Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Cretin High School Class of 1961

Photo courtesy of Jerry Hoffman

I used to think it a bit gauche to brag about one’s high school. But not anymore. I think it’s OK to reflect back on those building blocks that one takes, absent of conscious thought, that end up making a major impact on future decisions and choices. Pulling back my curtain of past lives, I realize now that I was fortunate enough to attend one of the best high schools in Saint Paul back in the late fifties. Turns out it was a brief window of opportunity, unseen and unappreciated back then but relished now. I hope my friends feel the same way, no matter what school they attended. It’s a nice moniker to hold on to.

I have a friend who went to Saint Joseph Academy for Girls at about the same time. She once told me she thought her school was secondary to OLP (Our Lady of Peace). Funny, I never felt that way. The girls from Saint Joe’s were always more accessible and real to me. They were like us.

My sister went to Our Lady of Peace. Now they seemed to be a little more aloof. While not as status-conscious as Visitation, Derham Hall, or Villa Maria, there was still an aire about those girls. Of course, they probably would have said the same thing about those jocks and military boys from Cretin.

Then there’s an old acquaintance of mine who went to Monroe High School. They called themselves the Green Wave. He takes great pride in his school even from the warm confines of his Florida retirement home.

Another friend went to Highland Senior High his freshman year, then transferred to Cretin his sophomore year. Nevertheless, he still sees himself as a Cretin grad, four years running.

What each of these folks share is a deep respect for and love of their old alma mater. It was for them the very best school around and they were proud to be a part of it.

For many of us, high school proved to be a pivotal point in our lives. Even more than college, it was where the stumbles of youth were corrected by the realities of our teenage years and finally solidified into the more mature footsteps that carried us through our collegiate and/or skill building future.

Reflecting back on that time period in Minnesota history and my own historical tracks, I realize now that attending Cretin High School back in the late 50’s and early 60’s was a unique experience. Of course, I never realized that until our fifty-year class reunion made it bubble up to the surface of my consciousness.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Hoffman

In retrospect, it was also a turning point in the history of our country. The beginning of the end of that idyllic plain vanilla existence our parents loved so much and wanted us to emulate. The old neighborhood was morphing through all kinds of changes just as we were. It was end of Doris Day and her’ Doggie in the Window.’ It was Frank Sinatra and his version of cool slowly turning cold. It was hot rods and tail fins and poodle skirts that only hinted of secrets underneath. The Cold War was inescapable but it hardly permeated our existence the same way Rock and Roll and the first warm feelings of affection for the opposite sex did.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Hoffman

 Cretin High School was a different kind of school but those of us attending it really weren’t any different from our friends at other schools. We came from all walks of life but for the most part were solidly middle class. Back in the late fifties, Cretin’s tentacles spread out across the Twin Cities in one last grasp at prospects before newer Catholic High Schools in the suburbs started to pick from the litter.

There were two military schools in town back then. Now there is only one and it isn’t Cretin. The program was called Junior ROTC (Reserved Officers Training Corp.) But for most of us it wasn’t a career choice, just a curriculum that followed the thinking of the day. A boy’s military school taught by the Christian Brothers, mostly male teachers and gruff RA (regular Army) sergeants. Their motto was: Teach them discipline and academic success will follow. It was a regimen that worked very well for most of us.

Taken down to the basics, it meant woolen uniforms that stunk when they got wet and were sweltering straightjackets in the springtime sun. Crack drill marches and drill review didn’t help the sweat glands either. It was simply part of the package that one accepted when attending a military school back then.

But for all the pomp and ceremony beneath that military cap of muted brown, there was a long-standing tradition of respect, discipline, and expectations from our leaders and ourselves. Even with our young malleable minds, we knew we were different. Chain of Command be damned, we were among the best. Even if we weren’t entirely sure just what ‘the best’ meant to anyone else but ourselves.

Without fanfare or published categories, freshmen were segmented into academic tracks based on their entrance exams and elementary school records. A large portion of the class was slotted into the pre-college track. Among the graduating seniors were 25 National Honor Society members, 26 Four-year Merit Medal winners, and seven National Merit Scholarship winners.

For the rest of the class of 1961, the administration saw our future in a secure government job, a skilled trade, or the military. There were only a few of us who clawed our way through the classroom trenches, scrambled over the academic barriers and slipped into college anyway.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Hoffman

School dances were a necessary evil tolerated by the Christian Brothers and predominantly male teachers. I don’t think they really wanted to encourage the mixing of male hormones with the virginity of the visiting opposite sex. Most of the dances were awkward cardboard rituals where the boys lined the gymnasium floor like wallpaper while the girls circled them and whispered in each other’s ears about the hottest dudes in the room.

Formal dances for the junior and senior military officers were dressed up affairs with shiny brass buttons, sheathed swords, and formal gowns. A sterile playground with everyone trying their best to be very cool and polite at the same time.

Unbeknownst to us at the time, our secure insulated world was on the cusp of major changes in 1961. Old Saint Paul was dying and a new city wouldn’t appear for many years to come. The country was expanding with the growth of the suburbs and hollowing out of the core cities.

Cretin was a molder of men, a change maker, and a foundation upon which to build one’s own values, aspirations, judgements, and creative hunger. Like ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream,’ my rag-tag group of Cretin friends have scattered with the winds of time. There are only a couple of guys left that I’ve managed to string together with a loose fitting web of memories that we can cling to.

It was the best of times…most of the time. Now in retrospect, it seems even better than that.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Polly Comes to Play

Polly has found a new home and a place to tell her story. ‘Polly’s Amorous Adventure’ will be performed on December 7th and 8th at the S2S (Script2Stage2Screen) venue in Rancho Mirage, California.

In our modern day world of plain old-fashion dating, match-ups, hook-ups, swinging, swapping, switching, one-nighters and a dozen or more complicated variations of romantic liaisons, it turns out that not one type of relationship suits all. In fact, there are probably as many different intimate, sexual, personal relationships as can meet the imagination. One of the most prominent of which is called a polyamorous relationship. Who knew?

A polyamorous relationship is defined as a romantic relationship with more than one person. What distinguishes it from a classic love triangle is that all the partners know about each other and are accepting of those other relationships. It can pertain to men, women, or a combination of both.

My curiosity was aroused (pardon the pun) even further when another friend who works at a medical clinic casually told me about her encounters with swingers. It seems there is a group of swingers who go to her clinic once a month for blood tests to make sure they haven’t contracted any STDs. My friend was impressed by the casual nature as well as honest and open approach this woman took when describing how her group went about exchanging wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, and new arrivals.

To better understand all the variations and emotional dynamics of a polyamorous relationship, I had to do research. So I started with Google. According to a study published in the ‘Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy’ in 2016, 21 percent of people have had a non-monogamous relationship – one in which ‘all partners agree that each other may have romantic and/or sexual relationships with other partners.’

The notion of multiple-partner relationships is as old as the human race itself. But polyamorists trace the foundation of their movement to the utopian Oneida Christian commune of upstate New York, founded in 1848 by Yale theologian John Humphrey Noyes. But it wasn’t until the late-1960s and 1970s ‘free love’ movement that polyamory truly came into vogue when books like ‘Open Marriage’ topped the best seller lists and groups like the North American Swingers Club began experimenting with the concept.

It’s hard for many people to think outside of the fairy-tale notion of ‘the one’ and imagine that it might be possible to actually romantically love more than one person simultaneously. Jealousy is the main culprit and it’s an issue that polyamorists deal with constantly.

Once I discovered this Achilles heel of jealousy, I had my theme and the main point of conflict and contention in my storyline. Yeah, it sounded like the groundwork for a new play. So that’s what I did. I wrote ‘Polly’s Amorous Adventure.’

This play about a polyamorous relationship was going to be a challenge even though I had a good idea of how the storyline (Polly’s dilemma) was going to unfold right from the start. I wanted to grab the audience’s attention, hold on tight and not let it go. But I also wanted to make my characters real. They had to be sympatric in their relationship challenges and honest in their pursuit of this love triangle.

My main protagonist, Polly, is in a polyamorous relationship or so she thinks she is. The two men involved aren’t so sure and Polly’s girlfriend, Hazel, is certain that she isn’t. Polly’s mother is a toss-up. She could go either way but wants in on the action anyway.

In ‘Polly’s Amorous Adventure’ I’ve tried to be true to the intent of a polyamorous relationship but to also analyze the complexities of multiple relationships where emotions, raw feelings, confusion and jealousy are all a part of the equation. Then to stir up the pot a little more, I’ve added a handyman who is more than that, a girlfriend who can swing both ways, an online sex councilor who just can’t stay in her PC and an unconventional shopping list for insane pleasure.

The play was a joy to write. I fell in love with my characters, was surprised by their reactions to events and rationale for their relationships. ‘Polly’s Amorous Adventure’ turned out to be a rollicking, twisted, sometimes torturous pathway through human emotions and ever-elusive true love. Now it’s time for the audiences to see for themselves just what kind of dilemma Polly has gotten herself into.

It’s hard writing about a one-on-one relationship whether it’s with a past girlfriend or that someone special that you’ve been with forever. Relationships are challenging enough without the tentacles of love churning up the waters with their complex currents of swirling emotions. Now add to that a one-on-two slow dance and it’s bound to get just a little bit crazy.

Nevertheless, a lot of fun to write about.

Performances begin at 7:30pm on December 7th and 8th at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Desert. 72425 Via Vail, Rancho Mirage, CA.  92270.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

NE Arts District

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time”
                                                                                    Thomas Merton

I’ve been there before. Perhaps it’s a generational thing. An old steel and brick icon of prosperity in an ethnically tight community gradually succumbs to the ravages of time only to be reborn years later as the cradle of artistic and entrepreneurial endeavors. The NKB; that ancient Northrup King Building in Northeast Minneapolis, is now buzzing with life. The age of antiquities is alive again and with it come some old familiar problems.

While growing up in Saint Paul I was never aware of old Norde East. It could have been on the other side of the planet for all my wanderings around town. Even after college when I lived in a hovel near Dinky Town, Northeast was one part of town that held absolutely no allure for me. It was on the other side of East Hennepin Avenue and considered no man’s land to most of us late night wanderers.

Now gentrification, that flip side of success, has poked its commercial and economic head into the area and not everyone is happy about it. It’s an evolution that has gone on for the ages and it never seems to change. Artists in the area first notice nearby buildings being remodeled, coffee shops spring up along with boutique shops, art galleries and craft breweries. The current residents have seen it happen before. More people means higher rents, fewer affordable options for living and finally displacement when rents force out many of the old-timers.

Minneapolis is in the midst of a building boom that has seen building permits exceeding one billion dollars this year alone. Millennium homeowners, renters, suburban empty nesters and visitors seeking craft beer and vintage shops are transforming the area. What was once an Eastern Europe enclave of factory workers has been transformed into the Twin Cities hottest and most diverse creative community. Urban planners can only shake their head and say: “What else did you expect”

Northeast Minneapolis began as an ethnic enclave supplying workers for the factories that lined Central Avenue and batched them in clusters throughout the neighborhood. My only vague connection back then was a secretary who worked in our office at the Minnesota Department of Public Health. I remember she commented once that she lived in Norde East.  It never registered with me where or what it was.

Fifty years after the West Bank of the University of Minnesota harbored the disenfranchised, the hippies and other malcontents of a similar ilk; their decedents have now migrated to the North-east part of Minneapolis. In an unplanned, almost organic metamorphosis of a cityscape, this unwashed morass of creativity has moved west. Old Nordeast, an eclectic enclave of blue-collar Eastern European nationalities, has become the new West Bank.

This stumble back in time reminded me of my own barstool contemplations spent at the Triangle Bar on West Bank. This was shortly before the neighborhood slowly began to recede from the expansion of the University of Minnesota and high rise apartments towering over that dusty old neighborhood.

Now that same feeling of change in the air hit me after I dropped my wife off at her art class in the NKB. I ended up meandering the old hallways and vacant caverns that once housed huge stores of seeds. I began perusing the framed photographs that lined the entrance halls. The old seed factory has now become an artist’s enclave encompassing five stories of concrete and brick. It reeks of artistic ventures, bold colors, creative design and old world charm in an ancient brick building now repurposed for the creative at heart. I feel like I’d come home again.

Back in twenties and thirties Northrup King was one of the largest seed producers in the world. Time and changing economics changed the equation and the business went bust. The building lay dormant and empty for many years, inhabited only by vagrants, dopers and rats. Then a new generation of entrepreneurs discovered its solid foundation, huge windows, cheap rent and a blank canvas for change.

Most of Norde East is like an old graveyard of senior buildings brought back to life by creative resuscitation. Vesper College is located in the Casket Arts Building. Originally built as the Northwestern Casket Company building in 1887, caskets were still being made there until 2005. Now the five-story building houses over 100 artists and businesses such as Vesper.

Other notable nests of creativity are the Architectural Antiques Building, originally a coffee roasting plant. Of course, the Northrup King Building, originally a seed distributor for the world. The Waterbury Building, manufacturers of boilers and multiple buildings that were part of the Grain Belt Brewing complex.

Now instead of transplanted hippies, there are artisans, house flippers, yoga gurus, craft beer specialists, software developers and other creative types flocking to the area. A new variety of business has also sprung up whose main purpose is to breathe life into the arts for a whole new generation, young and not so young.

The roughhewn, anti-fashion, individualistic, truth-seeking individuals whom I find so fascinat-ing all hang out there. It’s not as compact as Dinky town but the atmosphere is the same. The haunts of past lives have come alive again in that charged arena. It’s almost as if inquiring minds once again scream for an exploration of life’s truths in that modern version of old Bohemia.

Sharon has found an outlet for her creative expression. That, in turn, has brought me back to that other part of my old world. Inspiration comes in all kinds of strange packages even in a seed shop in the middle of a confused dreamland called eternal youth.

While I’m there, I want to haunt the halls and soak up the atmosphere. Perhaps I can build a nest someplace while my wife is in class where I can just write to my heart’s content. It seems like a good place to explore the recesses of one’s mind, mining whatever thoughts and ideas might be lingering there. I’ve got a lot of hard miles on that gray matter of mine.

Time to go exploring again.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Another Name for Vision Quest

As I’ve written in past blogs, climbing mountains has become my version of a vision quest. I say that with a deep respect to Native American folklore. Down through the centuries, Indian culture has always held their mountains in great respect. The first ancients to walk this country left their mark around and on those granite sentinels.

In the Palm Springs area, the Cahilla Indians of the Coachella Valley have long spun folk tales centered on the San Jacinto and San Bernardino Mountain chains. Early settlers, explorers, hikers and long distance travelers have often reported feeling the presence of others while alone on the trail. There is a special reverence most of us desert rats feel on those mountain trails.

When I first started hiking in the Coachella Valley I found a trail close to home and a fun Saturday morning endeavor. It’s called the South Lykken Trail and is part of the North and South Lykken Trail that stretches for nine miles. It takes about five hours of moderate hiking to traverse the entire trial. The elevation gain is only about 800 feet and it’s considered a moderate hike by local standards.

Then last season, another trail caught and captured my attention. This one is called the Garstin Trail. That old goat path climbs up over two miles that switch back and forth and practically stumble over themselves in the process. Elevation rises from roughly 700 feet to 1500 feet up Smoke Tree Mountain. The trail rises to a plateau connecting up with the Shannon, Berns, Wild Horse and Eagle Canyon Trails. Even for the most ardent, experienced hiker it can be a gut-sucking, deep breathing endeavor.

Last winter on my last hike of the season, I came upon a granite plateau similar to the one I have often talked about on the Lykken Trail. This new tablet of stone offers up spectacular views up and down the broad expanse of Palm Springs. From this summit near the top of the Garstin Trail one gets a panoramic view of my neighborhood, Indian Canyon, the San Jacinto and Little San Bernardino Mountains, the depth of Palm Canyon and the broad expanse of the community of Palm Springs. To the east, one can see the entire eastern Coachella Valley.

Something magical, almost spiritual, can happen during a mountain hike. It’s a physical as well as a mental challenge. At face value, it can be a day of hiking, climbing or finger-probing the rough crags and fissures of the mountain face. On a more spiritual level, it’s an assent into the vaulted realm of oxygen deprivation, aching muscles, sweat-drenched clothing and overall mental exhilaration…all to put your head in the right place. Call it mindfulness, meditation; the moniker doesn’t matter, the results do.

Another challenging climb is called Murray Peak. Although it’s called a ‘hill’ at 2200 feet on most maps, Murray Peak is, in fact, the highest peak in the vicinity of Palm Springs. It’s been labeled a moderate to strenuous hike with a total distance of almost seven miles and a vertical gain of over 2200 feet. It takes an average of five hours for completion with only a few rest stops along the way. For the seasoned hiker it’s a refreshing walk up the mountain. For us less conditioned souls, it can be a gut-buster and taxiing on the lungs. In other words, a worthy challenge and goal for a seasonal visitor like myself.

The mother lode of all trails in the Valley is one called ‘The Skyline Trail’ or for those in the know ‘C2C’, which means Cactus to Clouds. It’s a ten hour (minimum) mountain climb that travels ten miles uphill for an elevation gain of over 8000 feet. It traverses three eco-zones and can be a killer for the uninitiated, especially in the summer months. Four hikers have died on the trail over the last dozen years from heat exhaustion. No wonder my kids just roll their eyes when I mention a desire to make that climb. ‘No way!’ is all my better half will say.

There’s a culture here among a small group of old goats who work and hike these mountains year round.  They care for the trails as an elder does the tribe. They endure scorching summer heat and windy overcast winter days. Most are rail-thin. Their skin looks like weathered copper or dried up old parchment. Most of them are lithe as an antelope. They’re the desert rats of the higher altitudes.

If I do Murray Peak this season, I intend to seek out yet another tabernacle. Not just any mountain plateau but another sanctuary of solitude and comfort similar to the one I found on the Lykken Trail years ago. It’ll be my granite respite for reflection and contemplation. A slab of rock that warms my bottom as well as my soul. An escape for quiet soul-searching amid the shadows of Indian lore and homes of the rich and invisible.

I’ve tried yoga, marathons, and long trail runs. Collectively they can punish the body all the while soothing the soul. My tabernacle is no different. It just takes a longer climb to get there.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

River with Two Faces

There’s a reason one is called Father Rhine and the other Mother Mosel. Two rivers, each harboring different personalities, yet both are life vessels to their pass-through countries. Recently I traveled some distance on both rivers. It was fascinating, awe-inspiring and a trip back in time.

Beyond the bucolic landscapes dotted with fairy-tale castles, terraced vineyards and rust-covered maritime facilities, the Rhine and the Mosel provide a glimpse into their respective history of the region. As economic engines, both rivers continue to provide a wealth of economic infusion into the local communities hugging their banks.

Once the most efficient and fashionable means of travel throughout Europe, river cruising continues to be an ideal way to discover the culture, cuisine and unique characteristics of the many countries traveled through. Yet for all their similarities, the Rhine and Mosel wear two very different masks.

Father Rhine, as it is called by the locals, has for over 2000 years been Europe’s most important commercial waterway. Its scenic beauty has inspired countless myths and legends. By introduc-ing vines to the region, the Romans paved the way for the excellent vintages that are a further source of the Rhine’s international reputation.

The Rhine River rises in southeast Switzerland and reaches the North Sea after a journey of over 1230 km. While industrialization has left its mark on some parts of the river, most of the waterway provides an idealistic pass-through of towns and villages that have existed there for over hundreds of years.

Mother Mosel wears a very different moniker. Since the days of the first Romans, over 2000 years ago, the most exquisite asset of the Mosel countryside has remained its wine production. Generations upon generations have nurtured, embellished and refined a giant open-air amphitheater to the honor of Bacchus, the God of Wine. The towering slate cliffs store the day’s warmth for the cool evenings that follow while the grapes ripen at just the right angle to the sun.

Our river journey began in Basel, Switzerland. The city is Switzerland’s second largest and carries a split personality. On one hand, giant modern chemical research and pharmaceutical companies dominate the city’s skyline. On the other hand, an ancient network of narrow alleys weaves together the city’s medieval architectural heritage.

Leaving Basel, our ship followed what seemed like a meandering path along both the Rhine and Mosel Rivers. It was one river seemingly indistinguishable from the other. It was a daily tapestry of colors, images, sights and sounds that captured our attention and imagination. Walking tours included the obligatory market plazas, cathedrals, historical sites, and opportunities for shopping.

For me the best part of the trip were the periods of cruising the waterways. Ensconced in a lounge chair on top of our ship, I was surrounded by an IMAX presentation of surround sounds and slowly moving images. It became a place for me to get lost inside my head and let my imagination flourish. It was a time to reflect, appreciate, assess, and plan for the future.

It became another version of my ‘quiet time’ which is so important to restart stalled batteries and rekindle ideas for the future. Different surroundings but same results. A near-silent pass through time as history slipped by and my thoughts turned toward the future.