Tuesday, January 26, 2021

This Baby is Different

Writing my latest novel ‘Playground for the Devil’ began, like all the rest, as an exercise in blindly following my instincts and believing that it would all work out in the end. When I started the project last summer, it was a decision forced upon me by the COVID-19 pandemic which had closed down ‘live’ theater, made my planned group reads impossible and creative music sessions not realistic. My only option seemed to be writing another novel to add to my portfolio of vernacular ramblings.

I’ve blogged about this process of creating my twelfth novel twice before in El Pais Grande Del Sur and Fractured Love Affair.

With all due respect to childbearing, for me writing anything is like giving birth. Each manuscript was conceived out of the germ of an idea, thought, or image swirling around my head. They then began to take shape and form as I delved deeply into the storyline and the characters that began to inhabit that space.

My first gestation of story-telling took place in Reisterstown, Maryland in 1973 and then again in 1974. Impressed by the writings of several well-respected western writers like Will Henry, I took the first tentative steps toward creating my own storyline. The result was ‘Apache Death Wind, a trilogy’ and ‘Apache Blue Eyes.’

After those respective births in print form, it was off to the races. Next came a semi-autobiographical novel entitled ‘Love in the A Shau’. Then an Ode to Palm Springs in the form of a trilogy entitled: ‘Debris.’ That streak of novel writing ended with my 566-page doorstop entitled ‘Follow the Cobbler.’ ‘Cobbler’ featured a female protagonist called Katherine (spelt with a K) who came the closest to resembling my wife. The character is modest, reserved, very smart and intuitive. The kind of woman who can cut any man off at his southern fork.

Last summer, while deep into creating the ‘Playground for the Devil’ storyline, I tried to share the background for my novel and the interesting characters who lived in that fictional world in a blog. It really wasn’t until I had finished my first draft last fall that I felt I knew them all pretty well. And what a collection of characters I had created! All of them were (cliché here) not what they seemed to be. What I didn’t know was the extent to which some of them were damaged and almost bi-polar. They ended up saying and acting in ways my fingers didn’t understand as I frantically typed in an attempt to keep up with them and their antics.

My two protagonists, Brad and Laci, changed, evolved, and slowly began to reveal more and more about themselves as their story progressed. The emotional bantering back and forth surprised even me but I just let them’ go at it’ as I took copious notes in the form of story chapters. I realize now I was retelling the story of my own relationship with my better half.

Granted the comparison was done on a very subconscious level but it was there nevertheless. The Bradley-Laci story is, in retrospect, a metaphor for my own marriage. As in the book, first impressions don’t count and it’s only after a period of time and circumstances that the true characteristics of my protagonists reveal themselves. What seems to be a power imbalance at first slowly morphs into a realistic balancing act between two strong-willed, determined personalities.

My first pass at the book jacket showed a two story cabin. However, as the storyline progressed and my protagonists finally reached their quest, the cabin in question didn’t fit the image I had created in my mind.

At that point, a one story cabin was more in line with the structure that emerged in the novel. The first book cover showed a Big Sur landscape that was simply too bright and colorful. I needed something dark and sinister that better conveyed the dangerous environment my protagonists entered into when they ventured into the backwoods of Big Sur. Vida, my editor and creative designer came up with three versions of the cover.

Finally, my editor and I settled on a darker, more sinister landscape that seemed to better reflect the danger and mystery the Big Sur area presented to my main characters.

When I began writing ‘Playground’ I worried that there might not be enough ‘red herrings’ and twists and turns to my plotline. I needn’t worry because as the chapters slowly came rolling out of my head, the characters and their quest took on a number of surprising twists, turns, detours and stumbles. I even surprised myself by the conclusion to the story.

I asked myself at the end of my FracturedLove Affair blog whether Brad and Laci would be together at the end of the novel. I never really knew for certain until I typed in ‘The End’ one day. Theirs was a fractured, wounded relationship that ended the way it was meant to end for the personalities involved. I think the three of us knew it probably would end the way it did. No one is complaining.

At one point, I was torn between labeling my novel a murder mystery or a suspense thriller. Unsatisfied with either description, I’ll simply call it a suspense novel with, I hope, enough action and mayhem to satisfy either audience.

A little over a year ago, I drove up to that big San Francisco mansion for what turned out to be a swingers party. It only got more complicated, intriguing and dangerous from there on. It’s been one heck of a venture exploring the backwoods of Big Sur with these characters who carry more than their own weight in issues, attitudes, and attributes.

We’ve completed the journey. At least some of us have. There is a deeply satisfying feeling being able to pull it off and hopefully leaving my readers asking for more.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Social Stratification

It’s the elephant in the room, lint on the shoulders of a dark suit, body odor and bad breath. We’re aware of it but most of us still pretend that it doesn’t exist. I’m talking about class in America.

photo courtesy of Jerry Hoffman
It’s a subject that has long fascinated me and I have no idea why. Growing up the idea of class and status never entered my lexicon. Upon reflection, I think the reason I never felt different or out of place in my Highland Park neighborhood was simply because we had a house. Granted, I certainly understood there was no father around, we had no car, couldn’t afford summer vacations and I had to start working (on my paper route) in seventh grade.

I knew, in the back of my little pea-brain, that our family was different from my classmates. But those differences never seemed to matter much. I lived in a house on Randolph Avenue and that was all that mattered, especially to my mother. I guess we were solid, abet maybe a little lower than middle class. I never felt lacking for anything because there wasn’t much to want.

photo courtesy of Jerry Hoffman
For mobility, I had my 100 pound Huffy bicycle, public transportation and my own two feet. A paper route gave me some spending cash and comic books were only a dime at the corner drug store. So were the chocolate and cherry cokes. If there was another world outside of my bubble (and there certainly was) I wasn’t aware of it. Perhaps ‘clueless’ is a better description for my insulated world back then.

In the 1950’s, author Vance Packard delved into the phenomena of social classes in America in several books, primary his ‘The Status Seekers.’ It followed his unvarnished look at the practices of Madison Avenue to entice the American public to buy more called ‘The Hidden Persuaders.’

‘The Status Seekers’ sought to examine the beginnings and evolution of social class in America from the Revolutionary War on. From our very beginnings as a nation, we the people have sought to better ourselves and tear away the tyranny of ‘social classes in old England.’ For the most part, we have succeeded in creating a country of opportunities. As a capitalist society, we have embraced the accouterments of success.

This subtle yet persuasive message that newer is better and neighborhoods can spell out prestige in a silent yet clearly understood language is all around us. There is a subtle yet persuasive hint at ‘class’ in newer neighborhoods and we all know the ‘better’ neighborhoods in town. Yet housing by itself is no indication of the class of people who occupy that space.

Many of my novels have, as an underlying theme, this idea of class separation among groups. In ‘Love in the A Shau’ it is the stark difference between high-bred Colleen and rough-hewn Daniel. In ‘Debris’ it is the half-Mexican kid, Robert and business owner’s daughter, Miranda. In ‘Follow the Cobbler’ it is classy Katherine and Brian. Finally in my newest novel, ‘Playground for the Devil,’ it is the stark background differences between Brad and Laci, even though both are damaged individuals.

America has always pretended to be a classless society and yet has never been able to pull off that fantasy. Blame it on Horatio Alger Jr. or Tom Sawyer or Steve Jobs. We all want to believe that this is the country of opportunity for all and that if we work hard enough, success can be ours. While true at its core, there are still some among us who haven’t lifted a finger and yet hold tight to the golden ring. That’s life in America; before, now and probably into the future. Yet that in and of itself doesn’t define class.

Karl Marx came to power with his quest to eliminate the bourgeois ruling class in Russia. Joseph Stalin continued that social and class branding but also failed. Modern day Russia hasn’t done much better.

Farm collectives in Israel, like the Hippie communes of the 60s, tried to create a society of equals and also failed. The golden dream of Haight-Ashbury didn’t last long amid the free love collective mindset there. There will always be strivers and stragglers. Some will rise and others will fall.

Since the Revolutionary War, America has struggled to preserve the ideals of equality in the face of persistent tendencies for elites to develop and consolidate their power of prestige, power and wealth. The ‘Gilded Era’ presented the perfect clash between the needs of the masses for subsistence and the desire of the elites for a more distinguishable and tangible life style at the expense of the masses.

Many claim today that the ‘American Dream’ is dead. If not dead, it has certainly been challenged and tattered a bit by the unequal displacement of wealth. Yet opportunity still exists if even in a different form than yesterday.

But wealth and class are two different things. Again, I tried to explore this idea in ‘Love in the A Shau.’ Colleen’s boyfriend, Bradley, while on the cusp of financial greatness and stature in the New York social scene, has little if any class. He is a reflection of the fallacy that wealth equates class. Too often today, we equate wealth with class and automatically assume that if an individual or couple has money, then they must have class too. Nothing could be further from the truth.

More than anything else, class is a state of mind. It is an honest reflection on the dignity of another person. It is a respect for honesty, for self-respect and fairness. There are far too many examples of the moneyed masses that have no clue as to the simple lessons of life. Their only quest is the latest and greatest of material goods and above the fold headlines.

A person of class respects everyone but holds dear in his or her heart the selfless individual who works for the betterment of all. Now that is class.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Ode to Apple Valley

As we get older, some of us love to wax philosophically about our high school or college years.

I went to Cretin High School and am darn proud of that. My wife, Sharon, was born and raised on a farm in Wabasha, Minnesota and went to Wabasha High School. She also is proud of her upbringing and high school. But education aside, I’ve found that it’s where we raised our kids that now bring us the most satisfaction over the past forty plus years.

Aside from the normal warts and blemishes, seen and unseen, that any city has accumulated over the years, Apple Valley is still one of the best places to live and raise kids in the Twin Cities, bar none.

When Sharon and I moved back here in 1977, our son, Brian was 8 months old and Melanie hadn’t been born yet. We bought an Orin Thomas rambler, model 60 with one previous owner, for $59,900 and hoped we could make the payments on a one salary income. We did and have been here in the same house ever since.

Like the city itself, our house has evolved and changed and adapted to the times and ever-present aging process. But more importantly, our neighborhood has remained a solid community for new families and established ones alike. Some couples like ourselves have been here for years and have no intention of moving.

The older neighborhoods have remained attractive with their large yards, mature trees and rolling terrain. Newer neighborhoods have fallen into a pattern of conformity but still offer a variety of housing options. None of those adaptations happened without planning and foresight. It was a small group of visionaries back in the 60s and 70s that laid the groundwork and foundation for the kind of community we live in today.

Some of those early administrators like Will Branning and Mike Garrison still reside here. The city has had a long line of focused, dedicated department managers. And the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. In this case, it’s in a host of attractions right in our own backyard.

There are pocket parks scattered throughout the city. An award-winning golf course, an aquatic center, District #196 schools, proximity to the Minnesota Zoo, a variety of housing options for new families and seniors alike and the list can go on and on.

In the early to mid-eighties, I spent five years on the Apple Valley Planning Commission. I also created three cable television series for the city in the late 90s. ‘Police Beat’ covered activities of the Apple Valley Police Department. ‘Hook and Ladder’ covered the AV Fire Department and ‘Apple Valley Today’ was a cable magazine covering events in and around the city.

Writing, producing and editing those cable series brought me into close proximity with the various city department heads and gave me a greater appreciation for the true dedication of those men and women managing our city.

Both Brian and Melanie have done well in District #196, garnering a well-rounded education that has led to better things for both of them.

Sharon has been an active member of the Apple Valley Rotary for over 25 years. Over the last couple of years, she and her fellow Rotarians have been collecting books for disadvantaged kids in the District. Two years ago, they collected over 15,000 books for students who didn’t have easy access to books or books at home. That kind of social engagement is part and parcel for a lot of the social clubs in town.

Whether you were born and raised here, had children who attended school here or are new to the community, Apple Valley is a good place to live. The city fathers ‘got it right’ a long time ago and we are all enjoying the fruit of their foresight today.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

The Boy She Left Behind

Writers can be strange kinds of creatures. They love to inhabit the made-up minds and personalities of fictional characters who only reside inside their heads. When it comes to words and phrases, sentences and paragraphs, thoughts and images, storytellers can be as OCD as any psycho out there. It’s anyone’s guess where their imaginations are sometimes going or have been.

Words and phrases can be especially influential in the sponge-soaked open range minds of some writers. So it isn’t too surprising that those vernacular missiles of imagery can sometimes elicit strong reactions from receptive story weavers. I stumbled across just such a phrase about a month ago when it was triggered by an inquiry that came out of the blue. The inquiry was from an old friend or acquaintance, depending on my mood and her messaging. The phrase that popped into my mind was ‘The boy she left behind.’

For some strange reason, that phrase came bursting out of the back of my consciousness one day while I was driving to nowhere in particular and thinking about my college years. It got stuck in my cerebral storyboard, nudged into some corner that kept disgorging it back to my awareness day after day. I loved the phrase because it swept me back to a time and place long since passed. It was your classic ‘passage of youth’; a yearning for something better and shot at that golden ring called success.

I knew immediately where the phrase came from; what it meant and the delicious irony it brought to my taste buds. It was hinted at in one of my first novels ‘Love in the A Shau’ then circled, surrounded and finally capitulated to in ‘Follow the Cobbler.’ To me it meant unrequited love, maturity winning over immaturity and perhaps a refusal to ‘settle.’ It spoke volumes, perhaps only to me, but in a clear and resolute image that I couldn’t shake from my reflective consciousness.

Many lifetimes ago, I was the ‘boy’ in question and ‘she’ was my girlfriend. One in high school and then repeated again with another girlfriend in college. Both were beautiful, brainy and ambitious. And both women, I think it’s fair to say now, wanted more out of their lives. Our stars certainly didn’t align on either occasion. Both women left me for greener pastures and did rather well for themselves. One married a doctor and the other a college professor. Both seem to be happy and I believe (certainly hope) they’ve had a rich and fulfilling life with their respective spouses.

Now reflecting back, I understand why it’s called the circle of life. A wonderful confusing merry-go-round we find ourselves riding in our youth before adult conversations of real world issues raises its prominent head. With many miles traveled among us, I think it’s fair to say that the experience was a good one. It ended as nature intended and we are better off for the emotions shared, savored and spent.

If I were to meet up with those two women again, I’d probably tell them that I’ve finally grown up, although I’m certainly not going to let maturity get the best of me. And I’m sure as hell not about to accept a ‘senior’ label anytime soon. Call it delayed acceptance of reality or a desire to hold on to ‘my world’ for as long as I can.

With both women I have a ‘history’ and for that the writer in me is very grateful. And with my health holding steady, my eyesight intact and my imagination running amok, I can still churn out stories in a thousand different forms. My experiences at those first inklings of love have helped me flavor twelve novels and thirteen plays thus far.

No one has to know where the real story slips away and the make-believe takes over. In the end, it’s all story-telling anyway.

Or is it?