Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Half Jewish

Charlotte has mastered the art of fashioning her own hijab. I’m not sure where my youngest granddaughter learned to tie that Muslim headwear or why she chose the hijab over the Al-Amira, the Shayla or the four other kinds of Muslim veils. She’s only worn it around the house a couple of times and as the weather warms up she’ll probably toss it aside along with her snow hat and mittens.

Not long ago, Charlotte declared to her parents that she wants to be half Muslim. Now mathematically that might be a challenge since Charlotte already considers herself half-Jewish and half-Catholic. No matter. Even at five-years-old, Charlotte seems determined to stake her claim on the religion of the moment despite what those pesky adults in her life keep telling her about waiting until she is an adult herself.

I think this fascination with other religions began when Charlotte started a preschool program at the Jewish Community Center in St. Paul. During classes on alternate days of the week Charlotte was exposed to many of the Jewish traditions. She loved the classes and her teachers.

Central to Judaism is an engagement with stories and ideas and even to argue about them. Arguments are encouraged because that’s how one learns what is important to other people and why. Our L.A. friends here in the desert have a saying: Two Jews, three opinions. Now that sounds like it would fit Charlotte’s personality to a T. The same can be said of all my grandchildren. *

Recently Charlotte marched in the Purim which is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the savings of the Jewish people in Persia from extermination. She can now proudly recite several prayers in Hebrew and even knows several songs in that language.

Then on alternate days of the week Charlotte attends a preschool program at Holy Spirit Catholic grade school. There she is introduced to Catholic tradition and song which she has taken to with equal enthusiasm. So this winter, without a lot of fanfare, Charlotte declared to anyone who was willing to listen that she is now half-Jewish and half-Catholic.

Works for me.

This sudden interest in Muslim headgear seemed to come out of nowhere but like all of my grandchildren Charlotte’s antenna is always scanning the air, subconsciously searching for life’s little surprises and mysteries. It might have been something she heard on television (although unlikely since Charlotte and her brother get very little screen time). It might have been pieces of a hundred thousand conversations her parents have had in the front seat driving someplace. Or it might simply have come from a visit to her brother’s school which has many Muslim students. Living in an urban environment, Charlotte is exposed daily to the hijab, the yarmulke and dozens of other accouterments of ethnic cultures.

Charlotte seems to be picking religions the way other people pick their favorite television shows. Over time it will probably ebb and slow and perhaps disappear. Or she may find some philosophy that finds a home in her ever-expanding and inquiring mind.

A recent report from the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life found that twenty (20%) percent of Americans now check ‘none’ when asked about their religious affiliation. Back in 1956 a government survey found that only three (3%) percent of Americans checked that ‘none’ box. Now they’re a fifth of all Americans.

In time Charlotte can decide how she wants to embrace her faith and her beliefs. Knowing all of my grandchildren as I do that will be a decision they make on their own despite any influences they might feel from parents or grandparents. During the normal course of growing up they’ll be exposed to options and opportunities to find a belief system that works for them.

English sociologist David Martin has been quoted as saying that ‘a belief in God tends to correlate strongly with belief in the objectivity of moral values.’ Again, that works for me.

My wish for my grandchildren is not necessarily an affinity with a specific religion but rather membership in the greater ecumenical community at large. A community of values and charity and sharing and kindness and a spiritual element of their own choosing. I want them to share those values in a world they will soon impact with their lives and life style. The religious moniker they chose is their own business when they’re ready to make that determination.

I simply want them to be good people and contributing citizens of the world.

*Some comments lifted from those made by Rebecca Kanner on the Minnpost web site.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Eyes the Color of Fog

She was an old lady dressed in black and moving slowly along the overlook with her walker. She had sad eyes the color of fog yet brandished a weak smile which seemed to welcome inquiries. I wanted to, at once; call her over to our picnic table and at the same time hope that someone would appear to take care of her. As she sat down across from us her eyes washed over mine several times but never stuck. She seemed lost in her own thoughts…and perhaps dreams of times past. It didn’t seem right to disturb her.

Eventually the woman’s daughter came by to retrieve her and they left together. A hundred thousand stories and ‘what if’s’ just slowly shuffled away.

Our friends and I were perched above a three-tiered cluster to multi-million dollars homes in Dana Point. The last time Sharon and I visited the overlook there was only one row of homes overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Rumor had it that Arnold Schwarzenegger has/had a home whose front was all glass and showcased his gym equipment. True or not, it made for a good story.

I’m told there was a fire sale back in 2008 during the recession. One could steal an ocean-view lot for only eight to ten million dollars; much less than their pre-recession prices of double that amount. Now those homes were packed tighter than sardines with zero lot lines and a perfectly magnificent view of their neighbor’s roofline. Welcome to the sometimes foggy always crazy coast of California.

On yet another tugout of our comfort one, Sharon’s brother and sister-in-law had corralled us into going to the coast for a weekend jaunt. It was a two and a half day meander through old Spanish ruins, crowded art-filled streets of an old Hippie hangout and washing out our minds with a sunset at Crystal Cove. 

Mission San Juan Capistrano has been home to many indigenous and native peoples and now swallows for over 230 years of its storied history. The mission was initially founded in 1775 by Father Lasuen. He and his fellow padres left the mission for San Diego and it was re-founded by Father Serra on All Saint’s Day, November 1st, 1776.

The mission became the seventh of twenty-one missions to be founded in Alta California. Like the previous six missions, San Juan Capistrano was established to expand the territorial boundaries of Spain and to spread Christianity to the Native Peoples of California.

For over the next 30 years, Mission San Juan Capistrano grew in population, buildings, livestock, and prominence.  By 1806, the mission had a population of over a 1000 people, over 10,000 head of cattle, and a completed architectural gen, the Great Stone Church.

Like all great monuments to the moment, the mission began to decline over the years. By 1821, Mexico had won its independence from Spain and made Alta California a territory of Mexico. There was yet another government take over when the United States won the Mexican American War in 1848.

Fast-forward a hundred years and the Catholic Church got its mission back, wealthy donors began campaigns for restoration and a clever priest decided to capitalize on a yearly phenomenon of returning swallows to highlight the mission’s fund-raising efforts.

Long before long-limbed nymphs and their male counterparts played volleyball on a Sunday afternoon, Laguna Beach has attracted sun-worshipers and visitors as well as those seeking to expand their consciousness.

In the early 1900s Laguna Beach was a magnet for 'plein air' painters, poets and artists interested in expanding their realm of consciousness. In the early sixties LSD was openly manufactured there. Café Frankenstein was a hangout for beat poets and artists. At night after the tourists left, Hare Krishna dancers and chanters came out in force. The air was thick with grass. There was a street scene alive with kaleidoscopic light shows and abstract works which referenced social and political issues of the time and environmental issues.

Some of the old artists are still around although seldom seen on the crowded tourist-lined streets. Instead they sequester themselves high in the hills overlooking the clear blue pacific and wonder what happened to their quiet little beach town of years past.

Newport Pier is a prime spot for watching the Southern California beach scene unfold. Beach Boy wannabes and weekend surfers ride the waves of imagination and salt air. Young women and old ones alike wear little for the imagination and old men with too much imagination hang over the pier railing and wonder ‘what if…a long time ago…’

Crystal Cove State Park is a wildness wonderland that includes over 2,400 acres of undeveloped woodland and three and a half miles of beaches. There are forty six old style cottages in the cove being restored to their 1930s – to – 1950s-era designs.

We rolled off the PCH and got there just in time to watch the sun dropping its pedals along the shoreline. Sunsets at Crystal Cove rival that of Malory Pier in Key West and are just as breathtaking. It was quintessential California with all of its clichés and sublime charms combined. A soul-satisfying place to share with someone else if only for those brief moments in time.

And just like the lady with eyes of fog it was a memory basin filled with the sounds of young children tempting the surf, old women wondering where their time had gone and one inquisitive writer looking for another tale to tell.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Denver Brownies

I didn’t see her, as much as I imagined what she was like when she first ambled into the room. That vapid image slowly morphed into a mind-picture right after the phrase ‘Riot at Sage Corner’ was ghost-whispered into my ear by forces still unknown. Somehow I understood that Sage was an older woman and although wrinkled and slowing down a bit she still carried a force of beauty and brain about her.

She was envisioned as an aging hippie on the backside of her life and stuck in a senior complex. I knew she bristled at the rigid rules and stifled attitude of many of her fellow residents. There was another protagonist in the story too; really an antagonist of Sage. It was Miss Margaret Maple, the self-imposed disciplinarian at the complex, and a nemesis to Sage and her disruptive antics.

What I wasn’t able to decipher right then was why Sage acted out the way she did? One thing I was sure of…that this lava lamp of images swirling around in my head might make for a very interesting and entertaining story...and maybe even a play.

So as a spec project I wrote a play entitled ‘Riot at Sage Corner’ and presented it to the Senior Theater Group at RAAC (Rosemount Area Arts Council.) It was an unproven treatment meant for a group of well-intentioned yet inexperienced seniors by an unproven playwright.To my delight and good fortune RAAC gave it a read-through and agreed to produce my play in the near future...near and future being relative.

Triangle Bar

Sage was probably lurking in the back of my mind for a long time. I just didn’t know it. My interest in and fascination with hippies goes back to my old Triangle Bar days on the West Bank of Minneapolis. Turns out, Sage was a compilation of a number of women I knew or met along the way to matrimony and kids and a new way of life.

I envisioned Sage first coming into the room carrying her Denver brownies in the second scene of the play. Those medicinal goodies added humor to the sketch and expanded upon the on-going conflict between Sage and Margaret Maple. The two women were like Sulphur and gasoline toward one another and just as volatile.They came to life almost immediately and their antagonism toward one another was palatable.

Then to mix up this cauldron of conflicting objectives even more I added a mysterious figure nicknamed ‘The General.’ His background proved the perfect mixture of patriotism verses individualism and sad memories verses cold reality. These and some other assorted characters were a delight to work with and helped move the storyline toward a startling conclusion and (I hope) enjoyable experience for my audience.

‘Riot at Sage Corner’ was my first attempt (aside from a few blogs) to examine the aging process from the perspective of individuals who were living it right now. I wanted to address their fears and concerns, hopes and aspirations while not ignoring the pending life-changing circumstances surrounding them. ‘Riot at Sage Corner’ was also an attempt to help the senior theater group find a play that fit their criteria and could be easily produced by a group of amateurs. RAAC seemed to agree.

Link to the Rosemount Area Arts Council

The Rosemount Area Arts Council was started in 2007 by four area residents who had been serving as advisors to the city about possible future use for a church that was closing in town. Their final recommendation was that the church be re-dedicated as a community arts center.

As the group was making its final recommendations they decided that the arts in Rosemount were about more than just a building in town. They felt there was need for an arts council that could spearhead activities and programming to bring the arts, all kinds of arts, to the people.
Now they have a new project called the Senior Theater.

Photo Courtesy of Keith Reed

Photo Courtesy of Keith Reed

This latest project of RAAC’s follows on the heels of a growing trend in this country of theater groups for seniors. It’s a trend that continues to grow by leaps and bounds. In 1977, there were 79 such groups, now there are more than 800 spread out across the country.

Part of the inspiration for this trend came from the work of the late psychiatrist Dr. Gene Cohen who headed centers on aging at the National Institute of Mental Health and at George Washington University. Dr. Cohen’s research concluded that involvement in the arts provides seniors with numerous benefits for mind and body.

Photo Courtesy of Keith Reed

Photo Courtesy of Keith Reed

Stuart Kandell who founded Stagebridge in Oakland, California in 1978, the oldest senior theater company in the U.S., has stated: “We all have a need for challenges in our lives. We have a need to keep learning. We have a need to feel like we’re giving back to other generations. We have a need for a social environment. Theater does all of that and more.” Then he adds: “The social element is huge, gigantic. The (theatrical) company for many people is like their extended family.”

Even at their initial meeting I could sense that the newly organized members of the senior theater felt this immediate theatrical comradeship too. Those lifelong road warriors seemed more than willing to embrace their future no matter how challenging or terrifying the theater might seem to them right now.

It’s been a while since I was involved in Community Theater. It’ll be good to get back to live story-telling again. Perhaps my play can help these seniors and others in this mutual journey of self-discovery. Hopefully we’ll all have a ‘riot’ of a time along the way.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

High Lonesome

On the surface, it seems like a desolate stretch of high desert running from the clear blue pools of Palm Springs to the glitz and glamor of Las Vegas.  Yet scratch away at the barrel cactus and Joshua trees and you’ll discover another world teaming with creativity, adventure, and new age thinking.

It’s a world of vast nothingness peppered with the sad remnants of past lives and Male exuberance.  It’s a place where stillness thunders louder than the wind and God did some of his finest paintings. It’s a place begging to be discovered for what beneath its surface.

The high desert of the Morongo Basin is like a modern day outback of more than 9.5 million acres of public land in the California desert. Its home to old walking trails first used by Native Americans between seasonal encampments then followed by Spanish explorers and finally 19th century gold seekers and pioneers.

Reminders of past human lives are everywhere. Abandoned mines litter the area with their relics of past hopes and dreams scattered about the ground. A restored railroad depot stands alone with its tracks still leading nowhere. Ramshackle old cabins planted amid miles of sage and scrub brush, sit isolated and lonely in the desert. The evidence is all here if you can look past the dust and dirt and castles made of boulders to imagine all the past lives that once past through this place on the way to a better life.

Now a new take on ‘high desert life’ has been created by multiple generations and reshaped by such stalwarts of innovation as the Hi-Desert Cultural Center, Joshua Tree National Park and its surrounding communities. Once remote towns such as Yucca Valley, Morongo Valley, Twenty-Nine Palms, and Joshua tree have become meccas for artistic individuals seeking remoteness and solitude in the high desert.  The Los Angeles Times and New York Times recently called Joshua tree the ‘new Bohemia’ and ‘Mecca’ for the arts.

The area is a mecca for aging rock stars, artists, and modern-day bohemians along with ordinary people all in search of a new beginning…or a place to get lost and forgotten.

Down in the Coachella Valley, the Desert Riders pioneered this fascination with rugged western individualism and a recreation of the western lifestyle while taking it to a whole new comfort level…and that was back in 1931.

Back then equestrian life had evolved into a recreational experience and a way to enjoy the warmth and eternal sunlight of Palm Springs. Mounted excursions into the surrounding mountains began to grow in popularity. Soon the group added the maintenance and building of trails to their long list of club accomplishments. Many of these trails meandered high up into the mountains and gave riders a spectacular view of the desert below. They were a precursor to the many modern day desert rats who maintain the trails to this day.

Pioneer town, founded fifty years ago, is a throwback and perfect backdrop for early television westerns and grade B movies. Gene Autry led an assorted group of Hollywood wranglers to recreate a true replica of an old western town just three hours from Hollywood and Vine. Now days just up the road, young boys learn the art of war amid 935 square miles of rock and dirt.  Between Pioneer town and Twenty-Nine Palms (the Marine Corp Air Ground Combat Center) lie all the ingredients for growing up very quickly.

The area gained notoriety and unwanted press when rock and roll stars of the 60s and 70s would travel there from Los Angeles to party, do drugs, drink, and carry-on.  The most notorious of these acid adventurers was Gram Parsons who died from an overdose in a hotel room in Joshua tree.  Later his body was stolen from the funeral home and taken back to Joshua Tree for an informal funeral pyre by his rock star buddies.  His remains were never found.

We discovered Joshua Tree years ago when we first started coming to the desert.  It’s changed a lot since then. There is a desert symphony orchestra and the High Desert Cultural Center which puts on plays, art showings and other cultural events. The mission of the Hi-Desert Cultural Center ‘is to operate a cultural center that provides venues, support facilities, funding, promo-tion, leadership, organization, innovation, education, and other resources for programs and productions whose focus is on the aesthetic arts.’ They seem to be very successful in doing just that.

The latest attempt to capture the magic of the high desert is a non-commercial branding campaign called Desert and Denim (DaD).  'Desert and Denim' and Juniper Ridge are two branding entities trying to put a face on this relatively new desert phenomenon.

DaD is a two-day event held in February when lifestyle and fashion companies from around the world converge in Joshua Tree to have an open dialogue to talk about their craft and what it means to be a maker.  The creators of DaD say ‘the focus of Desert and Denim is the process of a creative mind.’  Buy fewer and better is their rallying cry.

Cresting one of the innumerable ridgelines that criss-cross Joshua Tree National Park I can feel the high lonesome cry of some unknown bird coasting in heat thermals above my head.  Wind brushes my face and silence mutes even my breathing. I’m alone with my thoughts and the vast desert spread out below me.

Welcome to paradise.