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Back when the news was being dominated by the federal “zero-tolerance policy” which was resulting in family separations at the border, I attended a presentation by the writers’ group at Coachella Valley Repertory—always a great way to experience local talent.

The final writer performing her original work was Barbara Fast, the new pastor at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Desert in Rancho Mirage, doing a piece she called I Am Miriam. She told the story of Moses’ journey down the Nile in a reed basket, into the arms of the Egyptian princess who adopted him into the royal kingdom, from the perspective of Miriam, Moses’ sister.

In Fast’s version, Miriam followed her brother’s journey and then suggested to the princess that she could get a Hebrew woman to breast-feed the baby—enabling their real mother to suckle her own infant. When Fast said her line about how no child should ever be separated from its mother, the audience gasped—a collective intake of breath at the ironic current relevance of that age-old story. I still get goosebumps when I recall the moment.

Barbara Fast, 67, has been in the desert for only a year and a half. She was born and raised in New York City, the only child of working parents.

“I was what used to be called a ‘latch-key kid,’” says Fast. “My mom and dad were big influences on me. I would get to go to work with my dad sometimes, at the Veterans Administration, and I learned to have respect for those who serve in any capacity in our government.”

In high school, Fast specialized in math and science. She then attended Sarah Lawrence College, majoring in philosophy, and went on to earn a law degree from Georgetown University.

“My senior high school year was 1968, when so much was going on, particularly the King and Kennedy killings,” she says. “I had already become involved in local political campaigns, and then once I was in college, there were the Kent State killings, bus riders in the South, and marches. Fairness and justice were always really important to me.”

As a lawyer, Fast went into trial practice. “It was what I seemed to be good at, and I loved the thinking,” she says. “I became a prosecutor in New York state—not a defense lawyer, because I was all about justice and discretion on behalf of the people. In the late 1970s, New York was coming out of bankruptcy; graffiti was everywhere. I felt I was participating in upholding standards. Every day, there were ethical issues.”

The work required an enormous commitment. Fast and her husband decided to move to Connecticut to start a family, and she began to teach law.

How did Fast go from law to religion?

“My husband is Jewish, and I’m sort of Catholic (from a mixed marriage),” she says. “We decided to raise our children in the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Westport. I was doing lots of volunteer work on environmental issues and was asked to give personal witness at the church for Earth Day. I spent a ridiculous amount of time preparing to do five minutes, but I realized then that although I had always been standing in the back, I wanted to be in front of the church. I wanted to engage the hearts of the people.

“We live in this world, and it’s about how to live with integrity and joy. We don’t know for sure what happens afterward, so we can only imagine and wonder. What I do now is about how we live our lives. If we can ask the right questions, we can get to the right answers.

“Somebody once said to me, ‘If it knocks more than once, it could be God knocking.’ I’ve never forgotten that. I applied to go part-time to Yale and felt at home in divinity school, studying the Old Testament and ethics.“

Fast met her husband, Jonathan, in college, but it wasn’t until they met again at an alumni event that they got together. They have now been married 35 years.

“I have three wonderful children: Molly, my stepdaughter, and two sons, Ben and Dan. Jon was a novelist, but we both made career shifts at about the same time. He started teaching social policy, and I went into divinity school.”

What brought them to the Coachella Valley?

“About two years ago, we decided to retire, after kicking it around for about a year. I had served churches in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and then back to Connecticut, and I was tired. After the Sandy Hook shootings happened nearby, I was in a state of trauma. It was all just so sad.

“Jon was retiring, and our son Ben was in Los Angeles, so we looked around there. Then we came over the mountain originally thinking it was ridiculous—it was August, and the temperature was about 114! But we fell in love with this area. It’s affordable, and there are so many creative people here. We wanted a place that was near a UU church, and when we attended, we found a great group of people, friendly and smart. We knew the church was in transition; they weren’t ready at that time for a full-time pastor, but I did preach there a few times.”

Shortly after arriving in Rancho Mirage, Fast sought out the CV Rep Writers’ Group, run by Andy Harmon.

“It’s wonderful,” she says. “I had crafted stories as part of sermons, not just about individuals, but about human beings in general and the human condition, trying to make connections with how we are living now. I had presented stories, after gathering evidence and analyzing it, as a lawyer. Then I did it in sermons. Now I wanted to expand my capabilities. Biblical text is very compact, so when I was writing about Miriam, I asked myself, ‘Why did she go into the water? How did she get there, down the Nile? What must it be like to sacrifice your child?’”

Fast says a “calling” is when your greatest love meets the world’s greatest need: “It takes different shapes at different times of your life.”

Lucky for us, Fast’s current time of life is here in the desert. She shares stories with her “audience” every Sunday, making a difference in the community, and bringing goose bumps to her listeners.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays from 11 a.m. to noon on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

I am incensed that the president of the United States may have been caught on tape saying the “N” word, and that his administration can’t “guarantee” that such a tape won’t surface.

He ran a campaign that cast “political correctness”—the progressive notion that we should recognize the impact of language relating to race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation—as having run amok.

The “N” word inherently assumes a sense of superiority to those being thus described. I steadfastly maintain that the word, and its hateful presumption, cannot possibly be said or even thought unless it’s already programmed into your thinking.

Racism is a cancer at the core of our culture. It’s in our cultural DNA.

I was lucky enough to be raised in a household where racist language was never heard or used. I had a mother who always used any situation to inculcate the equality of every individual. If we drove past some men digging a hole in the street, we often noticed that the one down in the hole was usually black, while those watching him work were white. My mom would say, “Isn’t it a shame that those guys are just standing around watching the other guy work?” I got the message that nobody should be considered better than anybody else, particularly based on the color of their skin.

That concept is what got me to volunteer as part of the 1960s civil rights movement. I worked with the Black Arts Workshop in Pacoima, a diverse suburb in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, participating in what we called “confrontations,” gatherings held in the living rooms of middle-class white people, most of whom thought they were not at all prejudiced. They were always shocked to realize they harbored deep-seated biases, even though most of them never said offensive words (at least never in public), and proudly proclaimed they had never acted in any way that might be seen as prejudiced. But had they ever spoken up or acted when they had been around others expressing those thoughts? Almost never.

I have black stepchildren who came into my life for a few years in the early 1970s—with whom I have warm, loving relationships to this day. I still remember my shock that 5-year-old Kim had never had a black doll. When I brought one home for her, I remember the look of wonder and delight on her face when she realized the doll looked like her. Yet social research has shown that black girls prefer white dolls—because those are the “good” ones. This is what our culture teaches them.

My own children never batted an eye when I began living with Milt, and they readily accepted his children as members of the family. My kids had grown up learning what I had learned from my mom: The only difference was in skin color, not unlike hair color or eye color or height.

Milt had been raised in a black community in northern Louisiana, and he grew up seeing himself equally valued relative to all those around him. His experiences later in life in a largely white society came as something of a surprise, especially because he had never internalized that he was somehow “lesser.”

We need to actively root out the racism at the core of our culture. What curriculum is your school district using to teach American history? In some school districts, slavery is minimized, and its ultimate impact on our culture is never mentioned. In bridge clubs and book clubs and social-service organizations, people drop words or phrases or raise their eyebrows when race is an issue, and they need to be publicly called out on that. It’s enough sometimes to just say, “I find that really inappropriate.” Staying silent should never be an option.

The “N” word has never, and could never, come out of my mouth. I never learned it. My children don’t have it in their heads, either. But we all know it’s a pernicious part of the American culture, and it must be excised as we would remove a tumor. It’s about making it never acceptable anywhere. It’s about realizing we inherit racism as part of our cultural DNA, and it’s up to each and every one of us to recognize it and call it out, so future generations won’t have it in their heads either.

Teach your children and grandchildren to be “politically correct”—if it means they won’t have denigrating words and concept in their heads, and that they will call out others who feel free to express prejudice. That way, perhaps we won’t perpetuate the cancer to yet another generation. We must improve mankind and move our society always forward.

Maya Angelou said, “We are more alike than we are different.”

For me, it’s personal.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays from 11 a.m. to noon on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Our families influence who we become—and like many women who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, the conflict between the politics of the era and what she saw in her own home shaped Jeanie Ribeiro’s life.

Ribeiro, 67, was born and raised in Onset, a village that calls itself “the gateway to Cape Cod,” about an hour outside of Boston. “It’s not far from where the Kennedys have their enclave. We used to say we were on the poor side of the bridge,” she laughs. “But we were only about two blocks from the beach. As a kid, I could go to the back bay all by myself and just hang out.”

Ribeiro and her siblings—two sisters and a brother—lived around lots of family. “We had aunts and uncles and cousins from my mother’s family all around us, and my father’s family lived only about 20 minutes away,” she says.

Ribeiro’s forebears emigrated from Cape Verde, an island nation off the northwest coast of Africa, in the early 1900s, when the islands suffered a severe drought and famine. The islands were colonized by the Portuguese, and were a pivotal location in the early slave trade. It was also a haven for Jews and others who were victims of the Portuguese-Spanish Inquisition. The population, with a mixture of European, Moorish, Arab and African backgrounds, developed its own unique Creole culture and language.

“When I was young, a lot of the kids I went to school with came from immigrant families,” says Ribeiro. “Everybody seemed to have grandparents, or even parents, who spoke a language other than English. … There were so many backgrounds in our own family. We were black and Portuguese. My grandpa was a citizen of Portugal. One of my grandmothers was English. I always used to ask, ‘What are we?’”

Ribeiro is described by everyone who knows her as fiercely independent.

“I always felt as if I were an only child, even from about the age of 2,” she says. “I really liked being on my own. My mom instilled in me a desire to be independent. She was in a traditional-role marriage with my dad. She had a beautiful voice, and people always said she was as pretty as Lena Horne. I don’t remember my dad ever being really kind to my mother. I remember when all she wanted was to get a job, and he absolutely forbade it.

“My dad was a hard-working man who was basically living the American dream. His mother had died when he was very young, and the only memory of her that he had was when they lowered him to kiss her in her coffin. Can you imagine? His primary focus was taking care of and protecting his family, but he was something of a playboy. In fact, I met a young woman who was actually a child of my dad.

“Dad got abusive toward my mom, and she threatened to leave him several times. I just know that she never had the chance to live the life she might have wanted. I learned that independence meant being happy by doing what you want to do.

“To this day, I always go everywhere alone. Of course I have friends, but they know not to put any demands on me. I never wanted to be tied down to anyone. I do things when I want to. Even when I had boyfriends, I never lived with them. I didn’t want anyone taking over my world the way my dad had with my mom.”

Ribeiro prides herself on being self-educated and a voracious reader. After she graduated from high school, she wanted a way out of the small town where she was raised. “There were maybe 2,000 people in the whole area, and there weren’t a lot of opportunities for women, especially women of color,” she said. “I had a friend who had a management job at the telephone company in Boston. When I went in for that interview, I knew they would give me the job. They needed younger people. I may have been the first woman of color they had hired.”

Ribeiro came to California in 1975. “I had a cousin in Los Angeles, and we roomed together for a while. I realized I didn’t want to live right in the city. I found a job in Santa Monica and a place where I could walk to work.”

Ribeiro later moved up to Big Bear Lake and loved it. “It was the air up there, especially after being in Los Angeles,” she said. “I’m totally an outdoor person. I skied, biked and hiked. In fact, it’s because the air was so clean that I stopped smoking!

“Fun to me means getting up early to walk, reading two or three books at a time, and going to cultural events, the museum, art exhibits. And when you go places alone, you meet interesting people. Conversations don’t happen easily when you’re already with someone else.

 “I moved down to the desert because I’m starting to age, and I wanted to be closer to medical facilities. I love living my life here in my own way.”

Ribeiro realizes the women of her generation fought to avoid living their lives in the same roles as their parents. “Men are attracted to my independence—but then I can’t be what they mean by ‘wife,’” she says. “Between the propaganda (of feminism) in the 1960s, and my mom’s marriage, the message that came through to me was that unless you find the right fit, you don’t have to be married. I’ve been asked, ‘Are you a lesbian?’ since I’ve never married. I’m not, but my response is, ‘Sex is sex. If you love someone, what difference does it make?’

“I think I was born with a positive attitude. I’ve always been focused on what’s happening right now. People who glorify the past are boring. Sure, we have memories, but I’m always open to the next new thing coming down the road. Right now, I’m joyful, happy and healthy, and I’m free to do anything I want.”

Thanks to the lessons of her own family and of the changing cultural norms for women in her generation, Jeanie Ribiero lives her life to the fullest.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays from 11 a.m. to noon on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

He’s tall, lanky and attractive, with a quick smile and garrulous wit … and he cooks!

David Jackson, 63, was born in East Los Angeles and raised there with his two sisters until his sophomore year in high school, when his dad was transferred, and the family moved to Toronto.

Jackson started cooking along with his grandmother when he was about 3. “I had a Swedish grandma,” he says, “and learned to cook all kinds of wonderful Swedish dishes. I started working as a cook at about 16, while I was still in high school in Toronto, in the kitchen at a nice hotel.

“Then I went to a fly-fishing camp near the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Territories. I was hired as the dishwasher and kitchen assistant; however, the lead cook was a 25-year-old clown who didn’t even know how to make icebox cookies; he thought you just made the dough, wrapped it in wax paper, refrigerated, sliced and served. He didn’t know you had to bake them! That’s when I took over the camp cook duties to the great relief of the camp staff and guests.

“I never attended traditional professional cooking schools. I went to the School of Hard Knocks. Working under head chefs in lots of restaurants, I learned all the elements you get in a year of formal training: sauces, baking, mise en place (getting everything organized and ready), butchery, seasonings—all the basics. I did go to Mesa College for a while, taking only the classes I wanted in hotel and restaurant administration, but that was it.”

Jackson’s cooking career includes a stint at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, and many other high-end kitchens where he honed his craft. He can drop lots of famous names.

Jackson’s dad had moved the family to San Diego, where his father had a construction and sign business. “He was a sign-hanger,” he says. “He had hung most of the neon around Los Angeles in the late 1950s and 1960s. He even worked on the Hollywood sign!

“After cooking in the San Diego area for about eight years,” says Jackson, “I realized I didn’t want the headaches of my own restaurant, so I started working side by side with my dad in the family business for a while.

“I also had become a fishing freak; I would cast a line into a rain puddle! As a young man, I would bring a camera with me when I went on fishing trips, and I began writing articles which got published in national magazines. All of a sudden, I was a freelance photo-journalist.”

Jackson’s family roots in the high desert go back to his grand-aunt and grand-uncle who bought property in 1947 through the Homestead Act. His grandparents and parents also bought in the high desert, and Jackson has acquired additional high desert property; he currently resides there.

“I’ve built three homes by hand,” he says, “and any home-builder who is self-motivated can do it all—carpentry, glazing, everything. You do need a good plumber and an electrician. There’s a story about Spencer Tracy, where he was once on the red carpet about to be interviewed by famed Hollywood columnist Army Archerd. Army asked Tracy about the importance of the star-studded night. Tracy responded, ‘Tonight’s not important. You want to know what’s important? Plumbing.’ I’ve never forgotten that!”

Jackson started playing with the idea of doing a cooking show in the early 1980s. “I was interested in television chefs like Julia Child and Graham Kerr, ‘The Galloping Gourmet.’ I had done some news segments for KESQ-TV in the low desert called ‘Food for Thought.’

“Then, in 1985, I connected with a new hospital satellite network in Los Angeles, one of the first of its kind, designed specifically for doctors and hospitals to further medical information and training. People could watch it in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. I did 13 segments of Healthy Lifestyle with co-hosts Bruce Jenner and Jean Carroll. I was the cook and segment host. There weren’t many cooking shows back then, and I had to pay for it all myself, plus pay for the broadcast time. I hoped it would generate a PBS show. I had gotten on TV, but it was not to be, so I shifted back to the family business.”

Jackson’s hope has now materialized—and he has a successful PBS show. Food Over 50 is based on the fact that once people hit middle age, their eating habits need to change along with their changing bodies.

“It’s the time when doctors see blood pressure going up,” he says. “It’s time to start watching salt intake, to start exercising; it’s the age when it’s important to monitor and maintain our health. I’m not a doctor or a dietitian, so I’ve teamed up with Elizabeth Kelsey, who was chief dietician at Eisenhower Medical Center for over 25 years, and who designed the nutrition program for the Betty Ford Center. Every recipe I use is cleared through her, and she does commentary on camera for the show.

“Back in the 1980s, we knew about things like sodium and cholesterol, but people weren’t really listening much. Now there’s much more information available, and people are paying attention. Right now, it’s just me and my director/cameraman in a small space I’ve set up. But PBS has a wonderful system of conventions for programmers, and I got what’s known as a presenting station, WKAR, in East Lansing, Mich. There are 354 licensed stations within the PBS network, and we’re on 290 of them. That’s 82 perecnt of television households in the country!”

Jackson intends to continue featuring the low and high deserts on Food Over 50, with segments on everything from local fresh food markets to working with dementia-related groups to help caregivers learn how to facilitate healthy eating. “I’ve been caring for my mother, and I’ve learned that you have to slow everything down. People eat with sight and smell, but those with illnesses like dementia have limited sensory capability,” he says. “Food must be more flavorful and nutritious. You have to give them time to smell the food and stimulate their appetites. Good nutrition can make a difference, even with physical issues. You also need to be aware of your own physicality and be gentle, like with a young child. You need patience and endurance. ”

Jackson hopes to expand the reach of Food Over 50, and engage in what he calls culinary travel—finding the healthiest and best of every culture’s cuisine. He also intends to “keep teaching fish a lesson, but never catching more than I can eat.”

David Jackson’s patience and endurance is finally paying off.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays from 11 a.m. to noon on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

I don’t cook. It’s not that I can’t; I just don’t enjoy it.

Still … I can’t imagine what it would be like to learn to cook if I couldn’t see.

At the Braille Institute in Rancho Mirage, Chef John Phillips teaches people with limited vision how to develop what he calls “the basic skills a food handler would need to know in a professional kitchen,” including using knives safely (“There are NO plastic knives in my kitchen!”), chopping vegetables, making sauces, defrosting frozen foods, baking meatloaf, gauging food temperature, practicing sanitary precautions and using a fire extinguisher—all the basic skills that enable someone to safely prepare simple meals.

“I sometimes have four or five people in the class who can’t see at all, so I will pair them up with someone with at least partial sight,” Phillips says. “We don’t do foods that are deep-fried, but I can teach them how to flip an egg—we practice with a slice of bread—bake barbecue chicken, and make vegetable soup.”

Phillips, 55, a La Quinta resident, has lived full-time in the Coachella Valley for 23 years. Born and raised in St. Cloud, Minn., he began working in kitchens at the age of 14 as a dishwasher. “In my family, my brothers and I always worked. My parent said we had to work for our ‘stuff,’ so we always had the nicest cars and clothes.”

One night, the fry cook didn’t show up, and Phillips’ boss told him he was going to be the fry cook that night.

“I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I don’t think anyone really does until after high school,” he said. By age 18, he was already cooking full-time.

Phillips went to culinary school. Some of his teachers owned a catering company, so he picked up additional work. “In those days, we had a cow hanging in the back, and would cut the mold off and cook the steaks. It’s not like that anymore,” he said.

Phillips was working at King’s Supper Club on the Mississippi River when he decided he wanted to take a break from cooking. One of his brothers had started a landscaping business in Moreno Valley, so he headed for California.

“I had never been to California,” he says, “so I went. I worked there for about a year, but I got really tired of pulling weeds in 110-degree heat, so I started working as a cook in a few places.”

Phillips’ career has taken him from San Bernardino to Solana Beach to Garden Grove, and finally to the Coachella Valley. He’s worked at Fantasy Springs Resort Casino, Casey’s, Ramada Inns, Morongo Casino Resort and Spa, La Quinta Cliff House, Touché in Rancho Mirage, and Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa, among others places. He has been a head chef as well as a food and beverage manager for 39 years.

“When I worked with Ramada Inns, I had to take 197 hours of education courses in hospitality, including management of both the front and back of the house,” Phillips said. “One of the things I learned is that getting to be head chef and food and beverage manager too often means working longer hours but not getting paid for both positions.”

Phillips said he has seen a lot of Coachella Valley restaurants come and go. “Everyone with a little money thinks they can open a restaurant. They don’t realize the overhead costs, taxes and fees, and that you just can’t keep adding things to the menu.”

His work as a chef is how Phillips met his wife, Caroline. “I was working at a hotel in San Bernardino, and she used to come to get my famous ribs,” he said. “One night, we were out of ribs, and she asked to speak to the chef.” The rest, as they say, is history.

Phillips has a stepson, and he and Caroline have a daughter.

In his 40s, Phillips thought he needed glasses and went to see an eye doctor, who sent him to a retina specialist after diagnosing the “wet” type of macular degeneration in both of his eyes. “Dry” macular is slow-progressing, and can often be controlled with diminishing progression over time. “Wet” macular is fast-moving and treated with injections directly into the eye.

“I’ve had 33 injections already,” Phillips said, “and I have so much scar tissue now that they probably won’t be able to give me shots anymore. I have some peripheral vision in my right eye, but my left eye is pretty well gone. The first time they gave me one of the shots, I thought the first shot to numb the area was bad enough. Now they’ve developed a numbing agent that makes it a lot easier.”

Phillips walks with a white red-tipped cane, has a computer with special devices, and proudly says he “can do anything that anybody else can do.”

Although Phillips has been volunteering at the Braille Institute for the past few years, he was originally reluctant to go there at all.

“I think a lot of people don’t take advantage of what Braille offers, because they figure if they attend, they’ll just learn how to read in Braille,” he says. “It’s so much more than that.”

Phillips not only teaches cooking classes at the Braille Institute; he caters holiday meals and special events for up to 100 people. He also teaches a class in history/philosophy asking what he calls “big questions.”

“People need to know there is so much here that they can do and learn—piano, computers, agriculture, cooking and classes in so many other subjects,” he says. “It’s about learning life skills and sensory awareness. I have one student who is totally blind, and I make him do a lot of the work, because he has ambition. There are a lot of people who just want to sit back and feel sorry for themselves.

“My wish is to see my daughter married and to have grandchildren before I totally lose my sight. I’m fortunate. There are some people who’ve never seen in their whole life.”

What advice does Phillips have? “Never give up. There’s always something more to come.”

With an attitude like that, John Phillips could make me enjoy cooking.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays from 11 a.m. to noon on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Medical professionals—backed up by numerous studies—say that socialization is important to healthy physical and mental aging.

Too often, retirees or widowed individuals become isolated, don’t want to attend events alone, feel cut off, or are dependent on others to push them to get out and be around others. One antidote we are fortunate to have here in the desert: many informal groups that routinely meet to share friendly talk over a meal—the aging comedians, businessmen, show biz vets, university alums and many others.

About 10 years ago, I returned to the desert after seven years in San Diego, where I completed law school, and I was looking for activities that would engage me to jump back into the local scene. The newspaper said the Democratic Women of the Desert was meeting, so I went.

This was a group of positive, motivated women who wanted to make a difference—they weren’t attending to show off their latest outfit or to dish about absent friends. I was ultimately invited to join the board, and looked forward to the board’s monthly working meetings over dinner at local restaurants.

There’s a special bond that is built when you‘re part of a small group committed to a common goal. That bond was the catalyst for a core group of us to continue the monthly dinners after we left the board. We hadn’t just worked together; we liked each other. This is a group of women who are frank, funny, educated and very much alive. I originally called the group “Dem Dames,” but we came to think of ourselves as “Divas,” recapturing a word too often used as a pejorative and giving it a meaning more akin to strong, focused, take-no-shit women.

Each month, one person volunteers to find a place that can handle 10-plus people in a setting where we can hear ourselves talk, preferably at a round table—and the place should be willing to do individual checks. Surprisingly, we have found many local eateries that meet those criteria and have terrific food.

Perhaps the best part of being a Diva is that, although we are all different ages with varying backgrounds—married, divorced, widowed, still working and long since retired—the camaraderie and shared values make our dinners totally relaxing and comfortable.

Although we share the same political persuasion and are active with campaigns, we seldom talk politics; rather, we share aches and remedies, family joys, funny stories, relationship concerns, good/bad movies and books—and all of the other the topics you freely discuss with good friends.

In April, retired teacher Marlene Levine, a La Quinta resident who’s called the desert home for 50 years, invited us all to share in her 80th birthday celebration as the Diva event for the month, and what a party it was!

La Quinta resident Pam Covington (“No, don’t give my age!”) came to the desert from Santa Barbara five years ago, and shared the name of a terrific dermatologist with me.

Anita Hoag, 74, came to the desert in 1989 from West Coast cities including Newport Beach, Malibu, Westwood and even Hawaii—all a far cry from her native New Jersey. Anita was a registered nurse, but subsequently became a buyer with Max Factor cosmetics. She always looks stunning!

Jan Seiden, 77, has been in the desert for 18 years. Currently living in Palm Desert, she describes herself as “the original valley girl,” having grown up in the San Fernando Valley. (“I can say ‘like’ a lot!”) After her career as a nurse, Jan became an electrologist and an expert witness for the state Board of Barbering and Cosmetology.

Palm Desert resident Dori Smith, 68, has been in the Coachella Valley for 19 years. Her career was in marketing and communication, but she is known for having founded the local branch of Moms Demand Action, supporting sensible gun safety. I’ll always remember: “It’s easier to lock up a gun than it is to grieve a dead child.”

I’ve written about Dorys Forray before—she’s one of my role models for how to age well. A resident of Indio, Dorys is originally from Brooklyn and has been in the desert for 15 years. At 88, she is one of the most vital, interesting, delightful people I know.

Another friend I’ve introduced through this column is June Pariano, 73, also a La Quinta resident. June came to the desert in 2000 by way of Wisconsin and South Dakota. Her career went from manufacturing to advertising, but her local experience in a cosmetic dental practice might explain her perfect teeth. (When I mentioned that, she responded with a broad smile … and those perfect teeth!)

Phyllis Greene, a surprising 80, lives in Palm Desert. She’s been in the area for 21 years. Born in Chicago, Phyllis moved to the desert from Northridge. Her sharp wit must have served her well teaching science and mathematics to middle school students.

Priscilla Richards didn’t make Marlene’s birthday party, but she is another original Diva known for her wonderful laugh. And then there’s me—in the desert since 1985 (except those years in San Diego), a year older as of mid-May, and with so many careers it would take far too many words to include them here.

There are lots of special interest groups, nonprofits, committees and civic boards that meet to discuss and strategize on common subjects, from politics to health to education to LGBTQ issues to the arts to any policy topic you can imagine. And then there are groups that hang together because they share a common interest—a book club, chamber of commerce, animal rescue group, religious denomination or so on.

The Divas are none of these, regardless of what originally brought us together. We are lucky enough to have at least 10 best friends with whom we can relax, talk confidentially, and share our fears and foibles, while transcending age, background and financial status.

Happy Birthday Marlene, and thank you for reminding me how lucky I am to be a Diva!

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal” Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Can a man ever accurately create realistic, legitimate female characters? Palm Springs author David Hamlin thinks he knows the secret.

“I’m a good listener,” he says. “I’m a great admirer of women who break glass ceilings. There are barriers to be taken down and not accepted, so I write about strong women who fiercely fight for what they want. Throughout most of my adult life, my good friends (have been) women.”

Hamlin’s first two works of fiction, Winter in Chicago and Winter Gets Hot, feature a female protagonist, Emily Winter, a clever and determined reporter working for a Chicago paper at a time when women are just beginning to fight entrenched sexism and reach beyond writing about fashion and entertainment.

Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Bethesda, Md., Hamlin grew up in a household where there was always a daily newspaper, and where dinner conversation included the political realities of growing up close to the center of government.

“We had neighbors who were high up in the military or members of Congress or working in government agencies,” recalls Hamlin. “It was the culture all around us, and I had the good fortune to experience a superior public school system where we learned an appreciation for government and social action. That was a time of the Freedom Riders and the Congress of Racial Equality. I did participate in some demonstrations.”

That grounding led to a stint as an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) volunteer.

“I spent three years at the University of Maryland after high school and decided to take what is now called a gap year,” he says. “The VISTA program was about a year old at that point. I trained in Chicago at a time when VISTA’s focus was poor and Indian communities. When I signed up, they were focusing on urban areas so, I ended up working on poverty programs in Newark, N.J.

“That was a time when groups like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and activists like Tom Hayden were recognizing the needs in black communities. It became the ‘college radicals’ versus the VISTA volunteers. I trained as a community organizer and ended up in Philadelphia for about nine months.

“I gained a far-reaching appreciation for what the Constitution’s framers had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment. We take free speech for granted. The public conversation needs to be wide open, with all ideas, and with regular citizens able to pick and choose what to listen to and what to say, without interference by government.”

After graduating cum laude in English and government from Nasson College in Maine, Hamlin ultimately got involved with the American Civil Liberties Union and served as the executive director in New Hampshire. He was recruited to Chicago—and the infamous Skokie case happened when he had been there only 18 months.

“From the day I arrived until I left Chicago, one of my driving desires was to use that platform to help people understand more of what the Constitution says,” Hamlin says. “The Skokie ordeal was when the ACLU supported the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Ill., a community with a lot of (Holocaust survivors). It lasted through 19 months of extreme stress and tension. I did most of the media contact and public speaking, and I finally left soon after, largely out of exhaustion.”

How did the writing career come about?

“I had done some writing for an independent newspaper while I was working with the ACLU, but the big project came when I was asked to write a book about the Skokie case,” says Hamlin. “That led to The Nazi/Skokie Conflict, published in 1980, a first-hand account of one of the most controversial free speech cases in the 20th century.

It was the first time I thought of writing as a profession. My dad had been a publisher and editor and an international reporter for The New York Times. My older brother was an editor. We always had books in the house, and I learned to enjoy reading very early. I discovered mysteries while I was in college.”

Hamlin and his wife, Sydney Weisman, began a public relations firm when they moved to California. “We met when I was with the ACLU in Chicago. I sponsored a conference for lawyers and I needed to get a good publicist. She walked in the door, and we’ve been together now for 41 years.”

What brought them to Palm Springs three years ago?

“We lived in Los Angeles, running our own business, so extended vacations were never an option,” Hamlin says. “We spent time in Palm Springs whenever we could, so it seemed like a natural choice.

“I had written for clients, including a book about the 75th anniversary of the (landmark Los Angeles) Farmers Market. I’d written opinion pieces and even a political satire column. But I wanted to take a run at fiction. You need focus and energy to do it well, so we decided to retire.

“When it comes to writing, you just have to start. That’s the only way to learn how to do it—and read good writers. For me, it was authors like Elmore Leonard, John D. MacDonald, Joseph Wambaugh, and Canadian Louise Penny. There are so many, but I never read them while I’m writing—I don’t want to even inadvertently steal something.”

The striving reporter featured in Hamlin’s first two books is being retired for the time being.

“I want to spread my wings a little,” says Hamlin. “I’m in the early stage of writing another book right now.

“The arc of feminism that I experienced made me a great admirer of women. Their voices are different, and their approach to everything from personal relationships to the culture around them is different. At the ACLU, I began when women were banging on the doors of society. I always interacted with strong women demanding equality.

“One of the lessons I’ve learned in writing a female character came from my wife. She goes ballistic at the idea that men always write about the kind of women who are in jeopardy and running for their lives. She says, ‘Why in God’s name would a woman be stupid enough to wear high heels in the jungle?’”

David Hamlin doesn’t make those kind of mistakes.

Hamlin will appear at Just Fabulous, 515 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, on Saturday, March 10, from 2 to 4 p.m.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

When you meet Marc Saxe, your first impression will be that he’s calm—and always ready with a smile. He doesn’t fit the stereotype of someone who sells timeshare properties—and perhaps that’s because his background is also not what you would expect.

Saxe is 70 (“Telling you that is like being shot in the head—it’s a big number!” he says) and a Palm Desert resident; he was born in Indianapolis and grew up in Dallas. He spent a large chunk of his life shuttling back and forth between Texas and Colorado before finally settling in Southern California.

Saxe and his older sister were born into a family of Lower East Side New York Jews. His parents had been high school sweethearts, yet subsequent marriages combined two families so that, as Saxe claims, “My aunt is also my cousin!”

Saxe’s father was in the fur business when the family moved to Dallas, and later became a representative for several clothing lines before opening his own business.

“My dad got ill in 1963,” recalls Saxe, “and he was treated for an aortic aneurism by none other than the famous Houston surgeons, Dr. Michael DeBakey and Dr. Denton Cooley. That was a big deal!”

Saxe recalls browsing in an old book store and finding a Yale University album with the name of his grandfather—one of the first Jews to get a law degree from that school. “I remember the name had been scratched through and a Jewish star drawn next to it. You don’t forget things like that.”

Growing up in North Dallas, Saxe and his family lived in a largely Jewish area of the city, and he was unaware of discrimination in that setting. “While in high school, I remember spending many nights a week attending open houses for Jewish kids in a very supportive environment.”

He attended college at the University of Houston, majoring in political science with a minor in computer science and math. “I actually dropped out after one semester, because I wanted to see if I would get drafted, but then I went back,” he says. “I actually thought I might become a lawyer, like Perry Mason. But then the 1960s came along. My brother-in-law was in Vietnam, and I felt pressured by the threat of the draft. The people in student government were making sense to me, so I got involved in the free speech environment at UH. In the late 1960s, the counter culture was really happening.”

It’s not surprising Saxe gravitated toward jobs in sales, given his father’s background. “My first job was when my dad was working at the Merchandise Mart in Dallas. His friend gave me some stuff they had leftover and told me to go sell it. I knocked on doors, and I did sell it all—even things like mustache wax, for heaven’s sake. I also worked selling ice cream.”

Through all those years, Saxe was also interested in music. He began playing the guitar at age 14.

“I played around with friends and at the occasional restaurant. Some of my friends had moved to Austin, where the music environment was really happening in Texas,” he says.

Saxe moved to Denver and got a job teaching music. He also went into a graduate program in architecture for a year. “I eventually went back to Austin to hang with my old friends. Then I (went) back to Boulder, doing landscape design and working with developers.

“I was constantly going back and forth between Texas and Colorado, but I realized I was in my mid-20s and needed to get serious about guitar and music if I was ever going to. I originally came to Southern California to go to the famed Dick Grove School of Music in L.A. I had to choose between performance art and composing/arranging. I chose the latter.

“I went back to Colorado in the early 1980s and focused on the production side of music. I’m still writing. I like to write songs that tell a story. I’m working on putting in a home-recording studio, and I wouldn’t mind being a ‘one hit wonder’ and hearing one of my songs on the radio.”

When Saxe answered an ad to sell timeshares, he got hooked, and is still in that business today.

“In the old days,” he says, “there were a lot of con artists. I used to say half were idiots, but a quarter knew what they were doing. I didn’t want to teach anymore, so I learned how to do it, and found it was fun. I was talking to real people, and it was like sitting around just talking with friends. I don’t know any other job that lets you put aside everything about your own situation and just focus on the fun and economics and emotions associated with what you can offer to others.

“Selling is a lot like acting. You have to have a different persona so you can effectively respond to different people and their needs. The timeshare business is perfect for someone like me.”

Saxe met Cathy, his wife of 32 years, in 1985 at Antone’s, an iconic site near the University of Texas campus in Austin. “It was April Fool’s Day, her birthday, and I was hanging with some friends. She and some of her girlfriends came in, and I asked her to dance. She said it was her birthday, so I gave her a kiss. Then I got her phone number. We were married less than a year later. I have to say, Cathy stabilized me. She’s the keel to the boat.”

Saxe’s philosophy of life: “A tai chi master once said to me, ‘You don’t dig a lot of holes; you want to dig one deeply.’ That never made sense to me. I admit I’m something of a dilettante, and I wanted to dig lots of holes—not get stuck doing the same thing all the time. I guess I’m totally schizophrenic: Each thing I do fills some part of my personality. I don’t see how someone can walk through life and be blind to everything other than what they do.

”There’s a median in life. I like being in the middle of everything. If you look around, there’s always somebody better off and somebody worse off. My feeling is that you need to be happy with where you are.”

If you know Marc Saxe, you can see that he is.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

This is a personal column, about me, Anita Rufus, one of your neighbors, and my holiday-time trip to the island of Samoa.

My cousin, Barry Rose, with whom I’ve been in love since I was 16, and my very best friend, Barbara, whom I met when she was 19 some 54 years ago, just got married at Barry’s resort, Coconuts Beach Club, an idyllic slice of paradise some 12 flying hours from Southern California.

Barry and Barbara met through me, more than 50 years ago, so I was asked to walk them down the aisle. What took them so long? Timing is everything: Through marriages and deaths, Barry and Barbara finally were ready to be happy with each other.

Coconuts is the result of years of work, begun when Barry and his late wife, Jennifer, wanted to find paradise. They left Beverly Hills in 1984 and traveled the world over, not finding what they had envisioned. After developing a list of criteria, they settled on the South Pacific, including places like New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tahiti and the Cook Islands. The place that fit best turned out to be Western Samoa—due to its size, stability, safety and absence of serious diseases. Perhaps the most influential criteria were the culture and the friendliness of the Samoan people.

After years of negotiations, a lease for the property they wanted in the village of Maninoa was finalized in January 1990; that November, a limited opening took place. Together with an amazing architectural designer, Robert Ross, Barry and Jennifer’s vision began to come to life.

Coconuts has grown into a thriving, lush and very special place. The rooms, called fales (fa’lays), have thatched roofs that are fully waterproofed, air conditioning and purified water; they are spacious with four-poster beds made of bamboo trunks, rock-lined tubs with showers, and porches where one can sit and look toward the ocean. The food is gourmet: local fish, New Zealand steak and papayas are to die for. The staff members, mostly from the local village, are friendly and accommodating—their laughter floats throughout the property.

When Jennifer got ill, Barry took loving care of her for several years. Barbara, who knew them both, got in touch with Barry to offer her support and friendship. She was single once again, and after Jennifer’s death, the conversations between Barry and Barbara began to increase to hours daily—with him calling from Honolulu, where he lives when not in Samoa, and her calling from her lovely home in Beverly Glen in Los Angeles.

Barbara agreed to travel to Hawaii for a week—an extraordinary decision for someone I’ve never known to act on impulse—and the relationship blossomed. Barbara soon decided to move to Honolulu, and in three short weeks, she sold her house and either got rid of or shipped over her belongings. Barbara and Barry are both beaming with happiness, having once again found love.

The wedding at Coconuts was just what it should have been: picture-perfect. Barry wore an 'ie lavalava (a man-skirt, the custom dress for Samoan men), and Barbara wore a crown of flowers. I walked them from their fale to the beach, accompanied by a strumming guitar. The staff had constructed an arbor draped with flowing fabric and trimmed with flowers. After I said a few personal words that I had written and practiced for hours, a local minister had them say their vows. It was magical.

Along the beach were friends and family who had come from Arizona, North Carolina, Los Angeles, Honolulu, Fiji and Bali, along with the Coconuts “family” of staff and local invitees. A jolly celebration ensued.

After my return, I was asked what the highlight of the trip was for me, obviously other than the wedding. I will treasure the sound of the surf, eternally rolling toward shore. I loved the schwiffing sound of the dried fronds used to sweep the walkways throughout the day. I will never forget the stifling humidity, so enervating to a desert resident. I enjoyed the slow pace of Samoa, the lazy schedule, the walks along the beach, the sublime sunsets, and the occasional sheets of rain with children splashing in the pool in the downpour. I was able to read six books in two weeks—pure heaven!

The real highlight, however, was the people who had come to witness the wedding—some I had known before, and some I met as we joined together for this momentous occasion. They are a multicultural and multiracial group of friendly, smart, interesting, down-to-earth individuals, including Barry’s son, daughter and grand-daughter.

There’s the Coconuts architect and his beautiful Balinese wife. The TV producer and her husband, a doctor and teacher at Harvard who also lectures worldwide. The lesbian paper-hangers, now retired. (There’s a good story there.) The psychologist who knew how to listen to others and spoke pearls of wisdom. The hairdresser and the makeup stylist. (They made the bride look fabulous!) The stunning author and broadcaster who filmed and snapped everything. The watercolor artist, one of Jennifer’s best friends, SO happy that Barry has found happiness again. The brilliant photographer and her radio executive/philosopher husband. The Hawaii restaurateur and his California wife. The jazz fans from Honolulu. And there was the other Barry Rose—talk about coincidences! (After finding out he and my cousin shared the same dentist in Honolulu, he quipped, “I almost took a root canal for him!”) On our first night at Coconuts, someone said: “You can always tell a lot about people by who their friends are.” Amen to that.

One other moment stands out for me: the evening when I strolled to the open-air dining room to have a pre-dinner drink, with a clear blue sky, the sun setting and the sound of the surf in the background. Low-key music is always playing, everything from classical to jazz. That night, I entered to Sting singing “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?”

My cousin and my friend have figured that out.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Don Cilluffo found his calling in his native Michigan.

“It wasn’t business or accounting, which is what I was supposed to be good at,” he says. “It was when I did an interpretive reading from The Godfather and got an ‘A’. When you do something really well, you just know. It was so rewarding—that feeling of gratification out of communicating a character, the passion of that character. I knew I wanted to share my talent.”

The actor and director comes from St. Clair Shores, near Detroit. He has been in the Coachella Valley for the past eight years.

“It was the weather,” he says. “I was tired of shoveling snow and wanted to get to a warmer place.” Cilluffo and his long-time partner, Tom Hipp, live in Palm Desert.

Born into an Italian-Catholic family as the middle child—with an older brother and younger sister—Cilluffo calls himself “a late bloomer.”

“I was supposed to be the intellectual; I got all A grades,” he says. “My brother was supposed to be the artsy one; he got the dance and accordion lessons. But growing up, we were all exposed to theater, dance and music.”

Cilluffo grew up with his grandparents just around the block.

“That saved me,” he says. “They always just loved me and showed me lots of attention. When I was about 8 to 10 years old, I was selling vegetables from their garden.”

After three years at Wayne State University, Cilluffo dropped out. “I had started working in a flower shop when I was 15. I was making good money in the floral industry. I was a pretty good businessman, and I was creative and inventive.”

Cilluffo came out as gay in his mid-20s. “It was considered a mortal sin, you know. My mom was crushed, but she got over it. I think my father knew before I did. He used to say, ‘I worried about you son, but you turned out OK.’”

So what took Cilluffo into acting and theater?

“When I was in elementary school, my mom said I was a born actor. I believed her. I was doing flower-arrangement classes for a local youth theater, and they told me I just had to try out for Jesus Christ Superstar. I had never had any training, but they told me they just knew I could do it.

“I lucked out, and then learned everything I needed to know from the elders at the Grosse Pointe Theatre just outside Detroit—set design, acting, directing, even studying improv and comedy with a teacher from Second City in Chicago. I loved it all.

“I ended up being with the theater for 40 years, and won awards for acting, set design and directing. I also began doing commercials and got a (Screen Actors Guild) card. But I followed my mom’s advice and didn’t want to ever depend on it for a living. I stayed in the flower-shop business for 30 years.”

Cilluffo has worked locally with Desert Theatreworks, Dezart Performs and Script2Stage2Screen, among other companies.

“I usually do comedies, and I’ve won some local awards, but I was really proud to be honored for playing a serious bad guy in To Kill a Mockingbird,” he said. Cilluffo’s next project is The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife with Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, coming in April.

When I asked about his most memorable moment in theater, Cilluffo’s eyes lit up. “One of the most beautiful sets I ever built was a cottage by a lake. We had artificial tree trunks, a dock with a sand beach, vines, lots of fall leaves we had collected, and a false perspective. I love making magic on a stage.”

As a director, Cilluffo’s philosophy is to help actors see a character through the character’s eyes—and then see that character through their own eyes. I’ve worked with Cilluffo on a couple of presentations, and he spends a lot of time explaining the character’s motivation.

“It’s easy to see a vision, but much harder to communicate it and make it true,” he said. “… It was 15 years before I began to direct, after workshops and classes. You have to be able to communicate and make it true for the audience. When I work with actors, if they put out their best, I can’t ask for more. If you get 95 percent of your vision, that’s a big success!”

If money weren’t an issue, what would Cilluffo do? “I’d love to produce a movie and be the star—but not direct it. It’s too hard to direct yourself. As an actor, I may feel the emotion, but I can’t know if I’m giving out what’s needed for the viewer to feel it.”

Don Cilluffo was fortunate to be affiliated with a strong, influential regional theater for so many years. His advice for locals aspiring to follow a similar path? “Find people who see your potential and are willing to work with you … then listen and learn from them.”

Is retirement in Cilluffo’s future? “I don’t know what retirement really means, except it’s a time when you can do everything you want to do. I can’t see myself retiring. I’d be bored. In fact, I’ve recently taken up rediscovering the Italian foods my grandmother made.” His homemade olives are incredible!

“And I‘d like to go to Sicily. I love the idea of being able to see my face in somebody else—and there, I’d get to see it in everybody!”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

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