Tuesday, June 30, 2020

El Pais Grande Del Sur

I’m going back to Big Sur for the first time.

The reality of covid-19 hit me upon my return to Minnesota. Between the pandemic and its social distancing guidelines, I suddenly find myself unable to workshop any of the three plays I’d just completed back in Palm Springs. Furthermore, I wouldn’t be able to work closely with musicians to create the music for those plays. At least for the foreseeable future, the plays were on hold and stuck in their first draft. I really needed feedback to proceed further with their development.

Added to that disappointment, my gym was closed as were the coffee shops where I love to hold my cerebral salons. The libraries and bookstores were closed so I had to get my books online or at Half-Price Books. Then some of my friends were reticent to visit on my patio even though I could guarantee them a good ten feet distance between us. I was stuck in a kind of limbo without any of my regular routines to follow.

So what is a hyperactive, overly scheduled adult supposed to do in such a situation? I could quarantine myself and wait for the virus to leave. I could putter around the lawn all day. Knowing me fairly well, I knew I had to do something more productive. Productive in my world translated into more writing and editing. Therefore, I could edit what I’d already written, select more subject matter for future blogs, or write something entirely new.

I opted for the latter and decided to write another novel. But it would not be just any new novel (which would be my eleventh thus far). This new novel would be an entirely new genre for me - a murder mystery / thriller entitled ‘The Trades.’

The novel would be set in the fast-paced world of publishing in San Francisco and the dark, mysterious backwoods of Big Sur. It would host a cast of characters that are still vapid ghosts in my imagination but are slowly taking shape. I see them as each being corroded with human foibles and yet hope (among a few of them) for the future. It would have good guys, bad guys, and many more that float between good intentions and not so good. Many of them can’t be categorized so easily. It would naturally include a love story but one where none should have surfaced in the first place.

I already have an eighteen-page treatment that over several years, I’ve sliced, diced, and mixed up quite a bit. Now I just had to put finger to keyboard and make these characters come to life. Research of the ‘trades’ and the Big Sur area would be critical since I had only been there once earlier this year but that was just passing through at sixty miles per hour. See my past blog: Solvang for more details.

As a young man in another life, I had been close to the Big Sur wilderness area once before. Unbeknownst to me, In 1964 I had just missed meeting a new wave of strange characters that would soon be wandering Big Sur’s deep impenetrable forests and jagged coastline. In 1964-65, I was stationed at the Presidio of San Francisco. I wandered up the northern coast of California but never made it as far south as Big Sur. Half Moon Bay was a far as I got on my motor scooter.

Historically, the Big Sur area was derived from that unexplored and un-mapped wilderness area which lies along the coast south of Monterey. Back in the day, it was simply called el pais grande del sur, the Big South Country. Today, it refers to a 90-mile stretch of rugged and beautiful coastline between Carmel to the north and San Simeon (Hearst Castle) to the south.

In 1937, the present highway was completed after eighteen years of construction at a considerable expense even with the aid of convict labor. Electricity did not arrive in Big Sur until the early 1950’s, and it still does not extend the length of the coast or into the more remote mountainous areas. There is no cellphone service so if your car breaks down, you’re truly SOL (____out of luck).

In the 1940s, 50s and 60s, Henry Miller lived in Big Sur on and off for years. Miller was an American writer known best for breaking with existing literary forms and developing a new type of autobiographical novel that blended character study, social criticism, philosophical reflection, stream of consciousness, explicit language (Tropic of Cancer), sex, surrealist free association and mysticism. He was also part of an avant-garde art colony centered around his controversial writings and philosophy of life. I knew Henry would be the perfect kind of idol for some of my characters in the book.

Jack Kerouac followed Miller in the 1950s. Then in the ‘60s Allen Ginsburg, along with Wavy Gravy and the Merry Pranksters, made annual pilgrimages down there to smoke dope, take LSD and get lost inside their heads. Timothy Leary used the area as the perfect setting for his pro-motion of LSD as a mind-expanding drug. He often times hosted events in the forests of Big Sur.

Esalen became a new age enclave and heralded the advancement of its human potential movement. It seemed only appropriate that the wild, weird, and wonderful characters that are a part of the fabric and tapestry of San Francisco and Big Sur should play a prominent role in this next novel.

The main characters, along with an assortment of bit players, masked strangers, and two-faced villains are all rehearsing in the twenty-five chapters I’ve outlined thus far. I’m trying to capture some of their dialogue, at least in my head, so I can begin to pound it out on my pages very soon. I’ve already seen the novel take a number of surprising twists and turns. Unbeknownst to me, motivation and greed and evil intents aren’t always as easy to recognize as I first imagined. I expect the first draft of this endeavor will come relatively easy for me. It’s going to be the second, third, and perhaps fourth draft that really make or break the novel.

This genre is a first for me so it’s going to be a different kind of journey. I’m comfortable in the saddle. The sixties were a charm. I’ve been to the A Shau and traveled around the world in the company of an endearing friend. However, putting on a criminal mind and plotting the demise of others is a whole new ballgame.

I think I’ve created an interesting main character (at least in my head) and (once again) a woman who is beautiful, smart and can kick ass with the best of them. Of course, it doesn’t help that both are overshadowed by the ghost of Henry Miller and Lewy Body syndrome. I expect they’re going to take me on one interesting adventure. I hope others will ultimately want to come along and share the excitement with me.


Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Four Houses on Three Continents

California is often referred to as the golden state and that has little to do with the gold rush of the 1800s. By its size alone, the state has a lot of everything; the good, the bad and the in between.

The state’s economy is the largest in the United States, boasting a $3.137 trillion gross state product as of 2019. If California were a sovereign nation, it would rank as the world’s fifth largest economy, ahead of India and Germany.

It’s always been a given that many things are simply more expensive here. So it’s of little surprise that along with its size goes the sad fact that 13.3 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. In its defense, the state can boast about the near-perfect weather, a cornucopia of diversity in a myriad of areas and technology giants that roam the globe and cyber world far and wide.

Having traveled up and down the Southern California Coast as well as the Central California Coast, I can confirm that housing and commerce are a bit out of the world for most Americans; especially the average Californian. But it is what it is; the state of California.

Spending as much time as we do in the state, Sharon and I have become a bit immured to the sometimes crazy and unworldly things that happen around us. We see it as just part of the Zen of California and our little desert community. There has long been a realization among Palm Springs residents that our little community isn’t like the rest of the state. This came into clearer focus a while back when Sharon and I were docents for a tour of our neighborhood during Modernism Week.

Modernism Week is a signature event held every February in Palm Springs. This year, it attracted over 150,000 modern architecture lovers from all over the country and the world. There were 350 plus events to showcase and highlight the very best of modernism designs and trends. One of the highlights of the week was the neighborhood home tours. Our Indian Canyon neighborhood was included as a part of this year’s home tours.







Our neighborhood, originally known as the Canyon Country Club Estates, was built in South Palm Springs in the early 1960s. Developers created a variety of high-end homes and condominiums with famous architects like William Krisel, Stan Sackley, and Charles DuBois among others. The North Course was built first in conjunction with a 1.5 million dollar stunning midcentury modern clubhouse designed by Donald Wexler and Richard Harrison. To make the opening of Canyon Country Club spectacular, Walt Disney, who owned several luxury homes built along the second fairway, donated a fountain that shot water into the sky from a floating lily pad.

Now known as Indian Canyon, our neighborhood has gone through a subtle yet very real demographic shift over the last ten or so years. Neighborhood parties used to be pretty much fifty-fifty split between straight married and gay couples. That has now changed to probably seventy-thirty in favor of the DINKs (duel income, no kids) which includes gay couples, lesbians, unmarried couples among other arrangements. Most of our neighbors have become great friends of ours. But their economic disposition is different than ours as are their family obligations. In other words, it often puts them in a different economic class than their Midwestern neighbors.

It’s never mattered before nor does it now. But it can sometimes cloud ones perspective of what is normal or average when everyone around us lives in high end homes or is in the process of remodeling and raising their present abode to that level of equity. After a while you begin to think ‘this must be normal. Everyone lives like this.’

It’s like thinking you hit a home run when, in fact, you were born on third base.The temptation is to think that somehow you had something to do with rising home prices or demographic shifts in your neighborhood. It’s a slippery slope of self-congratulations instead of simple gratitude for your good fortune.

This struck home for Sharon and me when we visited one of the homes on the Modernism tour of our neighborhood. The house was a lovely mid-century modern rebuild. The owners had spared no expense in bringing all the rooms and outdoor living areas back to life. It was stunning in its color palette, use of modern furniture throughout, high-end appliances, and expansive use of glass throughout the house.

The owner was a lovely woman anxious to show us around. As we were leaving and throwing yet another compliment back at her (all sincere and honest) she said just as casually that this was but one of their homes. “We have four homes on three continents,” she said matter-of-factly.  I stopped in my tracks, not wanting to let this tidbit of delectable information get away, but Sharon pushed me ahead to keep on schedule. “No surprise” was all Sharon could say as we piled onto our Camry and went on to the next house on the tour.

Thinking back on the recession of 2008, I was a bit surprised by the number of ‘For Sale’ signs that suddenly blossomed in our neighborhood. But as my neighbors pointed out, most of the homes listed for sale were but one of three or four homes their owners owned across the country. They had to sell one or more of them and Palm Springs seemed the most likely spot to move quickly in that kind of down market.

Palm Springs, like several select communities in California and other states, is an island in and of itself. It doesn’t reflect the average suburban town or community in this country. Through a mixture of history, terrain and attitude this desert community has separated itself from the rest of the masses. It’s a bubble; bright and colorful and sometimes quite luxurious. Nevertheless, a mylar illusion of what average means for most folks.

That’s OK, Alice in Wonderland had quite a ride and lived to write about it. Sharon and I get to watch and listen and learn. We’re both out of the Midwest; Minnesota born and raised. We will never close the door on that label above our heads.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Old Man River

The Mississippi River gnaws its way through the Twin Cities like a dull knife on bark. Sediment and ever-changing currents have maligned its banks for centuries. Yet, much like my fascination with Lake Nokomis, I’ve always harbored a deep affection for the better sister of ‘the Old Muddy.’

The river is one of those icons that I can leave for a long time and yet return to with the same affection and emotions that it draws out of me every time I return to its sandy banks. The river has been with me my entire life. Just as I have grown and changed and meandered in different life directions, so too has this mighty river.

It played a subtle yet important role during my ‘lost years’ when I found solace, comfort, and companionship along its ever-changing shoreline. It was, at once, a place to go to get lost, to engage in worldly conversations, life-changing decisions and distractions from the reality of the moment.

One day, a visit to the river might mean a winter hike exploring its rocks and crevices with a friend, coffee thermos close at hand. The conversation has long since been forgotten; the cold not so much.

The next time, it could be offering up my car hood as a solar blanket to keep my girlfriend warm.
It was a moment in time for silly things like that.

Other times, it meant slipping down its rocky embankment for a solitary walk along its shores.

While I was working at Twin Cities Public Television, the station produced a documentary on the river and its special draw to Minnesotans.

It highlighted the river’s long and storied history as a landing spot for fur traders and steamboats. The film chronicled its importance to the commerce and industry that fed both cities, but especially the small hamlet of Saint Paul.

It’s been labeled the Port of Saint Paul and has long been a harbor for small boats on Harriett Island.

All through high school, I would hitchhike everywhere I went. One familiar route was down along Sheppard Road; a route that bordered the Mississippi River all the way to downtown Saint Paul. There, along the banks of the old river, sat the shacks, hovels, and homes of generation upon generation of immigrants who worked the river and factories in the city. Those immigrants who collected along its shoreline below the High Bridge finally evolved into St. Paul’s own Little Italy before its demise after the floods of 1965.

Anyplace along the river was always a great place to go on a date. Not just to make-out if that was on the agenda but also to wander and wonder and philosophize about anything under the moon.

The monument was just such a collective spot.

Once known as Shadow Falls, the monument was erected to honor the soldiers of World War I. Over the years, its surrounding landscape and accouterments have changed and evolved with the times but its overlook never fails to impress even the most familiar of visitors.

When I was living in near-squalor by the University of Minnesota, I would sometimes wander down to the riverbank across from downtown Minneapolis with Susan in hand to look and imagine where we might be in the future.

Susan and I would map out our lives, talk about our careers respectively in television and nursing, our dysfunctional families and everything we had in common. We would wax and wane philosophically about where we might be in ten years. Those salons of hopeful dreams were exciting, fruitful, and fulfilling for the moment, even though at least one of us knew, quite unspoken, that our future of pastel colors and soothing flavors probably wouldn’t include the other person.

Now fast forward almost fifty years and I’m once again wandering those Mississippi shores. When Sharon goes to her art class in Norde East Minneapolis, I find myself, once again, drawn to the river.

The times have changed, old friends come and gone, but the river remains constant. Old and sometimes slow like me, it continues its meandering down toward the gulf of Mexico but leaving behind all those wonderful old memories just piling up along its translucent transparent shores. It speaks to me of youth and inexperience, love, loss, success, failure, and most of all, longevity.

Nothing remains the same, they say.

Yes, I reply, but some things never change.