Monday, June 25, 2012

Europe - The Second Harvest

The proposal was simple enough. A job offer as producer-director at the public television station to begin in three months. My response was quick and clear. After volunteering at the station for over six months and moving up the ranks as floor man, cameraman, audio man and overall gopher, I gladly accepted their offer. Then I told them I’d return in three months to take the job.

The next day I gave my notice at the Public Health Department and bought a plane ticket for Amsterdam.

No real reason to stay home. I had grown tired of writing PR releases in public health. I wanted to return to Europe to make up for my sad venture the first time around and there were no female enticements for me to stay. And, of course, I had never made it to the South of France.

Why I thought this second trip to Europe would end up better than the first a year earlier, I have no clue. Just a gut feeling that this time I had a better idea of what to expect in a foreign country. I knew which foods to eat for sustenance. I was determined to make more of an effort to get to know people.  I can’t say I was more mature, just more ready.

Like running a marathon, one never quits. It’s not an option. I had to return to Europe and make this trip a better experience than the first one. I had no other choice.

I can’t remember why I ended up in Amsterdam. Probably because my first brief stop there the first time had wetted my appetite for the unexpected. And I remembered hearing all those tales of a city running rampant on sexual freedom, the arts, new music and strange coffee shops. Wonderful tales being magnified by bar stool poets I knew back home. It was like some strange mysterious force was pointing me in that direction.

Nothing much has changed in forty years. To get ‘there,’ you still exit the train station, cross the canal bridge and turn left. I remember exiting the train station, backpack instead of suitcase this time, and following those simple instructions, I found myself in the Red Light District.

For reasons then unknown to me, the girls immediately began speaking in English.
There were bargains galore that afternoon but I didn’t have spare change or the courage to venture under that red light bulb in the entryway. Two gorillas on the corner watched my every move. But they had nothing to worry about. I was more tentative than I was curious, more scared than I was willing. (Oh my gosh, she isn’t wearing any underwear).
They seem so friendly. (Does she really like me?) I quickly learned just to look and move on. Talking to the girls only invited the gorillas to move closer to me.

Coffee shops were more inviting. If you wanted the good stuff you had to ask for it. I just wanted a light roast and my obligatory muffin. Most of the smoking was sequestered out back where the strange looking people gathered. I sat in a corner with my book and kept repeating to myself: ‘Seriously! You’re not in Minnesota any more.’

The first of my wonderful friends just appeared in the doorway the next afternoon. John slowly perused the room, spotted me as an American, (how did he know?) ventured over and sat down next to me. John said afterwards he always wanted to talk to an American his own age to find out more about America. He guessed by my jeans, boots, and plaid shirt that I probably fit the bill. All that was missing was my guitar.

John made it clear, that unlike a lot of other Europeans, he loved America. And because I fit that demographic, I became his defacto translator and sounding board for all things related to America. We talked world politics, the arts, movies, popular music, his home in Amsterdam and anything remotely considered American.

As he peppered me with questions about my homeland, my chest swelled. I pretended to know what I was talking about. And apparently my limited knowledge of anything political wasn’t enough to dissuade him from continuing our conversation late into the night.

Question: How could something like the assassination of RFK and Martin Luther King,
                 happen in your country?
Answer:   There is no sane, reasonable answer for that question.

Question:  What do you think of the general strike in France?
Answer:     Say what?

Question: What do you think of the war in Vietnam?
Answer:    I did my time, stateside not overseas, but I feel for the soldiers over there,
                 just doing their job.

Question: What did you think of ‘The Green Berets” starring John Wayne?
Answer:    Seriously?
Statement: Just kidding!

We met the next day and took up Trivial Pursuit/America style where we had left. I had a new best friend in Amsterdam and was feeling very good about my stay in the country. We (John and I and some of his buddies) took in canal rides, long bike rides, crashed a couple of black light parties and even hit a couple of the more notorious coffee houses that favored noxious weeds and strange brews. I stuck to my black coffee and John just smiled at my timidity.

John lived in a third floor flat above his parents place. His grandparents still lived on the first floor after being there forever. It was quite common for extended families to share multiple flats in one building. John’s flat was on a canal and was a spectacular spot for watching people, water and bicycle traffic.

John was an artist extraordinaire. He was just trying to break into the business when I first meet him. He could draw freehand, portraits, pastoral scenes and dabbled in photography on the side. I still have a cache of his pictures of Amsterdam, circ. 1968. The man had talent.

I remember John was tall, always had a beard and a smile and a wonderful personality. He loved practicing his English on me day and night. His taste in music was superb. We shared a love of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, CCR, Cream and, of course, the Beatles. How could we not connect?

I remember we hung out in Amsterdam for probably a week. Then he introduced me to another fellow who also wanted to practice his English. John’s friend and colleague was named Ronald. John had originally meet Ronald when he drew up Ronald’s wedding announcement.

Ronald was an interesting anomaly. He was in his late twenties, had never held a real job and had no interest in finding one. He was on government assistance and perfectly comfortable with his situation. As someone rather hungry, I couldn’t understand that attitude but I accepted it for what it was; someone else’s life, not mine.

John hinted that mental health issues had prevented Ronald from getting any kind of meaningful work. Despite his intelligence, Ronald had an anti-social bent about him that prevented him from being a part of any organized endeavor. So he and lived happily as an essayist, a potter, a housekeeper and a devoted father to his daughter.

John and I and Ronald spent a couple of afternoons in some pub, debating the war in Vietnam, the anti-war movement, politics in America (I passed on that one) and other topics of general interest. It was like a debate / humanities / logic / and history course all wrapped up into one elongated discussion that went on for hours. My brain was numb when we finished each evening.

After spending several afternoons at some pub with the pair, Ronald surprised me by asking if I’d be interested in spending some time with him and his family so he could continue practicing his English. Let me see? Free lodging, a stack of rock and roll records, and great Indonesian meals. I jumped at his invitation.

Ronald lived with his wife, Felixia and their daughter in a two bedroom flat outside of central Amsterdam. His public housing project looked no different from any of the other housing units around. And Ronald had no qualms about living there. It always fascinated me that Ronald never aspired for better things. He was content to let his wife work part time while he dabbled in his various interests. I still don’t understand that concept.

While Ronald was very intelligent, high-strung, quick to overreact and famously curious, his wife was just the opposite. A perfect counter-balance for her unbalanced husband. Felixia was originally from Indonesia. She and Ronald meet in Amsterdam and despite their cultural differences, family resistance and lack of financial support, they married and thrived.

Felixia was the anchor in the family. She was forever patient, understanding and devoted to her husband and daughter. She loved her Ronald despite all his faults. And she was a great cook, tolerated high volumes of Rock and Roll (until bedtime for the baby) and our being out most evenings until the pubs closed.

Ronald and Felixia’s wonderful generosity, social charm, sharing of their home life and our late night intellectual musings were like a banquet for my soul. It was all so new and glorious.

Felixia and I cooked and cleaned and took long walks into the countryside with the baby. Her broken English more than compensated for my lack of Dutch or Indonesian mastery. When Ronald came with us, we’d talk foreign and domestic politics, family (I had little to add there), love, the war and an assortment of other subjects as our whims might unearth.

One time we went to a huge park that had an exact replica of the Rotterdam Harbor in miniature. Ronald pointed out details that no one else would have ever seen. The baby loved running around, pointing at all the miniature buildings and ships.

Other times we’d go back into town and explore various shops and food stalls. Ronald knew just about every coffee shop in town. Felixia knew most exotic food stall vendors by name. I just held the baby and followed them around. I was part of the family and loving every minute of it. Occasionally we’d hook up with John and his girlfriend and spend the evening in some pub someplace alongside a dark canal. It was hard to imagine that just weeks earlier I had been working in a television studio half a continent away.

We’d almost always listen to rock and roll at home or in some pub, honoring the greats of America and abroad. I even discovered a couple of favorite groups from the Netherlands. A steady beat and solid bass are universal. Even lyrics in Dutch, once translated, can carry meaning to the uninitiated.

Their daughter (wouldn’t you know I forgot her name?) was my first exposure to a young child other than the cursory social exchanges I had with my new nieces and nephew. She was bright, energetic and full of life. She was so loved that I wanted to grab at part of that affection for myself. It almost didn’t seem fair that such a young child could be so loved.

I remember they let a babysitter and I take her out one afternoon. We played in the playground, went for ice cream and fed the ducks at the local pond. Her parents meet us by the schoolyard where we were watching kids flying kites.  It was unconditional love on her part. I hadn’t felt that before with another person and it felt so good.

So for an all too brief couple of weeks, I was a part of Ronald’s family. Total uncon-ditional love and acceptance. It was wonderful. For a young man who grew up in a single parent household devoid of love and affection, it was a wonderful eye-opener. And some-thing I knew I wanted in my life in the future. Someplace, somehow, with someone.

Upon my return to the states, I was struck by the ease with which I could rent an apart-ment, buy a car, get a job and put money aside for savings. It was so unlike my new European friends who had to struggle for years just for the down payment on rental housing.

In retrospect, I was a fool not to stay in touch with John and Ronald. Together, we all just let our communications start to falter and finally fade away. Like so many other young men back then, and probably still today, I was more focused on myself than others. At the time I had no idea of the blessing I’d just been given.

What a wonderful legacy I could have passed down to my kids if I had kept in touch with John, Ronald, Felixia, and their daughter. Friends abroad to share life stories and world events. A broad sweep of continental issues to share via Skype. I should be so lucky today.

We all make mistakes in life. That was certainly one of my biggest.

I suppose I can take solace in the fact that I still have their images on a digital disc someplace and if I want to return to Amsterdam, circ. 1968 I can pull it out and gauze at my computer screen once again. But it certainly won’t be the same.

I can still see (in my mind’s eye) all those wonderful faces and rekindle those fond memories of finding family, for the first time in my life, in a public housing project on the outskirts of Amsterdam.

In the Company of Old Men

It was our 50th high school reunion last fall and I was full of anticipation.

I had gotten an unexpected phone call the summer before from an old classmate who was
a photographer during high school. He had several pictures of he and I from back in grade school and a few in high school. He sent them to me and we started having break-fast every once in a while.

Then through a mutual acquaintance, I reconnected with another casual friend from high school. With both these guys, I was able to recapture some of our old camaraderie with-out reliving our (mostly imagined) glory days.

I was looking forward to reconnecting with several more old comrades from our tenure at our all boys, military, catholic high school. As the reunion grew closer, I started to imagine entering the gathering and immediately reconnecting with homeroom buddies, military misbehavers, chess foes, party planners, old friends and other asundry fellow raiders.

There were several days of activities. A golf tournament: sorry I don’t play. Mass; I don’t think so. Awards given for being alumni for fifty years: no thanks. Finally, the Annual Alumni Banquet where the class of 1961 would be honored (and hit up again.). That I would attend.

I entered the large auditorium full of anticipation and a little dread. Would I recognize any of them? Would they remember me? There was a large sign on one of the breakout rooms: Class of 1961. I moved confidently through the open doors. Would it be like Cheers and there would be a rousing welcome for the kid from down the block? Would I recognize those old familiar faces?

I strolled through the door, confident of my stance and personal appearance.

But instead of my classmates from 1961, I entered a room full of old men.

No one looked up. There was no rousing cheer. A glance or two was all that greeted me as I shyly moved toward the drink table for moral support and a stiff drink to steel my now crumbling self-confidence.

Two things became immediately clear. The gathering around me had been divided into two distinct groups.

The first was the ‘Oh, yeah, he looks about the same with a few miles etched on his face.’
Time and age had been kind to them. A lack of exercise might be apparent and he wasn’t about to replicate his linebacker stance, but he looked pretty much the same.

The second kind of reaction was a cold, clear ‘what the hell happened to him?’ The ravages of time and age had played hell with some of my old classmates. A cruel fact
was that some of them hadn’t aged too well.

Very quickly, I would either recognize an old classmate and tried to remember something we did or had in common. Or I felt I had entered a senior gathering at the home. Little left in between. Of course, there were no mirrors present to dispel my failure to imagine what they might have thought of my appearance.

My old high school girlfriend’s husband was there. After I was dumped, he picked up the slack and won her heart. At the reunion, I got the impression that he took pride in his besting me. In actuality, we both ending up winning. He got good. I got better.

It really wasn’t just my old classmates physical appearance that surprised me. We all grow old. We all change, some of us more so than others. What totally shocked me, as naïve as it may seem, was our total lack of connectedness after all those years.

We had all graduated in May of 1961 and were thrown out into the real world. More real for some of us than others. Now 50 years later, we were meeting once again with absolutely nothing in common except four years at a good school, shared teenage drama and angst, and all our grand plans after that.

After we had graduated, most of us had gone on to college and forged careers that span-ed more than 30 plus years. These were accomplished men. Businessmen, professionals, tradesmen, family men’ and most were respected pillars of their communities.

It was a group I should have been able to relate to. And yet I couldn’t. Instead of ‘Welcome to the Homecoming.’ it was’ Welcome to myself’. This is who I’ve become.

We had all left Cretin with grand aspirations. Most had succeeded in their goals. Yet that absence of fifty years had voided out most of our shared high school memories and left me in a room with one hundred and fifty strangers. Whether their faces were familiar or not, we had no shared experiences beyond high school. We had little to talk about beyond now grandchildren and great grandchildren.

I tried very hard to reconnect with a few several of my classmates that I recognized but it became immediately apparent that there was nothing to talk about. None of us were interested in reliving our past football victories, prom dances, weekend parties or loves found and then shattered when she wised up and found someone better.

We had all collectively moved on after high school and past memories weren’t enough to bond us back together under that nebulous moniker ‘Class of 1961.’

So I left that evening feeling a bit sad and yet glad that I had ventured back into my old stomping grounds if only for one last time. I have little interest in attending our 60th or 70th or 80th reunion (I should be so lucky). It was an interesting experience. So thanks for that.

Part of the thinking of clear-headed people is to ask at some point in their lives, what have I done with my life thus far? And is this all there is? And what now?

At this stage in our collective existence few of us really have anything left to prove to anyone. We’ve either done it or we haven’t. We’ve had good fortune in our marriage or perhaps did better the second or third time around. We’ve connected with our kids or we can keep trying…maybe with a little more attention to our grandchildren in the process.

It’s too damn late to begin over again. I’ll never ride that tramp steamer around the world like I wanted to back in ’61. I’ll never become another Bob Dylan or one of the Beatles. I can’t even play a musical instrument or carry a tune.

There are some things I’m very proud of. Like adult children who are citizens of the world. And five grandchildren who will be at some point in their lives. That is their legacy.

We did some traveling, not so much now.
We made some money, not so much now.
We accumulated a lot of things, not so much now.

Yet I haven’t found a cure for cancer.
I haven’t grown an apple.
I haven’t run a country.

Maybe that’s why I like the idea of reconnecting with old friends. Not to rekindle the past but to honor and appreciate our collective lives and find some semblance of connective- ness for the future. If none is there, none is there. If a new friendship can be woven out of the shared experiences of our past that’s all for the better. If not, then we can recognize our past for what it was and move on with a simple: ‘It was good.’

I never want to ask: Where did it all go? All those hopes and dreams and grand aspirations. Some are now washed away like runoff down a rain gutter.  I have no problem with taking some of that residue I’ve had accumulated over a lifetime and pronouncing part of my past. I have to believe there is still a future in me.

I want to focus on the future, all the while accepting my sometimes-stiff joints, constant need to lose more weight and overall goal of staying healthy.

Maybe that’s why I’ve decided to start another career as a writer. The thought of being retired scares me to death. There’s no reason why it should but it does. Perhaps it’s a fear of beginning that long (hopefully) slow (probably) slide toward who knows where.

I need goals in my life. I need to keep proving to myself that I can or think I can. Therefore I must try. Lame perhaps but it defines who I am…. without apology or explanation.

Who knows, someday I may meet myself coming around the corner. Hope I can recognize what I’ve become.

Who Said You Get to Be Boss

I’ve had several good bosses in my career, a couple of great ones and a few who were outstanding. They knew how to provide leadership, focus and guidance to their staff. My average was probably no better nor any worse than anybody else who has been in the work force for any length of time. Luck of the draw some would call it.

Then there were those bad bosses.

I actually think the more valuable life lessons came from the adversity they brought to my life. Their number isn’t large but I’ve learned something from each and every one of them. Mind you they weren’t doing me any favors. I just grabbed their lemons and made nectar with it.

Boss # 1

It all started in Seventh grade with my first job; a paper route. We were just a bunch of hungry young entrepreneurial seventh and eighth graders working our first real job. They said we were in the newspaper business.

I thought no, I was earning money for high school and my frequent jaunts to DQ. That’s the only reason I was willing to get up at 4:30 in the morning when it was twenty below zero and don my rubber galoshes just to get a newspaper to some old retiree who had to have on his paper by 6:00am because he had nothing else going on in his life.

Our boss was a twenty-something wise ass who drove a brand new convertible and loved to catch us at the newspaper drop for a quick lecture and hard driving sales pitch. He sounded like some gravelly-throated football coach when he spoke. He’d remind us that his next raise depended on our reaching a certain sales quota. His words fell on deaf ears.

If you’re going to try to rally the tiny troopers, know your audience. He never understood that meeting his goals wasn’t a priority when homework and being home before dark took precedence over his corporate aspirations. Our boss never understood seventh grade enticements. Hint, it wasn’t earning points for a trip to the Dells.

Lessons Learned: Treat everyone with respect, even kids. They’re people too. And some of them are smarter than you are!

Bosses # 2

The Army had a plethora of good and bad leaders, none stood out. Even the obligatory hard ass drill sergeant and sloth in olive drab were just doing their jobs. I learned early on that if you did your job and didn’t cause a problem, things would work out just fine.
Being invisible in a sea of khaki isn’t a bad thing. It gives you time for the more import-ant things in life instead of KP or guard duty.

Lessons Learned: Be a leader yourself before asking others to follow you. Lead by example. Oh, and keep your mouth shut.

Boss # 3

One of my early bosses was a station manager, a pillar in his community, a deacon in his church and a racist. His façade has been honed and tempered by his all white high school and private college that feed his misguided beliefs. He truly believed in the superiority of the white race and didn’t mince words (in private) about it. His God was not color-blind.

I was embarrassed and saddened to hear him ramble on about those people. He also wasn’t much partial to Yankees, East Coast Types, and of course, those folks out West who were just plain nuts. Women didn’t fare much better with him either.

Lessons Learned: Look beyond your small world to the larger world beyond. Don’t let religion blind you to what is fair and just.

Boss # 4

The old man, dressed in a younger man’s skin, was 25 years old. 25 going on 65. His attitude, demeanor and state of mind had calcified well beyond his physical years. He should have been a monk in medieval times. It would have suited him much better.

His idea of fairness was couched in a sanctimonious, haughty attitude that he somehow had a closer tie-in with God. He wasn’t a priest but he should have been. He thought his ticket said: ‘Heaven, non-stop.’ He misread it. In fact, he was just a minion and a puppet to the powers to be who also thought they had a straight shot up to heaven.

Lessons Learned: Open your mind to new thoughts and ideas. Your providence is much too small to help you make good value judgments. Either that or join the cloisters.

Boss # 5

Stumpy had a Napoleonic complex; loved creating his own crisis environment at every opportunity, was paranoid beyond belief and probably the most unstable person I’ve ever had to work for. I did learn to take copious notes while working for him. He loved to grill me on the tiniest of details and would pursue his questioning until he could catch me on some minor error or misstep. Then he delighted in correcting me and praising himself for his intuitive nature.

He once spent an hour and a half after work chewing me out for my shortcomings he’d documented over six months. Must have been a slow night for him at home. It was his idea of an exercise in humiliation. But I was the one feeling sorry for that pathetic excuse for a human being sitting across from me that night.

Lessons Learned: Get psychological help for your boss (or yourself) if possible. And take very good notes.

Boss # 6

Moneybags was a corporate wannabe who never quite made the grade. His idea of fairness was to make sure he always ended up on top. If I reached my financial goal for the year, he got a bonus. If I didn’t make my goal for the year, he still got his bonus.

It was win-win for him and win / lose for his associates. Hardly seemed fair. Especially when he didn’t support me in attaining my goals. I once made a huge sale the last month of our fiscal year. So he promptly upped my goal for the year by the exactly amount I had just brought in. Thus effectively erasing what would have been a substantial gain over my stated goal. His reasoning…he thought it came too easily to me, ignoring the fact that I’d been working with that client for almost a year to land the contract.

Lessons Learned: If you accept the title and take the money, do what your title entails even if you don’t like to do it. Or don’t pretend to be a boss when you’re not up to it.

But there’s a happy ending to this story.

I got fired.

There have been several turning points in my life. This was certainly one of them.

Whether it was age discrimination as I still suspect or just internal politics (another very real possibility) it was my very good fortune to be fired without explanation. It was to change my life. My wife’s response (and I’ll always love her for it) was very simple: “Good, now you can spend more time with your kids and focus on your business.”

Less than four years later, my son was accepted into Notre Dame and I had increased our net worth four fold. And I was making more money in my own business than I had at my old job. Good fortune can come in very strange packages.

Boss # 7

Being self-employed meant long hours working for myself. I was probably harder on me than any other boss I ever had. The old adage that you are your own boss is totally wrong. Everyone else is your boss. But I was lucky. I had some wonderful clients, great projects to work on, and thoroughly enjoyed working with my daughter as host of my cable series.

Lessons Learned: Attention to marketing is as important as doing the job itself. I’m learning that now as I struggle with finding the time to write new material while focusing on my own program of self-promotion.

Bosses # 8

Frick and Frack presented a good opportunity for me to gain a steady client on a yearly contract. But along with it came many challenges.

Frick was a eunuch. He was scared to death of making decisions that might offend anyone, anyplace, at any time. So he constantly played it safe. Any idea I might bring to the table was immediately shot down because it might somehow offend someone someplace.

Frack was an appendage. He thought he had all the answers but wasn’t smart enough to know any of the questions. He told me how to do my job at every opportunity he could. I had seen his work. He had nothing to talk about.

Lessons Learned: The eunuch should have grown the courage to do his job instead of relying on others to tell him how to do it. The appendage is still an anal retentive sad sack whose grasp of the world evolves around many visits to the mirror to assure himself that he was a winner. Only losers do that.

My good fortune was to get so fed up with the antics of those two bobble-heads that I quit working for them. Another turning point in my life.

A day after “What now?”  I began my new career as a writer.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Looking for Susan's House

A couple of weeks ago I went on one of my long distance bike rides. I rode past a couple of the dumps where I had lived after college and Europe. And as a lark, I thought I’d go looking for Susan’s house; an allegory in which a young man searches for life’s truths and finds another human being instead who is also seeking answers that can’t easily be found.

I did and didn’t find what I was looking for.

It wasn’t so much a search and discovery mission as it was retracing my old life steps in a rundown neighborhood I called home for several years. This time as an old man on a bicycle instead of a kid in a VW, not certain what I was looking for or sure I’d recognize it if I found it.

‘It’ was the house where Susan lived with her mother and brother in a working class neighborhood just north of Dinkytown, hear the University of Minnesota. It was just one of several landmarks for me like my ghetto dwelling on University Avenue, Dinkytown pizza, the Triangle Bar on West Bank, U of M Health Department, and KTCA Television down Como Avenue. A virtual map of the Lost and Found.

Susan, we called her Sue S, was a Mexican American woman I was involved with for a couple of years during my lost years. She was unlike a lot of the women I had known before her. She was significant in my life for several reasons, not the least of which was that we were both seekers.

It was a collision of my time and space with hers. For a long time we were in the same orbit, thinking and living life alike, and traveling that strange road to maturity. We were both hungry. And with similar family backgrounds, we both found ourselves struggling to grab a handhold on that slippery ring called a career

I was going through my hippie wannabe stage when I first meet Susan. A young naive man looking for creativity in all the wrong places. We would go to the folk mass at the Newman Center and spend our Sunday afternoons ruminating on, exchanging all kinds of esoteric thoughts and ideas. Mental meanderings that a little weed could invoke on a virgin mind. It was like getting trashed on ‘what ifs’ that only the next day’s reality would dismiss as nice ideas but they didn’t pay the rent. Yet there was still a common-ality of purpose that bonded us together for a long time.

A lot of my poetry was started during that period with Susan. Instances and reflections on our time together and the ones who came before her.

But the reality of my world collided with hers after I came home one night after stopping
by my house with Sue before we went out. Afterwards, my mother met me at the door with the words: “What were you doing with that nigger?”

I moved out of the house the next day and never moved back except for visits. It was sad and shocking to think of my mother could be so blind. But with a sixth grade education and a social-economic background that bordered on the poverty level, it perhaps wasn’t too surprising. Very very sad but not surprising. She could only see the color of Susan’s skin and not the warm and wonderful human being Susan really was.

But deep down I think Susan and I both knew that our relationship could only go so far. With my mother’s inflexible, narrow-minded insistence that the women in my life had to be white and Catholic, it never would have worked out between us.

So while the bike ride didn’t bring up any tangible evidence of my being there in the first
place, it did open a Pandora’s box of mainly pleasant memories of that stage in my life. A brief period where I connected with another human being and we shared some of life’s pleasantries framed as a snapshot of our existence. Susan was a footnote to my history back then but a very memorable one nevertheless.

I never did find Susan’s house. I suppose after 40 years, it just went away as the old neighborhood gentrified and matured. I guess we probably did too.

Maybe I’ll meet her again in some fictional world of my choosing.

Snow White and the Seven Seekers

There was nothing to keep me back in Minnesota. I had the world to explore. So a magazine ad that promised work in Europe was all it took for me to pack my bags and sprout wings. One week after graduation I was on an Icelandic Air prop to Paris. The
adventure had begun.

When I got to Belgium, I found the job center and marched into their sparse quarters. One hundred and seventy five dollars had guaranteed me all the thrills of living abroad. The promise was a job working in a hotel in Amsterdam. (sex, drugs, and rock & roll). But reality only offered a job in a laundry in Danmark (soap suds, hot towels, and boredom instead)

Being the world traveler that I wasn’t, I asked “Where is Denmark?”

They said to “just head north until you run into the Baltic Sea, cross it and you’re in Danmark. Your job is in a small town laundry eight train stops out of central station, Copenhagen.”

Undismayed, I took their job offer and a train ticket for ports north.

My first night was spent in some unnamed hostel in central Brussels wondering what I had gotten myself into. My ubiquitous bravado had disappeared with the smelly sheets and strangers snoring in my ears. My fellow travelers in that dorm room were all the usual suspects; teens and twenty-something’s. Our common bond was a lust for travel and taste for adventure. But no one told me about communal living.

The next day I met Snow White.

Around the breakfast table that morning were three wandering Jews from Israel (their description, not mine), a couple of Australians (no surprise there), a ruddy-faced kid from Scotland and myself. And the girl.

I don’t recall a lot of details about her. She was blond, I think. She was beautiful, that I remember. And she had on this white turtleneck sweater that she filled out quite well. Recollections of our collective conversation that morning became a blur. But I do remember being quite taken back by her casual comment that she was a puppeteer, she was from Canada and she was never going back home again. She certainly made an impact on me, not so much for her beautiful facial features or swelling sweater, but rather her confidence of purpose.

Snow White had left someplace Canada and wasn’t going back home again. She was going to travel Europe and find work as a puppeteer (I never knew there was such a job). And yet even as she talked about her vague plans, I couldn’t help but believe that even if she didn’t find work as a wooden doll manipulator, she would find satisfaction in living abroad, and loving her dream. She was poised, confident, and ready to take on the world. I was just looking for Danmark.

My first and only roommate had arrived at the laundry only days before me. Animal was a chain-smoking college dropout who somehow managed to snag a basement apartment of some random house nearby. He offered me a corner cot and a burner on his hot plate. It was a tolerable living arrangement since he spent most of his off-work hours at a local bar and I could read in a smoke-free environment if only for a little while. He disappear-ed for parts unknown after a couple of weeks and I was left in that dumpy basement sans toilet, sink, and shower.

A genuinely nice person was Maria. She was a young married woman who worked alongside me at the laundry. She only spoke Danish and Spanish. I only spoke English and barely discernable Spanish. She became my link to all the gossip, trauma, and drama that was going among the laundry staff. Being forced to speak only in Spanish was a wonderful exercise for me in sign language, perfecting a broad smile, and a keen ear for Danish-Spanish-English dialect. We got along famously.

A more worldly companion was a guy from Canada. I can’t remember his name. His first words of advice were: “Always have a Canadian patch on your backpack and say you’re Canadian.” Back in ’67 the Vietnam War was in full swing and Europeans didn’t much like Americans. I took his advice and remained Canadian until I boarded my flight home months later.

I don’t remember a lot about him other than the fact that he was living with a Danish family in a huge house by the sea, he could use their car whenever he wanted, he worked at the family factory, and they had a daughter who liked him. A lot. Jealous, me? My eyes were green whenever we were together.

He and I took a train to Berlin one weekend and got off in East Berlin by accident. Luckily no one stopped us as I strolled down the boulevard taking pictures of military installations.

Another time we spent a weekend with two university women who lived on the coast. We rode around in their mopeds, went to their University classes, drank too much beer, and listened to the Bee Gees (an Australian group) singing about ‘Massachusetts’ over and over again. I remember being utterly amazed at the juxtaposition of our respective cultures, attitudes, and varied interests all melding together in harmony with that one song.

I was invited back for a weekend alone but declined. Probably for the best. I think she would have taken me ‘around the world’ and I had only gotten as far as Danmark thus far. Another metaphor.

Tina was another lost soul much like myself. She provided the intellectual stimulation that neither broken Danish nor a library card had been able to fill. At that point in my tenure in Europe, I had read every book in the English language section of the Copen-hagen branch library. Yet it wasn’t enough to dispel the growing loneliness I was feeling inside.

I can’t remember how I first meet Tina. I think she was a nanny or housekeeper in some neighboring village. She was originally from Tucson and how she ended up in a village outside of Copenhagen, I have no idea. I’d go over to her place at night and we’d end up talking half the night. Cheap wine or beer, whatever was around, fueled our rambling essays on life back in the states, the drama of family issues, and the simple joy of com-panionship between two strangers, each lost in their own issues, in some Scandinavian village half a world away from our own.

Tina eventually made it back to Tucson long after I had left Europe. We wrote to each other for a couple of months. Each of her letters was full of sadness and angst. I think after awhile it got to be too much for the both of us and we quit writing. I still have her letters. No idea why I kept them?

I do hope Tina found what she was looking for and some semblance of happiness in her life. She so deserved it.

The laundry work was growing intolerable. Food was sketchy and I think I was getting malnourished. And my loneliness kept growing. One morning nature jump-kicked my indecision about staying or leaving. I stepped outside and found six inches of freshly fallen snow on the ground. Shocked at the harbinger of Minnesota trailing me all the way there, I asked a friend if it snowed a lot in Danmark. He laughed and I quit my job and stuck out my thumb. The south coast of France seemed appealing. Snow free, I was told, and bare breasts besides.

After I left Danmark and began hitchhiking South, I kept thinking about that hostel back in Brussels and all my wonderful memories of that place. Even hanging out at a gypsy camp outside of Paris didn’t quell my desire to get back there again to try to recapture those first initial tastes of wanderlust alongside Snow White.

I finally made it back to that hostel in Brussels and learned one of life’s most valuable lessons. You can never go back again. Foolishly, I had thought I could recapture some of those wonderful feelings I had the first time around. But the staff had moved on, a new collection of wanderers was different from my Jews and Australians and Scotsman. And, of course, she wasn’t there either. The love of my life for one day at the hostel and the source of so many midnight fantasies had vanished forever.

I realized then that you can’t go back and recapture something as vapid and nebulous as feelings and emotions emitted in one brief moment in your life. Those feelings are like
children of another time and place who have grown up, matured, and are now gone forever

But I’ll remember Snow White, if only in my imagination, and what it was like sitting across from her for that one brief morning in some forgotten hostel in faraway Belgium. She was my dream fantasy, a woman idealized and yet only attainable as an imaginary poster on my basement wall next to Farah.

But who knows, somewhere in the world, there could still be a very lucky puppet.

The Care and Feeding of Grandchildren

So what am I talking about here? I guess to do for them what that
past generation wasn’t able or interested in doing for me. To give
them a leg up on this wonderful opportunistic world of ours.

I’m not going to raise them. That’s not my responsibility. I know
Brian and Melanie and their respective spouses can do a great job
at that. My job, my responsibility, and my pleasure will be to simply
add benefit to their already rich lives.

I want to feed them a broad menu of experiences and opportunities.

Of course, there will be the obligatory biking, frisbee, T-ball, soccer, softball,
gymnastics, Go Fish, Left, Right, Center, and eventually Chess.

But I want to take a giant step beyond the norm.

Like cooking and baking with Nana and other culinary explorations. A zillion
crafts of every conceivable form. Extra-curricular school work with Nana and Papa,
garage-sales with Nana, toeing the Pacific with Papa, paddleboard and body-surfing, hiking in the mountains of Colorado and California, trail running, bouldering in Joshua Tree, feeling the bite of Lake Superior in Springtime, birding in our backyard, and so
many more as yet unimagined experiences.
I want them to become desert rats, surf charmers, ski bums, Northwood’s explorers,
rock climbers, trail runners, mountain bikers, road warriors, museum meanders, Costco diners, play goers, zoo explorers, and a plethora of other unique monikers they can wear with pride, not the least of which might be an americanized version of dharma brats.

Fortunately and yet unfortunately, my grandchildren weren’t born hungry. So I want to
impress upon them a philosophy of hard work and dedication to cause. Just as their parents and grandparents did before them.

I want to ignite a fire in their bellies that that drives them to excel at anything and every-thing they attempt to do. To be the very best that they can be and every other cliché we’ve all heard. I can’t do it for them. Their parents can’t do it for them. But perhaps together we can instill in their computer-like brains our own philosophy of hard work and a focus on education.

They need to understand that humility is a virtue. To remain low-key and let their actions
speak louder than their parent’s praise. Actions do speak louder than words.

It’ll be a challenge when the rents aren’t there. Brian has already perfected the routine: “Say, what are you doing for the next week?” Melanie is working on it. Montreal looks promising. Pretty soon they’ll team up to leave town and we’ll have all five grand-children to house, feed, and teach…if only for a brief period of time.

Maybe I can document ‘life with the grandkids’ as I did when I created a travel docu-mentary for Brian on his semester around the world or Melanie’s study abroad in Ireland. Something tangible they can hold on to even as their childhood memories start to fade and teenage attitudes begin to fill that void.

Whether it’s ‘Sweetpea and the Gang’ or any other ‘Tales of the Five’ I hope I can tell
stories around these five youngsters.

Children need to know that they are loved. These five unique human beings truly are and I am so blessed to be able to call them my grandchildren.

My Lost Years

Where am I going? What am I doing?

I have no idea or at best just a vague idea of the road ahead.

I’m certain of a couple of things with this new gig of mine. My chances of being
unearthed or discovered as a writer are next to nil. So I’ll do it myself and
enjoy or suffer the consequences thereafter.

And why at this age do I think I can become a writer? I have absolutely no idea other
than the fact that I thought I could live abroad, own my own business, invest in real estate, do a century, an ultra, a marathon or two. And eventually I did empty that bucket list.
So I guess this is the same sort of thing. I think I can…therefore I can.

Perhaps this is my vision quest; an iconic seeking of life’s truths even at my age. One that started out simply enough years ago.

My first novel, Apache Death Wind, was written 45 years ago. Upon review, it provided the encouragement that perhaps there was something to this storytelling route I’d chosen. The novel showed me that I could write an engaging story with interesting characters.

Debris, my second attempt at vernacular exploration, was a soap opera full of desert characters whose lives became intertwined in Palm Springs behind the glitter of that desert resort community.

Follow the Cobbler took me around the world with a mysterious and fascinating woman, Katherine. She’s still an enigma and an anomaly that I’m trying to understand for the next two novels in that trilogy.

Love in the A Shau surprised and even shocked me when it became a cathartic exper-ience that unleashed a plethora of emotions from my past; many of which I was able to transpose onto my characters, enough that it evoked quite an emotional reaction from my sample readers.

So the material is there; now what?

In order to gain traction in the marketplace, I’ve got to begin this long and arduous task
of selling myself as an author and promoting my works. I’ve got to create an image or brand of myself; who I really am and what I want people to know about me. Struggling writer, husband, father, grandfather (Papa), traveler, and seeker of life’s truths.

Quite a departure from the real me that would much rather hide in my office and just write. But I don’t just want a collection of my stories to lie dormant and then be thrown away when the kids are purging my life’s collection of stuff after I’m gone.

So I find I must venture out into the real and sometime scary world called ‘this is who I am and this is what I do’ – always adding the caveat ‘and I hope you like it.’

It should prove to be an interesting (and I’m guessing) challenging endeavor. First finish
a microsite for ‘Love in the A Shau’ complete with a synopsis of the storyline, several sample chapters, a book trailer, and finally a place to order copies on e-book and soft cover format. Hopefully viral marketing will feed on itself and generate interest.

Then a separate Facebook page for ‘Love in the A Shau’ where folks can post their own comments, reminisces, and reflections back on the 60s and Vietnam.

Finally a series of blogs on this Facebook page to help me purge these thoughts, ideas, and reflections that have been swirling around in the recess of my mind for so very long.

The rumination for these blogs was first initiated as a series of musings that I shared with a couple of friends over the past six months. Insights and remembrances of past and present experiences that somehow scratched away at the scar tissue on my collective memory and implanted a fresh perspective of this new and sometimes scary world called writing.

It’s actually reconnected me with a couple of old friends (who knew?). And while some of those connections remain tenuous at best, they still have the ability to poke through the fog of my past and bring back some warm and wonderful memories.

Which brings up my lost years; that period between graduating in May of 1961 from Cretin High School until my marriage in July of 1971. Unlike most of my fellow graduates who went off to college for four years, started their careers and families, and lived happily ever after, I took a more circuitous route to life.

My lost years encompassed ten years of searching, finding, losing, and (by micrometers) growing and maturing. It was a trial and error period in career-building, travel, love found and lost, friendships collected, and most everything else that ten years of life have to offer a seeker such as myself.

It was one big would have, could have, should have….and to a small degree, actually did.

So now at the point in my life when most other folks my age have collected their chips and said it’s time to relax and enjoy the fruit of their life-long labors, I find myself striving to prove that I can actually become a writer of many different genres. It’s as if this writing thing has become an elixir for my lost years and a culmination of a lifetime of wondering if I ever could do it?’

But in the end all that really matters is that I gave it a shot. I DID write four novels. I did write four screenplays. I did write several plays. I did write several children’s stories, and I have written many treatments still in their infancy.

Love in the A Shau will be self-published shortly. Apache Death Wind will follow after that. The rest is yet unrecorded history.

Oh, shoot, I think I can feel another bucket list filling up again.