Tuesday, September 24, 2019

A Hard Knock Life

In 1948, she built her home on Randolph Avenue for a total of eight thousand dollars in labor and materials. Her bachelor brother came down from the farm to work on the house during the day. She joined him at night until it got too dark to see what they were doing. My sister and I played among the lumber and piles of dirt in the backyard as far as I can remember.

It was a good solid house that raised a family of three, gave me a place to call home and my Mother a symbol of her hard work and perseverance. All of it earned with a sixth grade education and the salary of a short order cook. For all of her shortcomings, my Mother was one hell of a hard worker.

Today the same home is on the market for $285,000. Go figure. It’s considered a starter home in the tony Highland Village neighborhood. My Mother would be amazed and amused. Mostly, she would feel vindicated and (if allowed by her staunch Catholic faith) a great deal of pride in what she had accomplished.

Reflecting back on that period in my life, I can see now that my Mother had a hard-knock life. She was raised on a farm outside of St. Cloud, Minnesota in a family of twelve. She adored her father but with too many kids to raise and a farm to run, he had little time for the youngest of his brood. There was jealousy and animosity among the sisters; who knows why. That discord among Mom and her siblings continued throughout my youth.

Put in proper perspective, my Mother was raised rural, German, and Catholic. Back then that said it all. She was undemonstrative in love and affection but had a tremendous work ethic. She sincerely believed that to praise a child was to spoil them and pride was a sin to be avoided at all costs. I wasn’t about to abandon my mother but I clearly remember mentally divorcing all of my relatives when I was in Eighth Grade. Years later, writing my first novel ‘Love in the A Shau’ was a cathartic exercise in purging those memories through my protagonist, Daniel.

Hers was a dysfunctional upbringing that she managed to survive and move on past. She clung to her Catholic faith even when her Lord kept kicking her around with a failed marriage, failed business, unsupportive sisters, disinterested brothers and enough drinking to go around for everyone. It was probably the norm of the day but hardly conducive to a solid groundwork for success in life.

Never the less, my Mother made sure her two kids got a good Catholic education then looked the other way when they let their faith shift and change into the self-directed colors and tones of their generation.

Her quirks were legendary.

A pet cottontail rabbit was a member of the family for over 10 years. Nosey had the run of the house, a comfy sofa to lie on, a window to watch the world go by, and a litter box in the basement.

For close to fifty years running, my Mother attended novena every Monday afternoon at St. Louis Catholic Church in downtown Saint Paul. It was Mass every Sunday no matter what the weather. There was a shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary in our backyard but not one damn book in the house for the twenty-one years I lived there.

A priority in her life was the love of dancing at least two or three times a week for over 20 years. The polka was her favorite. Her coffee was made and ready to go at least 23 hours in advance. She religiously put labels on all appliances indicating date of installation, repairs, etc.

She found love at an old age and made it work and it was good.

My Mother couldn’t love my sister and me the way other Mothers loved their kids. But I guess in the end her work ethic was a powerful lesson in drive and desire for more. It was a hunger she had all her life and one that drives me on to this day.

Learning the love and affection part of life came slowly to me but I’ve managed to pass it on to my family and my grandkids.

That circle has been broken.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Growing Old Between the Ears

Ethel said it best in my play ‘The Last Sentinel.’ She and a group of women are talking about the aging process. There are aging bodies, sore muscles and lapsed memories but the worst, Ethel declares, is ‘growing old between the ears.’

I wrote that play several years ago and I’m three plays past it now. But my observations remain as keen today as they were back then. When I listen to some of my old classmates, past acquaintances and a few neighbors I realize that we collectively live in two very different worlds. They seem to have clung to their old surroundings like some sort of security blanket. New, different, changed, and improved are foreign ideas and threatening concepts to them.

Ethel was talking about old people in a nursing home but the same philosophy holds true for other generations as well.

Simply by chance and without even trying, I’ve come across a number of older gentlemen who have decided that they are going to clear-cut their own pathway to the future and it doesn’t include following their doctor’s advice. For whatever reason, they’ve decided to show their independence and stubbornness against medical facts. My observation is that this trail blazing into medical fields unknown doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But they seem intent on forging their own way into their physical future. I’ve been there on the sidelines before watching relatives go through the same self-directed dance with the devil. The outcome isn’t always very pleasant.

Aging seems to hit men particularly hard. Perhaps it was the machismo culture many of us were exposed to growing up. Sports in school, the military, too many John Wayne movies, Playboy magazine and other cultural phenomena that all conspired to paint a picture of muscle and brawn, girls and gold, sex and satisfaction; all without the harsh reality of the real world hovering in the background.

Women seem much better equipped to cope with the aging process. They have friends and clubs and social engagements that lesson or share the burden of getting old.

According to aging expert Helen Kivnick, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, the experience of later life is determined partly by biology, partly by history and partly by society and culture. Baby boomers are constantly bombarded by anti-aging propaganda. From wrinkle creams to collagen injections to cosmetic surgery, we are encouraged, cajoled and intimidated into believing that with the right attitude and pocket book we can live forever or at the very least look like we are going to live forever. Those afro-mentioned old men seem to believe that their stubborn attitude will carry them through – to what – I don’t know.

In truth, the worst part of getting older appears to be ageism – the intolerant attitudes of some younger people toward seniors. So how to beat it? I think the only answer lies between your ears. It’s your attitude and aptitude to take on new challenges, create new pathways into areas you find interesting and finally it’s listening to your doctor when he tells you to act your age but have fun in the process.

The best old age elixir is to keep moving in whatever direction suits you as long as it contributes to your physical and mental health. It’s keeping friends and family close and negative folks far away. It’s celebrating life itself on a daily basis.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Invisible Walls

Being on Facebook can leave one open to out of the blue comments sometimes. Posting pictures, attitudes, blogs or other statements sometimes encourages inquiries whether they are invited or not. It’s happened to me on several occasions. A name, often times unrecognizable at first, will mysteriously appear on my page with no hint as to our past connection. It often clouds my re-collection of past friendships, relationships and encounters with old acquaintances.

When this occasionally happens, I have to wonder how they found me in cyber space. Trail blazing, walking point or just plain stalking might be the answer. Nevertheless, I’ve been found. Then the mystery begins.

Back in 1999, noted intellectual Paul Krugman said that by 2005 the internet would be no more influential than the fax machine. Guess he got that a little wrong. The internet has given me a world-wide audience. Though still small in numbers, it means exposure in foreign lands I never knew I would ever reach.

I now have a worldwide audience whether I intended for that to happen or not. It’s minuscule but it’s real. My writing platform circles the globe from the United States to the United Kingdom. It covers India, skips through Asia and into Russia then back to Minnesota again. It also makes side trips to about a dozen other foreign countries and at least three-fourths of all the states.

Who are these folks that have been visiting my Facebook page and reading my blogs? Their names, gender and age are still a mystery. Yet their presence is very real according to the cyber bots that monitor such things.

Google Analytics and Facebook data have been helpful in deciphering where my readers are coming from. It’s not an exact science and I certainly haven’t gotten a total grasp on my readership but it’s been most helpful in appreciating the scope and breath of my coverage.

When a name appears out of the blue, hinting of old familiarity, the mystery only deepens. Often times I respond to their comment or inquiry immediately but then they just disappear once again. The reconnection is swift and vapid then becomes ever elusive once more. Like touching a hot stretch of beach, that foot-to-sand encounter isn’t coming back anytime soon.

This digital tap dance in cyber space can be very confusing. I don’t know why they made the initial contact in the first place if they didn’t want to continue the conversation? Perhaps it was curiosity in connecting or pondering my response. In either case, they decided not to pursue the connection any further.

Who knows? They may have been there for important milestones in your life but are no longer even a smudge on the relationship radar. What happened to those folks? Perhaps they didn’t follow through or fell short of what I expected from them. Perhaps I failed them and the ending was mutual.

Of course, no one can make someone else their friend if they don’t want to be. It’s terribly subjective and handicapped by a less than thorough knowledge of their motives. Were there extraneous factors, whether recognized or not, that contributed to the demise of that friendship? Was it something I did or didn’t do? Was it something I said even in honesty that was taken the wrong way?

Some folks can be brutally honest in terms of their relationships. They separate family (with all those obligatory ties) from friends and acquaintances (where they get to decide whom they want to be associated with.) They pick and choose their friends based on connections, associations and tie-ins all for their own self-benefit and satisfaction. ‘It’s nothing personal,’ as my boss used to say, ‘it’s just business.’

Friendships and relationships can be by their very nature a vapid and elusive bond to attain and maintain. Fleeting friendships based on circumstance are easy to recognize. An MOS partnership in the Armed Forces evaporates as soon as discharge papers are served. That’s understood, accepted and welcomed for a return to civilian life. A close relationship in the classroom can wither away and die when outstate jobs or opportunities beckon. Neighbors and neighborhoods fade from memory after the moving van has arrived. It’s all part and parcel of the ebb and flow of normal life.

Some time ago, an old acquaintance of mine resurfaced after 58 years of ‘what ever happened to…?’ She said she was surprised to see that I had become a writer in my retirement. Another friend appeared after 52 years, also intrigued by my novel writing and local speaking engagements. They both made their first overture just as others had randomly left a message on my Facebook page. My first reaction was a refrain from that old 60’s Rascals song ‘I’d like to get to know you.’ But their response seemed to be ‘I don’t think so. Just curious here.’

It’s not like I was seeking a return to the intimacy that we once shared decades earlier. I alluded to that fact in my return correspondence but their resolve was firm. Their curiosity didn’t extend beyond that first timid comment in reconnecting. Perhaps it was more curiosity than anything else. Fair enough but too bad.

Photo Credit: Jerry Hoffman
It’s been several lifetimes since I’ve seen any of those folks. I assume I never will again. So I wish for all of them health and happiness and good memories. It’s the Great Go-Around in this our Circle of Life.

Like most mysteries of life, there are no easy answers. I just wanted to revisit an old friendship but they seemed intent on letting it remain a mystery. Another way of saying, you have your memories, I have my history. And the ‘old we’ probably won’t cross paths anytime soon in our respective futures. In other words, let it go and move on.

So that’s what I’ll do with one last melody humming in my head. As Woody Guthrie once sang ‘So long, it’s been good to know ya.’ And I’ll add “thanks for the memories.”

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Tangled Roots

It began with the harsh criticism of an idea that had been percolating in my head for some time. The Artistic Director was never short of rigid opinionated ideas of what worked and didn’t work in her theatrical venue. She knew her audience and what would make for good theater. My idea didn’t fit her notion of a new kind of play. Then she put the icing on the cake with one quip. “Besides, nobody cares about folk music anyway.”

That was it. I knew I had a good idea for a play…because she was right. Musical tastes have moved on and today what I consider good music is akin to calling pen and paper ancient but still effective. Now granted, there is a very limited audience for old time music. ‘So why would anyone care about it?’ I asked. ‘Because I do,’ I answered.  Sounds like a storyline to me. I would call my play ‘Tangled Roots.’

Folk music or more aptly called ‘Americana music’ is as old as this country itself and before that the counties where our forefathers came from. It embodies the American spirit, the Great Depression, riding the rails, an awareness of civil and social causes long before the general public was able to grasp those attacks on freedom and liberty for all.

It includes but is not limited to:

Folk music, Delta blues, Chicago blues, Country Western, Swing, Hillbilly, Zydeco, Appalachian Music and so forth. It is often bunched together under the title: Roots Music.

Having been encouraged in a most indirect way, I was eager to explore this new kind of play…for me. It would be an intermingling of singing, musical demonstration and an intriguing background storyline for the characters involved. It would be a concert, musical theory class and coming-of-old-age saga wrapped up in a small theater. Black Box would be perfect.

The storyline would be simple enough. An aging folk singer who never quite made the grade in Greenwich Village finds employment elsewhere and abandons his dream as a singer-songwriter. He is now facing an undetermined future in his retirement. In his mind there is nowhere to go with his life. His fellow band members are of little help. They’ve grown tired of playing their sets at retirement homes, cheap bars and free summer concerts. There’s no money to be made and little appreciation from their mixed audiences. So along with the conundrum of one’s future life there are no encouraging signs on the horizon for the path presently taken. Add in the first inklings of romance and all the elements were there for my storyline.

Many folks my age find themselves facing an uncertain future in retirement. They’re limited by their economic, physical and social resources. Their past is past and nothing on the horizon looks promising. So it’s not surprising that a lot of folks in that predicament turn back in time to their past and try, in one fashion or another, to relive, revive and review segments of their past that brought them pleasure and pleasant memories.

So it is with my main protagonist. Music was his life back then and he wonders if he can go back to that carefree period when he was young and hungry and eager to take on the world. He can still play the guitar and sing the songs. He thinks he can still pen a tune if given enough time and coffee. Whiskey and wine won’t do anymore.

He wants to explore this option but he is all alone. The other band members see a future only replete with repeat performances and shrinking audiences. Most of them would rather spend their mornings at the coffee shop and evenings staring at the tube. Then a mysterious woman steps into his life or at least the fringes of it and another layer of confusion, conflict and contrasting lifestyles is added to the mix.

The play is still in its gestation stage. There is a lot more work to do before fingertips tap out a tune. The idea is competing for my attention, pitting precious time against a revision of PTV so that play can be submitted to a local venue (but that’s another blog entirely). Pushing up fast behind PTV are at least three new play ideas and two more revisions that need my attention.

Then there is the challenge of finding an actor who can sing and play the guitar. Finding other actors who can back him up will be even harder. Securing a small venue like a black box will also be a challenge. None of these obstacles changes the fact that the core premise of the play is sound. I believe there is an audience out there for my storyline. Now the fun will be to put the whole package together. And in that process prove the artistic director wrong.

Folks do care about old time music. At least some of us old timers do.