Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Vinyl Holiday

I had to laugh. It really is true that often times what goes around comes back again. Musical taste is a good example of that. I guess if you wait long enough, the old becomes new again or at least enjoys a resurgence of interest. My old collection of musical memories from the fifties and sixties, long sequestered to basement shelves, are garnering new attention.

Vinyl is back and I’m loving it. In fact, vinyl records are so popular that Sony, the biggest of the Big Three record labels, recently announced that it will start pressing them again, as soon as March 2018, in a new factory near Tokyo. The last time Sony made a vinyl record was 1989. One could certainly argue that this announcement is just one of many signals that the music industry is once again changing with the times and customer tastes.

Aside from the obligatory roll of her eyes, my wife has been remarkably quiet about my prized collection of LPs as well as the old Sony turntable I bought but seldom use among more. Traveling the back roads of one’s mind can be a geriatric benefit for people my age. Sometimes there is a tendency to revisit old people, places and times with reflections and refractions that tend to meld into a soul-satisfying stroll down memory lane.

Vinyl can do just that. Having been down that road before, I can attest to the magic of vinyl and the old songs that take me back to yesteryear. Music has always been a huge part of my life and this renewal of interest in LPs (long playing records) just brings a smile to my face.

A while back the local web site, Minnpost, ran an article on the resurgence of vinyl records and did an interview with Bob Fuchs, general manager of the popular Minnesota record store, The Electric Fetus. It was a fascinating step back in time and remuneration of that popular phrase ‘what goes around comes around again.’

Gray's Drugs

The Triangle Bar

Back in the day when I was hanging out in Dinky Town and fantasizing about life while at the Triangle Bar, the Electric Fetus was my refuge from the storm of life. It was a magic place where overhead music played at a deafening roar and all kinds of wanna-be hippies and many of the real ones crowded the narrow aisles flipping through the stacks of vinyl.

Bob’s interview offered a fascinating glimpse into the present-day world of music and how just as things change some things remain the same. A longtime Minnesota music mainstay, Fuchs  has seen it all firsthand in his 30 years in the business (he started in the record department in December 1987).

I’ve lifted several segments from that interview and want to give full credit to MinnPost for the article. *

First, Bob was asked about vinyl at the Electric Fetus.

Bob Fuchs: In about 2000, we had 120 bins, maybe 118 of CDs and two bins of records left, and they weren’t even full. Today we’re up to nearly 50 bins of vinyl again. It’s almost 50/50 LPs/CDs now. By next year at this point, more than 50 percent of our space in the record department will be LPs.

The surprising thing to some people is we still sell CDs. They walk in and don’t even know that. They’re like, “I haven’t bought a CD in five or seven years!” We still sell twice as many CDs as LPs. Many people want physical media, whether it’s an LP or a CD. I play both every day.

Then Bob was asked about the ratio of new vinyl to used.

Bob Fuchs: Probably about twice as many used as new. In dollar amounts, new vinyl is much more expensive than most used vinyl. Most new LPs are between $17 and $25.

I think many people want to write vinyl off as a fad that’s coming back. But it was a staple for 50 to 60 years, and then there was a period of about 10 years when it wasn’t in vogue, and now it’s coming back again because of the experience.

People say they like the sound, but regardless of the quality of your musical reproduction system at home, it’s the experience. You tend to be more engaged. You sit down. You stay close. Your experience is heightened by all your senses. You’re listening, you’re reading, you’re looking, you’re appreciating art. So it’s more encompassing than just streaming a song.

An LP is the ultimate cultural artifact for music. You’ve got liner notes. You’ve got lyrics. Oftentimes, you’ve got photography, artwork, information. It’s a stamp in time, and a physical presence. A gatefold LP is 2 feet by 1 foot. It’s like a book. Some people still prefer books.

One aspect about LPs that I just took for granted were the liner notes and artwork. Apparently, a lot of people weren’t so oblivious about such things.

Bob Fuchs: When you compare most packaging now to 15 to 20 years ago, there were a lot of budget productions back then. Simple jackets, thin paper. They were minimalist and sometimes cheap. Today, people are thinking – this is the ultimate packaging. Let’s make it a gatefold. Let’s use heavier-weight cardboard or paper. Let’s press on heavier vinyl. Many people have commented at the counter that LPs are really heavy. They don’t remember them being so heavy.

Then as an unintended salute to old people’s taste everywhere, Bob explained who is leading the charge back into vinyl.

Bob Fuchs: The single biggest thing I’ve noticed is the change in demographics. This whole revival has been pushed primarily, or at least initially and still very heavily, by people under 30. There’s a much higher percentage of women buying records than there were buying CDs or records previously. What stands out most for me is the number of young women who are buying records now. In my 30 years, I don’t ever remember that many young women in the store.

Vinyl to me was the sixties personified. It was Dinkytown, the Triangle Bar, West Bank, working all day at the Public Health Department and volunteering each night at KTCA public television. It was that stunning blond working as the evening receptionist, writing poetry, attending St. John Neumann with Susan and a very brief movie-making career.

It was slow growth growing up and pondering a whole bushel basket full of ‘what if’s’ and ‘why not?’ Vinyl brings it all back home. When the needle touches skin and the music begins, I am transported back in time to a much simpler time that was good and only got a lot better.

*Portions of this interview with Bob Fuchs was taken from an article written by Ms. Pamela Espeland that appeared on the website MinnPost on July 20th, 2017. Click here to read the fullarticle.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Deep Data Mining

Some people are adamant that you shouldn’t go back in time and revisit your past. ‘What’s done is done’ they argue ‘and can’t be changed or altered anymore.’ Often times these people don’t want to go back to their early childhood, high school or college years, past relationships, old jobs or collateral experiences of a life long since lived. They’ve closed the book on their past and only want to dwell on the present.

I find myself shouldering up to the other end of that spectrum. I would argue that you can go back and examine with the cold, calculating eye of a time-warped traveler relevant questions such as ‘why did things turn out the way they did?’, ‘what really happened between me and someone else?’ what was reality instead of ‘what if?’ In short, I think you can search your past for the building blocks that brought you to your present state of mind. I call it data mining or fact-based research reflecting on your life.

I have a friend who has defined three stages in our lives. With an apology upfront for possibly misrepresenting some of his findings, I believe he has defined the three stages as: Self-discovery, self-exploration and finally self-examination.

He believes we spend the first part of our lives discovering our own identity. Who were we as children growing up, experiences in education, finding a spouse and becoming a parents? The second stage is work-orientated where we hone our job skills, find a career that moves us forward and cements our place in the world of adults. The third and final stage is that of reflection and self-examination. Where are we relative to everyone else and how did we get here?

I have always argued that if you are comfortable with your present state of affairs, you can go back and examine your past with your feet still firmly planted in the present. You can look, without a jaundice eye, at what went wrong and why, what worked and why, where you are today relative to those around you.

Many would argue ‘who cares?’ and maybe they have a point. If you don’t care why you turned out the way you did then it probably doesn’t really matter to yourself or those around you. If you care but realize you can’t change the past then what’s the point? Because, I believe, in the end you had a life and it’s into the fourth quarter now. So how did things turn out? And if you don’t like what you see, what can you do about it.

I’m giving a workshop this fall in ‘How to Begin Writing.’ Just like the workshop I conducted last spring, I expect most of my audience will consist of seniors sprinkled with a few of the younger sect. To a person they want to write but don’t know how to get started. Few if any want to become published authors. They just want to fulfill a lifetime ambition of putting thoughts to paper in some readable form and fashion. I’m going to tell them how to begin that process.

Part of that process will be an examination of their past and what they’d like to share with others about it. It might be painful. It might be exhilarating. It will be revealing; peeling back the layers of their lives that haven’t felt the touch of a pen or keyboard in a lifetime. For all it will be enormously satisfying…if only for themselves.

I guess in the end it doesn’t really matter if a person reflects on their existence or leaves it closed shut in the darkness of the past. Each of us is on a journey called life. Some live it day-to-day and others like to cast a glance over their shoulder once in a while. We’re all going to get to the end of the trail one way or another.

I like where I’ve been and don’t mind ruminating about those old adventures every once in a while…and look forward to many more in my future.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Uncovering the Cobbler, Finding Ophelia

My feet dangling over the edge of Machu Picchu

I tried to capture my experiences at Machu Picchu in another blog entitled: And Then the Vultures will Eat You. It wasn’t eloquent or poetic but it did paint a picture of what it was like tramping around on top of the Andes, gazing down at clouds swirling and birds flying below. In those younger stupid years I perched on a ledge, 11,000 feet above the Urubamba River, and thought it would make a great photograph.

If there is poetic justice in stupid antics I suppose it came years later when I decided to write my first suspense thriller. At once I knew that I had to include some of the places and things that expanded my imagination and stirred up a cauldron of dark sinister images in my mind. Going back to Machu Picchu was at the top of that list. Of course, story-telling in the conventional sense seldom follows a straight and righteous path for most writers.

There must be something in my genetic makeup, perhaps some character defect, that I can write a novel or two or three then wait several decades before doing anything with them. Case in point:

‘Apache Death Wind’ and ‘Apache Blue Eyes.’ They were written respectively in 1974 and 1975 but didn’t see publication until forty years later.

Cobbler was the last of four novels that I wrote in a four year period of time. That book along with four screenplays and four plays kept my fingers pounding well into most nights. But at the end of that marathon writing spree, I realized I had to focus on just one manuscript at a time and bring it to publishing life. I chose ‘Love in the A Shau’ as that first novel. Others followed and ‘Cobbler’ fell by the proverbial ‘to complete’ shelf as writing plays grabbed almost all of my limited attention. It was a suggestion from Vida my editor that brought this ten-pound door juggernaut back to life again.

Now that suspense thriller inspired by Machu Picchu and written half a dozen years ago has resurfaced and gone under my editor’s surgical pen. Out of my nine novels written thus far, it probably comes in second, right behind ‘Love in the A Shau’ as one of my favorites. Just like parents aren’t supposed to have favorites, I must confess I have a special place in my heart for ‘Follow the Cobbler.’

In that rarified air of a lifetime ago, I knew this novel would be different. It would be written in first person which I hadn’t done before nor since. It would have two parallel storylines running concurrently; a suspense thriller alongside a love story. It would weave ancient folk lore, historical fact and fiction alongside modern computer technology and futuristic assumptions.

Most unsettling were the characters that slipped into my consciousness, grabbed a place in the story but never fully revealed themselves until well into the book. The mysterious ‘Cobbler’ was the hardest of all to pin down. Right from the start, I couldn’t identify his origin, motivation, goals and objectives or what he was ultimately seeking. I didn’t know if the ‘Cobbler’ was a person, an historical figure or an icon. The only real person who spoke clearly to me was LeFay, the Druid chieftain and arch enemy of the Cobbler. Along with his hunter-assassins, LeFay was hot on the trail of my two protagonists, Brian, and Katherine.

I found Brian’s voice quickly. He reminded me of myself at some point long ago. Katherine was another story. She was incredibly smart, quick with the quips and laser-focused on (I didn’t really know what?).  She wasn’t willing to reveal her motivation to me or Brian until well into the story. She was beautiful, coy and yet modest. Still she emitted a sexuality that curled my toes even as my fingertips lightly touched her every word.

The novel began with a suspension of belief. I asked myself what if pictures could come alive. What if an image you’re holding in your hands (a book, a photo, a drawing) comes alive. If you look closely at old pictures there are so many tiny enounces in them that they could have been taken yesterday instead of a hundred years ago. With that fractured thought in mind, I began to dream about a mysterious woman who somehow has been a part of my hero’s past. This would be a hero I was very comfortable with and felt I had known all my life.

Right from the start I knew it was going to be a long and arduous journey for both the couple and myself. It started at old Fort Snelling or at least with the image of the old fort and took my protagonists into Old St. Paul and beyond. I knew our search was going to take us long distances but even I didn’t know how far we would travel until we were all far afield. Fatigue set in at some point but we persisted and finally ended up where logic and reality ultimately took us.

Then my imagination created this icon I called the cobbler but I wasn’t sure why. Is it/he Jesus? Is it/he the second-coming? Or was it just an icon representing some historical figure in time?

As my two main protagonists began to talk and banter back and forth, I felt an immediate chemistry between them. Very quickly I realized this was going to be a two-level story. It was both a suspense thriller that followed a couple around the world and an evolving love story

There had to be conflict so I invented the Druids as my villains. But I had to explain their historical significance and make it plausible that they would be current and threatening.

I made up the hunter-assassins then found out later they really did exist.

I had to do a lot of research if I was going to travel around the world and this was before Siri and Alexa. There had to be authenticity so I studied Vespa scooters, the layout of Angor Watts, the details of Hong Kong Harbor, the layout of Rome, the architecture of ancient coliseum and the modern-day ruins of the coliseum.

At one point I was worried about the length when the transfer from computer to page format came in at 865 pages. An intense edit brought that number down to 664 pages which was still too long for an unknown author. I didn’t want to make it another trilogy or two books. There was no good place to stop the storyline so more editing was needed. This time entire sections were eliminated in an effort to keep the pacing in the storyline moving along.

There is an epilogue to this story.

Vida decided after editing ‘Cobbler’ that it might make a great YA (young adult) novel. So we continued editing it for that demographic.  Vida and her daughter created a new book cover and title for the storyline.  Maya, my eldest granddaughter, will be the first to give it a read (after Vida’s daughters, of course.)

Two for one. I love it.

I hope they do too.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

How to Teach Ambition

Mom and I

You can’t!

At least I don’t think you can teach driving ambition and learned hunger from a book or video or TED presentation. I believe it’s something that is inherently part of a person’s psychic or personality. A trait intrinsically linked to or inherited at conception and like the gift that it can or can’t be, it is released when outside forces force that desire to the surface.

Two children are born of the same parents and raised in the same household. Yet surprisingly both individuals can be radically different in their demeanor, tastes, interests and ambitions. Neither is right. Neither is wrong. It is the hand they were dealt. Go figure!

One of the great illusions of life is that we must all be blindly ambitious because we’ve told (falsely) that all the greats of stage and screen and sports and business have somehow corralled that magic formula for success and therefore are infinitely happy with the results. That fable is no more relevant than the bulletin board in our daily lives that keeps hinting that the status-quo is never quite good enough.

I think there should be a balance between ‘who is hungry’ and ‘who cares.’ If a person’s existence is satisfying and fulfilling to them, it hardly matters what the pundits say about the need for more of anything in their lives. Ambition is neither a gift nor a curse; it simply is what it is. Properly harnessed it can do great good. Unbridled, it can cause great harm.

My mother on the farm

My Mother had a sixth-grade education because her parents insisted she stay on the farm to feed the chickens (true story). She eventually left St. Martin, Minnesota to become a maid on Summit Avenue then a short order cook in downtown Saint Paul. By most standards of the day, she and her husband were a very ambitious couple married during the war years. Housing was scarce and jobs hard to find. They started a restaurant but when it failed he turned to drink and she turned to prayers.

My mother with two kids

After my father disappeared my mother was left with two small children, no visible means of support, no formal education, and few marketable job skills. Yet she somehow managed not only to survive but also thrive. She built her own home and sent her kids to Catholic grade school. Unlike her married sisters, she wanted more out of life and got it by hard work, enormous sacrifice and praying a lot. There were seven siblings in her farm family and she was, by far, the most ambitious one of the lot.

Mom and I

A good friend of mine has suggested that most of us learn by example. He believes that many people have a built-in hunger threshold that can trigger a desire for more even if it can’t be defined or explained. Perhaps that’s how you can explain a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Both men were born into comfortable, loving middle class families and yet at an early age both had a desire for more than just the status quo. The Beatles and Bob Dylan knew at an early age that they were not going to simply follow the accepted pathway to success as all their classmates were doing.

For the clear majority of retirees, the next stage after full time work is one of relaxation, reflection, and satisfaction with a life well-lived. There is nothing wrong with that. Most folks embrace the opportunity to do those little things they’ve never had time for or to keep dipping into their proverbial bucket list to keep checking off experiences that have eluded them in the past. It would hardly seem to be the time to push forward with new ventures and challenges and needless worries.

For some this desire for more is a curse, robbing an individual of a good night’s sleep, quiet days reading on the porch, social banter at the coffee shop and several rounds of golf. But this curse has a good side to it. Doing what one must do.

For those folks, it is a hunger born of a thousand ‘what if’s’ and nebulous goals yet unfulfilled. For them, it is the answer as to why they’re here on the planet and for those lucky individuals, all the other questions matter not. They’re doing what they want to do, have to do and couldn’t do anything else. It’s why they get up each morning and have trouble sleeping at night. With the time remaining, it is what keeps them alive and moving and seeking their very own vision quest.

And each hopes in their own very distinct way that when the final curtain is drawn, they’ll still be hard at it (whatever it is) and it was still satisfying even up until the end.