Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Caring for the Hand that Bites You

I mean no disrespect to the infamous ‘Greatest Generation.’ Their accomplishments on the planet are well documented and their place in American history unquestioned. But for all their great exploits there seems to be a certain number of them who have not taken to old age very well. 
As the average age for the elderly grows, their care and support has fallen primarily on the shoulders of their boomer children. We’ve become the sandwich generation where on one hand we have grandchildren to hover over while at the same time, our own parents increasingly demand more of our attention. 

Adding to these new responsibilities is often the challenge of dealing with elderly parents who aren’t able or willing to accept the reality of their situation. Somehow they feel cheated out of their life and take their frustrations out on their own adult children. Over the last several years, I’ve run into more than a couple of friends who are facing just such a dilemma in their lives. They’ve been forced to bear the brunt of their parent’s frustration and resentment about losing their independence, moving out of their home and their ability to control the final direction of their lives.

But this ‘angry at life’ phenomena isn’t just reserved for the elderly. Over the years I’ve unfortunately run into more than a fair number of these curmudgeons who somehow feel cheated out of what life has handed them. 

They’re not just in the nursing homes or assisted living facilities. They hang out at the ‘old timers’ coffee shop and the American Legion. They might be a neighbor who doesn’t want kids running across his lawn or complains when the newspaper isn’t on his front steps on time. I have one of those next door to me right now.

Those ‘mad at life’ disgruntled individuals were on my paper route back in 1955 and their descendants are probably on the same street today. I worked for one in the warehouse during the summer of ‘61 and had a foreman like that in a factory during the next summer. 

My sister and I were lucky. Even at 104, my stepfather never lost his appreciation for the simple things in life like fishing, card-playing and dancing with my mother. My mother fell under the spell of ‘why is this happening to me’ near the end of her life but overall, she continued staying busy as all good Germans were taught to do…even near the end.

I can think of one other exception. 

The other exception is the parents of a friend of mine. They’re both in their mid-eighties, have travel extensively and still baby-sit their great-grandchildren. They love playing any kind of board games and are the highlight of any party. 

I wish I knew what it was that propels some parents to embrace their twilight years with gracious acceptance while others hold on to past dreams and illusions and curse the process of ‘getting old.’ They seem to be mad at the world and so inexplicably they lash out at those closest to them; often it’s their children who only want to help them in their twilight years. It forces their care-givers to choose between letting them make their own life decisions or stepping in when they feel their parents can’t make those basic decisions anymore.

Not surprisingly, I have to believe so much of it originates in their head. My simple theory is based on nothing more than a loose analysis of other folks my age dealing with this issue. I’ve concluded that it is, to a great degree, a generational thing. I think the ‘greatest generation’ generally speaking didn’t interact with their children the same way we do with ours. They didn’t talk as candidly to them as we do nor were they able to see their own children as adults but rather they somehow kept them mentally in that ‘you’re my kid and I’m still your parent’ stage. 

Google is replete with many articles dealing with this subject. Some of them are thoughtful and insightful. Others are merely selling products and services. A couple of good ones are

My wife and I now find ourselves part of that sandwich generation. We want to spend as much time as we can with our grandchildren but feel strong obligations to help out our parents. Watching one’s parents lose their independence is one of the most challenging realities we must face as our parents age.

So in the end, until the end, we do what we have to do. We accept the good days and bad ones. We listen to the same stories over and over again. We bear the brunt of their complaining and criticism and we love them as much as we can. That’s what children are supposed to do for their parents. And appreciated or not, it’s what we can take to our own grave. That we cared when we should have and we did the best we could.

You can’t ask any more from an adult child.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Closing Windows


There’s a wonderful song by the Beatles entitled ‘In My Life’ off the Rubber Soul album. I used it in a documentary I produced for my son’s trip around the world while he was in college. For me it’s more than just a melodic, a bit sappy cultural cruise back in time. It aptly paints a picture of those moments in our lives when windows of opportunity open and engulf us in a title wave of experiences before closing and never reappearing again.

I’m not talking about the rampant imaginative wanderings of youth. I’ve had plenty of those fade in and out of my mind; from circling the globe in a tramp steamer to living in Europe to hanging out with hippies on the West Bank. Some dreams met fulfillment while others opened briefly like a window shade only to shut again as time and maturity took its toll.

I thought about that when I came across some old photos of a bike trip I took; two in fact, many years ago. One alone and one with my son. About the same time I came across an old photo of downtown St. Paul and reflected on my life there while in grade school. Both were windows of my life that are closed now....never to reopen again.

The first photo was taken in downtown Saint Paul around 1959.  It was a time when ‘Desolation Row’ would have been considered a kind description for the core of the city. I was in high school by then after having spent eight years taking a bus downtown to attend grade school there. I wasn’t even aware of the city’s slow demise as first ring suburbs began sucking the marrow of life out of the town.

                                                Old St. Paul Group on Facebook

Reopening windows by way of old photos can bring on a plethora of memories; both good and bad. I’ve always believed there can be joy in visits back home if you’re in a better place now. A friend recently turned me on to a new community of interest on Facebook called ‘Old Saint Paul.’ Members post lots of pictures of old St. Paul, curio items and other memorabilia from the area. For me it’s almost as if a memory window is opening and closing each time I come across another one of those pictures on my news feed. Each is a glimpse back in time. Most evoke strong memories of a time long since past when I lived in Saint Paul. But not surprisingly that window of life closed a long time ago.

The Minneapolis Planning Commission recently turned down a proposal for a new hotel in Dinky town which is located on the border of the University of Minnesota. But it hardly mattered. The old Dinky town that nurtured the likes of Bob Dylan and other bohemian types had long since disappeared. Its colorful inhabitants having fled to Nord East and other artistic ghettos years ago.

The Dinky town of the sixties where Susan and I hung out at coffee houses and attended folk mass at the Newman Center had slowly morphed into a distasteful collage of fast food slop shops, retail traps and the latest faddish entrapment for student funds. Its soul had been gutted by so-called development and what the city fathers hoped would pass for progress. That window of my life changed as I did during that period.

There’s another window of my life that has changed. But it has nothing to do with buildings or current trends or a specific location. It’s an event that still occurs each summer but it’s not the same anymore.  To be honest, it’s more a question of my own physical fitness, athletic skill and desire. Three things I had in my youth and am struggling to maintain today.

It’s an event called the TRAM which stands for The Ride across Minnesota. It used to be a one week 500 plus mile ride from one side of the state to the other. All done by bicycle and attracting upwards of 1000 riders each summer. Like most events, it’s changed over the years and now the route goes in strangely convoluted circles instead of from border to border across the state. Somehow it isn’t the same.

For two back-to-back summers, I rode my bike across the state of Minnesota. The second trip was with my son. It was a well-organized event that attracted a multitude of riders and support staff. It still does but it isn’t the same.

I could probably do it again if I were in better shape. But then I’d probably have to have a lot of caffeine for fuel in the morning and Bengay for sleeping at night. But that’s not likely. Traveling 500 plus miles on a bicycle over five days, sleeping in a tent each night and battling headwinds, fatigue, mechanical breakdowns, hot sticky humid nights and rocky lumps in my sleeping bag is no longer my idea of fun. It wasn’t for the faint of heart or solid of brain back then. Even less so today. Yet while that window was briefly open, it was a grand adventure.

The first year started out badly but ended well. After the first day, my host promptly ditched me for a new-found tag-along who fawned at his every word. Fortunately, I was able to saddle up with a number of other folks with whom I traded war stories, bantered back and forth over the miles and had a great time.

The second year Brian and I did the ride together. The miles felt the same and the geography changed little over each day. Yet it was our companionship that made all the difference in the world. We shared sore butts, stiff arms, humid stifling nights, small town bar-hopping and a plethora of ‘easy rider’ memories. Much like our trek down the Amazon but all-together different.  Ditching my Son in the Amazon.

That old TRAM window is closed now but it was grand while it lasted, having cultivated fond memories for both my son and I. All those windows have given me a rich history in which to fill up my memory bank. Call it capricious or perhaps the foolishness of youth. But there is some-thing endearing about the journey we’ve all traveled on through life. It’s something  songwriters have penned ‘The Circle Game.’ Most of us just call it the Circle of Life.

Now in that wonderful confluence of son-follows-father, Brian has just taken his daughter, Maya, on her first fourteener. Imagine, my granddaughter summiting a 14,500 foot mountaintop to celebrate her eighth birthday.

I guess another window just opened.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Middle Class Vanilla

Palm Springs in its heyday was a classic case of heighten expectations meeting self-induced satisfaction. And that was just for the movie stars who came to play out their roles in the sun-drenched playground of their peers. For the average visitor to Palm Springs it was a welcome respite from the normalcy back home and high hopes of seeing one of their favorite stars on the sidewalk instead of the sky.

Saturday nights downtown found plain vanilla visitors intermingling with their raspberry and peach idols under an apricot moon. There were simple sidewalk exchanges which morphed into a strange metamorphosis of actor and audience as one. And it could only happen in that curious museum called Palm Springs.

Unfortunately by the late 60’s things had begun to unravel.  The studio system had lost its power over the stars and most of them found new havens to hide away in. Palm Springs no longer had the panache it had hoarded for so many years. Mexico opened its arms and Europe expanded as the sophisticated playground of the international jet set. By the mid-70s, vacationers migrated down valley and Palm Springs faded like a matinee idol. Old Palm Springs gradually acquired the moniker of ‘God’s Waiting Room.’ The city tried to capitalize on spring break and groom a more youthful image but for the most part, that era had ended for good.

Yet despite the absence of Hollywood’s elite on the streets, Palm Springs still had glorious weather, amenities galore and numerous attractions nearby. Middle class vanilla continued to flock to the valley during the winter months even if most of the stars were in seclusion. But what they gradually found was a town asleep at the wheel. The city fathers had been resting on their laurels until even it’s ‘Frank Sinatra’ image grew tired and was almost forgotten. Several leaders tried to pump life back into the town. Sonny Bono was one of most enthusiastic of that group. The recession of 2008 did little to help the situation.  It was only after a small group of hipsters and music lovers descended on the city that things began to turn around.

Some say that Coachella changed the old image of Palm Springs. Others claim it was a resurgent interest in Mid-Century Modern design that started to once again draw crowds to the desert. It didn’t hurt its image that Leonardo DiCaprio bought Diana Shore’s place in the old community of Las Palmas. Now rumors are rampant about the latest A-lister who is shopping for a place nearby.

Whatever the cause there does seem to be a kind of Palm Springs renaissance going on. There are still plenty of oldsters in their Cadillac’s, Bentleys and Porsches cruising the boulevards. But now crowds of millennials are also taking up space by the pools and resorts and art galleries.

They say time heals all wounds and Palm Springs is no different. Hollywood’s elite of the 40s and 50s have mostly passed on but their descendants are still finding Palm Springs an attractive alternative to the image factory that is Los Angeles. A new audience is rediscovering what Clare Bow stumbled upon back in the ‘20s; a very special place two hours east of L.A.

Palm Springs has slowly regained its panache. The town is a happening place once again. After years of economic stagnation and entertainment limbo, the pinnacle being 2008, Palm Springs has risen like a Phoenix once again. It’s no longer your parents or grandparents vacation spot any longer.

Palm Springs is fast becoming just about the hippest hot spot this side of Brooklyn, Silver Lake and West Hollywood. West Coast hipsters, designers, remodelers, artists, musicians and actors are all rediscovering what their forefathers knew all along.

There is still something magical about the surrounding mountains, desert scape, warm winter months, and hip happening places all over town. But now it is virtual cornucopia of cultural, artistic, sexual, musical and intellectual stirrings for just about everyone from the most ballsy art culture-types to the more modest of minds. It all seems to be happening here.

While the hint of change had been in the air for a long time, it took the turnover of an old motel to kick-start the entire process. Most observers would agree that it was the conversion of an old Howard Johnson motel on Palm Canyon Drive into the new hip ACE hotel that became the catalyst for the hipsters to start coming to town. Next came a whole cache of hotels changing hands and branding themselves as ‘hip.’ The Holiday Inn Express became the Saguaro, the Ramada Inn became The Curve. The (Hollywood hideaway) Parker went through renovations and the fabled Riviera Hotel underwent a 60 million renovation a couple of years ago.

A new hotel on the north end of town will be a Chris Pardo designed modernist 32-room boutique hotel. In the heart of downtown a new Klimpton Hotel will be the central showcase for a brand new downtown Palm Springs beginning in 2015.

The Uptown Design District continues to draw designers, artisans and other enthusiasts of modern style with shops that reflect this growing interest in Mid-Century Modern furnishings, clothing, art, lighting and accessories.


The Palm Springs Art Museum will be a focal point in the redeveloped downtown area with direct pedestrian links to the heart of the activities.

The list of current and upcoming attractions in the city and surrounding area continues to grow.
Film has always played a large part in attracting patrons from around the country. Leading the list is the Palm Springs International Film Festival which annually attracts thousands of film enthusiasts from around the country.  Not to be undone by this huge event, there are other film festivals such as Film Noir, Short Fest, Native America Films and Cinema Diverse.

The Coachella Music and Arts Festival draws thousands of fans from around the country for its two weekend festivities in April. Following on the draw of Coachella, Stage Coach attracts country music fans the following weekend. Tachevah is a Palm Springs block party scheduled in between both events.

In addition to Village Fest which is a street fair in downtown Palm Springs every Thursday night there are a number of specialty events continue to grow in popularity.

There is Modernism Week, Fashion Week, the Food and Wine Festival, Palm Springs Juried Art Show, Restaurant Week, Chili Cook-off, Oktobertfest, Motorcycle Weekend and Pride Festival.

The Humana Challenge is part of the PGA Tour’s early season West Coast swing. This is followed by the Kraft Nabisco Championship. Then there is Palm Springs Power Baseball during the spring months and the world-famous PNB Parabis Open Tennis event.

The changes are coming fast and furious to Palm Springs. It’s a strange new world and yet no different than the cultural, artistic, musical and esoteric philosophical shifting slants on life that I saw with the Hippies and other bohemians of that ilk back in the ‘60s.

My visits to the ACE hotel reawakened memories of hanging out at the Triangle Bar on West Bank and exchanging slants on philosophy with the hippies there

It’s a new era for Palm Springs and I just so happen to be ‘stuck in the middle’ with it.

Nowadays there is a much younger set of participants in town. But I can still observe. I won’t be hustling chicks at Coachella or trading parliaments at the ACE or dropping a lot of green at some foodie’s newest kingdom.

But I can still look and learn and maybe steal a scene or grasp of dialogue that just might end up in one of my books. Not a bad trade for an old wanna-be hipster.

And the weather’s great too.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Sun on My Back

First all the talk was about Energy Star. Then the concept of the Passive House came into vogue. Now home builders have honed in on the idea of net-zero-energy homes. It’s the latest rage in the world of energy-efficiency construction. The idea is to improve a home’s energy efficiency to the point where a reasonably sized photovoltaic (solar) system can generate as much energy as the home uses.
It sounds new and modern but the idea of using the sun to heat or cool our homes has been around for a very long time. Capturing the sun for power wasn’t a new concept here or in other parts of the country. In fact, the whole industry got off rather inauspiciously in 1933 at the Chicago World’s fair. It started with a tiny architectural firm called Keck and Keck and the first glass house built for Chicago’s World Exposition.

George Keck designed two key model structures for the ‘Century of Progress’ exhibition in Chicago; dubbed the ‘House of Tomorrow.’ Keck became a pioneering designer of passive solar houses in the 1930s and 1940s after realizing that the all-glass ‘House of Tomorrow’ was warm inside on sunny winter days without use of the furnace. His model homes and accompanying publicity efforts contributed greatly to the significant ‘solar house’ movement of the 1940s.

But capturing the sun’s warmth was one thing, controlling it was something else. Keck continued his research with south-facing windows and experimented with various calculations to find the idea length for overhangs. South facing windows with the proper overhang could maximize the sun’s efficiency during the winter months and yet limit it during the summer months. 

Solar research and improved construction techniques helped move the energy-efficiency philosophy along among architects and home builders. Working in tandem, the focus was on cooling homes with less use of energy as well capturing the sun’s power to heat them. It was only later that a new focus switched from deflecting sunlight to harnessing it for the creation of electrical current and kilowatt capture.

Research continued and the solar movement came and went in regular intervals of interest, progress, stagnation and then renewed interest all over again. One of the final breakthroughs that finally pushed the American mindset to more energy-efficiency was the oil embargo of 1973. It wasn’t just the long gas lines at the pump or Jimmy Carter telling all of us to turn down the thermostat, it was a fear that others (outside of this country) controlled our way of life and means of transportation. 

The message finally came home that we had to become masters of our own destiny if we were to live energy-free and make the best use of our resources on the planet.

Palm Springs was actually slow in getting into the game. You would think that with the amount of sunlight Palm Springs and the entire Coachella Valley enjoys year-round it would be a mecca for solar energy initiatives. It’s hard to argue against solar power when bright warm sunlight blankets the valley 354 days out of the year. Surprisingly that wasn’t the case until just recently. 

An easier sell for residents of the desert has been the conversion of grass lawns to desert scape. Beautiful lawns make sense in Minnesota but not so much in the desert. Many communities offer refunds and other incentives to make the switch. In our case, with a third of an acre, it was an easy sell to make the conversion. There will be about a ten year payback but the savings were apparent from day one. Our water bill went from an average of $275.00 per month to just under $45.00.

The recession of 2008 hit the valley particularly hard because of its strong dependence on tourism. But even before that, solar companies were having a hard time penetrating the obvious marketplace of Southern California. Arizona and several other neighboring states were making more inroads to capturing sun power than California. 

Despite the abundance of sunlight year-round and heightened energy consciousness, there wasn’t much movement until the costs started coming down. Solar panel prices have dropped almost 50% in the last two decades. In addition to the initial cost, energy panels today are much more efficient than just a few years ago.

Those changes helped but the final tipping point seemed to come about when the solar companies changed their business model. In the past, solar panels were packaged and sold as a cluster of glass on the roof which the homeowner owned. It was a long term investment and promised attractive savings over a long period of time. Potential buyers were assured that the value of their homes or businesses would go up with solar on the roof. That pitch often landed on deaf ears when the total cost of solar was explained. The new business model addresses those concerns directly.

Solar companies are now offering a leasing program in lieu of in an outright purchase. There are no out-of-pocket expenses on a rental program aside from the need to clean the panels at least once a year. It is a twenty year contract that can be passed on to the next home owner but not broken. Much like an additional mortgage on the home. 

At least in Southern California, there seems to be a sun-powered gold rush going on. Vendors are lining up to offer solar power for every imaginable need. To provide electrical power to homes and businesses, to heat pools, power cars and other vehicles, etc. Many are quite legitimate, others not so much. One key ingredient to their services are the affiliations they have with solar panel manufacturers. 

Sun Power is one of the largest and most successful of the solar companies in the U.S. Its vendors offer a variety of services from simple installation to maintenance and other services.

Sun Power like the other solar company guarantees so many kilowatts per month and the homeowner agrees to pay them a set monthly fee for a period of twenty years. We have twenty solar panels on our roof. Based on monthly averages over a twelve month period of time, those panels should deliver more than enough electricity to meet all of our electrical needs for a year. Excess electricity generated by our panels can be purchased back by So. Cal. Edison (at a much reduced rate.)

Of course for every push in one direction, there is usually a counter-push in the other direction. Large utilities and the infamous Koch Industries are crying foul. They argue that their profit margins are being squeezed by folks who are off the grid and making their own electricity. Together they want to roll back programs that incentivize the use of renewable energy. Of chief concern to them are programs that help the solar industry such as net metering via solar panels and mandates that require utilities to have a percent of their power coming from renewable energy.

Much like the political pressure being applied in Arizona, these entities are seeking a tariff on solar providers and users to offset their own shrinking margins. In Palm Springs and much of Southern California, the local utility, Southern California Edison, is seeking rate increases to help offset the growth of solar and its effect on their profit margins.

Our own cost savings could be negatively affected if there was a tariff posted against solar owners such as ourselves. It’ll be an interesting debate to follow especially since we’ve aligned ourselves with the sun on our back.

So just as in the past when the interest in solar grew and then waned over time, the issues surrounding energy efficiency and their subsequent cost savings will continue to be an ongoing debate.

The only difference now is the advance of solar technology and increased awareness that we are all stewards of this planet. It’s the only home we’ve got.