Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Minnesota History - So Who Cares?

One of the joys of my altered lifestyle during the pandemic was rediscovering our local library, especially the magazine section. I found myself on a number of occasions lost in the stacks, perusing, reviewing and discovering new and old magazines. One in particular caught my eye.

As a lifelong resident of the state of Minnesota, I hadn’t given my residency here any real thought other than the fact that I still hate the winters, relish spring and fall and now have readjusted to the warmer than usual summer months. The magazine that caught my eye was ‘Minnesota History’, produced and published by the Minnesota Historical Society.

The magazine provides a fascinating glimpse back at many different aspects of Minnesota History down through the ages. My own historical timeline begins in 1943; a period in Minnesota when the state had just come out of the Great Depression and was now fully immersed in the Second World War.

My parents were products of those historical benchmarks and the agrarian lifestyle that preceded them. The events that took place in my parent’s marriage and afterwards shaped the kind of persons my sister and me ultimately became. It was that historical wallpaper around our lives that caught and held my attention last summer.

I found articles on the Summit Hill area where I was born. Smith Avenue, where we lived in a hovel for a short period of time. Then Irving Park, where we lived in a six-plex apartment building while our mother was building her own house in Highland Park.

For eight years my sister and I took a streetcar then a bus into Saint Paul and the little French school on the hill above downtown. With those daily sojourns, we saw and felt ‘Old Saint Paul’ going through another one of its average every half-century of cultural, social, and architectural evolutions.

Old St. Paul was morphing into a mid-century of population growth, expanding neighborhoods and suburbs, transportation changes and new attitudes towards everything from religion to music to means of communication.

By perusing, scanning, and reading various articles in the magazine, I was able to learn more about relevant events, incidents and benchmarks that marked my time in the city. In the sixties, when I had moved physically and mentally out of town, there were other articles that discussed events in the twin cities or the state that had impacted my life one way or another.

Now in my senior years, I live in two different worlds and I’m comfortable in both. One is a progressive state; adventurous and sometimes a bit outrageous, but always leaning forward. For half a year I wear my Southern California flip-flops as comfortably as any other sun seeker.

The Midwest is more staid and conservative than California in a common sense kind of way. For me it’s two different life styles and two points of view. Yet there’s a common thread running between the two with openness for all and acceptance of different points of view. Both states offer a realistic view of the world and not a closed-minded myopic wish for what used to be. They don’t dwell on a world that, in fact, never really existed except in television sitcoms and wishful thinking. Instead they focus on what could be and not what once was.

I’m born and bred Minnesotan with a strong streak of California to taint my mind. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Both states have become home in more ways than one. They’re like a cradle upon which my imagination gives birth to creative, frivolous, silly and sometimes enlightened ideas, concepts and storylines. It’s the flip side of that routine called your average lifestyle. If ever there were a balance in my life, it would be called the Minnesota-California connection.

There’s a quote I love that goes something like this: “At some point in the journey, you realize it’s time to head back home. It doesn’t matter where you are in the journey, the Gods begin calling and you must return home.” I think there is something about that mysterious force called ‘home’ that calls to all of us. I feel it every spring when the itch to return to my roots begins to claw at my insides.

Overall, Minnesota History Magazine helped me paint a picture of my home state, golden glow and warts included. It’s a state that really defines ‘where I came from.’ Over the years, Minnesota has collected its fair share of great moments and embarrassing stumbles. But in the end, it is the embodiment of the Midwest and everything that that cliché entails.

It’s a nice place to grow up in and a greater place to have come from.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

How 'Season's End' Morphed into 'Cloistered Closing'

‘Season’s End’ was the fourth play I wrote after my success with three other plays all performed at the Steeple Center in Rosemount. The titled referred to the ending of a typical ‘season’ (roughly November through March) that occurs in many gated communities throughout the Coachella Valley.

The play was centered on a lively exchange between three old retired businessmen and a teenage girl. It was supposed to show the differences in ages as expressed and exposed in music, art, politics, religion, etc. I thought it read as a funny age-related differences of opinion and attitude. My Beta readers thought otherwise and Sharon thought it missed its mark entirely.

Their premise was simple enough. If these three businessmen were living in a golf community and frequenting a country club they were probably very successful in business and certainly not naïve to world events. They might disagree with the teenager’s attitudes and opinions but they wouldn’t be shocked by them. In short, Sharon destroyed the main premise for the play and thus rendered it unbelievable and just plain silly.

So back into the files went that play and it was quickly forgotten for a new idea that eventually morphed into ‘The Last Sentinel.’ Fast forward several years and I’ve had three plays produced in Minnesota and one in California. The Covid-19 pandemic hits and everything screeched to a halt. Theaters shut down, in-person gatherings were banned and I settled in with my keyboard and a lot of time on my hands.

Out of that limbo period came revisions to five new plays that I still hadn’t workshopped. A new suspense thriller was written and entitled ‘Playground for the Devil.’ A children’s story that I’d written fifteen years earlier was revived, and through the help of my editor, found a wonderful illustrator out of Bangladesh who is working on illustrations for the book.

Moving along, I decided to flesh out a storyline that originally came from a blog about my first job after Europe and a woman I met at work. It would be a serialized novella and placed on Amazon’s Vella platform for distribution. My writing plate was overflowing and I thought I’d be sequestered in my office for months to come. Then an e-mail appeared one day in my inbox.

SAP, The Second Act Players of Rosemount, had just finished a play entitled ‘Reunited’ and were beginning to look around for another play to produce in 2022. One of the actors contacted me and asked if I had anything that might work for them. My initial answer was a solid no!

Unfortunately, three of my five new plays demanded rather elaborate sets which I didn’t feel the Steeple Center could accommodate. The other two had content matter that I didn’t think a community theater, especially in a community like Rosemount, would find applicable or acceptable. Those last two plays were more suitable for an Art Theater audience.

What to do? I enjoyed working with SAP and producing my three other plays with them. All three plays had done very well in terms of audience numbers and financial returns for RAAC. It seemed a win-win for both of us. But without a play that worked for SAP, I had nowhere to go. That is until I pushed through my regular set of exercise routines at LA Fitness and had a ‘voila’ moment on the treadmill.

The main argument against ‘Season’s End’ was the fact that our audience wouldn’t believe that three businessmen would be shocked or surprised by the attitude and antics of my typical teenager. I agreed that my premise was flawed and wouldn’t be believable. But what group of people would be so isolated from the ‘real’ world that an encounter with today’s typical teenager might render them speechless. That afternoon at LA Fitness and nearing one mile on the treadmill, I had my answer and it was a good one.

What if I changed my businessmen to three nuns? But not just any group of black and white penguins but very isolated cloistered nuns who as children had been raised by missionaries and then entered into a very strict cloistered order that had no exposure to the outside world.

I knew from past encounters with some friends in Palm Springs that sometimes; abet rarely, but sometimes small religious orders of nuns or brothers do close for various reasons. In my storyline, these three nuns were members of a small cloistered order that closed down. Even the Vatican couldn’t or wouldn’t prevent its closure. The three nuns were given a small pension, a three-bed room condo to rent and then thrust out into the real world.

As my play opens, the three nuns are entering a club house for the first time to play a game of cards before the country club closes for the season. One of the nuns has invited her niece along to join the group.

Since three nuns and a kid playing cards for an hour and a half wouldn’t hold an audience’s attention, I decided to add several other characters and sub-plots. The results (I hope) are numerous encounters with several amorous waiters, a burnt out musician, a bitchy boss with a heart of gold, a drink menu to die for, the subtle threat of death, romance in the air, shock and dismay at living in the real world and hilarity of the most subtle order.

The first draft has been written and is going through various stages of tinkering and tapering. There are still a number of seen and unseen benchmarks that have to be met before a firm commitment on my part can happen. While on one level I see ‘Cloistered Closing’ as similar to my other three plays, I believe I have added more depth of character that my other three plays didn’t have. I also think the layering of music can add a musical tapestry as it enhances the audience’s attention and interest.

We’ll have to see what happens.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

It's Not Baby-sitting Anymore

It’s not that time simply flies by. It’s more like a booster rocket carrying your life and daily events along with it. One moment, you’re holding your first born grandchild in your arms and the next she’s going to homecoming with friends. Where the heck did time go?

We affectionately call them the ‘Colorado kids’ because they were made for that state. They’re at one with the outdoors, the mountains high and the adventures it brings to their lives.

Sharon and I have been going out to Colorado every year for over fifteen years, minus last year with Covid. The routine is usually the same. Brian and Amy give themselves a week or long weekend away from home and Nana and Papa become the new semi-parents in town. The grandkids love it as much as we do.

As this stage of the game, I know the greater Denver area pretty well. So when Amy gives me her elongated list of the kid’s games, practices, scrimmages and lessons, I usually know where I’m going. It’s changed over the years with specific sports and locations but it still fills up usually six out of seven days and some evenings. That is not counting school activities and social events.

The kids love my chauffeuring skills since it usually includes spotting out of the way garage sales, Cold Stone Creamery, their favorite drive-thru, and parks to play in. Sharon loves garage sales because the kids know they have to negotiable for any item they want to purchase or Nana won’t be happy. Brian and Amy (especially Brian) just grits his teeth when the kids come traipsing home with their ‘treasures’ bought for a dime on the dollar.

Over the years, some things never change according to the mantra from Nana

Our last visit to Colorado in September was heavy with familiarity. It began with an early morning Lacrosse game, several soccer games, gymnastics and plenty of time for art lessons.

Spencer continues with his gymnastic lessons and is progressing like his father did years ago. Maya’s Lacrosse game started at 6:15am Saturday morning (warms up) on a wind-swept hilltop in shroud-covered South Denver. Veteran parents came equipped with thermos of some kind of liquid, hoodies, and blankets. Fortunately, at the last minute, I had switched out my shorts for jeans and a fleece.

By the time we took Samantha to her first soccer game later on that morning, it was bright and sunny and we were shedding our jeans, jackets, and blankets from earlier in the morning.

Sharon outdid herself this time with her art lessons every day.

But this year it was different. We were no longer the grandparents baby-sitting the grandchildren.

Sharon and I were struck by the resiliency and maturity of these three kids from years past. We no longer had to chide, coercive or bribe them to go upstairs to take a bath and get ready for bed. We no longer had to argue against more time playing outside or engaged in card games. When it was time for bed, it was time for bed.

The grandkids are growing up…much too fast. That includes the Minnesota pair too.

I think it hit both of us this fall in Colorado. Sharon and I still got to kiss the kids good-night. We still got to feel their warm soft pajamas, wet, just washed hair in our face and loving embrace that only a grandchild can give a grandparent. But it was different this time around. It’s wasn’t baby-sitting anymore. It was being there for them, with them, and alongside them. They could now take care of themselves and we were only the adults in the room to make sure daily routines got done.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Book of '61

I’ve traversed another milestone of sorts. It’s been sixty years since I graduated from high school. That thought came to mind when I gathered this summer, along with former classmates, for our 60th class reunion. It was a quiet affair, almost an afterthought, in its brevity and lack of formal proceedings. Yet a glance at the list of those who had passed reminded all of us present that we did make it to another one of life’s benchmarks.

Twenty years earlier, our 40th class reunion was another quiet affair held in one of the classrooms back on campus. Only a few of our classmates had died and the rest of us were knee deep in work, raising kids, and just getting on with our lives.

The 50th class reunion was much better organized with an initial meeting at the school and then a gathering on the State Fairgrounds the next day. That second day included spouses and partners which always made the conversations more interesting.

Our 60th class reunion was held on a Saturday afternoon at a local ‘old school’ restaurant that was even older than my classmates. It was preceded by a golf outing the day before for those of us who can still drive a golf cart and swing hard at the little white ball. Even the invitation hinted at the fact that this might have been our last class gathering.

Down through the ages, say every ten years or so, I found it was fun to go back and peruse my  Class of ‘61 yearbook. Perhaps it was my growing maturity that made the journey back in time so reflective. Those sorties proved even more interesting for the budding writer in me. Oh, my, what a life it was back then.

There was a definite caste system in place at the school. We all knew who the elite were among us. Since we were part of the ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corp) program on campus, those gifted students were naturally the officers in our military ranks.

A glance at the two page spread of ‘most likely to succeed’ revealed an insider’s guide to those in the know.  For the rest of us, perusing the yearbook proved a time capsule of moments and memories which some of us shared and which left others feeling clueless. I was probably wandering around in the middle of the pack.

Overall, the yearbook has proven an invaluable tool to reconstruct moments out of my past.

After our 60th class reunion, several of my old classmates decided we needed a physical memento of that milestone. They wanted to create a booklet entitled ‘Cretin Book of ’61.’ We all received a letter inviting us to write down our memories of life at Cretin in a sentence or two. Recording my memories of high school in a sentence or two seemed beyond impossible. So instead, I wrote the following comments:

1.     My best memories of Cretin have faded over time. They occurred in the classroom, hallways, dining hall and home room. To summarize what Cretin meant to me I can only say:

2.     Extreme introvert, raised in a single parent household, is given the chance of a lifetime to attend Cretin High School. Although not on the college track, he graduated, finished college, worked in television for many years before starting his own business in video production and distribution. 

3.     Finally retired about twelve years ago, he started a new career as a writer of novels, novellas, plays, screenplays, children’s books, and more than 600 blogs.

4.     Thank you, Cretin.

They probably won’t print my statement and that’s OK. It’s said and done and complete. I’ve had a great life and my experiences at Cretin High School played a large part of it.

Upon reflection and exchanging war stories with a few of my classmates, I came to realize that our class was really the end of an era for the school. Up until that point, previous classes had all come out of the great depression, World War Two, and the economic recovery of the fifties. But all of that was about to change.

In early 1957, more than six hundred eighth grade Catholic boys applied for only 325 spots in the 1957 freshman class of Cretin High School. As it turned out, the senior class of 1961 was the last to choose from that large pool of candidates

By the mid-to-late fifties, Archbishop Brady had decided to expand the presence of Catholic educational opportunities in the Twin Cities. This strategic decision, along with the growth of first and second tier suburbs, effectively meant the end to the availability of a large citywide pool of freshmen candidates for Cretin.

Up until that point, there were only a couple of Catholic High Schools in the Twin Cities. St. Agnes, Delasalle, Cretin and St. Thomas Academy. Delasalle was in Minneapolis. St. Agnes served the east side of town and was more conservative than the others. That left Cretin and St. Thomas to dip into a large pool of Catholic young men.

St. Thomas Academy was located on the campus of the College of St. Thomas and primarily served upper middle class and upper class families. Cretin drew from a large pool of middle class, upper middle class families and those who filled in the ranks of the non-college track as opposed to the college-bound track of studies.

Unlike a lot of my classmates, my school days were bookended by my twice-a-day paper route, which for the most part, eliminated any afterschool activities or sports. That didn’t mean I led a cloistered existence. I think I went through all and even more than the normal calendar of emotions that are a part of any high school experience.

Cretin was a military school and that played a big part in the overall tough discipline of the place. The fact that there were only male teachers and Christian Brothers helped solidify that attitude and atmosphere.

Two notable Christian Brothers highlighted the diversity on campus at that time. Brother Wilfred and Brother K. Mark were both unique in their own way.  Brother Wilfred, with his heavy German accent, related to the average student. He openly smoked (strictly forbidden on campus) in his uniform storage area and occasionally would let some errant student do the same. He was approachable and understanding.

Brother K. Mark, on the other hand, only associated with ‘the best and the brightest’. He made no bones about the fact that he was one of the elite and would only preen, prepared and indoctrinate those of his own social and intellectual class. Needless to say, I didn’t qualify to be a part of that peeking order, not even close.

At the time, there were only two all-girl Catholic High Schools we thought to mingle with; Our Lady of Peace and St. Joseph’s Academy. Both institutions produced smart attractive young women and the sometimes object of our immature lustful glances; at least from some of my classmates.

Coming from a very dysfunctional background and a family structure devoid of love and affection, I fell hard for my first girlfriend. Like so many high school romances, it was a roller coaster of emotions best summarized by her poignant comments in my yearbook just before the whole thing crashed and burned.

I find it remarkable (although my wife doesn’t) that I never felt left out or different even though I was never on the college-bound track of studies as opposed to my friends and girlfriend. In my mind, I was going to college just like all of my friends…and I did.

Fast forward and I can look at a long list of doctors, lawyers, business executives, military officers and industry leaders who were a part of the class of 1961.  Those were the elite chosen ones and then there was the rest of us like flotsam that followed in their wake. Most of us were also very successful but in our own unique ways. Together we all learned under the same tough discipline, structured routines, self-motivation, and pride of being a member of the Cretin High School class of 1961.