Tuesday, October 17, 2017


Declining literacy rates continue to challenge educators, and frankly, anyone who cares about an educated society. Growing up in a single parent household that never had a book in the house I find that fact sad and troubling.

Perhaps that’s why I wasn’t too surprised or bothered by the fact that close to ten thousand books made their way through our house this summer on their way to better bookshelves. My wife, Sharon, had initiated this book drive three years ago. The first year it was three thousand books collected and distributed. Last year, it was over six thousand books distributed.

The book drive followed a three-R’s model: read, recycle, and reach. Sharon explained “We want families to read and enjoy the books that they have, and then when they are done with them or have moved on to a new reading level we want them to recycle the books by donating them to this project. By giving away their used books, these readers are reaching out to students who might not have any books at home.”

Reflecting back, I realized my love of reading grew exponentially while sitting on some newspaper customer’s doorstep. Whether I was perusing the Saint Paul Pioneer Press in the morning or the Saint Paul Dispatch at night I found myself immersed in newspaper articles about a world I never knew existed.

Reading had never been a part of my life before I started my paper route in seventh grade. Newspapers, magazines and books were luxuries my mother couldn’t afford. There was never any reading material in our house save for one book on Padre Pio. My mother probably bought that book out of guilt some Sunday morning after Mass.

About the same time, I began a newspaper route my friend introduced me to our local library. The first book I read was ‘The Enemy Below’ since I was fascinated with World War II; go figure. Then Tarzan, the Hardy Boys and western novels carried me into a world my imagination readily devoured.

Since that initial brush with the printed page, reading has always been an important part of my life. There will never be enough time to read all the books I’ve got piled up around the house. We have libraries for the grandchildren here and there. Each has their own library in their rooms. Books matter to all of us.

It’s also been the impetuous for my second career as a writer.

Ever the educator, Sharon said the ability to read, and to read critically, is one of the most crucial factors to a student’s success. Access to information is becoming easier (screen time) BUT the skills needed to critically evaluate it comes from reading.

In Dakota County alone, there are over 1600 ELL students who will use the books. At the October 4th meeting of Apple Valley Rotary, District 196 Superintendent Jane Berenz spoke about the Reading Recovery Program in ISD 196 and how the intervention program has helped the literacy level of first graders.

She explained that “the ELL Program in district 196 supports learners in acquiring the English they need in order to succeed in the classroom and beyond, in accordance with the State of Minnesota Guidelines and English Language Proficiency Standards. Teachers who are fully certified in teaching English as a Second Language work with these ELL students at all ele-mentary, middle and high schools in the district.”

Ms. Berenz went on to explain that the ELL program develops English skills in reading, writing, and speaking, as well as the language of academic content. The ELL staff is trained in the same best literacy practices as classroom teachers. She said the need for simple children’s books is critical for these students to practice their reading skills.

This year, the district hopes to initiate a new program that will provide certain school buses with boxes of books. The idea is that a student can borrow a book on their way to or from school and return it as they exit the bus. The district will also hold on to thousands of books to distribute next summer at various district-sponsored camps and events. This past summer they gave away over two thousand books at ‘Adventures in Learning,’ a week-long summer program for elementary-aged English Language Learners.

The program is working…and well. Out of the twenty-three seniors who were in the English Learner program for last year, nineteen students were enrolled in a two-year or four-year college. Fourteen students were heading to a two-year college and five were going to a four-year institution of higher education.

But to bring the world of reading to these children and open a whole new world for them is a small price to pay for cramp quarters and books piled up in every corner of our house. I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to be transformed into another world of rolling seas, desert plateaus and the young boys down the block.

I return to those worlds every chance I get. And feel blessed to be able to create them myself for others to enjoy.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Invisible Playwright

Life isn’t fair when it comes to the arts.

I recently attended a special showing of the winners for this year’s Minnesota State Fair Fine Arts Awards. There were paintings, photographs and artistic pieces in the Fine Arts building on the fair grounds. The building was crowded with on-lookers perusing, examining and comment-ing on the winners there. A common consensus seemed to be that the judges this year had certain preferences in mind when they selected the winners. Some would say dark, dreary, and somber. Much of the work resembled an overcast day in Minnesota. So what has changed? Actually nothing.

Name any artistic venture be it writing, film, music, drama, painting and so forth; the results are always the same. Someone else judges the work and pronounces it good, bad or in need of more revision.

A publisher does that to the aspiring writer. So does an editor whose judgement is supposedly more clearly focused than that of the writer himself. It’s understood that if you want to be published, you have to play by their rules.

The studio does that to the film maker as do the financiers behind the film project when they put pressure on the studios themselves. A producer or director does that to screen writer. A theatrical producer does that to the playwright. Once they have the story in their hands, it becomes their baby.

A record label or musical producer does that to a singer or a band under the assumption that the ‘man’ knows better what is going to sell and climb up the charts.  Galleries do that to artists.

Managers and agents guide, cajole, push, threaten and otherwise pass judgement on the careers of their clients.

Employers do that to their employees. Unions to their members. Guilds to their member artists.

Seldom does the artist have total control over his or her work. There always seems to be some kind of compromise, conditions to be met or adjustments to be made. Welcome to their ‘real world.’ The solution, if any, might be compromise, capitulation or withdrawal. In the end, there is only one person to decide that, the artist himself.

The artist, in the generic sense, must be true to himself. The art has to be their vision and therefore they get to decide if they want to go to the next stage of distribution. For many it becomes a question of compromising their own vision with that of someone else if they want broader exposure.

Each and every avenue of art is a tough nut to crack. It has to be driven by a self-imposed desire for fulfillment in one form or another. Just finishing an artistic venture is enough for many. Going beyond that initial stage is a challenge for most. Compromise is the Claritin call for all…if they’re willing to accept it.

Playwrights can take on the role of producer to ensure that their vision of the entire ‘theatrical experience’ meets expectations. Authors can take charge of their own marketing and connecting with their audience. Musicians can choose their own venues and movie-makers must find their own financing and go the independent route.

It’s all a question of how passionate one feels about their art. How far they willing to go to push their vision? Deciding what is their own personal bottom line to get their ’baby’ out into the world?

Ultimately like a mother with child, the creator has the greatest satisfaction. For in the wondrous world of creating lies the greatest pleasure and satisfaction. Anything beyond that is a faint smile hinting at the joy found within. Those on the inside of that world ‘get it’; outsiders can only look at those smiles and wonder what it all means.