Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Fifty Years is a Long Long Time

Fifty years is a very long time. Broken down, it’s five decades; 18,250 days together with one person...but who’s counting?.  Sharon and I have probably seen it all, done it sometimes and been there more than a couple of times. A man, any man, should be so lucky. Granted, there were a few stumbles over the years, a couple of missteps perhaps but no detours to take us off course. Since only five percent of married couples ever make that milestone (blame D and D) we thought it certainly was something to celebrate.

So how to recognize that achievement? Sharon knew what our kids were up to and she wanted no part of it! True to form, both Melanie and Brian thought it would nice to have a large surprise party for Sharon and me on our 50th Wedding Anniversary. While that was a very kind gesture from the kids, Sharon wanted only a small intimate gathering with the immediate family.

So that’s just what we did by spending a weekend up at the Ruttgers Lake Resort outside of Garrison, Minnesota. It happened back in June when our respective calendars allowed us all the time to gather together.

On the way up to the lake, Sharon stopped at the old curio shop where she had worked two summers while still in High School. Those two summers were truly memorable for Sharon and it was a thrill for her to share some lakeside stories and a mini-tour of the olde shoppes for her grandchildren.

LaComb/McMahon family gatherings are never dull. This special weekend was no different. There was an art contest, a magic show put on by all the kids, lots of card playing and just plain relaxing around our townhouse.

Water activities included a pontoon tour of the lake, tubbing, Jet-Skis, kayaks, paddleboards and acrobatics on the lakeside trampoline.

In a way, our Ruttgers weekend was a good parable for the last 50 years.

It began in the Virgin Islands for our three week honeymoon. A brief stay in Tennessee and five wonderful years in Maryland. Then we settled into our classic Orin Thompson rambler for another forty plus years living in Apple Valley.

Now back at Ruttgers and safely sequestered in old Adirondack chairs, Sharon and I watched the grandkids ping-pong on and off a trampoline offshore, and I couldn’t help but wonder how it went from my first opening line: ‘Got change for a quarter’ to that attractive blond receptionist back in 1969 to sitting next to this grand old dame, enjoying our grandchildren’s aerobatic antics off shore.

It’s been one heck of an interesting fifty years. So how did we make it through fifty years? Dumb luck on my part and plenty of patience on Sharon’s part. I guess the old cliché ‘whatever it takes’ probably holds some credence here.

·       I want to give credit to the best daughter-in-law in the world for the wonderful Snapfish book she put together for our anniversary. I have borrowed liberally some of her pictures for this blog.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Striking Gold Again

It’s come full circle now.

As I was reviewing an odd and eclectic assortment of notes from over fifty years of itinerant wanderings in this wilderness called life, I struck gold once again. These vernacular meanderings were scraps picked up through my research for my latest play entitled ‘Frenchy’s Eats.’

This cache of soulful phrases gave me a clearer picture / explanation for the past behavior, empty excuses, denial and lack of guilt on the part of several women (especially my Mother) that I’ve known over the years. One phrase stood out among the rest and it only took me fifty years to figure it out.

High School was hard enough to tiptoe through that minefield called first girlfriend, first love, first breakup, and nagging self-doubt. It didn’t help that at about the same time I came across a worn out paperback book that so accurately captured the electric, painful, gut-wrenching throes of first love.

The Fume of Poppies by Jonathan Kozol is ‘an underground classic of first love and sexual discovery.’ It encapsulated and ‘put in parenthesis’ the phrase I had just come across.

There was another hint years later when I watched a movie entitled: ‘500 Days of Summer’ and I felt Deja-vu all over again.

The phrase in question came to me in the cryptic notes of an old acquaintance that happened to be female. She was talking about male-female relationships and what could go wrong. Her explanation was simple and to the painful point. From her point of view, the other party (a woman in this case although it could easily go either way) was ’emotionally unavailable.’

I immediately thought ‘so here we go again!’  I’ve found another phrase that I love because it goes to the core of issues I’ve had in the past.  It took one woman’s insight to clarify the actions of others. Turns out, several women in my past lives were most definitely emotionally unavailable, some closer to me than others.

Like past phrases such as ‘The Boy She Left Behind,’  ‘I’ve Moved On’ and ‘Goin Where the Southern Cross the Dog,’ this newest phrase cuts right to the heart of the matter. It encapsulates a simple explanation for some of my childhood drama and trauma and several failed romances. On the flip side, it has provided heavy fodder for several of my plays-in-progress.

It also got me to thinking about personal relationships and how some of them succeed and how others fail. I love, absolutely love, to reflect on how some couples (despite their seemingly different personalities and take on life) have lasted a lifetime while others seem to fall by the wayside, tripped up by a myriad of marital stumbles from which one or both parties never recover.

As a writer, I’ve had fun over the years creating characters and then manipulating their relationships with one another. Some are based on real life and others on an over-active imagination. In either case, those ‘golden phrases’ give my imagination a platform upon which to build the dialogue between characters. It gives credence to their actions and reactions to one another. It also smacks of real life.

Love in the A Shau was my first novel (aside from the westerns) that really tried to capture past and current emotions while tangling up and then untangling the crosscurrent of feelings between my two main protagonists.

My latest novel ‘Playground for the Devil’ was a continuation of that invisible third party manipulation between characters. As is usually the case, the male protagonist shares a fair amount of resemblance to my own thought patterns. The female protagonist is a full-blown mental meandering of my past female encounters, engagements, skirmishes and entanglements.

Once I’m in the ’zone’ I have no idea what these folks are going to say or do. But having mental pictures brought on by those ‘golden phrases’ has saved me on many an occasion. I guess it’s all part and parcel for life in my fictional world where I get to imagine and chronicle the sometime rollercoaster of emotions between my characters.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Art of Gratitude

Recently, I self-published my 12th and latest novel entitled ‘Playground for the Devil.’ As I always do, I sent copies to my family members and, this time, included several friends who I thought would appreciate the book. Writing the book had been a long and arduous task but I was proud of the outcome and especially the storyline I had created. I wanted to share it with other folks who might enjoy an easy read and a real suspense thriller.

I wasn’t expecting a star-spangled parade or a bouquet of flowers for my gesture. A simple ‘thank you’ via e-mail or print or a phone call would have sufficed. I got two acknowledgments. My wife wasn’t particularly surprised. The kids knew the book was coming and so did some of those friends.’ It wasn’t unexpected’, she said, ‘so they probably thought ‘oh, thanks’ to themselves and that was that.’ Guess, I didn’t see it that way.

I think I’ve become spoiled by being around Sharon for the last fifty plus years. Granted, she’s a bit over the top when it comes to sending out cards and notes for any and every occasion. It’s not that she gets a lot of cards in return, but she feels good about her gestures of kindness. I thought I would follow suite. Turns out, it was an interesting failed experience that got me to thinking.

Aiding me in that examination of gratitude and appreciation was a new book I just received from Better World Books; my new ‘go to’ source for an eclectic variety of reading material. Where was this book when I was growing up and emulating (on a very subconscious level) the actions or inactions of my Mother?

Now I will be the first to tell anyone that I am totally unqualified to talk about gratitude and appreciation. While I understand this is a lame-ass retreat from responsibility, I can only fall back on the ‘excuse’ that I wasn’t raised that way. My mother was a lifelong survivor of her German heritage and Catholic upbringing. Self-reliance was built into her DNA and asking for help was something she rarely if ever did (and only then) under great duress. I think her attitude about gratitude was “they know I appreciate what they’ve done,’ I don’t have to tell them.”

Unfortunately, I picked up a lot of those same selfish traits and brought them to our marriage. Sharon’s gestures of appreciation at first confused, amused, and befuddled me. Where was the ROI or recognition for her gesture of kindness; I certainly didn’t see it coming back to her in spades.

But gradually over the years, I came to realize that wasn’t the point. If it was the right thing to do, then expecting recognition was only a nice added benefit. While it hurt not to be recognized as a kind gesture, the gesture itself should be satisfaction enough…because it was the right thing to do. Hard lesson to learn for someone like myself.

As a society, I think we’ve become more self-absorbed and unaware of kind gestures on the part of others. Among a few of my neighbors here in the sunny south land, there is an attitude of entitlement. ‘We’re here, we got it and you work for us.’ Those particular neighbors are not our friends. We just share the same green space with them.

Often times, I have to remind myself that the simple act of showing gratitude and appreciation really isn’t a monumental task to tackle. A simple ‘thank you’ to the clerk or attendant or server doesn’t hurt or diminish your own stature.

I always made a point of thanking my repairmen when I was in the real estate business. My gardener and pool man are told that on numerous occasions. While I’m not the card-sender or note-writer like my wife, I do try to make the effort when it’s called for. It doesn’t hurt and actually feels pretty good on the inside.

Who knew?

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Capturing Value

I stumbled across an interesting phrase while perusing my old stack of books from Better World Books. ‘Capturing Value’ is at the core of many investors’ criteria for their investment portfolios. They know that enhancements, refinements and expanding market share can all add to the bottom line.

It can come in many different forms but simply stated, it is the improvement of the core values of a product or service (almost any kind of investment) to increase its value or worth. I think that could be a great metaphor for life.

The phrase is often used in the tech world to encapsulate enhancing current operations, making things simpler, etc. Mark Zuckerberg was able to do it with ‘Facebook’ even though ‘My Space’ had already proven that concept and was firmly established on the internet. AOL was one of the first internet providers along with Netscape but was soon overshadowed by better, stronger competitors.

In the business world, adding customer service, ease of operation, etc. helps a business navigate the rough and tumble world of sales and marketing much better. I have a friend who has written a number of best-selling books about the customer experience with enhanced customer service. On a more personal level, I know the concept is valid and works wonders.

Over the years, I was able to capture more value in several apartment buildings and other real estate properties that I owned and managed. Surprisingly, it was seldom major remodeling that made the difference. Instead it was the little things that my tenants/customers appreciated.

I added enhancements to the properties that raised their value in the eyes of my tenants and kept turnover at a very low rate. As a property owner, a long term renter meant a steady rent check, a satisfied occupant and overall fewer problems. It also made for a more attractive investment property when the time came to sell.

I also thought this concept of adding value can speak volumes about one’s personal life. Finding value in everyday events in your life is not the onerous task it might seem to be. And it has nothing to do with your bank account, home and other real estate holdings or material goods. The simple things in life are usually free and right there for the taking/appreciating. You just have to be aware of it and take a look.

It could be as simple as a walk in the woods or trudging up a mountain trail.

It might mean taking the time to appreciate an early morning sunrise or a sunset that ends another day on the planet.

There are the little everyday things like flowery plants and the stillness of an early morning lake.

Grandchildren; anytime and anyplace.

For me, it was my own coffee and chat sessions that continued unabated even with eye surgery and baby-sitting duties. Those early morning rendezvous always included the intellectual sharing of facts, fables, fantasy and foolishness; all in the name of friendship.

Finally, it might include personal accomplishments in the arts, writing, the theater, gardening, and a multitude of other personal endeavors. Whatever it is that lifts your soul and gives purpose to your day is adding value to it.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Homage to Glady

I guess she could best be described as this mirage I can’t get out of my head. But not really! And homage is probably a bit overblown for someone I hardly even knew. Nevertheless, Gladus (last name unknown) was one of those iconic figures that came into my life for a very brief period of time then disappeared just as quickly.

She was a woman far removed from my social-economic-educational background and career aspirations. Yet for some strange reason during those early cold months of March and April, we connected on a level quite different from my old romantic entanglements that I used to bench-mark as true love.

Even though she was ten years older than me, I found in Glady a kindred soul on a level I hadn’t experienced before with other women. The sad thing was that Glady had dried up and aged well beyond her years. Her eyes were a sometimes sad brown and there was a hint of early onset gray in her hair. It didn’t help that she favored thin cotton sweaters, even in the summertime, and thought of herself as long past a favorite with the boys.

It was spring of 1967. I had just returned from my short expat life in Europe. I was living in a depression era hovel on University Avenue, driving a used VW and had just started my first real job as a writer at the Minnesota Department of Public Health on the University of Minnesota Minneapolis campus.

Glady was the first woman who made me feel mature. She was attractive even for a middle-aged matron and we could talk easily about almost anything and everything. The problem was that in our office setting it was always awkward for casual chats under the constant radar of our boss, the notorious Dr. Marie Ford. Dr. Ford, was always on the lookout for fraternization among the troops.

On the University campus, Marie Ford had a storied history as the wife of a renowned college professor. She would occasionally talk about their life, living in Prospect Park, attending University functions and traveling with only the most accomplished of other college couples. It was after the war and the University was a buzz with ex-service men anxious to get a good education and ready to absorb all the information her husband could throw at them.

Marie had a stellar career in public health and held her own prominent place within their circle of intellectual health professionals. She and her husband were one of the post-war golden couples at the University.

Sadly, by the time I arrived on scene in early 1968, Marie’s husband had long since passed away. Marie had become an old, tired, chain-smoking relic of an era long since passed. She seemed to regret its passing and, almost like Glady, she had seen her future slowly come into focus. Both knew what the next decade held instore for them. An enthusiastic, energetic young man suddenly in their midst didn’t help when thinking about the future.

The fact that Glady was ten years older than me didn’t seem to matter to either one of us but our background did. Glady had grown up in a world totally different from mine. I was from tony Highland Park. She was from Northeast Minneapolis.

Around the turn of the century, the community of Northeast Minneapolis began to grow as an ethnic enclave supplying workers for the factories that lined Central Avenue and batched them in clusters throughout the neighborhood. There was a strong Eastern European influence in religion, social standing in the community and family obligations.

I knew little about Glady’s background growing up other than she had graduated from high school in NE Minneapolis and gone to work immediately. Like almost all of the young women her age, Glady still lived at home with her mother and would eventually became her mother’s primary care giver. There was never any thought as to her moving out and living on her own.

Her Eastern European roots and upbringing meant she was locked into a lifestyle she couldn’t break away from, even if she wanted to. It was understood that she would never leave home until both her parents had passed.

And I thought to myself: what then with little education and marginal secretarial skills? Glady was probably destined to spending the rest of her life in the secretarial pool at one University department or another.

In retrospect after reflecting on our casual verbal encounters, I think perhaps Glady was living her life vicariously through my many inane, sometimes sophomoric antics with fellow hippies, college dropouts and wandering young adults still unsure of themselves and their future endeavors. I remember she asked me a lot questions about living in Europe, my time in the service, who I was dating and other general ‘get to know you’ probes. She seemed to really care and that just fed my expanding ego.

One Monday, Glady told me in confidence that she had gone to the Triangle Bar and thought she might run into me there because I had talked about it so often. It never occurred to me that her venturing so far from her comfort level was anything other than a bar visit. What were her real intentions, if any, I have no idea?

I only lasted about a year and a half at the Health Department before getting my dream job at KTCA and ‘getting out of Dodge.’ I never saw Glady again. Her image and memory slowly faded away until some fifty years later when Sharon began taking art classes in Northeast Minneapolis. Once again I found myself in the neighborhood where Glady used to live.

But this time it was different than in 1968. Fifty years after the West Bank of the University of Minnesota harbored the disenfranchised, the hippies and other malcontents of a similar ilk; their decedents had now migrated to the Northeast part of Minneapolis. In an unplanned, almost organic metamorphosis of a cityscape, this unwashed morass of creativity had moved west. Old Nordeast, an eclectic enclave of blue-collar Eastern European nationalities, has become the new West Bank. It felt like Deja-vu all over again.

As I once again drove past those tired old dilapidated houses in a neighborhood with a church on every corner, I thought about Glady and whatever had become of her. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to assume she continued on as a secretary at the University and eventually retired to her mother’s home in NE.  Perhaps she became the classic ‘church’ lady or ‘cat’ lady and lived out the rest of her life as her heritage had dictated.

There’s a part of me that would love to believe that she finally found someone, after her mother passed, and she created a new life for herself outside of the drab, dreary lifestyle handed down to her by past generations. I guess I’ll never know. But I can imagine.

Of course, I’ve already outlined a story about Glady. It could be a play, a novel or a short story. It involves a man much younger than her. They fall in love but things don’t turn out as they had planned. The story is, at once, happy and sad, poignant yet realistic. A slice of life that might have occurred in a tired old building on the University of Minnesota campus between two lost souls; each seeking clarity in their patchwork lives.