Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Not a Book in the House

Reflecting back, I realized my love of reading grew exponentially while sitting on some newspaper customer’s doorstep.  Whether I was perusing the Saint Paul Pioneer Press in the morning or the Saint Paul Dispatch at night I found myself immersed in short stories about a world I never knew existed.

Reading had never been a part of my life before I started a paper route.  Newspapers, magazines and books were luxuries my mother couldn’t afford. There was never any reading material in our house save for one book on Padre Pio. My mother probably bought that book out of guilt some Sunday morning after Mass.

About the same time I began a newspaper route my friend introduced me to our local library.  The first book I read was ‘The Enemy Below’ since I was fascinated with World War II; go figure. Then Tarzan, the Hardy Boys and western novels carried me into a world my imagination readily devoured.

Since that initial brush with the printed page, reading has always been an important part of my life.  There will never be enough time to read all the books I’ve got piled up around the house. We have libraries for the grandchildren here and there. Each has their own library in their rooms. Books matter to all of us.

So it was rather a shock to learn that a number of kids in my community have no books in their homes.  Like any suburb facing a growing diverse population, I found the disparity in reading levels simply amazing. Last summer my wife spearheaded a campaign to collect and distribute books for the local Head start and EL (English Learner) programs in Dakota County, Minnesota. She collected over four thousand books and, of course, they all passed through our house.

Photo Credit | Sun Newspapers

In Dakota County alone, over 1600 ELL students will use the books.  At the September 30th meeting of Apple Valley Rotary, District 196 Superintendent Jane Berenz spoke about the Reading Recovery Program in ISD 196 and how the intervention program has helped the literacy level of first graders.

She explained “the ELL Program in district 196 supports learners in acquiring the English they need in order to succeed in the classroom and beyond, in accordance with the State of Minnesota Guidelines and English Language Proficiency Standards.  Teachers who are fully certified in teaching English as a Second Language work with these ELL students at all ele-mentary, middle and high schools in the district.”

Ms. Berenz went on to explain that the ELL program develops English skills in reading, writing, and speaking, as well as the language of academic content.  The ELL staff is trained in the same best literacy practices as classroom teachers. She said the need for simple children’s books is critical for these students to practice their reading skills.

The program is working…and well.  Out of the twenty-three seniors who were in the English Learner program for last year, nineteen students were enrolled in a two-year or four-year college. Fourteen students were heading to a two-year college and five were going to a four-year institution of higher education.

Alongside the ELL program is the Head Start Program.  Laura Gilkey, Director of head Start for Scott, Carver, and Dakota County accepted over 2000 books for the Head Start Program. Head Start is a child development program that serves children from birth to age five years and their families. Head Start works closely with local school districts to provide early intervention services for children who need it.

And I thought four thousand books flowing through our house was a bit much last year.  Next summer my wife has a goal of collecting ten thousand books for those two programs. I can’t decide which size tent I’ll need to live in once that begins.

But to bring the world of reading to these children and open up a whole new world for them is a small price to pay for cramp quarters and books piled up in every corner of our house.  I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to be transformed into another world of rolling seas, desert plateaus and the young boys down the block. I return to those worlds every chance I get.

And feel blessed to be able to create them myself for others to enjoy.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Undressing My Avatar

One of the biggest challenges and ultimately greatest satisfaction for any writer comes from creating those characters that inhabit their world of fiction. It’s often the culmination of trying to re-imagine those elusive memories of people, places and events that made a significant impression on them. For me, it’s the art of encapsulating enough of a memory bubble to help recreate an avatar out of my past.

Sometimes the images jump out at me easily, defining themselves as perfect caricatures for the personas I’m trying to create. Other times they’re a combination of several individuals I’ve met or known in my past. It could also be someone’s unique personality, a character or figure from something I read or encountered or observed ions ago.

Yet there is always one major obstacle in creating such an avatar. The challenge of separating the reality of who I thought those people were from the reality of who really were. It’s like playing checkers inside my head, jumping from real to fictional, trading imagination for reality. The length of years passed only adds to the challenge of searching through the fog of time to gleam their true identity.

In essence I’m trying to unlock the layers of my memory bank and figure out who those people were back then and the role they played in my life. I am trying to undress them and in the process reveal their soul to my readers.

But since mindset often colors experience my recollections about that person tend to be less than completely accurate. Usually they’re reactions or prejudices based on limited knowledge or smeared into distortion by the passage of time and age and past conditioning.

Like most writers, I don’t know how to divorce my past lives, relationships, experiences, prejudices, incidents, failures and successes from my story telling. That certainly is true when it comes to creating female characters in my stories.

The female protagonist, with all of her inherent complexities, is always harder to create than her male counterpart. Who am I really thinking of when I create a female character? My avatars aren’t always women I have known. They could be a movie character or stage persona that struck me with their unique characteristics, real or fictional.

Unfortunately, it’s never a straight forward procedure but rather a rather subliminal process each time I want to create a new female character. I wish it were as easy as: “I knew that person…that person would suit my character… I will recreate that avatar in my character’s role.”

At times, it might be a compilation of several people that I’ve known or met in my past life even if I can’t identify with whom and or when or what exactly happened back then. But something did happen that scratched a memory scar on my brain that only now, through the creative process, is being uncovered as its multiple layers are peeled away.

It could be someone I never really knew that well but nevertheless left a strong impression on me. Like the dark-haired woman sipping her demitasse in Montmartre, Paris. She looked right through me with distain and disregard. Maybe it was Snow White in her tight turtle neck sweater pondering a new life in Belgium. Snow White and theSeven Seekers. It could have been Maria from Denmark yearning for her Spanish homeland or the amorous Danish student who wanted to take me away for the weekend. It could have been Tina and our late night cerebral rendezvous in some nameless village in Denmark. Recently, it could have been the homeless old woman I met at Starbucks on Times Square. Off Off-Broadway.

It could be a moment in time that somehow left a scar in my brain. Images, real or otherwise, like that crinoline that framed a bedroom window overlooking the cathedral dome, my mother’s sofa or singing folk songs at the Newman Center.

Photo Credit | Jerry Hoffman

I’ve met a lot of people through a lifetime of living and they’ve all left multiple impressions on my mind even if it wasn’t readily apparent at the time. Yet by wandering those dark dusty passages of my memory alleys and byways, their personality traits/quirks/ flaws or subtle nuances often come to surface once again.

I want to remember what they felt like, smelt like, the vibes they were giving off even though most of us were oblivious to it at the time. I need to explore the essence of who they really were and then use that to recreate that person/s as my character.

If, in fact, my avatar is someone I used to know, I have to glean from those scattered memories the most memorable incidents that defined that person. Their names define a moment, an incident and ultimately a part of me. Yet that process is never cut and dry. It took me six chapters before I figured out who Katherine really was in my novel “Follow the Cobbler.”  I was a bit shocked at first but then it really made perfect sense that this woman would bubble up to the surface and burst forth on my written pages.

Some avatars are easy finds; others not so much. Yet all of them are a part of the wonderful discovery and refinement process that takes place when I finally seduce some fine woman into becoming my heroine, protagonist and, hopefully, memorable character in one of my stories.

Writing fiction for a female protagonist is more fluid than real life but can be just as challenging.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Little Bohemia Among the Pines

California is awash with artists of every ilk - some well known and others hidden from the public eye.  We’re all familiar with the Golden State’s famous enclaves of art, but it’s those unlikely caldrons of creativity that fascinate me the most.

San Francisco has a long history of mixing old bohemians with new-agers - each professing to have found a new take on life.  Now they meditate alongside foodies, Buddhists, poets, anarchists and the beautiful people, each nudging one another for their rightful place in the life-altering California sun.

Northern Lights bookstore, started by Lawrence Ferlingeti, is still selling its unique mixture of poetry and obscure readings alongside the newest best sellers.  North Beach has changed over the years but its lure of cheap booze and free thoughts still linger on.  Jack Kerouac has left the saloon along with fellow poets and philosophers and drunks but a new generation of the inebriated and celebrated lost souls continue to seek redemption at the bottom of a bottle.  

Haight Ashbury has come full circle.  The hippies began their ‘Dawn of Aquarius’ in the mid-sixties then ended it a short time later with their funeral march for the ‘Death of the Hippie.’  Now a new cauldron of social revolutionaries is starting to stir up the community waters once again.

Los Angeles still sports its tinsel town moniker even as huge global interests continue to seek the perfect business plan for movie magic.  Storytellers continue to spin their fantasy tales meant to capture our imagination and often leave nothing to the imagination even as bean counters massage the almighty bottom line.

San Jose morphed into Silicon Valley and became a harbor for technology dynamos.  Palm Springs has its Uptown Design District, backstreet Art Corridor and El Paseo. Even the high desert got into the creative act with the Joshua tree art community and those desert denizens who seek solace in the desert heat and stillness. Both the LA Times and New York Times have dubbed Joshua Tree “the new Bohemia” and a “Mecca” for the arts.

Mountain towns pepper the granite sentinels that run the length of the state.  From Big Bear to Lake Tahoe, tiny hamlets lay sequestered among the high ranges of the Sierras and other less-notable mountain chains. Lost among these more familiar collection of creatives is a small community of like-minded artists high in the San Jacinto Mountains.

These little communities seem to attract the loners, those seeking solitude among the pines and others who find the granite peaks and wooded enclaves a welcome retreat from the rest of civilization.  Somehow, the little town of Idyllwild has attracted more than its share of artists, writers, musicians, and poets.

The little mountaintop community sits nestled in the San Jacinto Mountain chain. On the surface it seems little different from the dozens of other villages that lay scattered about the San Jacinto’s or other surrounding mountain chains such as the San Bernardino’s or Santa Rosa Mountains nearby.

There is the usual fa├žade of cute craft shops and art stores.  Three-two taverns and mom and pop restaurants lay hidden among the pines. Bait stores and gas stations line the mountain lakes - but in Idyllwild, something is different from the norm.

If you take the time to scratch beneath the surface, a whole new world awaits the casual visitor.  Behind the scenes live the dozens if not hundreds of real artists who make up the character of Idyllwild. It isn’t Greenwich Village or North Beach or the Uptown Design District but it still has a unique character all of its own.

Among the early settlers to the area was a Michigan-born man by the name of George B. Hannahs who arrived in Strawberry Valley in 1889.  He and his wife, Sarah, built a sawmill on upper Dutch Flat. In the summer of 1890, they opened a tent resort just west of Strawberry Creek and called it Camp Idyllwild.

The camp prospered and continued to draw visitors to the area.  In 1900 a Los Angeles physician named Dr. Walter Lindley along with a number of other doctors created the California Health Resort Company. They built a two-story structure called the Idyllwild Sanatorium on the upper end of the valley. A post office was established in 1893 and the town began to grow.

Idyllwild’s artistic history goes back to the early 1940’s when the first artists came and stayed to live and hone their craft.  About that time Idyllwild became home to a summer camp offering education in all forms of art and music. Over time other artists arrived in the hamlet with their paints and sketch pads and well-worn guitars. They carved a living out of the pine and granite and overwhelming beauty of the place.

Complementing the visual arts, other disciplines began to hone their craft and grow their own businesses there.  Film makers, theatrical entrepreneurs, actors and musicians all added to that cauldron of creativity. Like some spontaneous combustion of talent and mindset and welcoming environment, Idyllwild became a mecca for those seeking the solitude of the forest and the comradely of like-minded souls.

“Art is a language that everyone speaks in one form or another.”  So says Cat Orlando, just one of a number of artists who have opened galleries or their own exhibits recently in Idyllwild. Together they present a kaleidoscope of form and function, color and texture, whimsical and serious, composition and symbolism. There are works of art in acrylics, oils, stained glass, pottery, metal works, alcohol ink, pencil drawings, photographs, 3-D and dottilism objects…to name a few.

Idyllwild Arts Academy is one of only three independent boarding arts high schools in the U.S. It has over 300 hundred students from 33 states and 25 countries. Ansel Adams and Meredith Wilson were among its founding faculty.

With over eighteen different arts organizations, Idyllwild hosts a number of festivals each year that focus on the arts and nature.  Complementing the visual arts scene is a plethora of live music and theater events. Film festival fanatics find a perfect venue in the January Idyllwild Inter-national Film Festival with between 175 and 180 films playing at different venues throughout the community. It’s a community I want to know better.

From one of the many overlooks I can see a faint blur that is the Inland Empire nestled in the valley below.  The Valley is awash in a blanket of muted colors that mask the true character of the place. It’s alive with traffic and commerce and mind-numbing activities. Yet here amid the pine lies a peace and quiet that not only sooths the soul but fires up the imagination. I can understand why the artists love it up here.

This place speaks to me in much the same manner as my tabernacle does.  It’s quiet and serene and yet bursting with mind-expanding thoughts and ideas. Storylines seem to come alive here in the rarified air and scented forests. I’m sure I’ll be back soon.

The quiet calls to me.