Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Cars of Cuba

Me with a '57 Ford in Cuba

OK, I’ll admit it. This is probably just a guy thing. But I can’t help myself. One of the fun experiences while traveling around Cuba recently was seeing all the old cars of my youth cruising the boulevards of old Havana, Santiago de Cuba, and Cienfuegos.

It was a classic car collection I hadn’t seen anywhere else even at our McCormick’s antique car auctions here in Palm Springs. Most carriages of my past fantasies were in pristine condition even if their innards had probably been changed over a dozen times or more. Taxi rides were expensive so I just took as many photos as I could and let my mind go a wanderin'.

And last but certainly not least, my one and only ‘put me to sleep’ dream that carried a young man through high school and well into college. A 1955 Chevrolet Bel Aire convertible.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Working Class

Women's March Palm Springs, CA

I was at a women’s rally a couple of weeks ago, right after the inauguration. It reminded me of the rallies of the ‘60s to protest the Vietnam War. It was all a bit surreal and again I was there more to support my wife than anything else. But while standing in the shadows of the speakers I realized there’s another side to that equation. And it leaves me confused.

Much has been written about the under-served and long ignored White working class who propelled our new President into office. The media landscape has been covered with broad gray swatches of their concerns and complaints. We’re told they feel neglected and forgotten in today’s push for globalization, fair trade, equality for the races and justice for all.

I won’t venture into that minefield of conflicting emotions, exaggerated statements, and a plethora of false premises. Sufficient it to say, that group feels their concerns are justified and they’ve responded accordingly.

What fascinates me most about this vanilla tsunami is the fact that I came from that very same socioeconomic group. I was raised in that environment and yet I can’t relate to their shouts of injustice. While not disputing their claims of neglect I still can’t resign myself to sliding alongside their verbal marches. Guess I’ve always been more rainbow than strictly red or blue.

J.D. Vance gave a fascinating presentation on TED some time ago. It was a heartfelt examination of the challenges facing so many of his friends and neighbors and classmates in a small Southern Ohio town where he grew up. He gave a very convincing argument for their justified concerns that they felt weren’t being addressed by either party in government. Or perhaps society in general.

It could be argued that I was raised in another time and place. But the fact is that almost all of the people I’m familiar with who ‘made it’ have come from modest backgrounds. This in itself is more than a little ironic since I always saw them (back then) as more privileged, more supported and more loved than myself. I admired them and wanted to be like them. I have always been drawn to strong assertive women and driven men.

Yet upon reflection, gradual maturity, and recent conversations, it turns out those folks were all pretty much the same as me. We grew up in the fifties and sixties. We were either poor or lower middle class or balanced middle class. Yet most of us could make ‘something of ourselves’ through hard work, some luck and often with a supportive partner at our side.

Lucky; I guess. Focused and determined is more likely.

Only through education and a work ethic inherited from my mother was I able to move myself into another life cycle. Of course, we hate to talk about class in America, believing that if we don’t, we can all continue to pretend that it doesn’t exist.  I can’t speak for others nor would I pretend to know what drove me and yet doesn’t motivate others. It brought me to where I am today and, in the end, that’s all that matters.

I’ll go out on a limb here. There seems to be this collective agreement among those disenfranchised voters that government is too big and should be reduced substantially, yet there is this collective whining that government isn’t doing enough to give them jobs, health care, personal protection, and financial security in their old age.

They loath paying taxes but demand government/state/municipal services like snow-plowing, police and fire protection and city services be there for them twenty-four/seven. They want it all but don’t seem willing to accept responsibility for some of those actions that fall on their own collective shoulders.

It’s so easy to sit back and complain about things and then not do anything to reduce or alleviate the perceived problems. They want some government official to do it for them. Then they complain when they don’t get the outcome they think they deserve.

My wife has often chided me for a lack of compassion for the plight of the downtrodden masses. Yet it’s neither disrespect nor contempt that I feel, it is a deep seeded belief that the answer lies within all of us and will seldom be found in some book or lecture or government handout.

No one gave me a handout. Most (not all) but most of my luck was a lucky collision of hard work and determination intersecting with opportunity. I wish the same for all those folks who feel they’ve been left out of the equation.

My life has had its ups and downs but it’s been one heck of a ride thus far. It’s given me an opportunity to help, influence, advise, cajole and I hope set a good example for my kids and grandchildren. What a gift that has been.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Big Ship, Little Ship

In the competitive world of ocean cruising there are big ships and there are little ships. Our ship was supposedly a little ship. Friends who have done a lot of ocean cruising said the Celestyal Crystal was one of the smallest ships they’d been on.  It had a capacity of one thousand passengers but only carried a little over six hundred on our cruise. That would be about five hundred and fifty over-capacity to my liking.

Cruising, I think, is a lot like road-tripping. People either love it or can leave it…to someone else. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing. Most of the folks we talked to recently love the idea of sailing off into the horizon and visiting foreign ports of call. They can rattle off a tally of exotic destinations and fascinating harbors right out of some adventure novel. Their enthusiasm reminded me of the river boat fanatics we met several years ago, on our own European river cruises.

No surprise then that the ocean cruise line industry has grown by leaps and splashes. Worldwide, the industry has experienced an annual compound growth rate of 6.55% from 1990 to the present. This growth has been driven in most part by new builds, more local ports, more destinations and new on-board/on-shore activities. Of course, they never mention the up-charges that can match the airline industry one irritating point per point.

From 2015 to 2017, twenty-one new ships have been launched. Disney got into the game several years ago and there’s even a new Titanic II (I kid you not!) now plying the Seven seas. Most can hold from two thousand to four thousand passengers on one cruise. I can’t imagine!

Recently Sharon and I spent ten days onboard the Celestyal Crystal. It’s one of the smaller cruise ships that ply the Caribbean waters during the winter months. In the summer months, it returns to its native Greece and circles the islands there.

We left Montego Bay, Jamaica and circled the island of Cuba, stopping at several cities including Havana, Santiago de Cuba, and Cienfuegos.

Our friends had found this cruise/tour package and enlisted some thirty-nine of their closest friends to come along. Most were from Palm Springs but others came from as far away as Minnesota, Maine, Nevada and beyond.

I used to think Sharon and I wouldn’t consider a cruise because of Sharon’s issues with motion sickness. Now I realize another more subtle reason is my distain for large crowds, the herd mentality among tour directors and pushy people jostling for my early morning coffee. I’ve come realize the more sedate, relaxed atmosphere of a European river cruise (Max. capacity 125) is more to my liking.

Like the airlines, cruise ships love to play the up-charge game. If it’s for sale, they’ll find a way to wiggle even more cash out of it. I can’t complain too much though. At least our ship had toilet seats in the cabin bathroom along with toilet paper. That was a far cry from the ninety-nine percent of lavatories in many of the Cuban sites we visited. We were warned to bring our own paper and they meant it.

Despite my alter-ego cowboy self, I don’t much fancy herding cattle. With a passenger load that size, herding cats would have been a more apt description the the crowd control and maneuver-ing that went on at every tourist stop.

The crowds varied but most were in their sixties and seventies with a sizable number nudging even higher. They came in every size and shape and color; their outfits that is. One woman in particular caught my eye. She wore a large blue bonnet that ringed her face and reminded me of the blinders that draft animals used to wear.

She prowled the early morning breakfast area, darting in and out of the main cafeteria, several eating areas, the aft-deck, the forward deck and then back again. It was like she was casing the place so she could come back later and steal a dirty plate or two. Then she disappeared and I got distracted by the pastry kiosk.

Santiago de Cuba was our first stop. It’s the capitol of the island’s ‘Wild East’ and it’s glittering cultural nerve center. We went to their African Cultural Center and enjoyed native dances and songs. Fidel Castro plotted his revolution on this eastern end of the island. After his first coup failed he went to Mexico for two years then returned and hid in the mountains nearby to begin again.

We spent two days in Havana. The capitol city of four million inhabitants is bustling with antique cars, horse-drawn carriages, crumbling buildings and fabulous architecture. The old city center, where we spent a lot of time, comprises a mix of Baroque and neoclassical monuments and a homogeneous ensemble of privates houses with arcades, balconies, wrought-iron gates, and internal courtyards.

For the most part, their classic cars are now taxies.

We were taken to several of Earnest Hemmingway’s hideaways whether he really drank there or not. One hotel in particular was his favorite when he was in town. There are large photographs of him adorning the walls and for a couple of pesos, they’ll even take you upstairs to see his room.

The reconstructed plazas that now sport outdoor bars and restaurants and hordes of kids circling.

The back alleys and walkways took us past gutted-out buildings whose facades hid decades of commerce and living before time and communism scratched away at their livelihood and existence. The government, we were told, is trying to save and restore as many of these wonderful buildings as their thin reclamation budgets will allow.

Our last stop was Cienfuegos. This ‘Pearl of the South’ is a 19th century planned city and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It sits at the heart of the country’s sugar cane, mango, tobacco, and coffee production area.

We visited the home/gallery of world-famed artist Santiago Hermes Martinez and watched a group of his art students perform a dance.

Then we went to a school for challenged students whose art work was outstanding.

Back in the fifties the harbor and Back Bay of this quaint town was a welcoming haven for American mobsters who had big plans for hotels and casinos before that rebel with a beard dashed their hopes of creating a new Miami outside of Havana.

I saw the lady in the blue bonnet again near the end of our tour.

Turns out she was another group leader which explained her motherly instincts that first morning I saw her hovering in the breakfast area. She seemed quite good at herding, hustling, and controlling her group of fellow tourists.

I must admit the aft-deck did provide me with a welcome respite from the cramped quarters of our cabin and a chance to recharge my mind. I worked on my speech for the Rosemount Writers Conference in March, touched-up ‘Club 210’ and outlined a dozen or more blog treatments this cruise had generated.

In the future, I’ll probably settle for more river cruises instead of ocean roulette but the sunsets aren’t nearly as spectacular.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Two Worlds Masquerading as One

I live in two different worlds. One is progressive, adventurous and sometimes a bit outrageous but always leaning forward. For half a year I wear my Southern California handle as comfortably as any other seeker. But I also live in the Midwest and I’m darn proud of that too.

The Midwest is more staid and conservative than California in a common-sense kind of way. For me it’s two different life styles and two points of view. Yet there’s a common thread running between the two with openness for all and acceptance of different points of view. Both offer a realistic view of the world and not a closed-minded myopic wish for what used to be. They don’t dwell on a world that, in fact, never really existed except in television sitcoms and wishful thinking. Instead they focus on what could be and not what once was.

On the night America took a sharp turn to the right, my two adopted states continued a long tradition of progressive thought and action. Certainly there were blips along the way. Neither party got everything they wanted but the human fabric and soul of both states remained intact.

Geographically, California and Minnesota are thousands of miles apart; yet connected by out-of-the-box thinking and a deep-seated pride in pioneering frontier values and driving ambition.

On the surface, there might not seem a strong connection between the two states. California just legalized marijuana. They passed meaningful gun control legislation that has been impossible to meet at the federal level. They agreed to pay more for schools, ensure medical funds for low-income residents require more transparency from legislators, brought back bilingual education and, in Los Angeles, agreed to pay higher taxes to address the chronic homeless problem.

Quoting now from an article on California’s famous reflexive liberalness… ”It’s the belief that access and inclusion and helping and protecting are worthy goals.” *

Robert Reich has been quoted as saying: “Along with its neighbors Oregon and Washington, California will be a nation within a nation starting in January, when the federal government goes dark.” That’s a bit overblown but reflective of the feelings felt here among many residents.

The accolades continue. California leads the nation in the rate of economic growth – more than twice the national average. It is home to the nation’s fastest-growing and most innovative industries – entertainment and high-tech. It incubates more startups than anywhere else in the world.

Yet California is far from perfect. A housing shortage has driven up rents and home prices into the stratosphere. While its public schools used to be best in the nation now they are among the worst. Each election cycle brings a plethora of new propositions which often times only confuse and muddy the legislative process. **

Minnesota is no slouch either when it comes to social issues. There was drug sentencing reform, moves toward an open primary, various child protection laws enacted and health-related issues addressed this session.

As much by lucky accident as foresight, I now find myself immersed in two different life styles, two different geographic locations and a wonderful diversity of friends and associates. Two different worlds, two different flavors and two wonderful life experiences at the same time.

I’m born and bred Minnesotan with a strong streak of California to flavor my mind. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

*Los Angeles Magazine, November, 2016. Joe Dontelli.
**Desert Sun, November 27th, Robert Reich