Like Living in a Holiday Greeting Card

[Photo is mine.]

Let it snow. Let it snow. Let it snow.

–Lyrics by Sammy Cahn

I’ve never lived inside a greeting card before. You’d have to be really really thin, like Wiley C. Cayote after being flattened by a road paver. Never fear. My readers know that and that the title of this post is metaphorical. Having said that, I will admit that I could drop a few pounds.

So, consider the lead photograph at the top of your screen. Doesn’t our house look like a Disney version of Santa’s Workshop? It looks so cozy inside and it is. Outside, it looks like a winter wonderland…snowy and frozen.

Many of my friends from back in the day will read this blog in Florida and say: “Beautiful, but no thanks.” Others may look at the picture and say: “How cozy. How peaceful.”

[My photo.]

I used to love winter when I was growing up in Owego, NY. We had a toboggan, sleds, skates and shovels to pile the snow and make a ‘snow fort’. My views have changed since 1958. Consider this:

I have to get from the front door to the car in the driveway which means I have to shovel a path, clean the snow off the car and hope the battery isn’t dead. Then I look and see that the county plow has piled the road snow at the head of the driveway. We have a guy (last name is Winter by the way) who plows our driveway but to do so properly, the car needs to be moved. Can you see a problem in this situation? I can.

Now, for reasons I won’t get into here, we have two cars. My car is in the garage. Protected. But how do I get to said garage? I have to shovel a path from our porch to the back door. I need this path because every two weeks the recycling and garbage has to be brought to the large plastic buckets in the garage. Once these are filled, I have to shovel a short path so I can haul the bins to the roadside. Mr. Winter may have had a chance to clear that space from the garage door to the road. Sometimes he doesn’t have that chance…so I have to shovel.

The other day I brought up the idea of getting a snow-blower. They cost about $700 for a proper one that ‘drives itself’. I told my wife that we’d save on Mr. Winter’s plowing. We’d have the thing paid off in two to three winters. She said we’d still have to keep him on our payroll because when we’re away for the winter, the driveway needs to be plowed. It’s an insurance thing.

“But I have a bad back,” I told my wife.

“Then I’ll shovel,” she replied.

“Not with your dicey shoulder,” I retorted.

We’re at the classic snow-blower stalemate.

[A beautiful landscape. Photo is mine.]

So, what is the situation now? Well, I need one of those patches for my lower back after I shovel even a few yards. I possess five buckets of ice-melting stuff on hand as well as three cans of de-icer, three shovels, a child’s plastic sled to haul our groceries from wherever I can park the car to the front door.

You can see the front door in the top photograph. The one that looks so cozy and inviting. But there’s not many people on our road to invite to our cozy home. They’ve all gone south for the winter. Like the hummingbirds, geese and other seventy-something-year-old folks.

We will be spending the majority of this winter in England. We have a great place to stay at the home of long-time friends. But, last year they had a freak cold snap and several inches of snow fell in North Dorset.

I wonder if I can use an English shovel. They drive on the left…maybe there’s a shoveling etiquette?

If you get a holiday card from your son or ex-wife who now live in Tucson, savor the photo of the lovely, dry, snowless desert.

[Source: The New Yorker. Dec. 10, 2018. Artist is Peter Kuper.]

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Adirondack Angst

[After the shovel and before the car door incident.  Photo is mine.]

Once upon a time not so very long ago, there was a man who lived in a house, with his faithful and patient wife, in the Great Wilderness known as the Adirondack Mountains.  These mountains are located in the far reaches of upstate New York.

This man was sore of back and gray of hair.  He had recently spent five weeks in the high desert of California.  He went there looking for solitude and warmth, but instead he found himself surround by neighbors with strange cars and small barking Chihuahuas.  He also wore fleece nearly every day, until it was time to leave…of course.

The man’s eyes stung from the smoke of distant fires and he went through five and a half boxes of tissues, so frightful were his allergies.

Upon returning to his home in the North Country, there was a January thaw that put his limbs at risk with the ice and constant dripping of masses of snow that had recently befallen the countryside.  Then two days ago, his weather app on his iPhone bespoke of a new storm that promised a foot of snow followed by thumb-numbing cold.

When this man awoke this morning, he put off looking out of the bedroom window for fear of what he would behold.  But, he also had another app on his iPhone that told him how much daylight was left in the day.  He checked the temperature.  It was 4 F.  He saw that 75% of the day had passed.  He decided he should get out of bed and shovel a path to the car and clean the snow from the car and try to start the car.

The first two tasks were accomplished with sweat, frost on his mustache and a lower back that had pleaded with him to stop the punishment.

Now to start the car.  But, alas, he found all four doors frozen shut.  Not to worry, he thought.  I have a can of de-icer in the garage.  He pushed the button and the garage door creaked open.  He found the de-icer and pushed the button to close the door.  It didn’t move.  He tried to spray the little button but nothing but a faint hiss came from the spray hole. He shook the can and determined it was full, but not a molecule of de-icer was to be found.

[The frozen car. Photo is unfortunately mine.]

He returned to the house with the spray can, but he was broken of heart and frustration welled up in his soul like a backed-up toilet.

Why have the gods of the North Country forsaken him?  Why did he feel as alone as a Democrat in Mississippi or a Quaker at a Microsoft convention?

Why didn’t he stay in California and buy more tissue boxes?  What had he done in this life or any other life to deserve such anguish?

He checked the weather app on his iPhone and saw that the forecast predicted a low of -22 F for the overnight hours.

The old man poured a cold beer and sat waiting for the bathtub to fill.  He had added about two cups of blue crystals that promised muscle relaxation.  (It never worked before, but tonight would be different).

But this man had a plan.  He would build a fire in the downstairs stove and he and his wife would have a dinner of hot soup.

All will be well tomorrow, he thought.  After all, tomorrow is another day.

He sipped his beer and considered how existentially alone one is in the Universe.  Or, at least in the North Country.

Joshua Tree Diary: The Road to Wonder Valley

[Amboy Road…to Wonder Valley.  Photo is mine.]

I’m driving from Joshua Tree to Twentynine Palms.  I turn left on Adobe Drive.  Ahead of me is the largest U.S. Marine Training Base in the world.  I don’t go there.  I turn right on Amboy Road and pass the RV campground where we spent a week in 2016.  We pass by and have memories of our stay there.  Then I pressed the foot to the metal and headed east…toward the Mojave desert…and Wonder Valley.

I’ve been down this road before.  We left the aforementioned RV park and drove down the Amboy Road.  I thought at the time, seeing the increasingly isolated adobe houses, churches and trailers that nothing legal was going on out there.

I was wrong.  At least to my knowledge.

I wouldn’t be writing this blog and revisiting this place if I had not run across an article in the New York Times digital edition on my iPhone.  A writer from LA, Ivy Pochoda, had an article in the Travel section about “getting lost” in Wonder Valley and the music of the absolute quiet.

I had to revisit the place that I saw on my drive through in 2016.  I’m glad I went back.

This is not to say that I got to know the few residents…I didn’t.  But I spent a few hours in the Palms Restaurant that I glimpsed in ’16.  This time I was serious.  I wanted the storied french fries and have a mug of the only beer that was on tap…Pabst Blue Ribbon.  I haven’t had a PBR in forty years.  The fries were fabulous.  We watched King of Kings on the TV…an Easter movie in the days before Christmas?!

[Photo is mine.]

We chatted with the soft-spoken bartender, Kevin, to try to get a sense of what it was like to live out here where nothing takes on a whole new meaning.  Take my advice: if you want isolation and to get off the grid…go to Wonder Valley.  But, it isn’t all sand and sage.  The Palms has a very active social calendar.  Sunday brunch  usually finds the place filled.

The Palms Restaurant is a world unto itself.  There is a backyard dining area where summer concerts (cowboy music, mostly likely) is played on a funky stage.  The food is outstanding and very inexpensive.

[The backyard of the Palms. Photo is mine.]

 

There is a newsletter called the Sand Paper which connects the widely spaced residents of the Valley.  Many musicians and artists make this their home.  More than a few of them have painted the many murals on the sides of buildings in 29 Palms.

It is a kind of an oasis in Wonder Valley.  Along Amboy Road are leftover homes and spooky desert shacks.

[Along Amboy Road. Photo is mine.]

[Yet another reminder of days gone by. Photo is mine.]

I probably could live out here…in Wonder Valley.  Mariam definitely could not.  But, there’s a peace and openness that has eluded me in the Northeast USA.  The sky is endless and almost always clear.

There is the waxing moon.  I could see the Milky Way nearly every night.  In the winter, one needs one of those down ‘sweaters’ to fend off the night chill.

There’s something about the desert that attracts me.  Out in the emptiness, you rely on yourself and your neighbors.

And your trust in your own skills of dealing with isolation and that big void of land and the clear night sky.

 

My 400th Blog!

 

[Hi, I’m Fluffy. Remember me? My human, Pat, has used me in other posts in shameless attempts to peddle one of his books.  I hope you like this one. You see, Pat suffers from severe Post Holiday Blues and if he doesn’t get a lot of likes and comments…well, I may have to be sent out to pasture, if you get my drift.  Photo source: Google search.]

 

Writing four hundred blogs is not an easy thing to do.  Even if you’re retired and have little else to fill your time.  It’s an accomplishment of which I am proud.  Some bloggers have written thousands…some have written three.  I know how easy it can be for some people and much harder for others.

Back in the late 1990’s, I taught at the Town School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  One afternoon, the technology teacher, Al Doyle, mentioned to me that he wrote ‘blogs’.

“Blogs?”, I said.  “What are they?”

“Anything you want them to be,” he answered.

I listened and learned.

Sometimes the words would come easy to me and, on more than one occasion, I struggled with ways to communicate my thoughts and feelings.  Some bloggers have chosen ‘themes’ to address, such as marital problems, eating disorders, benefits of certain health foods, conspiracy theories, political rants and self-absorbed musings that interest only the writer.

I have chosen to go my own way.  I have no theme.  I write about topics that interest, amuse, fascinate, intrigue and beguile me.  I have experimented with various writing styles and subjected my readers to topics that some would consider morbid or overly maudlin and sentimental.

But, that’s me.  What you read is who I am and that is what you get.

I published my first blog on July 15, 2012.  It was an excerpt from my novel “Standing Stone”.  Since then, I have taken my readers on two cross-country road trips and a partial winter in Fort Myers, Florida when I learned to sail.  I’ve shared my experiences at a rodeo in Yuma, a hike in Zion National Park, a stroll among the sand dunes of Death Valley, a frightening drive pulling our RV into the Yosemite Valley, a Thanksgiving in Orting, WA., a month in Joshua Tree, CA., and several trips to Europe.

I’ve shared memories about childhood sweethearts, meetings with childhood friends and even wrote about the first woman who ever saw me in my life…the doctor who delivered me in a Binghamton hospital on May 31, 1947.

I shared the birth of my grandson and celebrated the lives of my son, Brian, my daughter, Erin and my wife Mariam.

One of my favorite posts was titled “The Brick Pond”.  It recalled childhood innocence and the coming of adulthood.

The blog that was the favorite of my readers was called “This Old House”.  In this, I attempted to convey the sorrow of handing over the keys to the house that I grew up in, a house that was in our family for over fifty years.

I sincerely hope that you, my readers, have enjoyed reading these 400 musings from a humble and insecure writer…myself.

I hope I live long enough to celebrate an 800th blog, or even a 1,000 posting.

Let’s hope.

 

[Source: Google search.]

Joshua Tree Diary: Christmas in the Desert

[Desert view outside Joshua Tree. Photo is mine.]

This is where it all began, right?  I don’t mean California…I mean the desert.

The Nativity story is set in the desert; much like the one I see from my bedroom window.  Very much like it, except that desert, with the Star, is half a world away.

Two years ago, we celebrated this season in Fort Myers, Florida.  There, the temperatures were in the low 90’s.  I remember wearing shorts and sitting outside my favorite Java cafe, sipping an iced coffee.  I had to position myself at an outdoor table so I could catch the AC’d air rolling out of the brand name outlets.  The palm trees were wrapped in holiday lights, Bing Crosby was singing on the PA system, shoppers were hurrying into Bass, or Tommy…but the feel of the season wasn’t inside me.  Red and green lights and Bing didn’t fulfill the images on Christmas cards.

Now, this year, we are enjoying the high desert of Joshua Tree, 29 Palms, Yucca Valley and the Mojave Desert.  And, it’s chilly if not downright cold.  Yet I know there’ll be no white Christmas here this year.

It’s hard to imagine experiencing the Yule without even the probability of several inches of white powder.  That’s because I was raised in Upstate New York, where snow was mostly guaranteed.  I built snow-people, skated with my childhood friends and tobogganed the longest slopes I could find.  I studied the crystals of the flakes when I caught one on my mitten.  I believe it’s true that no two snowflakes are alike.

But deserts are alike in many ways.  Strange and exotic plants, sand, crying coyotes and the limitless sky…filled with stars and a crescent moon.

Ironically, though, it’s here, in the California desert, that I can feel the true sense of the Nativity story.  When you’re raised with religious images of Joseph and Mary traveling across the desert, it’s hard to meld that into a backyard in New York, twelve inches of snow and a snow person.  I’ve never traveled to the deserts of the Middle East so I can’t speak to the winters there, but I can’t believe that the winter in the Holy Land is much different than it is here.

True, they probably don’t have storefronts like these:

[Souvenir shop. Photo is mine.]

Or,

[Storefront lights in Joshua Tree.  Photo is mine.]

But, maybe they do.

I can imagine the solitude, the expansive star-filled sky…and the silent peace that fills those scenes we were raised with, in the pages of the Bible.

About an hour from where I write this, a raging fires is destroying hundreds of thousands of acres near Santa Barbara.  Peoples lives will be ruined.  No holiday cheer for them.

No fires will come to the desert.  There’s nothing much to burn.  It’s vacant and austere backed up by isolation and loneliness.  That’s the way deserts are.  Places to get lost and places to stand and contemplate the ways of the world and to confront the Great Empty.  That’s when you find that the Empty is not only a physical description of a desert…but also of your own mind.  The Desert Fathers of the Old Testament sought these places out.  The three great religions of the West were founded in the sands.

How different the high desert is.  There is, outside my window, all of the above (along with our rented Toyota), but there is something missing.  Beyond our sandy yard, beyond the Welcome to Joshua Tree sign, beyond the glow of Palm Springs and Los Angeles…something is dreadfully missing.

The peace.  Where is the peace and love that the whole Nativity narrative implies?

It’s just not there.

[Note to my readers: The next post is very special to me.  Please take time to read and comment on it.]

 

 

 

Joshua Tree Diary: I Saw A Shooting Star Tonight And I Thought of You

[Photo source: NASA]

[The title is taken from a song by Bob Dylan, of course.]

Actually, I saw five ‘shooting stars’…and it was last night, not tonight. But I still thought of you.  Or, by the time I post this it will be two nights ago.  The date we had in the desert that night (December 13, 2017) was to drive into the dark areas, beyond the houses, beyond the lights and view the Geminids Meteor shower.  I took this particular event personally since I’m a Gemini.  I don’t necessary believe in astrology, but I did have two minds about leaving our cozy house and driving twelve miles into the National Park.

Night vision takes about ten minutes for me to kick in.  That’s because I eat a lot of carrots.  At least that’s what my mother always said.

But so many cars passed out the pull-over area that I had to close my eyes and turn my head away…like I was some kind of desert cattle rustler.

We’re nearing our half-way time here in Joshua Tree.  We will be on the road on January 1…to somewhere.  There has been a pall cast on the last phase of our vacation.  Our original plan was to take some back roads through Pioneertown and Victorville and then spend a week hiking in the hills around Santa Barbara.  But the recent fires in that area have given me some concern.  Today, I read that they are handing out face masks in that area.  I’m not concerned about the actual fires.  I think they will be contained by the first of the year, but it’s what we can expect that worries me.

[Cholla family?]

I’ve been hindered (and Mariam, also) by bronchial problems.  The humidity up here in the high desert is around 10%.  That’s nose bleed time for me.  And, I just can’t lose the cough I’ve had since we were in Orting, WA for Thanksgiving.

No, I think the flames will be contained by early January, but we intended to hike the hills north of Santa Barbara.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to hike through six inches of ash while wearing a filter over my nose.  I’m fearful that it will remind me of my Catholic education…”ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.

We turned on the news from the LA area.  We saw images of people wandering through the remains of their homes that were destroyed by the “Thomas Fire”.  My hiking and their loss became a very real thing to me.  Who was I to feel distraught about my vacation when so many acres are burned, people’s homes are lost…and lives are ended…in so many ways.  I was being selfish in thinking how the fires would inconvenient  me.

We began to look at some alternatives (read: I don’t want to go home yet) because the Adirondacks are in a cold spell.  That’s what we’re trying to avoid.

Dilemma city.

So, we’re thinking of changing our plans and spending our last week in Palm Springs, or a nearby location.

That would be great if I golfed.  It would be paradise.

But, I don’t golf.

We were in Palm Springs two years ago.  There are some great movie palaces there.  Maybe we can catch up on some Oscar nominated movies…maybe the new Star Wars?

Maybe a movie that has some comets, meteorites, and shooting stars.

No wonder everybody on the planet comes to, or ends up in Los Angeles, or somewhere here in southern California.

I hear it’s snowing at home in Rainbow Lake, NY.

[Photo is mine]

Joshua Tree Diary: Baby Steps and First Things

[On the way to Hidden Valley]

I’ve been coloring.  We’ve been coloring.  You know those adult coloring books that are so popular now?  Well, I’m not a bit ashamed to say that Mariam and I have been working separate pages in a book that I bought at a 7-Eleven for $5.99+ tax.

[Occupying time in the desert]

Neither of us have been feeling on top of our game.  I’ve already whined about my chest congestion (and Mariam’s allergies ), but today was a little bit warmer that any day since we arrived here on December 1.  It got to 59 F.  Then our landlord came by to drop off a vacuum cleaner and told us that many people in the Joshua Tree valley have allergies.  Nice thing to know.

My handkerchief looks like a WWI bandage stolen from a war museum somewhere in northern France.  My nose has been overactive.  I never realized until now how important my nose is for breathing.  I always took it for granted.  But breathing up here in the high desert is something that comes with difficulty, determination and prayer.  Still, we were determined to take our first hike in the National Park.  We choose Hidden Valley.  That’s a one mile loop trail through some spectacular scenery.  I’ve always wondered about names like Hidden Valley.  If it’s hidden, how does anyone know it’s there?

Well, I read my guidebook and found out that it was reputed to be a hiding place for cattle rustlers and horse thieves…back in the day.  That sounds like a perfect explanation.  You enter through a narrow notch and then there is this wonderful ‘valley’.  A perfect place to hide stolen livestock with places for lookouts and places to camp.

[In Hidden Valley]

[More in Hidden Valley]

The photos I’m including here don’t do justice to the serenity and beauty of the place.  The problem is that it’s the most popular short hike in the Park…which meant that one was never alone, truly alone, amidst the rock formations and cacti.  We may do the hike again…maybe at night so we can meet the ghosts of the rustlers or hear the neighing of the stolen steeds.

But, we started late and so I had to open the package for my new headlamp.  That was a challenge beyond anything I’ve attempted.  I’m usually good at getting a product out of its plastic/cardboard packaging, but this required a knife blade and the risk of opening a mean wound in my left palm or severing an artery.

[Headlamp destruction]

Yes, we started late, since here in the desert and at this time year, daylight begins to end shortly after 11:00 am.  Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration.  The sun begins to dip below the rocky mounds a little after 3:00 pm.

Our walk took thirty-five minutes.  Short but enough for someone whose feels oxygen deprived.

When we returned to the parking area, I felt the need to use the public rest room facilities.  Inside, I counted thirteen rolls of toilet paper!  That’s must be some kind of record.  I did not take a photo of those.

Pardon me, but I do have some class, dignity and some standards that remain…from back in the day.

I made that clear to the bartender at the Joshua Tree Saloon.

[All photos are mine.]

[Note to readers: The next blog post that will be out in a day or so has nothing to do with my current theme of Joshua Tree Diary.  It’s something totally different that I want I want to post now.]