The Christmas Letter

The Christmas letter used to be a holiday season tradition of mine. There was always much to report for the year - the kids' progress in life, our travels and adventures, the news from family and friends. But in 2006, after the death of our youngest son, there was nothing we wanted to report. We were beginning to find we often dreaded communicating with anyone, about anything.

Old friends abandoned us. Some family asked, "Aren't you over that yet?" and we retreated from going out to events as much as possible. My mother had died the year before while I talked and read and sang to her. My father, coping with his own grief from the loss of two of his brothers, could only respond, "Life is for the living."

Our focus turned to solely trying to survive the black pits of grief inside ourselves, and trying to ensure each other, and the kids, would somehow make it through this, since we knew we would never get over it.

The Christmas letter was a tradition abandoned. I couldn't face trying to write an upbeat condensed newsletter while forcing down the emptiness, grief, and fears inside. But 2020 is a year demanding a reckoning of some sort, a year that is a story all its own, so I am sitting down to try to write this Christmas letter.

It should surprise no one who knows me to find the first photograph I shot in 2020 was of Juliett. The two of us spend a lot of time together out in the desert where she lives out her best life as a Mojave Sand Leopard. She is a superb climber of trees, chaser of all things which move, and an important member of the family, and has been, ever since she rescued us in 2014.

As an Instagram influencer with more than 900 followers (without trying), she, perhaps more than any of us, has come through this year's trials and tribulations relatively unscathed. She has also been great company in a year when human companions have been few and far between. She is beside me know, laying on her blanket in the sun as the December winds blow us into 2021.

This year began with a great deal of anticipation for the 365 days ahead. There was an energy about 2020 - this was the year we were doing things and going places. Delphine and I began the year continuing to perform, on January 2 at Koutouki as our Greek music group, Kefi. We had been performing weekly at either Yianni's Greek Taverna in Cathedral City, or Koutouki Estiatorio in Palm Desert. We performed weekly at Koutouki up until mid-March when, well... you know the story.

We also went down to Tijuana in January, capped by dinner at Caesar's, thanks to Chris, a longtime friend of ours and former student of Delphine's. Caesar's was great - home of the salad of the same name, and Chris and Emi are fantastic. Tijuana has become a favorite place to explore, from visiting Trump's great wall prototypes to enjoying a stop at a cat cafe.

Of course, early 2020 was the time of impeachment disappointment and our county supervisor having her appointment thrown out by the courts only to remain in and run for election as the incumbent, despite her current term in office technically not in existence after her illegal appointment, which evidently didn't mean anything. San Bernardino County persistently ranks in the top of corrupt county governments and the more I watch them in action, the more I see that the honor is well earned and they take the competition seriously.

January also saw the continuation of a new monthly tradition of ours - jazz on Sunday afternoons once a month at the 12th floor lounge at Fantasy Springs Resort and Casino. It's a light, airy location to enjoy an afternoon of excellent jazz and a good drink or two, followed by decent Chinese food in Indio.

I began work on a story in January for an international magazine. The story was about Hajji Ali, or "Hi Jolly," as he became known. Hi Jolly was a camel driver, brought to the United States, along with camels, for the U.S. Army's experiment to use camels for transportation and exploration in the American Southwest in the 1850s. He's a fascinating character, and writing the story led me to meet some other fascinating characters, including the head of the Texas Camel Corps. If you want a once-in-a-lifetime camping trip in southwest Texas, I recommend their camel treks. I'm hoping we get to try one someday.

2020 appeared to be bearing great potential early in the year. We picked up tickets to see Tanya Tucker in concert at Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Palace later in the year, and began February by going to see Shoshana Bean in concert at the McCallum Theater instead of watching Donald Trump's State of the Union address. We followed that up with an excellent performance by Nacho Bustillos at the Taste of Jalisco Festival. I've never met Nacho personally, but he's contributed music for Southwest Stories and I wanted to see him perform live. We were not disappointed.

Shortly afterwards, Delphine was off again to New Jersey to visit the grandchildren, who are, of course, precious and more adorable than what words may convey. They are works of art. Incredible little people. Little miracles. I love them so much.

Returning to Southwest Stories, late in February, we packed up the crew and headed to Yuma, Arizona. We had been working on getting the third season of my travel show for regional PBS into production. We added another Steve - NAMMY-winner (Native American Music Awards) Steve Rushingwind, as my co-host. In Yuma, we were to attend the big Oregon-California Trails Association conference. OCTA is the largest, most influential historic trails organization in the country, and deals with all the pioneering trails across the West.

At OCTA's conference, I, along with producer Kevin Marcus, were to present a plan for Southwest Stories' collaboration editorially with OCTA, and Steve Rushingwind was the opening evening's entertainment. OCTA's board of directors unanimously approved the partnership between Southwest Stories and the organization, and I commenced roughly five hours of conversation with OCTA members from across the country, while other Steve performed. It was a huge success.

The following day, our crew headed out to Castle Dome City Mining Museum where we filmed and went down into a fluorescent silver mine. Castle Dome has to be one of my favorite places and is an incredible experience to visit. Between the location, wedged into the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in the shadow of the Castle Dome Mountains, and the history, I could spend years here, exploring.

With our new partnership with OCTA in place, the crew was optimistic - 2020 was going to be the year when we put the third season together and got it distributed to all 360 PBS stations around the country. We couldn't wait to get on the road!

On top of that, plans were in the making for a big family reunion for Greek Easter in April. Both kids were planning on joining us for what has been a wonderful annual tradition. Delphine purchased a package trip to Oahu for my 60th birthday in May. We bought tickets for Hamilton in early May when the touring show came to L.A. We had bigger and better plans than ever and couldn't wait.

But evidently, we could.

As we began preparing for all these wonderful plans, we began hearing about a virus, something about a "wet market" in Wuhan, China. Having gone through the H1N1 and Ebola crises with President Obama, and seeing how well they were handled and contained, we weren't too concerned initially. But of course, by March 5, we had played our last gig at Koutouki. The virus was beginning to run rampant. Indoor dining was a thing of the past. By March 20, we had the first documented case of COVID-19 locally. Runs on paper goods and grocery staples began, as did the politicization of a virus that couldn't care less about politics.

Years ago, I had a dream that I was standing in the middle of a grocery store and the shelves were empty - something unheard of in America. By late March, that dream came true, and I realized it while standing in the Yucca Valley Grocery Outlet ("Gross Out" as our son calls it). Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" was playing and I looked around, and the aisles were mostly empty. "So you think you can tell, heaven from hell....."

Shortly afterward, a former colleague of mine died, immediately after a friend lost his partner of four or five decades. Judi died with no fanfare. She had been the only one from my time at the Desert Post Weakly who had stayed with the paper. The rest of us rats all abandoned ship, but she had determined she would stay and collect her retirement from Gannett. She would not. She was forced out and did pick-up jobs around the Coachella Valley to survive. Her husband had moved to Arizona without her after being beaten by their son. Hers was a tragedy with little redemption to be found. Her professional colleagues found little good to say upon news of her passing. And she passed. Not of COVID, but the virus was just getting busy.

Shortly after that, my favorite singer/songwriter, John Prine, died from COVID. Then Pioneertown's own Linda Hertzel died on the same day. Our daughter's family moved from New Jersey to Columbus, Ohio, as she took a new job there. She left just as COVID began to appear at her New York workplace. They left just as her husband, who had been performing on Broadway, saw the lights of Broadway dim and go dark.

Things began to get "postponed." StubHub refused to refund the Hamilton tickets - the performance had been postponed. The real issue being the massive amount of refunds being requested now that the performing arts were sliding to a halt. Hawaii got postponed indefinitely and Hawaiian Airlines kept the airfare. We did a live stream performance of Greek music on Greek Easter, alone. No family, no friends, just us two (three, counting Juliett), in the desert (which is not a bad thing).

My primary income was cut by two-thirds, and my tax return became survival funds. Medical appointments were put off, indefinitely. Violent crime began to increase in the desert, with more suicide by cop, stand-offs with police, and car chases. The first week of May, a local convenience store clerk was stabbed to death in downtown Joshua Tree. This was followed by an arson-started wildfire in Joshua Tree.

The year began taking on a Twilight Zone-ish hue. Out of the blue, I received a text message from someone I didn't know, about me planning to shoot up the Palm Springs International Airport. I immediately called the Palm Springs Police Department and asked them to investigate. They eventually traced it to some homeless guy who had just randomly sent the text and didn't even recall doing it. He had left his home for the mentally incapacitated over on the coast one day and had not returned. The good news was that my request for the investigation got him back to where he belonged.

Next door to us, a young white supremacist skinhead with drug problems began staying with his grandmother. He had lost his license for DUI, so he was stuck at his grandmother's house. At first, it seemed like a positive move, as he cleaned up the years of trash on their lot, much of which would blow onto our land. But the longer he remained, the more frustrated and troublesome he became.

One evening, I heard him yelling threats at his neighbor on the other side of his grandmother's home. He threatened to kill both the man, and his dog (a sweet, old dog that would occasionally get out and come visit us). What I didn't know was that he also assaulted the neighbor that evening, punching him hard.

Problems with our young skinhead neighbor progressively escalated. He would start tweaking and he'd work on something, like tearing apart a travel trailer, or his car that he wasn't allowed to drive, without stopping to rest or sleep for 16 to 24 hours or more. He began harassing our neighbor across the street, Manny. I avoided confrontations with him, but would hear him yelling to himself about the "fags," the "niggers," and lots of hateful stuff. Once, at about 4 a.m., we were awoken by what sounded like close gunshots. I told Delphine to stay down low and ran out to see what was happening. Our neighbor had set off some very loud firecrackers.

I began to explore options as to what pistol I should purchase for our own protection. There was the feeling of inevitable conflict building.

Finally, in the early autumn, things became peaceful next door once again. Our young skinhead neighbor had threatened his grandmother with a knife. She called 911. He was taken away by the police and has since only been back briefly to get his things.

He is not missed.

But across the country, riots were erupting across the country, following the Black Lives Matter protests. In my old home town of Portland, the nightly face-off with police, and later federal stormtrooper thugs, became the evening tradition. Seattle opened its anarchist zone or whatever it was called. Trump made sure his followers confused the protests and riots while his authoritarian proclivities emerged into public view.

A local author, whose book, "Hard Candy," is one of the more important works I've read in my life, made more so by the fact it is the true account of the childhood hell that the author and his brother endured, announced his brother, the only family he had, was now COVID-19 positive in a nursing home. He was out of his mind with worry, but could not visit. Bobby would soon be dead.

I began to know more people coping with the virus and the effects of the lockdown. A nurse, the wife of a photographer in England who had shot great photos of my pirate band while we were there on tour, battled COVID-19 not once, but twice.

And then, with all of this as the background, I was working one day on the computer - this computer, right here in our home - when I heard some strange gurgling coming from the hallway bathroom. I rose to investigate, only to find sewage rising in the toilet and the bathtub. It was happening in the other bathroom as well.

Not having any idea why our bathrooms were erupting with sewage, I went to work with a plunger, and that seemed to help. But not for long. As the sewage rose again, threatening to overflow and flood the house - our house - our home - I found the cap on the line to the septic tank in the back of the house. I pulled it off, and sewage and water erupted, flowing off into the desert, looking akin to one of the "rivers" that flows into the Salton Sea.

This relief of pressure helped, but did not end the crisis. It would continue for over a week, until the line from the house to the septic tank, which had been blocked, was finally cleared.

As home-grown disasters went, this one ended well. Sewage never did escape into the house, things were relatively easy to clean up, and the cost was minimal, especially compared to the possibility that the leach lines for the septic tank might have to be dug up and replaced - a cure that would have run well into the thousands of dollars.

Requiring some socially-distanced outdoor activity to help us cope with the stresses of 2020, and the summer heat of the desert, we discovered day trips up to Big Bear Lake worked wonders. There, we found a new favorite destination - Bluff Lake Reserve, a privately-owned preserve (The Wildlands Conservancy). It would go on to help us through this year with its incredible beauty and solitude, where we could hike in the cooler mountain air and almost forget about pandemics, riots, and of course - the wildfires that were beginning to push their way into our conscious existences.

Bluff Lake is a manmade Alpine lake, created by a resort owner who began operating a mountain retreat at a time when vacationers arrived by stagecoach. Now, it's home for migrating ducks and waterfowl, in a forest filled with dramatic rock formations, butterflies, and wildflowers. Our typical day trip would have us stop at Jasper's in the "Village" of Big Bear, for an incredible barbecue lunch, and then spend the afternoon hiking out at Bluff Lake and Siberia Creek. This would be, outside our own now-sewage-free-home, our happy spot for 2020.

Whatever one can say about 2020, it wasn't a year that was going to just give up and let time slide by. While we were seeing nearly nobody, ever, outside of my foraging trips for food and paper goods, this year just wouldn't let go. Linda, our favorite Pioneertown character, finally got her memorial service in June, outdoors at the Soundstage on Mane Street. Pioneertown is now turning (back) into an LA fantasy land, surging toward the initial vision of its creators back in 1947. Plans are in the works for an enormous resort, retail, restaurants, music venues, spas, and more.

Heck, LA folks came and took over the Red Dog Saloon and sell $5 tacos there now - the spot where I used to sip sarsaparilla and take in the essence of Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, and the others who once filmed here. Roy Rogers threw out the first ball at Pioneertown Bowl, which is being restored (a wonderful thing), and now the dusty street where Linda lived hosts a steady stream of hipsters and fauxhemians coming to one of the several million Airbnbs that now dominate the housing market of the hi-desert.

There were other "events" in 2020 too - while driving over to a friend's home on a desert hill, I slid my truck into his gate that I hadn't expected to be closed. That resulted in a nice truck repair and a rise in insurance. Lone Pine got a nice 5.8 earthquake that sent boulders bouncing down Mt. Whitney, reminding us that we always have quakes to look forward to.

Juliett had her share of challenges this year as well. Fairly early into the pandemic, she had a digestive issue that required we deliver a stool sample back to the veterinarian in Banning, an hour's drive away. To show how isolated 2020 felt, we both wanted to drive Juliett's poop to the doctor's office, just so we could see something different for a change.

Later, in the summer, Juliett took up hard core antelope squirrel chasing, in hopes of making the Olympic team for squirrel chasing. These mischievous little miscreants would dive for their lives, straight into cholla cactus, where they had wee critter holes where they could hide. Juliett, running hard, would slide to a stop, but often would get cholla stuck in her. She got some in her mouth, and while Delphine got most of it out, it turned out we had missed a piece under her tongue, and it got infected. This led to our pandemic veterinarian experience called "sitting in the car with the AC running because it's 110 degrees outside, for extended periods of time." Don't worry about Juliett though, we made sure she got the best of care, and she is quite healthy.

But I digress. 2020. Not content with humans having a plague, the cute little cottontail bunnies decided it would be a good time to have their own, thus they began to die off from a hemorrhagic fever. Luckily, we only found one deceased bunny, but in other areas, cottontails and jackrabbits died off at a rapid rate.

On the other side of the equation, our neighbor across the street, Manny, decided he was a farmer, and brought in a cow (I named her Bessie), goats (he had tried goats before, but his dogs had attacked them and had dragged one of them around the yard by its hind leg before he got them under control), little pigs, in addition to his prize-winning chickens, and those dogs (the dogs were fine with us - the only time I was "attacked" by Diabla, was because we always gave them treats, and once when I went out to the car in the pitch black night, she happened to be loose, and ran to me, knocking me over before I knew she was even there).

Manny's agrarian experiment was a little sad. Bessie was originally alone, and being young, she would spend a great deal of time calling for her family. This annoyed the neighbors, especially at 5:30 a.m., and they would often respond by blasting an airhorn at her. When Manny brought in the goats and pigs, Bessie was happy. But his dogs are not farm dogs, they're urban dogs that don't know how to treat farm animals. I intervened when one went after Bessie, but knowing dog language, I knew it was a matter of time before the dogs killed a goat, a pig, or even Bessie.

So, first the goats and pigs went away, leaving Bessie seeking company with the airhorn once again, and then Manny put the house on the market and not only Bessie, but Manny too, went away. His house, or rather Walt and Jenny's house, since they were the ones who built it and initially lived there over 20 years ago when we arrived in the desert, has been purchased by a pair of sisters, but it sits empty.

I miss them - even Diabla.

It was July (this is turning into a long letter), when Delphine and I decided we wanted to road test a road trip during the pandemic. I found out that Yosemite (or "Yo Semite" as our fearless leader calls it), was only open by reservation, and only allowed half as many cars into the park as usual, due to COVID-19. Delphine had wanted to see Yosemite, and I hadn't been there since I was a kid. So, we arranged a quick trip up, with reservations (both for the park and about whether this was wise).

We drove to Mariposa, spent the next day in Yosemite Valley and Glacier Point, where we hiked and enjoyed ourselves with about a quarter to third of the normal crowds. The next day, we took Tioga Pass eastward to the eastern Sierra. That brought us to Tioga Pass, Lake Tenaya (Delphine's favorite), and Tuolumne Meadows where John Muir once roamed (and as we arrived, a story broke about how Muir could have been a racist - if you cherry-picked information about him, of course).

On our way down the eastern Sierra, we spent the night in Mammoth and hiked the Inyo Craters, returning to find Juliett not eating and sick (she's fine). The Apple Fire and the Water Fire and a bunch o' fires began burning, with evacuation warnings growing closer to our hi-desert communities on the flanks of the San Bernardino Mountains. Even our little paradise of Bluff Lake became threatened. The smoke and the heat began to accentuate the 2020ish edge to the summer.

Eventually, evacuation warnings were lifted for Pioneertown and Rimrock, and Morongo Valley as well, but fires would continue to tear through California and the West for months. The Dome Fire would gut the majestic Joshua tree forests of the Mojave National Preserve to the north of us, as lightning wreaked havoc. Normally part of the monsoon season, which also brings rain, this year there was just lightning.

And 2020 just wouldn't let up. Two of my favorite cats died in late summer - Sundance (part of the Butch and Sundance duo of Cactus Mart in Morongo), and Sabrina, the cat I often cared for when his owner was in Alaska or elsewhere. Sabrina had been showing signs of his age, and did not do well with the summer of 2019 when his owner was in Alaska for four months. This year, the owner brought Sabrina with him to Alaska, where he had a fantastic time exploring the woods and riverside there, and that is where he is buried.

Late in August, our film crew got together and went out to Borrego Springs. We filmed from Vallecito Station, through Box Canyon, and on up to Warner Ranch and the Oak Grove Station, as part of our fascination with the Butterfield Overland Trail. We're readying a grant application for the National Endowment for the Humanities to help us produce a documentary about the history around this trail, in partnership with our Southwest Stories partners - the Oregon-California Trails Association. Our project is named "24 Days of Hell," taken from the comments of the first passenger to take the stage from Missouri to San Francisco in 1858.

In September, Delphine and I left for Ohio, with masks, face shields, gloves, and sanitizer. We figured it was time to go, before school would attempt to restart, and it was a wonderful time spent with our daughter, son-in-law, and the fabulous grandchildren. Meanwhile, back here, the Snow Creek Fire and the El Dorado Fire raged. A friend of mine fell from a ladder and has been in the hospital or continuing care home, ever since.

The LA Greek Film Festival, forced into a virtual existence by the pandemic, proved to be a far better choice than presidential debates, as Trump tested positive for the virus and went on joy rides around the hospital to prove puny ol' viruses weren't any match for the orange menace.

I received news that the Amargosa Opera House, one of my favorite cultural icons of the desert, was in danger, and offered to write grant applications to fund a documentary about saving it - if I could have the cooperation of the nonprofit organization that runs it. I'm still waiting to hear if they are willing to cooperate.

We performed outdoors for our friends' birthday celebration - Randy and Sandra - who live in Pipe's Canyon near Pioneertown. While it was warm, we could play music and dine outdoors, spaced far from each other, and that has been our social life this year.

The election, ah, well, the election, gives us a republic - if we can keep it. As I write this, we are not through with Trump's challenges to our nation, though I am most certainly through with Trump. Biden isn't my ideal president by any stretch of the imagination, but Trump isn't my ideal dictator either, and since those were our choices - president or dictator - I went for the more traditional American option.

I remain disheartened by the gullibility and stupidity of many of my fellow Americans, as well as the heartless lack of compassion they have had as a third of a million of their countrymen have died. A country that despises science and common sense this much cannot be a world leader. This is the detritus of empire.

But this year is ending with some hope. Delphine gave me the gift of new tires for my truck this Christmas, as we lost one on a dump run this month. My best friend Ken, sent me an iPhone 11 Max Pro so I could shoot 4K video with this incredible toy (and Delphine bought me a shotgun microphone so its audio will be as awesome as the video). We're all still healthy (so far), and are doing everything we can to remain so. We've had some rain this week, which has been a Christmas treat for the plants, and overall, I cannot complain.

But, this being 2020, Christmas week would not be complete without a random acquaintance sending me his suicide note, telling me how he wanted his possessions disposed of once he was gone.

I immediately began tracking down his landlord, who immediately returned home to find this acquaintance overdosed and sliding into unconsciousness. While our hospitals fought to have any ICU space available at all with the pandemic raging out of control here, he required one, and was put on a ventilator in a coma for a few days. He has returned home after his required 5150 72-hour psych evaluation, and sent me a follow-up note mockingly thanking me for saving his life.

That was yesterday. Today, his landlord tried to reach me by phone twice, but didn't leave a message. Perhaps his tenant has tried again? Perhaps he has succeeded this time? I haven't returned the call. I don't really want to know. Not today. I'm tired. This year has plum wore me out, pardner.

It's New Year's Eve. We're going to make Kung Pao Chicken for dinner in Delphine's new wok. Delphine's sad because the local Jazzercise held its last (virtual and outdoor) session today and is closing its doors after she spent the past 5.5 years enjoying the activity and people there.

The sky is growing dark and the wind may slack off a bit after sundown. I'm going to light our Christmas star, make dinner with my wonderful wife, treat Juliett to her evening cookies and treats, and wish you all a wonderful, less stressful, new year, though I think it's going to have its own challenges. I grieve for the 330,000 who won't be celebrating any more new years, and the families who couldn't be with their loved ones as they left this life. And for those who suffer from injustice, bigotry, hate, and apathy, all around this world. We can do better, and truly have no excuse not to do so. I fear the darkness of this winter is not through with us yet, so please, stay healthy, stay safe, stay sane.

And yes, I'm staying up until midnight, because if 2020 tries to hang around, I'm personally going to grab it and throw it out on its ass.

Happy New Year!

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