Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Revealing Debris

I grew up in a household without any books…or magazines…or newspapers. In fact, it wasn’t until I started my paper route in Seventh grade that I even knew or understood what a newspaper was all about. I remember sitting on the front stoop of the last house on my route, perusing the headlines of the newspaper and trying to understand what I was reading. There were stories in-between those lines. I just had to find them. I do the same thing today…only now its sitting on my porch, coffee cup in hand and scanning my iPad.

How or why I became a writer is anyone’s guess. The first thing an old acquaintance once said to me after fifty years absence was ‘you did become a writer.’ I hadn’t realized it was that obvious of an obsession. Truth be told I’ve always been a writer trapped within my own imagination. Victor Hugo said it best: ‘A writer is a world trapped inside a person.’

My writings have taken me to many places seen and unseen. I might be traversing the desert out west riding alongside a loner called Jeb Burns in the ‘Apache Death Wind’ trilogy. It could be watching the cunning nature of a man, really a half-breed, by the name of Ree Bannon in my novel ‘Apache Blue Eyes.’

It might be reliving and writing down the adventures of a young man much like myself back in the mid-sixties in a book called ‘Love in the A Shau.’

Or it could be peeling back the layers of complexity of an aging hippie, trapped in a retirement community, who is causing all kinds of problems. This latter was a new medium for me, a play instead of a novel. But ‘Riot at Sage Corner’ was storytelling just the same. So how do these stories come about? Where do they come from and how do I manage to capture them on paper?

For most vacationers and snowbirds, Palm Springs hosts a veritable cornucopia of attractions that surround it. From the high desert of Joshua Tree to mountain communities like Big Bear and Idyllwild to the PCH and Pacific Ocean. LA and San Diego are only two hours away and Phoenix just four hours away.

Palm Springs has no industry to speak of, no high-tech jobs nor large Fortune 500 companies. It’s primarily a tourist destination with some agriculture on the Eastern end of the valley. Most of the jobs are service jobs and as such don’t pay very well. It is very much like other tourist destinations like Las Vegas, Key West and mountain ski communities like Aspen.

On the surface, Palm Springs is a remarkable place to visit and live…if you have the means to do so. I was reminded of that years ago when I was walking downtown one night and passed by the Greyhound bus stop. It’s been moved since then, probably because it was drawing the underbelly of what the city fathers didn’t want visitors to see. Those would be the homeless, the drifters, the vagrants and others down-on-their-luck who were moving constantly in search of something better in their lives.

As I passed by the bus depot a phrase came to me and stuck in my head: “They were all just debris from the west coast.” Thus, Palm Springs became the perfect setting for my story of ambition, passion and unrequited love. I thought about my elevator pitch to describe my storyline. It went something like this: ‘Palm Springs is haunted by the rich, the famous and the broken. This is their story.’

Immediately my imagination started churning. This novel would be a saga; a soap opera and a revolving, intertwined series of stories of individuals at different points in their lives.

I envisioned this kid, moving around the state, on a quest to find something better. I wanted him to be different than my character Daniel from ‘Love in the A Shau’ so unlike Daniel, Robert doesn’t have a college education, hasn’t been in the service, and yet is just as hungry to improve himself.

I saw him somehow ending up on a bus leaving LA and heading for Palm Springs. There were a number of interesting characters he met on the bus and more personalities he meets after he establishes himself in Palm Springs.

There is a love interest too but unlike Colleen in ‘Love in the A Shau’, Miranda is damaged goods. I won’t tell you why. But she is strong and feisty and determined to repair the damage brought on by her dysfunctional family. If I were to label these characters I would probably say they are all searching for something better in their lives.

In short, it’s the perfect place for a collision of lives subtly hidden by crystal clear skies, shimmering pools of blue and warm seductive nights. ‘Debris’ is a Roman coliseum of broken individuals each at various points of conflict in their lives and almost all of them seeking some kind of redemption.
Millie is the aging movie star whom time and Hollywood have long since abandoned. She is an icon for all that was the glory and power of old Hollywood. But she is lost in the new Palm Springs.

Juliet is in the desert to find another man to fill out her tepid life. A chance encounter with Natalie, her new boss at the real estate firm, now elicits emotions buried beneath her puritanical upbringing and society's standards.

Brett & Payton seem the perfect couple newly ensconced in Palm Springs’ growing design industry until a chance encounter with Kevin threatens the stability of their relationship.

There is a native american kid who wants desperately to break out of his tribal constraints while still respecting his elder’s traditions. He faces great danger as he searches for the ghost of Tahquitz Canyon.

Other characters keep piling up. Each is a footnote or a chapter liner without whom the main characters couldn’t function or evolve.

There are the Goldsteins who lost a son in Afghanistan and now grapple with finding meaning in their lives. Then there’s despicable Tom Thornton whose eye for Juliet doesn’t rise above her waist and who must deal with a sordid past that is fast catching up on him. Francie who ‘has it all’ in money and power and beauty. She has everything except the one thing she wants to control and can’t…Robert.

So how do authors keep track of all those fictional characters as their lives intertwine with one another? Some authors used 3 x 5 cards on a bulletin board. Others use detailed outlines. None of those techniques work for me. I simply let the story flow as it comes to my mind. With the greatest respect for Julian Fellows and his mastery of storytelling with ‘Downton Abby’ I wanted to emulate his techniques of floating storylines of these characters that seemed weave and intertwine from one chapter to the next.

When I was finished with ‘Debris’ it came in at a whopping 500 plus pages. Even I had to agree with my editor that it was too big for a not-yet-famous author. Fortunately, I had a rough treatment for a sequel to that original story.

So I want back to the drawing board and:

1.      First I envisioned where I might end the first part of the story.

2.      Then I envisioned how I would pick up the characters' lives after that. (because I knew their lives were going to change now that I had more space to continue their story.)

3.      Finally, I envisioned a continuation of their stories into a third book based on my rough treatment for a sequel.

What I liked about the outcome is that books one and two take part in roughly the same continuing time period. But book three begins about two years after book two ends and introduces some new characters who very quickly interact with some of my old characters.

Book three allowed me to tell the entire story and then realistically and honestly end the story of their lives.

In much the same way that ‘Love in the A Shau’ was all about capturing my youth, real and imagined so too Debris has captured those individuals I’ve met in Palm Springs. Individuals whose lives are worth capturing in words of my own.

It’s been a remarkable journey for all of us.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Harvesting of America

The business definition of harvesting is to break up a company for its component parts and sell them off one by one. The theory being that the parts are more valuable than the total entity. It was all the rage back in the seventies with Wall Street raiders and hedge fund mavens garnering daily headlines with their latest acquisitions and industry dismemberments.

Now unfortunately that same thing seems to be happening in America. This new metamorphosis of thinking hides under the guise of a pervasive old way of thought called nationalism. These are selfish goals among diverse groups bonded by their individual interests instead of focusing on the common good for all. Uncommon goals among nationalities and generations are neither a surprise nor unexpected. But it’s the unwillingness of these groups to understand and respect the views of others that constitutes the main problem. We no longer seem to be able to ‘listen’ to one another or be willing to give ‘them’ the benefit of the doubt. Sadly, to a degree, congress and our representatives often lead this chorus of righteous self-interest and a lack of concern for the common good.

Evidence is all around us. For example, there is greater disparity between the rich and the poor. It’s an income gap that continues to grow each year. From 2000 to 2014 the share of adults living in middle-income households fell in 203 of the 229 U.S. metropolitan areas examined in a new PEW Research Center analysis of government data. This decrease in the middle-class share was often substantial, measuring six percentage points or more in 53 metropolitan areas, compared with a 4-point drop nationally.*

This shrinking middle class only serves to widen that disparity between the haves and the have-nots. The economic engine that fueled a growing middle class is fast disappearing and its replacement is still struggling to find footing in a new economic model. Yet most economists will tell you that when the middle class grows, the rich and the poor both benefit; abet in different ways.

Unfortunately into that muddle of income disparity and thinly disguised class differences has fallen or deliberately been thrown all kinds of manufactured distractions. Events and distractions created solely to feed an audience with mindless thought processes like empty calories to feed the soul. Ratings rule even if common sense takes a step back in our rational thinking.

There is an almost irreverent attitude toward the news. The ‘Evening News’ on television is almost always bad news because that’s what attracts eyeballs. It’s a grab bag of breathless, exaggerated and over-caffeinated sound bites. Web reporting fares little better. There are simplistic bullet points, clickbait ads, provocative photos but little in the way of balanced reporting. Many sites have become slick mindless muddled pap for the masses.

Reporting directly from the coliseum are heightened headlines from professional sports. Football coverage now encompasses twelve months of mindless stats and exaggerated predictions for next weekend’s game. The goal here is to create tension and questions where vacuums used to suffice. National championships are hyped on the level of the second coming and/or the apocalypse. Media coverage of the entertainment world is even more inane. We worship J-lo and wonder if Jo-Jo will ever find true love.

The ‘silly season’ is back in full swing. It’s become a circus act of divisive politics which focuses only on self-interests and not the common good. It’s become a national embarrassment that few are willing to admit within and outside of our borders. This political season seems to be worse than many others in recent history.

Some religious groups are moving in the right direction seeking unity in Christian values. But too many are still exclusive, instead of being inclusive. These religious zealots claim God on their side as long as he (not she or in-between) is white, Christian and god-fearing…and not on welfare.  Everyone else need not apply.

Yet this isn’t our heritage. This isn’t the American way. We’ve certainly been sidetracked and distracted and gone off on tangents in the past but we’ve always come back to our common goals and aspirations.

My mother with her parents

This country has a long history of immigration, religious tolerance and inclusiveness. It’s not been without its distractors or hiccups along the way. It’s never been without its flaws, major and minor, but it still works even after two hundred plus years.

We need to find common ground for issues to agree upon or at least learn to disagree with one another in a respectful manner. We need to use common sense and not be afraid to compromise. But most importantly we need a shared vision for what this country stands for and what those who came before us worked for, died for and wanted for future generations.

I want better for my kids and grandkids. I’ve always said that I want them to be citizens of the world. I want them to be accepting, tolerant and grateful for their many blessings. I expect them to be willing to help the needy and less fortunate. I would not…I will not… accept anything less of them.

That’s not how they were raised.

·         Pewsocialtrends.org

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Old Before Their Time

At my 50th reunion, I was struck by the fact that some of my old classmates had changed a lot physically while others looked pretty much the same as they did in back in high school. That, I understood, was just the luck of the draw, parental genes passed down and perhaps a chosen lifestyle that focused on healthy living.

After an absence of fifty years that room was filled with strangers with whom I had little to nothing in common except the same graduation date. Of course, over the evening hours, we shared our life’s war stories, pictures of our grandkids, and fragmented and sometimes fractured memories of time spent in the classroom or on the drill field.

Aside from changes in their physical looks many of my classmates remained the same in their personality, outlook, and mindset. Their political views were probably a lot more defined. Fifty years had spelled out a lifetime of career choices, kids, grandkids, love found and lost and our new shared reality of growing old.

What I wasn’t able to access in that brief well-orchestrated evening was how mentally old some of my classmates had grown. We were all roughly 68 or 69 years old…chronologically. But I was curious how old they had grown in their outlook on life. Over the evening and numerous conversations, I began to ask myself ‘what happened to some of those mindsets that they had calcified so rapidly?’

At some point all of us face that long slow slide toward the end. Aches and pains, memory loss, lack of interest in…and lower levels of tolerance are all part of the game of life. But from my observation, some of those folks seemed to be aging much faster than others.

For some older folks, it’s the fear of dying and what lies beyond the funeral hymns. For others it might be unhappiness in their past career or their goals and aspirations not being met. Growing old before one’s time has nothing to do with income levels, life experiences, upbring or a myriad of other cultural, religious or family events. So what is it that causes some folks to shut down on life and only focus on the negative and mundane?

“Men especially seem to be susceptible to this mindset. For grumpy old men, there is no such thing as the golden years. While older women enjoy strong social ties with friends, family and their local communities, some men tend to turn inwards.

Masculinity continues to cloud these men’s experiences and activities in later life. Most men regard women as the keepers of friendships and contacts. Left alone to their own devices, many of those same men fall into the routine trap of seeking solace among like-minded souls.1

I’ve waxed philosophically before (perhaps too often) about the ‘old men in the coffee shop.’ You can find them every morning someplace in town, gathered around the table and rehashing world events. It’s Monday morning quarterbacking, complaining about politics, the government, the weather, social services, youth, money, rich people and anyone not white or speaking English.

 ‘Aging successfully must include good mental health which is very much interconnected with physical health. The aging process itself does not normally cause sudden intellectual or emotional changes. ‘Coping with all the changes of aging can be difficult, but it can be done in a healthy way. The keys to coping include your long-term lifestyle, your ability to expect and plan for change, the strength of your relationships with family and friends, and your willingness to stay interested in and involved with life.”2

So how does one keep an upbeat and yet realistic outlook on life? Certainly I’m no expert. I’m still muddling my way through daily writing, exercise, friendships, travels and new avenues to explore. But I think I’ve gleamed a bit of wisdom from my own experiences and observing those of others.

First, I think you have to accept reality. You’re not as strong, youthful or resilient as you once were. That doesn’t mean you can’t be as alive as the next person. Mindset is everything. Sometimes life sucks…plain and simple. It isn’t always fair or equitable or works out right. Bad things happen to good people and sometimes those others get away from any discomfort in their lives. ‘So be it.’ Move on with your life.

Moving your bones on a daily basis and jump-starting your mind at the same time can only help. Stay current on local and national affairs and don’t compare it to ‘the good old days.’ Be open to change. Plant your feet firmly in today but still let your mind return to those days of yesteryear when all women were beautiful, men were strong and children looked up to their heroes.

As Leonard Cohen said: “There are heroes in the seaweed.”

We just have to find them there.

Points taken from an article entitled: 
1. “Men Growing Old Grumpily” by Steve Dought, Daily Mail.
2.  HealthGuide.org

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Sage Taught Me Well

Watching her perform on stage I was struck by the fact that this woman began as just a figment of my imagination. I created this old hippie and made up the storyline that was starting to unfold in front of a packed house. All those voices heard inside my head so long ago were now being repeated by actors mimicking my imagined characters.

‘Riot at Sage Corner’ was coming alive in an old converted church after a brief four weeks of rehearsals. That was scary and even more unnerving than I had expected it to be as a first time produced playwright.

Fortunately, Sage was being played by an accomplished actress who had the role down pat. The rest of the cast was comprised of great actors whose limited time on stage hadn’t diminished their enthusiasm or acting abilities. There was a minimalistic set design that defined the area but didn’t distract from the action taking place. The set designers had provided a wonderful environ-ment in which to create a fun and entertaining story.

But most importantly (from granted, a self-serving point of view) it provided invaluable lessons for me as a playwright. Writing novels is an entirely different gladiator contest from drafting a play. Playwriting was no longer a solitary venture for me; a journey inside my head. Instead my playwriting was meant to be consumed by other creative types and ultimately the general public.

The lessons learned were easy to list and yet hard to define. This summer I had to learn team work, the idiosyncrasies of small town America, clashing and compromising personalities and life in Community Theater.

It meant discounting ingrained prejudices for my ‘baby’ and the anguish of ‘letting go.’ It’s almost akin to ‘killing your babies’ which in the world of writing is defined as editing your work despite the blood, sweat and tears that came with its creation. My limited take on the process of play production had to give way to the reality of group consensus and the director’s vision.

It meant knowing the venue and recognizing the limits of Community Theater as compared to a professional theatrical venture. Knowing the production staff meant recognizing their boundless enthusiasm but also the limitations of finances, support staff and physical venues.

As important to the playwright as working with producers was, it also meant sharing ones vision with the director. The director has to be a team-leader, a cheerleader, a teacher and a counselor. I can see now that having a voice in casting the actors ingratiates the playwright into the creative process as does the ability to make comments during the rehearsals. There must be a shared vision for your story. It can’t just be the director’s next gig.

Storytelling is the same recipe no matter what the format. The storyline must be engaging from the very start. Act one; Scene One must grab the audience’s attention. The second scene must hold that attention and by the third scene it’s ‘go for broke.’ Each scene must take the action/conflict/tension/suspense to the next level. Grab the audience by their collective consciousness and never let go. Every scene is important. Every actor is important.

The actors portraying your characters must be believable and realistic. The audience must care about them even if they dislike them in the process. If the audience doesn’t care then you’ve lost the battle before it even began. The common goal for all is entertaining story-telling.

As a playwright the lessons are very clear and indisputable. Despite its folky fa├žade, the creative/entertainment industry is not known for its warm feelings and caring concern. It isn’t a basket of puppies or kittens. Instead the business is rife with insecurity, jealousy and sabotage. That doesn’t mean there aren’t clusters of very talented people brought together for a common cause or story to tell.

We were fortunate enough to be sold out both evenings. I give full credit to my wife, Sharon, and her brilliant marketing acumen for filling the house.

‘Riot at Sage Corner’ provided me an invaluable lesson in the theater. My learning curve was on an accelerated thrust that could only be described as ‘rocket to the moon.’ Where it takes me next is still up for grabs. On reflection, I loved the process, hated the uncertainty and was thrilled with the results.

Many people have asked…and yes, there is another play concept that I’ve had mulling around in my brain for some time now. The storyline encompasses universal themes such as the challenges of growing old and the culmination of a lifetime of living. I would describe it as a lighthearted drama with some serious moments.

Oh, and there’s original music too.