You never know whom you might meet at a dinner party.
I was surprised when my hosts invited their excellent “caterer” to join the table. I was even more surprised when the affable young man was asked if he would sing to us after dinner. Michael Graham stood by the table and blew the group away with his resonant baritone voice in an a capella rendering of “If Ever I Would Leave You.”
We enthusiastically applauded while he modestly beamed.
Only 29, Graham is a young man who not only loves the culinary arts, but who sings his heart out with the California Desert Chorale; takes award-winning photographs; and offers personal services from organizing events to IT consulting.
“I like helping others whenever I can,” he says.
Born in Victorville and raised in Desert Hot Springs and Palm Desert, Graham now lives in Sky Valley. His motivation comes from advice he got from his mother: “She always told me to win my own race,” he says. “I judge my success in any endeavor by using my own previous success as my goalpost.”
From a young age, Graham—an only child who was home-schooled—found his voice in music.
“I was always interested in music,” he remembers. “I spent a short time in a children’s chorus. Music was in my family; my mom and grandmother were both pianists, and my grandfather, a writer, was always interested in music. I was raised on a diet of Andrew Lloyd Webber, opera, musical theater and German lieder songs. In my teens, I began to explore music from around the world. I had no confidence in my own ability to sing, but I was able to work with my grandmother when I started to learn, and that was so gratifying.”
Graham enrolled at College of the Desert. “I didn’t know what I wanted to pursue, but it was suggested I major in music,” he says.
The music program at COD offers both certificates and degrees to music majors, and includes both private lessons and public-performance opportunities.
“I had to audition, and I was so unsure about my voice,” says Graham. “There were a lot of really talented people. I took Broadway-voice classes along with jazz, and I was lucky enough to work with Mark Almy for one-on-one instruction.”
Almy is an adjunct faculty member at COD with an operatic background. He’s taught at the University of Redlands, Riverside Community College, Cal State San Bernardino and the Idyllwild Arts Academy, and has directed full operas at COD.
Currently, Graham’s passion is his involvement with the California Desert Chorale, with 60 voices of men and women between the ages of 29 and 85. The group was founded in 1986. The chorale’s artistic director, Tim Bruneau, was trained by the likes of Marilyn Horne and Beverly Sills, and has appeared as a soloist and choral singer with organizations that include the Chicago Symphony Chorus and Los Angeles Master Chorale.
“I entered the program at COD in 2009, and by spring 2010, I was invited by Tim Bruneau to try out for the chorale,” Graham says. “I was one of four interns he selected from students at COD.”
For Graham, the chorale offers a range of music that fits his background: “There is an equal mix of pop and classical music. I loved doing their program last Christmas. It had something for everyone.”
What’s ahead for young Michael Graham? “I’d love to travel and see the world. I want to know what’s out there. Music and cooking right now are more of a hobby. … I do like staying here in the Coachella Valley. I appreciate the beauty of the desert; the whole landscape is so rich once you stop to appreciate it, so I have considered my photography as a profession.”
As a man not yet 30, does Michael Graham have any advice for other young people?
“I owe so much to the great teachers at COD and to the California Desert Chorale,” he says. “I’ve been able to work with many superb people and musicians, because I learned from my family not to be limited by fear.
“It’s easy to rule something out before you’ve even tried it, saying to yourself, ‘I couldn’t do that.’ Whenever I’ve tried, I’ve found those fears are not usually valid. Try not to worry about it—just go for it!”
When you move to a new area, there are a few services you must find: a good dry cleaner, someone who knows how to cut hair, perhaps a computer specialist, and a good mechanic.
As for that mechanic, there’s La Quinta resident Guy Allchin, who owns Cam Stone’s Automotive in Palm Desert.
It’s always refreshing to find native locals in the Coachella Valley who either stayed or came home to start businesses and raise their families. Allchin, 45, was born in Indio and raised on a “farm/ranch” with an older brother and sister. He graduated from Indio High School at 17—knowing exactly what he wanted to do.
“I had a Jeep that kept breaking down, so I learned how to do it all myself,” he says. “My dad was a mechanic who owned two gas stations and fixed everybody’s cars. I knew I wanted to own a two-bay repair shop, not just to fix cars, but also to run a small business dedicated to moral principles in dealing with customers.”
At 13, Allchin began working at a bowling alley, but moved to a pizza joint when he was able to make 50 cents more an hour. “At 15, they made me manager!” he says.
After high school, Allchiin went to Wyoming Technical Institute in Laramie, studied automotive repair and business management, and then returned to the Coachella Valley.
“I couldn’t get a job,” he says, “so I went back to the pizza joint, and they let me come back as manager. I kept asking around, got a job at an Indio repair shop, and finally ended up working with the original Cam Stone. I could have gone to work with a Honda dealership that included insurance benefits, but that meant working weekends, and by then, I had a baby at home.
“Eventually, I applied to the Small Business Administration to explore my options, because I always knew I wanted my own business. Although originally turned down, I kept working with the SBA on a six-year plan. I started working in the office at Cam Stone’s and got to understand that side of the business, as well as working the bays. I actually like the office part better than working with cars, so when Stone asked me if I wanted to buy him out, in 2008, that’s what I did.
“I had always envisioned having a shop with two bays; I ended up with nine!”
Allchin married his wife, Shelly, almost 20 years ago. They have two children, Karenna, 18, and Teryn, 14. Shelly was also born in Indio.
“Shelly committed to raising our kids,” says Allchin, “but she also worked with Marriott for 11 years, the city of Palm Desert’s Visitor Center, and is yard supervisor at an elementary school. We have a 10-year plan. I’d like to be done at 55; Shelly wants to see the country.
“The only one of my kids who might step into the business is my youngest daughter. She loved taking cars apart when she was a little kid, but I doubt it.”
Allchin’s parents had a big influence on him and how he does business.
“My mom always took us to church, and her bywords were to be honest, trustworthy and loyal. My dad always said, ‘If you’re going to do something, give it the best you’ve got.’ I still go out to their acreage in Thermal on weekends to drink a few, hang out, trim trees and fix cars.”
The business model Allchin follows is “to be able to sleep at night. I’m not into ripping people off. If someone can’t afford the repairs, I’ll work with them to do what they can afford, and be honest about what can wait.”
I can attest to that. When my car was making weird noises and needed serious front-end work, Allchin assured me it could wait a while until I could afford the repairs, and that my wheels weren’t going to fall off on the freeway. How many mechanics work that way?
“It’s a lot more difficult fixing cars these days,” says Allchin. “With computer-driven repairs, you can’t just open the hood and figure out what’s wrong. On the other hand, running the business is a lot easier now. I can pull up a car’s entire history on the computer. But management training isn’t enough; when you come in, you need to be able to talk to someone who understands what’s going on with your car. Too often, service writers are just pushing the business side.”
Cam Stone’s Automotive specializes in American and Asian cars. “I don’t do European cars, because so few mechanics really know how to work on them,” Allchin says. “It’s tough to get skilled repair technicians. You don’t always know if they’re good at what they do, and they have to know how to get along with each other. I’m a bit of a pushover. It’s hard for me to fire people, so I want anyone new to be able to get along with the guys who’ve been here for years.”
Allchin approaches his work with a strong sense of morality; he credits the way his parents raised him.
“I’m not perfect,” he says. “I have anxiety issues, and there are things I’m scared of, but I’ve found ways to handle them. I was raised to have morals, and I worry that a lot of younger people are headed down the wrong track.
“I believe you have to treat others the way you want to be treated. We have lots of long-term clients, and I care about making sure they’re taken care of.”
The service people you encounter every day, to most, are basically invisible: the clerk at the cleaners, the waitress at the café where you get your morning coffee, the plumber who comes to fix a clogged drain, the salesman at the pro shop, the person who checks you in for your doctor’s appointment.
Most of us never know who these people really are, or what their lives are like, until the moment one of them displays the kind of interpersonal skills that make them not only personal to you, but also highly effective representatives of the organizations with which they work.
One such individual is Carlos Castro Jr., property manager with Public Storage in Palm Desert on Fred Waring Drive.
Castro was born 44 years ago in Indio, where he still lives. He is the oldest of four children, who grew up with the understanding that as the oldest, he had a responsibility toward his younger siblings—Monica, Vanessa and Raymond.
“My mom had me at 18,” he says, “and I saw, after she and my father divorced, how, with no marketable experience, she moved from welfare and Section 8 housing to owning her own home and her own car and independence. I’ve always looked up to her. She’s really my hero.”
Castro’s mom, Dora Rodriguez, was born in Waco, Texas. She came to the Coachella Valley and met Castro’s father at Coachella Valley High School.
“It’s really some coincidence,” he says, “because I also met the woman in my life at CVHS, but our story took a lot longer to work out.”
Castro had a crush on Claudia Macias in school, but life took them in different directions.
“What got us back to each other about six years ago, after we were both divorced, was Facebook,” he recalls. “I came across a profile of her and sent a message: ‘This is Carlos, who sat behind you.’ She was blown away, because a friend of hers had read my father’s obituary. She responded, ‘Oh, my God, I thought you were dead!’ We talked a lot after that, and then she said we should get together some time. I told her, ‘I’m available right now. Let’s get a drink.’ Then we started seeing each other.
“Claudia reminds me of my mom in so many ways. She also grew up the product of a divorce and found a way to end up owning a house and a car, raising her kids, and making her own place in the world.”
Coming from an extended family that included relatives who got into trouble and even spent time in jail, “I really decided to be just the opposite,” says Castro. His father was a strong influence to stay clean and straight. “I was raised to be respectful, to have a sense of responsibility toward others, to always act with integrity, and be self-aware. And if I did something wrong, I had to pay the consequences, at a time when that went well beyond a time-out.
“My family was somewhat reserved, a pretty typical Mexican family, so I wasn’t really raised to show my emotions. I developed that on my own. I was always interested in knowing about other people. You have to find things you may have in common. I trust people until someone gives me a reason not to. Sometimes, that backfires, and it really hurts. People can try to manipulate you, but you have to be strong and true to yourself.”
When it comes to being an asset to a company with a job that requires constantly interacting with people who may be upset or are often unsure of what they want or need, Castro could teach others how it’s done.
“I love my job,” he says. “I love meeting people and learning their history and the different experiences they’ve had. I tend to share myself, and then others share themselves with me. And I love being able to help them.”
After high school, Castro continued his education at Mt. San Jacinto College, studying information technology. He then moved on to College of the Desert to study psychology. He plans to continue on to a bachelor’s degree and hopes to go into social work to help others as a counselor, perhaps focused on substance abuse.
Castro’s bucket list? “I want to travel to Australia. It’s a very unique place. I’d like to go to the Outback and see kangaroos and koalas. I’d also like to go south and see the Mayan ruins.”
What advice would Castro give to others? “Be yourself. Be proud of where you come from. There are always going to be obstacles in life, but whatever you do, you should never change who you are just because of the actions of others. That just gives them control over you. And, of course, it’s easier with someone there with you.
“My mom always took care of us. She’s always there. I probably don’t tell her often enough.”
The next time you’re running errands, take the time to notice who is helping you, and realize how little you know about who they are, where they came from, and what their hopes and dreams might be.
That person, like Carlos Castro, might be someone you should take the time to know.
Many of my friends have stopped watching the news, checking their social-media feeds and listening to talk radio. They feel bombarded by claims and accusations and misstatements and alternative facts and post-truth political strategy.
Even people who have been active in the past are feeling disempowered and just hoping their lives don’t go too far south over the next four years. They hope we don’t get into a war. They wish the president and political parties would just get on with governing and let the process take its course. They’re tired.
However, Carlynne McDonnell isn’t tired at all. In fact, she’s expanding her activism—and organizing others to do the same.
Back in 2015, I wrote about McDonnell and her efforts to support and influence women with her book, The Every Woman’s Guide to Equality, containing advice on how women can stand up to situations in which they are treated with less respect than they deserve, in both the workplace and society in general.
After the presidential election, McDonnell decided to respond to what she saw as the “lack of people educated about how government works and (people) frustrated that they didn’t know what to do, or how to take a stand. Along with many other people, I was very disappointed after the election, and I don’t do well with sitting around. I’ve always been an activist. If I see a problem or situation, I need to find a solution.”
McDonnell began a Facebook group, Action for Societal Change, to provide information and organize others toward actions both public and private—from phone calls or emails to attending meetings or public demonstrations.
“People were feeling anxiety and despair,” she says. “They were having trouble knowing what’s real and what isn’t. Mostly, they wanted to know what they could do.”
McDonnell wanted to present information and offer suggestions on how to take action based on what she calls “vetted, proven, factual, mainstream news sources like (the Associated Press) and Reuters. I never post articles that have not been verified. Too much information is put out designed just to stir things up and provoke a desired response. I want to help people understand that everything posted—email, Twitter, news—isn’t always something that requires action. You have to be strategic. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
McDonnell, 57, a Palm Springs resident, came to the desert with her husband from Claremont almost five years ago. In addition to her writing and her activism, she’s in the process of fulfilling a personal soft spot by opening an animal sanctuary. Although she worked on a couple of political campaigns in the past, she says she would never run for office.
“I would never be able to keep from telling somebody to f--- off!” she says.
In a hyper-partisan and often vitriolic political climate, is there really anything individuals can do to make a difference through civic engagement?
“People need to slow down and take a breath. Understanding issues should be nonpartisan and regardless of religion, gender, or ethnicity,” says McDonnell. “I’m not a Pollyanna. I have no false illusions. But people have to realize the issues we’re facing are not going to go away, and we have to be able to trust the integrity of our information. We need an educated, measured approach to responding that doesn’t leave people feeling exhausted.”
McDonnell’s concept of how to feel empowered and make a difference is to put pragmatism over ideology.
“We all have to feel able to communicate: ‘That is not acceptable to me,’” McDonnell says. “Every day, our website posts at least one action individuals can take on their own. Whether you can give time, money, or just show up to learn and get involved, we welcome everyone regardless of political party.”
The group also has in-person meetings; the next one is scheduled for 2 p.m., Sunday, April 2, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Desert, 72425 Via Vail, in Rancho Mirage.
“There were so many people really hurting after the election, and some who are now regretting having supported the president,” she said. “I just wanted to find a way to bring people together. So far, we have about 450 local followers across the Coachella Valley. What we’re doing is not ‘hot and sexy’—it’s a methodical approach to being informed before you act. I want to appeal to those who have never marched or turned out to demonstrate and help them make their voices heard. I judge people on their willingness to do things for others, and this is about the willingness to make a commitment to bettering our country.”
Amid claims that professional organizers are orchestrating negative response to President Trump, Carlynne McDonnell stands as a refutation of that claim: She decided on her own to do whatever she can, and she is committed to helping others come together to do the same.
There are similar local organizing efforts throughout the country—individuals motivated only by their desire to make a difference. They are not paid protesters or political hacks. They’re people like Carlynne McDonnell, encouraging everyone to get beyond being tired of it all—and instead, to get up and make a difference.
It’s been more than four years since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., yet the bone-chilling horror of what happened should never be forgotten. We can never know what those lives might have contributed to America in the future, and we can only imagine the agony of their families.
I was overcome with emotion when I walked into the main hall of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Rancho Mirage and saw the chairs on the stage, each with a T-shirt draped over it, bearing the name and age of a victim. Only one shirt was an adult size honoring one of the teachers killed; the rest were small—almost all of them showing age 6.
The event, marking the four-year anniversary of Sandy Hook, was co-sponsored by Moms Demand Action Coachella Valley, the local group affiliated with the national group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense. Presenters included the Rev. Leisa Huyck of the Unitarian Universalist Church, attorney Frank Riela of Cathedral City, Lisa Middleton of Palm Springs, Joni Padduck of Indio, and Dori Smith of Palm Desert. It included a showing of the movie, Making a Killing: Guns, Greed and the NRA.
Similar events are being held around the country, sponsored by the Not One More Project. Children’s tees are brightly colored with names and ages. Adults, such as the teachers and administrators killed at Sandy Hook, are represented by white tees. Shooters/suicides get a black shirt with no name—the group believes even those lives should be counted as the loss of yet other human beings to gun violence.
What’s perhaps even more disturbing than the killings is what has happened to the families of those killed. A Feb. 3 report by Barbara Demick in the Los Angeles Times documented the harassment families have received from conspiracy theorists and their followers, who call themselves “Sandy Hook truthers.” Perhaps the worst is the infamous Alex Jones, whose “Infowars” programs claim the Sandy Hook killings were staged, using child actors, as a means of overturning Second Amendment rights to gun ownership.
Noah Pozner’s father received death threats and was harassed with phone calls, including ethnic and racial slurs and profanities; he spent more than a year just trying to remove an online video that featured pictures of his son over a soundtrack of a porno film.
At a memorial in 2015 for Victoria Soto, one of the teachers slain, a man was arrested after demanding to know whether she had actually been killed, while shoving a picture at her younger sister.
The medical examiner who signed the coroner reports for Sandy Hook victims was bombarded with harassing phone calls to his home and office.
A man was convicted of stealing memorial signs put up in playgrounds that honored the dead children; he later called grieving parents and claimed their children had never even existed.
Most of the families connected with Sandy Hook have had to remove their social media accounts and unlist their telephone numbers. Many have moved to recover some sense of privacy and allow time to grieve.
Others connected to Sandy Hook have also been harassed: police, photographers, neighbors, government officials, witnesses and teachers who survived the horrific event.
According to Demick’s article, perhaps the worst conspiracy theorist is a 70-year-old Florida man who has spent his pension and more than $100,000 he raised online to “expose” the conspiracy which he claims includes 500-700 people, including President Obama. He believes President Trump’s election will bring a full investigation to expose what happened, since Trump has willingly accepted support from Alex Jones.
Meanwhile, Congress recently passed a bill that will allow guns to be purchased by people considered by the Social Security Administration as too mentally unstable to handle their own affairs. This would overturn a policy put in place by President Obama that allowed sharing background-check information to limit the ability of such individuals to purchase guns. ProPublica cites a study in Connecticut that found that adding more mental health records to the background-check system created a 53 percent drop in the likelihood of a person who had ever been involuntarily committed of later carrying out a violent gun-related crime. Meanwhile, the cost to American society of gun violence, including accidents and suicides, in public-health terms, is more than $5 billion each year.
Moms Demand Action works to prevent access to guns by children, calling for guns to be locked and kept separate from ammunition. They caution that children know where parents hide things and have an amazing ability to access even safes and codes. They also suggest never sending a child to someone else’s home without asking whether they have firearms, and how they are stored. Better safe than sorry.
According to Maggie Downs of Moms Demand Action Coachella Valley (paraphrasing Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times), “In the four decades between 1975 and 2015, terrorists born in the seven nations in Trump’s travel ban killed zero people in America. … In that same period guns claimed 1.34 million lives in America, including murders, suicides and accidents.”
The families of Sandy Hook and the local activists working to raise awareness want us to remember: Noah 6, Charlotte 6, Jack 6, Olivia 6, Dylan 6, Catherine 6, Avielle 6, Jessica 6, James 6, Josephine 7, Caroline 6, Benjamin 6, Chase 7, Ana 6, Jesse 6, Daniel 7, Grace 7, Emilie 6, Madeleine 6, Allison 6.
We should all say not one more.
- anita rufus
- lovable liberal
- sandy hook elementary school shooting
- school shootings
- mass shootings
- moms demand action for gun sense in america
- moms demand action coachella valley
- gun violence
- maggie downs
- making a killing: guns, greed and the nra
- not one more project
- sandy hook truthers
- alex jones
Occasionally, you meet someone who seems to have been destined to do the work they do—someone who not only is good at their job, but who also loves doing it.
Dierdre Wieringa—better known as Dee—is one of those people.
Wieringa, 60, a Palm Desert resident for the past seven years, serves as administrator/executive director of Caleo Bay Alzheimer’s Special Care Center, a residence facility in La Quinta dedicated to serving those coping with a form of dementia. Built in 2013, Caleo Bay is designed to provide comfort and security to those who can no longer be cared for by family or who can no longer live independently. It includes 24/7 nursing staff, motion sensors in each room to ensure no guest is left on their own, and specialized training for staff to deliver “patient-centered care” with attention to building relationships with clients.
“The layout is designed to provide a sense of security and continuity,” says Wieringa, “so that no guest ever feels disoriented. As they move freely about, they find continuity in living rooms, dining rooms and activity rooms no matter which corridor they’re in. They never feel like they’re lost.”
Each guest room has a collage of pictures posted outside the door, including a current photo, and pictures from their past supplied by family and friends.
“Guests can find themselves in the pictures as they often see themselves, somewhere in the past,” says Wieringa. “It’s also a great way for us to recognize who they are and what their past history is, so we can better relate to them on any given day.”
The facility also has display cases with artifacts from past decades—from World War II memorabilia to wedding mementos to an old typewriter—because these are things with which those with memory issues can relate.
Wieringa was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. She met Ben, her husband of 30 years, and had three children before moving to the United States in 1996.
“We wanted a better life for ourselves and our family,” she recalls. “Ben was offered a chance to work here, so we decided to make the move.”
Wieringa’s educational background was in public relations. Her first job was in property acquisition, then she did paralegal work, and finally she opted to be a stay-at-home mom while her sons and daughter grew up. Once in San Diego, Dee, whose daughter had just gotten married, “wanted to be out there doing things.”
A senior living facility was being built nearby. It was an unfamiliar concept to her—she doesn’t remember any such approach to senior living in South Africa—but she asked if they had any jobs available.
“They hired me as the assisted-living director and then I became executive director,” she says. “Eventually, I was offered the chance to manage the desert facility of Segovia, a high-end independent and assisted-living country club environment. So, Ben and I came to the desert in 2009.”
Wieringa also served as executive director and administrator at Stonewall Gardens Assisted Living in Palm Springs before moving into her current position at Caleo Bay.
“We strive to find the lighter side of Alzheimer’s,” says Wieringa. “Our staff training includes teaching how changes can cause frustration or turmoil in people who need a sense of stability and continuity. People with dementia often act out or lash out with agitation when they get confused or are faced with the unknown. There are communication skills, like diversion, that can really make a difference to those whose short-term memory is so fleeting. You have to live in their reality and realize that every day is different. I believe in ‘meaningful moments,’ and the staff is trained to facilitate that philosophy. We celebrate something each day, no matter how small, for each resident.”
Caleo Bay also utilizes volunteers from church groups and students, as well as animal therapy, music and dance. Wieringa is also involved in other volunteer activities on her own: She runs a Parkinson’s disease support group and participates in the Dementia-Friendly Café (which I help organize), held monthly for the past two years.
There are several different types of senior living facilities: independent living; assisted-living, where guests need some help with daily activities; and memory-care facilities dedicated to supporting those in various stages of dementia-related illness.
“The problem,” says Wieringa, “is that people aren’t prepared for the cost of long-term care. Medicare doesn’t cover it, and even skilled nursing facilities limit how many Medicaid beds are set aside. Families always ask, ‘What happens when Mom or Dad runs out of money?’ There is no good answer. Unless the younger generation invests in long-term care insurance (which often include caps on expenditures), especially with dementia diagnoses rapidly increasing and people living so much longer, the baby boomers and millennials are going to be faced with an impossible situation. Even if Medicare did cover long-term care, the cost would certainly break the bank.
“Families often are the only recourse, and they don’t realize that … many caregivers die before the person they’re caring for. Plus, there are so many dysfunctional families or people with nobody to care for them. Whenever a guest dies, even in the middle of the night, I make sure I’m there. I saw them come in through the front door, and I see that they leave the same way.”
With a high-stress job, what keeps Wieringa going? “You can’t teach passion. I love my job. It just makes me feel good to know I’m really helping others and making a difference. There are a lot of lonely old people out there with no one to turn to. One person can make a difference. Working with dementia is hard, but a moment of making people feel good about themselves makes me feel as if what I do was meant to be.”
How many of us can truly say that?
I’d like to share some of my reactions to the inauguration—rough notes I took while watching wall-to-wall coverage from Thursday through Sunday.
Think of it as a sacrifice made on your behalf.
TOMB OF THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER
I’m a sucker for tradition and ceremonial continuity. Even parades make me cry. So when President-elect Trump and Vice-President-elect Pence visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to place a wreath on Thursday, my first tears of the weekend began to flow.
When representatives of the armed services marched out—holding the flags of their service, along with the American flag—and then executed the perfect turn and dipped the service flags just the right amount to highlight the national flag for the playing of the national anthem, I was moved. The solemnity of the event and the significance of what that location represents cannot be minimized.
I didn’t cry at all watching this event. In fact, I must admit I occasionally laughed. Aside from the fact that the Trump inaugural committee had trouble booking any major talent … did you notice that whenever Donald Trump puts his hand over his heart during the playing of the anthem, he occasionally pats his chest, apparently attempting to keep the beat with the music? What made me laugh was the realization that the president has no rhythm at all. And who pats their heart during the playing of the national anthem?
Again, this is a solemn rite of passage in our democratic history—opposing members of Congress greeting each other; four past presidents attending to acknowledge the peaceful transfer of power; and a crowd of well-wishers (along with some protests that included burning trash cans—I’m still not sure what the political significance of that is).
The lasting impressions for me are the appearance and demeanor of our new first lady, and the poise and grit of Secretary Hillary Clinton. Both women did themselves, and us, proud.
The inauguration speech was unfortunate, painting a picture of a dystopian America and playing directly to the president’s election base—with little regard to the majority of Americans who did not vote for him.
There was one fantastic statement made by President Trump—if only it had been indicative of the overall tone, which, alas, it was not: “No challenge can match the heart and fight and spirit of America.”
He should have stopped there.
At lunch after he was sworn in, President Trump made a gracious statement acknowledging the Clintons for attending, and saying how much he respected them. This is the same man who only a couple of weeks ago said that Secretary Clinton was “guilty as hell” and should not have even been allowed to run for president.
I guess it’s easier to trash people when they’re not right in front of you.
THE INAUGURATION BALLS
Let’s start with how truly stunning Melania Trump looked, and give her credit for having the good sense, at the third ball—honoring the Armed Services—to thank the veterans for their service and to say how proud she is to be their first lady. If only President Trump had shown that much grace—all he talked about was his crowd numbers and the assumption that those attending the ball had voted for him. His absolute favorite word is “me.”
Let’s also give a nod to Ivanka Trump, whose ball gown, hair style and demeanor was exquisite. However, watch for criticism of the way she attempts to identify with average women and their policy issues when she has never faced any of the same situations. Time will tell what influence she may be able to have on her father, but it’s somewhat telling that it’s her husband who got hired for an important job, not her.
The most glaring reality of the balls was that men can’t dance—regardless of age. Neither Trump nor Pence have any sense of rhythm, and they come from a generation when ballroom dancing was actually taught in school. The younger men in both families are hopeless, too. It did make me miss President Obama—remember his first dance with Michelle?
Also, have you noticed that Donald Trump seems to have no sense of intimacy toward his wife? She often reaches for his hand, but he almost never reaches for hers. While “dancing” with her on inauguration night, Trump could barely keep his attention on her, constantly waving to others in the crowd or doing his signature “thumbs up” gesture. Even during the playing of a romantic song, he wasn’t into her—he was into the adoring crowd. He’s the guy you meet who’s always looking over your shoulder to see if there’s anyone more important in the room. There was maybe one moment of affection, and it came from her toward him.
The catty side of me thought: I don’t care how much money or power he has … can you imagine sleeping with that man? Petty, I know, but I’m just sayin’ …
THE DAY AFTER
At the prayer service the morning after the inauguration, the president seemed to have trouble staying awake and engaged. During a prayer, he was looking around the crowd in the church, occasionally with his signature “thumbs up.” He can’t sit still or stay focused for very long. His grandchildren were better-behaved.
Then there was the visit to the hallowed wall honoring lives lost at the CIA—Trump’s first official stop, to assure the intelligence community of his support. He began by saying how much he respects them, then spent two-thirds of his time defending the inauguration attendance, bragging about having the most appearances on Time’s cover (which is not true, by the way), and blaming the media for inventing a rift between him and the intelligence community after he had compared them to Nazis.
What can one say when millions of women, children and men take to the streets in solidarity across the world?
“What are they marching for?” asked some. As someone who has marched in the past, against the Vietnam War and for civil rights and women’s rights, here’s what: They marched to show that women’s rights cannot and must not be rolled back, and to show their lack of confidence in a president who has publicly disrespected women and the real-life issues that are important to them.
Whatever the differences in individual issues among the marchers, they all stood up for equality without exception.
Marches took place in more than 600 cities across the country, with total estimates now topping 3 million marchers throughout the U.S. More than 1,500 women marched in Palm Desert, and locals Carlynne McDonnell, of Strong Women Advocacy Group; Dori Smith, of Moms Demand Action; Amalia deAztlan, of Democratic Women of the Desert; and Palm Springs resident Eileen Stern made a trip to Los Angeles or D.C., along with many others.
Women and their supporters also showed up by the tens of thousands around the world, from New Zealand and Australia to Rome, London, Austria, Mexico City, Paris, Barcelona and even Kosovo—concerned about not only women’s rights, but also international security, which they believe is threatened under a Trump presidency. Watching this amazing outpouring of support worldwide once again brought tears.
I thought the best sign at the marches was: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” I loved the guy from Long Beach who said, “I’m marching for my 91-year-old mother and my 30-year-old daughter, who both taught me how to be a man.”
Meanwhile, amidst this historic outpouring of solidarity and concern, the new president could only talk about how big his crowd was and how he was being disrespected by “the media” in their mostly accurate reporting.
By the way, in case you didn’t understand the pink-knitted caps with pussycat ears, I’ll leave you to figure that one out for yourself.
If you are blasé about the changing of the guard, or disgusted with everything political, I want to remind you that your grandchildren’s grandchildren will study the current period in their history classes. We’ve seen the election of the first private-sector president—with absolutely no political experience and no apparent interest in history or traditions or self-restraint. There is much to make fun of in this unfolding reality show; in truth, when you’re worried or afraid or angry, humor can help.
It’s important to remember we’re living in unfolding history. That’s worth paying attention to, regardless of who gets the biggest crowds or who gives the better speech or whether you believe the political process works to your advantage.
I didn’t vote for Donald Trump, but the bottom line for me is that the peaceful transfer of power transcends all else. It endures as the epitome of what we stand for as a nation.
And that makes me cry.
After 30 years of working as a civilian employee with the Department of the Army, John Reece, 73, of Palm Springs, finally feels like he’s home.
“I spent 25 of those 30 years overseas, from Japan to South Korea to Saudi Arabia to Greenland,” says Reece. “I’m finally in a place where I feel I can be totally myself.”
Reece was born and raised in Missouri, to a minister father with strict religious standards.
“It took me a long time to get over that,” says Reece.
Reece was around church music throughout his childhood, with his father playing the organ and directing the choir. “My mom insisted we all take piano lessons when we were young,” he recalls, “and my older brother played trumpet and tuba and my younger sister was in the band.”
It’s not so strange, then, that Reece worked as an entertainment director with the Army throughout the world.
“I handled community theater and did logistics for USO shows and cultural tours,” he recalls. “I learned enough Japanese to get my job done while in Tokyo for six years, and knew basic conversational Korean to handle my four years in South Korea.”
After his years in Korea, Reece moved to Washington, D.C., and eventually moved on to Hawaii and then returned yet again to South Korea.
“I also spent three years in Saudi Arabia,” says Reece, “which was a wonderful experience. Working in a Muslim nation and learning to respect the country and their culture was terrific.”
Eventually, Reece landed in Greenland.
“I was six miles from the North Pole,” he recalls,” where it was sometimes 50 degrees below zero with a wind chill of 100-below. Of course, when it gets to below zero, it really doesn’t matter anymore. And it was dark from October to January.”
How did Reece handle being gay during such a long affiliation with the military?
“I knew all my life that I was gay,” he says. “Of course, back in those days, it was known as being ‘homosexual.’ With the church, it was a real guilt process. I would pray to be made ‘normal.’ My first experience was with gay bars, which at that time were all very underground. It just wasn’t an easy thing back in the 1960s and 1970s.
“While working with the Army, I was always very aware of looking over my shoulder. I didn’t want to do anything concrete that could have hurt my career. That’s a stressful way to live.”
Reece says he never came out to his family. “It was just never discussed, although I do remember my mom saying, ‘Son, you’re special. You may never be married, but there’s one thing worse: being married to the wrong one.’ We just didn’t talk about it.
“My sister knows through my Facebook page, and one day, she said, ‘I hope you can find a partner as wonderful as mine is.’ The only one I’ve really talked to openly about it is my niece.”
After finally finding a home base in Washington, D.C., and living in northern Virginia, Reece retired in 2002.
“I came to Palm Springs for a while from 2009 to 2013, and returned to live here full time in 2015. To be honest, I left in 2013 because I felt like Palm Springs was just too gay for me,” he laughs. “I had a hard time meeting straight people. I went back to D.C., but I got tired of the weather and decided to come back.”
Going back to that church choir during his childhood, Reece said music has always been a big part of his life. In fact, he studied music at Oklahoma Baptist University and the St. Louis Institute of Music. It’s not surprising that he finally found his place in the Palm Springs Gay Men’s Chorus.
“I’m so glad to have such support now. Back in my day, there was nothing like counseling or support groups. I’m so glad for young people today who don’t have to live in the shadows,” he says.
Reece’s affiliation with the Gay Men’s Chorus has changed his life.
“Some of the best people I’ve met in my life are in the chorus. We can talk about anything and everything without worrying about offending anyone,” he says. “It’s not just a beautiful professional group, but it’s like being in a brotherhood. They care about you as a person. We even made history—imagine a gay group singing at a memorial service in a church!
“I don’t have anything to hide anymore,” he says. “I’m just me now. Here I am, finally at 73, and I can be openly proud with my head held high and happy.”
After traveling and living all around the world, John Reece has finally found a place to just be himself.
Jon Von Erb did not take a straight path from San Francisco to Palm Springs—no pun intended.
Von Erb was born in San Francisco into a theatrical family, with two gay parents who had met in New York: His mother was a coloratura soprano with the New York City Opera, and his father was a vaudevillian.
“My mom took me to the Bolshoi Ballet when I was about 3 years old,” Von Erb remembers, “and I got hooked.”
While Von Erb’s brother was an athletic football player, Jon became a dedicated dancer and choreographer. What was it like growing up in a family with a gay mother and a gay father?
“In those days, it was a societal thing,” says Von Erb. “They were both in theater during an era when everyone was a smoker and drinker, and it wasn’t really accepted to be that ‘different.’ Otherwise, it was like any theatrical family. I lived a life growing up kind of like an Army brat: I attended about 21 elementary schools and three junior highs.”
Surprisingly, Von Erb said his father was initially unhappy when Jon came out to him as gay.
“He was an avid fan of my brother, the straight football player,” Von Erb said. “I remember when I was working with a ballet company while I was finishing high school, and my final ballet performance was with a full orchestra doing a classic pas de deux with an impossible lift. When the performance was over, the audience just sat silently. Finally, someone started to clap, and the whole audience exploded with applause. My father came up to me afterward and said, ‘I’m so proud of you, son.’ That was the first time he had ever said that to me.” The memory brings Von Erb to tears.
Von Erb later taught Afro-American jazz dancing that he learned in New York and later added Russian ballet techniques when he wound up in New Orleans—where he met the man who would become his husband, Gary Williams, a speech pathologist.
Jon and Gary then resettled to Alaska. “Gary’s sister had moved there,” says Von Erb, “so we decided to try it.”
Von Erb used his background in dance to get a job teaching ballet in Anchorage, and soon after his arrival there, he was offered an opportunity to work in the arts department at the University of Alaska, where Von Erb completed a degree. He also created a dance company there.
The pair later came to Palm Springs in the same way that so many of us have: “We had friends from all over who had moved here who were always saying, ‘Come on down!’”
They’ve now lived here for the past 4 1/2 years. Jon and Gary married three years ago by their backyard pool in Palm Springs, more than 40 years into their relationship.
“We decided to finally get married for legal and financial reasons, but more important, to make a statement for ourselves,” says Von Erb.
Von Erb now works as a certified massage therapist specializing in medical and therapeutic massage techniques that he describes as “intuitive massage.”
“I deal with things like spinal injuries, sciatica, geriatric difficulties and lymphatic effects after surgery,” he says. “When I’m working with someone, my goal is to make it like a connection of rivers that run throughout the entire body. My role is to help create a healing flow. I experience it as intuitive touch. I allow the body to speak to me.”
I met Von Erb at a poetry reading at the Rancho Mirage Library in the newly opened meeting and presentation space. I was attending because my good friend Valerie-Jean Hume (also an Independent contributor) was performing while the participants, many of whom have been published, read their efforts. Participants ranged from an over-90 hale-and-hearty man to a French-accented charming woman, but one participant particularly intrigued me: Jon Von Erb.
Von Erb’s poetry began in earnest while he was in San Francisco from 1989 to 2012.
“There were so many people (in the San Francisco area) who were going through a lot of change: sick, dying,” he recalls. “I started a practice that I called ‘grief massage.’ Whatever the problem, I’d spend an hour listening and then would take the client downstairs to a darkened space, filled with music and atmosphere, and I spoke to them through massage. I’d move them on a path in a bucolic environment, encouraging them to leave behind something heavy that they’ve been carrying around. I could feel the tension going away. Then we’d go back upstairs, and I’d not only listen, but also make observations.
“After the sessions, I’d compose a poem for them about their situation. At the end of our sessions, they would not only have completed the process; they would also have an anthology of their voyage.”
Von Erb now sends poems to about 300 friends and clients every week. His philosophy is fairly simple. “There’s so much to be thankful for. I feel it’s important to pay back all those people who applauded for me all those many years ago. Every day is a new, exciting, fresh day to start.
“Everything talks to you if you learn to listen. People are all searching for someone who reaches out to them first. I’m a hands-on person.”
Literally and figuratively, the description fits him perfectly.
the moon winked at me
floating above the shadowed
winter skeletons of the sycamore trees.
Her gesture asked me
to scribe a poem in her honor.
In that sparkled moment
as I clutched my pen
her silver shine overtook her intention;
Instead, my heart took my pen
and I wrote from recent memory.
Suddenly shivered by
the lack of your warmth
the moon and I
wrote of my longing for you.
—Jon Von Erb, November 2016
I recently read an amazing story about the improbability of coincidence.
A French writer was once treated to a plum pudding by a stranger. Ten years later, the writer ordered a plum pudding while in a Paris restaurant, but was told the last one had just been served to another customer—who turned out to be that original stranger, sitting at another table. Many years after that, the writer was at a dinner with friends and again ordered a plum pudding, telling his companions the earlier story. At that moment, the same stranger entered the room.
“Coincidence” is defined as a remarkable concurrence of improbable events or circumstances which have no apparent causal connection with each other. Most of us write off such occurrences as merely accidental, but occasionally, we hear a story like the one told by the French writer, and we can find no way to explain the vagaries of fate.
This brings us to La Quinta resident DeAnn Lubell-Ames. At 18, while studying journalism in college, Lubell-Ames read about the 1902 eruption of Mount Pélée on the isle of Martinique, an overseas region of France located in the eastern Caribbean. In the space of about four minutes, about 30,000 people lost their lives. The port city of Saint-Pierre was destroyed.
Lubell-Ames became obsessed with the devastating event and decided she would one day write an historical novel about it.
“I’m a natural-born storyteller,” she says. “I think I came out of the womb with fingers looking for a typewriter. I actually tried to write a novel when I was 10. I was affiliated with journalism all through junior and senior high school. I was always fascinated with Nancy Drew investigation stories and with islands.
“While at college, I was reading a book that documented the eruption of Mount Pelée, and focused on the story of a man named Fernand Clerc. I was hooked and wanted to write about the event, but I swore I wouldn’t write about it until I had actually set foot on the island. Over the years, although I planned it many times, something always got in the way.”
Fast forward many years. Lubell-Ames and her husband were selling their home in Boca Raton, Fla. A man walked in, took a look around, and said he thought he had the perfect person for the house. He returned with Yves Clerc, grandson of the same Fernand Clerc in the story who had entranced DeAnn. “I fell to my knees,” she says. “They had to pick me up from the floor!”
When Clerc heard about Lubell-Ames’ intense interest in the story, he invited her to visit Martinique as his guest, staying at the old plantation grounds of his family.
“Because I was Yves’ guest, I wasn’t treated like a regular tourist, although the island natives were somewhat guarded,” she said. “I met the island historian ... and she helped me research and edit my book. I also met Marcel Clerc, Yves’ grand-uncle, who was 5 years old when the volcano erupted and was an eyewitness to what happened.”
Among the things Lubell-Ames learned and wrote about, in addition to the extraordinary natural beauty of Martinique, was the political corruption that existed at the time of the volcanic eruption in 1902.
“There was a lot of racial intolerance, and corrupt policies had been placed above the welfare of the people,” says Lubell-Ames. “The government actually prevented people from leaving Saint-Pierre, in spite of warnings that the volcano was becoming active, and kept telling the people that everything was OK. People were starving and diseased, and if they had just been evacuated, one of the most destructive natural events in history could have been avoided.”
Her historical novel, The Last Moon, has won several awards, including first place at the 2016 Amsterdam Book Festival.
“I claimed the story,” Lubell-Ames says. “I didn’t want to lose the history—95 percent of my story is based on fact, but I wanted to put my spin on it in creating and fleshing out the characters in the story.”
In addition to her writing, Lubell-Ames has been involved in many other creative activities.
“As strong as my urge to write was, I was also very involved in dance,” she says. “I taught dance and modeling while I was a full-time college student, and actually have not only staged ballets, but even wrote one myself!”
Lubell-Ames has also been involved in education projects, creating and distributing support materials for schools throughout the United States, and doing public relations for local organizations such as Angel View and the Rancho Mirage Library. She served for 10 years on the Auxiliary Board for the Eisenhower Medical Center and is a member of several other local organizations, including the Palm Springs Women in Film and Television and Palm Springs Writers Guild. Lubell-Ames is currently a publicist for the McCallum Theatre.
Originally raised in Denver, Lubell-Ames has lived in the Coachella Valley since 1991, when she and her husband, Joe, moved here. Her daughter lives in Los Angeles, and DeAnn revels in being grandma to 11-year old Jake. After Joe’s death in 2010, she met Lee Ames in 2012, and they married.
“We were the fairy-tale couple,” she said. “I wasn’t looking for anything, but you just never know what’s going to happen.” Lee died in October 2015.
Does Lubell-Ames have any advice for aspiring writers?
“Don’t ignore your gut. If you have a tendency to be interested in something, pursue it,” she said. “Whether it’s music, sports, politics, animals, even writing—if you have that nature, stay on track and be true to yourself. Concentrate on your own specialty; everyone has one. If you can find your talent, it will carry you through.”
And a belief in coincidence couldn’t hurt!