Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Below the Line of Living

It was a ‘Mad Max’ holiday replete with mummies at East Jesus, flying dune buggies, a conflagration in Slab City and a death stare at Bombay Beach. All of this and more for our Minnesota house guests on a quiet outing to the back side of civilization.

It all began safely enough with a return to the Salton Sea. That briny morass of faded dreams, high hopes for the future and dead fish scales underfoot intrigued our friends from Minnesota. It’s hard to explain what the sea used to be.  

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.

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.

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.

Salvation Mountain is one of the premiere examples of folk art in the middle of nowhere America. At least that was what all the travel guides said. I’m not sure our guests were that impressed.

The site has become a mecca for those influenced by and intrigued with this kaleidoscope of painted hills, crude cave dwellings and religious scripture. The cave’s paint can and hay bale construction would challenge even the most daring of spelunkers. Who knew that such a place would continue to draw visitors long after its creator had passed away?

The artwork is made from adobe, straw and thousands of gallons of lead-free paint. It was created by the late Leonard Knight (1931-2014). A deeply religious man, Knight created an art piece that encompasses numerous murals and areas painted with Christian sayings and Bible verses. Knight’s philosophy was built around the ‘Sinners Prayer.’

The old mountain carver is gone now and replaced by Jesus People and their small hugging kids. Many visitors bring paint to donate to the project and a group of volunteers has been working to protect and maintain the site.

Maybe it was the line of dune buggies flying over the hilltop and descending on Salvation Mountain that signaled our next decent into hell’s crude cousin. The thick black smoke rising out of Slab City didn’t offer any solace from the mild trepidations our guests felt at that moment.

Slab City otherwise known as ‘The Slabs’ is a snowbird campsite used by recreational vehicle owners alongside squatters from across North America. It takes its name from the concrete slabs that remain from an abandoned World War II Marine barracks of Camp Dunlap.

It’s estimated that there are about one and fifty permanent residents (squatters) who live in the slabs year around. Some live on government checks, others just want to live ‘off the grid’ and a few come to stretch out their retirement income. The camp has no electricity, no running water, no sewers or toilets and no trash pickup service. Sounds like a dry run for the apocalypse.

Despite the free shoe tree on the way into town and the free library, most of the residents have sectioned off their trailers, tents and sleeping bags with tires, pallets or barbwire. Free is free unless it comes to their piece of the desert then even squatters want their personal space recognized.

No trip to Slab City would be complete with a swing by East Jesus. Although not avid art patrons, our friends couldn’t help but be astounded by the creativity or facsimile thereof in that ghetto of makeshift art pieces.

East Jesus has been described as an experimental, sustainable art installation. East Jesus is a colloquialism for the middle of nowhere beyond the edge of services. Made from discarded material that has been reused, recycled or repurposed, East Jesus encourages visitors to imagine a world without waste in which every action is an opportunity for self-expression.

I think West Satan is a simply a suburb of East Jesus. I found the art gallery there fascinating and mind-expanding. It was tripping out without the acid and a glimpse into the lives of those who don’t want to be a part of ‘any scene’ here in fantasy land or the rest of the world.

Adding to the excitement of our visit to this Mad Max wonderland was the black heavy smoke pouring out of a cluster of shacks alongside the only gravel road in and out of town. The inky-black cloud that obliterated the sun wasn’t bad enough. It was the popping sounds of something; aerosol cans or cartridges exploding in the yellow-red flames licking at the ramshackle buildings that caused us to crouch low as we scampered back to our car. None of us wanted to become collateral damage to the fire.

I’ve always been intrigued by a dark cluster of trailer homes strewn alongside the Salton Sea half way to Slab City. Its name ‘Bombay Beach, North Shore’ always seemed like the perfect title for a play. I had to swing by just to satisfy my curiosity.

With apologies to Slab City, Bombay Beach isn’t much of an alternative. Its housing seems beaten down by the harsh summers and its distance from civilization. We drove down its main street and intended to stop to ask directions until we looked into the dead-eyes of one young woman shuffling down the gravel roadway. One stare was enough for us to gun the engine and ‘get out of Dodge.’

On the way back to civilization our friends wanted to stop by the famous Date Shack. Where else but California would we find ourselves surrounded by several large Mexican families, seven Muslim women in their hijabs and two Black World War Two veterans dressed in their crisp Sunday best? (It was Veteran’s Day.) We chatted with the two veterans for a little while, thanked them for their service and settled into a corner table to watch the melting pot of California enjoy their date shakes. Four White folks experiencing the best that our adopted state has to offer.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Life As Art

Sunset in the desert

Last May I wrote a blog entitled Gift of Perspective.  It was about living my life with gratitude. Recently there was an article in Success Magazine entitled How to Live a Beautiful life. It got me thinking again of all those wonderful things that surround my everyday life.
I’ve always been aware of the deep peacefulness and quiet comfort I’ve found resting on my tabernacle or surrounded in a chapel of deep woods. More recently I’ve become even more aware of those fleeting moments and events that somehow come together into what we simply call our everyday life.
Sunrise over the mountains
A Northern Minnesota lake coming awake
Hummingbirds flitting about

Story time with grandchildren

My tabernacle high in the mountains

Dappled skies of pink
In the zone trail running

Friendly visitor
Sunset at Crystal Cove - Newport Beach, CA

Lake Superior restlessness

Morning coffee on the porch
Excitement of Grandchildren

Early morning bike ride
Baby hummingbirds

Rainbow over the mountain

More story time with the grandchildren
Out of my comfort zone (Brian and I in Slot Canyon)
California Coast at dusk

Our lives are like a tapestry and we get to paint it any color we wish. There is beauty all around us. Find it, embrace it, love it and live it.
Become a part of it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Saint Joseph has Left the Building

More out of curiosity than anything else I thought I’d revisit my early morning haunt at Starbucks. This particular store is on the outskirts of downtown and always seems to attract a smattering of circus performers without the circus. In the early morning hours, before normal people are beginning to stir in their beds, these shadows of the night begin to emerge from the darkness and slip into their caffeine-induced second home.

For years when I was in town, I had a habit of rising early and sequestering myself there in some corner chair to get lost in my iPad and light roast. Over the last couple of years that’s been supplanted by my own coffee maker at home and a chair on the patio, watching the sunrise cast its eerie glow over the mountains nearby. Recently I haven’t seen St. Joseph in a long time.

Each morning back then I would find Saint Joseph in his corner chair, waiting to council and administer to the daily needs of his flock. So one day last week I retraced my route back to that coffee corner for lost souls. I waited that morning and the next. He never showed. It didn’t take long to realize that nothing had really changed except my change of venue and St. Joseph was gone. Finally I asked one of the wait staff and they just shrugged their shoulders and mumbled: “Sorry, I don’t know.”

St. Joseph was a fixture and a character there for many years. He always held court at the same corner table. Same table, same time, always the same place. Seven days a week since at least 2010 when I first started going to there.

The only variable would be his entourage for any particular day and the visiting dignitaries who shuffled by for their coffee fix and to stop at his office for a brief exchange of wisdom before melting into the night once again.

Joseph was an older gentleman, probably in his mid-seventies. He was always cheerful, ready with a smile and a laugh. He had a pleasant demeanor that never varied with the seasons or time of day. I don’t know if Joseph was married or gay or straight. And it hardly mattered especially in a place like Palm Springs.  He was a councilor, advisor, cheerleader, friend, listener and seeker of the good in everyone he met.

For many people, Joseph was their early morning elixir for what ailed them on that particular day. Unlike the old men who gather at coffee shops around the world to blather on about nothing and expose their ignorance with Monday morning quarterbacking, second-guessing politicians and berating the government, Joseph was articulate, thoughtful and intelligent.
His entourage varied from day to day as did his visitors. There was an older woman who was usually at his side. I couldn’t tell if they were married, living together or just friends in need of companionship. She seemed to be the ying for his yang.

There was usually some old curmudgeon who would be bitching about something and always countered by Joseph’s calm response. The man was like a bad cliché but he doesn’t know it or seem to care. He would just keep embarrassing himself with his statements. Joseph was the man’s patient sounding board. I sometimes think Joseph’s nickname should be chuckles for his quick wit and logical response to the man’s anal chattering on about nothing.

Others would come and go. A few lingered but most just sat for a little while in Joseph’s corner and then moved on with their lives.

The conversations vary by the day. One time it might be the local news sprinkled with criticism of national politics. The next might be the weather; summer is hot, the rest of the year is wonderful. The conversations would be open, honest and usually bent toward the left which was not surprising considering the community that hosted them.

One time Joseph and his merry band of mischief-makers moved all the furniture around to suit their taste that day. They called themselves “Interior Desiccators.” Management wasn’t pleased and moved the furniture back in place. The next day, the game began again. Joseph won and management capitulated.

Another day, they dissected a local play. They decided it was Dr. Cold Fingers who was the proctologist. They ran lines of their own: “If you twitter my…I’ll google your”…and “two pickles short of a hamburger. ” None of it was really funny except that it was five in the morning and the caffeine hadn’t worked its magic yet. So they thought themselves hilarious.

Crossword puzzles were always a hit and usually completed in short order with a host of quick minds attacking the empty blocks. Often times, arguments arose and the dictionary (part of Joseph’s arsenal of support material) settled the answer.

The cadre of visitors varied each day but some stand out in my mind. There was the younger woman who lived in her wheelchair. She moved around by using her crutches as walking sticks. She had the sad eyes of a fawn that has just lost her mother. But she had many friends at Starbucks and seemed to relish their company.

There was the muscle man, built solid as a rock, who walked a toy poodle. The dog was his trusted companion and he loved that animal. Mr. Bojangles anyone. Dogs were always a part of the daily entourage. There’s still a dish of water for them outside every morning.

There was always the man in one corner with his flashlight, scanning the pages of the LA Times and N.Y. Times because, as he explained it, ‘the damn lighting was so bad inside.’

By 7:00 or 7:30, Joseph would be gone. I had no idea where he went to every day. But it didn’t really matter. Joseph was sure to be back the next day, same place, same time. There would be the same flock of casual friends looking forward to his ready smile, quick and easy-to-swallow dose of friendship. For many folks, that’s all that was needed to face another day and their reality, if only for a moment in time.

That outpost of Schultz’s coffee kingdom reminds me of the Triangle Bar on the West Bank and the Amsterdam Coffee houses of my past. But that’s all changed now. Their prices have all gone up. The cast and crew have changed over the years and little remains of those memories other than the same old cracked leather chairs and newspapers piled up in one corner.

Back then, I was just a casual observer, taking a lot of mental notes and thinking what a wonderful play this disciple of the caffeine crowd would make. But St. Joseph will have to wait. Sage came first with her ‘Riot at Sage Corner’ and now I’ve got an ensemble of characters attending their 50th high school reunion. Perhaps after that I can revisit St. Joseph once again.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

California Mindset

The beauty of this great state lies in its diversity of people and places.

I was on the East Coast a while back to savor the salty brine of the Chesapeake Bay and the cloister phobic cacophony that is New York City. While both were replete with their own virtues and charms I once again found myself dreaming cross country to the land of wild dreams, mythical goddesses and eternal sunshine.

Perhaps it started back in the mid-50’s when well-to-do families started to fly off to Hawaii for vacation. Maybe it was the mid-sixties when the Beach Boys and their surfing music introduced us mid-westerners to the California beach scene. By the time ‘Beach Blanket Bingo’ came along we had all been inundated with beach party / surfing movies starring Annette Funichello and Frankie Avalon. Most of my friends and I totally bought into that fantasy image of the California sun, sand and beach bunnies. We were hooked. California has been doing that to out-of-staters ever since.

The migration to California has been going on since before the great depression and continues to this day. For the snowbirds it’s like watching the seasonal migration of the wildebeest in a Disney nature film; clean, sanitized and kid-friendly. Despite its roller-coaster economics and left-leaning politics, California continues to attract old and young alike.

For some reason the state seems to hold fast to its long-held moniker that ‘whatever happens first on the coast will eventually move to the Midwest and then the other coast.’ Whether it is massive housing developments, movie magic, new computer technologies, solar initiatives, fashion trends or otherwise innovative, invasive, or surprising new trends in all sectors of our lives, many of them seem to happen first there. Perhaps that’s why I like the place so much. As much as I like the Midwest, California speaks to me in a voice that is fresh, exciting and at times provocative.

It’s the perfect environment for a writer trying to observe and capture a fifty-year class reunion as an unobtrusive speck on the wall.  ‘Riot’ was born here as well as ‘Debris’ and some tales of the wild west. There always seems to be more plays and novels to write here.

California is the perfect natural setting for such ventures. Its manicured golf courses and clear blue skies belie an undercurrent of mystery and intrigue and confusing lives. What more perfect setting for the creative mind. The warm sun beckons. The mountains are calling. The ocean is just over the horizon and I get to ruminate all those stories swirling about in my head. It’s all good.