Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Chasing My Identity

I have a friend who conducts workshops on how to write your own obituary. The responses to her workshop always seem go one of two ways. The first group wrinkles their nose and responds with a frown “Oh, Lord, I don’t want to talk about my own death.” The more optimistic of that group then adds “and besides, I’m never going to die.” It’s denial at its most optimistic stance.

The second group recognizes that my friend’s workshops are an opportunity to make their own farewell statement. These folks realize that they now have an opportunity to say just what they want to say about their own lives instead of it coming from some boiler-plate funeral home ad or a template from the newspaper. They get to share with family, friends and associates just what was important to them and what they are most proud of for the time they spent here on earth.

I’m in that second group. I want to tell the world what I did with my life…once I figure it out.

At first blush I’d have to say I’ve been very lucky on so many levels. Then having said that I would also add that I’m unapologetic for past failures, mistakes, losses, missed opportunities and a wide assortment of sundry missteps that have also defined my life. At this stage of the game, I’m too old and too busy to worry about ‘what might have been’ or ‘what if’ or ‘if only...’

I guess my own story begins with a French Canadian guy whose parents came from someplace in Canada. He was a short guy with a pencil-thin mustache and (supposedly) a fondness for the drink. He went from Michigan and ended up in the Twin Cities. He was playing in a band in St. Cloud, Minnesota when he met my mother. She was just a young German Catholic girl recently off the farm.

So my heritage is French Canadian and German. But what does that mean in the greater scheme of things? It is a heritage that I have no affinity to nor interest in…because it has no roots. As was befitting the rural German Catholic culture of that time, my mother never spoke of my father either before or after he passed away. It was as if he never existed in the first place. If I had a past, it is buried in a mausoleum in Saint Paul.

I can lay out a few of the stats, facts and incidents that defined who I became. I was young and dumb and poor but open and honest. I’d like to believe that, much like my writing, I stumbled a lot but somehow kept moving forward.

I can talk about those men and women who had an influence on my life. I can talk about working from 7th grade on and usually having two jobs going on simultaneously. I can talk about twenty plus years of working full time, running my business and managing several apartment buildings all at the same time. I can talk about near burn out and finally redemption on long bike rides, torturous trail runs and sojourns into the high desert.

It’s always a challenge to revisit that narrative in my head about my life up to a certain point. The facts are easy to lie out and document. I could put them into a flow chart or a neatly outlined diagram that lists important dates in my life. It’s neat and clean but still smells like an old tattered history book. Something is missing. The data would tell you how I got to where I am but it wouldn’t tell you how I ended up being who I am today.

There is a ‘60’s time warp in my head. A wonderful period of creativity with its music and Bob Dylan and the Beatles and hippies and personal liberation and milestones. But I don’t apologize for that. It is part of who I have become. It doesn’t take away from my life today but instead comforts and feeds me more material for my stories.

Do I want to share the joys of a life well lived or wax philosophically about past lives, past loves, past failures and hopes for the future? I guess it’s a combination of both.

I am not interested in ‘what if’s.’ Bob Dylan said ‘Don’t look back.’ I would add as a caveat unless you’re in a good place. Because if you’re in a good place in your life today then you can look back and see the success and the failure, the goals that fell short and those never attempted. You can look at your life as it truly was and not as someone else said it should be.

One friend recently commented to me that it was too bad I hadn’t started my writing career years earlier. I simply replied that I couldn’t have done that years ago because I wasn’t the same person that I am today. My head was in a different place back then. Neither better nor worse but probably not conducive to the focused passion I feel for my writing today.

I guess I’m foolish enough to believe that old cliché that it’s never too late to become the person you’ve always wanted to be. I am today the result of a million different experiences, episodes, loves, failures, losses, challenges and successes that rippled through my life over the last seventy years.


I read a book recently called Zen and the Art of Running. The author pointed out that a runner changes every day and shouldn’t expect the same results today as he might have gotten last week or last year or ten years ago. Like many others, I am constantly changing and evolving and adapting to the nuances of each day.

I have another friend who has defined life in three simple words: Learning, Earning and Yearning. His position is that we grow up with certain knowledge. We make a living. Then (he claims) we yearn for what we didn’t do or don’t have or lost. I don’t think it has to necessarily be that way.

I can’t do nor do I want to do what I did before. I do not want to wear a younger man’s façade. The years of experience and joy and disappointment run lines across my face but I wear them like a seasoned veteran in the games of life.

My new identity is a moniker I wear with pride and is defined by the stories I tell. My blogs are just one step in that direction. They are personal, explicit, revealing, open and honest. But in the end, they are simply meant to be a snapshot of a moment in time in the life of…

Today I am much more interested in telling my stories and living my life vicariously through my characters. I want to share the fear of humping my hog through the boonies, riding old Apache trails and avoiding ambush in some narrow slot canyon. I want to mastermind the intricate workings of a modern-day courtship and look in on two women slowly falling in love. I want my protagonist to fall in love with a siren of my own creation.

I want the new me to splatter my keyboard with stories of past adventures, mishaps, wondrous experiences and my characters grand plans for the future. I want to live the life of a drifter out west and an adventurer on the Mekong Delta. And I want to do that until my ink dries up and my mind slowly fades away.

I haven’t written my own obituary yet but when I do, it’ll probably start with something like…
“He had a good life…and then it got even better.”

A Crescendo of Quiet

Far from the crystal clear pools of Palm Springs and its emerald green golf courses lies another world. Less than an hour away, it’s a world of vast nothingness peppered with the sad remnants of past lives and male exuberance. It’s a place where stillness thunders louder than the wind and God did some of his finest paintings.

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 forgotten.

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.

1.7 billion year old rocks compete for attention with the ancient land mass of Rodinia and King Clone and 11.000 year old creosote bush that began its life during the retreat of the last Ice Age.

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

This is a playground where grown men come to play cowboy and young boys come to play soldier.

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

Much like the high altitude cerebral vacuum of the San Jacinto’s, Joshua Tree is the perfect setting for letting your mind wander and bumping into thoughts and ideas and feelings that you never knew were lurking there.

 It means nestling into a large boulder, resting your head on its warm pillow of granite, looking up at the pure blue flawless sky and listening to your surroundings. The stillness will batter your eardrums with a quiet so loud that all you can do is retreat back inside your head for peace and serenity.

Where's Waldo 1,2, & 3?
The high desert is a cornucopia of images, lifestyles, attitudes, ambitions and dreams from a plethora of characters; real and imagined. It’s where you go to lose yourself and perhaps find the unexpected. It’s where the ghosts of past rock and roller stars still play their mournful ballads for no one to hear but the wind.

And it’s where writers go to ask ‘what if.’

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Peacock Syndrome

During the winter months I work out in a gym downtown. This one is small and caters primarily to  retired men and women who have the time, the means and the desire to stay in shape. Preening isn’t something you see here very often. Unless, of course, it’s some seventy year old woman who has invested enough capital in liposuction, silicon and a personal trainer that she can’t help but check out the results every time she passes by a mirror. The peacock syndrome is seldom seen here.

During the summer months, I belong to a much larger gym with enough macho men and women to fill a Fitness Magazine cover to cover. Most of them have embraced preening like it was some newly discovered art form. Peacocks roam the floor in droves here.

The act of preening is an amusing exercise in self-indulgence. Body builders are the most serious…and the funniest. They stand in front of their full length mirror and admire the magnificent male specimen in front of them. They ponder their pecs and abs and dorsal fins and then stare down the giant barbells challenging them. Finally they lunge forward, gripping the barbells like they were the best part of their girlfriend and hoist them high into the air. After that brief explosion of self-induced gymnastics, they drop their weights and go back to admiring their sculptured physique.

Add to that species, the grunters and the groaners and it becomes high entertainment. I can never tell if that later group is about to cough up something, clearing their throat of flam or having an orgasm. 

Male preening can take on many forms but usually only serves a couple of functions…most of them self-induced and self-indulgent. But women are no exception to this category. Long before waxing and body-piercing and tattoos became the norm, women have sought out ways to impress the male species. Now men are as guilty of this military maneuver as are women.

I was talking to my editor about the lengths that some women go to make themselves attractive to the male of the species. Her defensive posture was to point out that women are hardly alone in this age-old quest of self-packaging. She even suggested that I write a blog about the lengths that we go to to attract the opposite sex.

I was intrigued by her challenge so I began to investigate this so-called peacock syndrome. Of course, one of the first things I did was to Google men and man-scaping. The results were hilarious and great for a gasp or two.  So I continued my search on Google on ways to impress the ladies…or other men.

My research took me to places that only a physiologist can properly decipher. I kept hearing this tiny voice behind my ear muttering…’seriously.’ Palm Springs has its fair share of ‘men’s’ magazines. The ads there are hilarious… or would be if they weren’t so serious.

One ad was for waxing services. They can eliminate hair wherever it can be found; eyebrows, upper lip, ears, nostrils, sideburns, arms, chest, back, leg and of course the tour de France…the Brazilian. Just why a man would want to eliminate all that hair is beyond me. But man-scaping is big business in the valley and on both coasts. So it is with women too. What ever happened to the ‘natural’ woman?

My recent return (foisted on me by my kids) to a local hangout for hipsters proved once again that I live in a different world. As I pointed out in Christmas Redoux, there were more tattoos gathered around that pool than any Marine barracks or truck stop diner. Both men and women displayed enough symbols, flower patterns, Celtic designs and scripts and scrolls to fill a modern-day version of the Dead Sea scrolls.

This might make sense in the heart of the Amazon rainforest but it did seem a bit out of context around a clear blue swimming pool. Of course, my kids were painfully quick to point out that I was the outsider there, not all the painted ones surrounding us.

The mating game continues to amuse, amaze and astound me. Catching snippets of ‘the Bachelor’ or ‘Bachelotte’ or any other match-making series only baffles and confuses me. 

Many centuries ago when I was trying to ingratiate myself into the dating scene I used to think that giving my date choices was the way to go. I thought I was being thoughtful and considerate. Of course, any alpha female would ask “how else should it be?”

I’ve since learned that a lot of women like a man who takes charge and is in control, telling them where they’re going and what they’re going to do on a date. They see a man who lets the woman chose as a date with little imagination and not in control.

I could never understand those women who wanted a man to take over their lives. But I think I was often in the minority. That confusion about women has continued throughout my life and exemplified itself with my blogging. Women are Smarter than Men and The Mysterious Language of Women

There probably was some preening going on back ‘in the days’  but I was totally oblivious to it. I was still searching for that magic elixir that would give me the answers to the wonderful confusing world of women. It turns out the answer was right in front of me and most other men but we never saw it.

So I asked my confidant and adviser on all things female. After gales of uncontrolled laughter, my wife set me straight.

It turns out the way to impress a woman is pretty straight forward and to the point. Most of it, guys, goes on between her ears and not elsewhere. At a time when some of our body parts are expanding, heading south or leaving town entirely all that seems left to impress our intended is open and honest communication.

“Seriously” I asked, “that was the answer all along. All I had to do was listen and pay attention to what she was saying…be interested in her as a person and she would have ‘liked’ me? Will wonders never cease.

So it turns out that, peacocks aside, just caring is the simplest answer of all. Of course, there are pills and lotions for just about everything to help us feel youthful and perform like one again. But the mind and honest expression is probably the best come-on for almost anyone, male or female, to hear. And you don’t need a mirror to do it.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

America the Stupid

We were lucky. Our two kids went to public grade school, middle school and high school. They both got a great education. Unfortunately that isn’t always the case with public education. Now both my kids, one in the city and another in the suburbs, are looking at education for their own kids, my grandchildren. But the landscape has changed considerably since they were in school. Despite the rhetoric and hyperbole about the importance of education, no one seems to have an answer to the problem of kids failing in school or dropping out before graduation.

Over the generations, there have been radical changes in my own family tree in terms of education. From a grade school education for my parents, to college for my wife and I, advanced degrees for our two children, and what will probably be even higher standards for our five grandchildren. Education has played a major role in our and their development as citizens of the world. Education has always been the key to success in any area for all of us. Within the confines of my family, it has been an understood and non-negotiable factor in our lives.

For many others, education seems to have lost its priority, vision and standard of excellence. It seems that too often parents are distracted by their own issues and forget that the most unempowered of us all don’t have a real voice in their own future. Adults don’t always fare much better.

Adult Americans have scored 17th  as a nation in simple tasks such as calculating mileage reimbursement, sorting emails and comparing expiration dates on grocery store food tags. 

Finland, a country that is miniscule in size and economic power when compared to the United States, ranked second overall. Education is paramount in that tiny country where there are no sports in school and they use standardized textbooks paired with non-standardized teaching techniques. Nowadays in America, sports and social events seem to take precedence over tough academic challenges.

Subtle yet undermining events have begun to corrode the mettle of public education. 

In Minnesota, businesses (mainly resort owners up north) complain about school starting before the state fair. Somehow it’s more important to be hauling anchor for some millionaire resort owner or schlepping hotdogs at the ‘Great Minnesota Get-Together’ than learning geometry. Commerce tops education once again in Minnesota.

Now in order to save money, some school boards are looking at a school week of only four days and justifying it as a cost-saving measure. They’re eliminating music and the arts as extraneous to the architecture of learning. To meet state-imposed guidelines, some schools now ‘teach to the test’ instead of helping children understand the concepts behind the subject matter. They’re taking away recess and then wonder why the kids are fidgety in class and can’t sit still. One elementary school just banned the game of ‘tag, you’re it.’ Touching, even on the asphalt, is now suspect. 

The challenges to education don’t stop after high school. We have the ritual of Spring Break when twenty-year old children flock to Cancun and Mazatlan looking to get drunk and get laid. What does that have to do with education and academic achievement?

The ritual began back in 1936 by a swimming coach from Colgate University who brought his swim team down to Fort Lauderdale to train at the Casino Pool – the first Olympic-sized swimming pool in Florida.  Two years later, more than 300 swimmers were competing at the event and the ‘entitlement’ of Spring Break had begun. 

Hollywood jumped into the act in 1961 with its less than realistic portrait of true love in Where the Boys Are.  Fueled by the stress of having to endure the horrors of winter and hitting books instead of partying, college students decided en mass that a break was needed from reality. Spring Break provided just such a distraction.

Much like the annual trek of the Wildebeest across the savannas of Africa, college students began herding themselves south in record numbers. The airlines, ever ready to aid the migration, quickly followed with cheap air fares and kids who might have to do a road trip could now pile into silver flights of fancy to begin their week of teenage debauchery.

In Minnesota, there is an annual joke called MEA week where children and their families leave town for a well-deserved break after having to endure a full month of education after only three months of summer vacation. 

Yet no one has yet to ask: When did Spring Break and MEA weekend become entitlements for our children?  

The entertainment factory doesn’t help with its humorous portrayal of Jake Harper, the teen slacker from ‘Two and a Half Men.’ We laugh at his stupidity and lack of ambition because it’s funny, but in a very sad sort of way.

One recent sports wag has even suggested that we should get rid of the façade and pay athletes in college since they’re such a revenue-maker for the university. In other words, let’s perpetuate the diploma mills and focus on the real money-makers, sports.

I’m not suggesting we simply go back to the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.  We do need school lunch programs. We do need some social programs for those in need. We do need activities outside of the classroom to enhance personal growth and maturity.

I have a good friend who is a college professor who espouses the philosophy of personal responsibility. He expects his students to fulfill their role as learners in his classroom and to seek help if they need it. He is tough but fair - and he is respected for that. His toughest task is dealing with parents (in college yet) who want to shelter their children from the harshness of final exams and heavy loads of homework.

But there is some hope on the horizon. Break Away, an organization that trains and helps colleges across the country promote alternative break programs, has projected that almost 100,000 college students will participate in its programs for the next season.

Summer vacation is now rightfully being seen as a vacuum for many students who will probably forget much of what they learned during the last school year. Summer programs have sprung up to help students remember and continue their education. Many libraries are full of students still eager to learn outside of the classroom.

Many moms get it even if some school officials and politicians often don’t. Those involved women, affectionately known as crunchy granola moms, actually put their own kids' learning ahead of the political gerrymandering and some of the popular misguided notions of education.

They’re able to cut to the quick and focus on what’s best for their children’s nutritional needs as well as knowledge-enrichment exercises. It might not be a far stretch to wonder if many of their parents were probably hippies who weren’t willing to accept modern-day society’s romantic rendering of the little red school house. But I digress…

Internships are gaining in favor over menial summer jobs as more college students realize that serving fries at minimum wage can’t compare to working and learning in the real world of their parents.

There will be more hope on the horizon when enough parents demand that their kids come ahead of various political agendas. When parents make sure there is less ‘facetime’ with electronic distractions and more time face time spent interacting with real people. When their kids are allowed to play outdoors unrestricted by the fear of bumping into one another or falling off a swing or too much sunlight.

Some folks have actually questioned my wife and me for spending a substantial amount of money on our children’s college education. They ask why we would put our children’s academic needs ahead of our own retirement savings, summer vacations, new cars and other material goods.

For those lost souls who truly don’t get it, I can only answer: “My kids…my money…and that is non-negotiable.”