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.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Edge of Nowhere, North of Nothin

The Coachella Valley and its surrounding locales have always attracted an eclectic assortment of artists, musicians, painters and other veterans of the school of hard knocks. It’s a mecca for the rich, the famous and the enfranchised. A writer’s virtual chalkboard for any number of story lines.

Whether it’s the weather, the proximity to Los Angeles and San Francisco or the distance between it and the rest of the world, the valley and its surrounding high desert has always been a sanctuary for lost soul-searchers seeking the ultimate creative elixir.

Some chose to express themselves and show their wares in galleries in the valley or in the high desert. Others are off radar and like it that way. It’s as if there is another world just beneath the surface of shimmering pools, lush green golf courses and cloud-less aqua skies. Whispers come from the wastelands surrounding the Salton Sea as do siren calls from the high desert. Like a resistant drug, fatal attraction or sinful thought, it keeps drawing me back for more exploration. It is a world that offers the opposite of the known, contentment and comfortable.  I’m not sure why I’m drawn back to this world of outsiders, outcasts and screwed up ones. For the writer in me, it’s fertile ground for story-telling. For the oldster in me, it’s a grim reminder of a road not taken versus the one that brought me here today.

The high desert of the Morongo Valley, Yucca Valley and Joshua tree continue to attract musicians now as it has since the turn of the century. Far from the crystal clear pools of Palm Springs and its emerald green golf courses lies another world of vast nothingness peppered with the sad remnants of past lives. It’s a place where stillness thunders louder than the wind and God did some of his finest paintings. A vast virtual sound studio for the creative musician.

Joshua tree and its surrounding communities embrace another form of existence; all of which is surrounded by endless horizons. 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. It’s the place where people go to get lost and be creative.

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 pasted through this place on the way to a better life. At one time that might have been the vast inland ocean below.

The footprint of the Salton Sea edges alongside nowhere which is north of nothing of interest…for the casual outsider. It is an area replete with mummies at East Jesus, flying dune buggies and land-grabbing in Slab City.

It is a briny morass of faded real estate dreams and dead fish scales underfoot. The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake measuring more than 35 miles long and 15 miles wide in spots. It has a surface area of over 380 square miles and sits at 332 feet below sea level.

Through the mid-fifties, the Salton Sea had become a major recreational water resort area for Southern California. But two hurricanes; Kathleen in 1976 and Doreen in 1977, caused such wide-spread damage to neighboring farm lands that the runoff caused a major increase in the salinity of the sea. That, in turn, caused major fish-kills and bird-kills and created such a major issue with noxious odors that residential development came to a stop.

Today the salinity level of the sea stands at 45 ppt. Only the tilapia fish is able to survive in such waters. While fishing is still good for the tilapia, fish kills continue to plague the area with their harsh smells.

I’ve always been intrigued by a dark cluster of trailer homes strewn alongside the Salton Sea half way to Slab City. Its name ‘Bombay Beach, North Shore’ always seemed like the perfect title for a play.

It could take years, perhaps decades before the sea might possibly return to its past glory. More feasibility studies will be made, more funding sought and grand schemes hatched. The possibilities for commerce, recreation and development are enormous. Until then the Salton Sea is a magical place for walk the shoreline, observe the birds and time your visit to avoid the smell. A small price for a wonderful watery treasure in the middle of the desert.

Salvation Mountain is one of the premiere examples of folk art in the middle of nowhere America. At least that was what all the travel guides say. The site has become a mecca for those influenced by and intrigued with this kaleidoscope of painted hills, crude cave dwellings and religious scriptures.

Slab City otherwise known as ‘The Slabs’ is a snowbird campsite used by recreational vehicle owners alongside squatters from across North America. It takes its name from the concrete slabs that remain from an abandoned World War II Marine barracks of Camp Dunlap.

It’s estimated that there are about one and fifty permanent residents (squatters) who live in the slabs year around. Some live on government checks, others just want to live ‘off the grid’ and a few come to stretch out their retirement income. The camp has no electricity, no running water, no sewers or toilets and no trash pickup service. Sounds like a dry run for the apocalypse.

Despite the free shoe tree on the way into town and the free library, most of the residents have sectioned off their trailers, tents and sleeping bags with tires, pallets or barbwire. Free is free unless it comes to their piece of the desert then even squatters want their personal space recognized.

The artists at East Jesus describe it as an experimental, sustainable art installation. East Jesus is a colloquialism for the middle of nowhere beyond the edge of services. Made from discarded material that has been reused, recycled or repurposed, East Jesus encourages visitors to imagine a world without waste in which every action is an opportunity for self-expression.

West Satan is a simply a suburb of East Jesus. The art gallery there is just as fascinating and mind-expanding. It was tripping out without the acid and a glimpse into the lives of those who don’t want to be a part of ‘any scene’ here in fantasy land or the rest of the world.

Intertwined with the remote outposts of creativity are other artist colonies such as the one up in Idyllwild or the other mountain enclaves in Big Bear and Arrowhead. Laguna Beach is two hours and a world away from the desert but offers the same kind of mind-expanding atmosphere in which to play.

They’re all clusters of inspiration amid the languid and serene beauty of my own nest of creativity.