Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Sometimes I Hangout with Pete Sampras

This year we spent the Thanksgiving holiday with my family in Palm Desert, California.  Palm Desert is about 20 minutes East on Highway 111 from the much more famous desert resort city of Palm Springs.  My parents now spend about half the year out in the desert, having sold the house near Pasadena, that I grew up in, many years ago when retirement meant that proximity to downtown Los Angeles was no longer important.  The days in the desert, as you might expect, are hot and sunny, and the arid, mountainous scenery unexpectedly beautiful. 

Although the natural qualities of the underlying desert can still be found and enjoyed if you seek them out, most of the desert is now a strikingly unnatural and unreal place.  First, you are apt to notice the endless series of gated communities as you drive around, all wrapped in bougainvillea-covered walls, edged with bands of deep green grass, and shaded with exuberantly flowering trees and shrubs.  Sprinklers seem to be constantly sprinkling these lush inland islands, and water features often welcome you at the entrance.

History tells that, in the beginning, there were naturally occurring groves of palm trees near a few naturally occurring springs deep in the canyons long, long ago (hence the name "Palm Springs"), but I'm pretty sure that the modern re-imagining of the desert in the style of a Hawaiian island was trucked in.  If nothing else, it goes to show what a difference water and imported, high-quality topsoil can make when you're building on a solid foundation of sunshine and an absence of winter.

(One might wonder where all the water comes from and whether it is part of the massive siphoning from the Colorado River.  The good news, I suppose, is that most of the water comes from a large aquifer beneath the desert floor.  The Coachella Valley Water District manages the aquifer and also coordinates the acquisition and distribution of some water from the Colorado River that is used to irrigate the huge and growing area of desert agriculture further to the East.  There are reports, however, that areas of the desert are purportedly sinking due to the depletion of the water table faster than it is replenished.) 

Once you re-fasten your jaw from gawking at all of the engineered greenery, you are then likely to notice that you are cruising around on a Hollywood Stars grid of street names: Bob Hope, Fred Waring, Gene Autry, Gerald Ford, Dinah Shore and Frank Sinatra, to name just the ones I can recall off the top of my head. You can nearly visualize these stars driving around the desert in the golden age of Hollywood and enjoying all the modern-ness of their now iconic mid-century modern hideaways.

Eventually, after you have driven over and across a goodly number of famously named boulevards, one comes to the particular community in the foothills of the mountains off Highway 74 where my parents can be found.  It looks like this:

It is a gorgeous and serene setting, largely because this development attempted to incorporate more of the native desert plants and landscapes than many of the earlier-developed desert communities.

As you might expect, due to its proximity to Los Angeles, the desert is loaded with movie stars and other famous types, who also happen to be loaded (often in more ways than one).  Flipping through the membership book of my parents' place, one can see listings for residents such as Jim Colbert (pro-golfer), Michelle Wie (pro-golfer), Kurt Russell (actor), Jerry Weintraub (producer), and Pete and Bridget Sampras.   (If you don't know Pete, then I really can't help you.  Also, I know she goes by Bridget Wilson for purposes of her acting career, but I'm telling you, in the directory they are listed as "Pete and Bridget Sampras.") The directory, unfortunately, doesn’t tell you who lives where, so it is only by word of mouth or eyewitness reporting that one can link a particular house with a noteworthy owner.  (We never get any gawkers coming by my parents' house, so I'm pretty sure that my dad's career as a lawyer in Los Angeles and my mom's career as a travel agent have been successfully kept on the down-low.)
In addition to the stunningly well-curated surroundings, the membership itself is equally well clipped and coiffed.  At the small market/Starbucks outpost just off one of the golf courses (there are two courses) and down the street from my parents’ house (but still within the community), one encounters a small sampling of the residents during the ritual foraging for morning coffee.  I like to get up, throw on my sweatpants and sunglasses, and walk down the street each morning for the requisite dosage of Joe.  (My mother doesn’t believe in caffeine, so house guests are left to flounder without coffee unless they veer towards the Starbucks or otherwise take matters into their own hands.) 

Despite years of visiting, however, I am still startled every time by how much better the other coffee-seeking patrons seem to look and act than me.  The 60-something woman in front of me one day modeled a tidy workout ensemble and crisp, white baseball cap which served, in part, to secure her neat, blondish-gray ponytail while also shading her evenly tanned and blemish free visage.  (In contrast, I was sporting workout pants and a t-shirt from Target, with a non-matching hoody vest borrowed from my mother, because I didn’t really think through my wardrobe needs, and I don’t have a matching, designer track suit or a complete fitness wardrobe from lululemon in any event.)  Upon discrete further inspection, the woman’s face had less wrinkles than mine and her butt was decidedly tighter.  She was no better at ordering coffee than me, but still, there was intimidation in the air, even if amorphous and conjured by larger societal forces with origins well outside our private little coffee house.  She was perfectly polite, smiling and saying good morning to all.  She did absolutely nothing snotty or scornful and then was out the door, undoubtedly into the sunshine of a beautiful life.  For all I know, she reads Thomas Pynchon novels for fun, stays abreast of every issue of The Economist and is only relaxing in Palm Desert on a short, but much deserved, break from her exhausting charitable work assisting with the public health battle against cholera in Haiti.  I was nearly ready to surrender before I'd even made it home with my coffee.

And that’s the thing about these beautiful oases of wealth and privilege: they are weirdly unsettling in their outward perfection.  The streets are incredibly clean.  The yards are immaculately landscaped and maintained in accordance with the numerous restrictive covenants, and the residents are always pressed and cleaned.   The attendants and caddies smile and waive and even the one time (years ago) I was reminded that I needed a collared shirt for my golf-round, the reminder was gentle and discrete.  (Note: the collared shirt requirement at many golf courses is one of the reasons I’ve never been able to nurture any love for golf.  It is not a flattering style, if you ask me.  Also, if tennis – the favorite sport of the Queen of England, for goodness' sake ---  can get over itself and embrace Agassi’s hair and the Williams sisters' wardrobes, golf should be able to do the same.)   

I can't help but wonder, though, with all of the time and energy that is clearly directed towards various exteriors -- house, car, grounds and person -- can there be much time left for the less visible interior matters of the heart and mind?  

Good thing living in the Midwest keeps me balanced and grounded.

One of the things I credit for keeping me so centered and down to earth is running.  The pristine and usually empty private roadways bathed in desert sunlight make for an excellent and scenic jogging track. 

I need not navigate traffic, cross busy intersections, or fend off fierce packs of bicyclists fighting for the same skinny strip of shoulder.  Instead, I can trot leisurely down the middle of the street and wind my way around golf courses, water features and some very, very nice homes. 

The route I usually run when I’m visiting is an out-and-back route that zigs and zags around the grounds and crosses the community from one side to the other.  The last part of the route before the turnaround is a very steep hill that ends with a cul-de-sac that is home to a large water tank:  

It is important that when you run this route you go all the way up to the water tank and touch it.  Don’t ask me why; just accept that this is true.  Accordingly, no matter how much I am huffing and puffing and occasionally walking up the hill, I am not "there yet" and cannot turn around and begin the more pleasant downhill return until the water tower has been touched. 

(If you look closely, you can see the hand prints on the tank, which evidence two of my runs during this most recent visit.)

Whenever I run this route, I think about two things: (1) I must go all the way up the hill and touch the water tower or it doesn’t count, and (2) I wonder which house is Jerry Weintraub’s?  At some point, my parents mentioned that they thought Jerry’s house was somewhere along my route just before the water tank crescendo.  Ever since, a little home movie plays in my head as I near the final turn-off to the water tank.  It goes like this:

[Scene:  A middle-aged woman with shoulder-length brown hair, medium build and about 5’4” tall, wearing C9 by Champion shorts and tank top, black elastic headband, armband with iPod and some kickin’ Adidas sneaks, jogs gracefully and athletically down the middle of a beautiful yet empty street flanked by large houses and against a backdrop of rock-piled desert mountains.  She is mentally preparing herself for the punishing hill that looms just ahead, when she sees a man walking briskly down his driveway as she approaches and waiving her down.  The man is older, well tanned, and well dressed in Armani shorts and black t-shirt.  He is wearing sunglasses and has what looks like a glass of scotch on the rocks in one hand.]

Man:  Hey!  Hi there!  Yes, you jogging by.  Can I talk to you for a minute?

[Woman jogger removes her earbuds and slows to walk, while trying to catch her breath.]

Woman jogger:  What?  I’m sorry.  Are you talking to me?

Man:  Yes.  Hi.  I know this is a bit odd, but I’ve noticed you jogging by the past few days.

[Woman jogger works to catch her breath, looks at the man and feels as though she recognizes him, but she’s not quite sure.]

Woman jogger (slowly and somewhat skeptically): Yes.

Man:  Well . . . have you ever done any acting?

Woman jogger (confused and uncertain):  What?  You want to know if I’ve ever done any acting?

Man:  Yes.  You know . . .  Have you ever done any modeling or acting for hire, like in a play or a movie, for example?

Woman jogger:  No.  I have not done any modeling or acting, basically, ever.

Man:  Well.  Hmmm.  Its just that I’m in the movie business and I’m casting a new movie that stars a middle-aged woman in an intense action-thriller-romantic comedy, because there is HUGE demand for that kind of thing, and, well, you seem to be just the kind of woman I’m looking for.  You know, regular and ordinary and not all pouty-mouthed and artificially inflated and nearly dead, like Angelina Jolie. 

Woman jogger:  Huh.

Man:  I mean.  We’d need to get you out to the studio and do some screen testing and maybe read a few scenes, but I have a really good feeling about this.  The male lead will be a little younger.  Probably someone like Ryan Reynolds or Colin Farrell – do you like those guys?

Woman jogger:  Uh, yeah, I like those guys.

Man:  Because if you don’t like them we could certainly consider others.  Maybe, you know, someone like Ryan Gosling or Robert Pattinson. 

Woman jogger: The first Ryan and Colin seem fine, I guess.

Man: Great.  And, you know, we’d get you into hair and makeup while we’re at it, but really I don’t think we’ll need to do too much there.  The touch of gray in your hair is just perfect and you have just the right amount of fine lines around your eyes and the more plush physique is really trending up lately in our audience surveys.

Woman jogger:  O.k.  So, if I am following this correctly, and I am not at all certain that I am, you are basically asking me if I want to star in a movie that might also star either Ryan Reynolds or Colin Farrell.  Is that correct?

Man:  Yes!  Yes, that is exactly what I am proposing.  Because, again, you know, I’ve been watching you jog by my house and you just strike me as the perfect new leading lady.  My name is Jerry, by the way.  Nice to meet you.


Really, the only problems I see with this scenario are twofold: (1) I really don’t know which house is Jerry’s, and (2) I don’t actually want to be in a movie.  Still, it seems like it would be nice to be asked, and maybe Jerry really is getting tired of all that Hollywood perfection.  It could happen.  You never know.

If I am being completely straightforward (and I never represented that I was or intended to be), then I would have to admit that the Jerry Weintraub fantasy is not the only fantasy loosed by proximity to celebrity.  The previously referenced Starbucks outpost is also the scene of my one and only encounter with Pete and Bridget Sampras.  The actual encounter occurred one March during a spring break trip to the desert a few years ago.  Not to let you down too abruptly, but the encounter really just amounted to Pete, Bridget and I all being in or around the coffee shop at the same time.  There was no conversation or acknowledgment of my existence, really, which is perfectly understandable.  I didn’t have a matching designer track suit back then either.

Still, sometimes when I am down at the tennis courts hitting a few balls, I prepare myself for the possibility that Pete Sampras might show up.  He might come down to workout with the ball machine or practice some serves, but then catch the action on our court out of the corner of his eye.  He might watch from behind the dark green mesh and observe the well-grooved forehands and backhands and find that he was curious about who was hitting these shots: 

[Scene:  A row of tennis courts next to a clubhouse in a private desert community several hours east of Los Angeles.  Pete Sampras, the seven time Wimbledon champion and winner of 14 Grand Slam singles titles, observes a few strangers casually hitting tennis balls as he approaches the courts.  In particular, he is impressed with the skill of the middle-aged woman.  During a break in the action, Pete walks over and strikes up a conversation.]

Pete:  Hi.  I was watching you hit.  You have nice form and really solid ground strokes.

Middle-aged woman tennis player:  Hi . . . err . . ..  uhhhh . . . .  Thanks.  [Gulp.] You have really nice ground strokes too.

[Middle-aged woman tennis player feels her face flush and mentally chastises herself for her stupid remark.]

Pete:  [Laughs.  Smiles.]  Thanks.

Middle-aged woman tennis player:  [ . . . . .]

Pete:  Did you play in college?

[Middle-aged woman tennis player clears her throat and looks down at the tennis court as if to affect a casual, relaxed air while trying to keep her heart from beating itself out of her chest and flopping onto the tennis court, creating a horrible and unseemly mess.]

Middle-aged woman tennis player: Yeah.

Pete:  Where did you play?

Middle-aged woman tennis player:  Um, well, I played D3.  Carleton College, actually.

[Pete nods knowingly, indicating that he is very familiar with this obscure but excellent tennis program out of Northfield, Minnesota.] 

Pete:  Cool.  So, did you play #1 singles?

[Middle-aged woman tennis player’s eyes bulge and her heart begins to race even faster than it was before.  “Deflect, deflect, deflect,” she thinks to herself, desperate to change the subject because, in fact, she did not play #1 singles.  She coughs and begins to choke. Then, pointing to her throat, she walks quickly to the water fountain and takes a long drink of water.  Eventually she comes up for air and notices the look of concern on Pete’s face.]

Middle-aged woman tennis player:  Sorry about that. [Laughs. Coughs one more time.]  Hey, I was wondering, how is Bridget’s film career going these days?


Like I said, the desert is a pretty unreal place.  If you don't focus on what's real and true and important, you could really get out of whack in a hurry.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Thoughts on a Funeral

I attended a funeral today.  I am fortunate that it is the first one I've been to in quite a while.  It was for the husband of a colleague at work who died tragically and unexpectedly at the age of 41, leaving behind my friend and her two daughters.  Daughters the same age as mine who seemed numb and bewildered during the funeral service.  Pictures of her husband, who I had never met, covered poster boards in the back of the church and I found myself trying to create a memory of him as I looked at them, even though I had none. 

The church was overflowing with attendees, including a large number of us from work coming out to support our friend in this most crushing of times.  As the traditional Catholic service proceeded, the casket was wheeled in, a blessing was said, we sang and said prayers and the emotions steadily mounted.  Then my friend had the unfathomable courage and strength to take to the podium and speak with inexplicable composure, warmth and humor about her husband.  Those not teary-eyed before that moment suddenly became so and the tears streamed down cheeks male and female.   We all moved silently in time as we dabbed one eye, then the other.  But there was palpable strength and unity in the room.  We were here together to help this family and each other and it felt as though we could have stood against a line of tanks.  There must have been several hundred in attendance, and although none of us from work knew the extended family, neighbors and childhood friends of our colleague's husband, it didn't matter.  In this moment, we were together.  We cried together and grieved together and sang together and shared what it is to be human together. 

Watching her and her daughters struggle and cry as the service concluded and the casket processional exited the church was wrenching in every possible way.  It undid me more than I was prepared for.  Because in these moments, we see our own lives in an alternate reality.  It could happen to any of us.  It did happen to her.  The plans and the assumptions of future days to be lived a certain way and in a certain measure suddenly rendered null and void. 

Back in the office, focus and concentration were predictably elusive.  We shared knowing glances and nods, but exchanged few words about the funeral.  What is there to say?  The mundane details of the day were exposed for what they are. 

I sat at my desk, looked out my window and thought back to that feeling of strength and solidarity in the church.  I visualized drawing a circle around the room and the positive force present within it -- undiluted compassion and goodwill and earnestness. I wondered how much bigger we could draw that circle and still maintain its strength.  What if we drew it just outside the church into the surrounding St. Paul neighborhood?  Would it still hold?  It seemed like it would.  What about into downtown St. Paul or all the way to Minneapolis?  What about into the beleaguered neighborhoods of North Minneapolis? What about around Minnesota?  The upper Midwest?  The entire United States?  Europe?  Africa? The Middle East?  It seemed clear that the circle would fail long before I ran out of places to include within it.  Our ability to support and empathize and stand together fractures the further away we get from the center.  The more the person suffering the loss, oppression, joblessness, homelessness, discrimination, hunger, neglect, torture or abuse is a stranger, the less we are moved to help.

I have many deep concerns about and disagreements with organized religion of all stripes, but this is not the time for those discussions.  Nevertheless, it is undeniable, I think, that houses of worship excel in bringing people together and creating a sense of community and fellowship.  From my perspective, this is less a result of the content of what is espoused in churches, synagogues and mosques than a function of the processes they facilitate: reflection, contemplation, and community.  When you bring people together for a common purpose, you create community and in community you create strength and bridge divides.  I am certain that the individuals at the funeral spanned nearly all possible spectra-- Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal, atheists and Catholics, gay and straight, white and black, union and management, the 99% and the 1%, smokers and non-smokers, health nuts and addicts, yet there were no censors at the door.  We weren't segregated into sub-groups by race, religion or creed.   In the face of death and loss and grief, these dividing lines are magically erased, at least for a little while.

It is certainly simplistic and naive to extrapolate from one tragic death to all of global civilization and ask why can't we draw the circle that large, but I am going to ask anyway.  I would really like to know the answer.