A Doug's Life: Making Big Plans for 2012

As I understand it, New Year's resolutions are supposed to be one's commitments to accomplish things or take a certain course of action in specific areas.

Most people interpret this as a promise to "do better" in certain areas, such as losing weight or managing one's time better. Yet a New Year's resolution also can simply be stated as a goal to do something you've always wanted to do -- say, climb Mt. Everest.

I'm no mountain climber, but I'm pretty good at keeping lists. So as I close out 2011 and prepare to welcome 2012 in my new home of Menifee, here are my New Year's resolutions, in no particular order:

Read at least two books a month: I should be able to do much better than that, and I used to, before I started grading all those darn college term papers. I have dozens of carefully chosen books sitting on the shelves of my office, still waiting to be read. I think the goal is to devote at least 30 minutes each night to a good book before turning in. Now do I start with "Lonesome Dove" or "Gold Dust and Gunsmoke"?

Learn Menifee history: OK, so the town is named after a guy who was a miner in the area in the 1800s. There's got to be more to it than that. Recently, I joined the Menifee Valley Historical Society. It's time to go on some hikes and dig through some old documents.

Grade those papers on time: There's nothing like getting three weeks behind in grading papers when you have 80 students turning in two or three writing assignments a week. Trust me, I've been there -- like last quarter. My wife Kristen would say, "Can't I help you grade?" No, dear. They're like essays, not multiple choice quizzes. They require my personal expertise (sounds impressive, doesn't it?)

Take riding lessons: Horseback riding, of course. I've already lined up some possibilities. Hey, animals like me. Now, will my backside like the saddle after an hour or two? We'll find out.

Work out regularly: Last year, I was in the gym five days a week and lost 20 pounds. Then I had foot surgery and was on crutches for nine weeks. Now I'm 15 pounds heavier and feeling kinda sluggish. But I did find a nice local gym, so I'm back at it come Jan. 3. Until then, bring on the chips, soda and a whole bunch of football on TV.

Go camping: Haven't done it in years, unless you count a rented RV on the beach. I'm talking a tent and sleeping bags. This will happen during the spring or summer, when I can lay out under the stars without freezing my arsenal off. Anyone got any sterno?

Stay focused: I can be in the middle of a news article or grading a student's essay when my mind suddenly takes me to Maui or Dodge City. What the heck? C'mon, man, focus. I think it's today's society, which encourages us to log hours at work while checking Facebook status updates and tweets every 10 minutes. Something's got to give.

Explore the area on foot: I can't get everywhere I need to by car. There are trails, canyons, old mine sites and other cool spots I'll have to hike to. If my bad foot doesn't hold up, it's back in the saddle for me. It will happen.

Work on my family history: I've researched my ancestors back to 1531 in Germany and I created a website to tell others all about it. That's not good enough. Until I trace my line back to Adam and Eve, the work isn't done. Again, it's a matter of making the time. The information is out there. Anyone else got a horse thief in their family tree?

Drive from Newport and Antelope to the Countryside Marketplace parking lot in less than five minutes: Hey, you have to set your goals high.

Be kind to others: Not that I'm not already, but we can all do better. You know all those times you pass someone in the office hallway or on the sidewalk and keep your head down or look the other way? I think it's time to say "hello" and smile on more of these occasions. There's only maybe one chance in a million that person is an ax murderer. I'll take that chance.

They might even smile and say "hello" back.

Happy New Year, everyone, and here's to a great 2012 in Menifee.

A Doug's Life: Dreaming of the View From Up in the Wild Blue Yonder

If you haven't realized by now that I'm fascinated with the rural atmosphere and outdoor life of the Menifee area, you haven't been paying attention.

It's ironic, really, because although I fancy myself an outdoorsman, I spend most of my time in a classroom or pounding away on a computer keyboard. I'm not much of a fisherman, I have yet to take those horse riding lessons, and my camping experience is limited. But my imagination is a rugged, grizzled veteran. It's working all the time.

So as I drive throughout the scenic Menifee Valley and take in the sights (what's with all the boulders?), I find myself constantly looking for ways to explore the landscape.

One vantage point that intrigues yet frightens me at the same time: Seeing it all from the air.

There are several ways one can do this, of course. The only one I'm really familiar with is the commercial jet. Having logged many thousands of miles as an airline passenger on road trips as a sports writer over the years, I have no problem forgetting about my fear of heights when I'm in a large, air-conditioned aircraft with people all around me and a good book to read.

Unfortunately, you don't see much of the ground scenery from 30,000 feet. Besides, I choose an aisle seat whenever possible. Much easier access to the little sports writers' room when the need arises.

Anyway, I figure Southwest Flight 3140 is not a viable option for a birds-eye view of these parts.

OK, so maybe a small aircraft that flies lower and can be piloted on a specific flight path over the area. I had fun checking out the 1928 model two-seat plane being built by local flight enthusiasts at the French Valley Airport. Obviously, there are somewhat larger and more enclosed private planes. Could I see myself in one?

Sure -- as long as it stays on the runway. I'm not getting up in one of those contraptions, even if the C-17s from March Air Reserve Base make room for me. If the engine goes, so do I. On to the next idea.

Driving down the 215, I occasionally see bodies floating to the ground under parachutes, often in large groups. I get it. Perris has one of the most popular "drop zones" around. Sometimes you see large groups of people skydiving together. Just a few months ago, Menifee 24/7 reported on a record skydive by 200 jumpers.

Sounds like fun, but I'll pass. If I tried that, I wouldn't see a bit of landscape on the way down, even after the chute opened. I'd be too busy saying the Lord's Prayer.

What's left? Well, there's always a hot air balloon. I might be able to handle that. I'd still be scared to death of falling over the side, but I think I could control myself enough to check out the sights. There would be that horrifying childhood memory of the Wizard of Oz floating off uncontrollably into the stratosphere, but hey, every adventure has some element of danger, right?

I figure I could see the location of all the local lakes, enjoy the view of all the open fields, and basically develop a greater appreciation for the open space we have around here. I could enjoy some of that beautiful clean air we have, up close and personal. The views of the local hills and the snow-capped mountains would be spectacular, I'm sure.

Yep, that's it. When I'm ready to take to the skies above Menifee Valley, I'm doing it in a hot air balloon.

But you'll notice I said "When I'm ready." That could be a while. Like the horse riding lessons and the fishing trip, it's still on the "to do" list. No use rushing things.

Meanwhile, I think I'll take a nice, long walk.

A Doug's Life: Recognizing the True Meaning of Christmas

There we were, standing in front of the Carnes family's "MaryChrisMess" house on Calle Pompeii, when it hit me.

I was holding my 2-year-old grandson, Cameron, and looking at a fascinating miniature village built into the front of the Carnes home. There were festive miniature houses, villagers, carnival rides, skaters, even a drive-in theatre with a real movie playing on a small screen. An electric train chugged its way through the village, back and forth from one end of the long display to the other.

I had been there the night before, gathering information and photos for this website, but it hadn't quite been the same. That time, I was so concerned with the big picture, I hadn't noticed all the little treasures, each holding their own special meaning. This time, my eyes followed the path of the train and studied the smiles on the faces of those tiny figurines.

I let my imagination go to work. I remembered the electric train set I had as a boy and the fun I had watching it. Then I watched little Cameron's face, which lit up as his eyes took in the entire scene. I smiled as he giggled every time the train hit the end of the track and bounced back the other way.

Then I turned and looked all around me in the Carnes' driveway. Everywhere I looked, friends and neighbors laughed, hugged and exchanged greetings. A firepit surrounded by chairs welcomed appreciative visitors. Mary Carnes snapped photos of each guest -- many of whom left canned goods as donations for a local charity. Inside, her husband Chris served visitors soup and meatballs and thanked them for stopping by.

Suddenly, I realized once again what I probably always have known, but too often forget:

This is what Christmas is all about.

It's about people like Chris and Mary Carnes, who open up their home each night for a month at Christmas time, just to give something back to the community they love. It's about the visitors who come to show their appreciation and help the less fortunate with their donations to Menifee Community Cupboard.

It's about people like Sherry Durado, who recently opened her Sun City home to visitors with a similar display for two weekends earlier this month. It's about people like Linda Denver, a Menifee resident who works all year on community service projects, then plays Mrs. Claus for the little ones at Christmas time.

And it's about people like Cpt. Jesse Karr, who delivers care packages to Marines in Afghanistan while his parents and friends back home in Menifee prepare more supplies to ship overseas.

People have different opinions on what Christmas is really about. In fact, some don't recognize Christmas at all. To be politically correct, we are told, we are to wish others "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."

I happen to be one who believes we can celebrate Christ's birth, declare his belief to others, and still respect the beliefs of all those around him. Isn't that why we live in America?

OK, I'm jumping off the soap box now. All I'm trying to say is, we can all get along as friends and neighbors and respect each other, whether you believe in Jesus Christ; acknowledge Santa Claus; celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or simply the winter solstice; or believe in none of the above.

No matter what you do or don't believe in, you have the capacity to care for others. If nothing else, this time of year is a reminder of the blessings we have and the ability we have to bless others.

If you doubt this, watch the classic film "It's a Wonderful Life." Or visit the Carnes house (thanks, Mary, for taking the photo of us shown below).

Or just pause a moment to look around you at this special time of year.

So Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you all, no matter what your situation or beliefs. Have a great weekend, give your loved ones a hug, and do something kind for someone else.

It really is a great feeling.

A Doug's Life: Baby, it's Cold Outside

OK, so it's been two months since we moved to Menifee, and we're still here. I've hounded my wife about the idea of feed leasing a horse, invited her to help me look for old mine sites, tried to buy a full-scale replica of a stagecoach for the front yard -- and she's still speaking to me.

I think we're staying.

Hey, she has her nice four-bedroom house to live in with nary a horse in sight, even from the upstairs windows. She has shopping centers within easy driving distance and her debit card works just the same out here. What's she got to complain about?

Well, maybe there is one thing: It's a lot colder out here.

Kristen hates the cold. It could be 70 degrees with sunny skies and she would be reaching for a sweater. I once considered interviewing for a job in Utah. She asked what I'd think about being divorced again.

So you can imagine how she feels about the weather out here. And while I rather enjoy the change of seasons, I have to admit it's been a bit chilly lately.

In our old neighborhood, a couple nights in the 30s would have us searching for thermal underwear. But maybe that's because it didn't happen often. Out here, it's been a regular thing the last few weeks.

At first, I thought my rather timid Golden Retriever was shaking because he was nervous about his new surroundings. I finally figured out he was freezing his tail off. He stays inside most of the time anyway, but these days his "restroom" trips are shorter than usual.

That reminds me of my favorite "cold dog" story, told to me by my distant cousin while we were visiting them at the old family farm house in rural North Carolina a few years back.

The house is rented out these days, but for more than 100 years, it was home to Spoon family members. The place was built in the early 1800s. It has no central heat. When my cousins spent a few days there one Christmas, they used space heaters in a few rooms and closed up the rest of the house.

One thing they forgot was the dog's water bowl. When they got up on Christmas morning and opened up the rest of the house, old Fido headed across the cold kitchen floor to get a drink of water. Unfortunately, it was frozen solid.

Now that's cold.

Really, though, I don't mind it. It reminds me that open, remote areas often experience both extremes on the thermometer. My first job in journalism was in Barstow, which I had always considered a desert sauna. Not in January, I learned -- especially when you have to get up at 5:30 a.m. and your feet hit the cold tile floor.

So despite my wife's complaints and my dog's shivering backside, I'm actually getting used to this weather. I keep telling myself how much more I will appreciate these chilly mornings during those hot summer afternoons to come. In fact, I find it rather invigorating.

As long as we're cooling it down a bit, why not go all the way? Christmas is almost here. Bring on the snow.

I read on this website recently Steve Johnson's recollection of the last Menifee snowfall, in 2004. Sounds like it was just enough to take some pics and make a snowball or two before the white stuff melted.

I'll take that.

If I can live somewhere within reasonable driving distance of Disneyland, have horses for neighbors, enjoy a light snow once in a while and still have my modern tract home with a fireplace, I'm good. Just give me a little bit of everything, in moderation.

In other words, I'd like to ride a horse once in a while without having to take care of it 24/7. By the same token, I'd like to play in a little bit of snow -- not shovel it, like I'd have to do in Utah.

Is that asking too much?

So whether you consider this weather seasonably comfortable or downright freezing, remember that variety is the spice of life. Here, we can bundle up like Eskimos to give us that Christmas feeling in December, then strip down to the bare essentials and work on our tan come June.

And hey, you can ride horses year-round. What's not to like?

A Doug's Life: Catching the Santa Spirit

Do you remember sitting on Santa's lap?

My memories are sketchy, but once in a while it comes back to me -- especially at this time of year. And of course it helps to have old photos, like the shot of the handsome little man pictured here with old St. Nick.

This photo was taken around 1959 in front of Hinshaw's Department Store in Arcadia. In those days, Hinshaw's and the small shopping center surrounding it were a major hub for shoppers in the West San Gabriel Valley. At Christmas time, it was like a holiday playground for wide-eyed kids.

Strings of lights and colorful decorations hung high above Baldwin Avenue. Christmas music seemed to drift outside from every storefront. And inside a big red booth erected on the wide sidewalk in front of the Hinshaw's display window, Santa Claus welcomed the children, listening to Christmas wishes and handing out candy.

There we stood with our parents in a long line, sometimes shivering in the cold, fascinated by the big red Christmas bulbs and twinkling lights, our eyes fixed on the man in the big red and white suit.

Then I grew up. They built a mall up the street, eventually forcing Hinshaw's out of business. They narrowed the sidewalk along Baldwin Avenue to create a bus stop.

Santa hasn't been seen in front of that building since then. But you know what? He's always somewhere, and there are always kids around to sit on his lap. Here in Menifee, that will happen this weekend in our own "little" shopping hub, Countryside Marketplace.

Santa and Mrs. Claus will arrive at 5:30 p.m. Friday to light up the Winter Wonderland Santa House by the food court at the Marketplace, located at the corner of Newport Road and Haun Road.

You know the Marketplace. It's your reason not to drive to Murrieta or Temecula for shopping and dining. Hey, they've got everything from a Target store to a Red Robin restaurant to The Beer Hunter sports pub and grill to In-N-Out -- with more than 30 merchants in all. I quickly learned that everyone around here knows where the Marketplace is.

But even the Marketplace doesn't always have Santa Claus, which is one reason to head out there with the little ones this weekend. If you've forgotten what it felt like to sit on Santa's lap, watch your children or grandchildren do the same thing. It all comes back real fast.

There will be plenty to do, even if you're too big to fit on Santa's knee for a picture. There will be carolers and horse-drawn sleigh rides. Santa will have a petting farm set up, and there will be treats for the kids. Santa and his elves will return for more of the same each afternoon through Dec. 20.

I'll be there in line with some of our little ones, if for no other reason than to look for the reaction of the kids when they meet up with the big guy.

A tip for those who plan to attend (besides getting there early): Encourage the little ones to sit on Santa's lap, but don't force it. They'll enjoy it when they're good and ready. If they're not ready, you'll know in about two seconds and approximately 90 decibels.

That doesn't mean they don't care, or that they don't want presents under the tree. It's just that they've never had a close encounter with a fat guy in a white beard and a furry red costume before. Be patient with them.

Besides, that's half the fun. You've got to admit, it's rather entertaining to watch the range of emotions displayed in the Santa House, whether it's your kid or someone else's.

I have no idea whether I ever cried on Santa's lap, but I suspect I might have, at least once or twice. I have several old photos showing me with Santa, including one when I was six months old -- with a smile on my face. But for some reason, I don't have another shot of me and Santa until the one you see here, when I was about 4. Did mom destroy the pics of me screaming like a girl when I was 2 or 3?

I don't remember whether my children ever cried on Santa's lap, and neither do they. My guess is, they did. With many kids, there seems to be that critical meeting, around age 2, when they're old enough to realize that mom or dad is abandoning them on the knee of a rather large stranger whose face they can barely see behind all that hair. But after the screams, mom or dad takes them back, everyone has a good laugh and someone sticks a candy cane in their mouth.

Tragedy averted. Then, when they turn 3 or 4, they're all smiles on Santa's lap and you're the one with tears in your eyes.

It's already happened with the grandkids this year in previous Santa encounters. Riley, who's almost 4, climbed right up on Santa's lap and smiled for the camera. This is the little girl who last year screamed bloody murder. Cameron, who just turned 2, had a meltdown and never made it to the big man.

Yeah, a good time was had by all. And we're ready to do it again Friday night.

So if you're in the neighborhood this weekend, stop by and say hello. We'll be out there -- the family, Santa, his elves, carolers, and a whole lot of other nice people.

And it's OK that the Marketplace doesn't have a Hinshaw's Department Store. It has Santa Claus and little children, and that's good enough for me.

Holiday Happenings at Countryside Marketplace

Friday, Dec. 16: 5:30-8 p.m.
Saturday & Sunday, Dec. 17-18: Noon-4 p.m.
Monday & Tuesday, Dec. 19-20: 3-6 p.m.

A Doug's Life: Kids, Carnivals and Quackers

Around our house, you never quite know how "family time" is going to work out.

It was Sunday afternoon and the kids were over. That's four children, ages 28-33. Add four grandchildren, ages 2-5, and we can pretty much provide our own entertainment. Just watching the little ones interact with each other is kind of like going to the circus.

This time, the plan was to get out of the house and enjoy the beautiful day before the rains came. A previous plan to meet at Disneyland had already been scrapped. Who needs the Magic Kingdom when we have our own Frontier Land right here?

First stop was the Winchester Cowboy Christmas Festival. How could it not be? The grandkids know all about Pop's obsession with the Old West. The minute I told them we were going to a carnival where the cowboys lived, they were headed for the car.

What's not to like about a town named Winchester? I was ready for the mounted posse to meet us at the city limits. Perhaps there would be a shootout at high noon, or a rodeo, or at least a pony ride for the kids.

Maybe our timing was just bad.

Granted, it was the last day of a four-day festival, which had featured a live band, hay rides and other western-themed attractions the three previous days. True, it was pretty cold outside and the clouds were rolling in. Bottom line, the vendors were starting to pack up and the cowboys were nowhere to be found.

But guess what? The carnival was still there. Even little Blake, who dressed up like Cowboy Bob for Halloween with hat, boots, vest and six-shooter, forgot about the absence of gunslingers when he saw the miniature roller coaster and carousel.

All the little ones had a good time, which meant the big ones were all smiles, too. As a parent or grandparent, you often enjoy life through the eyes of the children.

When 5-year-old Kaylee climbed all the way to the top of the super slide and came flying down the chute all by herself for the first time, we cheered. When 3-year-old Riley led her cousin Blake onto the roller coaster, we reached for our cameras. When 2-year-old Cameron ran for the "horsie" on the carousel, we had to run to keep up.

Everyone had fun -- and we needed neither Mickey Mouse nor Sheriff John to do it.

Deciding that it was still early, we headed a bit south to visit the Temecula Duck Pond. Located on Ynez Road just off the 15 Freeway, it's a pretty, peaceful place with a Veterans Memorial -- which the grandkids didn't notice -- and a whole lot of ducks -- which they did.

It's amazing how entertained the little ones are by a bunch of birds they can see close up for free. The parents had to hold the kids by their belt loops as the little ones leaned over the water to drop bread crumbs and laugh as the ducks splashed around to get into position for a treat.

It was a gentle reminder about the simple pleasures of life and the joys any family can find in the little things that are all around us.

So while we'll still make trips to Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm (the cowboys, you know), our family will continue to explore things right here in our back yard. As long as we're together and the Menifee area has treasures to be found, there will be more good times ahead.

carnival rides
duck pond

A Doug's Life: Let's Get Back to the Basics

Several weeks ago, when I first moved here to Menifee, I had to explain to the locals where I had come from.

"Temple City," I would say. "No? How about Arcadia? OK, you know Pasadena, right?"

Today, I would wager that most everyone knows about Temple City. Unfortunately, that is the case because Temple City became national news last week when it was almost blown off the map.

My wife and I still own a house there. The day after the big windstorm, we drove back to check on things, alarmed by Facebook postings from friends about how bad it was. Surely they are exaggerating, we thought.

Reality set in as we reached the outskirts of town. Apparently, Temple City was ground zero. Hundreds of fallen trees blocked streets. We barely made it under a sagging power line with our vehicle. Crews were scrambling to replace power poles that literally had snapped in two during winds in excess of 100 mph.

Fortunately, our old house was still intact, with only minor damage. We did notice that the power was out in the entire neighborhood.

"What an inconvenience it will be for them for the next few hours," we said as we headed back east.

Well, "a few hours" turned out to be almost a week. We returned to Temple City Wednesday to learn that power had been restored just the night before. For six days and nights, our neighbors had shivered in the darkness, seeing by candlelight and using old-fashioned methods to prepare food.

Through all this, I believe there's a lesson to be learned.

For the people of Temple City, the lesson is obvious: Be prepared for anything and be willing to do whatever it takes to survive with as little complaint as possible. Have food storage on hand. Keep a reserve supply of fresh water. Find ways to pass the time and keep a positive attitude when you're without modern conveniences, such as television and the Internet.

For the people of Menifee, I think there's something else we can all take from this. Because of our surroundings, we have an opportunity to practice survival skills without the need to simulate conditions, virtually in our own back yard. In other words, we can experience what it's really like to "rough it" without having to drive two hours to reach the great outdoors.

Why wait until the lights go out to find out how you would get through the night or cook your food? Plan a weekend trip to a nearby campground, such as Wilderness Lakes, Lake Skinner, Lake Perris or even Ortega Oaks. Pitch your tent, set up a campfire, light the lantern and set up the board games. Get a taste of how your ancestors did things.

Why wait until a natural disaster strikes to figure out how you would get around without a car? Learn how to ride a horse. There are plenty of them around here. You can go somewhere like the Briarcliff Equestrian Center, right here on Briggs Road. Or just make friends with one of the local cowboys or stable hands. I've found them to be downright hospitable.

Horse riding not your thing? Gee, you could actually take a nice, long walk. Check out some of the many hiking trails around here. Yes, you can get from one place to another without a set of wheels. Someday, you might have to.

Ever wonder what people did for food before they had a supermarket down the street? Try catching your next meal. This area has ample opportunities for fishing. I'm a terrible fisherman, but trying to catch the big one gives me a greater appreciation for those who once relied on such skills to survive. It also helps me develop the patience I would need if those skills really came into play in times of emergency.

Sure, I'm glad our power didn't go out the night the winds came. Yes, I will continue to prepare meals in the microwave, drive my Toyota Camry around town and watch baseball on TV. However, I also plan to rededicate my efforts to experience the "basics" of life.

When disaster strikes, I want to know how to take care of myself and others. In the meantime, I just want to have some fun with the outdoor activities we have all around us.