Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Seeds out of the Ground

During one of their heart-to-heart sessions recently, Sharon’s mother asked Sharon if she was ever embarrassed by her rural upbringing. I thought it a strange question since Sharon has always embraced her life growing up on the farm. Anyone who knows Sharon understands that her rural heritage brings nothing but pride to her. It seemed a strange question to me until I realized that not all children share the same pride that Sharon does in being a farmer’s child. Some of them move away from their roots, physically and mentally, only to realize later that the green grass on the horizon isn’t always so emerald. Funny how sometimes in our youth we can’t wait to shed the cloak of our pedigree only to end up embracing it as we get older.

Still some folks don’t see it that way. This came to mind recently when a dear colleague of mine decided to leave town. We’d worked together in television for over 35 years before she decided to move from Minnesota to points west. I’m going to miss her a lot. She was a confidant and able translator of most things female. She helped me understand the feminine psychic and was invaluable in helping me craft female characters for my novels. Now her husband has tired of Minnesota winters and decided to pack it in. They’re going to put down roots elsewhere. I certainly wish her well and will be curious how it goes for her.

Dorm for Mass General Hospital, Boston MA

I knew another woman who left the Twin Cities a long time ago. She was born and raised in a small Minnesota town. In college she couldn’t wait to escape the confines of her college campus for a career out east in Boston. Even Saint Paul and Minneapolis were too small for her worldly ambitions. While still an East Coast ex-pat today, she now proudly claims her small town upbringing on her Facebook page, has old classmates as Facebook friends and even flew back for her 50th high school class reunion.

Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting

The draw of ‘back home’ is strange and mysterious and yet ever present for many of us. In 1977, I was working at the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting. It was, without a doubt, one of the premier public television stations in the country at the time. I had a great job, a nice house, wonderful friends there and a son just born. Yet I couldn’t wait to return to my Minnesota roots after an absence of five years. Go figure.

I’ve commented in past blogs on my amazement how important one’s upbringing is to so many people. While stationed at the Presidio of San Francisco I would sit around the barracks and listen to my bunk mates lament their being away from their home turf.

One missed being awaken each morning by the L train shaking him out of his bed. Another couldn’t wait to get back to the south side of Chicago just so he could hang out on his favorite street corner again. Our confederate Johnny Reb still didn’t trust Yankees even in the Golden State. He couldn’t wait to get back to Mississippi where they got things ‘right.’

Even with a great part-time job working at an art theater, easy living on base, a great MOS in journalism and adventures many a weekend in that city by the bay, I still missed my Minnesota roots. I wasn’t ready to return home just then but I knew I would once my thirst for new experiences and adventures had subsided.

Aerial view of Palm Springs, CA

Palm Springs is like a modern-day version of the fur trappers rendezvous. In Palm Springs everyone is from someplace else. I’m always taken aback when asked where I’m from and when I say Minnesota the other party may occasionally respond ‘Min-es-o-ta’ in their best Fargo imitation. I then calmly respond “No, I said Minnesota” and nothing more because it’s usually in polite company. Those are words uttered by the untraveled and uninitiated. Most of us got it a long time ago.

I’ve also referenced the interesting twists and turns of friendships in this regional melting pot in another blog entitled Like Snowflakes come and gone. Like many other resort towns such as Key West and Las Vegas a lot of the residents are transients in passing. They spend the winters away from home but like homing pigeons always leave in the spring.

For many, the siren call of our youth is a powerful magnet always calling us back home.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

High Desert Mecca

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.

We took the family there last Christmas for a day long excursion. It was cold and dark and overcast. A wonderland of strange rock formations, contorted plants and trees and the ever present wind tugging at our bundled up bodies. Far from the craziness of L.A. and the teaming masses of the inland empire, Joshua Tree is a world unto its own.

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, September 15, 2015

Authentic Self

If we can get past our ego’s definition of who we are it can be an enlightening experience. Visiting our authentic self for the first time is like meeting a perfect stranger that you’ve known all of your life.

But to get there you have to push beyond those influences that up until now have defined who you think you are. Past life experiences, relationships, loves, losses and a wide assortment of pivotal life-altering events that have all conspired to shape a personal vision of yourself in your head. 

You’ve spent a lifetime painting your skin like a canvas of who you think you are. It’s a personal journey of ego, attitude, needs, desires, fears and wants. But in your quest for satisfaction in life you’ve inadvertently let outside influences shape and define your true self.

St. Louis Grade School
There’s been collateral damage suffered and you didn’t even know it. It came from those youthful messages imparted on you by parents, teachers, lovers and friends. Everyone who thought they knew who you were, what you were and what you should become in life. It was everyone who made promises that couldn’t be kept. Everyone who envisioned your future fulfilled but didn’t have their own stuff together yet. Anyone and everyone who slipped into your life, touched you if just for a moment in time then disappeared into that vast emptiness called past relationships. It was a self-image you’ve dragged along through life until something or someone challenged it.

That something for me was a new focus on writing after a lifetime of working in fields I loved. It was finding even more fulfillment in writing than I had in running marathons, long distance bike rides, walking in the rain, getting lost in a forest, running trails until I wanted to drop, climbing a mountain and gasping for air until I thought I was going to pass out. Those were/are satisfying experiences but none compared to holding that first published book in my hands and saying ‘damn, I did it.’

Part of that organic process of writing was a new demand for more self-examination and thoughtful-processing of past lives I’ve lived, my present environment and level of personal satisfaction.

It demanded a closer examination of past relationships and my reaction to life events. It forced me out of old reflections, memories and explanations and gradually wiped away the dust and dirt of past assumptions to revealed a truer self. My research and writing took me on a journey I am only now beginning to better understand and appreciate. It is all about answering the question of who I was back then and how it made me who I am today.

Helping me along the way is a daily detour I take to check-in inside my head. This practice is a monastic exercise but one with benefits. It’s finally coming face to face with the true me. Mind you I can’t say I know me that well even though it’s been over seventy-two years of living in this skin.

The latest catch-phrase is mindfulness even though it’s been around for many years. It’s an exercise that seems pretty simple on the surface but can be very powerful on one’s psyche.*

1.      Begin with a comfortable seated position. Take five or more deep inhalations and exhalations.

2.      Make yourself aware of your breathing, allowing your breath to be as natural and relaxed as possible.

3.      Using the mantra ‘I am’ continue your breathing in a slow and rhythmic fashion. Make it organic, natural, comfortable and effortless. Focus on ‘being one with yourself’ and not the ‘doing’ of the exercise.

4.      As your mind quiets, begin to drop in the question, “Who am I?” If words or emotions arise, allow them to be there. You are not looking for an answer but rather an awareness of self.

5.      This opening into awareness may last only seconds but with repeated sessions it will begin to reveal itself more and more.

*Parts of this exercise were taken from an article entitled ‘Check Your Head’ by Sally Kempton in Yoga Magazine.

It’s a journey I intend to follow for the rest of my life. A trek backwards that might help propel me forward with clarity and vision of who I really am.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

I Have Seen the Elephant, I Have Heard the Owl

The saying:  ‘I have seen the elephant, I have heard the owl’ is an American colloquial phrase that refers to gaining experience of the world at a significant cost. It was a popular expression in the mid-to-late 19th century throughout the United States beginning with the Mexican-American war and beyond.

Pioneers would speak about ‘seeing the elephant’ in their journeys west. James Michener in his novel ‘Centennial’ made it a key point in the life of one of his characters. For that young adventurer it was an experience that left him shaken to the core and uncertain about his future.

Over the years, the phrase has become immersed in western novels, war stories and more poignant storytelling such as Margaret Craven’s wonderful novel ‘I Heard the Owl Call My Name.’ It’s been referenced in many bible stories highlighting those watershed moments and end of life experiences some biblical characters have faced.

It’s been argued that you don’t really know who you are until faced with a catastrophe or a near-death experience. Some will say that our best life experiences come through affliction and challenges we never expected to encounter. It might be an athletic event that stretches your abilities to their absolute maximum. It could be a personal struggle with health issues, personal or social relationships or any number of personal challenges.

Now to take that argument one step further I might also suggest that for many people the act of planting ones feet on a stage could be akin to ‘seeing the elephant.’ Yet there are a number of octogenarians and their younger compatriots who have agreed to do just that in a new senior theater project in Rosemount, Minnesota.   

After two summers of trekking to an assisted living facility / nursing home in Wabasha I’ve seen firsthand how many of the elderly have chosen to live out the rest of their lives. Some are able to embrace or at least accept their final surroundings while others just sit in their rooms pining for the ‘good old days.’

So it was encouraging to see that there is another group of elders who are readily embracing change and challenges and new adventures in their lives. It’s not only refreshing it’s darn right encouraging. There is hope for aging baby boomers everywhere.

The RAAC senior theater project could be a potential proving ground for some of my theatrical production ideas. The RAAC was started in 2007 by four area residents who had been serving as advisors to the city about possible future use for a church that was closing in town. Their final recommendation was that the church be rededicated as a community arts center.

As the group was making its final recommendations they decided that the arts in Rosemount were about more than just a building in town. They felt there was need for an arts council that could spearhead activities and programming to bring the arts, all kinds of arts, to the people.
Now they have a new project called the Senior Theater.

Creating plays has always been part of my writing arsenal. The Coachella Valley in California has a plethora of theaters and theatrical groups I’d love to approach with some of my works. Now I hope to have even more opportunities for play-writing closer to my Minnesota roots.

Rosemount Area Arts Council Senior Theater Group

This latest project of RAAC’s follows on the heels of a growing trend in this country of theater groups for seniors. It’s a trend that continues to grow by leaps and bounds. In 1977, there were 79 such groups, now there are more than 800 spread out across the country.

Part of the inspiration for this trend came from the work of the late psychiatrist Dr. Gene Cohen who headed centers on aging at the National Institute of Mental Health and at George Washington University. Dr. Cohen’s research concluded that involvement in the arts provides seniors numerous benefits for mind and body.

'Barefoot' - Photo Credit - Keith Reed

'Barefoot' - Photo Credit - Keith Reed

Stuart Kandell who founded Stagebridge in Oakland, California in 1978, the oldest senior theater company in the U.S., has stated: “We all have a need for challenges. We have a need to keep learning. We have a need to feel like we’re giving back to other generations. We have a need for a social environment. Theater does all of that and more.” Then he adds: “The social element is huge, gigantic. The (theatrical) company for many people is an extended family.”

I could see and feel that very sentiment at our first meeting to introduce the public to the RAAC senior theater project. The room was filled with people who seemed energetic, enthused and ready to get involved. None seemed to be worried about their age or tired body parts. For some it was a second chance to do something they’ve always wanted to do in the theater. For others it’s a chance to keep going. For a few it’s just being a kid again. I’ve never wanted to grow up and start acting my age anyway. Why start now? Riding Shotgun with Peter Pan expresses my sentiments exactly on that matter.

At the first meeting there was the obligatory grumpy old man who was hard of hearing and had to be rude in pointing that out. There are always a few folks who are prisoners of their past and still afraid of their future. They’re caught in a limbo of contradictions, paralyzed by fear of trying something new and yet tortured by the realization that their time is running out. Fortunately he was the only one among the group. Those other attendees seemed to be more than willing to embrace their future no matter how terrifying the theater might seem to them.

My first experience with Community Theater started back in Tennessee in 1972. I had left public television in Minnesota to spread my wings in the Deep South.

WTCI Television

Me at WTCI Television

It was a crazy time because I found myself labeled a damned Yankee in King Conservative’s Court. The southern attitudes and prejudices against the north were still very much alive when I arrived as the new production manager at a public television station in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

I loved the city itself, the people, the surrounding area, new friends we met and our weekend jaunts around the south. My work experience should have held me in respect among my peers. Unfortunately it was my northern linage that did me in. The stations production crew was as prejudiced and unwelcoming to northerners as anything I’d ever experienced.


Fortunately the Chattanooga Little Theater became my refuge. It was a welcoming respite from the bigotry and ignorance I experienced at work. I crewed on the first play of the season and then acted in three more. Around the end of our fourth play I had been offered a new job in Maryland and my brief, ever exciting career as a thespian came to a sudden halt. But not without some interesting observations.

'How the Other Half Lives'

Cast of 'Catch 22'

I observed there’s a latent thespian in many of us. But some take it far more seriously than others. I was of the latter party. It was a challenge. I was and still am an introvert so the bright lights, grease paint and applause did little to sooth my nervousness and fright on stage.

I think a lot of those actors found their true selves on stage. Much like politicians whose only claim to fame is their small town title, these folks truly embraced their new pretend persona. It made them feel accomplished and whole and fulfilled. I never reached that level of self-satisfaction. I was always more interested in the story-telling aspect of the theater and not the acting part of it.

In this new incarnation as a playwright, I hope to be working with the RAAC Artistic Directors, programming chair and Senior Theater Development Chair. I hope it will be a collaborative effort in which we can create a wonderful experience for those seniors and a fun time for all who attend their first performance early next year.

Some of those seniors may ‘see the elephant’ while others might ‘hear the owl.’ But either way, vision or not, it will be a great experience for all of them. Not for the racing hearts or sweaty palms and memory-challenges but simply because when called upon they answered the call. They took a chance and risked the fear and trepidation for a chance to do something challenging, something exhilarating, something that many of their colleagues could only hope to accomplish. Not a bad legacy in one’s twilight years.

My Tabernacle

For me it’ll be just another jump-start to add to my work load back in Palm Springs and hopefully land a production there as well. Either way, produced or not, writing plays continues to be fodder for my over-active imagination and a wonderful excuse to keep body and mind active and moving.

And always on the lookout for the elephant and the owl.