Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Secret Identity

It never really hit me before now. Something a lot of men (and women) struggle with in their retirement. I sort of stumbled, willy-nilly, into a new career, a new identity and a new passion. I sailed on from producing cable shows one day to becoming a fulltime writer the next. I became a novelist, a playwright and a screenwriter without any preordained or determined plan, scheme, schedule or goals. It just seemed to fall into place and here I am. Other men and women aren’t so lucky.

I was reminded of that simple fact while watching a new play at Script2Stage2Screen at the Unitarian Church where I stage-managed several plays last year. ‘The Red Plaid Shirt’ was a delightful comedy that addressed the challenges that retirement can bring some folks. In many cases, a man’s identity is just about all he has to hold on to in retirement. The play humorously brought it to the forefront.

I have crossed paths with many men (and some women) that have scaled the barriers of retirement and found contentment on the other side. Some have retired and never looked back. Others have found solace in new part-time work that continues to challenge and stimulate their minds.

Yet for all the folks who have transformed their lives, there continues to be just as many who are still stumbling through each day looking for something to do. The Coachella Valley seems to harbor more than its fair share of retired executives eager to find meaning in their existence.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of ex-CEOs, CFOs, and other heads of business and industry living Down Valley in their gated communities. Their perpetual game of golf lasted about six months and then the elixir of command and control slowly crept back into their consciousness. When the time for HOA elections come up at their condo complex or local government or school boards, they found themselves unable to stand on the sidelines and not get involved again.

It is who they were and the identity they want to hold on to. Entire retirement communities have sprung up to cater to these seniors in need of something to do. The Villages in Florida and Over 55 communities back in Minnesota have a plethora of daily activities, scheduled weekly outings, planned entertainment and enough time-consuming distractions to fill a calendar two or three times over. That is the idea; keep them busy and active.

The ones I worry about are the angry old men. They seem disappointed in how their lives turned out. They gather religiously at the local McDonalds or coffee shop in towns large and small. There they Monday morning quarterback, complain about the government, taxes, young people and a myriad of other topics they have little to no control over. They never listen to what the others are saying. Their only focus is to get their ‘two cents worth’ out. Some become obsessed with their own mortality. They question ‘if this is all there is?’

The ones I admire the most are those who have found something to do with their lives. It might be volunteering at a local food bank, more involvement with their church, expanding their role as grandparents, travel, more education or helping out in the community in any way they can. Self-identity can range from writer to artist to grandma/grandpa to reliable help. It’s the doing that counts more than the label associated with it.

This notion of self-identity and finding solace in retirement has been percolating in the recess of my mind for some time now. I’ve already created a computer file on the idea and am rapidly filling it up with notations, quotes, comments and random ideas. It’s entitled ‘Tangled Roots.’ I think I can feel a new play being born.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

South of Downtown

In the late fifties, an intrepid developer named Albert Frey approached the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians about the hundreds of acres they owned south of downtown Palm Springs. Since the mid-thirties, new neighborhoods and surrounding developments had always sprung up north or east of the downtown core. South of downtown was a barren wasteland of desert pockmarked with little else than scrub brush and roadrunners.

The Indians agreed to a one hundred year lease on the land (since renegotiated) and the area south of town began to blossom and grow. First came a championship golf course, then homes, each individually designed and built, around the links and finally condominium clusters in the land remaining. Canyon Country Club was born along with the Indian Canyon neighborhood.

In the last ten years, a new neighborhood organization was loosely organized around the idea of tying the disparate variety of homeowners into a more cohesive group of vested neighbors. The ICNO (Indian Canyon Neighborhood Organization) fall and spring neighborhood parties are the highlight of the season for most homeowners here.

Fall is the beginning of ‘High season’ in the desert. Snowbirds, seasonal visitors and other part-timers are returning to the desert. Traffic is getting congested on highway 111, the main artery through town. Some restaurants are no longer taking reservations because they don’t have to and the entertainment venues like casinos are billboarding top acts once again.

This November, ICNO hosted its annual get-acquainted party for our little community. It’s always hosted at someone’s house in the neighborhood and is great fodder for stealing decorating ideas, catching up on neighborhood gossip and renewing acquaintances with other seasonal players in town.

A lot of the folks in attendance are nearby neighbors. Some are active on the ICNO board as I used to be. Then there’s usually an eclectic assortment of newcomers rubbing shoulders with the old regulars who have been around since Frank Sinatra stalked the golf course with a martini and close friend under each arm.

The thing I appreciate most about these parties is the lack rarified air so typical of many West Coast gatherings. This isn’t a West Hollywood party where everyone is angling to hook up or a party in the canyons where movie deals are made around the swimming pool. It’s not like the gathering of those closed societies Down Valley in their cloistered gated communities. ICNO could be like that but never has been.

What sets these neighbors apart is an almost total lack of pretentiousness. These are accomplished folks who are comfortable in their own skin. Yet despite their financial success, they are charming, engaging and fun to talk to. Most have fascinating backgrounds and abundant stories to share. It’s like meeting other seasoned life travelers who just want to share their travel ad-ventures. No one is there to impress. In fact, the ones who try to impress soon find themselves odd man (or woman) out.

In many ways Palm Springs is still a small town little different than Apple Valley. While it’s true Palm Springs has as many Yoga studios as Apple Valley has daycare centers, there are enough similarities to see that both worlds run on parallel tracks.  On one level there are different cultures, tastes and lifestyles between the two cities. Yet on the other end of the spectrum, there are a lot of similarities.

The movie star Alan Ladd once had a hardware store in Palm Springs and used to make home deliveries. Bob Hope used to stroll down Main Street to get his ice cream downtown. Frank Sinatra and his rat pack hung out at Chi-Chi’s nightclub and burned the midnight oil at Canyon Country Club.

Canyon Country Club, the precursor to Indian Canyon, has a storied history. Over the years numerous movie stars and noted celebrities made their homes there. Now it’s a curious mixture of gay couples, retired folks from the coast, Canadians and east coast transplants who don’t like the Florida scene. They’ve all come to enjoy our golf courses, spectacular mountain scenery and the whole Palm Springs atmosphere. Indian Canyon carries on that tradition of open hospitality and egos left at the door. There is comfort level here among neighbors equal to that back in Apple Valley.

The ICNO party was a great success. We renewed old acquaintances, made some new friends and planned for a very active ‘season’ back in the valley. Sharon and I are very fortunate. We’ve have been able to straddle these two worlds and live comfortably in both…without losing sight of where we came from.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Cretin High School Class of 1961

Photo courtesy of Jerry Hoffman

I used to think it a bit gauche to brag about one’s high school. But not anymore. I think it’s OK to reflect back on those building blocks that one takes, absent of conscious thought, that end up making a major impact on future decisions and choices. Pulling back my curtain of past lives, I realize now that I was fortunate enough to attend one of the best high schools in Saint Paul back in the late fifties. Turns out it was a brief window of opportunity, unseen and unappreciated back then but relished now. I hope my friends feel the same way, no matter what school they attended. It’s a nice moniker to hold on to.

I have a friend who went to Saint Joseph Academy for Girls at about the same time. She once told me she thought her school was secondary to OLP (Our Lady of Peace). Funny, I never felt that way. The girls from Saint Joe’s were always more accessible and real to me. They were like us.

My sister went to Our Lady of Peace. Now they seemed to be a little more aloof. While not as status-conscious as Visitation, Derham Hall, or Villa Maria, there was still an aire about those girls. Of course, they probably would have said the same thing about those jocks and military boys from Cretin.

Then there’s an old acquaintance of mine who went to Monroe High School. They called themselves the Green Wave. He takes great pride in his school even from the warm confines of his Florida retirement home.

Another friend went to Highland Senior High his freshman year, then transferred to Cretin his sophomore year. Nevertheless, he still sees himself as a Cretin grad, four years running.

What each of these folks share is a deep respect for and love of their old alma mater. It was for them the very best school around and they were proud to be a part of it.

For many of us, high school proved to be a pivotal point in our lives. Even more than college, it was where the stumbles of youth were corrected by the realities of our teenage years and finally solidified into the more mature footsteps that carried us through our collegiate and/or skill building future.

Reflecting back on that time period in Minnesota history and my own historical tracks, I realize now that attending Cretin High School back in the late 50’s and early 60’s was a unique experience. Of course, I never realized that until our fifty-year class reunion made it bubble up to the surface of my consciousness.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Hoffman

In retrospect, it was also a turning point in the history of our country. The beginning of the end of that idyllic plain vanilla existence our parents loved so much and wanted us to emulate. The old neighborhood was morphing through all kinds of changes just as we were. It was end of Doris Day and her’ Doggie in the Window.’ It was Frank Sinatra and his version of cool slowly turning cold. It was hot rods and tail fins and poodle skirts that only hinted of secrets underneath. The Cold War was inescapable but it hardly permeated our existence the same way Rock and Roll and the first warm feelings of affection for the opposite sex did.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Hoffman

 Cretin High School was a different kind of school but those of us attending it really weren’t any different from our friends at other schools. We came from all walks of life but for the most part were solidly middle class. Back in the late fifties, Cretin’s tentacles spread out across the Twin Cities in one last grasp at prospects before newer Catholic High Schools in the suburbs started to pick from the litter.

There were two military schools in town back then. Now there is only one and it isn’t Cretin. The program was called Junior ROTC (Reserved Officers Training Corp.) But for most of us it wasn’t a career choice, just a curriculum that followed the thinking of the day. A boy’s military school taught by the Christian Brothers, mostly male teachers and gruff RA (regular Army) sergeants. Their motto was: Teach them discipline and academic success will follow. It was a regimen that worked very well for most of us.

Taken down to the basics, it meant woolen uniforms that stunk when they got wet and were sweltering straightjackets in the springtime sun. Crack drill marches and drill review didn’t help the sweat glands either. It was simply part of the package that one accepted when attending a military school back then.

But for all the pomp and ceremony beneath that military cap of muted brown, there was a long-standing tradition of respect, discipline, and expectations from our leaders and ourselves. Even with our young malleable minds, we knew we were different. Chain of Command be damned, we were among the best. Even if we weren’t entirely sure just what ‘the best’ meant to anyone else but ourselves.

Without fanfare or published categories, freshmen were segmented into academic tracks based on their entrance exams and elementary school records. A large portion of the class was slotted into the pre-college track. Among the graduating seniors were 25 National Honor Society members, 26 Four-year Merit Medal winners, and seven National Merit Scholarship winners.

For the rest of the class of 1961, the administration saw our future in a secure government job, a skilled trade, or the military. There were only a few of us who clawed our way through the classroom trenches, scrambled over the academic barriers and slipped into college anyway.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Hoffman

School dances were a necessary evil tolerated by the Christian Brothers and predominantly male teachers. I don’t think they really wanted to encourage the mixing of male hormones with the virginity of the visiting opposite sex. Most of the dances were awkward cardboard rituals where the boys lined the gymnasium floor like wallpaper while the girls circled them and whispered in each other’s ears about the hottest dudes in the room.

Formal dances for the junior and senior military officers were dressed up affairs with shiny brass buttons, sheathed swords, and formal gowns. A sterile playground with everyone trying their best to be very cool and polite at the same time.

Unbeknownst to us at the time, our secure insulated world was on the cusp of major changes in 1961. Old Saint Paul was dying and a new city wouldn’t appear for many years to come. The country was expanding with the growth of the suburbs and hollowing out of the core cities.

Cretin was a molder of men, a change maker, and a foundation upon which to build one’s own values, aspirations, judgements, and creative hunger. Like ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream,’ my rag-tag group of Cretin friends have scattered with the winds of time. There are only a couple of guys left that I’ve managed to string together with a loose fitting web of memories that we can cling to.

It was the best of times…most of the time. Now in retrospect, it seems even better than that.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Polly Comes to Play

Polly has found a new home and a place to tell her story. ‘Polly’s Amorous Adventure’ will be performed on December 7th and 8th at the S2S (Script2Stage2Screen) venue in Rancho Mirage, California.

In our modern day world of plain old-fashion dating, match-ups, hook-ups, swinging, swapping, switching, one-nighters and a dozen or more complicated variations of romantic liaisons, it turns out that not one type of relationship suits all. In fact, there are probably as many different intimate, sexual, personal relationships as can meet the imagination. One of the most prominent of which is called a polyamorous relationship. Who knew?

A polyamorous relationship is defined as a romantic relationship with more than one person. What distinguishes it from a classic love triangle is that all the partners know about each other and are accepting of those other relationships. It can pertain to men, women, or a combination of both.

My curiosity was aroused (pardon the pun) even further when another friend who works at a medical clinic casually told me about her encounters with swingers. It seems there is a group of swingers who go to her clinic once a month for blood tests to make sure they haven’t contracted any STDs. My friend was impressed by the casual nature as well as honest and open approach this woman took when describing how her group went about exchanging wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, and new arrivals.

To better understand all the variations and emotional dynamics of a polyamorous relationship, I had to do research. So I started with Google. According to a study published in the ‘Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy’ in 2016, 21 percent of people have had a non-monogamous relationship – one in which ‘all partners agree that each other may have romantic and/or sexual relationships with other partners.’

The notion of multiple-partner relationships is as old as the human race itself. But polyamorists trace the foundation of their movement to the utopian Oneida Christian commune of upstate New York, founded in 1848 by Yale theologian John Humphrey Noyes. But it wasn’t until the late-1960s and 1970s ‘free love’ movement that polyamory truly came into vogue when books like ‘Open Marriage’ topped the best seller lists and groups like the North American Swingers Club began experimenting with the concept.

It’s hard for many people to think outside of the fairy-tale notion of ‘the one’ and imagine that it might be possible to actually romantically love more than one person simultaneously. Jealousy is the main culprit and it’s an issue that polyamorists deal with constantly.

Once I discovered this Achilles heel of jealousy, I had my theme and the main point of conflict and contention in my storyline. Yeah, it sounded like the groundwork for a new play. So that’s what I did. I wrote ‘Polly’s Amorous Adventure.’

This play about a polyamorous relationship was going to be a challenge even though I had a good idea of how the storyline (Polly’s dilemma) was going to unfold right from the start. I wanted to grab the audience’s attention, hold on tight and not let it go. But I also wanted to make my characters real. They had to be sympatric in their relationship challenges and honest in their pursuit of this love triangle.

My main protagonist, Polly, is in a polyamorous relationship or so she thinks she is. The two men involved aren’t so sure and Polly’s girlfriend, Hazel, is certain that she isn’t. Polly’s mother is a toss-up. She could go either way but wants in on the action anyway.

In ‘Polly’s Amorous Adventure’ I’ve tried to be true to the intent of a polyamorous relationship but to also analyze the complexities of multiple relationships where emotions, raw feelings, confusion and jealousy are all a part of the equation. Then to stir up the pot a little more, I’ve added a handyman who is more than that, a girlfriend who can swing both ways, an online sex councilor who just can’t stay in her PC and an unconventional shopping list for insane pleasure.

The play was a joy to write. I fell in love with my characters, was surprised by their reactions to events and rationale for their relationships. ‘Polly’s Amorous Adventure’ turned out to be a rollicking, twisted, sometimes torturous pathway through human emotions and ever-elusive true love. Now it’s time for the audiences to see for themselves just what kind of dilemma Polly has gotten herself into.

It’s hard writing about a one-on-one relationship whether it’s with a past girlfriend or that someone special that you’ve been with forever. Relationships are challenging enough without the tentacles of love churning up the waters with their complex currents of swirling emotions. Now add to that a one-on-two slow dance and it’s bound to get just a little bit crazy.

Nevertheless, a lot of fun to write about.

Performances begin at 7:30pm on December 7th and 8th at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Desert. 72425 Via Vail, Rancho Mirage, CA.  92270.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

NE Arts District

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

I’ve been there before. Perhaps 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 and with it come some old familiar problems.

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 after college 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 late night wanderers.

Now gentrification, that flip side of success, has poked its commercial and economic head into the area and not everyone is happy about it. It’s an evolution that has gone on for the ages and it never seems to change. Artists in the area first notice nearby buildings being remodeled, coffee shops spring up along with boutique shops, art galleries and craft breweries. The current residents have seen it happen before. More people means higher rents, fewer affordable options for living and finally displacement when rents force out many of the old-timers.

Minneapolis is in the midst of a building boom that has seen building permits exceeding one billion dollars this year alone. Millennium homeowners, renters, suburban empty nesters and visitors seeking craft beer and vintage shops are transforming the area. What was once an Eastern Europe enclave of factory workers has been transformed into the Twin Cities hottest and most diverse creative community. Urban planners can only shake their head and say: “What else did you expect”

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 reminded me of my own barstool contemplations spent at the Triangle Bar on West Bank. This was shortly before the neighborhood slowly began to recede from the expansion of the University of Minnesota and high rise apartments towering over that dusty old neighborhood.

Now that same feeling of change in the air hit me 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.

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.

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.

Now instead of transplanted hippies, there are artisans, house flippers, yoga gurus, craft beer specialists, software developers and other creative types 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.

The roughhewn, anti-fashion, individualistic, truth-seeking individuals whom I find so fascinat-ing 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.

Sharon has found an outlet for her creative expression. That, in turn, has brought me back to that other part of my old world. Inspiration comes in all kinds of strange packages even in a seed shop in the middle of a confused dreamland called eternal youth.

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.