Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A Challenge to Live With

I wanted to call it a handicap or a disability but that seemed rather insensitive to those who suffer from real physical and mental challenges. While not critical to life or limb, it’s still a serious issue for those of us affected. It’s often ignored or simply categorized as being lazy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Undiagnosed and untreated, it can be a real detriment to success.

I’m talking about the inability to concentrate or focus on any one subject for any appreciable amount of time. It borders on ‘attention deficit’ but not to the degree that it could be considered an illness or a disease. But for me and others, and coupled with a somewhat addictive personality, I find it very difficult to focus on anything for any length of time. And I always have.

In my ‘How to Get Started Writing’ workshop I teach participants that the key to success in writing is to write. ‘Tush in the chair’ and go to work. But one familiar refrain is always: ‘How does one stay focused for any length of time?’ For me the answer turns out to be short concentrations of time spent on the subject matter and then purposeful separation to recharge my creative batteries.

It was almost by accident that I discovered early in my television / video production career that a simple walk down the hall or escape to the coffee pot gave my mind that much needed respite to get uncluttered and recharged for the next task on hand. Unlike a lot of my colleagues who could sit at their desk for hours at a time, my seat-warming periods were brief at best. So, the answer for me was to break up that concentration with scheduled breaks and planned distractions.

When I finally shifted my energies to writing fulltime in lieu of retirement I knew I faced a daunting task ahead. How does one write a novel, play or screenplay when the very act of writing demands focused, concentrated time-on-task? The answer came to me very quickly, that is, to do what I’ve always done all my life. Multiple tasks piled up upon one another.

For as far back as I can remember, I have always had multiple projects, assignments, tasks, duties or jobs going on at the same time. Perhaps instinctively or more likely as an act of survival I was always working ‘at something.’ My Mother, ever the silent teacher by example, did that by working all day and ‘doing something’ every night. Sitting in front of the boob tube after school wasn’t allowed in our household.

I tell my students they must find their own ‘space’ and ‘time.’ By that I mean they should find a spot where they can do nothing but concentrate on their art. Then they should decide what time of day they are the most creative. It varies with every individual and no one time or space fits everyone.

I discovered the secret to organizing my own ideas a long time ago. When I began writing I had an office in the basement of my home. At the time, I was working fulltime for public television, running my own video production/distribution business, managing two apartment buildings, overseeing other investments and trying to be an involved father. That office was where I conducted my regular business.

But right around the corner in the laundry room was a countertop. That was my writing area and all I did there was write…and nothing else.

Finding the right time to write is the second critical component here. Whenever is the best time for you (and not someone else) is the key question. My most creative time is early in the morning or at least by 9:00 am after my quiet reading time and breakfast. When I was still working fulltime it was whenever I could find the time. The best time and place and artistic style is out there for anyone to find. It is a journey inside your head to find what best suits your lifestyle.

If you can set up a time schedule, a routine, that’s great. But just having a place to work will help adjust your mind to your art. It can be an office, the kitchen table, some bedroom space, garage space or even a closet if it’s big enough. Coupled with time and space and, for me, a scheduled break in the action this formula helps keep me focused and productive.

When Sharon decided to focus on her art, our kitchen table became her new tablet of choice. That area and the garage was where she could sit or stand and do what she does best; being creative. It limited a lot of dinner parties but sure helped her create some nice pieces of art.

One of the most satisfying aspects of teaching my workshop is having participants share their personal stories and antidotes about the challenges of writing. The main message I try to get across is that not one approach fits all of us at any stage in our lives.

Whatever your personal challenges, learn to deal with them as best you can. Find the avenue most suited to your personality. Find what works best for you. Find that spot where you are comfortable with yourself and your selected process. Proceed with the task ahead in a manner that best satisfies your need to produce and be satisfied with the outcome. In other words, be yourself and live your life to the fullest.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Colorado Soiree

It was another quick jaunt to Colorado while Brian and Amy slipped away to wine country. For Sharon and me, it was time to bond, travel and connect with the Colorado kids. Oh, and to spend an afternoon with a furry rodent of questionable character.

A new sheriff was in town and the grandkids couldn’t have been more thrilled. It was six days of non-stop activities that left Nana and Papa totally exhausted and the kiddos exhilarated. A small price to pay for building grandparent memories with lots of experiences, events and silliness thrown in for good measure.

The storm of activities was slow in coming. Our first day in town was quiet since the grand-children were in school. After that, it was our typical harried, multi-tasked, quasi-organized rush of excitement for all of us.

The last time we were in town, the kid’s first event of the day was a huge swim meet that witnessed a gathering of all the aquatic tribes. This time around, we began with a grand tour of the greater Denver Metropolitan area. Yep, the kids are all in traveling sports teams.

Maya, our eldest grandchild, switched from soccer to Lacrosse last year. She’s quickly grasped the fundamentals of the game and acquired the skills to make her a valued member of her team. So mimicking the ‘Oregon trail,’ first thing Saturday morning we set off for the community of Littleton for Maya’s Lacrosse game. Even that early in the morning, the sidelines were filled with semi-awake, coffee-clutching parents yelling encouragement at their kids.

As quickly as we arrived the game was soon over, and we had to scramble to find our next venue. Spencer’s soccer game was in yet another distant suburb; this time it was in Centennial.

Doesn't anyone drive a car anymore?

Finally it was cris-crossing back across the metro to Aurora, Colorado for Samantha’s soccer game. During it all the kids were troopers. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Nana’s rule of ‘no screen time’ was relaxed a bit so she and I could concentrate on Saturday morning traffic and the distance of our travels.

Fields of Plenty

Dynamo on the Right

At every game while we huddled in our camp chairs buried under thermos blankets, the kids who weren’t playing were clustered around books and devices. Visiting urchins came and went and no one seemed to notice the chill in the air. The adults watched each game with intensity usually reserved for major league sporting events.

Ever the ‘reading hounds,’ we had to, once again, visit the newest library in town then begin the first of several art lessons.

Nana had the kids back working on their favorite art project; alcohol ink. Just as Brennen and Charlotte had quickly grasped that creative process back home so too had the Colorado kids. Collectively, all five grandchildren have now spread their creative wings and come up with some fascinating works of art. Pastel drawings were next on the list of paintings to explore.

After a morning of focused painting, Nana offered up options for lunch and entertainment. Much to my chagrin, there was a unanimous request to go to Chuck E. Cheese. It had been many years since we took the Colorado kids there. Little had changed since our last visit.

Ready for Action

More Tickets, Please!

It was just as noisy, chaotic and messy. The demographics had shifted but kids are kids. Our grandchildren had a wonderful time and that was all that mattered.

The rest of our soiree in Colorado was a non-stop mixture of garage sales, piano lessons, more art classes, reading, relaxing, and fooling around. There were games every night, a special assistant breakfast cook to Nana each morning and ‘coffee with Papa;’ one kid per morning.

Another Satisfied Customer

The days and nights were non-stop as were the grandchildren. There’s a reason why only young people should have kids. It was exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. Our goal has always been to give the kiddos lots of experiences, time with their grandparents and a little advice thrown in when each grandchild gets to go on our traditional ‘Starbucks with Papa.’

We know that realistically there is only a limited time available before our grandchildren ‘grow up’ and move on with their lives. It’s a limited time capsule Sharon and I have tried to embrace and embellish and hold dear to our hearts and theirs as well.

Where else can a couple of old folks teach and learn so much at the same time. We are truly blessed.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Hiding the Brush Strokes

It always looks so easy because the media wants us to believe it is. House flippers flip and make a fortune overnight. Writers pen the great American novel without breaking a sweat, directors create a one of-a-kind film just as planned and songwriters simply pen a classic on a whim. We want to believe that a playwright’s magic on Broadway was a simple journey from pen to stage.

Few of us truly understand the panic, fear, exhilaration, heartbreak and hope that goes into creating a work of art. We don’t want to hear about the years spent toiling in the graveyard of broken dreams, spent efforts and abject failures before something, if anything, ever happens from all that soul-crushing effort. It’s all made to look so easy.  We seldom, if ever, hear about the many miles traveled before success is reached. Instead every artist is presented as an overnight success.

It’s called “hiding the brush strokes.” Ignoring the harsh reality that in real life there are no guarantees and nothing is owed. Those with grit get it. Those lacking that ‘something within’ keep dreaming and hoping then wonder why nothing ever happens. Without real effort and sacrifice and usually some failure nothing is accomplished.

Dustin Hoffman spent ten years toiling in off-Broadway plays before ‘The Graduate’ launched his storybook career. George Lucas went through hell to get his first feature ‘THX 1138’ produced. When it crashed as a commercial failure, he wrote another movie initially called ‘Friday Night in Modesto’ and finally produced it as ‘American Graffiti.’ Even that success didn’t guarantee any support for his next feature about space ships and large furry sidekicks.

Dinkytown Scholar Coffee Shop

Bob Dylan paid his dues in Dinky town and Greenwich Village before a planted review by Robert Sheldon rocketed his career into the folkie stratosphere. The Beatles spent two years toiling in the graveyard of Hamburg’s strip clubs and dive bars before Brian Epstein plucked them out of the ‘Cellar’ and made them stars.

Closer to home and more personal, the examples are all around me.

I’ve seen Sharon start with her welding and metal art classes several years ago then recently expand to alcohol ink painting. From there she has experimented with acrylic paints and a host of other mediums and techniques to constantly challenge herself.

She is taking classes here and there to share ideas, glean tips and advice from the professionals. She is constantly learning, improving and growing her art.

After several years, she now has some of her select painting on display and for sale at a design store in Minneapolis. A small step but a start.

Ever the educator, Sharon has shared that same philosophy of discipline and perseverance with our grandchildren. Very quickly, they’ve become attentive students of Nana and have begun exploring various artistic mediums themselves.

The Colorado Kids' Gallery
3rd Place in his age category at the MN State Fair

1st Place in her age category at the MN State Fair

My art is the written word. My mediums are primarily novels, plays and movies. Each presents its own unique set of challenges and opportunities for story-telling. Through good fortune and lucky breaks, I’ve had two plays produced by the Second Act Players in Rosemount. Each was a wonderful learning experience and another opportunity to express myself.

But there were ten self-published books, an Investment Guide and numerous treatments before those two initial plays paved the way for more playwriting opportunities.

I teach in my workshop on ‘How to Get Started as a Writer’ that the key to writing is to write. I make the point right up front that there are no guarantees and no promises. I can only point the way for my audience. I remind them that there are three things needed to become a writer.

Desire…but they won’t know if they have it unless they give it a try.

Perseverance…they won’t know if they have it unless they try.

Talent…they won’t know if they have it unless they give it a try.

The key here is to write something every day, almost every day or whenever they can. If they do that they will begin to feel a passion that gets them out of bed each morning. They will have begun traveling on that long road to becoming a writer. That’s called showing your brush strokes.

As with any kind of art, nothing is guaranteed or comes easy. That’s life. But what a gift it is to create something, anything, that’s been swirling around in your brain for oh so long.

Let’s face it, there is no better way to live than to do whatever it is you love to do. Isn’t that what life is all about.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Murray Peak

Down through the centuries, Indian culture has always held their mountains in profound respect. The first ancients to walk this country left their mark around and on those granite sentinels. Although much of their mythology and ancient teachings associated with mountains has been lost over time, some examples still exist today.

The Blackfeet have their Chief Mountain. The Potawatomi have their Chequah Bikwaki Mountain. More recognizable is Tse’bit’ai (rock with wings.) We call it Shiprock and it’s located in the state of Arizona. Our neighbor is not alone. California has a long history of Indian folklore centered on its mountains.

Down through the centuries, the Cahilla Indians of the Coachella Valley have long spun folk tales centered on the San Jacinto and San Bernardino Mountain chains. Early settlers, explorers, hikers and long distance travelers have often reported feeling the presence of others while alone on the trail. There is a special reverence most of us desert rats feel on those mountain trails.

Palm Springs and its surrounding communities have an abundance of hiking trails for both the casual hiker and serious mountain goat. The mother lode is one called ‘The Skyline Trail’ or for those in the know ‘C2C’ which translated means Cactus to Clouds. It’s a ten hour (minimum) mountain climb that travels ten miles uphill for an elevation gain of over 8000 feet. It traverses three eco-zones and can be a killer for the uninitiated, especially in the summer months. Four hikers have died on the trail over the last dozen years from heat exhaustion. No wonder my kids just roll their eyes when I mention a desire to make that climb. ‘No way!’ is all my better half will say.

Another challenging climb, though not as dangerous, is called Murray Peak. Although it’s called a ‘hill’ at 2200 feet on most maps, Murray Peak is, in fact, the highest peak in the vicinity of Palm Springs. It’s been labeled a moderate to strenuous hike with a total distance of almost seven miles and a vertical gain of over 2200 feet. It takes an average of five hours for completion with only a few rest stops along the way. For the seasoned hiker it’s a refreshing walk up the mountain. For less conditioned souls, it can be a gut-buster and taxiing on the lungs. In other words, a worthy challenge and goal for a seasonal visitor like myself.

When I first started hiking in the Coachella Valley I found a trail closer to home and a fun Saturday morning endeavor. It’s called the South Lykken Trail and is part of the North and South Lykken Trail that stretches for nine miles. It takes about five hours of moderate hiking to traverse the entire trial. The elevation gain is only about 800 feet and it’s considered a moderate hike by local standards.

Something magical, almost spiritual, can happen during a mountain hike. It’s a physical as well as a mental challenge. At face value, it can be a day 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.

When I do Murray Peak this fall, I intend to seek out another tabernacle. Not just any mountain plateau but another sanctuary of solitude and comfort similar to the one I found on the Lykken Trail years ago. (My tabernacle) It’s my granite respite 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.

After a successful summer of producing my play ‘Club 210’, Self-publishing two new novels ‘Follow the Cobbler’ and ‘Chasing Ophelia’, attending several book fairs and conducting two writing workshops, I need a place to reflect and plan my next writing ventures. A thousand foot precipice overlooking the Coachella Valley seems like a good place to start that process. And I won’t be alone in my reverence for this cathedral of granite and shale.

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 his 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 each.

As I’ve written about in past blogs, this is my Vision Quest. I say that 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 wonderful place to recharge one’s creative juices.

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.