For a Good Time, Swing On By

15 November
I am grateful for a different perspective. 

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This is the Salton Sea. We drove around it on our way home from Joshua Tree last week. And by “on our way home”, I mean when we came out on the other side, we were right back where we started that morning. But we were so much wiser because…we had seen things.

The Salton Sea is the result of a poorly constructed farming irrigation canal busting when the Colorado River flooded in the early 1900’s. It started as just a giant sink hole, but when it filled with rain water, folks thought, “Well, this isn’t so bad. Let’s build some bungalows around it and open it up for water sports so people like Sonny Bono can pop over from Palm Springs on the weekends and water ski.” Oh, Sonny. If only he had stuck to water skiing….

And it went on like that for awhile. Until the early 90’s when it started to evaporate at an alarming rate. And since it’s a terminal lake with no outflow and the only inflow coming in from the nearby farms (with all their skull-and-crossbones fertilizers and pesticides), the fish started dying. The mud became toxic and the only sea creature able to survive it was the hardy tilapia (consider that the next time you order fish tacos). While Neal was trying to convince me that you can, in fact, swim in the Salton Sea, I was busy convincing Blue that it was a toxic wasteland of sludge that would make his penis turn purple and fall off. And with good reason. I only use soap and detergents that rate as “1” on the Environmental Working Group’s app. Why on earth would I then let my only child go swim in a glorified puddle of Round Up?

The concern is that climate change is going to cause the “sea” to continue shrinking, which will expose the mud, which will dry to dust and then whip across the state every time a Santa Ana wind makes up its mind to blow. According to an Atlantic Monthly article I read recently, the residents of Imperial County, where the Salton Sea is located, already has the highest percentage of respiratory illnesses and hospital stays. It doesn’t help that it’s also one of the poorest counties in the state.

But in the midst of…this…

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artists are still arriving in droves to create dynamic installations that shift with the weather and the seasons. As one local codger (on a 4-wheeler with the Confederate flag waving from a pole on the bumper) casually mentioned to Mom when she asked about the “art”, “If they can’t eat it or screw it, they set it on fire.”

So a lonely swing set sunk into toxic mud, surrounded by water that has killed everything but Walmart fish, does make a statement…

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It’s a Date

14 November

I am grateful for a date. And the shake it makes. 

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My experience with dates goes something like this: Oh look! They have these little date snacks rolled in crushed almonds! That looks like a healthy alternative to Snickers. I should buy these. *she buys these, she eats 3 on the way home, 2 more for dessert, and then sticks it in the pantry*

A couple weeks pass and the healthy date snacks get pushed back…behind the pretzels and the animal cookies and the hot chocolate mix.

Another couple weeks pass and now they are behind the risotto and the canned diced tomatoes and the bulk purchase of Lipton tea bags.

Another couple weeks pass and they have fallen through the back wall of the pantry into a land like Narnia but with more goats and less curious children. They are never seen again.

Until we move and they are recovered, a science project for a fair that has already passed.

Another couple weeks pass and I’m in Sprouts. I pick up a package of dates, rolled in almonds. I rub my Snickers-swollen belly. I should buy these. And I eat 3 on the way home…

Cultivation of the date plant did not arrive in the Coachella Valley along with post-modern houses and the Stagecoach music festival. The Spanish tried growing them at the missions along the coast in the mid-1800’s, but the conditions just weren’t quite right. Seeds of date palms ended up in the Coachella Valley in the early 1900’s and, as they say, it was love at first sight. Date farms exploded in and around Palm Springs, which is no small thing considering how much work goes into farming a date. As the film, “Romance and the Sex Life of the Date” explains at the Shields Date Farm, farmers must intercede between the male and female, helping the process along with a sprinkle and a dusting. These dates need help to have sex. Unlike most of the guys I knew in college.

Once propagated, the baby dates need constant care and attention. The roots must be flooded, but the dates can’t get wet. And they mature at different rates (also like most of the guys I knew in college) so the same bunch must be handpicked almost daily. But the result, at least at Shields, is a variety of dates, from Blonde and Burnette (which can only be purchased at their farm) to the more popular and well-known Medjool and Deglet dates. After learning about the sex life of the date, you can walk through the garden, which features a sort of life-size Stations of the Cross. Then follow that up with the cafe’s signature date burger, topped with sauteed Deglet Noor dates, bacon, and melted bleu cheese. (I will never eat another burger prepared any other way.) And then finish the whole thing off with a date shake, mixed with date crystals, dates, and vanilla ice cream.

So, we bought some dates. Then, two days later, we mixed half the container with 2 cups of ice cream and some milk and had another delicious date shake, minus the drive through the desert. Going forward, you can keep your root beer float, your In-N-Out chocolate shake, your Frosty, your Chick Fil A frosted lemonade, even your Starbucks peppermint mocha latte. Hand me a date shake and I’ll be a happy girl.

For the best date shake recipe, here’s the link: https://smittenkitchen.com/2016/04/palm-springs-date-shake-monkey-flip/ Thanks, Smitten Kitchen. You’re a top-rate date.

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.

The Great Balancing Act

11 November

I am grateful for this life and the many Veterans that make it possible. 

 

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The homecoming after our last, but perhaps not final, deployment. I don’t know if being the daughter of an active duty National Guard soldier made it any more likely that I would marry a soldier or not. It certainly gave me a foundation of understanding and patience for when my wants and the needs of the mission don’t align. What I’ve understood since I was a child is when you’re in the military, that comes first. That’s not always easy for spouses or kids, but it’s even harder for the servicemembers because the last thing they want to do is cause their families to suffer. Up to this point, I have been able to move to a new area, get the lay of the land, and then fall in lockstep with the residents who have been there since birth. I have always had more pros than cons, I have been able to look a neighbor in the eye and say, “We love it here. I wish we could stay longer.” Not here. Not only have I been unhappy, I have been borderline depressed for almost 2 years and I know that has caused Neal a great deal of angst and anxiety. After all, it is his career that carried us here. But I have tried not to lay my burden at his feet and he has done his best to make it tolerable for me. This Veterans Day I would like to say Thank You to all of the men and women who have gone before us, who serve along beside Neal. Your friendship and your leadership have inspired and humbled us…and even kept us going sometimes. But I want to especially say Thank You to Neal, who not only continues to answer the call of service, even on weekends that aren’t drill weekends, even at 10 PM on a holiday weekend, even when he has worked the last 10 days and won’t get a day off for another 10…but also makes time to serve as our pack’s Cubmaster, tries to get home early enough to have light saber battles with our 7 year old on the trampoline, agrees to take me out of L.A. enough to keep me sane. A Veteran doesn’t just serve our country, he or she must also juggle the duties of Mom, Dad, caregiver, soccer coach, Scout leader, and swim team taxi service. Since the inception of our military, men and women have been going above and beyond the oath. They may have been drafted, but they still served, they lived by a code and set the example for others. They may have only served a few years, they may have made a career out of it…whatever the case, they agreed to sacrifice their will for the good of the mission and to try to make their families happy at the same time. That’s why we salute you today and everyday. Thank you, Neal, for making this life possible…for rejoicing with me when the times are good and for standing by me when they’re not. May we have at least a few more adventures before it’s time to hang up the uniform and unpack the boxes one last time.

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.