Thursday, November 11, 2010

Desert Winds

There's something about dry.

My people are Yankees: i.e., east coast people and before that western Europeans.

We don't really know what to do with dry. We know humid.

The Southern California desert I'm currently writing from--Palm Springs, to be exact--is dry 354 (!) days a year. Dry and bright. Clear. The edges of the glorious date palms crisply glistening light against blue sky and brown hills.

But the dry desert brightness is only part of what fascinates about this place. Inhabited forever by the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians, who remain Palm Springs largest landowners, it is a place that reminds one daily that heaven is right here on earth (according to local legend, it received its current name when a Spanish explorer referred to it as "the palm of God's hand"). Grapefruits growing in the front yard, oranges in the back, etc. More recently for design fans it has become known as "an oasis of modernism in the desert" and some of the 1950s-60s architecture, objects, and decor are definitely swinging.

That's when the place really took off for white people--the 1950s and 1960s--when Hollywood stars suddenly discovered its proximity to Los Angeles and began to flock here in droves for drinks, golf, etc. Frank Sinatra lead the way with his "Rat Pack." Dean Martin, Cary Grant, Debbie Reynolds and yes, Dinah Shore--whose legacy remains in the annual spring golf tourney and "women's weekend," a.k.a. the largest lesbian bash in the country which bears her name--all owned homes here.

The stars got distracted and began to leave in the late 1970s at a time when Palm Springs threatened to become the Fort Lauderdale of spring break California. Now its retiree heaven and really, why not? I know we who live on Deer Isle, Maine extol the high quality of life in Maine, but during the winter its got nothing on Palm Springs. Yep, there are definitely more people and traffic here than in my very rural home; but many of us are crafty enough to avoid traffic and people when we want and need to.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Springs is that it manages, despite the excesses of second home owners and tourists, to retain a somewhat down-at-heels feel--something which makes it a sister of sorts to Deer Isle, although in truth many lobstermen make more than the average median incomes for Palm Springs. The median income for a household in the Springs was $35,973 and for a family $45,318. The per capita income for the city was $25,957. These figures obviously don't include the second home owners. About 11.2% of families and 15.1% of the population are below the poverty line. Important lesson: beware, communities, of creating economies dependent solely on the tourism/service sectors.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Bloody Bloody Populism

He's an orphan at 13 and an Indian-killing rock star soon after. And the people LOVE Andrew Jackson.

Why not? In the Public Theater's musical "Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson" now on Broadway, like any rock star Andrew is a sexy, angry, bloody mess who seeks our adoration. He urges us not to think about what he says and does, but just to love it. And we do, in all our contradictory glory: don't kill the indians, but don't let them live near us; tell the federal government to go screw itself, but wait! we want its money; etc.

We are supposed to find his adolescent rages and impulsiveness attractive, and many do in the same way Maine voters supported Paul LePage ("I'll tell President Obama to go to hell") or NY voters Carl Paladino . . . or Glenn Beck, or Rush Limbaugh . . .

Why is Andrew so angry? "Life sucks . . . for me in particular," he sings, and doesn't it seem everyone has a chip on their shoulder these days? Unemployment is too high, taxes are too high, the cost of gas is too high, not everyone can afford a McMansion . . . it is a pretty tough life we've got going on here in these United States, but what are any of us willing to do to fix it? So we throw the bums out, be they Democrat or Republican, again and again and again because no one can really solve these problems without asking the people to do something--stop driving SUVs? stop watering our lawns and filling our swimming pools?--ourselves.

Obama would shudder at the relevance of the show's anthem to his Presidency: "And we’re gonna take this country back for people like us, who don’t just think about things.”

Because as most of us regretfully know, the problem is not in our politicians but in us, the electorate. "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" brings that point home in 90 minutes of highly entertaining irony of the type seldom seen on Broadway.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Revisiting the Bear

I walked to the edge of gray ledge just off the Appalachian Trail and there, 36 miles away on a brilliantly clear November day, was the toothy profile of New York City glittering at the end of the Hudson River.

Bear Mountain is and always has been a kind of miracle to me and many others. Opened in 1913 just a shout up the Palisades from the clanging, smoking engine of New York City it is both living evidence of the culture of philanthropy of a different time, and of the awareness, spawned by the Industrial Revolution, that people had to get beyond the noisy environs of the city and into the "great outdoors." Fully launched with a huge gift of both money and land from Mary Averell Harriman, whose husband was the President of the Union Pacific Railroad, Bear Mountain is another of the many institutions which grace our lives thanks to the philanthropy of the great industrialists and robber barons.

I've hiked here, across the section of the AT and up the High Tor and through the Timp Pass and over Dunderhead Mountain, over the last 25 years with two of my own and several of my friends' dogs, the latest my friend Karen's 6-month old puppy, Bessie. The trails and my own past are alive for me with the golden happiness of Jessie; and the speedy alertness of Tosca (who was often just a black dot disappearing quickly over the oak leaf-strewn hills in pursuit of a deer) and her best friend Indy.

So up the familiar trail, which I've both hiked and cross country skied, to Doodletown we went, past the old reservoir and the town that the state claimed by eminent domain and existed there as recently as 1965 yet is now nothing but brush and historic markers. Out to Iona Island past the briny, reed-filled marshes. And finally down 9W back to the city, stopping for a black-and-tan at Sheeran's in Tomkins Cove before racing down the New York State Thruway and back into the city.

A perfect fall day for a former urbanite.