Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Adapt and Overcome

"Pretend impossibilities are possible. They are."

I wrote that "inspiring quote" a few years ago for one of Smith Magazine's Six Word Memoirs projects.

I'd already won a couple of 6WM contests, so I wasn't altogether surprised to find out that I was being included in their 2012 book, Six Words About Work.

After all, I'd been inspired to write those six words by my experiences in the workplace, when I learned that you just have to move forward as though you're going to hit a deadline, even if it seems like there's no way that could actually happen.

In 12 words, that would be: Act like it's going to happen, even if you think it can't. 

In three words, it's: Anything is possible.

And that's why I think Smith Magazine chose to include that quote in their more widely distributed and less thematically specific book published by St. Martin's Press in 2015, The Best Advice in Six Words. It resonates broadly with people.

So broadly, in fact, that I recently found out that the folks at Oprah.com had turned this very same quote into a meme and shared it.

I'm delighted, to say the least. But what I've said isn;t anything new.

The military has been teaching its cadets that very same principle for decades.



At the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, we were fortunate enough to witness a couple Marines complete an obstacle course—quite literally, a physical manifestation of the trials and tribulations that any of us might face (not just in combat, but in everyday life).



On this course, the enlisted men and women of the Marines learn the confidence to attempt something it seems like they can't possibly do. And sure, they fail. But they couldn't succeed without those failures—because there's more than one way to overcome an obstacle, whether it's a log, a wall, a rope, or a bar that's been set a little too high. It takes a while to figure out which one will work the best.



And in the case of hand-to-hand combat, it's tempting to assume you're just done-for—especially if all you've got is your bare hands. But that's when you've got to improvise and find a weapon of opportunity (even if it's something as seemingly benign as a milk jug). And keep trying until you find something that works—because something will work.



It's no different with the working dogs of the Marines, either. They've got their own hurdles to surmount.



The use of these military dogs serves as a good reminder that it's rarely necessary to resort to lethal force right away. The best fight is one that never happens in the first place. If needed, bark first, then bite. And biting doesn't mean tearing someone limb from limb—at least, not right away.



I really admire a goal that's to more often deescalate a conflict rather than overcome with brute force.

Life isn't just about those things that seem impossible to do but also those that may seem impossible not to do. And sometimes a fight seems inevitable, impossible to avoid.

But if the only thing that's certain in life is uncertainty, why not use that to your advantage? Beat the odds. Defy science and logic and the space-time continuum.

Impossibilities are only impossible in theory. In practice, it's up to you to prove yourself wrong.

Related Posts:

Photo Essay: Glimpses of Yuma Territory
Try, Try Again
Baby I Got My Money!

Monday, February 19, 2018

Sleeping Under the Stars


Photo: John Remus III (Public Domain, via Flickr)

Last night, for the first time in my life, I slept under the stars.

Now, I've been camping before—but the tent provided too much of a barrier between me and the sky.

Same goes for the teepees I've stayed in.

I tried to sleep under the stars at an Airbnb in Joshua Tree two years ago, but I failed miserably when I had to spend pretty much the entire night hiding my head under the covers to escape the rain that would otherwise be falling on my face.

And I didn't do a whole lot of sleeping that night, either.

This all goes back to that first month I spent in Joshua Tree back in 2009, when I'd been so tempted to camp out in the hammock outside so I could gaze up at the night sky while I fell asleep—but back then, I was too scared of scorpions and coyotes to actually do it.

When I returned for an extended stay in 2012, I hadn't gotten over my fears yet. I thought about it. I walked outside in my bare feet and stood under the moon, pondering what might crawl upon me while I slept out there.

But I just couldn't do it.

Last night in Borrego Springs, though, my hosts invited me to stay on the cot on their patio and assured me that all coyotes, scorpions, and other desert creatures of the night would stay away from me as long as I stayed close to the house.

The only obstacle to my al fresco sleepover?

The wind.

Boy, was it windy in the desert yesterday.

I'm used to the gusts in, say, Palm Springs, but this was unusual for Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

"Maybe it's too windy to sleep outdoors tonight..." my friend Susan and her husband said.

"Yeah, maybe you're right."

But as the day wore on, I was becoming more and more determined to have a go at it—and not just if the wind died down (which, I hear, it sometimes does after sunset).

I was going to try to sleep in the wind—under the stars—and not be blown away.

So I had my cot and my super-cozy sleeping bag, the pillow from my trunk crammed into a borrowed pillowcase, my phone and my glasses, and I hunkered down to see how long I could last.

It was true, the scorpions left me alone. If they were out there, I didn't see them (or feel them).

I heard the coyotes—I think, though they didn't sound like Joshua Tree coyotes. In my sleepy state, they sounded more like hyenas.

But the one thing I ultimately couldn't get over was the wind. It was blowing so hard that it was rattling my cot—and I'm a whole lot of woman, enough to hold a cot down in any normal wind.

I wasn't cold per se—the sleeping bag was plenty warm—but my hair was blowing into my slightly open mouth, stifling the snores that were trying to escape (and kept waking me up in the process).

Every time I opened my eyes, though, I saw those stars hanging so low in the black sky. When my eyes were closed, I dreamed that they were swirling above me—or maybe they actually were swirling, in a spectacular display of the Milky Way that one can only witness while camped out directly underneath.

Every time I woke up facing the exterior wall of the house, I'd turn over to face the desert. I slept on my back and on my stomach—which I never do—just so I could keep the constellations in view.

And as the night sky began to lighten—not quite morning, but fading from the saturation of the blackest of night—I packed up my bedding and headed inside to the couch.

The stars weren't so visible anymore, so I figured I wouldn't be missing out on that much.

But the plan had been to stay out there till morning, till the sunrise woke me up and the roadrunners came to check on me.

Still, I feel a sense of victory after finally sleeping under the stars. It doesn't matter that I didn't make it all night. I made it most of the night.

And to be honest, I would've felt victorious even if I'd only made it an hour or two out there—as long as I'd slept, and as long as I'd done it under the stars.

Related Posts:
A Little Fall of Rain
Chasing the Moon

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Photo Essay: Glimpses of Yuma Territory

I first became interested in the Arizona town of Yuma because of its prison history, particularly with the bandits and gunmen of the Old West.

It seemed like the natural next chapter after my jaunt to Tombstone last year.



And, like in Tombstone, lots of people died in Yuma.



Most prisoners died while incarcerated—from illness, snakebite, escape attempts, self-inflicted wounds, or at the hands of another. That was just a fact of life (and death). And they were buried at the prison.



The law-abiding pioneers were buried in the local graveyard, but they don't seem to have gotten too many visitors as of late...



...save for a lone dove—appropriately, a mourning dove—perched upon a granite cross as it cooed.



I'd see lots more mourning doves during my two-day visit to Yuma—so many, in fact, that the Arizona Game and Fish Department allows the hunting of them, and the visitors' bureau encourages it.



I'd also see lots of retro-cool commercial signs, whether for the drive-thru liquor store, the Yuma Cabaña motel (whose overnight experience did not live up to the glory of its signage), or the glittering neon Hacienda across the street.



At breakfast, I was greeted by one of those "cigar store Indians" no longer used to advertise tobacconists and generally relegated to Old West theme parks and tchotchke-filled theme restaurants.



Such was the case with my breakfast spot, the Yuma Landing—situated on the site where the first plane to ever land in Arizona made its touch down (on October 25, 1911). Appropriately, much of the restaurant is devoted to the history of flight in Yuma, a history that's perhaps been eclipsed by the tales of transporting outlaws by train to the territorial prison.



Driving around Yuma, then, you'd expect to see some train trestles and other relics of railroading—but what we found instead was an abandoned suspension bridge, an automotive roadway that once spanned the Gila River.



Nobody ever really had faith in this bridge, built in 1929—especially when cars became heavier and more abundant. In 1968, traffic was diverted to a smaller bridge over safety concerns, and the river was dammed upstream, leaving a dry river valley below it.



Funny enough, a 1993 flood washed the "new" bridge out—the one that was supposedly less flimsy—and left the old bridge intact. But all 800 feet of it are still considered unstable, even for pedestrians, giving the McPhaul Bridge a more commonly-known identity as the "Bridge to Nowhere."



But sometimes, nowhere is exactly where I want to be—to take pause and get a little rest.



And that's exactly what I found along the U.S. 95, that highway that starts at the Mexico border in Arizona and crosses through California (intersecting with the 40 in Needles) and Nevada on its way to Oregon and Idaho.



Plopped down in the middle of the agricultural breadbasket of Southwestern Arizona—tucked between fields of lettuces and cabbages— is Loren Pratt's Little Chapel, sometimes better known as the "Pause, Rest, Worship Chapel."



Loren had been a respected farmer in the area, one of the pioneers of the so-called Dome Valley—and, as a devoutly religious man, he built this chapel in 1995 and dedicated it to the memory of his deceased wife, Lois, who'd struggled for years with a rare form of dementia.



This diminutive house of worship (which seats about a dozen worshippers) is actually the second version to stand here—the first having been swept away in a freak storm in 2011. Led by Loren's son Cecil Pratt, supporters rallied to rebuild the chapel in the exact same spot and finished just in time for Easter morning service in 2012.



And just when we thought we'd seen all the oddities that the Yuma environs had to offer, we happened upon a stark white airship, tethered but slowly bobbing in the breeze, swaying to and fro—a little farther north along the 95 (on our way to the Castle Dome Mine Museum—stay tuned), just beyond some flimsy fencing within the boundary of the local Army base, the Yuma Proving Ground.

I didn't get the chance to access the YPG on this trip, but I did tour a different military base in Yuma. Stay tuned for dispatches from the MCAS Yuma.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Glimpses of Arizona
Photo Essay: The Death Toll of Tombstone
Photo Essay: Glimpses of Baltimore
Glimpses of Havana in the Final Days of Fidel

Friday, February 16, 2018

On Wondering When 'The Big One' Will Hit


By Shustov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

"Are you afraid of earthquakes?"

I was having lunch with a friend from New York City who I hadn't seen in probably 15 or more years. Now that he's moved to LA, too, we have lots to talk about.

And questions like these inevitably come up.

"I'm not afraid of 'The Big One' per se," I told him, "but I'm afraid of how people will react in the aftermath."

The stuff of my nightmares is the run on gas, the traffic jams, looting, and generalized mass hysteria. The actions of others feel so beyond my control.

I did, however, have one clarification to make: "I'm afraid of an earthquake happening and me not being home with my cat. I'm really afraid of my cat being home alone during a big earthquake."

Unfortunately, unless I become a shut-in, there's nothing I can do about that.

I approach our seismic precariousness with a fair amount of scientific interest and healthy skepticism. I've explored the San Andreas Fault in more than one section. I've seen firsthand how past earthquakes can ravage buildings, landscapes, and roadways.

I have, in some way or another, walked in the historical path of destruction of Long Beach, Sylmar, Landers, Whittier, and more.

So, the threat of a geological, geophysical, seismological event on a massive scale is pretty real to me. My lack of fear doesn't come out of ignorance.



Or does it?



We know very well that we're overdue for an earthquake whose magnitude is at the upper end of the Richter Scale.



The last one of that category to hit Southern California was on January 17, 1994 at 4:30 a.m.



Although the epicenter of that one was located in the San Fernando Valley community of Reseda (technically Los Angeles), it was dubbed the Northridge Earthquake.



It occurred along a previously unknown fault, also later dubbed the Northridge blind thrust fault.



Most of the twisted wreckage from nearly a quarter-century ago has been cleared—except in one place, where it's been turned into sculptural art as a memorial for the victims of the earthquake.



That's on the campus of California State University, Northridge (CSUN), where the Lauretta Wasserstein Earthquake Sculpture Garden pays tribute to the destruction and devastation that hit a little too close to home (about a mile from the epicenter).



All the buildings on the campus had been damaged by the Northridge earthquake.



Those that weren't brought down by the initial jolt and aftershocks erupted into a fiery (and sometimes toxic) blaze.



And yet artist Marjorie Berkson Sievers (a CSUN alum) and landscape architect Paul Lewis managed to see beauty in the rubble...



...converting disembodied columns, pillars, stairs, and walls (mostly from a collapsed parking structure) into a kind of artificial reef for nature to twist itself around...



...vines to crawl through...



...and plants to inhabit.



Of course, the damage brought on by the Northridge earthquake wasn't isolated to the West Valley—it stretched for 85 miles. But to really grasp what happened in the middle of the night in January 1994, you've got to go back to Northridge and look at some of that rubble.

That is, until something similar happens again.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Facing Our Faults
These Tremors of the Night
In Search of the Epicenter
One of Many Firsts: Earthquake

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Silence Is Deafening

I'm the kind of person that needs a lot of sonic distraction.

I can't sleep out in the middle of the country unless there are wolves howling, trains chugging, or the wind whipping. Absolute silence keeps me awake at night.

In college, I didn't just listen to music while I wrote a paper or studied for a test. I listened to music while on the London Tube or sitting in the middle of a Burger King in Leicester Square.

Some might consider listening to the radio while driving a distraction. As for me, it's a good way to focus on the task at hand.

So, imagine my discomfort today when I attended a puppet show that had practically no soundtrack at all.

I might as well have been watching a show of mimes. Only the mimes were wearing costumes that looked like giant hands and carrying umbrellas to look like jellyfish.

The problem, however, wasn't that the auditorium was silent. It's that the lack of sound coming from the stage meant that all the other sounds in the house were amplified.

All the coughing children and their fluish parents.

The stuffy-nosed child behind me lying on her father's lap.

The tike who insisted on narrating the show with his observations, like "He's counting how many!" and "Pink!" and "There's two of them!"

Thanks, buddy. We know. We're watching the same show as you.

The woman sitting next to me was wrestling with a plastic bag and eating trail mix out of it. The smell of chewed peanuts intermingled with some personal care product she'd used that reminded me of industrial-strength public restroom air freshener.

The silence was making me nauseous. I was dying for some music or dialogue.

Mummenschanz had been haunting me for the greater part of 30 years—or even more—after watching the TV commercial for it on repeat as a child. I never knew exactly what it was.

And when I saw the troupe of dancers-slash-contortionists-slash-puppeteer-mimes were performing locally, I figured it was time I found out.

But in the end, I couldn't watch it.

At least, I couldn't just watch it.

I'm sure this falls under the category of "It's not you; it's me." I take the blame. Others seemed to be enjoying the show.

But I couldn't even concentrate on the show with all that hacking and sniffling and rattling and chatting and vibrating of a cell phone two seats down from me.

I got a brief reprieve when one of the skits was about a frog trying to catch a fly. Thank god for the buzzing of that fly.

But once it ended, I knew I had to leave. I couldn't take it anymore.

At least now I know.



Related Posts:
Dark Matters
The Sounds of Silence
Dulling the Senses