Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Changing Perception

Aerial of Palm Springs
Sometimes if you’re too close to something, it can change and evolve and morph into a new stage of its existence and you don’t notice it at all. Palm Springs is a good case in point. This desert town, long synonymous with mid-century modern architecture, had been the playground of the Hollywood elite and well-heeled retirees for many years. Then gradually as tastes changed and old movie stars passed on, the city grew tired. Now within the last couple of years it’s become a hot spot for hipsters, telecommuters, and members of the LGBT community.

The changes were subtle and gradual at first. It was a transition as fluid and smooth as a river changing course. Other communities down Valley haven’t experienced the changes as much. Their miles and miles of gated communities are well established and reticent for any kind of major change. They’re content with their tee times, Four O’clock cocktail hour and early bedtime.

Palm Springs began its acceleration of changes after the recession of 2008. Sharon and I began coming out here in 2000 and have lived and experienced the changes as we ourselves morphed from vacationers to knowledgeable visitors to homeowners to being a part of our neighborhood and, we hope, a fabric in our community.

Photo courtesy of Melvin Hale

The village of Palm Springs was first developed in the 1930’s as a weekend getaway for the L.A. crowd. But it wasn’t until the 1950’s that it gained a much broader appeal when the Alexander Construction Company built more than two thousand contemporary, stylish and most importantly affordable tract homes. The key then as now lies in its affordability.

Granted, affordability is a strictly California oxymoron as far as housing is concerned. Past reports of outrageous prices for housing are not an exaggeration in many California cities and communities.

As of January of this year, the average price for a single-family home in Palm Springs was about $495,000 and a condominium unit for around $220,000. Compare that to the median price for a single-family home in Los Angeles at about $704,500 with a 2.9 percent projected increase by 2019. Crazy but true, it’s cheaper to live in Palm Springs than L.A.

The most visible changes are taking place downtown. In its heyday, L.A. had its Sunset Strip and Chicago had its miracle mile. Many cities across the country have their own branded tentacles of food, drink, lodging and entertainment. Now Palm Springs has done them one better with its own small-town village atmosphere cloaked as a 21st century hotspot.

Back in its glory days, Palm Springs was a classic example of heighten expectations clashing with the reality of desert stargazing. In reality it was only the well-heeled or coastal-connected that got to hang out with the stars. For the average visitor Palm Canyon Drive was just a welcome respite from the normalcy back home even while it harbored high hopes for seeing one of their favorite stars passing by on the sidewalk. Over the last several years Palm Springs has slowly regained its panache.

West Coast hipsters, designers, remodelers, artists, musicians and actors are all rediscovering what their forefathers knew all along. They’re finding that wrapping those warm blue pools with a healthy shot of alcohol can bring out a hedonistic nature in the best of us.

Saguaro Hotel Pool

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 this new make-over process. Most observers agree 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. Now there is a whole cache of hotels like the Saguaro changing hands and branding themselves as ‘hip.’

Aerial of the Coachella Valley

Palm Springs and its surrounding locales have always attracted an eclectic assortment of artists, musicians, painters and other veterans of the school of hard knocks. It’s a mecca for the rich, the famous and the enfranchised. This new Palm Springs fits in nicely to this new composite form of creativity.

Some chose 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. It’s 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 musician.

Map of the high dessert

The Salton Sea

The footprint of the Salton Sea edges alongside nowhere which is north of nothing of interest…for the casual outsider.  It is a briny morass of faded real estate dreams and dead fish scales underfoot. 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.

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.

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 say. The site has become a mecca for those influenced by and intrigued with this kaleidoscope of painted hills, crude cave dwellings, and religious scriptures.

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.

The artists at Slab City describe it 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.

Intertwined with the remote outposts of creativity are other artist colonies such as the one up in Idyllwild or the other mountain enclaves in Big Bear and Arrowhead. Laguna Beach is two hours and a world away from the desert but offers the same kind of mind-expanding atmosphere in which to play.

There is still something magical about the surrounding mountains, desertscape, warm winter months and hip happenings all over town. Palm Springs is now a virtual cornucopia of cultural, artistic, sensual, musical and intellectual stirrings for just about everyone from the art culture-types to the more modest of minds. It all seems to be happening here.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018


Everyone agreed that he was one tough investigative journalist. He didn’t mince words. He told it like it was. He wasn’t afraid to confront any politician or government official that he didn’t think was doing their job. He was fearless, they all agreed. His public persona was one that he liked to sharpen and hone every chance he got. Yep, he certainly was who he was.

When he died, those in the know, those who dealt with him, those who had to work with him day in and day out, they all agreed…that he was a total asshole (their words, not mine). At his wake, few words were minced. Yeah, he was brazen all right, his colleagues agreed. Many said they wished they had his guts, gall, and bravado. Nevertheless, he was still a jerk. Hell of a legacy to leave behind if you ask me.

Then there was a contractor in our community. Many folks claimed he was one of the wealthiest businessmen that no one had ever heard of. At his wake, the consistent message was that he was one tough operator and…that was about it. No mention of any charity work he’d done, no improvements or contributions to his community (it seemed he owned half the place in the beginning), no mention of helping others in need. He just ran his business with an iron fist and made lots of money. Hell of a way to be remembered in the end.

That got me to thinking about my / our respective legacies when the time comes to take a bow and move on to the so-called afterlife.

I grew up without a father or male role model in my life. There was a void of our lives that my Mother chose not to fill with any references or mementos of the man who brought me into this world. So all I have are scratches of tidbits scribbled on a fading memory bank. No good memories, no bad memories, no legacy at all. Nothing of the man who gave me life.

I’ve spoken in the past of my three aunts. From my earliest memories, they seemed like cold indifferent individuals who didn’t particularly care if I existed or not. They really were at the apex of that old time cliché about children ‘better to be seen and not heard.’

My mother with her parents

Horses on my grandparents' farm

What they were really like in ‘real life’ I have no idea. Their backgrounds were similar to that of my Mothers and it was a tough one. There was little to no appreciation for the value of an education. Collectively, they all seemed to have an attraction to men who didn’t value women and had a problem with the drink. By the time they passed, I was either in the service or far removed from my past life. They all passed on and it mattered little to me. Unfortunately, my memories of them are not good ones. That then is their legacy.

Erwin holding our son Brian

My stepfather, Erwin, was a charmer up until the end at age 104. After my mother got ill, we had to place Erwin in a nursing home. He didn’t last long there but his residency was one of mass every morning and sneaking candy into his pew. He loved to sit outdoors and watch the birds and he could still wrangle a card game with the best of them.

My mother only started to slow down near the end of her life and to be honest it was my sister and Sharon who took up the yeoman’s share of caring for her. Marlene and Sharon were saints even when my mother wasn’t. Fortunately, for me my memories began to thin out and dissipate before she got old and ill. I only remember her in fleeting fading glimpses at my past life growing up on Randolph Avenue in Saint Paul. I wish her legacy was clearer than it is. What I remember was good and honest and sincere. She led by example and I became her follower. One could not ask for more.

Sharon and her parents

Other folks have told me about the challenges they went through caring for their aging parents until the end. Everyone faces their eminent demise in their own way. Some are grateful for a life well lived. Some are content with their contributions to society. Others are happy with their children and grandchildren. Others wonder if they’ve prayed enough of late to get them reserved seats beyond the pearly gates.

I’m still pondering my legacy. I hope it’s seen in a life well lived. The solid companionship of a wonderful woman and offspring that warm my heart by their very presence.

It certainly won’t be an accumulation of material goods, second homes, or trips traveled. I hope it’s seen in the accomplishments of my children, the growing success of my grandchildren and a couple of books and plays thrown in for good measure.

If leading by example has any value I’d like to believe I paved a way that my kids and grandkids might want to emulate. As for me, the words I don’t ever want to utter are: woulda, coulda, shoulda.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Fortress Singapore

I found it interesting that the President decided to use Singapore as his meeting place with the dictator from North Korea. Singapore is a fascinating country in that it chose, a long time ago, to follows its own path into the Twenty-First century.

Its strict laws have been criticized by Westerners as barbaric and cruel by our standards. Nevertheless, their adherence to conformity hasn’t diminished their success in the marketplace; regionally or worldwide. I found Singapore to be at once modern and ancient, congested and clean. It felt extremely safe for a large metropolitan area.

We traveled to Singapore as part of an Asian trip when Sharon was President of her local Rotary club in Apple Valley. After Singapore, we traveled through Bali, Thailand and Hong Kong. Without a doubt, Singapore was the highlight of our trip.

Long before that trip, there was a special place for Singapore harbored in my imagination. That fascination with the Island State had been fueled years earlier while I was still in high school. Two books by one of my favorite English authors, Alistair MacLean, began this life-long interest with World War Two; especially the early stages of Japanese conquest of the Far East.

Alistair MacLean’s first novel was entitled ‘H.M.S. Ulysses.’ It was based on the infamous Murmansk run. A dangerous convoy trip from America and England to send supplies to Russia. One of the most lethal convoys was the Murmansk Run across the North Atlantic and from Iceland to the Russian ports of Murmansk, Archangel, and Kola Inlet. It involved more hazards than in any other kind of naval duty. In addition, prior to the spring of 1943, when an effective Allied antisubmarine offensive got underway, ships and men making the so-called “Murmansk Run” had about a one in three chance of returning alive.

The icy waters of the North Atlantic and hunter-killer U-boats meant certain death to any crewman unlucky enough to have his ship torpedoed during the trip. Hence the great song by Woody Guthrie ‘The Rubin James.’

The second novel, which tied directly to the fall of Singapore, was entitled: ‘South by Java Head.’ Winston Churchill had called Singapore the “Gibraltar of the East.” An impregnable fortress at the heart of the British empire in the Far East.

When the island fortress fell to Japanese forces on February 15th 1941, it marked the beginning of the end for the British Empire’s extended colonies. The ‘jewel in the crown of the British Empire’, India, gained independence in 1947. Other British holdings followed: Burma in 1948, Malaya in 1957, and Singapore soon after. And it all began with the fall of Singapore.

I’ve already written a 30-page treatment for my own novel about the fall of Singapore. It’s entitled: ‘Siloso,’ named after the last British fortress on the Island to fall to the invading Japanese soldiers. Right now it patiently waits behind other treatments for plays, screenplays and novels each shuffling around in my brain, trying to grab my full attention and a place at the head of my ‘to do’ list.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

DNA and Me

My DNA results are back and it’s left me as clueless as before. A few years ago Sharon spent considerable time working on our respective ancestries. She was able to trace her elders back to Germany and a few strains for me back to France. She felt satisfied with her findings and hopes to do more research in the future.

My new DNA results from Ancestry.com (ancestryDNA) did spread out my forefathers further along than France where Sharon had uncovered some rumblings of a past for me. My new Ancestry DNA found that 58% of my relatives came from Europe West (defined as Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg). Further along, another 19% came from the Iberian Peninsula and finally 18% from Great Britain. If I was hoping for old real estate or land holdings in France still in my name, it wasn’t there.

I guess if you go back far enough one can probably find traces of their past beyond recorded time. At least there seemed to be no traces of Neanderthal in my past. What did intrigue me was under the title of ‘Migrations.’ That was listed as Saint Lawrence River French Settlers. Ever the dramatist that seemed like a great back water for me to follow. Who cares about relatives coming over in a steamer trunk or over the Bearings Straits, I had French fur traders, Indian fighters and adventurers to stir up my imagination.

In the past, I’ve never been a big fan of Genealogy or family trees. I tend to dismiss those infamous tall tales handed down through the ranks of relatives about the ‘good old days.’ The past is the past and can’t be changed. Or so I thought.

Perhaps this laissez-faire attitude comes from my own upbringing. Being raised in a single parent household we never recognized the absence of my father. So it was hardly an incentive for me to care about my own ancestry. Today we’d probably categorize ours as a dysfunctional family. But it didn’t seem that way to my sister and me at the time. We were poor (maybe lower middle class is a better moniker) but so were many of our friends. We had a place to call home and went to good schools so little else mattered.

Therefore, it was with only mild interest that I watched my wife begin her search for our respective family trees. Sharon very quickly became immersed in the search and began tabulating ancestors on both sides of our family. Thus far she has researched more than 152 individuals. She was able to go back to the 1600s in Germany. The oldest person she’s found was Pierre Helle who was born in 1676. France, Germany, and Canada seem to be the favorite countries of origin.

As she clicked along, some fascinating facts began to emerge.

For example, there has always been a ‘George’ Schumacher for at least eight generations back on her side of the family. Her descendants came from a small village in Germany, no surprise there. One distant relative served in the Illinois Infantry Regiment, Company E, Unit 31.

My mother’s roots followed a much similar lineage. Her grandparents also go back to another part of Germany. There was a grandfather who fought in the Civil War. He went in as a private and came out the same. But he did survive. Our assumption is that he probably got his farmland in Sterns County from the government for his time in the service. That seemed to happen to a lot of returning veterans. Most of my distant relatives come from Sterns County or nearby.

Another relative was rumored to have had thirty kids although that hasn’t been confirmed. Now that’s a shame because it would have been a reality TV series, guaranteed.

The real mystery begins with my father; no surprise there. As far back as I can remember there was never any mention of his ever being alive. Growing up, there were no pictures of him in our home nor any references to him at extended family gatherings. It was as if he never existed.

I was too young to understand the significance of his absence in my life. The only comment I ever got from my Aunts was that it was OK not having a father and (hint hint) I was probably better off that way. My Uncles had nothing to say…about anything.

Growing up, I always sensed a kind of animosity on my aunt’s part toward my sister and me. I could never figure that one out. Now with age and this research it’s become a little clearer. Doesn’t hurt any less but it’s more explainable. As time passed, I became aware of real families with a father and a mother…just like in the chapter books at school.

Photo Credit: Jerry Hoffman

Back in the early fifties on Randolph Avenue, it was just the three of us: my mother, my sister, and I. We were each dealing with life on different levels. My sister has a lot of memories of that period growing up in Saint Paul. I have practically none. I’m not sure what that says or means but it remains a fact.

I vaguely remembered that my father’s lineage was French Canadian. Beyond that… little else. He had been married once before. There was a lot of confusion about whether or not there had been a divorce or annulment with his first marriage. He married my mother but we’re not sure when. The reasons for their separation and subsequent divorce had been clouded by denial, mis-statements, and confusion. About the time my Mother decided to come clean, the fog of aging and miles traveled made any clear recollection of times past just a guessing game on her part.

My Parents' Wedding Day

Thirteen years after my mother’s death, Sharon finally began making some headway on un-wrapping the mystery of my father. It’s been one long and arduous journey fraught with poor records, incorrect dates, family lies, and purposeful misstatements to protect the innocent…or so they thought.

Stumbling back in time, we found out that the core of my ancestors settled in Quebec, Canada. Their descendants came from France. Now I’m inclined to imagine them as French settlers or fur traders plying the waters of Canada in their long boats.

One of my grandfathers was a ‘wagon loader.’ Laugh as you might, today he’d probably be working for UPS in logistics and making a nice income. Back in my college years, I used to load and unload trucks in the dead of winter. Now I know where those deft skills came from.

The French nuns at the little French school in downtown Saint Paul had a huge impact on my life even if I didn’t know it at the time. When the school was built back in the 1873, it was meant for the children of second and third generation French settlers.

By the time my sister and I started school there, it was a cosmopolitan smorgasbord of ethnic groups. There were Irish, Italian, German, Spanish and oriental students. Almost all of them lived along the fringe of the downtown loop. Unlike all of our white counterparts where we lived in Highland Park, it made for some interesting playground banter.

Turns out, I love Cajun music and French cinema; especially romantic comedies. I love the gentility and flow of the French language. I loved Paris two summers ago and want to return there soon. Something French must have rubbed off on me. I tried to explain that in a past blog entitled A Catholic Education.

It turns out there was a critical junction or fork in my ancestral road. The road split and one branch was named Lacombe and the other LaTulippe. The plot of flowers was on my grandmother’s side. I never knew her but she must have been a wise woman to have chosen Lacombe. At least I didn’t have to defend myself in grade school from some bully mocking my name.

Another interesting fact was the evolution of the name LaComb. If you go far enough back there used to be an ‘e’ at the end of Lacombe. At another point, the ‘c’ became capitalized.

I was surprised to see on my birth certificate that my name was spelled: Dennis. When I asked my mother why it had been changed she had a simple explanation. She said that in first grade, the French nuns informed her that the proper spelling of my name was Denis. Mom knew better than to mess with the French nuns.

That’s OK; I’ve grown quite accustomed to Denis…and besides it’s not too flowery.