Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The Aging Process

A lot of us are getting older and we can’t do much about it. Every seven-and-a-half seconds another baby boomer turns fifty. At that rate, by 2030, the senior citizen population in the United States is expected to reach eighty million, outnumbering the population of young people for the first time in history. Seems to be happening to a lot of folks I know.

There are unprecedented changes confronting America as advanced age goes mainstream and more and more of us catch it. One book on the market puts it out there plain and simple: “The reality of aging will force us to come to terms with the fact that longevity doesn’t mean eternal youth. America is a society in collective denial of aging. We appreciate vintage in wine, not people.” *

Vaccination clinic in the Coachella Valley

For a while back in January and February, Southern California seemed to be at the epicenter of the corona virus epidemic. Death and dying was a daily, hourly, every couple of minute occurrence, at least in Los Angeles County. The on-going mantra seemed to be: ‘Don’t get sick here because it might kill you.’

Hardest hit seemed to be the elderly who have a host of their own health issues anyway. The virus is an unfortunate addition to the challenges many of us face during the aging process.

I recently got a notice of my 60th high school reunion. Either by fortuitous foresight or a slip of the computer keys, the sender reminded us oldsters to: “Mark your calendars! This may be our last reunion so please plan to attend!!! Sounds like someone has written us off after the tender age of 78.

Growing older is a process that has a form and function of its own. We can only control it to a certain degree. Most of us had a pattern of behavior set before us from our parents and grand-parents years ago. Now it’s our own generation that is dealing with the myriad of issues associated with growing old. Some folks maneuver through their life changes with grace and calmness. Others with a sense of sadness and finality.

For most of us, it’s become a journey in which health has become more important than wealth and we are more aware of the concept of time passage. There is a coming recognition of life’s end and for some a reflection on a life lived. During this journey, many turn to religion, ‘making up for lost time’ or ‘making amends for past sins committed.’

One business executive I know, when told he had six months to live, wanted to keep working until the end and he did. Another decided that all traveling was off the table after age seventy. Others downsized after a lifetime of material accumulations and moved into senior housing.

Many decided to slow down their lives as most past generations have done. They’ve taken to heart the old mantra of ‘acting their age’ and have accepted many of the limitations placed on them by past generations (if only in their own heads.)

My prejudice toward growing older is simple enough. It’s too easy to follow past generations and the traps they left behind. To be fair, for many of them it wasn’t a trap but rather a recognition that after a lifetime of hard work, there awaited the reward of being able to slow down and do little to nothing.

That usually translated into watching a lot of television, a heightened interest in sports (Monday morning quarterbacking), distrust and disdain for politics and worst of all, a gradual isolation from the ‘real world’ that continued on around them. It’s almost as if retirement had sidetracked them from the ever-changing rhythms of modern life.

There’s a reason why senior retirement communities like ‘The Villages’ and ‘Sun City’ emphasize their tons of leisure activities and self-imposed isolation from the real world outside their guarded gates. It’s a collection of like-minded individuals who want to continue on with their well-earned leisure lives and damn the obstacles ahead like the aging process.

It’s interesting to note that in the last ten or so years, a plethora of books have been written about finding ‘new life’ in retirement and how to handle old age. Unlike the generations before them, many in the boomer generation have embraced this new attitude toward growing older.

It’s not the Frank Sinatra version of ‘Young at Heart’ but rather a sober, rational analysis of options available and choices to be made. Primarily it means staying engaged in the world around you and keeping your mind and body active.

While our bodies change and the world continues on, mind still matters. An active intellect can help ward off negative thoughts and offer a wide range of options for anyone even as their body inevitably slows down. Friendships, new and old, can refurbish the soul and reaffirm life’s beauty and charm.

All through her youth and middle age, my mother loved to dance. Then as her body slowed down, she turned to cards to keep her mind active and activated. Now that was one smart lady. I’m not much of a dancer but these feet can still take me up a mountainside and my fingers can still keep tapping computer keys. Mind and matter; we’ve got to keep them both moving.

    *‘Aging in America’ written by photographer Ed Kashi and writer Julie Winokur which began as an award-winning story published by the New York Times Magazine.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Across the Great Divide

I’m tripping over the tangled roots of retirement again… and loving the stumbles. Some folks my age find themselves facing an uncertain future in retirement. They’re limited by their economic, physical and social resources. Their past is history and little on the horizon looks promising. So it’s not surprising that a lot of folks in that predicament turn back in time and try, in one fashion or another, to relive, revive or review segments of their yesteryears that brought them pleasure and pleasant memories.

Then there is another group of folks who feel they have their feet set solidly in the present but relish a return to times gone by and the adventures lived or imagined there. I’d put myself in that latter category. Like one of my favorite songs, ‘Across the Great Divide’ by Kate Wolf, I want to keep crossing borders and boundaries and explore past interests and loves.

I have always had a lifelong interest in folk music. First brought to my attention by the Kingston Trio then Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan, P, P, & M and a whole host of musical artists. Now that genre of music has branched out into a much wider umbrella called Americana music. Musical tastes have moved on with the decades and today what I consider good music might be akin to calling pen and paper ancient but still effective. Nevertheless, the music still touches me like no other.

Granted, there has always been a limited interest in old time music. But that narrowing of the audience has never dissuaded me from telling a story if I am truly interested in it. So it was about a year ago with the subject of folk music, retirement and unrequited love, lost and found. I decided to write a play loosely centered on the concept of new ‘old time’ music. I would call my play ‘Tangled Roots.’

Folk music or more aptly called ‘Americana music’ is as old as this country itself and before that the counties where our forefathers came from. It embodies the American spirit, the Great Depression, riding the rails, an awareness of civil and social causes long before the general public was able to grasp those attacks on freedom and liberty for all.

It includes but is not limited to:

Folk music, Delta blues, Chicago blues, Country Western, Swing, Hillbilly, Zydeco, Appalachian Music, and so forth. It is often bunched together under the title: Roots Music.

I was eager to explore this new kind of play. It would be an intermingling of singing, musical demonstration and an intriguing background storyline for the characters involved. It would be a concert, musical theory class and coming-of-old-age saga wrapped up in a small theater. Black Box would be perfect.

The storyline was simple enough. An aging folk singer who never quite made the grade in Greenwich Village finds employment elsewhere and abandons his dream as a singer-songwriter. He is now facing an undetermined future in his retirement. In his mind there is nowhere to go with his life. His fellow band members are of little help. They’ve grown tired of playing their sets at retirement homes, cheap bars and free summer concerts. There’s no money to be made and little appreciation from their mixed audiences. So along with the conundrum of one’s future life there are no encouraging signs on the horizon for the path presently taken. Add in the first inclining’s of romance and all the elements were there for my storyline.

So it begins and ends with my main protagonist.  Music was his life back then and he wonders if he can go back to that carefree period when he was young and hungry and eager to take on the world. He can still play the guitar and sing the songs. He thinks he can still pen a tune if given enough time and coffee. Whiskey and wine won’t do it anymore.

He wants to explore this option but he is all alone. The other band members see a future only replete with repeat performances and shrinking audiences. Most of them would rather spend their mornings at the coffee shop and evenings staring at the tube. Then a mysterious woman steps into his life or at least the fringes of it and another layer of confusion, conflict and contrasting lifestyles is added to the mix.

There is a lot more work to do before my fingertips tap out ‘The End.’ Aside from workshopping the play to work out the rough parts, other production challenges abound. There is the challenge of finding an actor who can sing and play the guitar. Finding other actors who can back him up might even be even harder. Selecting a musical lineup that shows a good sampling of that musical genre will be daunting. Then there is the challenge of securing a small venue like a black box theater.

None of these obstacles changes the fact that the core premise of the play is sound. I believe there is an audience out there for my storyline. Now the fun will be to put the whole package together. I still believe that many folks still care about old time music. At least some of us old timers do.

Now I just have to prove it.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Trippin' No More

One of the many casualties of Covid-19 has been traveling. The travel industry, especially ship traffic, has been particularly hit hard. Over the years, whether in a group or alone. Sharon and I have been very fortunate to have covered a good part of the globe. We’re certainly not seasoned travelers like a lot of our friends. But the miles traveled have been fascinating and satisfying; what more could you ask for? Unfortunately, I don’t expect to be traveling anytime in the near future.

A couple of years back, we did several river cruises in Europe. With concern for Sharon’s adverse reaction to motion sickness in mind, we found that these flat-bottomed river boats satisfied our need for slow speed and scenic vistas with a total lack of concern for the ebb and flow of the river.

The first river tour we did was called ‘The Great Rivers of Europe.’ It was our first introduction to European river cruising and we were hooked. Unfortunately, it may be a very long time before either one of us is willing to share tight quarters with a group of complete strangers again. So for now, we have our memories, some good pictures and a real appreciation for the beauty of river cruising in a foreign land.

Once the most efficient and fashionable means of travel throughout Europe, river cruising continues to be an ideal way to discover the culture, cuisine and unique characteristics of the many countries traveled through. Two of the primary water ways we traveled were the Rhine and Mosel Rivers. Yet for all their similarities, the Rhine and Mosel wear two very different masks.

There’s a reason one is called Father Rhine and the other Mother Mosel. Two rivers, each harboring different personalities, yet both are life vessels to their pass-through countries.  

Beyond the bucolic landscapes dotted with fairy-tale castles, terraced vineyards and rust-covered maritime facilities, the Rhine and the Mosel provide a glimpse into their respective history of the region. As economic engines, both rivers continue to provide a wealth of economic infusion into the local communities hugging their banks.

For over 2000 years, Father Rhine, as it is called by the locals, has been Europe’s most important commercial waterway. Its scenic beauty has inspired countless myths and legends. By introduc-ing vines to the region, the Romans paved the way for the excellent vintages that are a further source of the Rhine’s international reputation.

The Rhine River rises in south-east Switzerland and reaches the North Sea after a journey of over 1230 km. While industrialization has left its mark on some parts of the river, most of the water-way provides an idealistic pass-through of towns and villages that have existed there for over hundreds of years.

Mother Mosel wears a very different moniker. Since the days of the first Romans, over 2000 years ago, the most exquisite asset of the Mosel countryside has remained its wine production. Generations upon generations have nurtured, embellished and refined a giant open-air amphitheater to the honor of Bacchus, the God of Wine. The towering slate cliffs store the day’s warmth for the cool evenings that follow while the grapes ripen at just the right angle to the sun.

Leaving Basel, Switzerland, our ship followed what seemed like a meandering path along both the Rhine and Mosel Rivers. It was one river seemingly indistinguishable from the other. It was a daily tapestry of colors, images, sights and sounds that captured our attention and imagination. Walking tours included the obligatory market plazas, cathedrals, historical sites and opportunities for shopping.

The Mosel like so many rivers in Europe unmasks different personalities as it passes through many different regions of Germany. Beyond the bucolic landscapes dotted with fairy-tale castles, terraced vineyards and rust-covered maritime facilities, the Mosel provides a glimpse into its storied history of the region.

Mother Mosel (aka Moselle) River begins its journey in France and flows into Germany where it twists sharply for 150 miles and deposits itself into the Rhine on its way to the North Sea. Along this winding river gorge are found some of the most classic Riesling wines in the world.

Because of the northerly location of Mosel, the Riesling wines are often light, tending to lower alcohol, crisp and high in acidity, and often exhibit ‘flowery’ rather than ‘fruity’ aromas. It’s most common vineyard soil is derived in main from various kinds of slate deposits which tend to give the wines a transparent, mineralic aspect, that often exhibit great depth of flavor.

Generations upon generations of craftsmen have nurtured, embellished, and refined a giant open-air amphitheater to the honor of Bacchus, the God of Wine. The towering slate cliffs store the day’s warmth for the cool evenings that follow while the grapes ripen at just the right angle to the sun.

In the middle ages, whole villages sprung up that were centered on the region’s wine industry. These ‘wine villages’ included paths from the town center up to the area’s vineyards. Nothing much has changed over the centuries except that now those footpaths have been widened and paved over for heavy transport to ascend the heights to harvest the grapes.

Dating back hundreds of years, castles dot the countryside and add to the beauty and charm of the region. The castles are a throwback to the age of kings and queens, lowly peasants, feudal lords fighting for territory and knights in dented armor.  

After two river cruises crossing central Europe, we opted for a smaller boat and a trip to the South of France. Our trip began in Paris and ended in Nice. In some strange sort of way, it was deja-vu all over again for me, at least the Paris part of the journey.

It had been a long time since I’d been tramping down the narrow streets and grand thoroughfares of old Parie. Paris has always been a seductive mistress. As the song title goes, ‘The Last Time I saw Paris,’ it was a much different time in my life. My first sojourn into the city of lights was supposed to be a simple pass-through as part of a full-blown retreat from the harsh reality of winter in Denmark.

The experience of living in Denmark had been exhilarating at first. But gradually the daily work routine had grown stale with a lack of friends and no clear direction in my life. Then as the first snowflakes powdered my apartment steps, I realized another Minnesota winter was in my near future unless I split for someplace warm.

The south of France seemed a logical answer to a young pup ill equipped to face that Nordic reality. Tall tales of warm sunshine, topless sun bathers and easy work was enough to lure me into the false sense of road security. I was assured that a quick thumb and ready smile would take me there in just a couple of days.

By the time I got to Paris, all bets were off. I trudged through the city in hope of enlightenment but instead only got hustled by Gypsies. After three days of aimless wandering I was ready to cash in my pocket money for a ticket home and three steady meals a day. I found a travel agency, got a one-way ticket home, and left on a silver bird the next day.

Paris has always been that stand-alone, a bit standoffish kind of friend. At once it can be charming, brash, conceited, seductive, alluring and always surprising. Taken on its own terms, the city offers sunlight and sin on an equal basis.

The city is different now than back in the 60’s. Ornate low-rise buildings have been toppled by towering glass hi-rise commercial enterprises. There are more tourist boats on the Seine than commercial traffic. Bike-sharing stations pepper the city with their light blue bikes while the new tour buses squeeze into narrow side streets that even an old donkey cart had a hard time maneuvering.

The city has evolved and changed yet feels much the same as it did back in the Fall of Sixty-Seven. The locals have long grown used to the artists, vagabonds, tourists and people of the streets who wander by their doorsteps in search of enlightenment. The smell of cooking, cleaning, and daily living still permeates the side streets and dark alleys.

There’s a Parisian phrase that goes: ‘On the Left Bank, we think and on the Right Bank, we spend.’ I have little interest in the Right Bank where towering glass institutions of commerce and wealth line the Seine. My heart and my head are back on the Left Bank where Montmartre and the Latin Quarter still attract all kinds of creative spirits. While there’s no time to retrace Hemingway’s Paris haunts; I find the quaint cafes, dark narrow alleys and winding streets are

still filled with the polished and unwashed alike. And while the new Bobos (bohemian bourgeois) fake their artistic lineage at gallery openings, true artists continue to live in squalor and strive to find meaning in life itself.

Montmartre still holds an allure for me. Climbing its hill brings back the same sense of wonder along with deep breaths and dampness across the brow. Parisians talk about the place the way New Yorkers talk about the village. Hemmingway is no longer lingering at some corner café but other bohemians, artists and lost souls have taken his place.

Some places never change. Paris is one of them. Like other great cities that are constantly evolving with the times and different flavors of humanity that crowd its sidewalks and fill its cafes, the City of Love continues to hold an allure that is impossible to describe. Every visitor has their own version of its magical pull on their senses. For me it is the storied history of writers, artists, and bohemians who have haunted its shadowy recesses since Celtic Gaul’s walked its shores.

The first time I stumbled into Montmartre, I ordered a coffee at some small corner café. It was a thick black muck that gripped my spoon and burned my throat. No wonder all the pretty young girls were sipping theirs so slowly and taking forever to finish their thimble-sized drink.

This time around, I ordered a beer and slowly sipped it, taking forever to finish the warm liquid. Crowds brushed past my chair and dropped cigarette butts at my feet. The rush of humanity flowed unabated in a steady stream past our café. They were all looking around but not seeing a thing. It was just another day in Paris for them.  Me…I was home again.

After three days of touring Paris, we were on a riverboat meandering south along the Saone River. The trip South to Nice was uneventful, restful and easy on the feet. It gave me plenty of time to ponder the times gone by and the journey I never completed back in ’67.

For me the best part of these trips were the periods of cruising the waterways. Ensconced in a lounge chair on top of our ship, I was surrounded by an IMAX presentation of surround sounds and slowly moving images. It became a place for me to get lost inside my head and let my imagination flourish. It was a time to reflect, appreciate, access and plan for the future.

Unfortunately, it’s probably going to be a long time before we venture back onto the low seas again. The quarters were comfortable but cramped, cozy but close and nearly impossible to social distance. Until we’re vaccinated and the world is close to herd immunity, I doubt we’ll set sail on those fascinating rivers again.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

On the Street Where You Live

Like the emptiness of a Paris winter, we often times don’t see what’s all around us as we trudge through the streets of life. In 1929, the great French architect Le Corbusier turned from designing houses to the planning of cities. His classic book shocked and thrilled a world already deep in the throes of the modern age.

One of Le Corbusier’s favorite arguments was that there is an order to things and an order in our lives whether we know it or not. Growing up in Saint Paul, I was hardly aware of the urban changes going on all around me. It signaled the end of one period of growth for the City and a slow painful aging process that followed. Old St. Paul was gradually being replaced with a newer version of itself. Turns out there were subtle changes going on all around me while I was pondering third grade math in grade school downtown.

Old Saint Paul proper was going through its last death rattles as I boarded a city bus each day to attend ‘the little French school’ on a hill overlooking downtown. The city, which had once prided itself as the steamboat capitol of the upper Midwest, had long ago thrown on the cloak of growing wealth and opulence of its early pioneers. Thus had begun a new period of brick and mortar replacing stick buildings with turn-of-the-century modernism. Yet by the mid-to-late-forties, time and a changing demographic had spelled the end of its downtown area as a core of business, social and economic growth.

Le Corbusier had defined the parameters of a great city back around the turn of the century and metropolitan areas like the Twin Cities and New York were struggling to find and define a new definition of a livable city. Urban development ran rampant and old neighborhoods were falling victim to the times.

Old St. Paul was a Midwestern repeat of New York City’s Jane Jacobs and her continuing battles with transportation czar Robert Moses fighting to save whole neighborhoods from being swept away by elevated highways slashing through their communities. Only in the case of Saint Paul, Interstate Highway 94 won out and the Rondo community fell by the wayside.

From 1943 through 1949, I was living on the outskirts of downtown, moving from one rental to the next. Growing up near downtown St. Paul, I was too young to understand the organic changes happening all around me. Even after we moved to the Highland Park neighborhood, I was still too young to understand the ever-changing cityscape from 1949 through 1957, as I traveled to downtown St. Paul each day.

photo courtesy of Jerry Hoffman

From 1957 through 1961, I was pretty much cloistered in my own neighborhood with frequent trips to first ring suburbs like Roseville. After 1961and high school graduation, downtown St. Paul had become a place to avoid because there was nothing there of interest for me.

My horizons broadened with time in the service, living abroad, and finally settling into a hovel near the University of Minnesota. The West Bank, Como area, and Dinkytown became a place of refuge for me. Little did I know at the time that the entire area, especially north of Dinkytown, was going through revitalization with dozens of old mansions like my ghetto being torn down for modern student apartments.

Fast forward many years later and I was working at our public television’s new digs in downtown St. Paul. By the late seventies, the Lowertown area of St. Paul had started to come out of its century’s old shell of neglect and decay. The area east of the downtown core began to take on the accoutrements of an urban village; at least in the minds of developers and real estate speculators.

By then I was settled into a third ring suburb and raising kids in a modest yet comfortable environment. The thought of living in the cities never occurred to me. Jump ahead another twenty years and my daughter now lives in St. Paul, less than five blocks from where I was raised. She and her husband love their home, their neighborhood, and new St. Paul.

Sharon and I now have to travel to my old stomping grounds to see our grandchildren in a neighborhood filled with young families eager to enjoy the benefits of living in the city.

I guess it’s true; what goes around comes around.