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.]

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Joshua Tree Diary: The First Days

I looked in the mirror late this morning and decided I would need a haircut sometime in the next few weeks.  Trouble is, we’re a few miles from the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base (the largest U.S. military base in the world, I’m told) and nearly all the haircut places offer a “military cut”.  Well, I really don’t want to have my head shaved at this point in my life, so I have to find a salon that can make a guy like me look like a guy like me.

So, here we are…in Joshua Tree, California.  The high desert, the edge of the Mojave, the northern edge of the National Park.  Our home is very well appointed with a fenced in backyard and cable TV.  We’re quite pleased with the rental we’ve chosen for the month of December.

[Part of our rental]

[Our private backyard}

I’ve struggled to come up with a catchy title to the blogs that I will be posting for the next month (we’re here only for December before we head to Santa Barbara for a few days of hiking and beach walking).  I’m calling this series of blogs The Joshua Tree Diary.  Lame? Maybe, but you haven’t been through what I’ve been through lately.

We arrived from Los Angeles on December 1 in a rented Nissan.  We passed the Joshua Tree Inn where Gram Parsons OD’d (see an earlier post about that on my website…it’s called “Room 8”).

We seemed to have arrived during a cool spell.  It got below freezing last night and may do so again tonight.  We were treated to the clear desert sky and the rising of the Super Moon last night.

[The Super Moon on Dec. 3. Sorry, but the iPhone doesn’t do well with this kind of photo]

Okay, so how did we spend our first days here?  We’ll I got here running a slight fever and a cough that would freak out most circus animals.  My throat felt like I had hosted a demolition derby and my chest felt like I inhaled  a quart of vanilla yogurt…I was not well.

We did manage to get to the National Park Visitor Center where I intended to purchase a Golden Pass (we left our other one home).  This allows seniors free admission to the Parks.  Two years ago when we purchased one at Devil’s Tower National Park, the cost for this lifetime pass was $10.00.  Now they charge $80.00!  And, these parks are ours anyway, we pays taxes…don’t get me started.

Next stop was getting a temporary visitors card at the local library.  I gladly paid $10.00 even though I will only be using it until December 31.  I’m not carrying anymore “book” books.  They are heavy and bulky.  I’ll give my copy of David Copperfield to a woman who runs a tiny used bookstore a few miles away along Route 62, towards Twentynine Palms.

I bought a copy of the Hi-Desert Star…couldn’t find a copy of the New York Times anywhere.  An ad caught my eye and it was then I realized that we were living amidst a culture that is quite different from Upstate New York.  I hope this guy finds his goal and makes off for the hills and gets rich from a lost mine (there are many out here).

[Ad from the Hi-Desert Star}

How am I feeling today?  I think I turned the corner.  I don’t think it’s hit or miss anymore.  I don’t think it’s touch and go.  I don’t feeling like I’m going to die out here…and become just another statistic.  I felt well enough to drag myself and Mariam to the Joshua Tree Saloon to sip a glass of Lagunitas.

[Joshua Tree Bar & Grill]

All of the above happened in the first four days.  We haven’t set foot in the Park yet.  Maybe on Wednesday we’ll hike the Skull Rock Trail.  It’s short and the ‘skull rock’ boulder is looking more and more like me.

Having said all that, this is what we’ve left behind:

[An Adirondack scene. Pretty, but no shoveling]

Right now, I’ll take the desert and deal with sand in my shoes and not frost on my finger tips.

Fathers and Coffee

One more cup of coffee before I go…

                               –Bob Dylan

[My photo]

This gray, almost monochromatic morning, I lounged in bed reading yesterday’s New York Times.  It’s something we did every weekend for years while we lived in Manhattan.  The fact that’s its Monday is a moot point.  When you’re retired, everyday is like a Sunday.  This may, however, be due to the fact that all the days seem to drift together and half the time I’m never totally sure what day it is.

But, to clear away any misgivings, I can state that it is Monday, November 6…and it’s gloomy outside, like a Tim Burton take on one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

But, I digress.

I was sipping my coffee, once steaming and now, just below the stage of lukewarm.  It tastes just like it sounds, lukewarm coffee, barely potable.  The odd thing is that if I drop in two ice cubes and wait three minutes, it’s transformed into Iced Coffee!  And, it’ll be a cold day in Yuma before I’ll walk away from a Starbucks Cold Brew.

So, as I sipped the cooling mug, I began to recollect on things my father said to me when I was growing up in the 1950’s.  I’m sure he was not alone in using phrases like:

“If I wanted a fool to do this, I would have done it myself.”

“Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

Post-war idioms.

I was strictly a tea drinker well into my teens.  It was mostly a camping thing.  I never had a Lipton before scurrying off to elementary school.  In fact, I was never really that big on caffeine ever, even now.  That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a mug of Irish Breakfast tea now and then.

I’m recalling an incident that occurred when I was about fifteen.  My family was sitting at a diner and the waitress asked about drinks.  I asked for my first cup of coffee.  My father looked aghast at me.  He shifted his position on the vinyl seat of the booth.  When the server left, he leaned over to me and actually said:

“You know, it’ll stunt your growth”.

It was a cliché that every parent used to threaten their kids about; coffee, tobacco and so many other vices.

I lay in bed and chuckled to myself.  How antiquated, how naive his threats seem to me now.  Then the smile left my face and I felt an overwhelming sadness wash over me.

I thought of my own son and how, because of a divorce, I did not take part in his life when he had his first coffee.  The sadness deepened.  I had missed so many of the years when I, as his father, should have been by his side.

My father’s remark came back to me with a new kind of understanding.  I really don’t believe he truly thought that my first cup of coffee was going to stunt my growth.  I think he was blindsided by my request.  And, most importantly, I think he was terrified.  In a certain way, that first coffee was a sort of rite of passage…something he knew deep within and something he dreaded with great sorrow.

He was losing his son, his youngest son to the terrors of a fast approaching place called adulthood.  His comment was the only thing he could think of to slow down the separation that was to come.  He wanted to hold on to my childhood as long as he could, because after that, there’s no going back, no reversal in time and no going home again.

The separation of father and son.

When my umbilical cord was cut sometime during the evening of May 31, 1947, I was separated physically from my mother.  No such action happens between father and son…until the son asks for his first cup of coffee.

I cling to my son these days.  I kiss his cheek when I see him.  I tell him how much I love him.  I wish I had to lean over, sore back or not, to pick him up.  I wish I had to walk at a tilt while I held his little hand in mine.  I wish he had to lift his head upward to look at me and to extend his arms, asking to be picked up and carried.

Everyday, I can feel the fear my father felt that afternoon, decades ago, when I said yes to a cup of coffee.

[Photo credit: Keith Daniel, Restitutio. Google search.]

The Summer We Never Had Is Gone

“I see your true colors shining through…”

-Cyndi Lauper

Green is still the dominant color in the foliage around Rainbow Lake.  Each day, however, brings out a few hundred more leaves that have lost their Chlorophyll and are showing their true colors.

We’ve had our first frost warning on my weather app…and that was in late August!  Since we arrived home in late June from our six months in NYC, there really hasn’t been a true summer, a season like I remember from the 1950’s family camping we did at Raquette Lake.

It rained a lot.  The lows dipped into the upper 40’s F on many nights.

Our burning bush seems to provide the only imaginary warmth…it’s turning red.

I find a beautiful red leaf in the driveway.  I mark the days off on our kitchen calendar.  It’s only two weeks until the Autumnal Equinox…the official end of summer.

I stack our firewood and wait for a guy named Forest (really) to deliver another face cord.

I love the fall foliage, the scarlets, reds, yellows and the deep dark browns of the trees that have leaves that just simply die. Die without giving us a palate of hues that we will remember and take Instagrams of and email to our loved ones who live in just two seasons…summer and winter, like Alabama or Mississippi.

But, I’m sensing a growing melancholy this year, unlike the years past.  I just turned seventy.  There’s far more of my life behind me than before me.

I lay awake at night and think of things that might have been…and now feel that now they’ll never be.

There’s a flash of color this time of year and then the wait, sometimes long, sometimes short, until the first snow falls.

That brings on a whole new catalogue of memories and sadness.

Am I alone?

[All photos are my own.]

Dead Man’s Bone

[Source: Google search]

This is not about a toothache as the photo suggests.  It’s about me walking around with 0.5 cc of granules of a dead persons bone in my gums (ignore the gender reference in the title.  It’s purely for dramatic effect.  I thought it sounded spooky).  For the next several months, my body is being tricked into recognizing these grains as being foreign to my body…and then, theoretically, form my own bone material in preparation for an implant.

Got that?  Hope so, because I barely get it.

When I turned seventy at the end of last May, no one took me aside and informed me that now I was going to have a new and more involved relationship with the dental profession.  No one spoke to me of crowns, broken fillings or implants.

All that’s changed now.  I just got home yesterday afternoon after having my third extraction since January.  Looking at me trying to force a smile, you wouldn’t take me for a neo-Nazi, a National Hockey League goalie or some survivalist named Skeeter living in an RV forty-five miles from downtown Las Vegas.  No, I’ve been pretty lucky with my teeth.  Up until January, I had all my real teeth (I still have my real teeth…most of them) despite the fact that I spent more than a few nickels at Harvey’s grocery store when I was a child.  The small change didn’t go into raisins or apples.  I was more interested in Mars bars, Milky Way bars and Tootsie Rolls.  Yes, I paid for it all with trips to the dentist (a guy who didn’t believe in Novocaine) and got my fair share of fillings.  At the time, it was a small price to pay for a candy bar.

A month or so ago, my regular dentist in Saranac Lake was in the process of replacing a cracked filling when he stopped and said: “This is worse than the x-ray showed.  You’re root is very deep.  This tooth needs to come out.”

So a month later I was sitting in an exam room of an oral surgeon in Lake Placid.  It was a sparsely appointed room.  There was the usual sink, etc, behind me and the light above my head.  On a shelf in the corner was a computer monitor with an x-ray of my mouth on the screen.  Somewhere amid the white dots (fillings) and a lot of gray stuff were the images of about five of my teeth.  One of those was coming out.

[My photo]

The walls of the room were green, but my wife is convinced I’m color blind, so they may have been brown.  I’ll never know.

After a check of my BP I was led into another room.  This one had a similar x-ray of my mouth, but there was more stuff around.  Soon I was nearly flat on my back with a light in my face that was so bright it made my eyes water.  Maybe the doctor thought I was crying.  More than likely I was.  My fear of dentists goes back to childhood.  In fact it probably pre-dates my birth.

[My photo]

“Any questions?” asked the surgeon.

I had opted for an implant at a later date so that meant I needed something to put into the empty hole in my gum.  Leaving a vacancy in my gums was not something wanted.  I’m certain it would affect my whistling of “Old Man River”.

I said: “You said earlier that the temporary ‘tooth’ was from a donor.  Would you walk me through the donor thing?”

In the back of my mind, I knew that people didn’t ‘donate’ teeth…while they were alive.

“Well,” the doctor said, “it’s really not a donated tooth.  It’s donated bone.”

“Like from a cadaver?” I tentatively inquired.

“Yes,” she said, keeping a straight face.

The top of the chair held my head in a tight position.  I tried to turn and look at the tray of instruments, but I was afraid I’d catch a glimpse of a pair of pliers from Home Depot.  Instead, I stared at the x-ray and silently bid farewell to my doomed tooth.  After all, we’ve been through a lot together.  The pain injections made my mouth feel like I looked like Quasimodo.  I touched my left lower lip expecting a flow of saliva like the dogs in Stephen King novels.

[For those of you who are still with me, the stuff she was going to pack the empty hole with is called “Mineralized Ground Cancellous.  250-1,000 microns].

“Can we start?”

[Source: Google search]

“I’m ready,” I said. For the dead person’s bone matter, I thought.

After the pain of the injections that was giving me the drug that was to stop the pain, it was all over in about twenty minutes.

It was rather a simple procedure…not like in the movies.

Now I’m on a liquid diet for a week or so.  The implant will come later.  I’m over the worst of it.

But I can’t stop thinking of who the donor was.  Was it someone I once knew?  Perhaps someone I dated?

It’ll keep me awake for a few nights.

Most things do.

 

D’Arcy At The Bat

A bat. [Source: Wikipedia]

bat n : any of an order of night-flying mammals with forelimbs modified to form wings.

[Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary]

I considered naming this post “Listen to them…they are the children of the night. What beautiful music they make” but I decided: a) it was too long for a title, and, b) the possibility of a copyright violation because it was the classic line spoken by Bela Lugosi in the 1931 film Dracula (Universal Studios retain some killer lawyers, I hear).

But, actually my chosen title speaks more to the point of the story (all true, I assure you) as I am about to relate.  Less than 24 hours ago (as I write this), my friend and seasonal neighbor (his real home is in Ohio), D’Arcy Havill, had an hour-long, somewhat contentious, battle with a real bat that entered his house in the dark hours, after sunset and during a rainstorm.

In a sense, it all began as my wife, Mariam and I were finishing dinner at the Belvedere Restaurant in Saranac Lake.  The dinner (I had Salmon) was to celebrate D’Arcy’s wife’s birthday.  Her name is Judy.  You’ve read about this couple in past blogs.

It was a warm muggy afternoon and there were scattered evening thunderstorms.  We drove home in a light sprinkle of rain.  I pulled our car up to their garage and parked.  Judy and D’Arcy opened the garage door and went into their house.  Mariam and I followed…but we took the walkway to the front door.  We were there to end the evening with a bit of chocolate cake and ice cream.  No sooner was I inside and heard the screen door slam shut behind me, I heard D’Arcy say the dreaded words: “Who let the bat in?”  I thought he said “Who let the cat in?” and I became confused because I could see their two cats, Delilah and Sylvester standing in the hallway.  The cats suddenly began to act as though they were walking on a bed of hot coals…they hopped about and were looking up.  There it was.  A bat had come in behind us and was making circular flights around the ceiling fan.  The cats were immediately banished to the master bedroom…and for good reason.  When cats and bats tangle, things can get rough and ugly.

Being from the mid-west, D’Arcy probably had an edge over Mariam and me when it comes to bats.  The Adirondack bat population has plummeted in recent years because of something called “white nose disease” (don’t ask).  Consequently, the mosquito population has spiked (keeping me indoors until the first frost…probably in late September).  So he (D’Arcy) issued the first command: “Open the doors!”

Meanwhile, as the bat kept circling the ceiling fan, Mariam took my iPhone into the kitchen and found “bat calls”.  I had no idea there was an app for that sort of thing.  I thought at first that she had found a really awful jazz station on the radio, but they were indeed, bat calls.

I thought for a few minutes and realized she may have been playing an aggressive angry call instead of a mating call (that would have attracted the bat, one would think), so I suggested that she not play the calls.  Next thing I hear is some conversation that was recorded by a family who were facing the same situation…a bat in the house.  Their problem ended when the mother shooed the bat out of an open door with a broom.

“Let’s get a broom,” said Judy.

“No,” said D’Arcy, eyeing the ceiling fan and several antique paintings, clearly envisioning an interior design fiasco.

The radio did suggest that the lights should be turned off.  The bat would become disoriented by a lot of light since they used echolocation and are known to have poor eyesight (you know…”blind as a bat”).

So the adults retreated to the screened-in porch to ponder the situation.  Here we were, four adults, all past retirement age, with three and a half Master’s degrees between us.  I was a science teacher but I never taught a lesson on bats.  What were we going to do?  Mariam and I just couldn’t say “good night” and leave the Havills with a rogue bat flying around their white vaulted ceiling.

Someone suggested using a butterfly net.  The only problem was that none of us caught or collected butterflies.  But, no authentic Adirondack camp is without an antique fishing net…the hand held kind.  D’Arcy had two.

We went back into the living room and found that the bat had landed on the wall, about fifteen feet above our heads.  We went back to the porch.  The fishing net thing gave me an idea.

“Just a thought, but why don’t we attach one of your nets to a pole and capture the bat while it is resting on the wall?” I said.

D’Arcy went to work like a true mid-westerner.  He grabbed his wooden hiking stick, disappeared into the garage and soon we were duct-taping the handle of the fishing net to the stick.

Back to the living room.  We turned on a single light and we soon had the bat trapped by the net (after a long reach). But as he was dragging the net down, the bat crawled out from the gap where the net handle and walking stick were joined.  Off it went to make more orbits of the ceiling fan.

Back to the porch.  Mariam suggested that if he turned the net inside out, there would be no gap.

“Then we would slide the bat down the wall and slide a piece of cardboard against the wall and the net, thereby trapping the bat.

We waited until the little mammal needed a rest and sure enough, it went to almost the same place it had been a few minutes earlier…only a few more feet higher.  D’Arcy made the supreme reach and covered the bat.  He dragged it slowly down, this time leaving the creature no gap to escape.  I slid the cardboard against the wall and before you could say “strike two”, we had it outside.  But then the problem of getting it out of the net presented itself.  It was hopelessly tangled.

“Scissors!” he yelled.  He was like a surgeon and Judy promptly brought a huge pair from the kitchen drawer.

We snipped and cut and gently, string by string, finally freed the bat, who promptly flew off toward our house…hopefully to gorge itself on all the mosquitoes that had been eyeing me for the last few days.

We let the cats out of the bedroom (where they had clawed the edges of the carpet trying to escape).

Mariam and I went home and watched two hours of a tense murder mystery series on PBS.

It’s been said that the last few Batman movies have become darker, more brooding.  I can totally get it.

And, even though we all lost a precious hour, I still believe, “Every little bat is sacred”.

Not like last night, but close. [Source: National Park Service. The Carlsbad bat flight]

D’Arcy’s net the morning after. [My photo]

 

 

 

 

 

Six Days Can Be A Long Time

[Photo credit: Mel Brown]

The moment happened a few hours ago.  I was probably sitting in Starbucks on Broadway and 75th Street when the time came and went.  I was aware of the time, but I was likely checking my email.  Our apartment wifi was dead for the time being.

It was an arbitrary time, marked only by a sweeping second hand on an office wall clock.  It turned over at 5:00 pm on June 12, 2017.  One moment it was 5:00 pm, and then it was another time altogether.

So, what’s so important about this?  That changing moment marked the end of a work day for my wife, Mariam…an ordinary work day.  But, now, she now has only six days left to the end of her working career, her fifty-one years in health care is coming to a close.  That’s a long time of working and an inspiring event to celebrate.  Ever since she graduated from the Bellevue School of Nursing, she has changed bed pans, helped AIDS patients, started up a cardiology unit in a hospital, and rose to being the head of the hemophilia treatment center at Mount Sinai Hospital.  She also is the president of two boards, both in the bleeding disorders world, in the intensive and competitive world of New York City.

I have expressed my concerns about the vacuum that will enter her life from a powerful position…into retirement.  She says she is not concerned.  I trust her instincts…but I still worry.

Her boss, Dr. Chris Walsh, is now reviewing aspects of her job.

“I’m going to miss you,” he understated.

I am proud of Mariam’s accomplishments.  I am looking forward to when she will be by my side, each day…for years to come…to travel and to sit at home…reading, playing chess, discussing politics and learning new things. We’ll be having a quiet dinner at a small Italian restaurant on 73rd St. on June 21.  Yes, June 21, her final day…and the traditional Summer Solstice.  How appropriate is that?  The longest day of the year.  The days will be getting shorter, but I will be there with you, Mariam, to help you through the long winter nights to come. And, I will be there on December 21, the traditional Winter Solstice, when the days begin to grow longer.  I know that’s the date you look forward to the most.

I will be there when the black flies come and go and the mesquitos arrive.  I’ll be there when the hail hits the roof and the leaves begin to fall.  I’ll light the campfire and I’ll play some Leonard Cohen for you on Spotify.  I’ll be there to ease you into your years of retirement.

Good luck to you, Mariam.  God speed!

Six days can be a long time…after all, that’s how long The Creation took.  Let’s hope there’s rest on the seventh day.