Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Five Years in the Wilderness

Whether we were aware of it or not, many of us had our lives mapped out pretty clearly from the beginning. Growing up, most of us followed a pattern of education, social engagement, romantic venturing and finally settling down into a routine called married life. It’s all very conforming, comfortable for the most part and expected…..for most folks but not all of us.

When my buddies and I were young and dumb, the world was a rainbow landscape full of wonderful adventures and opportunities. Each of us set out to become whatever we thought we could/should/would become at the time. The world was our oyster and we meant to have it all…and we did. One a doctor, one a writer, and one a priest.

Fast forward five or so years and a great number of my high school classmates were gett-ing married, having kids and settling down into a lifetime of work and routine. Not me.  I was still ruminating over career choices that involved creativity and was about as far from a 9-to-5 existence as I could possibly imagine. Unlike a lot of my friends, it took me about five years wandering and wondering until my focus became clear…that is, what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

My five years wandering in that proverbial wilderness (1966-1971) began right after the service, continued while living in Europe and culminated in circling around life choices that began as avocations and ended up becoming my career. Along the way, there were plenty of stumbles, detours, hurt feelings, high expectations, false hopes, and blind ambitions to fill each day.

One thing that fortified me on this journey were the friendships, abet seldom lasting, that I made along the way. These were fellow wanderers who were as confused yet hopeful as I was. It was an exciting time to be working in public television, hanging out at the Triangle Bar and tasting the silliness that only bachelorhood can provide.

A lucky encounter one evening at work signaled the beginning of the end to my wandering.

Ernest Hemingway is quoted as saying that life is like a bank account. How you use it is solely your determination. You can withdraw it in a hurry and live a very short life. Or you can be diligent with your withdrawals and live, hopefully, much longer.

It’s been forty or fifty years since many of us turned twenty-one and shed our cloak of anonymity to adorn ourselves with the costume of adulthood. Now we’re at a point in our lives where reflection is more than a glass of chardonnay framed within a sunset or a cold brew among high school buddies.

We’ve let life’s ebb and flow (call it our gypsy muse) guide us in this rhythm of life. For most of us, the process was organic and without a lot of thought. Life investments were made, squandered, lost, accumulated, divested and set aside. Some things worked out and some things didn’t. Now we have the residue of our wisdom or luck or mistakes to live with for the rest of our lives. And most of those life steps are now just a memory.

One regret is that my bank account of friends isn’t the greatest. A reluctance to make an effort back then has left me lacking in that area. Yet what I do have in the vault is now priceless. One of my aspirations is to mine those rich veins of past friendships to see if I might unearth more nuggets there. Occasionally I’ll strike gold and rekindle a long lost almost forgotten friendship from the dusty archives of my past. It’s a blast. And immensely satisfying.

Those random discoveries got me thinking about other friendships; past and future, strong and vapid, present and omnipresent. I thought about the friends I’ve had over the years. Some of them shared isolated points in my life; high school, college and work. Some were but fleeting incisions in the tenderness of my youth. Others were shared experiences like the military: isolated, vacuous, and destined to crash with each discharge celebration where inane behavior in the barracks seemed to make perfect sense back then.

The cliché that you can never have too many friends dissolves over the pages of Facebook where collecting friends can be a cyber-game for some folks, devoid of meaningful contact and concern. Having friends on Facebook isn’t the same as having real friends who care and share and actually want to be somebody in your life. Big difference there!

I am in a good place in my life now. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone anymore! As an artist, I love creating stories in many different genres and I intend to continue writing until my pen dries up or I go blind. I’d like to take folks along this discovery of self and life and whatever else comes my way just as it began during those five years in the wilderness.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

District #196

One of the favorite pitches that realtors love to give prospective home buyers is the quality of the local school district. In the case of district 196, it was certainly true. For despite all of the normal drama and trauma that goes on behind the scenes in education, the district has proved its worth over the years and certainly for my two kids.

Mind you, it wasn’t always a perfect place for students or educators alike. Unfortunately there were a number of kids back then as now who didn’t fit into the system and got lost along the way. There were also a few teachers who should have been digging ditches instead of wasting my children’s time in the classroom. I was always amazed at my kid’s abilities to see through the BS that passed for a teacher’s interest in them and knew those teachers were just taking up space at the head of the classroom.

But overall, both teachers and administrators alike, at least back in my time, were devoted to the betterment of my kids. That’s all that counted in Sharon’s and my mind.

Both my wife and I are just a bit fanatical about the importance of education in a young person’s life. It was always non-negotiable issue with us. I went to Cretin High School when it was strictly an all-male military school. Sharon went to St. Felix, a Catholic High School in Wabasha, Minnesota. Both institutions were excellent breeding grounds for academic-hungry young students’ eager to make their way into the world.

I had to laugh when my old classmates from Cretin would question why I sent my kids to Apple Valley schools instead of Cretin or Visitation. I simply told them that Apple Valley schools were very good and that was good enough for me. Enough said. I was right.

We believed then and still do today that parental involvement was one of the keys to our kid’s success in school. We practiced it and our kids knew it. Sharon and I went to every teacher-parent conference from the first one in first grade to the last one senior year.

Brian was very fortunate in his education, excelling at sports, arts and academia.

Melanie did the same.  Each had their own areas of interest and we’re so grateful they found their place and themselves in those academic, athletic and artistic environments.

Both our kids were tested in ways I hadn’t imagined.

Melanie called us one night at 3:00 in the morning. She was in Lexington, Kentucky at a state Speech and Debate tournament. She had gotten sick from something she ate and was throwing up and nauseous. What to do? She was supposed to debate that morning at 9:00am. We told her she had to decide whether to go ahead or not but we encouraged her to give it a try. She said she couldn’t let the team down. So she got up early, dusted herself off and took home with an award.

Brian was in his senior year of wrestling. It was the state tournament and he was slated to wrestle an outstanding young man from Sibley High School that had gone unbeaten all season. Brian gutted it out and won the match….because he believed he could.

Both our kids believed they could do whatever they put their minds to. They learned that in the trenches of Apple Valley High School. I’m sure there are many other stories just as inspiring from every other school in the #196 system. That’s what a good education can do for your mind and your body.

There always seem to be rumbling about the schools of our past as compared to the ones today.  Changing demographics, newer schools, social and culture changes are constantly evolving and reconfiguring the educational landscape. Despite these ever-evolving changes, I suspect that District 196, despite its normal flaws and fallacies, is still a good breeding ground for those students who are able to grasp the opportunities there.

It certainly was back in the day when the District graduated our own two citizens of the world.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Vernacular Warfare

For any writer serious about his craft, life is all about vernacular warfare. The objective is to capture a story in any number of forms and make sure it grabs people’s attention. Hopefully it will glue them to the text until the story ends. In a writer’s arsenal, also called his bag of tricks, this warrior of words carries the tools of his or her trade. It’s an armament of words to carry the emotions forward.

Like ancient Spartans rushing toward the enemy to engage in battle, writers use their weapons on hand. Out of their sheath, they draw words like swords, phrases like spears, nouns like battle axes, sentences like knives and clubs like exclamation points; all intended to do good to the receptive audience.

With great respect to our military and without belaboring the task ahead, writing is a craft or art form that demands constant attention to detail, a sense of the human condition and an imagination that tends to go where other minds seldom travel. In this case, a comment like ‘what were you thinking?’ can be a real compliment.

My last vernacular campaign waged against unscrupulous publishers bent on plagiarizing and stealing classical works of journalism ended in the creation of a new novel entitled ‘Playground for the Devil.’ It was a ten month battle to assemble sentences and scenes, phrases and dialogue, emotions and innuendo into a coherent, abet sometimes confusing tale of deception and hidden truth. I believe the objective of the campaign was achieved and truth was enchained.

Sharon was the first to read my manuscript for ‘Playground for the Devil.’ Her reaction was blunt and to the point. She thought the first chapter was very disturbing and the second chapter read like poetry. ‘Great’ I thought, I’ve reached her on an emotional level. I have met my reader and she is mine. There are always adjustments to be made, changes in battle tactics and changing strategies to overcome a reader’s resistance. But my initial onslaught of story-telling reached its intended goal of grabbing my readers (in this case, Sharon’s) attention. Boredom like defeat had been avoided.

Wrestling to find the right words or phrases is an ongoing battle. It’s a constant struggle to write, rewrite, overwrite and edit; all in the hopes of capturing that special phrase that describes the scene intended. Fortunately for me, as the cliché goes, it is a labor of live….or addiction, whichever seems more relevant at the moment.

Writing for me is like a positive addiction. I was afflicted by just such an addiction for about 45 years and that was running. I HAD to run at least five or six times a week. If I was off for more than a week or so, I’d get (figuratively speaking) withdrawal shakes.  Writing now has the same effect on me.

The last twelve years have been a blur in a forest of words. It has gone morphing from novel-writing to playwriting to the occasional screenwriting. I have been incredibly fortunate to have had four of my plays produced and filled the house on each performance. But like the last conflict resolved, there is always another novel to write and yet another play to create and hopefully produce.

Like a band on the road, it is a pattern of supply and demand and resupply. First the novel is written then exploited with ‘meet the authors’ sessions and book fairs attended. Plays are written then produced on a community stage

Like an old war horse put out to pasture, I find myself always returning to the battlefield of eager readers, disinterested patrons and an audience always looking for the next new thing. Luckily, there’s no age limit on being a writer. I’d like to believe that I’m getting better as I age. Time will tell.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Phases and Stages

Two songwriters I really admire were asked about their creative process. Bob Dylan was interviewed about his early years in Minnesota and Greenwich Village where he wrote such classics as ‘Girl from the North Country’ and ‘Boots of Spanish Leather.’ He was asked how he came up with those creative images. His answer was simple and to the point. “I don’t know” He answered. I was a different person back then. I’m a different person now.”

Canadian poet and songwriter, Leonard Cohen was asked how he was able to create such timeless melodies as ‘Suzanne’ and ‘Hallelujah’ and his answer was also very simple. “I wish I knew where to go for those great songs,” He admitted. “But I don’t know where they are.”

Phases and stages; we all go through them and most of the time we don’t even know it. Collectively, our lives come down to a whole host of temporary stages in life. From birth on, we segway from one relationship to another, one kind of lifestyle to another form of existence, one temporary situation to another temporary situation. Then we go on to something else and that past situation is forgotten.

Our lives are an ever-evolving constant series of phases and stages until they finally end one way or another.

From seventh grade through high school, I had a paper route in St. Paul. Twice a day, early morning and late afternoon, through all seasons, seven days a week, I would trudge through a cluster of apartment buildings and residential neighborhoods delivering the news. It became a part of my young life and I never took a day off in six years. It was what it was.

The U.S. Army was another stage of life, a phase in which I cut off almost all communication with the outside world and concentrated on making a comfortable routine within the confines of military service. Weekends were spent traveling off base or holed up in the library reading. There was no time for card games, drinking, carousing off base or pining for the comforts of home. Olive drab and khaki was my life for two years.

Living in Europe was pretty much the same thing once the initial shock of ‘this ain’t America’ wore off.’ I never saw it as a stage or phase but rather a situation, abet temporary, in which I had a job, public transportation and curiosity of about how the Scandinavians lived. The only thing missing were close relationships. In retrospect, that’s probably a good thing or I might never have left there.

As far as my working career goes, there were two really great jobs and two bad situations.

First volunteering at KTCA Television then working there as a producer-director from 1967 through 1971 was enlightening, exciting and educational. It provided the content for one of my latest plays ‘PTV.’

Working at the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting from 1972 through 1977 was a wonderful experience. Both could have gone on forever but I cut them both short for (supposedly) better opportunities.

Two really bad jobs, one at the Catholic Archdiocese and another at a company called ‘Applied Management Science’ were terrible experiences. It was only after I escaped the confinement of those two prisons that I realized just how bad they really were.

In each instance, good job or bad, I had adjusted to the reality of my daily situation at the time and made the best of it. Unfortunately I didn’t have the insight to see any of them as phases or stages in my life. It was just my ‘present situation.’

The same can be said of a long period of multiple jobs from roughly 1980 through 2005 when I created and ran my own business in addition to working my regular fulltime job. Then adding on the responsibility of owning and managing two apartment buildings. We had two young children and I also felt a deep responsibility to be the father I never had. The responsibilities became almost overwhelming at times but somehow it was simply my life back then and more importantly, ‘something I needed to do.’

The same can be said of my addiction to running, abet ‘positive addiction’ that went from roughly 1964 through 2005. That was more than a phase or a stage. It was truly a lifestyle that I couldn’t shake even if I wanted to.

The same can be said for my present situation as a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter. It is my latest, perhaps my last, stage in my life. A phase that has brought me many sleepless nights, tremendous satisfaction, and comfort in knowing that I have accomplished what I set out to do many many lifetimes ago.