Learn Some, Love Him Even More

13 November

I am grateful to learn more. 

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“There is a Patton Museum right outside the entrance to Joshua Tree,” Mom exclaimed, somewhat incredulously. I understand why because what on earth is it doing out there? We’ve been to the Patton Museum of Leadership at Fort Knox (which I guess used to have more weapons and war rhetoric when Fort Knox was home to Armor, but changed to the Museum of Leadership when the Army Human Resources Command Center re-located to Fort Knox from D.C. and Armor moved to Fort Benning. Personally, I would have rather seen it with the Armor-influenced exhibits because the new leadership slant requires a lot more reading.). The Fort Knox museum is fairly large with a lot of static displays. What could possibly be left to send to the desert? As it turns out, a lot.

The site for the Patton Museum in Chiriaco Summit (near Indio for anyone driving through after picking up a date shake and hopping a ride on the Palm Springs tram) sits on the Desert Training Center, where Patton commanded troops who were training for battle in Africa during World War II. I guess Africa and the Mojave/Sonoran Deserts are twinsies, much in the way that parts of California resemble Afghanistan. I’m not sure when the General Patton Memorial Museum was created, but it’s impressive given the fact that it’s really just one guy working to acquire artifacts that are tied to the Desert Training Center. And, whatever his background is, he has managed to lay it out in a way that is interesting, thought-provoking and gets the point across without laborious reading. Since having a child, that has become an important characteristic in a museum for me.

Outside, the Matzner Tank Pavilion and Tank Yard includes equipment from several eras, including the tank that Neal trained on back in the day (which is roughly 143 years ago if you ask Blue). We get so few opportunities to see these things together that I really do soak up every moment that I can to see exhibits through his eyes. He can tell you what this cable is for and what that rack holds. He can show you how to steer, how to stop, how to roll right over something in the way (but…like a rock, not a small child). I always wonder if he is triggered by anything else…the smell of the paint, the way it sounds on the move. None of this is part of my past so I listen to his stories and I take the pictures, but there is nothing for me to re-live.

I can see how men and women in the military would find each other, find comfort in the same experiences. If I was also in the service, I would be able to laugh about that one time I was stuck in a tank and had to pee so bad but 3 other people were within a foot of me. Or how we had that one harrowing night of sleeping on the top because we were stuck en route to a FOB. We would have those moments we could share while we close out everyone else around us. That’s a pretty significant part of Neal’s life that I appreciate but do not fully grasp. Fortunately, he spends an equal amount of time building memories with us that we can re-live and laugh about later. When we went to Sequoia and dry-camped but everything broke so by the end of the week we were basically living in a glorified tent. How it rained sideways for 3 days during a camping trip in Pennsylvania but we just sloshed through. What the Milky Way looks like from the darkest park on the eastern seaboard. By the time he’s done, Neal will have 40 years in the military and only about 20 years with me. But then the military part will end and I will go on. So, I win. In the meantime, he can take me to a tank yard any day.

Motivated to Move

12 November

I am grateful for fun, unexpected moments in the course of a normal day. 

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I am almost a serf (my initial thought was to put “slave” but that seems hyperbolic considering the actual life of a slave) to my bucket lists. When we get a new assignment, I spend hours and hours on Trulia looking for a house and on Pinterest, looking for things to do. Heaven help us should the assignment ever change mid-move (which has happened to people we know personally). I am not bored easily, but with a high-energy seven year old in the house, I feel a certain level of pressure to keep active during the waking hours. Sometimes that means playing in the dirt until the sun goes down, but sometimes it calls for a grander plan. So, I like to have several options at the ready for when we just need to get out of the house. This has not been a problem in Southern California. The bigger issue is narrowing it down. Beach or mountains. Hollywood or Joshua Tree. Biking or hiking. Museums or playgrounds. Music or silence. OK, I’m not exactly sure where you can go for complete silence around here. We once pulled into a very remote section of Sequoia National Park to have a picnic and someone actually drove by, looking for their own picnic spot. So, music or…traffic, I suppose. As a person who can be frozen into inaction by too many choices, it has been a challenge to just pick something. And then sometimes what’s on my bucket list from a Pinterest post from 2010 has closed or renovated into something completely different than it was before.

Such is the case with Clifton’s Cafeteria, which used to be an actual cafeteria housed in a room filled with taxidermied animals. Think: Blue Boar Cafeteria and the Rainforest Cafe have a baby. With a dash of L.A. tossed in at the last second. How could we not go? Unfortunately, apparently they shuttered a couple of years ago and just recently reopened sans food and with a pricey drink menu. As tempting as it is, I can’t serve my child a Manhattan for lunch just so I can check this place out. So, we ended up at Good Stuff Restaurant on Hermosa Beach. I mean…on Hermosa Beach. You step out of the dining area and onto sand. We watched volleyball players setting and spiking under a smog-cloaked sun and wondered who are these people on the beach at lunch on a Wednesday? And then, when our bellies were full of fish tacos, we walked the Hermosa Beach pier.

Hermosa Beach is the proud home of surfing, which came as a surprise to me because I’ve lived here for almost 2 years thinking surfing was born in Huntington Beach. The pier’s boardwalk incorporates a surfing walk of fame with inlaid plaques on both sides of the walkway. No surfers to be found last Thursday, though, as the tide was on its way out and the waves laid down lazily across the shore. But plenty of folks fished at the end of the pier and an abundance of birds looked for a snack dangling at the end of someone’s line. I was cautiously approaching this feathered friend, snapping away on my cell phone, when Blue made a sudden movement that caused him to splay his wings and take off. I caught the shot and then turned sharply to scold Blue for nearly ruining my picture. He looked at me and beamed. “Did you get it? I did that so you could get the action shot.” He was so proud of himself that I couldn’t quite bring myself to criticize him for scaring the wildlife. He knows better, but sometimes his instinct for the shot overrides everything else. We’ll work on that, but in the meantime, I do love an action photo.

Good Golly, Grunion

10 November

I am grateful for the grunion. 

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When we found out we were being stationed in Southern California, a fellow Army wife in our unit in Pennsylvania exclaimed, “You HAVE to go to the grunion run!” It sounded a little like a salmon run which, thanks to the Kratt brothers, is officially on my bucket list. So, I added “Grunion Run” to my notepad and then promptly forgot about it.

Our first grunion run was something of a bust. Just like everything else around here, everybody and their brother showed up so it meant Blue didn’t get to hatch a grunion because they ran out of eggs. And then we lost the group on our way out to the beach and ended up not seeing a single grunion in the wild. Grunion only come ashore in the spring and fall, during a full moon, an hour or 2 after the high tide…which in child-speak is basically “way past my bedtime, Mommy.” So, at around 10:30 PM, we gave up and went home.

For our second grunion run, we attended as members of our local aquarium. There were about 40 other people with plenty of eggs to go around. Blue and I hatched grunion and then followed the aquarium staff to the beach, which was nowhere close to where we ended up last time. At around 9:30, the grunion began to arrive…en masse.

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The females washed up, dug their holes and waited for a male to fertilize their eggs before leaping back out and catching the next wave out to sea. You really had to be careful where you stepped. If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would not believe such a thing existed. Apparently, some people catch and eat grunion…although it seems like it would be a lot of work for not much pay-off, but people are probably used to that mentality around here. I don’t have any desire to eat one, but it certainly was awesome to watch them mate and get whisked away again. Creating babies between the waves…talk about your 10 second contribution. But I guess that’s all it takes.

The Road Less Traveled

9 November

I am grateful for the road less traveled.  

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The road to the Racetrack Playa at Death Valley is no quick trip. In fact, we were warned against making it by several National Park Rangers and more than a few travel bloggers. But we did our homework, watched the YouTube videos, stocked up on water and snacks, and brought a spare tire. It took us 3 hours in each direction, traveling at approximately 15 mph for most of the drive. And the entire time, my biggest fear was that it would be a bust…that we wouldn’t see the famous sailing rocks of Death Valley. And that we (or the truck) would be worse for the wear. I don’t know why I worry. We saw some rocks. Not the big ones…the ones that end up on the front page of National Geographic. But we saw some and they looked like they had indeed been moved by the freezing and thawing of snow run-off…not by someone who thought it would be funny to mess with the tourists who had just made an entire day of driving over sharp rocks that may puncture a tire at the next turn. But what does Blue remember from that journey to the Racetrack…actually his sharpest memory from the entire weekend at Death Valley? This…

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Not many people make this drive so, because we were the only ones on the road, Neal let Blue drive for about 2 miles at 10 mph. And that was the highlight of his trip. Not the sailing rocks that have come to represent Death Valley in the way that a giant hole in the earth has come to represent all that is the Grand Canyon. It was, quite literally, the journey that thrilled Blue more than the destination.

And I need to remember that. I have fallen into a habit of handing Blue his Kindle when we are going to be in the car for awhile and it means that he isn’t soaking in the world around him. He isn’t interacting with it, he’s not incorporating what he sees with where he is on the map. I can’t let him drive on the 405, but I can help make the journey just as exciting as the destination, especially when we take that road less traveled.

Dangling off the map

8 November

I am grateful for this view, in any weather, during any season. 

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The base housing office has a website which features a cul-de-sac of houses with ocean views. Like “I’m just gonna toss this salad and watch for whales from my kitchen window” kind of ocean views. I desperately hoped to get one of those houses. We didn’t get an ocean view. We got a view of the Von’s sign and one of the many LAFD fire departments directly across the road. Between us and them is a busy stretch of road where people like to test the upper limit of their speedometers and see how much noise they can make while doing it. We don’t have ocean breezes, we have sirens.

But I can walk across the street, down the ocean path…less than a block away…and look at this. It’s not quite as great as looking at it from my bedroom window, but maybe I’m not supposed to have that. I believe in the grand scheme and I have always felt like we were offered this house for a reason. Even though we had to evict a gang of mice living in the garage and we have termites that pop up in unexpected places every few months…we are supposed to be in this house, with the perfect hill for finding lizards and the wide flat yard large enough for a trampoline and a Derby party at the same time. And whenever we want, we can walk across the street and see the ocean, reflecting the sunset with Catalina Island peeking through when she feels like it. I don’t love the beach. Blue and I both hate sand. But being able to walk from our house to a place where we can see it from up on the hill…watch it ebb and flow into eternity, that’s something special. Water as far as the eye can see. That has a way of making you feel like a very small fish in this very cold ocean.

What Does the Island Fox Say?

7 November

I am grateful for things hidden in plain sight. 

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This is the Island Fox. It only lives on the Channel Islands and this one happened to take up residence on Santa Cruz Island. It was cold and rainy when we took an island packet from Oxnard last January. The seas going to the island were rough, but they were worse on the return trip. The wind kicked up and I was glad I had splurged on that insulated wind breaker that was on sale in the gift shop. We brought a lunch, our cameras, not nearly enough layers, and the hopes of seeing an island fox. Just one. We saw about 6. One jumped up on the picnic table where Neal was sitting. One was rooting around in the grass next to the restrooms. If you caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of your eye, it was probably an island fox slinking by. They are not as elusive as I thought they would be, but you aren’t going to see one on your way to Von’s. You have to get out of town, you have to get on a boat, you have to pack in your own food and pack out your own trash. But if you can do all that, you will be rewarded with up-close encounters with one of the cutest little critters around.

Orange is the New Happy

6 November

I am grateful for beauty that springs eternal…or at least until the Instagrammers destroy it. 

The greatest irony about a “super bloom” in Southern California is that it springs from an unusually wet winter…which, in large part, is due to how many wildfires we’ve had the previous autumn. The fall of 2018 brought the disastrous Camp Fire in the north while we were experiencing hazy, orange sunsets from smoke blowing down the coast from the Woolsey Fire in Malibu. Driving through Zuma Beach one afternoon this summer, we saw the burned-out shells of multi-million dollar homes dotting an otherwise pristine neighborhood. Blowing embers are funny things. I always wonder if it’s Karma or just plain bad luck that makes them take flight and light where they do.

And I think it’s interesting that California’s state flower, the Golden Poppy, looks like a field on fire when it’s in full bloom. The orange flames licking at the coast gave rise to acres and acres of new, orange life inland. It’s not enough to forget the devastation of the year before, especially for those who lost families and homes, but it does soften the blow a tiny bit.

It’s illegal to pick a California Poppy. It’s also illegal to step on, sit on, or otherwise trample it, which is probably why Californians lost their ever-lovin’ minds last spring when scores of Instagramming social media influencers took to the fields with their floppy hats, big sunglasses, and jumpsuits. They sprawled out on a bed of flowers, picked them and then stuck them in their teeth, their hair, between their boobs, between their…well…never mind. They destroyed nature in an effort to prove that they were capable of being one with it. Thank goodness they were in the minority, although their destruction was magnified by their drive for more likes. On the whole, visitors stayed on the paths, refrained from picking them like weeds, and respected the fact that once a California Poppy is plucked, it could take generations for it to grow back in the wild.

Two weeks ago, we had 330 wildfires in 24 hours. I couldn’t believe that statistic but the local news said it, so it must be true. Fueled by a significant Santa Ana wind event and seriously low humidity (producing some pretty impressive lizard legs on everyone), anything that sparked was in danger of becoming a raging inferno. And that will probably lead to another unusually wet winter this year. Just right for one more super bloom before we go. I think I’ll leave my Instagram account at home.

What’s Trapped in Tar

5 November

I am grateful for a place where the Ice Age comes to life. 

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Let’s be honest…when I tell visitors that I’m taking them to the La Brea Tar Pits in downtown L.A., the response is usually an amusing mix of confusion and anticipated boredom. Branding does not seem to be the museum’s strong suit. Perhaps I should start selling it as, “A day spent exploring the current excavation sites, filled with the bones of saber tooth tigers and giant sloths.” That sounds like we might run into Indiana Jones, or at least Catherine Zeta-Jones, at any given moment.

The La Brea (“bray-uh”) Tar Pits were just a check-the-box item at first. It was on every single Pinterest L.A. bucket list so it had to be something, right? But as soon as you step through the gates, you can smell it. It smells like every interstate construction site between Cincinnati and the Smoky Mountains. Orange cones, speckled black, dot the grass. These mark the places where tar is actively bubbling up…presumably so social media influencers don’t accidentally drop a Jimmy Choo in a puddle of goo. The tar lake at the front of the property, which is bordered by Wilshire Boulevard (considered the “symbolic spine of L.A.”), is constantly burping air bubbles that have escaped. The woolly mammoths trapped in the tar lake might be fake, but the gas exchange going on under the surface is definitely real. Walking around the excavation sites is free, but if you really want to be wow’d, pay the museum admission. The Ice Age animals that were dug up outside have been reassembled inside and they. are. massive. Like no kids’ movie featuring Denis Leary and Ray Romano can prepare you for. Mammoths, ground sloths, an entire wall of saber tooth tiger skulls.

And, really, the Tar Pits are kind of an allegory for L.A. herself. The siren song of something wonderful (water on a hot day, an extra part in Modern Family…whatever) draws you to downtown L.A. You drink from that watering hole (of fame). Suddenly, your weight shifts, your feet sink, you are stuck. You struggle. You sink deeper. You are drowning and no one is coming to help. Here comes someone. No, wait. That’s someone who has been waiting for you…waiting for you to come here and die so that they can eat you. OK…maybe that just took a weird turn. But you’re stuck here in this awful place with no way to escape and things are looking pretty grim. The only twist of Karma is that the predator ends up getting stuck, as well. Looks like you’re going down together. And that is the story of the La Brea Tar Pits. And roughly half of Skid Row.

And now we are all marveling at your bones and paying $14 each for the pleasure.

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Although as a homeschool mom, it’s just really cool to see something so abstract as saber tooth tigers and woolly mammoths being extracted from the ground on a daily basis. It teaches Blue that the world has not run out of discoveries. He just needs to put on his safety goggles and go find them.

The Great Escape

4 November

I am grateful for a place where we can lose ourselves. 

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It was never a question of if we would visit Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks, but, rather, when. So, when some of us in the neighborhood started chatting at wine time one Friday afternoon about what our next adventure should be and someone mentioned these sibling national parks, it was almost a no-brainer from then, on.

When we arrived (after a somewhat harrowing journey down a narrow road that was barely meant for passing Priuses, much less trucks towing RVs), I had a headache, a pain in my right side that had been there for nearly a month, and sinus drainage that was threatening to become something worse. I had also started giving some serious thought to moving back to Kentucky for the duration of this duty station.  I needed to get out of L.A. 

After 3 days in the forest, Neal had to drag me home. I didn’t want to leave the place where I could finally breathe, hear nature, feel nature, feel relaxed, be unafraid. I did not worry that Blue ran out of sight for a second. I didn’t scold him for picking up trash, worried that meth residue might be on it. We ate our meals under the stars, listening to the crackle of fire and the creatures moving around under the cover of darkness. For over a year I had been lulled to sleep by the sound of drag racing between the stop lights behind our house, the sudden sirens of the fire station across the street. It’s like every small-town-country-girl-goes-to-the-city movie ever made…where she beds down for the night in her roach-infested motel room and drifts off to the sound of cursing spouses, screeching sirens, and the constant whine of traffic. I think maybe I hadn’t slept well in 14 months. But for 3 days I slept so deeply it almost made up for it.

And during the day, we explored shaded paths, lined by ferns, and found shelter inside the Sequoias. We looked up, as far as our stressed-out, city-dwelling necks would allow, stretching a little further each time. And we knelt down to smell the forest floor, the crushed bay leaves, and the pine needles that softened our step. We made a mile hike last for 3 hours. We went to bed by 9. We were 5 families escaping the city and, no, I did not want to come home. But having been in the flesh, I can now return any time in my mind.

Gone, But Not Forgotten

3 November

I am grateful for the opportunity to learn about different cultures and share them with our son. 

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Southern California has spent the better part of the weekend celebrating Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. Technically, I believe, it falls on 1 November for children who have passed on and 2 November for adults, but it was extended to the 3rd this year because of the weekend. So, festivals kicked off Friday night and didn’t stop until late this afternoon. All the better because everyone got an extra hour of sleep last night so they were fresh for today’s festivities.

My introduction to Dia de los Muertos was, like most other white girls who grew up in the southeast, wholly thanks to Coco. Although the first time we watched it, Blue only stuck around for the music, I remember thinking, “this is a beautiful, Mexican tradition that keeps the memories of those who have passed on from fading over time. It ensures that even more importantly than being honored, they are not forgotten.”

I have begged my parents to sit down and write out the stories they remember from childhood. Because the telling and re-telling of the story, from one generation to the next, is what we have left of those we may have never known. Right now it’s not as pressing because if it isn’t the plot of a Pokemon episode, Blue doesn’t have time for it. But someday that will change and I want to be ready. I can tell him that his great-grandmother loved eating at Carino’s and shopping 3 malls in one day until she was so tired, she didn’t know which one of the girls she was. I can tell him that his great-grandfather grew a garden that was the envy of the neighborhood and he knew the names of all the tellers at the credit union. But I can’t go much further back than that. If Dia de los Muertos was part of our family traditions, perhaps I would know more. I could re-tell more. I would certainly be able to remember who was who in the grainy black and white photographs that fill the shoebox in the top of my closet.

The ofrenda, with its punched, paper flags that flutter in the breeze, let family members know that the spirits have arrived. The sweet scent of Aztec marigolds draw those spirits even closer and their favorite foods and drinks adorn the alter, welcoming back those loved ones who have passed on. And, of course, the sugar skulls with their delicately piped features, colorful and creative.

I suppose we have Memorial Day. But that has become more about kicking off summer with a rack of ribs and a nap in the hammock. You don’t see Dia de los Muertos mattress sales or discounts on bulk meat. Maybe an influx of brightly decorated cookies, but I think it’s safe to say this holiday still revolves around remembering, in vivid detail, and sharing the stories of those who have passed on with younger generations. And there’s something deeply satisfying about knowing your stock.

Next year, Blue and I will construct an ofrenda. We will include pictures of his great-grandparents, his “Aunt” Traci, our cousin Chris, our friend and neighbor Sunny, our dear Lulu and Poppy. And perhaps we will include Shep, as well. There will be cat toys, a baby blanket, a plate of bacon, some beaded jewelry, and plenty of chocolate. We will, as they say in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, “commune with the dead so that we might understand the living.” And, perhaps, in doing so we will make death less about the devastating, permanent loss of someone we treasure and more about finding ways to relive, refresh the memories they made with us before they passed.