Tuesday, August 25, 2020

All American Bike Tour

Europeans have been doing it for years. When I lived in Copenhagen, it was one of the primary means of transportation. Now Amsterdam and other European cities vie for prominence with their own focus on two-wheel transportation.

One of the unexpected but welcomed results of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent stay at home orders has been a surge in bicycle sales across the country. People are rediscovering the joys and benefits of bike riding, touring, exploring, and commuting. It’s almost as if a whole new generation has stumbled across this safe alternative to public transportation, easy way to exercise and great way to explore one’s neighborhood and community.

Now that biking has gotten very popular once again, there is a shortage of new and used bikes for sale. Inventory is slim at bike shops and retail stores. It seems that everyone wants to get out and return to their youthful memories of bike riding.

Magazines and web sites that cater to the biking crowd have gotten very popular recently. Web sites like Cycle Chic, Copenhaganize, Citylab and Planetzien are among the many that frequently carry biking-related articles. Bike sharing outlets like Minnesota’s own ‘Nice Ride’ are expanding their outreach efforts. Electric bikes are now the latest craze to hit that market. Bicycle riding has been rediscovered all over again.

Heck, I knew that a lifetime ago. I got my first bicycle in fifth grade and I’ve been riding all my life.

My first bicycle was a 100-pound land cruiser called a Huffy. It had carried more metal than a Sherman Tank and Iron Maiden combined. In the end, I think riding that dead weight gave me the strength and endurance to run marathons later in life. While all the other kids were darting around town in their lightweight Schwinn bicycles, I was running over and crushing fixed objects in the way of my mobile steamroller.

Fast forward ten-to-fifteen years and my first serious bicycle was a French-built Peugeot. It was a ten speed racing bike that, in fact, had a total of 15 different sprocket settings. After settling into my first job as a writer at the Minnesota Department of Health, I paid $115.00 for my new Peugeot at a bike shop in the East Village near the University of Minnesota.

Later that year, I rode my first Century on my Peugeot. In cycling lingo, a Century is a one hundred mile bike ride completed in one day. There were selected water stops along the way but it was still an out and back route that encompasses urban, suburban, and rural roads.

Then I did the TRAM twice, the second time with Brian.

The TRAM stands for ‘The Ride Across Minnesota.’ It is a five day ride from one side of the state to the other, usually encompassing four hundred plus miles. Daily lengths vary but usually average between 70 and 80 miles per day.

Both the Twin Cities and the Coachella Valley have wonderful biking routes that allow one to meander the neighborhoods.

I’m still peddling after all these years. As long as I can keep my balance and the old legs and back don’t give out, I intend to keep pushing along and enjoying the scenery along the way. Just like when I was a kid.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

What Ever Happened to...?

photo credit: Jerry Hoffman
I was recently commiserating with one of my salon compatriots about old friends and past companions. With our collective miles under the belt, we’ve both had many casual, close and a few profound friendships, relationships and acquaintances.

As readers of my past blogs know, I sometimes reminisce about past experiences, acquaintances, friends, and associates much to the chagrin of my better half. Sharon would say I reveal far too much personal information about myself (even though at this stage in the game, I don’t really care anymore). Despite the criticism, I find myself fascinated with the age old question of ‘what -ever happened to…’

While some of my friends won’t admit it, I do have a number who have acquiesced to ‘Facebook stalking’ and/or perusing ‘Classmates.com’ in hopes of finding old school chums, friends, associates, love interests and other assorted contacts made over the years.

My philosophy is that you leave something of yourself with everyone you come into contact with. Granted, you are a different person now than you were back then but if you have ‘history’ with someone even for a brief period of time, the connection is still there.

The categories where old acquaintances can be found are too numerous to list here. It really comes down to meaningful events in your life even if for only short periods of time. It’s different for everyone and could almost be seen as a memoir of one’s past life.

photo credit: Jerry Hoffman
One of my regrets is that almost all of those kids I hung around with through eighth grade have long since scattered to the winds of time. It would have been so fascinating to find out how their lives turned out after life in Highland Park.

I didn’t reconnect with any of my Cretin High School classmates until well after our 50th Class reunion. Back in school, I had a small cadre of friends; all of them were on the college track in school. Then there was me; preordained to go into the trades or the service. Despite my councilors advice, I chose another track for myself. A few of us reconnected after the reunion and continue to this day.

The Army had a profound effect on me although I didn’t realize it at the time. My two year enlistment was ripe with hundreds of story lines, personal antidotes and character studies. Events happened and were forgotten only to resurface years later when nudged forward by a song, comment or photograph. It was a colorful kaleidoscope of military images buried deep in my memory bank. There were Drill sergeants right out of hell, bunk mates who were anti-social, lost young men, gung-ho John Wayne types, rumblings of a far-off war, and youthful lusting for the opposite sex.

And the list could go on and on. It was only a moment in time but there were enough instances of brain-burn images I still can’t shake. Over time, some of those images have become characters in my plays and novels.

Living in Europe on two separate occasions also supplied me with lasting memories of colorful characters, sad creatures and intimate cerebral partners for late night salons.

There was my old roommate I called ‘animal,’ who only lived with me briefly but even then left a memorable impression. Tiny Bailey, another lost soul from Arizona, who escaped an alcoholic mother to seek solace in Denmark but ended up leaving for Israel instead. The Guy from Canada who lived with a local family and was treated like royalty and Maria, my pal at the Danish laundry.

Then there were closer contacts that never went very far. For some that was a good thing. For others, I wish I was still in touch.

There was Heidi, the University student, who wanted more than just friendship. I demurred and dodged the bullet on that one. John and his friend from Amsterdam who were incredibly ambitious. I would really like to know if they ‘made it’ with their dreams intact. Wendy, a pen pal from Lincolnshire, England that I sadly lost contact with.

KTCA television was still evolving and changing from educational television to public television when I began volunteering there on the crew. I was the oldest among the gang but we had one hell of a time taping television programs and learning the trade. Management, always sequestered in the panel-boarded wing of the building, was the enemy because they were all older. Then there was that attractive blond receptionist who always had a smile for me.

Those memories ended bundled up as a play entitled ‘PTV’ for which I have high hopes in the future.

My film trip to the Costa Rican jungle lasted almost a month.  My fellow travelers and I endured three weeks of heat and humidity and deadly tree-hugging snakes. They were a crazy bunch of writers, photo journalists, adventurers and those two girls who didn’t hesitate to go skinny-dipping with us.

The Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting was less than ten years old and still going through its Camelot period when I joined their Programming Department. The station was a microcosm of very talented, creative types that came in every color, aptitude and disposition. There were the elite power couples, the talented producers and directors, some stoned-out crew members and numerous artists and actors who haunted those hallowed halls in the early days.

Over time, there were a number of interesting folks who rented apartment units from me. Believe it or not, there are a number of those past tenants that I would dearly love to hear from again. They were wonderful folks to know. Most were young and beginning their respective careers.

Past Girlfriends are always a topic of curiosity for most men. This kind of inquiry could seem awkward but it doesn’t have to be. For me, each of those women were charming, interesting, and a delight to know in their own way. They had names like Diane, Joyce, Sheila, Marti, and Susan. There were others but their names are less memorable and my time spent with them more easily forgotten. With each, we had some ‘history’ and it was good.

Where there was history, there are memories. The key here is to glance at the past but not to linger there. I think its human nature to want to know about past acquaintances no matter how close or vapid they might have been. They all were, in a way, a reflection of who you were at that point in your life. A point in time that can’t be returned, replaced or replicated.

But can still hold some poignant memories nevertheless.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Born and Raised in Minnesota

There’s a quote I love that goes something like this: “At some point in the journey, you realize it’s time to head back home. It doesn’t matter where you are in the journey, the Gods begin calling and you must return home.” I think there is something about that mysterious force called ‘home’ that calls to all of us.

In Minnesota, there’s a new advertisement running from a local grocery chain. They’ve sanitized their stores in the new world of Covid-19 and want us to return to shop there. Their ads remind us that they are a local brand; home grown. ‘Born and Raised in Minnesota’ they like to say.

When I first saw that ad, my first response was typical of someone who has been a ‘local’ homegrown boy here all my life. “Like who cares?” I asked myself. Turns out upon some reflection, I do care, because to a degree, this state defines me and the person I’ve become.

I’ve always seen Minnesota as a nice state, a safe state, a pleasant place to live and a great place to raise kids. Three out of the four seasons are pleasant enough. But let’s face it; the winters can tough even for a lifer such as myself.

After Sharon and I were first married, we moved to Maryland for about five years. After our son was born, I couldn’t wait to get back home and raise him in Minnesota. Sharon would have stayed in Maryland forever. Maryland is a very nice state but the summers suck (with their heat and humidity) and it’s too crowded for a density-averse person like myself. So we moved back and have been here ever since.

Our tenure in the state has been pleasant enough. We’ve raised our kids here, now watch two out of five grandchildren every chance we get. My career and extra-curricular activities grew in the state and my version of retirement takes place here six months out of the year.

But gradually my tenure in Minnesota has been challenged by my West Coast other half knocking on the door of residency. Now that I’m part-time Californian, my perspective about my home state has changed. I love California. It appeals to my restless youth, errant and wandering mind, free soul, and sometime corrupt and tranquilizing imagination. But deep down, it still isn’t Minnesota.

Now with Covid-19, the George Floyd tragedy, the burning of Minneapolis, and slow gradual maturing of my part, I can see another kind of hometown. Minnesotans seem to be very compliant when it came to following the rules of stay in place, wearing a mask in public places, and dealing with the pandemic.

The Floyd tragedy took place here but it could have happened in any city in this country. I would like to believe that our response to it was quick, appropriate and fair. This state has all the scars and blemishes as much as any other state in terms of race relations. I hope we can address them quicker than most. Minnesota is not California but it shares many of the same attributes.

I have a long and storied history with California. It’s like Leonard Cohen’s Hydra calling me back once again. Its part delusional, part opportunistic and part magical. But mostly it’s a comfortable relationship that seems to bring out the flip side of me that a lot of folks never see. It is at once my friend, advisor, irritator, and councilor. It forces me outside of my Midwestern comfort zone.

The first time I stepped foot in California, it was off a Great Northern Railroad passenger car from Minnesota. The year was 1946.  I was three and my sister two. Along with my mother, we had ended up in Carmel from the Twin Cities. My Mother, by then separated from my father, had been encouraged to come out west to become a housekeeper for a past client from St Paul’s Summit Avenue neighborhood.

When we finally arrived on the coast, broke and hungry, my mother was informed by the old woman’s son that she had gone senile and would no longer have use of my mother’s services. So much for California dreaming.

My second time in the Golden State was in 1964. Fresh out of basic training, my first assignment was at the Presidio of San Francisco. Life at the Presidio was a Camelot-like existence that ended all too soon eight months later.

The third time to bask in that warm California sun came in 2000. Our family was staying at a friend’s condo in Palm Springs. It was our first introduction to desert living. Thus began a twenty-year intermittent love affair with that diverse community and all of its surrounding amenities.

I live in two different worlds now and I’m comfortable in both. One is progressive, adventurous and sometimes a bit outrageous but always leaning forward. For half a year I wear my Southern California flip-flops as comfortably as any other seeker. But I also live in the Midwest and I’m darn proud of that too.

The Midwest is more staid and conservative than California in a common sense kind of way. For me it’s two different life styles and two points of view. Yet there’s a common thread running between the two with openness for all and acceptance of different points of view. Both offer a realistic view of the world and not a closed-minded myopic wish for what used to be. They don’t dwell on a world that, in fact, never really existed except in television sitcoms and wishful thinking. Instead, they focus on what could be and not what once was.

On the surface, there might not seem a strong connection between the two states. California just legalized marijuana. They passed meaningful gun control legislation that has been impossible to meet at the federal level. They agreed to pay more for schools, ensure medical funds for low-income residents, require more transparency from legislators, brought back bilingual education and, in Los Angeles, agreed to pay higher taxes to address the chronic homeless problem.

The accolades continue. California leads the nation in the rate of economic growth – more than twice the national average. It is home to the nation’s fastest-growing and most innovative industries – entertainment and high-tech. It incubates more startups than anywhere else in the world.

Yet California is far from perfect. A housing shortage has driven up rents and home prices into the stratosphere. While its public schools used to be best in the nation now they are among the worst. Each election cycle brings a plethora of new propositions which often times only confuse and muddy the legislative process. **

Minnesota is no slouch either when it comes to social issues. There had been drug-sentencing reform, moves toward an open primary, various child protection laws enacted and health-related issues addressed in this last session.

As much by lucky accident as foresight, I now find myself immersed in two different life styles, two different geographic locations and a wonderful diversity of friends and associates. Two different worlds and two wonderful life experiences at the same time.

I’m born and bred Minnesotan with a strong streak of California to taint my mind. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Both states have become home in more ways than one. They’re like a cradle upon which my imagination gives birth to creative, frivolous, silly and sometimes enlightened ideas, concepts and story lines. It’s the flip side of that routine called your average lifestyle. If ever there were a balance in my life, it would be called the Minnesota-California connection.

What can I say; it works for me.