Keeping Dry

18 November

I am grateful to be an athletic supporter. 

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I have never had any desire to learn how to surf. Besides the fact that the Pacific Ocean is considerably colder than the Atlantic, even during our summer (which occurs in October instead of August), there are sharks in that water. And surfers have to be very careful about draping themselves over a board waiting for a wave, lest they resemble something like dinner to a shark on the hunt. Also, I don’t swim very well. I can mostly save from myself from drowning (which was put to the test one summer before college graduation), but I tend to not seek out wild water situations.

Because of this, I have never tried to teach Blue how to surf. Or swim. I leave that to the experts. I think he would probably master it more quickly than I expect, but the idea of sitting in sand while he practices just sounds itchy. Twenty years of vacationing in South Carolina and it took 18 months of living in Southern California to realize that I really hate sand when it is part of life indefinitely. 

But it’s great fun to watch the surfers do their thing. And they are a determined sort. Like golfers. They will float on that board for hours, just waiting on their perfect wave. And, if you enjoy photographing them like I do, it often feels like you are out there bobbing with them. Because once they spring into action, so must you.

Neal and I have been watching Lost L.A. on the SoCal PBS channel on our Roku. That show alone has done wonders for giving me a sense of what we’ve missed by arriving 50 years too late and what is still here, waiting to be discovered by someone willing to open a door, scratch beneath the surface, journey to the middle of the desert. On one episode, the host explains the relationship Los Angelinos have with the environment. And you can’t talk about nature in L.A. without discussing the Santa Ana winds. Apparently, these hot gusts from the Santa Ana Canyon create epic surfing conditions, causing the waves to rise up and stay up, instead of being crushed by breezes coming inland off the ocean. I fear I may have missed my chance to photograph surfers on the ride of their lives since Santa Ana winds have most likely subsided until next year. But if one kicks up, this time I’ll be ready!

Not in Kansas Anymore

17 November

I am grateful for diversity. 

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OK this picture is meant to be rather tongue-in-cheek because Ensenada is located in Baja California. If California is still in the name, did you really even leave? But I use this photo because it’s the only one I have to represent the idea that I’m beginning to embrace other cultures besides the ones I’m most comfortable with (which basically only includes the culture of white girls from southeastern U.S.).

When I moved to Flagstaff, Arizona for about 10 minutes in 2001, I worked for a gentleman who, among other business ventures, owned a Mexican restaurant. I was his bookkeeper and the slew of illegal immigrants that staffed the kitchen used to call me La Princessa. I’m convinced it was a term of endearment. I also worked as a cocktail waitress at a bar/nightclub nicknamed The Zoo. We had “Latino Night” every week and, when the patrons asked for “la cerveza”, I, knowing zero Spanish despite living in Arizona, gave everyone a Corona. Because I used to drink Corona like water as a freshman in college and I knew that right there on the bottle it says, “la cerveza”. I was a disastrous cocktail waitress (and my tips reflected that), but it was especially awful on Latino Night. I had much better luck with the NAU frat boys on Dime Beer Wednesdays. But that’s a story for never.

The point is, until living in Southern California, I had largely viewed other cultures, and specifically the Hispanic culture, as one to coexist with, but not necessarily to mingle with. I could tolerate it, but I did not necessarily celebrate it. I’m going to get skewered for saying this, but this blog is known for its authenticity so here goes…until 18 months ago, I thought all Mexican food tasted the same, Dia de Los Muertos was creepy, Mexican blankets were silly souvenirs from your Spring Break at South Padre, Mariachi bands were annoying, and not understanding the language was a valid reason for pretending like the Hispanic culture (and its people) were just a phase in U.S. history. Like horchata or kimchi. (However, never once have I chanted “build the wall” and I believe that DACA babies have just as much a right to be here as I do.)

NOW…before y’all start commenting really awful things about what a narrow-minded ho-bag I am, hear me out.

I have lived in Kentucky, Georgia, Virginia, Kansas, and Pennsylvania. And Flagstaff, AZ for about 3 months until 9/11 sent me running home to all that was familiar and safe. I have not lived anywhere that has challenged me to accept another culture not only because it co-existed with mine, but because it was the majority and I was not. Stay-at-home white moms are all the rage in pretty much everywhere we’ve been stationed since 2010. I knew how to fall in step with downtown Richmond, Virginia and the Power and Light District in Kansas City. I discovered my place among the Amish and I ordered sweet tea and fried chicken with the best of ’em in Georgia. But here, I avoided the taco trucks because…well…all Mexican food tastes the same, right? And I was annoyed that there are 2 country music stations on the radio, 1 pop rock, 1 hard rock, and the rest are Spanish-speaking channels. Also, I didn’t speak the language. I once said to Mom after we had been here for about 6 months, “This is the closest you can get to living in another country without actually leaving the U.S.” And, I wasn’t wrong, but I was voicing it as a complaint. I should have been praising that observation.

Something happened to me in Ensenada. I allowed myself to become immersed in their culture for a few hours. Yes, I took shots of homemade tequila in the back of one guy’s store until I spent entirely too much dinero on Talavera serving bowls, but there was something else. The Hispanic culture isn’t garish, it is colorful. The people aren’t loud, they are expressive and warm. And, for the love of all that is good and holy about guacamole, not all Mexican food tastes the same. Tumbleweed and Chi Chis should be sued for what they did to this white girl’s palette. Dia de Los Muertos is a beautiful tradition that embraces death and invites us to draw nearer to those who have gone before us. Mexican blankets are the perfect protection between your bum and the desert floor, especially if you are waiting for the sun to set.

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I still don’t love Mariachi bands, but I think that has something to do with my disdain for brass instruments. I barely tolerate the trombone, but I have never been a fan of the trumpet.

The truth is, the Spaniards came up from Mexico and moved into California, establishing the mission system all the way up the coast. The only people who pre-date them are the tribes like the Tvonga people in the Los Angeles area. So, yes, I do actually think that blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls are the minority in these parts, but that’s OK. It has opened my mind and broadened my experience. And I’ve even learned some Spanish along the way. It did not occur to me until recently how deeply I’m going to miss the rich tapestry of heritage that makes up Southern California. A person can live here a lifetime and not fully comprehend the hundreds of cultures that endure, side-by-side, and primarily peacefully. But just by being exposed to them, it has made me a better person.

When the Real Ones Flood…

16 November

I am grateful for canals to kayak in. 

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Oh Europe and your intoxicating charm. Where would much of the U.S. be if Americans had always stayed on this side of the pond and not been tempted to catch a ship bound for foreign ports? The Vanderbilts would have had burlap curtains. We would not be drinking tea. And there would be no Italian canals in Southern California. But as it is, there are 2: Venice Canals at Venice Beach and Naples Canals in Long Beach. Abbott Kinney was first to recreate his vision of Italy on the shores just south of Santa Monica. How was he to know that Venice Beach would become synonymous with freak shows, bodybuilders, and, now, the homeless and the drug addicts? It started out so well…

Many things are more charming after dark. Venice Canals is one of them. Venice Beach is not. Venice Beach after dark is a good place to score some dope, get knifed, or step on a needle.

Long Beach is not much better. People check their life insurance policies before they cross the street. And best of luck finding a place to park anything bigger than a Vespa. But the Naples Canals, which are flanked by beautiful beach cottages, are fun to kayak. And I can’t believe I’ve gotten Blue, Neal, Big Mama and Nana Anna on the water. Rowing with a view. You can’t beat it. I’m not sure they are worthy of the gondoliers that some folks hire to paddle them around in a circle, but for $24 in a rented kayak, it’s certainly a different side of Long Beach.

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.

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.