Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Brian, Ziggy, and Me

In the 1980s, self-help and attaining individual success was in full bloom and a very viable business model. Its disciples included such luminaries as Zig Ziglar, Brian Tracy, and a host of other straight, middle aged, white Christian men whose background seemed to come straight out of a turn-of-the-century Horatio Alger novel.

Horatio Alger, Jr. was an American writer of young adult novels about impoverished boys and their rise from humble backgrounds to leading lives of middle-class security and comfort through hard work, determination, courage and honesty. Following up on this trend, Napoleon Hill, Orison Swett Marden and Samuel Smiles all had enormous success with their self-help books during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

About this same time, Dale Carnegie was teaching business education courses in New York City. Carnegie was convinced by a rep from Simon & Schuster to take his 14-week course and turn it into a book. ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ became one of the first self-help and personal development books ever written. Over 15 million copies have been sold and in 2011, it was ranked number 19 on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential books ever written.

Napoleon Hill with his classic ‘Think and Grow Rich’ has run a close second. Both these classics predated the Amway, Shaklee and Mary Kay era. Those companies stressed their own ‘build your own success formulas’ and, were in turn, a more refined and strategic multi-level marketing approach that began with the early Tupper Ware parties of the 1950s.

This return to the era of ‘yes, you can do it all!’ came to mind a while back as I was perusing through my Amazon tablet and its Prime Video folder. The Prime Video folder has literally hundreds of films to download and watch or purchase. It was there that I came across a documentary on Brian Tracy, one of the stalwart purveyors of the self-help movement. It brought back a plethora of memories of that time in my life.

Back in the day, I was following a different form of teaching and learning in my personal life. It was my pseudo-hippie way of thinking. It was a more deeply personal and analytical approach that resonated with me at the time. Three authors struck a chord with me.

Neither of these authors or poets offered an easy answer to the timeless questions pondered by many young men. There were no sure fire formulas or easy fixes. While on one hand, I would soon be peddling my own self-help materials, these books offered a different and more challenging approach to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

In 1980, I had just started my own company Sharden Productions, with my first video series under my belt. It was an eight-part speed-reading course entitled ‘Flexible Reading,’

I was on the hunt for more video series to produce or lease. Flexible Reading had been a substantial investment of my own money plus a bank loan to get it started. By acquiring the rights to other video series, I could cut down on my production costs and focus on marketing those products without incurring more debt.

My next series to acquire and distribute was entitled Personal Time Management, a course developed by a professor from the University of Minnesota. That was followed up pretty quickly by Stress Management and more self-help series. As the business grew and prospered, I produced my own one-hour golf special on Bobby Jones, a twelve-part jazz series and an eclectic variety of other video programming. Nevertheless, always in the back of my mind was the prospect of acquiring more self-help material from the real professionals like Brian Tracy and Zig Ziglar.

Nightingale Conant was the largest distributor of self-help material at the time. They were churning out seminars, audio tapes, books, and a wide array of material in that discipline. They were kings of the mountain and not about to relinquish their throne to a small time producer/distributor from the Midwest.

So I joined the Minnesota Speakers Association but found out very quickly that the organization was only interested in professional speakers who made a lot of money. The rest of us were just dues-paying members with no benefits from the organization. I expanded my portfolio of products but could never bust through that distribution wall that Brian and Ziggy had built up around themselves.

Eventually my self-help and personal development series ran their course and I branched out into other forms of risk-taking. Real estate had always hovered on the sidelines as a potentially lucrative side venture. Even there, the self-help gurus of land and buildings were plowing the fertile grounds with their ideas of ‘getting rich quickly’ with very little effort.

A poor cousin and flip side to the ‘Think and Grow Rich’ movement was/is the ‘Get Rich Quick’ approach to almost anything but especially real estate. Before the great recession in 2008, there were a plethora of real estate investment schemes being aired on television and in seminars around the country. Their message was always the same. A person could get rich by investing in real estate without any experience, money, knowledge, or clue as to what real estate really entailed. In fact, the only requirement from those purveyors of ‘great pastures of plenty’ for their lambs was the ability to breathe and have cash on-hand.

Much like the great truths of the self-help movement and personal development field, real estate investments call for a lot of hard work and a dollop of common sense. There are no short cuts to success in real estate and those heralded stories of success on infomercial television are cleverly packaged with good editing and a keen sense of ‘what sounds good.’ It is often far from reality and the truth.

In the end, Self-help is nothing more than common sense packaged with interesting stories, promises of great fortunes and eternal happiness. The key here is that for anyone willing to ‘do the work’; it’s a story that can come true.

The secret ingredient, seldom talked about, is for ‘anyone willing to do the work.’ And herein lies the reason so many folks love to read the books and watch the TV shows but seldom get off their couch at the end of the day. Like anything else in life, it takes work, a lot of hard work, to accomplish your goals.

Nothing much has changed since those street urchins plied the railroad yards for scattered pelts of coal to heat their tenement shacks. Hard work, sacrifice, determination, and overcoming failure are all the secret ingredients to ‘getting rich slowly.’ It’s what our grandparents have been telling us all along.

Life is kind of funny that way.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Great Escape

It probably began with the Iliad, the Odyssey, and other Greek tales of adventure. History tells us that Homer wrote about one of these first epic journeys. As a budding writer of western novels, I was aware of the fact that in western fiction, there are only three or four main story lines. One of these is the epic journey or the great trek. Hollywood captured these formula stories with two classic westerns: ‘Red River’ and ‘The Searchers.’

Later on, there were movies like ‘Escape from New York’ and ‘Road Warrior’ that followed this same story formula. Sharon and I recently lived our own epic journey ripe with a deadly virus trailing us cross-country, closed or seemingly haunted motels, nearly empty roadways and miles upon miles of late winter drabness. It was a forced road trip for two very asphalt-allergic folks.

Like the rest of the world, Palm Springs experienced the COVID-19 epidemic/pandemic recently. Rumors exploded along with misinformation, misunderstanding, and panic in the toilet paper aisle. All the OMG folks were going crazy and driving those around them in the same direction. Hotels, motels, restaurants, and worse yet, nightclubs were all ordered closed down.

Our situation on the home front was tempered by the fact that over a four-week period, Sharon had experienced three bouts of a serious sinus infection that she just couldn’t shake. With every new round of antibiotics came an upset stomach and digestive interruptions. She was tired and her immune system compromised. It wasn’t safe for us to board an airplane and go anywhere. Yet I wasn’t about to stay in Palm Springs until May 1st as we had originally planned to do.

Compounding the situation was a ‘lock-down’ and ‘Stay in place’ order from city government in Palm Springs. That was quickly followed by a similar ‘stay in place’ order for the city of Los Angeles and finally on March 19th, a statewide ‘lock down’ for all of California.

Just about everything was closed down. Coffee shops, retail shops, golf courses, any and all gathering spots, were now out of reach. The Canadians, probably 30-40 percent of our winter population, were rushing to get back north before their borders closed. Snowbirds were leaving early and Palm Springs was fast becoming a ghost town.

The last straw for me was when they closed the library and then my exercise room at the Saguaro, our local hip hotel. By mid-afternoon, waves of flotsam would sweep over the berm where I walked every day. These interlopers had discovered my treasured walk along the wash. Dog walkers, bikers, sightseers and other newbies to outdoor exercise were crowding the gravel pathway. I had to resort to walking early in the morning before the crowds arrived.  It was time to go home.

In the past, we would have jumped on a plane and flown home. Now our options were to drive our own car home or get a rental. Truth be told, I’m not a road warrior. Driving to the end of the block is about far enough for me. Now we were facing the prospect of driving almost two thousand miles to get home. We opted for a one-way rental, got an SUV on steroids, secured a date in April, and prepared to hunker down until it was time to leave.

What we quickly realized is that while in the past we had been limited with our luggage by the astronomical airline charges and UPS fees to ship things home, now we were limited only by the storage capacity of our Greyhound bus. Sharon was in seventh heaven. All those estate sale goodies she had collected over the years could now be taken home at no additional cost.

Our cargo load was impressive even by Walmart standards:
            Four boxes of oranges
            Six boxes of lemons
            Ten boxes of food
            Six bottles of wine for Brian and Amy in Denver
            Water and snacks to last us well beyond our senior years
            Four boxes of my writing files
            Five novels and several writing reference books
            A new Bose/clock/alarm radio
            Tons of magazines (for summer reading on my porch)
            A complete set of Time/Life History of the Civil War (for Sharon’s brother)
            Ten newly recorded CDs of my favorite music in the desert
            Dell laptop, Macbook Pro laptop, two Amazon tablets, iPad, Kindle, Verizon tablet
Lots of Sharon’s art work
Sharon’s paints
Select clothing & shoes
Two twenty-five pound weights (what the heck, we had the room)

Fortunately there was still room in the Titanic for Sharon and me in steerage so we were good to go. I had promised the grandchildren in Colorado and Minnesota that if I could catch a coyote or two or some Jack Rabbits, I’d bring them along. I never did but they (and I) thought it was a great idea.

We had two basic routes to follow, the Northern route and the Southern route. The first leg of both routes began in Palm Springs and ended in Albuquerque, New Mexico. From there, the Northern route went north toward Colorado while the Southern route went east toward Oklahoma and Kansas. Weather determined that we ultimately took the Northern route. The scenery alternated between spectacular and drab as hell.

Since neither Sharon nor I are road trippers, we were totally unprepared for our existence day upon day on the road with nothing to listen to except the hum of our new tires. Neither one of us is a techno-geek. We don’t have a blue tooth between us, few apps and Sharon has only recently started to Zoom. So we ended up listening to a lot of religious radio stations and reflecting.

But that’s another story entirely; reflections of my relationship with the Catholic faith.  I’ve entitled it ‘God as My Co-Pilot’ and it will appear as a new blog in the near future.

If I were to break our trek down in simplistic terms I’d say that parts of the country between Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado were barren and bleak. It was miles upon miles of nothingness.

Once we left Eastern Colorado and hit the Nebraska – Iowa corridor, the trucks started to bunch up, filling the right hand lane. Civilization had returned. I stayed in the left hand lane and continued flying at near mock-one speed. God and country music filled my ears with distractions from the long road ahead.

Brian insisted we stop by to see the Colorado kids and pick up the Rat Pack. Therefore, after twelve hours on the road, we arrived with lemons, oranges, and special gifts from California to give our grandkids.

We had a wonderful SD (socially distant) gourmet dinner that night. Then we loaded up the ‘Rat Pack’ and left the next morning for Minnesota.

When we left Palm Springs, our cactus were in full bloom, the roads ahead mostly empty and when we got home, snow had fallen on our front lawn.

After ‘six hours’ of dancing over asphalt the first day, then’ twelve’ the second and finally ‘fifteen’ the third day, we finally arrived home late Wednesday night; Rat Pack en tow.

It’s a worn cliché, tired but true. There is no place like home.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Giving Birth Three Times Over

My goal for this season in Palm Springs was to write three plays. Going into it last fall, I had no illusions that the plays themselves, if completed, would be anything beyond a good first draft. In other words, I wanted to create three plays with enough sound story structure and character potential that I had something solid with which to continue their growth and development. Then the idea was to workshop them back in Minnesota. Well, I accomplished my goal even though (figuratively speaking) it damn near killed me.

Two of the plays were musicals although I have absolutely no musical talent or skills beyond knowing what kind of music I like. The third would be a drama based on the emotional turmoil a gay man finds himself in as he reaches middle age; single and alone in the world. Yup, you guessed it. I’m about as straight as a Robin Hood arrow. In retrospect, I guess my lack of musical knowledge and gender persuasion probably had a lot to do with the stress I faced in my quest to write three plays in six months. But they’re finally done and I ‘think they work.’

Since two of these plays have music, I had to plot out where the songs might fit in the storyline. I’ve got a title for each song and a good idea of the message I want to convey there. But it’s the exact type of song (ballad, upbeat, etc) and the lyrics that are the most challenging. My hope is to find a musician/s that I can work with to create music to fit the lyrics that I’ve written for each song.

During the season, I was also revisiting PTV to add more drama to it before a second approach to the Minnesota History Theater for their interest. Then I had Polly’sAmorous Adventures which I was promoting to the Art Theaters in the Twin Cities along with my other plays to the Community Theaters there. My weekly blog feed demanded a lot of my attention with multiple rewrites. In November, I had to write a new play for the grandchildren to perform.

It was a rather busy six months sequestered in my desert office.

The first play ‘Wake; the Musical’ had been percolating around in my brain for a long time. ‘Wake’ is a play about death, redemption, acceptance of man’s fragility and burying past hurts to open the future for possibilities. Attendants come together to celebrate the life and past of a man named John Moses. What they all come to realize pretty quickly is that John Moses is a chameleon; very different to so many ways to some many different people. Past secrets are revealed and truth intentions exposed. Musical interludes are an important part of the storytelling here.

The second play ‘Tangled Roots’ took shape and form last summer. I imagined it to be a combination of folk music and the story of a man’s struggle to find fulfillment and satisfaction in his retirement. Beyond the surface of ‘what to do with the rest of one’s life,’ it would also be an examination of life’s purpose and being true to oneself.

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 history that brought them pleasure and pleasant memories.

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.

This new kind of play 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 third play ‘Widow’s Waltz’ evolved after a couple of seasons here in Palm Springs as Sharon and I met more members of the gay community. Many of them seemed to fit the profile of my main characters in the play.

Photo Credit:  Riot at Sage Corner

They’re older, single gay men without a partner or significant other. While on the surface, their challenges seem much like of straight singles, I’ve found from research that the challenges are far greater for gay individuals than straight ones.

Research alone will never help me get to the core of the issues or create a storyline true to their predicament. That is where our friends in the gay community can provide me with honest, heart-felt advice and suggestions to make the play honest and true to their ‘real world.’

It’ll probably be a challenge to present such a play written by a straight author to those appropriate venues here in the Valley but I’m hoping the honesty of the storyline will grab their attention and honest evaluation.

The three plays have been written. Now the hard part begins. I plan to workshop all three back in Minnesota and then pound out a second or third or fourth draft until such time that I have a product ready for the next step. Upon completion of a draft that has withstood the workshops, editing, revisions and changes each play will require then two of them will be ready for the musical portion of the mix. Overall, it will be an arduous and challenging task but, I hope, one that results in an interesting story, engaging characters and something worthy of an audience’s time and attention. In the end, isn’t that what every playwright is striving for; to tell a story and entertain an audience. I know I am.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

In These Crazy Times

The COVID-19 virus is spreading out across the globe. It has become a pandemic and is causing major health, economic and social upheavals. Grocery store shelves are empty and a lot of people seem on the verge of panic. California Governor Newsom had just declared that all seniors and those with underlining health issues should stay at home and not go out. Isolation and social distancing are becoming the norm. So what’s an old guy supposed to do in this time of crisis? Go climb a mountain, what else.

As I’ve written in a number of past blogs, mountain hiking has become my own vision quest. For others, it might be a walk in the woods, a stroll along the beach or a quiet spot almost anywhere. This vision quest thing is hardly a new concept. The Indians got it right a long time ago and we don’t give them enough credit for it.

Since the beginning of time, mankind has always had a spiritual relationship with solitude. The first ancients to walk this country found it in their mountains. They left their mark around and on those granite sentinels of the ages. Nothing much has changed over the course of time. Although much of the 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.

Anglo culture named this fascinating formation after a 19th century clipper ship because of the peak’s resemblance to a ship. Navajo legend believes that ghosts of the ancients are still buried on top of the mountain and must never be disturbed. Navajo police patrol the area to make sure their sacred mountain is never touched.

The Coachella Valley is surrounded by several mountain chains each laced with meandering hiking trails. These old mountain goat routes have imbued certain groups to seek solace, quiet reflection, exercise and release from their daily lives on their rocky trails. From desert rats to trail runners and even novice hikers, those mountains have been calling to us for centuries. The mountains provide a real sense of solitude especially in this time of crisis.

In Palm Springs, aside from the Tramway cable cars, the only way up the mountains is to walk.

Footpaths have cut through, circumvented, and traversed the foothills and mountains around here since the dawn of time. Long before the first whites came into the area, the ancients had been roaming the desert floor and traversing the mountains surrounding the Coachella Valley.

Something magical and almost spiritual can happen during a mountain hike. It’s a challenge to both the physical and mental state of being. Taken at face value, it can be an afternoon 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…if your head is in the right place.

Palm Springs has an abundance of hiking trails for both the casual hiker and serious desert rat. A favorite of mine and closer to home is the South Lykken Trail. It’s part of the North and South Lykken Trail that stretches for nine miles and takes about five hours of moderate work to traverse the entire trial. The elevation gain is only about 800 feet and it’s considered a moderate hike by local standards.

I went up there with my kids about five years ago. Both are more athletic than myself. Melanie runs marathons and Brian eats Fourteeners for breakfast. But I held my own and we had a wonderful view at top.

There’s almost a culture among the small group of folks who hike those foothills and mountains all year round. They endure scorching summer heat and windy overcast winter days. Their skin looks like weathered copper or dried up old parchment. Most of them are skinny as a rail and lithe like 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 per vial.

Adding to the excitement of rattlesnakes in spring and fall are slippery rocks, loose gravel, and rough footing. It’s not a climb for the faint of heart. Not quite like the Costa Rican rainforest but not that far from it either. (What I Learned from Howling Monkeys)

It’s as special place as you want it to be. Not exactly like trial running back home in the Minnesota woods but the same kind of methodical, slow easy practiced stroll that is tougher than most long runs. It’s a place to look at the craziness around us and take a deep breath to exhale all the nonsense and access the reality of it all.

Along with one’s dreams and meandering what-ifs, it’s a perfect place to escape inside your head and do some exploring. It’s a place to celebrate old age and hold on to the memories there.

This too shall past. Life is good.

Enjoy it while you can.