Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Hearing Voices

I heard a speaker not too long ago and what he said really resonated with me. He talked about hearing voices inside his head. It was his fictional characters carrying on a scene he was trying to capture on paper. This man had become an unobtrusive third party trying to capture the anxiety and angst of a heated conversation. He was a writer.

Been there, done that. It happens to me all the time. Every writer tackles story-telling in their own way. Whatever works best for them? Yet writing styles vary with one’s personality, intensity of focus, level of patience and determination. Despite a plethora of advice from writing magazines and web sites, there is no ‘one approach fits all’ truth to writing styles. No single approach answers every writer’s needs.

This speaker went on to say he thought there are different types of writers and many could be compared to certain types of animals. He saw himself as a snake. By that he meant that as a writer he tended to know where he was going to start his story and how his story would end. But between the beginning and his ending was a long and winding pathway he couldn’t predict even if he wanted to.

Intrigued with that concept, I googled the various types of writers we can pin down or define. Seems there are a lot. One web site called Paper Fury defined ten various types of writers. Another site, One Space, defined six types of freelance writing. Writing-World.Com has created a long list of writing types from academic writers to writers of erotica and a lot in between.

Envisioning writing styles to the animal world is a whimsical way of describing them. For example, I imagine there is the prairie dog. Ideas keep popping up-are knocked down-and others just keep popping up again. When and where the next idea comes from is anyone’s guess. How the story ends (to both the writer and the reader) remains a mystery until it finally happens.

A chameleon keeps his changing story lines like changing colors. There are just so many to choose from and others keep popping up all the time. There are sticky-notes, napkins, notebooks, chalk boards and e-mail messages to document them all. The ideas are great. The writer just needs to find the time to make use of them all.

The elephant is slow and methodical. There are huge outlines and plot structures and treatments that can go on forever. No need for speed until the writer knows exactly where he or she is going. Of course, this is all based on an assumption that at some point all that planning will evolve into something substantial and end up in print or on the computer screen.

The cheetah is fast, very fast. Book in a month, forget it. The cheetah continues to pound out the chapters regardless of spelling errors, wandering plot lines or divergent personality changes. Fast and furious is the name of the game. Until the well runs dry and the blank screen causes head-aches and a cessation of the verbal attack for a while.

The dinosaur is like a one-hit wonder that never quite gets to the publishing stage. The one book written is in a constant state of flux with rewriting, plot changes, more editing needed and a constant worry that the subject matter is already passé. It’s procrastination at its finest.

Then there is the tortoise which is where my wife has pegged my personality. Upon reflection, I guess she’s probably right. Slow and methodical with a parcel of projects always in flux. This tortoise is like an octopus with writing tentacles reaching out to blogs, plays, novels, screenplays and an assortment of treatments, story ideas and speaking outlines.

My stories are character-driven and (I’d like to believe) carefully thought out with honesty and a reflection of what life events I see around me or imagine there. It’s embellished by my curiosity, past life experiences, my hopes and imagination coupled with a fervent desire to tell a good story.

This whole writing gig has been a long time in coming; sixty plus years. But it’s a pleasant new addiction to replace hard pavement and dirt trails. It’s the accumulation of lives led, experiences good and bad and a soul-satisfying trip back inside my head.  It’s a journey that satisfies every day…just the steady tapping of fingers on the keyboard and a mind running rampant with no end in sight.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Long and Winding Road

I wanted to get lost inside my head.

After a summer of play productions, self-published books and speaking engagements I thought a thousand foot precipice overlooking the Coachella Valley would be a good place to start. So one of the first things I did upon my return to the desert…was climb a mountain.

The granite plateau is a pivotal point in Book Three of my ‘Debris’ series. It’s where one of the protagonists goes to meditate and think about the ghost of Tahquitz Canyon. I figured if it was good enough for him, why not me.

It wasn’t just any cliff face but my favorite sanctuary of solitude and comfort. It’s my granite tabernacle for reflection and contemplation. A slab of rock that warms my bottom as well as my soul. An escape for quiet soul-searching amid the shadows of Indian lore and homes of the rich and invisible.

I call it my Vision Quest with a reverent nod to Native American lore. Only this year it’s different. Hopefully I’m a little wiser if not a bit older. Reflections seem to trip forth easier with age. Here I reflect. I meditate and I plan for the future. The San Jacinto mountain chain is a great place to recharge one’s creative batteries.

The Coachella Valley is shouldered by several mountain chains which have imbued this area with numerous opportunities to seek solace, quiet reflection, exercise and release from the routine of our daily lives.

Something magical, almost spiritual, can happen during a mountain traverse. It’s a physical as well as mental challenge. At face value, it can be an afternoon of hiking, climbing or finger-probing the rough crags and fissures of the mountain face. On a more spiritual level, it’s an assent into the vaulted realm of oxygen deprivation, aching muscles, sweat-drenched clothing and overall mental exhilaration…all to put your head in the right place.

There’s a culture here among a small group of old goats who work and hike these mountains year round.  They care for the trails as an elder does the tribe. They endure scorching summer heat and windy overcast winter days. Most are rail-thin. Their skin looks like weathered copper or dried up old parchment. Most of them are lithe as an antelope. They’re the desert rats of the higher altitudes.

Following that elite group of desert denizens come another eccentric group of trail runners and new age meditators.  They frequent the mountains like others hang out at Starbucks. Finally come the tourists, snowbirds and occasional weekend explorer (many with families in tow.)

In the spring, the trail is accented with blooming yellow brittlebush and flowering cacti…and at times an abundance of rattlesnakes. These rattlesnakes are usually very difficult to see since their coloration blends in perfectly with the rocks and gravel on the trail. One bite and it’s off to the hospital for several vials of antivenin serum. It’s an expensive proposition at several thousand dollars per vial.


There are picnic tables at the top which are perfect for casual reflection without worrying about some rattlesnake biting you on the butt. Scenic vistas go on forever in a field of quiet that is almost deafening. Along with dreams and meandering what-ifs, it’s a perfect place to escape within your head and do some exploring there. But it still doesn’t compare to my tabernacle.

I’ve tried yoga, marathons and long trail runs. Collectively they can punish the body all the while soothing the soul. My tabernacle is no different. It just takes a longer climb to get there.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Woman's Place

It used to be that a woman’s place was only in the home. There were exceptions, like my mother a single working parent, but very few. That’s changed over time along with the old definition of women’s work. Among my friends there’s now a division of labor which is more the norm. Of course, there will always a few hold-outs clinging to the notion that the ‘old way’ was the best way. But for the most part, logic and common sense have come to prevail.

I do the laundry at home and help house-clean; have for years. My wife handles our personal finances and I manage our investments. I do the yard work and she supervises the household. That routine is in stark contrast to the paradigm of responsibility in which we were raised. Nowadays, it’s a division of labor based on who wants to do what or who is the most qualified to handle it. I find it fascinating that some men still cling to the old standards in lieu of a more reliable, realistic divisions of labor.

I never found it unmanly to change diapers, do laundry or wash the dishes. On the other hand, I wouldn’t trust me to make a meal or manage a dinner party or host an event at our home. In those settings, I’m comfortable following directions and not allowing my ego to get in the way of a real pro (my wife.)

Mom & I

Perhaps it was being raised by a strong-willed, self-sufficient mother that made me comfortable around independent women.  I’ve always had this attraction for ambitious brainy women. Now I’m not talking about a woman’s intellectual capacity per say. That’s a given between the two genders. What I’m talking about is an intuitive second-nature that seems so natural with many of the women I knew and still know today. It’s an understanding of how the world works that sometimes escapes many of the men I know…myself included.

I think it’s in their genes. Perhaps some kind of ancient biological metamorphosis that rendered women better able to process life’s intricacies and then somehow translate them into something that actually makes sense. It’s a skill that not a lot of men possess. Men are too logical and rational. We’re too black and white. The grays get it more often than not.

Like the women presently in my life, I’ve been most fortunate to have had interesting women woven through my past lives. Now I find after all these years there is actually a name for these special kind of women…. Alpha females, who knew?

On the Urban Dictionary web site, the definition of an alpha female is the dominant female in a group. She is intelligent, an intellectual problem solver and a hard worker as well as often busy. Yep, that pretty much describes those women I’ve known and still know today.

I stumbled across another site called Askmen.com. The site had a list of “Six signs that you’re dating an alpha female.” OMG…reading it was like discovering your own Myers-Briggs Personality Profile for the first time. Suddenly a light bulb goes off and many of those incidents, events and actions and reactions on her part actually make sense now…at least from her point of view.

Talk about eye-opening. Where was that information fifty plus years ago when I thought dating was like dancing though a field of clover and it was actually a minefield instead? Right from the beginning the roles were reversed. It wasn’t a fair contest and I didn’t even know it.

You’d think that after stumbling through high school, dating a girl who eventually married a doctor, I would have learned my lesson and dated safer women. Not a chance, the woman I dated in college finished school in three years and ended up marrying a fellow who became department chair at one of the service academies.

Undaunted, I continued my quest and kept seeking out stimulating women whose company I enjoyed…even if they were a challenge sometimes. So what happened to that unsuspecting lamb? I ended up marrying the leader of the pack. Her upbringing and background qualify her for such status that I tried to document it in The Girl with Seven Suede Jackets.

I’m not ashamed to admit that my wife is right about most things 90% of the time. Of course, she would claim 110% all of the time but that’s just her. Does it bother me? Yes and no.

No, it doesn’t bother me. The advice I get from her is heart-felt and usually right on the money. The advice is free and plentiful. Well, not exactly free, I’m married to it and it is OUR money.
Yes, of course, it bothers me.

Its tiring having your spouse always be right. It can be irritating at times especially when the obvious is presented as so rational and logical that only a fool wouldn’t be able to grasp it the first time around.

But that doesn’t make women perfect. Far from it. They can be irrational, illogical, emotional and quick to judge. They can act coy and elusive and consider that being safe. They can give mixed messages and consider it undecided. They can play one against the other and consider it evening the odds.

I’ve known enough women to never underestimate their intuitive nature and ability to see the obvious even if it’s well camouflaged to most men. That’s what I was trying to say in The Dutiful Wife; that women are inherently more intuitive than most men and shouldn’t have to apologize for it.

Smart, brainy women are a cut above the rest and that’s why they populate many of my novels and screenplays. They’re simply more interesting characters with a depth and richness that is fun to mine. Sage was my latest protagonist a cut above the rest.

My wife, daughter and daughter-in-law are among some of the smartest women I know. But even before that I had a thing for women who could hold their own in conversation and life. My weakness continues to this day. I’m still surrounded by smart, intuitive women and I love it.

My wife likes to pontificate that if men were smarter they’d realize that just the smallest of gestures made without any specific purpose or goal in mind is a million times more effective than the expected holiday gift or birthday offering. If men knew or just understood that simple fact, they could get just about anything they wanted.

Yeah, I would agree…except if it’s that simple how come it’s so hard to do?

Now that my granddaughters are maturing beyond their chronological ages, I can already see that they are all very bright and strong-willed. It would not be a stretch to say they are becoming true alpha females, all three of them. I’ve already gone off on that topic in ConstantCharlotte.

I used to worry about my granddaughters when they were old enough to begin dating. Now I worry about their dates instead. Those poor guys won’t know what they’re getting themselves into.

Maybe I could meet them at the door and explain what my granddaughters are really like.
But no, I don’t think so. It took me a lifetime to figure out those kind of women and I’m still working at it.

They’re going to have to figure it out for themselves.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Breaking the Fourth Wall

‘Breaking the Fourth Wall’ is an expression coming out of the world of theater. In most modern theater design, a room will consist of three physical walls, as well as an imaginary fourth that serves to separate the world of the characters from that of the audience. An accomplished actor can break through that fourth wall and draw the audience into his or her world, forgetting about the fourth wall there. Artists of every ilk seek to do the very same thing to reach their audience.

‘Behind the Music’ was a series on MTV a while back. The television series covered a number of famous bands and how they originated. Most had been honing their skills in three-two bars and the dance hall circuits for years before some well-written song or lucky coincidence was the break-through they needed to make it to the big time.

Across the board with almost every band was the image of a group of individuals with a fire in their respective bellies. Musicians so dedicated to their craft that they would let nothing get in their way of making music.

Musicians are certainly not alone in that endeavor. The actor, Dustin Hoffman, labored for ten years in Off-Broadway plays before hitting it big with ‘The Graduate.’ Jennifer Lawrence ran the same race.

This quest for recognition and success got me to reflecting why it is that some individuals can talk forever about doing something while others simply do it. Some curb jumpers think about running a marathon but never get past their wishful thinking. Then there are others who begin with a walk, then a jog, a short run and finally begin putting on the mileage.

There are hundreds of thousands of wannabe writers who can’t get past a blank sheet of paper or empty screen. Then there are others who toil for years trying to write something worthwhile but can’t get past the first page. There are only a relatively few who can sit down and write a play or novel or screenplay while so many others never complete that first sentence. What is the difference here?

I certainly don’t have an answer as to why some folks stoke this ‘fire in their belly’ while the majority of dreamers simply wallow in wishful thinking. Yet all of this mindful meandering begs much larger questions as to why do artists or athletes do it in the first place? What drives them to toil in the trenches of an athletic field or in front of a keyboard? Why are they different from the rest of the populous? Can they help themselves or do they want to help themselves? What internal needs are they trying to answer or satisfy?

Passion might be another word for their collective ‘fire in the belly.’ But where does that passion come from? It’s a question that has tugged at my consciousness for a long time and yet never reached a solid conclusion. As such it’s a mystery that has permeated much of my writing.

Not surprisingly the protagonists in most of my novels, male and female, wear a cloak of in-security tempered by blind determination that torments their very souls. One of the phrases that I used to describe my protagonist in “Love in the A Shau” was: ‘Daniel was born hungry.’ The same moniker could be used to describe Robert, my other protagonist in the ‘Debris’ trilogy.

I liked that handle because it so clearly defines the person as a seeker. He or she on their own vision quest. It was what drove them to extraordinary action in Vietnam; it meant traversing the barren and dangerous mountains of Western Arizona or leading a ghostly expedition through the canyons outside of Palm Springs. My heroes had become what they strove to believe in the first place.

For some of us this ‘real world’ vision quest gets tempered with time but never loses its urgency. For a select number of youngsters my age it’s become our age of truth and reason. It is a way of finding ourselves through our art. This quest for authenticity came to me almost by accident. A cessation of my business and a refusal to embrace the acceptable terms of retirement caused me to reflect on that next stage of my life. Writing seemed the next logical step for me.

Now in retrospect I seem to be picking up where I left off at the end of the ‘60s before I got married, settled down and became distracted by life and family and kids. It means forgetting about the miles traveled and shaking aside society’s prejudice, expectations, standards and assumptions. It means recognizing that those were labels and confinements put on us as kids by naïve parents.

This personal quest is about finding your freedom wherever it may be while recognizing it’s a different time, different place, different you that is the seeker. Yet beneath the wrinkles and glasses it is the same mental ramblings, inquiries, and occasionally discoveries. It is a journey I’ve chosen because I didn’t know what else to do with my life. I’m guessing the same can be said of most other artists too.

As a writer, retired folks are a category that intrigues me a lot now. Unlike the legendary ‘old men of the coffee shop’ so many retirees have decided that retirement is their time to slow down and enjoy the fruits of their years of labor. While on the surface this seems to make perfect sense, I can’t help but feel it might also one big step in the wrong direction. ‘Riot at Sage Corner’ was an attempt to explore this dichotomy. What to do with the rest of your life when nothing is not an option.

One of my goals in attempting to define ambition is to light a fire under my grandchildren. I don’t care where their interests or passion or focus goes, just so it goes someplace. I want to be there to encourage them to follow their dream whatever it might be. I can’t do it for them but I certainly offer my help.

A life in pursuit of something is far more satisfying than a life just lived.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Norde East

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time”
                                                                                    Thomas Merton

I guess it’s a generational thing. An old steel and brick icon of prosperity in an ethnically tight community gradually succumbs to the ravages of time only to be reborn years later as the cradle of artistic and entrepreneurial endeavors. The NKB; that ancient Northrup King Building in Northeast Minneapolis is now buzzing with life. The age of antiquities is alive again.

While growing up in Saint Paul I was never aware of old Norde East. It could have been on the other side of the planet for all my wanderings around town. Even when I lived in a hovel near Dinky Town, Northeast was one part of town that held absolutely no allure for me. It was on the other side of East Hennepin Avenue and considered no man’s land to most of us seekers.

Old Northrup King Building with trains in front

Northeast Minneapolis began as an ethnic enclave supplying workers for the factories that lined Central Avenue and batched them in clusters throughout the neighborhood. My only vague connection back then was a secretary who worked in our office at the Minnesota Department of Public Health. I remember she commented once that she lived in Norde East.  It never registered with me where or what it was.

Fifty years after the West Bank of the University of Minnesota harbored the disenfranchised, the hippies and other malcontents of a similar ilk; their decedents have now migrated to the North-east part of Minneapolis. In an unplanned, almost organic metamorphosis of a cityscape, this unwashed morass of creativity has moved west. Old Nordeast, an eclectic enclave of blue-collar Eastern European nationalities, has become the new West Bank.

This stumble back in time hit me a couple of weeks ago after I dropped my wife off at her art class in the NKB. I ended up meandering the old hallways and vacant caverns that once housed huge stores of seeds. I began perusing the framed photographs that lined the entrance halls. The old seed factory has now become an artist’s enclave encompassing five stories of concrete and brick. It reeks of artistic ventures, bold colors, creative design and old world charm in an ancient brick building now repurposed for the creative at heart. I feel like I’d come home again.

Most of Norde East is like an old graveyard of senior buildings brought back to life by creative resuscitation. Vesper College is located in the Casket Arts Building. Originally built as the Northwestern Casket Company building in 1887, caskets were still being made there until 2005. Now the five-story building houses over 100 artists and businesses such as Vesper.

Other notable nests of creativity are the Architectural Antiques Building, originally a coffee roasting plant. Of course, the Northrup King Building, originally a seed distributor for the world. The Waterbury Building, manufacturers of boilers and multiple buildings that were part of the Grain Belt Brewing complex.

Back in twenties and thirties Northrup King was one of the largest seed producers in the world. Time and changing economics changed the equation and the business went bust. The building lay dormant and empty for many years, inhabited only by vagrants, dopers and rats. Then a new generation of entrepreneurs discovered its solid foundation, huge windows, cheap rent and a blank canvas for change.

Now instead of hippies, artists, artisans, house flippers, yoga gurus, craft beer specialists, software developers and other creative types are flocking to the area. A new variety of business has also sprung up whose main purpose is to breathe life into the arts for a whole new generation, young and not so young. These include art classes of every type, including metal sculpting.

The roughhewn, anti-fashion, individualistic, truth-seeking individuals whom I find so fascinating all hang out there. It’s not as compact as Dinky town but the atmosphere is the same. The haunts of past lives have come alive again in that charged arena. It’s almost as if inquiring minds once again scream for an exploration of life’s truths in that modern version of old Bohemia.

Alcohol Ink piece by Sharon LaComb

Sharon has found an outlet for her creative expression. That, in turn, has brought me back to that other part of my old world. I’d like to contribute even if my Bob Dylan days are over…for whatever they were worth. Inspiration comes in all kinds of strange packages even in a seed shop in the middle of a confused dreamland called eternal youth.

Acrylic on Paper by Sharon LaComb

Leaf Embossing with Acrylic on paper by Sharon LaComb

So while I’m there, I want to haunt the halls and soak up the atmosphere. Perhaps I can build a nest someplace while my wife is in class where I can just write to my heart’s content. It seems like a good place to explore the recesses of one’s mind, mining whatever thoughts and ideas might be lingering there. I’ve got a lot of hard miles on that gray matter of mine. Time to go exploring again.

Leaf Composition by Sharon LaComb

Sharon is exploring a lot of different techniques with her alcohol ink and acrylic paintings. When her class is over, we’ll go home and practice some more. She with her alcohol ink and me with my keyboard.

Same kind of ventures; just different finger strokes.