Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Four Weeks in Purgatory

Campaigning Under a Polar Vortex

We landed in hell at around 2:30 on that January afternoon. It was an overcast yet sunny day. Outside the terminal, the wind was blowing hard and there was a 45 degree below zero wind chill. Welcome back to Minnesota under the polar vortex.

The weather wasn’t as advertised…it was worse. After being born and raised in Minnesota, I was used to blowing wind, biting cold and snow so deep you had to do chest-presses just to get over those miniature dirty white mountains.

I’d been there many times before. In grade school, delivering newspapers at 4:30 in the morning and trudging through the snow at twenty below zero. In college, unloading trucks at a wind chill of 80 below zero. Years later, I’d occasionally find myself running in white-out conditions because I hadn’t gotten in enough mileage for that week. The unrelenting cold has always been a pain in the derriere and on the extremities. But we were there for a purpose and a little blanket of sub-zero weather wasn’t about to deter us from our objective.

My wife and I had just left the warmth and comfort of Palm Springs to support our daughter who was running for State Representative in her district…64B in Highland Park, a neighborhood in Saint Paul, Minnesota. We were going to be back home for two weeks in January. Then another two more weeks in March just before the district convention which would decide who was running for that position of State Representative. It would be a total of four weeks in purgatory.

The return trip home for a total of four weeks meant I wouldn’t be writing…anything. I wouldn’t be exercising at the gym. I wouldn’t be running trails or bike riding. There were a lot of things, board meetings, neighborhood gatherings, etc. happening back in Palm Springs but they were all on hold for now. We were needed on the home front.

The campaign was shaping up to be a very tough contest for everyone involved. It was Melanie’s first plunge into running for state office; a veritable baptism of fire. A lot of folks who might have been able to help her had already committed to one of the other candidates or didn’t want to get involved at that level. There were six other very qualified candidates, most of whom had done this kind of campaigning before. The ‘good old boys network’ was supporting one candidate and long-time party activists had attached themselves to another one.

Our daughter, who was stepping into the election ring for the first time, was earning her SHK (School of Hard Knocks) bruises, blisters and kudos as she went along. There were good days and bad. It was a roller coaster of emotions with loving support, financial commitments, surprise turndowns and disappointing phone calls. It was a newspaper article that called her simply a ‘stay at home mom’ as if that was a bad thing while it ignored her deep involvement in the community. But through it all, Melanie persevered and kept to her grueling campaign schedule.

To be honest, Melanie had worked for a large law firm and spent considerable time at the capitol working for the same representative who was now leaving office. She knew the rules of the game and the enormous time-commitment it took. We were simply back in town as back-up babysitters and sounding board and encouragement coaches. It’s what parents do for their kids…no matter the age of their kids.

Two weeks of campaign work along with babysitting for most of that time wasn’t as much a chore as it sounds. It meant precious time with my daughter as I chauffeured her for door-knocking in the neighborhood. It was stuffing envelopes and fund-raising. It was squeezing in time to see grandma in Wabasha and stealing time for coffee with an old friend. It was making up new nighttime stories every time as I put Brennan and Charlotte to bed. It was making snow angels with them and playing King of the Hill in three above zero weather.

 We did another two weeks in March which pretty much followed the same pattern. The weather wasn’t as bitterly cold but it wasn’t Palm Springs blissful either. The travel put some real roadblocks in my seasonal participation in my writers group, the Palm Springs Writers Guild, city activities and neighborhood involvement. We never really had a chance to get involved as we had during other seasons. Perhaps next year.

When we were done and the campaigning was over, we slipped away on a Sun Country escape …until spring and another return flight again. We did what you’re supposed to do when one of your kids needs help. We’d do it again…in a heartbeat.

Oh yeah, Melanie didn’t get the endorsement…but it certainly wasn’t for her not trying. She lost that race and yet won in so many other meaningful ways.

Through this process, strangers and simple names on a card became ardent supporters and life-long friends.  Melanie went from a stay-at-home mom to someone with real campaign chops and war stories to tell. She went from Speech and Debate in high school to real-world campaigning in front of standing-room-only audiences. She went from mothering her kids to formulating political positions and strategies in neighborhood, city and state political circles. She went from a virtual unknown four months ago to a known and respected entity in the world of politics in Saint Paul and Minnesota.

She gained notable name recognition that no ad campaign could have done better for her. She earned the respect of the other candidates. She created a heightened awareness among the ‘in crowd’ that there was a new player in town. In other words, she won…big time…in the game of politics and life. What more could you ask for?

I can’t tell you how proud I am of that young woman who took a chance, put her life on hold and ‘went for it.’

Was four weeks in purgatory worth it?

Hell, yes!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Bottle of Wine Won't Cut It

I had an interesting conversation with Rosie who is the manager of our fitness club here in town.

She commented that this has been an unusually busy season for her members to have surprise visitors coming in from cold weather parts of the country. Not surprisingly, these new-found friends are quite interested in partaking of our unseasonably warm weather during the heart of winter elsewhere.

One member even commented: “I just heard from my brother whom I haven’t spoken to in years. He wants to visit with his new bride and I haven’t even met her yet. What am I going to do with them for a week in my small two-bedroom condo?” She’s decided to spend appreciably more time at the gym while her self-invited company lounges by her pool.

Living in a warm weather locale during the winter month’s makes one an attractive target for visitors and occasional guests who love to drop in and savor the warm weather, blue skies and gorgeous mountain views. The same thing is happening to our friends who now live here year-round. They too have seen a steady influx of guests from back home.

The common equation among some of these newly implanted house guests is an attitude that your home has become their home away from home – at least in their mind. They’ve drunk from the jug called “A Palm Springs Lifestyle” and swallowed it entirely. It’s an interesting paradigm and yet nothing could be further from reality.

What seems to be missing for some of these house guests is the simple realization that it’s your ‘home’ they’re staying in. It’s not a Motel Six down the road or some cute B&B they read about in Good Housekeeping Magazine. Some of them don’t seem to understand that it’s not your rental property or your vacation home or even second home. It’s your home…period…and as such should be treated that way.

While all of us here are very fortunate to have a place to stay during the winter months, most of us have worked darn hard to earn the right to be here in the first place. It’s not something we take lightly or for granted and as such we’re very protective of it.

House guests are a different breed aside from family and sometimes family doesn’t get it either.

There’s an old cliché about fish and house guests being tolerable for about three days and after that…

I’ve stumbled upon a simple test that is a pretty good indicator of how our guests are going to perceive their stay in town. It occurred over a couple of years with three different couples.

After picking up our guests at the airport, I drive to the exit gate to pay for parking.

1.      Without saying a word, the first couple whipped out a ten dollar bill to pay for parking.
2.      Once at the gate, the second couple spoke up in the back seat about offering to pay for parking but went no further than that.
3.      The third couple just kept talking in the backseat and didn’t even notice that I had paid for parking.

It turned out to be the perfect metaphor for how these three couples saw their week in Palm Springs as our guests. The first couple saw it as a wonderful opportunity to enjoy all that Palm Springs had to offer and a willingness to show their appreciation for opening up our home to them. They didn’t hesitate to pay for their fair share of our expenses that week.

The second couple appreciated their week in Palm Springs and wanted to reciprocate by taking us to dinner a couple of times.

The third couple enjoyed their week in Palm Springs.
One of the rituals among desert resort society is to bring a gift when invited over to another person’s home for an event, dinner, a party, etc. Often times, it’s a bottle of wine assuming your hosts drink vino. It’s a time-honored way of acknowledging the invitation to engage with friends. Much like the time-honored ritual of sending a thank you card for pleasantries exchanged or gifts, etc. it’s something that comes quite naturally to some people and not so much for others.

Some folks get it and others don’t. As a friend once commented about frequent guests who like to partake of another’s hospitality on numerous occasions but seldom reciprocate themselves. He said “A bottle of wine just doesn’t cut it.”

Reciprocal action is required if any relationship is going to last. Some people get it and some don’t.

So goes the game of life…and hospitality.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

I Lost a Friend Today

I lost a friend today…in fact, quite a few over the years.

The list is extensive and began back in grade school, continued on into high school, college, the service, various jobs as well as an odd assortment of creative endeavors. Lumped all together they make up a wonderful cross section of men and women who touched my life in so many different ways.

Some were the result of forced marriages of education or religion or family structures. Others were self-elected and directed encounters of my own choosing. More often than not, it was some commonality of purpose or interest that held us together and bonded our mutual appreciation for each others' company. From the playground to after-school activities to sports to encounters with the opposite sex.

Then as a part of the ever-constant shifting of principles and paradigms and life-altering events in our lives, those friendships came to a close. That pattern has been played out and repeated most of my life. Men, women and couples included.

The first inkling I had that something was changing in my life was right after high school graduation and the immediate purging of our senior ranks for parts unknown. That was even more reinforced at my fiftieth high school reunion when I found myself in the company of old men.

The second inkling of change came during my time in the service. Not only were the friendships with bunkmates, squad members and office workers fleeting at best, even coming home on leave was so painful that I only did it a couple of times.

I hung that moniker on Daniel, my protagonist in “Love in the A Shau,” when he tells his girlfriend that he might not be home for the duration of his time in the service because it would be too painful to reenter civilian life for such a brief period of time only to leave again so quickly.

Returning home after the service brought back that reality in cold harsh terms. Old college buddies had already graduated and moved on to their first jobs. A relationship started before the service gradually lost its luster and lust as maturity and a desire for change found both of us heading off in two different directions.

Then after college, relationships began, endured and ended on a regular basis. It began with my time overseas. Then my first real job in television followed by an assortment of jobs; good and bad. Finally the gradual withdrawal from work so I could focus on a new career as a writer. It was a pattern that was to play out my entire life…and continues to do so even to this day.

Returning home to Minnesota during the Christmas holidays only highlights the gradual shifting of loyalties and friendships. Much like my 50th Cretin high school reunion, I find myself in a world with individuals who have changed their lives as much as I have mine.

Once-a-year Christmas cards with their obligatory yearly update are always fun to peruse and reminisce about past times spent well. But it also brings home the realization that we’ve all gotten older and moved on.

Not long ago, I got a notice from my old high school that yet another of our classmates had died. I never knew him very well. He was handsome, always had the girls, was great at baseball and went east to college after graduation. Now I was staring at his obituary and looking at some pictures of his past life…all neat and clean and final. It gave me reason to pause, reflect for a moment on the luck I’ve had in my life and then think about friends; old and new.

The passing of friendships can be a time of sadness or a joy in the experiences shared. The one bright light is the occasional reconnection with old friends from our distant past. It hasn’t happened too often but when it does, a plethora of pleasant memories usually follow. Despite the fact that we’ve gone off in totally different directions since our last encounter, we somehow manage to reconnect on a personal level which isn’t dependent on our past lives together or apart.

So I’ll continue to mine that vein of past friendships all the while trying to grow new ones at the same time.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Who Did I Marry Anyway?!

Titles can be incredibly misleading. While some are intended to be that way, others are just the result of sloppy craftsmanship. This one was intentional…but it wasn’t personal. I simply wanted to point out that some couples find themselves married to someone quite different from the person they first met and fell in love with years earlier.

I’ve been lucky. For any number of reasons, not the least of which is my wife’s enduring patience, I’ve been married for forty-two plus years and it’s still going strong. I married a very intelligent people-savvy woman who continues to challenge my lifestyle, my writing and other associated idiosyncrasies. But for us it works and remains part of the chemistry that has held us together for all these years.

Over that time I’ve changed and evolved and a few might even suggest gotten a little more mature. I don’t claim credit for that latter accomplishment if it is true. I just grew older and continued my quest for lifelong fulfillment in a plethora of different areas. Perhaps if I were Native American it would be called my ‘vision quest.’

Luckily for me that fulfillment came in the form of child-rearing, writing, entrepreneurship, running, real estate and other sundry areas of interest. As I changed or recharged my areas of interest, my wife continued her own subjective host of activities and work/family involvements. Somehow it all worked out for the both of us. 

But that isn’t always the case for other couples.

This is the first generation whose retirement could outlast their working years. Many couples are not aware that they could well face another thirty years or more of retirement. It’s a whole new world out there for many couples and a lot of them aren’t prepared for it.

What I’ve witnessed over the last couple of years is a gradual growing apart of some couples or the stagnation of one partner at the expense of the other. Negotiating midlife together is a challenge. It can become a totally clouded vision when the partners are psychologically in different places in their respective lives. It’s sad to watch but fascinating none the less.

What was once cute and quirky in a partner is now a refusal to grow up or reluctance to admit that age and gravity are working against us. Perhaps it is one partner accepting their senior position in life while the other isn’t ready to give up quite yet. People change and evolve and not always in the same direction.

We used to have a handy label for it. We called it a midlife Crisis. But the fact is that only 10 to 26 percent of adults over 40 report having a midlife crisis. Perhaps midlife transition is a better moniker for the changes many adult couples are going through. Not surprisingly many of those changes facing both men and women are the result of physical, social and psychological issues associated with aging.

Many folks, especially men, use middle-age as a turning point for re-evaluating their life thus far. Too often reflecting on regrets of what could or should have been, they wonder how the second half of life might be different this time around. I did that with My Lost Years and then again In the Company of Old Men.

Amazon lists over 2000 books dealing with midlife. Men and women often navigate their middle years in different ways with different needs and challenges. It seems inevitable that for married couples the impact they have on each other is going to be dramatic.

Aside from the easily identifiable issues facing anyone who is aging, I think there is another issue many couples as well as individuals are unaware of and in many cases, totally oblivious to. That is the gradual erosion of meaningful activities in their lives. I tried to address that issue in my blog The Living Dead. But I also gave credence to a wonderful example of just the opposite in Sister Dorothy and the Myth of Catholicism.

The desert is full of retirees whose idea of a full day is visiting the post office, the supermarket, cards at the senior center and then an evening in front of the boob tube. It’s a life devoid of passion for anything beyond the evening news and repetitive sports reports
Many of these men are especially lost without their name badge and desk title to remind them of who they really were back then. Today they are just another statistic mad at the world for growing old. At first I thought their actions were quite out of character until they spoke of growing up with the feeling that something was lacking in their lives. 

I know several men who are still trying to prove to their fathers that they are worthy sons…except that their fathers have been deceased for a very long time now. I know of daughters who want to be worthy of their mother’s affections and not yet can’t accept the fact that there was no affection to give on their mother’s part…to anyone.

Swedish Psychologist, Eric Erikson in his well-regarded eight stages of psychological development seemed to confirm this observation. His studies confirm that some people carry unresolved issues from earlier stages in their lives to their later years. Being able to let go of the past is the first step in embracing the future. 

Finding one’s passion should be the goal for all of us. Settling for less should not be an option.

“Hope is both the earliest and most indispensable virtue inherent in the stage of being alive. If life is to be sustained hope must remain even where confidence is wounded and trust impaired.”
         Erik Erikson