Tuesday, July 14, 2020

In the Year of the Pandemic

In the age of Covid-19, our lives have been turned upside down; mine included. As a person locked into routines and patterns of behavior, it means putting my life (as I’ve known it) on hold for an indeterminable period of time. Like most, I’ve had some challenging times adjusting to this new reality.

On the plus side, it has forced me into new patterns of planning and thinking, most of them pretty positive. Walking in the woods and getting lost among the sights and sounds there is certainly a good start. It also means holding cerebral salons on my back patio or some local park instead of a coffee shop nearby. But most fun of all it means spending time on our porch or kitchen island just watching the birds feeding outside.

This forced self-isolation among couples brings up some interesting questions such as: ‘Just how much do you like your spouse and spending an inordinate amount of time now with him or her?’ ‘Who do you really want to see again?’ ‘Can you safely see the grandchildren?’ The list goes on and on. With old routines so ingrained in our daily behavior, what do we have available to re-place the old with a new ‘safe’ patterns of daily living?

For the writer in me, it means creating a new daily routine and that’s been an adjustment. Experience has shown me time and again that if I don’t have a routine, things don’t get done. It’s what I preach in my writing workshops. To become a writer, you have to write. It’s as simple as that. I have to have a routine if I want to get my writing done on a daily basis. With my new plays on hold for now, I’ve had to refocus my energies on new writing objectives.

One thing bubbles up to the surface pretty quickly; an appreciation for the little things so often taken for granted. Cleaning out the garage or back closets. Reading that book you never had time to dive into. Taking a simple walk in the woods or around the neighborhood. Completing yard work that never got to the top of your ‘to do’ list. Appreciating all the ‘free things’ available around us. I think you get the point.

My behavior patterns began to change and evolve just as soon as I heard that our library would be closed indefinitely. That turned me on to buying books online and spending time on the porch reading them. Sharon and I couldn’t go to the gym anymore so we began walking around the block and using our treadmill downstairs. I’ve started to stumble through some rudimentary yoga moves and got back to lifting weights again.

Having said that, it’s spending more time on my porch just to sit and think. I’ve discovered that this temporary disruption is also a wonderful opportunity to dig through piles of old magazines downstairs, and company office files I haven’t perused in years. Its part house-cleaning, part discarding of remnants of my past life, and painting more clarity into future endeavors. At its core, it’s an appreciation for the simpler things in life.

Reminds me of a girl I met a long time ago after I got out of the service.

I can’t remember her name or much about her. Only a couple of things stand out. She lived off campus with a bunch of other girls. We met through mutual friends, none of whom I’ve seen in ages. She wasn’t particularly attractive and she had a bad case of acne. She slept in the nude (so she told me) which I thought was very titillating. She came from Chicago and she loved ‘walking in the rain.’

The first time she convinced me to go for a walk in the rain, I thought she was bonkers. But we donned our slickers and went out for a stroll during an afternoon shower. Her curiosity was truly contagious. She loved to see the rain collecting in puddles, droplets streaming off the rooftops and the greenery come alive before our eyes. She pointed out a dozen little things I’d never noticed before. She took off her shoes (braver than I was) and splashed in the puddles until her legs were brown with splotches of mud. She was in her element and I envied her wide-eyed enthusiasm.

It gave me a whole new perspective and appreciation for that aspect of Mother Nature. When my kids were growing up, I used to take them into the woods and find a spot to sit and listen. I told them to just listen to the sundry sounds that crept into our consciousness as we sat still and just listened. Walking in the rain was much the same experience.

If we’re not looking at life and just living it instead, our daily existence can get pretty complicated at times. Then unexpectedly it can flip around and become so simplistic that it dulls our creative juices. The trick is to see past the obstacles and recognize the unexpected pleasures just waiting to be discovered. Covid-19 did that for me. As the cliché goes, it’s the little things that count.

A lot of folks I know have slipped into retirement without a clue as to what might lie ahead. They let their daily lives dictate their future. Gradually the evening news, morning coffee, and grocery shopping dominate their time, their life, and their psychological mindset.

They become trapped in their own routine and aren’t aware that clichés dominate their thinking. It’s a sinister time warp of old algorithms with their daily life clock slowly running out without they’re even knowing it. A lot of them aren’t prepared for what lies ahead. The pandemic has caused a lot us to pause and rethink just where our lives are going.

In the end, it’s deciding what’s really important in your life. It’s taking the concept of retirement and tossing it out the window along with old assumptions, expectations and other people’s paradigms. Old is new once again and the familiar may need to be reexamined.

The fog of daily living is lifting if we’re willing to give it a helpful push. There’s still pastures aplenty if we’re willing to climb that fence and cross the fields of green.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

High Desert Drama

High architectural drama, in the form of classic modern dwellings, is starting to come to the high desert. There seems to be a vibe, an undercurrent of interest and excitement about high desert living. Before the pandemic broke out, VBRO and Airbnb locales were everywhere. Even now with a slowdown in real estate activity, there still seems to be a strong interest in escaping to the quiet and serenity of the vast open desert. And this is nothing new for the region.

Before and during the 1950s, the high desert was home to simple shacks on homesteaded land. No water, electricity, or amenities. Initially the outlaws, urban rebels and adventurous few gravitated to this Spartan existence. Over time, the elements took their toll and many shacks were abandoned and forgotten. Most reverted back to the Bureau of Land Management.

Then in the 1960s and 70s, artists, musicians, urban castaways and bohemian rebels found the high desert a perfect refuge from the craziness that had overtaken most of the coastal cities. These new explorers flocked to the area in their VW pop-up campers, tents, sleeping bags and simple woolen blankets. It was like an unorganized gathering of like-minded souls each of whom was lost inside their own head.

Now a whole new generation of architectural aficionados, Gen Xers, boomers, outlaws, urban pioneers, and retirees are reclaiming the desert and rebuilding those dilapidated shacks into something more attractive only this time with all the amenities. A lot of the Airbnb listings are remodeled versions of these old shacks that used to be part of a homesteading craze decades ago.

Since its founding as a refuge for tuberculosis patients to escape the confines of LA and San Diego, Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley have always attracted a strange assortment of colorful characters. The Valley’s surrounding locales have pushed that equation even further by attracting an eclectic assortment of artists, musicians, painters and other veterans of the school of hard knocks. Taken together, the region is a mecca for the rich, the famous and the enfranchised. For me, it’s a virtual chalkboard for any number of story lines.

Whether it’s the weather, the proximity to Los Angeles and San Francisco or the distance between it and the rest of the world, the valley, and its surrounding high desert has always been a sanctuary for lost soul-searchers seeking the ultimate creative elixir.

Some choose to express themselves and show their wares in galleries in the valley or in the high desert. Others are off radar and like it that way. It’s as if there is another world just beneath the surface of shimmering pools, lush green golf courses and cloud-less aqua skies. Whispers come from the wastelands surrounding the Salton Sea as do siren calls from the high desert. Like a resistant drug, fatal attraction or sinful thought, it keeps drawing me back for more exploration. It is a world that offers the opposite of the known, contentment and comfortable.

The high desert of the Morongo Valley, Yucca Valley and Joshua tree continue to attract musicians now as it has since the turn of the century. Far from the crystal clear pools of Palm Springs and its emerald green golf courses lies another world of vast nothingness peppered with the sad remnants of past lives.

The area has become a mecca for aging rock stars, artists and modern-day bohemians along with ordinary people all in search of a new beginning. It’s the place where people go to get lost and be creative. A place where stillness thunders louder than the wind and God did some of his finest paintings. A vast virtual sound studio for the creative mind.

The high desert of the Morongo Basin is like a modern day outback of more than 9.5 million acres of public land in the California desert. Its home to old walking trails first used by Native Americans between seasonal encampments then followed by Spanish explorers and finally 19th century gold seekers and pioneers. Reminders of past human lives are everywhere.

Abandoned mines litter the area with their relics of past hopes and dreams scattered about the ground. Ramshackle old cabins planted amid miles of sage and scrub brush, sit isolated and lonely in the desert. The evidence is all here if you can look past the dust and dirt and castles made of boulders to imagine all the past lives that once pasted through this place on the way to a better life.

Now a new generation of seekers is trudging down those same dusty pathways and hiking the boulder-strewn mountain trails in search of something they’ll only find inside their head. It’s a wonderful atmosphere for self-reflection, contemplation, and wandering ‘what ifs.’ The only distractions are the thoughts that keep pushing their way into your head, each clamoring for attention.
It’s a meditation mat complete with sun and sand and endless horizons.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

El Pais Grande Del Sur

I’m going back to Big Sur for the first time.

The reality of covid-19 hit me upon my return to Minnesota. Between the pandemic and its social distancing guidelines, I suddenly find myself unable to workshop any of the three plays I’d just completed back in Palm Springs. Furthermore, I wouldn’t be able to work closely with musicians to create the music for those plays. At least for the foreseeable future, the plays were on hold and stuck in their first draft. I really needed feedback to proceed further with their development.

Added to that disappointment, my gym was closed as were the coffee shops where I love to hold my cerebral salons. The libraries and bookstores were closed so I had to get my books online or at Half-Price Books. Then some of my friends were reticent to visit on my patio even though I could guarantee them a good ten feet distance between us. I was stuck in a kind of limbo without any of my regular routines to follow.

So what is a hyperactive, overly scheduled adult supposed to do in such a situation? I could quarantine myself and wait for the virus to leave. I could putter around the lawn all day. Knowing me fairly well, I knew I had to do something more productive. Productive in my world translated into more writing and editing. Therefore, I could edit what I’d already written, select more subject matter for future blogs, or write something entirely new.

I opted for the latter and decided to write another novel. But it would not be just any new novel (which would be my eleventh thus far). This new novel would be an entirely new genre for me - a murder mystery / thriller entitled ‘The Trades.’

The novel would be set in the fast-paced world of publishing in San Francisco and the dark, mysterious backwoods of Big Sur. It would host a cast of characters that are still vapid ghosts in my imagination but are slowly taking shape. I see them as each being corroded with human foibles and yet hope (among a few of them) for the future. It would have good guys, bad guys, and many more that float between good intentions and not so good. Many of them can’t be categorized so easily. It would naturally include a love story but one where none should have surfaced in the first place.

I already have an eighteen-page treatment that over several years, I’ve sliced, diced, and mixed up quite a bit. Now I just had to put finger to keyboard and make these characters come to life. Research of the ‘trades’ and the Big Sur area would be critical since I had only been there once earlier this year but that was just passing through at sixty miles per hour. See my past blog: Solvang for more details.

As a young man in another life, I had been close to the Big Sur wilderness area once before. Unbeknownst to me, In 1964 I had just missed meeting a new wave of strange characters that would soon be wandering Big Sur’s deep impenetrable forests and jagged coastline. In 1964-65, I was stationed at the Presidio of San Francisco. I wandered up the northern coast of California but never made it as far south as Big Sur. Half Moon Bay was a far as I got on my motor scooter.

Historically, the Big Sur area was derived from that unexplored and un-mapped wilderness area which lies along the coast south of Monterey. Back in the day, it was simply called el pais grande del sur, the Big South Country. Today, it refers to a 90-mile stretch of rugged and beautiful coastline between Carmel to the north and San Simeon (Hearst Castle) to the south.

In 1937, the present highway was completed after eighteen years of construction at a considerable expense even with the aid of convict labor. Electricity did not arrive in Big Sur until the early 1950’s, and it still does not extend the length of the coast or into the more remote mountainous areas. There is no cellphone service so if your car breaks down, you’re truly SOL (____out of luck).

In the 1940s, 50s and 60s, Henry Miller lived in Big Sur on and off for years. Miller was an American writer known best for breaking with existing literary forms and developing a new type of autobiographical novel that blended character study, social criticism, philosophical reflection, stream of consciousness, explicit language (Tropic of Cancer), sex, surrealist free association and mysticism. He was also part of an avant-garde art colony centered around his controversial writings and philosophy of life. I knew Henry would be the perfect kind of idol for some of my characters in the book.

Jack Kerouac followed Miller in the 1950s. Then in the ‘60s Allen Ginsburg, along with Wavy Gravy and the Merry Pranksters, made annual pilgrimages down there to smoke dope, take LSD and get lost inside their heads. Timothy Leary used the area as the perfect setting for his pro-motion of LSD as a mind-expanding drug. He often times hosted events in the forests of Big Sur.

Esalen became a new age enclave and heralded the advancement of its human potential movement. It seemed only appropriate that the wild, weird, and wonderful characters that are a part of the fabric and tapestry of San Francisco and Big Sur should play a prominent role in this next novel.

The main characters, along with an assortment of bit players, masked strangers, and two-faced villains are all rehearsing in the twenty-five chapters I’ve outlined thus far. I’m trying to capture some of their dialogue, at least in my head, so I can begin to pound it out on my pages very soon. I’ve already seen the novel take a number of surprising twists and turns. Unbeknownst to me, motivation and greed and evil intents aren’t always as easy to recognize as I first imagined. I expect the first draft of this endeavor will come relatively easy for me. It’s going to be the second, third, and perhaps fourth draft that really make or break the novel.

This genre is a first for me so it’s going to be a different kind of journey. I’m comfortable in the saddle. The sixties were a charm. I’ve been to the A Shau and traveled around the world in the company of an endearing friend. However, putting on a criminal mind and plotting the demise of others is a whole new ballgame.

I think I’ve created an interesting main character (at least in my head) and (once again) a woman who is beautiful, smart and can kick ass with the best of them. Of course, it doesn’t help that both are overshadowed by the ghost of Henry Miller and Lewy Body syndrome. I expect they’re going to take me on one interesting adventure. I hope others will ultimately want to come along and share the excitement with me.


Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Four Houses on Three Continents

California is often referred to as the golden state and that has little to do with the gold rush of the 1800s. By its size alone, the state has a lot of everything; the good, the bad and the in between.

The state’s economy is the largest in the United States, boasting a $3.137 trillion gross state product as of 2019. If California were a sovereign nation, it would rank as the world’s fifth largest economy, ahead of India and Germany.

It’s always been a given that many things are simply more expensive here. So it’s of little surprise that along with its size goes the sad fact that 13.3 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. In its defense, the state can boast about the near-perfect weather, a cornucopia of diversity in a myriad of areas and technology giants that roam the globe and cyber world far and wide.

Having traveled up and down the Southern California Coast as well as the Central California Coast, I can confirm that housing and commerce are a bit out of the world for most Americans; especially the average Californian. But it is what it is; the state of California.

Spending as much time as we do in the state, Sharon and I have become a bit immured to the sometimes crazy and unworldly things that happen around us. We see it as just part of the Zen of California and our little desert community. There has long been a realization among Palm Springs residents that our little community isn’t like the rest of the state. This came into clearer focus a while back when Sharon and I were docents for a tour of our neighborhood during Modernism Week.

Modernism Week is a signature event held every February in Palm Springs. This year, it attracted over 150,000 modern architecture lovers from all over the country and the world. There were 350 plus events to showcase and highlight the very best of modernism designs and trends. One of the highlights of the week was the neighborhood home tours. Our Indian Canyon neighborhood was included as a part of this year’s home tours.







Our neighborhood, originally known as the Canyon Country Club Estates, was built in South Palm Springs in the early 1960s. Developers created a variety of high-end homes and condominiums with famous architects like William Krisel, Stan Sackley, and Charles DuBois among others. The North Course was built first in conjunction with a 1.5 million dollar stunning midcentury modern clubhouse designed by Donald Wexler and Richard Harrison. To make the opening of Canyon Country Club spectacular, Walt Disney, who owned several luxury homes built along the second fairway, donated a fountain that shot water into the sky from a floating lily pad.

Now known as Indian Canyon, our neighborhood has gone through a subtle yet very real demographic shift over the last ten or so years. Neighborhood parties used to be pretty much fifty-fifty split between straight married and gay couples. That has now changed to probably seventy-thirty in favor of the DINKs (duel income, no kids) which includes gay couples, lesbians, unmarried couples among other arrangements. Most of our neighbors have become great friends of ours. But their economic disposition is different than ours as are their family obligations. In other words, it often puts them in a different economic class than their Midwestern neighbors.

It’s never mattered before nor does it now. But it can sometimes cloud ones perspective of what is normal or average when everyone around us lives in high end homes or is in the process of remodeling and raising their present abode to that level of equity. After a while you begin to think ‘this must be normal. Everyone lives like this.’

It’s like thinking you hit a home run when, in fact, you were born on third base.The temptation is to think that somehow you had something to do with rising home prices or demographic shifts in your neighborhood. It’s a slippery slope of self-congratulations instead of simple gratitude for your good fortune.

This struck home for Sharon and me when we visited one of the homes on the Modernism tour of our neighborhood. The house was a lovely mid-century modern rebuild. The owners had spared no expense in bringing all the rooms and outdoor living areas back to life. It was stunning in its color palette, use of modern furniture throughout, high-end appliances, and expansive use of glass throughout the house.

The owner was a lovely woman anxious to show us around. As we were leaving and throwing yet another compliment back at her (all sincere and honest) she said just as casually that this was but one of their homes. “We have four homes on three continents,” she said matter-of-factly.  I stopped in my tracks, not wanting to let this tidbit of delectable information get away, but Sharon pushed me ahead to keep on schedule. “No surprise” was all Sharon could say as we piled onto our Camry and went on to the next house on the tour.

Thinking back on the recession of 2008, I was a bit surprised by the number of ‘For Sale’ signs that suddenly blossomed in our neighborhood. But as my neighbors pointed out, most of the homes listed for sale were but one of three or four homes their owners owned across the country. They had to sell one or more of them and Palm Springs seemed the most likely spot to move quickly in that kind of down market.

Palm Springs, like several select communities in California and other states, is an island in and of itself. It doesn’t reflect the average suburban town or community in this country. Through a mixture of history, terrain and attitude this desert community has separated itself from the rest of the masses. It’s a bubble; bright and colorful and sometimes quite luxurious. Nevertheless, a mylar illusion of what average means for most folks.

That’s OK, Alice in Wonderland had quite a ride and lived to write about it. Sharon and I get to watch and listen and learn. We’re both out of the Midwest; Minnesota born and raised. We will never close the door on that label above our heads.