Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Lost Ones

I’m a sucker for sentimental songs and the mind-pictures they evoke. ‘Suzanne’ by Leonard Cohen is probably the best example of this. Any song from the soundtrack of ‘A Man and a Woman’ is an easy second. So, it wasn’t a surprise when ‘Suzanne’ recently slipped back into my car and took me back in time.

It got me to thinking about all those people, especially the women, who have come into and then slipped out of my life. It’s a subject I’ve examined in past blogs numerous times. That theme has also crept into some of my novels. A few of those women left an indelible mark on my consciousness while others were merely blips in a time and place long since forgotten. The images of those gentle souls who remain have become blurry by a fading mind yet their impact on my life somehow remains poignant and memorable.

It stretches as far back as grade school and the redhead who sat just two desks ahead of me. It was my girlfriend in high school and the one in college. It was the special connection I felt with Susan and those friends, acquaintances, associates, colleagues and dates I had during those lean, mean years until I found ‘the one.’ Most have been relegated to the dust-bin of my mind sans pictures and only traces in old work papers and letters. Tina was such a person.

It was late 1967 and winter was fast approaching. We were two lost souls seeking solace and companionship in a small town a dozen miles north of Copenhagen, Denmark. We shared a mutual dissatisfaction with our jobs, a yearning for companionship and doubt about our future in Scandinavia. We were surrounded by signs of an encroaching winter and had no idea what our next steps were going to be…other than get out of town before the first snow storm locked us in for another six months.

I can’t remember where I first meet Tina. It was probably at some student party in the city centre of Copenhagen, not far from the harbor. She worked as a nanny for a well-to-do couple who lived outside of town. This twenty-year-old expat tried to escape the confines of her work as often as she could. She would hang out at the university, drinking strong coffee in the student center, sharing a weed or two in the shadows of the campus and partying too much on weekends.

Drugs were easy to acquire back then and the laws loose. Sex was a casual affair and there were plenty of male suitors to answer her physical needs. Tina earned extra money by waitressing in her spare time. She would earn an extra Kroner wherever she could and never apologize for her short-comings or ambition.

Back home was a closed book. There were occasional references to a father who had passed away a couple of years earlier, a mother with a serious drinking problem and a younger sister Tina worried a lot about. I never found out how Tina ended up in Denmark. She never said and I never asked.

She was nothing like the kind of woman I thought I wanted in my life permanently but she was an anchor in our foreign wilderness and another voice to talk to. She was damaged goods but I was a good listener.

I thought a lot about Tina and whatever happened to her after I stuck out my thumb for the south of France. I made it as far as Paris before malnutrition and loneliness got the best of me. Once safely ensconced back in the Twin Cities I sent a package of Tina’s clothes to her Mom along with a letter.

Ten months later Tina replied with several letters. They covered a period of time in my own life when I was trying to establish a career and adjust to life stateside. I was working fulltime as a writer for the Minnesota Department of Health. Most evenings, I was volunteering at the public television station and mixing and matching relation-ships in hopes of finding one that would stick.

I came across those letters recently. There were four of them. All written after Tina had returned home and was trying to put her life back together again. I shared those letters in two blogs: Letters from Tina, part one and part two.

After those blogs were published, I went on a voyeur hunt. I found nothing on Google about her but managed to find, I think, her Facebook page. I have no pictures of us back during that time and there were only faint clues that led me to believe it was the same Tina back in her Southwestern home town.

Now she’s gone again. No more Facebook page. There is no trace of her on Google. Maybe she got married and changed her name. Maybe she moved on ‘again’ and purposely left no clues behind. Maybe the drugs finally did her in. She’s now just a name and a fading memory once again lost to time and space and no cyber clues for me to follow up on.

She joins a list of other women who are nowhere to be found. My wife and I have strikingly different memories of our own first encounter and subsequent dating. Memories are a funny thing. Truth be told, I’d trust hers more than mine. So who knows what really happened between Tina and I. Or for that matter, all those other women who touched my soul back then.

Were those relationships all as one-sided as I remembered them? Or was there something there after all? Perhaps intentions not realized or thoughts not grasped? Might it have turned out differently if only…? It doesn’t really matter anymore. What’s done is done. Tina joins that group of women for whom I have only the fondest memories and wishes for continuing health and happiness.

Perhaps they’ll arise again in some future story or song; embellished and enhanced by a fading memory and tendency to puff up the edges and trim the fat. Bright bold colors where muted grays and blacks might have really existed. A rich tapestry of thoughts and imagination run amok amid the boundless energy and hopeless optimism of a star-struck kid looking for who knows what.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Los Cabos Sunset

A long time ago at a different time and place in our lives, Sharon and I had a friend with a second home in Los Cabos, Mexico. It was a wonderful hilltop condo perched among the crags and fissures of man-make lots carved out of stone and gravel. The location caught the grand sweep of ocean and endless expanse of sky. It looked down on the lessor fortunate who toiled up and down the winding highway between San Jose and Los Cabos. It was the good life for our friend six months out of the year and provided us several trips down there between seasons.

But like the changing tides of life, our friend’s world changed and evolved with personal relationships gone badly and a family crisis loaming. Over time our relationship withered and eventually we were no longer friends. But for a brief period in the early-2000’s she was kind enough to let us use her second home several times.

Cabo was another world back then. Fonatur, the Mexican Department of Tourism, was pushing heavily into developing the whole Baja peninsula and focused its effort on select towns such as San Jose and Los Cabos. Fractional ownership of condominium units was the rage and a lot of Americans were snapping them up as second homes. Two hundred and fifty thousand for three months and they were selling like hot cakes. Go figure.

I got caught up in the frenzy just enough to collect information and run the numbers. It didn’t make sense for us back then. I’m not sure if that was a credible investment or not but my gut said otherwise.  Nevertheless, the area still brings back fond memories of incredible sunsets, warm ocean waves and friendly people. Unfortunately, that seems to have changed.

Perusing the media, I have a sad feeling that recurring hurricanes and increasing drug wars have diminished the luster of that place over the past couple of years. Recently the United State Department warned its citizens about traveling to Cancun and Los Cabos after a surge of violence in those regions. The travel warning could deliver a major blow to Mexico’s twenty-billion-a-year tourism industry which represents seven percent of the country’s gross domestic product. I guess only time will tell if the tourists and the buyers come back or find another place to call paradise.

But there was a time when the Baja Peninsula and Los Cabos held a lot of interest for us. It was the good life back then. The people were very friendly. Meals were relatively cheap. There was a Costco in Los Cabos and the ocean was warm. It was a fun, relaxing moment in time now relegated to several photo albums.

Our friend’s condo sat high on a sloping hillside just outside of San Jose. It was a one bedroom unit with a huge outdoor patio. It was small enough to be comfortable for two and a bit crowded for guests. Just the way she liked it.

The condo was a quick five-minute ride into town and away from the tourist traps and huge crowds spilling out of the cruise ships in the harbor of Los Cabos twenty miles away.

The town of San Jose lies at the opposite end of the Cabo peninsula and a slow twenty miles away from the glitz and glamor of Los Cabos. The San Jose lifestyle was busy but relaxed.

The peninsula highway that linked both towns skirted dozens and dozens of condominium projects in various stages of completion. New condos under construction hugged the coastline and dotted the surrounding hillsides. There was a major golf course under construction and California-priced homes hugging every fairway.

Unlike San Jose, the city of Los Cabos is a densely packed, excitement driven town built for and catering mainly to the tourist trade. It was every cliché and then some. But it wasn’t ashamed to be everything the tourists expected of it. Harbor cruses, deep-sea fishing, and water tours up to Todos Santos and other nearby fishing villages were all part of the appeal.

It was a fun experience while it lasted. Los Cabos was never really us. It could never have sustained any long term draw like we feel in the desert or North Shore. It was a fantasy world, fun to explore and great in short bursts. I wish them well. If things settle down it would be fun to return to those warm seas and clear blue skies.

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.