Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Going Home Again

I guess you can go home again…and a lot of people seem to be doing it.

Recently, I stumbled across a popular magazine that’s been around for quite some time now.  It’s called “The Good Old Days Magazine.”  I heard about it from a colleague in one of my writing groups. It got me to thinking about the proliferation of media avenues recently created to help us return to our past or at least explore what really happened in those years gone by. This ability to revisit ones past has surfaced in a number of different venues.

It’s not just one silly magazine.  There are several more that just focus on the 30s, 40s and 50s. Then there is the History Channel, the numerous historical magazines at Barnes & Noble and on-line. There is Ancestry.com and numerous other web sites devoted to helping us track down our past relatives, countries of origin and other off-hand tidbits just to liven up our search. There are also web sites that cover just about every historical event, milestone, personalities, monuments, landmarks, etc in the history of mankind.

On a more personal level for me, there’s a new Facebook page entitled ‘Old Saint Paul.’  Members of this site reminisce about their experiences growing up in Saint Paul.  Similar Facebook pages exist for ‘OldMinneapolis and many other neighborhoods and suburbs in and around the Twin Cities.

That delineation is even broken down further with a site entitled ‘I love Highland Park and another ‘West Seven Street; where all the cool kidshang out.’  I could do one myself entitled: “On the corner of Randolph and Hamline” since many of my past acquaintances, classmates, old friends, and I have so many memories centered around that street corner.

All of these opportunities to meander back through our past would seem to beg the larger question of whether or not ‘you can go home again.’

Maybe in its proper context ‘going back home’ is really a metaphor for self-discovery.  For unpacking that traveling bag of life experiences that you’ve been toting around for years. It means rummaging through those artifacts of your life that you left behind in old photos, letters, scrapbooks, journals, yearbooks and family mementos. It’s going back to see who you were, what you were, where you were and how far you’ve come. It’s perusing the past all the while keeping your feet firmly planted in the present. It’s imagining ‘what if’ when it’s safe to do so. And accepting the loss of friends, associates, events, people, places and things that are no longer a part of your life. It’s seeing past lovers for what they were; the good, the real and thus the inevitable. It’s taking past baggage and putting it on the shelf to stay there until you die and it doesn’t matter anymore.

It’s a return to your roots.  And if you have no roots, it’s a look back at when things started to matter in your life. When events began to register in your brain and got lodged there. It’s pushing past the ambiguity and cobwebs and jump-starting that memory motor so you can troll back through those calm waters of past experiences to look and listen and observe with fresh eyes what you never saw before.

Triangle Bar

 For me it’s a vicarious journey back to my roots through the recent resurgence of folk music, poetry, coffee houses, and salons.  ‘Going back home’ is a metaphorical return to Dinky Town and the West Bank and the numerous rundown haunts there…if only in my mind. It’s visiting the Blind Lemon in Berkeley, the Gas House in L.A. and the Drinking Gourd in San Francisco; famous coffee houses I never knew about.  It’s a trip to Greenwich Village even though I’d never been there before.

Those memory trips sometimes reveal back stories to past relationships and answer that tantalizing question ‘what if.’  There seem to be enough curtains pulled back to keep pushing forward on tired feet but fueled by an ever-inquiring mind.

It’s blogging about my past and throwing in current events to shake up the mix.  It’s writing novels, plays and screenplays. It’s drawing from a rambling road of starts and stops, attempts and failures and a few successes. It’s being a cowboy again, a landlord, and a young man earning his sea legs on a tapestry of prairie lands, looming mountains and spent expectations.

 It’s going back to what I never saw and seeing how far I’ve come.  It’s accepting the past while embracing what the future might hold. It’s all that and nothing more. A way to spend some time feeling good about what was and accepting what wasn’t. This is what I’ve become. That can’t be changed.

 In the end, it’s the satisfaction of being able to simply say, “It’s all good.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Skin in the Game

Saguaro Pool
There are hipsters in town for the weekend.  There are metal heads and groupies flocking to the high desert and soon more will be here for Coachella. There will be pretend cowgirls and cow-boys here for Stagecoach after that. Movie devotes flock here in January for the International Palm Springs Film Festival and Modernism junkies love traipsing through other people’s mid-century modern homes in February.

Then, of course, there is the standard gathering of snowbirds, weekly tourists escaping winter back home, weekend voyeurs in town to play out their Palm Springs weekend replete with the girls and booze under a warm winter sun.

They’ve all come here during the winter months to forget about their own reality back home.  The desert scape and sunlight and warmth can do that to a person. I’d like to think I’m different and don’t fall into any of those categories. In fact, I’m just foolish enough to believe that I can traverse all those worlds and end up in one of my own creation.

I’m getting more involved in Palm Springs life to the point where I’m starting to feel real ‘ownership’ in this place.  It’s not than just our growing cache of friends and associates from various organizations. It’s more than our neighbors down the block and across town. It’s more than Sharon’s swim club and my various writing groups. It’s even more than the occasional coffee rendezvous for salon-type mental meanderings or slumming around the rough edges of town. It’s really a solo journey into the heart of what makes this city tick and rumble and roar.

Map of Palm Springs Neighborhoods
I’m trying to listen to the heartbeat of the city and absorb its organic growth.  I want to push past its fa├žade even if it means sliding across its underbelly. I don’t need a ‘ride-along’ to know where not to wander at night. I don’t need the Department of Tourism to help me find my way around town.  I’m trying to get a handle on some of the more influential folks in town. It’s these influencers who often times steer the trends and happenings behind the scenes. They are rich fodder for my wild imagination and solid material from which to draw for my cast of characters for ‘Debris; the trilogy.’

Palm Springs Writers' Guild Desert Writers' Expo

It’s not just with the Palm Springs Writers Guild but also city politics (although I’ll admit that is more on a cursory level through a friend of ours.)  I want to know and understand who the power brokers are, the wheelers and dealers, the visionaries, the dreamers and the doers.

But it also means getting under the skin of the city.  Getting beyond the imagery to help me better understand why things happen here and not elsewhere It’s a matter of getting to the soul of what makes this place work.

It will entail understanding downtown redevelopment to satisfy my real estate cravings.  It will mean examining our small town mentality verses new development advances. It will mean frequenting the local haunts for a future Jack Kerouac or Bob Dylan…if one even exists. It will mean understanding the Hollywood game as they’re playing it today if I want to sell my screenplays.

While I may be a snowbird in disguise, I want to emulate the year-round residents in everything I do, think, and act.  Forget the tribe of tourists who settle here each winter, I want to straddle this world and my own back home while feeling an integral part of both. I’m not ready to give up the Midwest but this place puts me ‘on the road’ more than anywhere else.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Ants in the Applesauce

The grandkids were back in town and patience was the order of the day if I was to endure, grow, and prosper alongside my favorite ragamuffins.  Some older folks are just naturally built for the rigorous task of entertaining, educating and caring for their grandchildren. For me it’s a learned response (taught by the master) and ever-changing lesson plans I keep trying to follow.

It’s ants in the Applesauce in the age of intolerance.  ‘Ants’ was a childish game we played while trying to find ants in our applesauce each morning. Of course, there weren’t any ants but it brought smiles and chuckles all around the breakfast table. The intolerance part comes from an observation about my own generation.

When the ‘Mongolian horde’ descended upon our place this Christmas my world went from quiet and serene to loud, chaotic and messy.  In such a world, things sometimes get broken or misplaced or out of order. It was all part of their vacation package along with pool time, games, readings, bowling and wonderful moments with Nana and Papa. As adults we got all of that as well as late night gab sessions with our own children and their spouses. We were always able to find those rare moments snatched from the constant din that mixed quiet time, quality time or just plain time spent with the grandchildren. It was a treasure for the youngsters that no amount of money or presents could equal…even if they didn’t know it at the time.

But all of that chaos can sometimes hard for some folks my own age.  I’ve observed a growing reluctance among some oldsters to dive into the cloudy pool of noise and confusion and the ten minute attention span. Understandably, they’d like their lives to be orderly, predictable and quiet. Many feel they’ve earned it. With kids lurking about it’s just the opposite. 

It’s not easy being shaken out of one’s routine for a week of organized chaos.  Many of us get set in our ways and it’s difficult to pry ourselves loose from our comforting regimen of daily life. However, it’s necessary if you want to savor the full impact of five high-energy monkeys living under your roof for seven solid days and nights.

 Fortunately, we all survived and even created a couple of new traditions along the way.  The old tradition of the ‘bear hunt’ on the golf course with Uncle B has now been seconded by ‘morning coffee with Papa’ for each one of the grandchildren. While Papa gets his regular large light roast and a pastry, each child gets their hot Coco with marsh mellows and whipped cream. And, of course, a pastry of their choice. 

Exploring Joshua Tree National Park in a snowstorm was another big hit and will probably be the precursory to further adventures afar.  Perhaps yet another tradition has been born.

Each day brought a plethora of both organized and spontaneous events.

A puppet show with hand puppets.  Maya was the mysterious MC.

Visiting a fire station just down the block

Picking oranges for juice in the morning

Story telling from an original story written by Maya


Lots and lots of reading to the kids

Picking lemons for lemonade in the afternoon

A special wine-tasting event for the adults


Watching TV while the adults relaxed

 and hours of pool time for everyone.

I asked Charlotte one morning at coffee what the best thing about her week was.  Of course I envisioned our trip to Joshua tree or picking oranges or pool time.

Instead, in her best cherub voice, she answered “Running.”

“What do you mean?”  I asked.

“Mommy and Daddy won’t let Bro and I run around in the house at home.”

‘Of course’ I thought, ‘here you and Brennen and your cousins can mimic Santa Anita race track and most of the time, no one says anything.’

I guess if the real goal of that week was to leave a legacy of memories then the kids get to choose what they want to remember. If besting a thoroughbred is what Charlotte remembers most then who am I to judge?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Catholic Education

St. Louis Grade School - St. Paul, MN

My mother was a devout Catholic so I had little choice in the matter of my education.  Back in the early fifties my sister and I attended St. Louis Grade School in downtown Saint Paul, Minnesota. The old relic has long since been torn down but the memories linger in black and white. Attending school there meant a half hour ride to and from downtown for eight years. First by streetcar with their woven mesh seats and no heat (anyone remember those?) then by city bus.

The nuns were strict and mean and very old school. But their approach to education worked and I got educated. Unlike some of my unruly classmates I never got smacked across the head or hit with a ruler. Although once in second grade I got busted after sneaking peeks at my Daniel Boone comic book hidden in my desk drawer. The imposing rotund nun made me stand in front of the entire class and throw it into the wastepaper basket. That hurt!

I’ve always assumed my mother got a discount from the nuns because she certainly couldn’t have afforded full tuition on her meager restaurant salary. I’ll give the nuns that. They did have compassion for a single parent with two urchin’s under tow. There was the free lunch at noon and at times donated clothing that could be picked over after class. Those nuns were tough but classy. It was the Catholic way.

Cretin High School Scrapbook Page

Cretin High School cost four hundred dollars a year paid for out of my paper route plus odd jobs during the summer. Cretin was an ROTC school run by strict Christian Brothers with their no-nonsense approach to life and education. At our fiftieth anniversary we alumni compared jobs and lives; subtly of course. Seems like that educational approach worked pretty well for my comrades and I in our careers as well as in life.

Graduation on May 31st, 1961 was the launch of my ‘lost years’ although I didn’t know it at the time. It was the beginning of ten years wandering through the wilderness of a young life spiked with bouts of education and life-altering experiences. Back in the sixth grade my belief in Catholicism had been badly wounded by the Baltimore Catechism. Now all those simmering doubts and questions grew in intensity as I experienced real life on yet another level.

For some reason this photo of the quadrangle on the campus of the College of St. Thomas says it all. It’s the winter of 1961 and I’m freezing my ass off cutting across campus. What I remember most of that period were the blustery winter winds sweeping across campus and right through my light jacket. My most poignant college memories don’t cluster around classes or the cafeteria or my girlfriend at the time. It wasn’t the work after school or the hard studying just to keep my grades afloat. Instead it was the bone-rattling cold that nipped at my fingertips and bit into my ear lobes. Funny how some school memories can do that; lose the true essence of the collegiate experience amid the discomfort of a bitterly cold winter’s day.

But St. Thomas never was a smooth fluid experience for me. Instead it morphed into two separate life journeys distracted with interruptions from the University of Minnesota and the U.S. Army. By then Catholicism wasn’t even on my radar any more.

The Presidio of San Francisco opened up a whole new world for me. It released possibilities and dreams after my educational collapse at the U of M. The Army proven to be a macho world where I explored life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness all the while trailing other lost souls as I stumbled forth. For two years it carried me around the country and across the border. Then it dumped me back into the welcoming arms of Saint Thomas after an early release.

College of St. Thomas Yearbook Staff

Thanks to the G.I. Bill there was less stress to find work and more time to write for the school yearbook. I had a nest in my basement at home where I could sequester myself and focus on learning to learn. I got two things from that experience; a college education and ‘Love in the A Shau.’ Not a bad ROI for two thousand dollars per college year.

Denmark made me a stranger in a strange land. There were new attitudes toward life and love and self. Religion continued to be this strange ritualistic practice performed by my mother but rejected by my colleagues and me.

After Europe (Snow White and the SevenSeekers) this ex-pat came home and found a dump
to live in and a Sunday sanctuary full of song and fellowship. The Newman Center for Catholic Studies had gone all hippie and folk-like with its mass, its litany and communal singing. It was a haven of peace and friendship and sharing. It hinted of something wonderful but we never labeled it Catholic…just community.

Susan was there with me to share that skeletal existence, career explorations, the Triangle Bar and the poetry readings. She was just another road warrior searching for her future as I was searching for mine. We were like two literary hobos riding the rails of life’s jumbled journey but steeled by our dogged determination to succeed. She was like an elixir for my mind on Saturday nights and for my soul on Sunday mornings.


‘Suzanne’ was our national anthem, our rallying cry and our homage to the visceral pictures painted in our minds. It was Sunday morning sunshine after the thought-provoking Saturday night salon of the Triangle Bar. Leonard Cohen was our hero and our pied-piper even as the church dared label him our Svengali.

A lot of my life history was left back there. I’ve tried to capture the essence of that period with Love in the A Shau and blogs like Looking for Susan’s House and I found Susan’s House among others.

Back then, I was still wading through the flotsam of those early religious years. The Newman Center showed me another side of Christianity. It was love and compassion and caring. It was exploring one’s mind as well as one’s soul. It was questioning and challenging and accepting. It was finding comfort in who we were and the strength to believe we could be more.  

Then it was all gone. I moved on. Susan moved on. Life carried us both away.

Now years later I’m trying to fashion stories out of those mixed religious experiences. I have wrapped myself in a coat of many colors and tried to decipher the coded messages from the real ones. What truth, if any, was to be found in the Baltimore Catechism? Were there really mess-ages in all those rambling, repetitive boring eulogies on Sunday morning? Is there a commonality among religions despite repeated claims that each is the only one? I wander through this religious wilderness seeking the truth that, in fact, lies only within me. So I let my mind dance across the keyboard and stories come to life.

‘Cafeteria Catholic’ is a play which examines the relationship of an agnostic who finds himself attracted to a devote Catholic. It’s a paradox I find intriguing enough to write a play about it.

‘Frenchy’s Eats’ is a play which examines the dysfunctional and yet poetic relationship between
a man and a woman, an intrusive Catholic church and a father the author never knew. It’s a complicated play in its rag-tag juxtaposition of elements and explanations that danced between my parents, their divorce and the mysterious Canadian legacy that still lurks far back in my own ancestry.

‘Love in the A Shau’ is a trip back in time when a young man was struggling to stay afloat in an Ivy-league world he never knew existed, the tantalizing taste of first love and class differences that he let define him.

My blogs often wander back through that period to rummage and rifle through old memories; both good and bad. I suppose they’re really memoirs of a sort in case a future generation cares to examine their grandfather’s life lived back then.

Because of my Catholic education I learned the intrinsic value of working hard, helping others, being fair and trying to be a good man, a good husband, a good father and grandfather.

Despite my Catholic education I learned the value of self.

Truth be told, I’m a Christian before I’m a Catholic. But I could just as easily be a Buddhist, a Muslim or a Jew. I’m not a religious person but I believe in religion; whatever flavor people may chose. It’s not a bad combination; a double-edged sword to combat the challenges of life while accepting responsibility for what comes our way.

Perhaps way back then those wise women dressed in their penguin attire did teach me something about religion after all. It’s been a long journey.

Guess I’ve circled back now to where it all started.