Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Growing Up Catholic

Growing up Catholic in Old Saint Paul was simply a part of who I was, and in some very strange way, who I still am today. The label isn’t there and never will be. Nor the accouterments of pomp and ceremony that some Catholics still cling to. I’ve graduated from that part of my life but am still grateful for the experience.

Memories cloaked around vestments of gold and silver are hard to erase. Seven-Thirty mass every morning before school began. Altar boy duties on Sunday at the Eleven O’clock mass.  Routine, mind-numbing religion class for the malleable mind. All of my teachers were draped in black; the nuns in grade school and the Christian Brothers in high school. Even in college, there would be an occasional religious figure at the head of the classroom. That was simply the way it was back in the fifties and sixties.

None of this is surprising when one considers my background growing up. My mother had a sixth grade education and yet was wise to the ways of the big city. Despite coming from a farming background, she somehow understood the value of an education and was thrilled that my sister and I were able to attend St. Louis Grade School, the ‘little French’ school downtown Saint Paul.

There was trauma and drama in our family that escaped me at four and five years of age. Our father left us destitute and then died after an absence of several years. There had been a divorce, an annulment of their marriage and a family left homeless for a period of time. That probably explains why my mother faithfully attended novena at St. Louis Church every Monday afternoon for the rest of her life. I assume it was payback to God for surviving that mess and it seemed to work.

We moved from a duplex then through a period of homelessness in the boiler room of an apartment building. Then we lived in another rundown apartment building until finally my mother built a real home in Highland Park with the help of her brother.

My sister and I graduated from streetcars with wicker seats to buses on our daily ride to downtown Saint Paul. It was a daily rush out the door, jammed into a crowded bus and ‘don’t you dare sit down if an old person was still standing.’ The evil eye from either my Mother or the cranky senior was enough to get me back on my feet again.

There would be the occasional foray to Woolworths for a nickel coke amid bins of (shocking) ladies underwear on sale. The Golden Rule had dime malts but who could afford that? On a rare occasion we might venture to the Riviera or Paramount Theater for an afternoon movie after school. The one spot I fondly remember treading through was Saint Paul Book and Stationary with its tables piled high with books and clerks who got very uncomfortable with kids handling their merchandise.

The religious propaganda I was fed at St. Louis Grade School and Cretin High School never challenged me to think for myself. It was a rote-routine of religious teachings and lessons that never challenged alternate facts or feelings. A few religious classes at St. Thomas College reversed that trend and got me thinking about fairness and justice for all. The drama of the Sixties certainly played a key role in my self-examination and questioning of all that I had been told and taught.

Working since Seventh Grade and growing up hungry (not in the literal sense) gave me the foundation for a successful career in television and writing. Those stern penguins in black force-fed me their religious principles and values. And it seemed to stick.

I went from Questioning Catholic to Cafeteria Catholic, and after the Neumann Center on the U of M campus, to a Christian in spirit with no discernable religious label to hang on to. Yet I am eternally grateful for the values and standards of the Catholic faith that I had been exposed to for sixteen years in Old Saint Paul. It was my Mother’s religion. It wasn’t mine. Yet I have held fast to those basic tenants of fairness and justice and equality for all.

No one has a corner on the God market, not the Catholics nor the Jews or any other faiths of our time. But the Catholic environment of my old community clothed me with an attitude of basic decency and acceptance of all kinds of people that remains to this day. I want to pass that legacy on to my grandchildren.

I can thank Old Saint Paul for that.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Creative Process

For as long as I can remember, let’s say about seventy years, I’ve been curious about the whole creative process. At some point in my youth I became aware of the fact that someone, somewhere, somehow had written those wonderful pop songs that accompanied me on my paper route each morning and afternoon. Somebody peered into my soul and understood what I was feeling even if I didn’t know how they did it at the time.

How did they do that? Where did their inspiration come from? What motivated them to sit down and come up with all those wonderful lyrics, ideas, scenes, melodies, storylines and emotionally charged feelings that I was experiencing?

Me and the Gang -Photo Courtesy of Jerry Hoffman

It was a reflective period for me. At some subconscious level I was acquiring, accumulating, assessing and actuating bits and pieces of storylines that would all come bubbling up to the surface as I got older. Those thoughts began to morph into crudely-sketched comic books, scribbles of poetry, eight millimeter films and short stories all born and nurtured throughout  my younger years.

A career in television and video services became the clay that formed my writing foundation. Then at age thirty-something I wrote my first two novels. Fast-forward forty more years and a real career in writing slowly took shape.

Many folks my age proudly see themselves as seniors and they do so without apology. They’re getting older, past their prime but still keeping busy. It’s that golden period in their lives when they don’t have to fight 9-5 traffic, satisfy a grumpy boss and be so prim and proper all the time. Frankly, I’m too busy to notice or care about such trivial matters. I’m happily sailing my new career on the River De Nial and loving every minute of it. Yet it hasn’t come without some cautionary comments.

The question that has arisen is when is too much too much? Many of us were raised in an environment where we were told to focus and concentrate on one thing at a time. To get one task finished before starting a second one. We were told to pay attention to our parents, our teachers, our coaches and any other authoritarian figure in our lives. Do as they say, not as they (necessarily) do themselves.

As a writer, I’ve been cautioned not to be too scattered and to focus on one genre at a time. The idea is to build up a collection of stories that define me as a certain type of writer. Westerns, for example, might be my storyline of choice.

I’ve written four westerns thus far. I have a fifth treatment in the wings that is a civil war drama. There seems to be an audience for my western stories in Great Britain and Australia. I’m told that both India and Japan also have a small hard-core group of western readers.

So should I try to best Zane Grey or Louie L’Amour? More to my liking, do I want to be the next Will Henry or Clay Fisher or Larry McMurty? One of my newer novels is called ‘Follow the Cobbler.’ It’s a suspense thriller that was a lot of fun to write. I’d like to write more stories in that genre. Yet if I remain just a western writer, I can’t do that. And that is not who I am.

As I’ve mentioned in past blogs, I have trouble concentrating on any one subject for any length of time. Call it attention deficit, unfocused or scattered, I just can’t hold my attention on anything for an extended period of time. The solution for me is multi-pronged approach that works on any number of different subjects for varying periods of time. And it works for me.

Here is a list of current projects of mine in various stages of development.
1.      Sending out press releases for my new YA novel ‘Chasing Ophelia.’
2.      Refining and fine-tuning my new play ‘Polly’s Amorous Adventure.’
3.      Promoting my new play ‘Polly’s Amorous Adventure’ for a December performance.
4.      Working on a second draft of my new play ‘PTV.’
5.      Trying to find a venue to perform my new play ‘The Last Sentinel.’
6.      Beginning to write one of two new novels: ‘Presidio Adieu’ or ‘The Trades.’
7.      Scheduling more writing workshops.
8.      Continuing to write my weekly blogs (usually with 3-5 in the cue at any one time.)
9.      Marketing myself as author and playwright.
10.  Marketing my plays and novels.

Since 2007 I‘ve focused (in bits and pieces) on multiple areas of writing and completed:

400 plus blogs
10 self-published novels
1 self-published investment guide
6 plays; three of which have been produced thus far
4 screenplays
Over 50 treatments in various stages of completion.

There is a rational for my seemingly scattered, shotgun approach to writing. Turns out it is the best way I can capture those fleeting moments of inspiration that seem to creep into my brain on a daily basis. It’s like mixing up a wild, scattered batch of ingredients and turning out a mildly entertaining piece of something after hours in the oven of my mind.

Writing a weekly blog has improved my writing. It had to. I work on the same pieces day after day until a deadline is reached and I have to post them on BlogSpot for publication later on.

My writing has covered a number of different genres. I let my interest carry me in many different directions and formats. My solution to eventually complete my work is to prioritize what to do,  pace myself and make sure every day is spent on writing.

Oh, and have a life at the same time. I’ve already won this game of life. Whether I write another word or not I am ahead of the game.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Standing Outside of Myself

The cliché wrapped up as a question goes something like this:

How do you see yourself?

How do others see you?

How are you in reality?

Often times our version of reality doesn’t compute with other people’s reality about us. So goes the game of life. I thought I knew but they knew better. Or so they thought. Self-reflection isn’t a bad thing if it can be done with a solid grasp of past failures and accomplishments. Satisfaction with ‘today’ can open up the world of ‘before’ with all of its nooks and cranny’s and past stumbles revealed.

Along with being born Catholic comes a certain amount of Catholic guilt and fear of the sin of pride. My classmates and I were taught early on that feeling good about one self, if not a mortal sin, was certainly venal in nature. The idea was to think only of others, to the detriment of ourselves. ‘Sacrifice now’ we were told so we could reap our benefits in heaven. It was an ancient line handed down from the priests, nuns, teachers, parents and other figures of authority. Being German Catholic with rural ancestry certainly didn’t diminish but only enhanced that message to us young-ins.

Being raised in a single parent household, ours was not your typical home environment when the norm usually centered on the classic nuclear family. As a Catholic youngster the standard path to eternal life for me was being an altar boy in grade school, 12 years of Catholic education, Sunday services every Sunday and unquestioning allegiance to the Bishop and Rome.

Self-reflection was usually considered a bad thing. A kind of masturbation of the mind. Feeling good about oneself was the worst kind of sin, that of pride.

So when I began blogging several years ago I found myself reflecting back on my life as it stacked up to that point. Without the encroaching cloak of adult authority leaning over my shoulder I was able to look back, not in anger, but with curiosity at a life well lived thus far.

It was only recently that I realized there were two curriculum tracks at Cretin High School. Seriously, I was that clueless! There was the college bound track with its challenging academic courses and then the other track for those less inclined or qualified. Somehow, I was able to muddle through high school without guidance or help from anyone.

Getting into St. Thomas College proved I could succeed academically despite my grades in high school. A brief stint at the University of Minnesota proved I couldn’t succeed in that large factory of learning.

So now at 75 with many miles traveled and some accomplishments under my belt, I can step outside of myself and look back at my life… and not feel guilty in the process. My academic career was less than Steller but it worked for me. It gave me the insight and passion to believe that it was paramount that my kids and grandkids steel themselves with a solid educational background in order to succeed in this new ever-changing world.

They say maturity is wasted on youth. That’s probably true but I won’t apologize for my sometimes foolish, boorish, immature behavior growing up. I was young and stupid and yet somehow survived those lean, mean, not so innocent years without hurting anyone in the process.

A part of me wants to apologize to past girlfriends for any awkward situations I created between us. I realize now how very immature I was at the time. The intent was there. The manner taken could have been better. I guess I was searching. I’m not sure for what.

It’s a shame I’ve lost touch with so many old friends. Back then it was just the passage of time and other interests that drew us apart. Life moved on but I lost something very precious without even knowing it at the time. Luckily, some of them are still around if only by e-mail or the occasional coffee chat.

On another level, I’m grateful for the casual acquaintances with whom I’ve only spent slivers of time over time. Circumstances brought us together for a while and then pulled us apart as our lives moved on in different directions. But the moments and memories are still there etched in my brain.

Many curtains have opened for me at this later stage in my life. And before (sorry for the pun) my final curtain call, I want to look back once again on a life well lived with all of its hits and misses and reflect with a smile on how lucky I have been.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

New Sheriff in Town

It’s a routine that’s worked out very well in the past…even with a new member of the family. The parents leave town. Sharon and I come into town to take care of their kids, our grandchildren. It provides a wonderful one-on-one exchange, new routines for everyone involved, treats and experiences not normally associated with their everyday lives. It’s our chance to spoil them, teach them, train them and impart our collective wisdom of more than a few years on their malleable minds. The phrase I whimsically used to use was that ‘there was a new sheriff in town.’ That’s no longer applicable.

We’re no longer ‘the sheriff’ in our mind or theirs. Our Colorado grandchildren have grown so much over the past year and we just spent two weeks with them in London and Paris. By now they know the routine. It’s still our chance to bond, teach, inspire and motivate beyond what their parents already do on a daily basis. What has changed ’our routine’ is their maturity and expanded list of extra-curricular activities. From piano lessons to gymnastics to soccer tournaments, just to name a few, the kids are extremely busy and we’ve become the defacto chauffeurs, caterers, art teachers and card sharks. Oh, and I can’t forget ‘Cash.’ He’s changed the equation too.

Our first evening with the kids began quietly enough with piano lessons and then Spencer’s gymnastics lesson. We even had time for the kids to watch a cheerleading class held at the far end of the mats.

Samantha’s weekend soccer tournament probably took up the majority of our time and attention. Everything else had to work with or around those forays to the vast soccer complex in a neighboring community. Hundreds of brightly clad young girls and boys and their ever-present, over eager parents crowding the sidelines and shouting directions at the coaches and refs.

Samantha is on a great team this year and regularly scores several goals per game. That’s not just an overly enthusiastic Papa speaking either. That weekend they won the tournament and provided great entertainment. It wasn’t as stressful for me watching her play as it was when Brian wrestled in high school but it came a close second.

It was important to work our traditional garage-sale explorations into the weekend equation. The kids had to negotiate their own deals with the sellers if they wanted the collectables their parents weren’t crazy about having around the house.

As in London and Paris, there were the obligatory art classes with Nana teaching the use of alcohol ink, acrylics, and new methods of expression.

Walking Cash, the newest member of the family was a daily occurrence. This labradoodle is only the second dog I’ve ever liked. Then we were treated to several dog shows with Cash the wonder dog performing all the new tricks the kids had taught him.

Breakfast ritual with Nana’s world-famous chocolate chip pancakes.

No weekend visit from the grandparents would be complete without several games of Poker and Trash to learn the art of winning and losing.

Then a last minute Costco run found a special treat from Nana for our last dinner before leaving. While in Colorado we heard from the Minnesota duo who had just completed a twenty mile bike ride that weekend. All of our grandchild are avid outdoor enthusiasts. We are blessed with five very active grandchildren.

And, to be honest, visiting Colorado any time of year is a fun experience too.