Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Chasing the White Rabbit

It would seem I’ve always been a bit slow on the uptake. Back in the day, I was lucky enough to get into Cretin High School, slipping ahead of 370 other young men, to form the rear guard of my class. I started St. Thomas College then dropped out. I flunked out of the University of Minnesota after two quarters. I survived the US Army, living in Europe and several false starts before finding my footing in public television and video marketing.

Nevertheless, all during that formidable baking/brewing period of my life, it was the White Rabbit that remained ever elusive. I guess both Alice and I saw it as a metaphor for some vapid mirror image of what I could or should or might become. I saw myself as different from others. Yet I couldn’t name or pin down that lower third title of who I was or what I could become. I instinctively knew there was a life out there for me. I just hadn’t found it yet. The White Rabbit remained a mysterious myopic vision bounding over the next horizon.

It took me a lifetime to get where I am today. I was never into sports, games or social events. I was content to be by myself as I was a lot of the time growing up. I had few friends and fewer intimates. As a kid with no male role models to follow, it was hard to throw off the inhibitions, constrictions, and limitations of a sterile single parent household.

Adventurous I never was, unless you take into account a few strange benchmarks like raising a wild cottontail rabbit in grade school, cheerleading at an all-male high school, getting a library card in Denmark, and skinny-dipping in Costa Rica.

One redeeming factor is that I’ve always had a vivid imagination born out of either desperation or boredom; I’m not sure which.

I was deeply affected by the manufactured silliness of movies and television. Rhonda Fleming was my first love and I had a crush on her for years.

Mick Hawkins and me (photo courtesy of Jerry Hoffman)

Mickey, my grade school buddy, introduced me to this radical idea that you could actually get and read a book without having to pay for it. It was called a library, and in fourth grade, Mickey let me follow him to a local library to get my very own library card. I was in seventh heaven. The first book I read was ‘The Enemy below;’ about World War Two mine-sweepers. That was quickly followed by serial books on Tarzan, The Hardy Boys, etc.

I sketched a lot of pictures of characters I’d seen in the movies and tried to re-create scenes from them. Maybe, I thought maybe I could become an artist or an illustrator. It was not to be.

Sir Lancelot, John Wayne, and Tarzan were some of my favorite subjects. I made sure there was always a comic book to accompany each character.

I was fascinated with the western character called Paladin from the television series: ‘Have Gun, Will Travel.’ My intention was to write a screenplay for the series but I never did.

During my ‘lost years,’ I got into poetry (three binders worth) and tried to picture-paint with words some of the events, stages and emotions I was going through at the time. Public television gave me some wonderful opportunities to be creative in my directing skills. Along the way, a few failed relationships gave me plenty of fodder to plant into words and thoughts, sentences and phrases.

I tried my hand at photography when we lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

After we moved to Maryland, I used my trusty L.C. Smith typewriter to write two westerns in 1973 and 1974. Then I casually put them aside and waited another forty years before rewriting and self- publishing both of them.

Finally, in 2007, after a lifetime of skirting the writing world, I began to write full time in lieu of retirement. Numerous books, plays, screenplays and blogs later, I am now fully engaged as a student in the craft of writing.

I haven’t caught the White Rabbit yet and doubt I ever will. It’s an ongoing journey of self-discovery with new horizons constantly popping up in front of me. But that’s a good thing.

It gives me something to do.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Coming Home Again

Springtime in Apple Valley is the best. Although recently my wife and I have been able to escape the cold and ice of past winters, we haven’t forgotten our early morning commutes after wrapping our kids in layers and shoving them out the door for school. Happy memories; yes and no.

But springtime holds a special place in my heart. It means running and biking outside without multiple layers, head wrap and gloves. It means yard work in the sun and working up a sweat. It means long walks in the woods at Lebanon Hills Regional Park and escapes along the river. It’s early morning coffee on the porch and listening to the birds having breakfast all around me. It’s savoring in all the benefits, charm, and pleasantries of living in such a nice community of friends and neighbors.

However, my Back Pages tell another story. Fantasy images from my youth now come true; at least in my imagination.

Southern California has become my great playground where I can ignore creeping age and continue doing fun things snow-bound seniors can’t do back home. I like the crazy, creative, eccentric, unapologetic far-out types who inhabit a lot of my regular haunts there.

Sharon has found a cadre of fellow artists willing to try new painting techniques and share both their success and failures with her. It is her ‘new thing’ and it suits her to a T in the desert.

For both of us, it’s warm winter nights that nurture creative thoughts and ideas bursting on paper. It’s ocean and mountains and out of the way places that Minnesota can’t offer. It’s a playground for those of us still in total denial of life’s fading curtain.

Yet for all that California has to offer, it still isn’t Minnesota. A lot of folks have a special place in their hearts for where they were born. My affiliation runs deeper than that.

It was born of an early morning below-zero paper route, a high school steeped in military tradition and a lake that mimicked the ocean if only in my imagination. It was hard times and healthy living. It was growing up in a world shaped by basic values and an appreciation for hard work. It was dreamed-about opportunities limited only by the extent of one’s imagination.

Minnesota is where I found stability and a healthy foundation upon which to lay down my roots. It was where we raised our children and now watch some of our grandchildren grow. It has become a hundred million other impressions that nudged and pricked and scratched and broke through my memory bank.

For as much as I love California’s fast pace and changing emotional scenery, it is still Minnesota that brings me back to reality. Both places offer Sharon and I wonderful friendships, a boatload of memories and creative ventures. But Minnesota also offers us something else. History that is all good.

I was born of the tundra. And though I avoid the snow and cold as much as I can, it is still in my blood. I don’t know where I’ll write my final draft whether it be in the surf or in the snow. But it doesn’t matter. There really is no contest.

Minnesota is a good place to be from and a good place to be.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Frenchy's Eats

My latest play project is going to be one of the hardest I’ve ever attempted to write. If properly constructed with love and backed by historical facts, it might be a semi-autobiographical story of my parents, grandparents and me. On the other hand, it could also end up a confusing juxtaposition of parenting errors, misinformation, historical fiction and confusing storytelling. Right now, I’d give it a fifty-fifty chance of going in either direction.

It’s safe to say it will be different from any other play I’ve written. Right now, I’d describe it ‘experimental theater.’ That phrase rushed into my head about 3:00 am one morning as I tossed and turned and wondered out loud what the hell I was attempting to do with the confusing array of photos, phrases and jumbled stories that I’d been fed over the latter part of my mother’s life.

It began, innocently enough, with several old photographs my mother passed down to me years ago at a time and place long since forgotten. She had kept them in an old shoebox and wanted to give them to my sister and me so that we might have some pictures of her family farm and other images of her youth.

The photograph that grabbed my immediate attention was one of a small café on West Seventh Street leading into downtown Saint Paul. At the time, around 1944, it was a lower class, semi-rundown section of town that had long since seen its better days.

The story of ‘Frenchy’s Eats’ as it was passed down by my Mother to Marlene and me came out in drips and drabs, casual comments, thoughtful reflection and confusing contradictory stories. As best I can recollect the story it went something like this.

Arthur was a short order cook, just arrived in town, and working at the New Brighton Ammunitions plant. My mother had been a domestic worker who found the wages much better at the munitions factory. They met, they married and shortly afterwards, I was born. My sister was on the way when they decided to sub-lease the space of a closed café. It would be called ‘Frenchy’s Eats’ in honor of my father’s French Canadian heritage.

It was intended that my father would cook, my mother would bake and they might etch out a living even though they had two small children, me at two and Marlene at one, and a cheap apartment around (literally) the corner.

It only lasted six months. My mother’s best (vague) description was that my dad drank a lot of the profits away, the help was stealing food from under their noses and the hours were killing them both. So after six months they gave up and quit. Two years later, my father left town and we became homeless.

Now that photograph of ‘Frenchy’s Eats’ carries a whole new meaning to me.

So the play, as it is roughly outlined thus far, has a concurrent three-themed storyline in which the lives of my parents, my father’s parents and myself all intersect, cross over one another, and indirectly affect one other.

There are sub-themes of abandonment, spiritual devotion, loss of affection, careless love, and fierce determination to ‘rise above the raisin.’ It is raw, revealing and exposes many family sins and secrets that their keepers all thought they’d taken with them to their graves. Ancestry.com and my own research (Sharon’s really!) proved them wrong.

I have to see if I can fashion a story that tells a story, my story, in a manner that evokes compassion, understanding, and acceptance for what was.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Goin' Where the Southern Cross the Dog

A while back, I wrote a blog entitled: ‘The Boy She Left Behind.’ I explained how that phrase popped into my consciousness one day out of the blue. Its origin is less important than the mental picture it painted inside my head. The words and the images that it conjured up emitted a confusing cauldron of feelings and emotions. Words and phrases can do that sometimes especially to a writer who is always on the hunt for impactful vernacular tools to add to his arsenal.

Well, lightning struck a second time with another phrase I came across in a book about folk singers and folk songs. I realized I’ve had several blogs that have talked about the power behind words and phrases and how a writer can find meaning and imagery there. It’s like discovering new paint materials with which to create new works of art.

Two other blogs, ‘Vernacular warfare’ and ‘Phrases and stages’ covered the same topic. Words and phrases can cover a plethora of images. Sexual references like ‘wet’ and ‘hard’ paint a certain kind of picture. ‘Soft’ and ‘comforting’ paint another one entirely. The examples here can go on forever. They’re all part of the creative arsenal a writer uses to paint his story pictures in the minds of his readers.

But for me, it is the more iconic and historical phrases that I find the most fascinating. Folk music is the perfect conduit for painting these mental pictures. Down through the ages, based on some semblance of reality, words and phrases from folk songs have given us ‘Old Hannah,’ the Southern convicts name for the punishing sun. ‘Delia,’ the name given to a bad woman, a ‘rounder’ or a ‘gambler.’ Like ‘John Hardy’ she was based on real life characters who gained immortality through song. Old railroad songs seem to be some of the most prolific image-makers.

I read a book recently that was entitled: ‘Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and American Folk Outlaw Performance.’ The phrase I stumbled across that struck me like a bat against my brain was:  “Goin ‘where the Southern cross’ the Dog.”

The phrase refers to a railroad crossing in the Deep South well known to locals and outlaws alike. A great description of this phrase comes from Greg Johnson of the University of Mississippi. This southern state has a rich and fascinating treasure lore of blues history and background.

Mr. Johnson explains:

“Many early blues singers used variations on the phrase “going where the Southern cross the Dog.” The expression refers to the place in Moorhead, Mississippi, where the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley rail line intersected with the Southern rail line. Many southerners referred to the Yazoo and Mississippi line as the “Yellow Dog” or simply the “Dog” or “Dawg.” The first historical reference to blues lyrics mentions this phrase: when W. C. Handy wrote about first hearing the blues in 1903 at a train station in Tutwiler, he described a man playing guitar and repeating the phrase “Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.” Handy later popularized the phrase in his “Yellow Dog Blues” (1914). Charley Patton sang the phrase in “Green River Blues” (1929), and Kokomo Arnold used it in “Long and Tall” (1937). Today, the Southern rail line is known as the Columbus and Greenville (C&G) Railway, and the Yazoo and Mississippi rail line has been moved eastward and consolidated by the Illinois Central.”

  • Written by Greg Johnson, University of Mississippi

In one of my latest plays entitled ‘Tangled Roots.’ I’ve tried to layer my storyline with bits and pieces of folk history. ‘Tangled Roots’ delves into the history of folk music and its enduring grip on the American populous.  Folk music is about real people and real events, weathered by the seasons, tarnish by current misconceptions and yet solid enough to be tested by the vagrancies of time.

Dapple skies of pink

Leaving LAX

Certain words and phrases can paint ‘dapple skies with marsh mellow clouds full of curious thoughts.’ Like the phrase: ‘leaving LAX,’ it’s a mystery, a question mark and a story all wrapped up in one evening sky.