Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Born Poor and Grateful

On one of my recent playdates (translated ‘coffee and chat’ session), a friend was talking about being raised poor and not knowing it. His father, along with his Uncles, all worked at the Fire-stone Tire factory in Akron, Ohio.

It was a hard, honorable job but one that didn’t pay a lot, especially for a household of many children and a mother who didn’t work outside of the home. My friend’s situation was no different than the Irish, Polish, Black and Eastern Europe neighbors in his community. It simply was what it was.

My friend casually commented how he remembered having to put cereal box cardboard into his tennis shoes because he only got one pair of shoes for all summer. His parents couldn’t afford to send him to college but fortunately, he felt ‘the calling’ and went into the seminary instead. His brothers and sisters weren’t so lucky. They barely finished high school and went directly to work.

My own story of growing up poor has been chronicled in many blogs over the years. Again, it wasn’t something my friends and I were acutely aware of aside from the lack of a family car, summer vacations or material things around the house. Most of us started working at an early age and accepted that as ‘par for the course.’

Sharon grew up, doing chores at six years old, on the farm. If the bulk tank wasn’t cleaned twice a day, her dad couldn’t sell his milk as grade A and there wouldn’t be a milk check at the end of the month. She remembers growing up with no sink in the kitchen but a shiny new bulk tank instead in the barn.

I’ve told both my kids, that compared to some of our relatives, they were lucky to be born without a silver spoon lodged… as some of their cousins were. It made them more self-reliant and determined to forge their own path to adulthood.

This idea of growing up poor is a central theme in one of my first novels ‘Love in the A Shau.’ There are certain advantages of being ‘born hungry’ as Daniel likes to say. I didn’t have a choice growing up but I’m not sure I would have changed a thing even if I could have. I’ve learned over the years that ‘growing up hungry’ is not a bad thing.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Growing Old as a Man

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s different for men.

One of the advantages of having lived through multiple decades is the ability to look back and reflect on past and current changes in our lives. Most men seem to place those events into simple categories such as youth, education, marriage, kids, jobs and retirement. On the other hand, many women have a much broader perspective of these subtle changes occurring all around us.

Seldom talked about among older couples are subjects such as health, sex, socialization, relationships and the fear of dying. Many men think they’ve got it all figured out, but in reality, seldom do.

You could probably sub-title that period in their lives as: The fourth quarter, the final lap, final tabulation and/or reflecting on those who have died before them. Men have a lot harder time dealing with this final chapter in their lives and all the accompanying accoutrements of a life long lived.

Class reunions can be poignant reminder that a lot of our classmates won’t be joining us for another decade of remembrances. The decades pile up and our ‘Camelot’ period of work or the service or youthful adventures soon becomes ancient history.

If we men are lucky enough to have someone beside us: new, previously-engaged, or a veteran of the long haul - we can better face that final curtain with the comfort of companionship. Usually two pairs of eyes and one good brain can better focus on the time ahead.

Women seem better equipped for this later stage in life. Perhaps it’s because most are natural-born multi-taskers. I don’t know if it’s the result of a lifetime of caring and nurturing of others; kids and parents alike or more ease and comfort in social engagement. Women seem more intuitive, with common sense instincts about the circle of life. Wherever their strength comes from, many women have proven more adaptable to the twists and turns of our later years.

The recurring mantra, repeated among the smarter set toward their spouses, seems to be ‘Now, don’t you get old on me.’ Women have this constant concern that their other half will begin to show the signs of old age. Growing rigidity, a lack of flexibility, a lack of tolerance for younger generations, concern for rising prices, social changes and a seemingly disregard to the tried and true that was good enough for their own generation. Many old men think they should be listened to simply because they’re talking. ‘The old men at the coffee shop’ (one of my favorite whipping points) is a case in point.

Time can be a cruel reminder of life’s frailties and that ticking time bomb called lifecycle. Sometimes it just makes sense to stop and listen to what’s being suggested by one’s better half instead of trying to figure it out all by yourself.

Said the old man still trying to listen as best he can.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Damning the Intellectuals

I never made it as a hippie, not even close. But I can remember being labeled as such because of my longish hair and bell-bottom jeans. Old people would stare at me, some with distain in their eyes, and others would just shake their head. Even worse, some knew that I was college-educated and that made it even more intolerable for their simple lifestyle. ‘Who did I think I was?’ They would ask themselves.

As radical and shortsighted as it may seem, damning the intellectuals is actually a tactic that’s been used by those in power for centuries. From the Roman gladiator games to the Khmer Ruge in the 70’s, blaming the problems of the state on those deemed different from ‘regular folks’ has always seemed to work…..at least for a while.

The Ku Klux Klan grew in power as poor whites found another class lower than themselves (in their eyes) and blamed their own problems on that class of people. My own mother revealed a deep-seated distrust of Jews when she would occasionally talk about being ‘jewed down’ by some merchant in town. I was too young to completely understand the source of her prejudice but even then I found it distasteful and ignorant. More recently, my In-Laws would occasionally criticize those in the cities for their own rural issues.

Henry Ford was a successful capitalist but a fervent anti-Semite. Charles Lindberg was a great aviator but an anti-Semite too. Down through the ages, leaders, great and small, have found a ready audience to appeal to by passing blame on to another ethnic group of people. Intellectuals are often at the head of that classification.

I can remember back in college when I was working at a motor freight company in Saint Paul. Our job was to clean out the warehouse and loading dock each Saturday morning. It was neither a hard nor intellectually stimulating job but it paid the rent.

Our boss was the weekend foreman who hated his job, hated himself, and most of all hated “those Goddamn college kids.” For whatever reason, he held a disdain for educated youth, especially college kids.

No question was honest or reasonable enough that he wouldn’t use it to criticize the questioner. He loved to belittle, denigrate, insult, and ridicule anyone who dared inquire about anything. The best way to deal with him was avoidance at all costs. After a while his comments became the source of many hilarious jokes made at his expense. It was a great way to pass the time, ridiculing his clothing, stance, ignorance, and pitiful outlook on life. It was also a very sad statement at his station in life and the depth of his hatred for himself and those around him.

In his best-selling memoir ‘A Walk Across America’, Peter Jenkins talks about the reception he received from many small town folks as he wandered through the southern states back in the early seventies. With his wild hair, full beard, and backpack; the locals were immediately suspicious and wary of this stranger in their midst. ‘He was probably a hippie, high on drugs or worse yet some college-educated kid come to laugh at their simple lifestyle. Either way, he wasn’t welcome in their midst.’

When Peter decided to live with a black family in North Carolina, the locals went crazy. The whites hated him because he was white and living with n#**#*. The bootleggers suspected that he was a revenue agent sent to spy on them. Worst of all, he was college-educated which sealed their conviction that he was a problem, plain and simple.

I can remember encountering ignorance at work, in the service, and the workplace. A lack of education is one thing - hand-me-down prejudice is something else.

I never made it as a hippie, not even close. But at least I tried to be open-minded and accepting. A trait I’ve tried to pass on to my children and grandchildren. I think it’s stuck with them and I couldn’t be happier.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

The Next Logical Step

A couple of blogs ago, I talked about my numerous writing projects that have materialized for this summer. (A PenFull of Possibilities).  Most are rewrites with one first draft needing completion. As a writer, I’ve covered some interesting, some would say, rough terrain in my vernacular wanderings through hundreds of pages of novels and plays.

I’ve ventured out west being chased by Apaches, a crazy mountain man and spunky Irish lass. I’ve relived my military service, only this time to go to Vietnam and kill the enemy. My girlfriend broke up with me, was raped, and tied my emotions into knots.

I’ve traveled around the world with a vestal virgin and took her purity even though we both knew it might mean the end of her life. Our relationship twisted and turned even as we were being chased by deadly shape-shifters. There were multiple affairs in Palm Springs and evil lurking there beneath the cover of blue skies and clear pools. My latest novel had me chasing a spicy, smarter than average Alpha female all the while having hitmen on our trail. If you can get through the first chapter, the other chapters only got more interesting (said the author in his defense).

Then besides these packaged stories, I’ve got a plethora of plays that slip from scene to scene of Denver Brownies, token in the homeroom, gay acceptance, Polyamorous affairs and bi-sexual attractions.  So after this Jeep trail of rough rides, cutting dialogue, a dozen or so double entendres and a menage-a-trois or two thrown in for good measure, what might be my next logical step in my writing career?

Naturally writing children’s stories comes to mind.

That’s not as farfetched as it might seem. I wrote a children’s tale about a certain animal more than 15 years ago. I wrote the script, designed the pages and engaged in dialogue with an illustrator to create the panels. The storyline still ‘has legs’ as they say in the trade.

Unfortunately, as so often happens, my illustrator got involved in other activities and never completed even the first panel. I still have the text and hope to find another illustrator to begin the process over again. Vida and I have come up with a new approach and a much broader audience to appeal to.

Then there is ‘Sweetpea and the Gang.’ Sweetpea was the nickname given to my youngest grandchild, Charlotte Jane, when she was an infant. She had a curly top of hair and a delightful, yet a bit devious smile. She was the perfect Sweetpea. Her brother and her cousins would be the perfect gang of kids to follow her in her many antics. I’ve completed page upon page of story-lines, dialogue and comic strip ideas for that project.

Even though the grandchildren have all grown up, I think their dialogue and the storylines still work.

Then there is ‘Kopper the Hopper.’

Kopper is my na├»ve, awkward, accident-prone kangaroo who just happens to live on a Palm Springs golf course. He came to fruition as I pondered what story to tell B & C as I was putting them to bed on their sleepovers at Nana’s and Papa’s place over the years. Think of him as ‘wily coyote’ chasing himself instead of the roadrunner.

Talk about the ‘Sweetpea’ and ‘Kopper’ projects is probably getting a bit ahead of myself. If I can complete the first children’s project, task one, find an illustrator, I am hoping that experience will give me direction before plunging into the other children’s storylines.

Whatever concern I might have had this spring about projects to complete has vanished with this growing list of vernacular mountains to climb. I think there will be enough pen-to-paper treks to last me well into the fall and winter.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Papa and the Cuda

It can literally and figurative be said that Cuba stopped growing as a country in January of 1959. What Sharon and I experienced as we traveled from one city to the next and finally through Havana was a country locked in a time warp. There are generations of Cuban people who have never experienced the social, cultural, and political changes other countries have come to expect over the years.

We found this out on our cruise around the island several years ago. There is nothing romantic about a people and a country stuck in limbo with little hope for change on the horizon. The Obama administration tried to open relations with Cuba. The Trump administration slammed that door shut just as quickly.

It was eye opening to visit another country just 80 miles off our coast and yet to find it so different in a multitude of ways. One side goal of mine was to discover Papa’s hideaway and hopefully a Cuda on the side. I found one but not the other.

The Hotel Ambos Mundos was where Hemingway used to hang out when he was in Havana. The tourists are there every day along with some locals, all soaking up the ambiance and fading memories that match the framed pictures of the old man on the walls. It’s easy to image what it was like back then for Hemingway (nicknamed Papa) with his heavy drinking, womanizing, political intrigue, and pressing demands from New York publishers.

I’m struck with amazement as to how it got to be this crazy for this poor Caribbean country. A country literally and figurative stuck in time. It is horse and carriage competing for space with cars and trucks.

For those in the know and with enough cash, there are amenities galore. There are charming restaurants tucked away in narrow back streets that open up to wonderful courtyards. The people there are very friendly. The food is great and relatively cheap...if you can afford it.

The Cuban children are beautiful, energetic, and alive with life. This is the only life they know and their parents must dread the time they will begin to realize what the real world outside of their shores is really like. The internet is closely monitored and regulated.

The music of Cuba is alive with African drumbeats, gyrating sweating bodies and an energy that is almost palatable. It hasn’t changed for hundreds of years. It’s just been in remission since the late fifties.

At the Hotel Ambos Mundos, pictures of the old man are everywhere. This is supposed to be Cuba’s version of ‘Sloppy Joe’s’ straight out of Key West. In reality, it is a tourist trap that has managed to keep a little of the original ambiance of the times. They charge five dollars American to go upstairs and wander around the hotel room where Hemingway supposedly drank and slept and misbehaved when he was in town.

Cuba has done a good job of retaining its past, reclaiming its history and pretending it has a future. Some things haven’t changed for over fifty years. I’m trying to take in the sounds, smells, and sights from a writer’s perspective. There are a hundred million stories here. I just have to find them and see if they translate into something my audience might find interesting.

In the meantime, the beer is cold, the air is warm, and the girls are all pretty. What more could Ernest and I wish for….besides a ’67 Plymouth Barracuda.

One of the fun experiences while traveling around Cuba recently was seeing all the old cars of my youth cruising the boulevards of old Havana, Santiago de Cuba, and Cienfuegos.

Each city was a classic car collection I hadn’t seen anywhere else even at our McCormick’s antique car auctions here in Palm Springs. Most carriages of my past fantasies were in pristine condition even if their innards had probably been changed over a dozen times or more. These were the fantasy chariots of my youth.

They were all there, the cars of my youthful dreams. All except the Barracuda. One consolation was the one and only ‘put me to sleep’ dream that carried me as a young man through high school and well into college. A 1955 Chevrolet Bel Aire convertible. Dreams sometimes do come true.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Seeking Lost Treasures

During the pandemic, the art of conversation never died for me, it just struggled sometimes. But now thoughtful discussions and enthusiastic discourse are back for the summer and I couldn’t be happier.

After a season of a twice-a-week salon discourses with Ron, my pool man, I was anxious to return to a more active calendar of cerebral engagements like I had last summer.

Those ‘coffee and chat’ sessions had started out simply enough last spring. After returning early from Palm Springs, Sharon and I realized the summer would be unlike any other. COVID-19 had caused an almost total shutdown of normal activities and called for life-altering adjustments. Serious adaptions were called for.

So our new routines evolved into discovering the peace and serenity of a woodland waltz. Social gatherings were limited to our porch and patio or down by the riverside. Better World Books became our conduit for books to read. Netflix and the Amazon tablet provided moves and entertainment.

But the most satisfying adjustment was reacquainting myself with old friends and opening up communications with newer friends. I called them my ‘coffee and chat’ sessions. Sharon had another name for them; ‘My Playdates.’

Gathering spots ranged from a quiet lake to the Mississippi River. The Monument at the end of Summit Avenue in Saint Paul proved another popular spot.

On my first official C & C back in session, one of my friends and I rediscovered the solitude of a grassy knoll looking over still waters in the crisp early morning air. It was the perfect peaceful setting for great coffee and thoughtful, insightful, challenging conversations.

For other friends, the outdoor settings varied from parks, patios, porches, shelters, and other drafty spots with plenty of air circulation and room for our camp chairs spread apart. It was a pleasant alternative to the traditional nosey, crowded coffee shops of the past.

While Sharon whimsically called them my playdates, I preferred to see them as catch-up sessions, strengthening the bonds of friendship. I think on a certain level, each of us were seeking those ‘lost treasures of the past’ and explorations of the future. Conversations covered a wide variety of subject matter from politics to retirement to relationships to trivia.

This summer was not a duplicate of last summer. Not surprisingly, there was a loss of some friends through ghosting. I don’t know if they were casualties of the pandemic, grew tired of our early morning gatherings or had just ‘moved on.’ Their reluctance to respond to my many e-mails left me a bit perplexed and disappointed. But even though my posse of cerebral adventurers had shrunk a bit, the ones who were left more than made up for the conversational drought.

One of the icons of the 60’s said it best in a couple of his songs. ‘Don’t Think Twice, That’s Alright,’ ‘Boots of Spanish Leather,’ and ‘My Back Pages’ all speak of moving on and refocusing one’s life as the world changes around us.

This summer back in Minnesota, things have certainly changed. The local theater scene is only now slowly coming back to life and there is a huge backlog of plays to consider. My latest novel ‘Playground for the Devil’ feels very promising but hasn’t yet hit enough exposure to garner real attention. Last season’s portfolio of new plays has been examined more closely and most need additional surgery.

But that’s OK, it’s alright. Even without boots of Spanish leather, I can still amble through this summer, proud of my back pages and eager for the future ahead….with pen in hand.

I can’t wait to replicate what I’ve rediscovered here with another group of conversation crusaders out west. True wealth comes with good health and friendships, making me a very wealthy guy.