Colorado River. For 16 months, the river ran unchecked into the lowest area around; the salt basin which became the Salton Sea.

 But it wasn’t the first time that the area had seen a large body of water. Thousands of years earlier, Cahuilla and other California Indians occupied those lands. When they first arrived, the Salton Sink held a much larger body of water – ancient Lake Cahuilla. Geologists estimate the sea has appeared and then disappeared about every 400-500 years.

After the Indians, came the first settlers and railroad men who built a line of the Southern Pacific Railroad through a part of the sea. Nearby agriculture began to grow in what is now the communities of Coachella, Thermal and Mecca.

By the mid-fifties, the Salton Sea had become a major recreational water resort area for Southern California. But two hurricanes; Kathleen in 1976 and Doreen in 1977, caused such wide-spread damage to neighboring farm lands that the runoff caused a major increase in the salinity of the sea. That, in turn, caused major fish-kills and bird-kills and created such a major issue with noxious odors that residential development came to a stop.

Today the salinity level of the sea stands at 45 ppt. Only the tilapia fish is able to survive in such waters. While fishing is still good for the tilapia, fish kills continue to plague the area with their harsh smells.

Along the northeastern edge of the Salton Sea lies one of the world’s most important winter stops for migrating birds traveling the Pacific Flyway. The migration begins in October and by January more than 400 species of migrating birds fill the skies above the sea. By the end of May, the birds have moved on. 

Like any other large natural area in California, there is much more than just the sea in the Salton Sea area. Over the centuries the fragile ecosystem of the area has provided sanctuary to an extremely diverse collection of wildlife and the critical habitats that support and nurture them.  

For example, the sea holds millions of fish that feed the masses of wintering birds, including herons, egrets, brown and white pelicans and kingfishers. In the fall, birds of prey arrive. Among them are peregrine falcons, osprey and ferruginous hawks. 

The fields and wetlands adjacent to the sea support huge flocks of snow geese, ducks, sandhill cranes and California’s largest population of burrowing owls.

Plans to reclaim the sea and turn it back into a major recreational area have begun and stalled dozens of times over the years. But in 1998, Congress finally passed the Salton Sea Reclamation Act directing the Secretary of the Interior to prepare a feasibility study on restoration of the Salton Sea. Slowly but surely, progress is being made to turn the tide in that direction. 

The Salton Sea and its immediate vicinity have many recreational activities to offer, including: camping, bird watching, fishing, hiking, boating; use of personal watercraft; hunting and off-roading.

 It will take years, perhaps decades before the sea might possibly return to its past glory. More feasibility studies will be made, more funding sought and grand schemes hatched. The possibilities for commerce, recreation and development are enormous.

Until then the Salton Sea is a magical place for walk the shoreline, observe the birds and time your visit to avoid the smell. A small price for a wonderful watery treasure in the middle of the desert.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Vision Quest

The Indians got it right…and we don’t give them enough credit for it.

Since the beginning of time, mankind has always had a spiritual relationship with mountains. The first ancients to walk this country left their mark around and on those granite sentinels of the ages. Although much of the mythology and ancient teachings associated with mountains has been lost over time, some examples still exist today.

The Blackfeet have their Chief Mountain. The Potawatomi have their Chequah Bikwaki Mountain. More recognizable is Tse’bit’ai (rock with wings.) We call it Shiprock and it’s located in the state of Arizona.

Anglo culture named this fascinating formation after a 19th century clipper ship because of the peak’s resemblance to a ship. Navajo legend believes that ghosts of the ancients are still buried on top of the mountain and must never be disturbed. Navajo police patrol the area to make sure their sacred mountain is never touched.

The Coachella Valley is surrounded by several mountain chains which in turn have imbued certain groups to seek solace, quiet reflection, exercise and release from their daily lives on their rocky trails. From desert rats to trail runners and even novice hikers, those mountains have been calling to us for centuries.

In Palm Springs, aside from the Tramway cable cars, the only way up the mountains is to walk.  Foot paths have cut through, circumvented and traversed the foothills and mountains around here since the dawn of time. Long before the first whites came into the area, the ancients had been roaming the desert floor and traversing the mountains surrounding the Coachella Valley.

Something magical and almost spiritual can happen during a mountain hike. It’s a challenge to both the physical and mental state of being of its visitors. Taken at face value, it can be an afternoon of hiking, climbing or finger-probing the rough crags and fissures of the mountain face. On a more spiritual level, it’s an assent into the vaulted realm of oxygen deprivation, aching muscles, sweat-drenched clothing and overall mental exhilaration…if your head is in the right place.

Palm Springs has an abundance of hiking trails for both the casual hiker and serious desert rat. A favorite of mine and closer to home is the South Lykken Trail. It’s part of the North and South Lykken Trail that stretches for nine miles and takes about five hours of moderate work to traverse the entire trial. The elevation gain is only about 800 feet and it’s considered a moderate hike by local standards.

I went up there with my kids about five years ago. Both are more athletic than myself. Melanie runs marathons and Brian eats Fourteeners for breakfast. But I held my own and we had a wonderful view at top.

Back in 1972, the original Skyline Trail was renamed the Lykken Trail in honor of Carl Lykken, a Palm Springs pioneer and the town’s first postmaster. The trail crosses the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains and offers spectacular views of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley which stretches toward the eastern horizon.

There’s almost a culture among the small group of folks who hike those foothills and mountains all year round. They endure scorching summer heat and windy overcast winter days. Their skin looks like weathered copper or dried up old parchment. Most of them are skinny as a rail and lithe like an antelope. They’re the desert rats of the higher altitudes.

Following that elite group of desert denizens come another eccentric group of trail runners and new age meditators.  They frequent the mountains like others hang out at Starbucks. Finally come the tourists, snowbirds and occasional weekend explorer (many with families in tow.)

In the spring, the trail is accented with blooming yellow brittlebush and flowering cacti…and at times an abundance of rattlesnakes. These rattlesnakes are usually very difficult to see since their coloration blends in perfectly with the rocks and gravel on the trail. One bite and it’s off to the hospital for several vials of antivenin serum. It’s an expensive proposition at several thousand dollars per vial.

Adding to the excitement of rattlesnakes in spring and fall are slippery rocks, loose gravel and rough footing. It’s not a climb for the faint of heart. Not quite like the Costa Rican rainforest but not that far from it either. (What I Learned fromHowling Monkeys)

It’s as special place as you want it to be. Not exactly like trial running back home in the Minnesota woods but the same kind of methodical, slow easy practiced run that is tougher than most long runs.

The picnic tables at the top are perfect for meditation without worrying about some rattlesnake biting you on the butt. There are scenic vistas that go on forever in a field of quiet that is almost loud. Along with your dreams and meandering what-ifs, it’s a perfect place to escape within your head and do some exploring there.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Second Class Women

It’s ironic that I spend so much time in a place that used to objectify women and treat them as second class citizens. Mind you, not all of the women but certainly many of those who were associated with the iconic images of Palm Springs back in the 40s, 50s and 60s.

As an unabashed woman-supporter and cautious admirer of alpha females the world over, it’s a bit strange for me to read articles about the gushing history of such a place. It was a world where matronly women ruled the country club and their husbands ran the nightclub circuit.

It was the stuff of self-induced legends from the glorification of the Rat Pack to after-hour escapades at Chi-Chi’s nightclub downtown. It moved from the honored cocktail hour to country club swaps. Supermarket tabloids celebrated Hollywood debauchery and starlet moral sacrifices on weekends. Much of our history here is a cliché in and of itself.

Palm Springs was, and ironically still is, trying to paint itself as someplace different from the rest of the world. Someplace where normal behavior isn’t always the norm and that’s OK. It was a wonderful playground in which to base my novel “Debris.”

Like much of the rest of the country, that idiotic perception of women started to change back in the sixties with the publication of such feminine literature as ‘The Feminine Mystic’ and advances by the Women’s Liberation Movement, growing sexual freedom (the pill) and other iconic seismic changes in women’s lives.

I’ve tried to add a bit of that iconic history in my novel “Love in the A Shau” but from several different female perspectives. From Colleen’s expected role in her high society world, to Peggy’s experimentation with love, to Summer’s hippie search for some meaning in her life and finally Claudia’s desperate search for love and affection in all the wrong places.

Fast-forward a couple of decades later and I have a daughter running for state office, a daughter-in-law who is passionate about her children’s education and three granddaughters who represent the future of feminism in all its glory.

Step aside folks, these women are coming through…and they are nothing but class.