Tuesday, June 28, 2022

The World I Used to Know

A recent effort to organize a grade school class reunion reminded me just how much my world has changed over time. I attended a small Catholic grade school in downtown Saint Paul in the late Fifties. The school closed in the early Sixties. It had become a footnote in the history books and as my classmates passed on, I realized that all the vestiges of that era were disappearing.

My wife is from Wabasha, Minnesota. Born and raised on a farm, she remembers when going into town with her siblings and parents was a ‘big deal.’ Nothing much seemed to change on Main Street until around the mid-Sixties. Then gradually the old regime of town folk began to pass away and newcomers came in with new ideas for growing Wabasha out of its rigid agrarian past. Old Wabasha was also becoming a footnote in the history books.

Arianna Huffington, creator of the Huffington Post and numerous books, has an interesting take on the current social, economic changes taking place in America today. One of her more recent books is entitled ‘Third World America.’

Ms. Huffington sees the share of our economy devoted to making things of value shrinking while the share devoted to valuing made-up things (credit-swap derivatives, anyone?) is expanding. She calls it the financialization of our economy.  Another more caustic description would be the Enronization of our economy. Thomas Friedman captured a lot of this thinking in his book entitled: ‘Thank You for Being Late.’

Friedman sees this country and the world-at-large in a new age of acceleration. Triggered by three factors; the market, Mother Nature and Moore’s Law, he believes the world is rapidly changing and things are being done differently now. The market and Moore’s Law (rapid change of technology) along with climate change, population growth and biodiversity loss are all coupled together for this exponential growth in many things.

Software used to be the bottleneck. Now that is overtaking everything. It has become a com-pound multiplier of Moore’s Law. Welcome to our ever-changing world where nothing ever remains the same. The only constant is change and in our capitalistic society the illusion that newer is better.  

Not to be undone, there recently was an article written in Financial Advisor Magazine that warned about ‘The Coming Shock That Will Transform the U.S. economy.’ The basic gist of the article was that there is a new wave of transformative change sweeping over the U.S. economy. Think of it as ‘Future Shock,’ ‘Third Wave,’ and ‘Death of the American Dream’ all on steroids. This tele shock, or the rise in telecommunications, is the major impetus for these changes.

In this case, the author states that ‘among the big losers will be the American upper middle class, especially those with jobs connected to information technology and those who can work from home.’ The article then adds on a less than hopeful note that ‘The tele shock is likely to continue for a considerable period of time, perhaps longer than the China Shock.’ To add a little icing on that cake of despair, the article ends with: ‘It is conventional wisdom that “software is eating the world.”’

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think much of what the author says is true. My only complaint is his implied conclusion that this means the end of the world as we know it. I think a calmer approach is what is called for. One of the reasons I love my coffee and chat sessions, is because of the rich mix of topics that we cover.

One of the more interesting topics we discussed recently was whether or not the ‘American Dream’ was still alive and coupled with that was the question of ‘what it takes to become successful in today’s world?’ American capitalism has painted one version of success but now younger generations have created their own ideas of the same icon. It’s a world inhabited by Bitcoins, NFTs, Metaverse and other newfound forms of electronic currency.

Union Depot (photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society)

Past generations believed that with hard work, sacrifice and some luck, one could attain the American Dream. For most folks, that was translated into a nice home, a new car in the driveway and other material possessions.   Later generations like those of my kids and grandchildren came to believe that balance in one’s life was more important than thirty years at ABC Manufacturing and a gold watch in retirement.

So the, question in a question, was whether or not one could attain the American Dream in today’s world of high prices, limited resources, constant change, and a need for balance in one’s life.

While it wouldn’t be an easy road to stroll, I believe one could attain success in life if the influences of American capitalism are viewed with a jaundice eye and one focuses on what it was that made a person truly happy. And that definition could or would be different for everyone involved.

This whole idea of who seems very satisfied with their life in addition to reaching a notable symbol of wealth came edging back into my consciousness when I ordered two books from my favorite library out in cyber space, ‘Better World Books.’

I’ve been around long enough to personally know a few people who have (by American cultural standards) attained the American Dream. But you’d seldom guess it by looking at or talking to them. For example, I have another friend who came from modest means and yet has been a millionaire plus for well over 30 years. Now you’d never know it by looking at his lifestyle, the kind of cars he and his wife drive or their other material accoutrements. He takes great pride in the fact that he’s had ‘serious money’ for a very long time but never flaunted it or made it known to anyone except a few select people. He believes there is great strength in understatement. I couldn’t agree more.

Younger generations want more balance in their lives. They don’t want to become slaves to their jobs. While that is admirable and commendable, it also makes it much harder to gain financial freedom and choice without some sacrifice. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

Just as ‘success’ is a personal goal and achievement, so too is financial freedom. I’m old enough and, and perhaps, foolish enough to believe that one can have balance and yet attain some degree of financial achievement if other ‘truths’ of the marketplace are understood and accepted.

No job is secure. You’re on your own. At times it feels like the world is conspiring against you. Don’t get caught up in all the hype ‘of anything.’ Cover your costs. Cover your ass. Let the buyer beware. Be kind to others. Work more than expected. Do more than expected. Have goals and know where you want to go and where you want to end up.

These include working past a normal 9 to 5 work day, networking, making financial sacrifices when ‘needs’ takes precedent over ‘wants.’ Any review of ‘Success Magazine’ or other self-improvement web sites can give you a long list of steps to take to become successful in your personal life and financially independent. Homogenized though they may be, it all comes down to working hard, being sensibly thrifty and making smart decisions. My wife has said on several occasions: “It wasn’t our regular jobs that got us to where we are today!”

Old St. Paul River Bank (photo credit: Minnesota Historical Society)

At the turn of the century, a series of magazine articles about an orphan boy raised on the wrong side of the tracks who found success in hard work and determination. Maybe after all these years, Horatio Alger was really on to something after all?

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Palm Spring Flip Side

Draw a circle around Palm Springs and the greater Coachella Valley and you’ll find some interesting destinations. The high desert and Joshua Tree Natural Park are just an hour away. Swing around the other way and you can be in the mountaintop artist community of Idyllwild in the same amount of time. Two hours will get you to Los Angeles, Laguna Beach or San Diego.

But head east and another world opens up. Skirting the Salton Sea, you could end up in East Jesus and West Satan. It’s a ‘lost world’ replete with fascinating characters, RV slummers and a few stragglers who look more like human residue scrapped up from the bottom of civilized society. It’s a step back in time and void of any semblance of the world up north of it. East Jesus is next to West Satan in an enclave known simply as ‘the slabs.’ To get there, you have to pass the Fountain of Youth trailer park on the way into town. I think you get the picture.

But before you get to this enclave of ‘Mad Max’ look-a-likes, you must pass by America’s own Dead Sea. While that moniker might be a little premature, the lake bed has been dying for years and little has been done, thus far, to reverse that trend.

The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake measuring more than 35 miles long and 15 miles wide in spots. It has a surface area of over 380 square miles and sits at 332 feet below sea level. The sea was created back in 1905 as the result of an accidental break in a canal cut into the Colorado River. For 16 months, the river ran unchecked into the lowest area around; the salt basin which became the Salton Sea.

But it wasn’t the first time that the area had seen a large body of water. Thousands of years earlier, Cahuilla and other California Indians occupied those lands. When they first arrived, the Salton Sink held a much larger body of water – ancient Lake Cahuilla. Geologists estimate the sea has appeared and then disappeared about every 400-500 years.

After the Indians, came the first settlers and railroad men who built a line of the Southern Pacific Railroad through a part of the sea. Nearby agriculture began to grow in what are now the communities of Coachella, Thermal and Mecca.

But two hurricanes; Kathleen in 1976 and Doreen in 1977, caused such wide-spread damage to neighboring farm lands that the runoff caused a major increase in the salinity of the sea. That, in turn, caused major fish-kills and bird-kills and created such a major issue with noxious odors that residential development came to a stop. Today the salinity level of the sea stands at 45 ppt. Only the tilapia fish is able to survive in such waters. While fishing is still good for the tilapia, fish kills continue to plague the area with their harsh smells.

Along the northeastern edge of the Salton Sea lies one of the world’s most important winter stops for migrating birds traveling the Pacific Flyway. The migration begins in October and by January more than 400 species of migrating birds fill the skies above the sea. By the end of May, the birds have moved on. Over the centuries the fragile ecosystem of the area has provided sanctuary to an extremely diverse collection of wildlife and the critical habitats that support and nurture them.

For example, the sea holds millions of fish that feed the masses of wintering birds, including herons, egrets, brown and white pelicans and kingfishers. In the fall, birds of prey arrive. Among them are peregrine falcons, osprey and ferruginous hawks. The fields and wetlands adjacent to the sea support huge flocks of snow geese, ducks, sandhill cranes and California’s largest population of burrowing owls.

It will take years, perhaps decades before the sea might possibly return to its past glory. More feasibility studies will be made, more funding sought and grand schemes hatched. The possibilities for commerce, recreation and development are enormous. Until then the Salton Sea is a magical place for walk the shoreline, observe the birds and time your visit to avoid the smell. A small price for a wonderful watery treasure in the middle of the desert.

Living below the ‘Line of Living’ might be a good description for our next destination. It resembles a ‘Mad Max’ holiday replete with a shoe tree, mummies at East Jesus, flying dune buggies, a conflagration in Slab City and a death stare at Bombay Beach. All of this and more for a quiet outing to the back side of civilization.    

Salvation Mountain is one of the premiere examples of folk art in the middle of nowhere America. The site has become a mecca for those intrigued with this kaleidoscope of painted hills, crude cave dwellings and religious scripture. The cave’s paint can and hay bale construction would challenge even the most daring of spelunkers.

The artwork is made from adobe, straw and thousands of gallons of lead-free paint. It was created by the late Leonard Knight (1931-2014). A deeply religious man, Knight created an art piece that encompasses numerous murals and areas painted with Christian sayings and Bible verses. Knight’s philosophy was built around the ‘Sinners Prayer.’

The old mountain carver is gone now and replaced by Jesus People and their small hugging kids. Many visitors bring paint to donate to the project and a group of volunteers have been working to protect and maintain the site.

Maybe it was the line of dune buggies flying over the hilltop and descending on Salvation Mountain that signaled our next decent into hell’s crude cousin. Slab City otherwise known as ‘The Slabs’ is a snowbird campsite used by recreational vehicle owners alongside squatters from across North America. It takes its name from the concrete slabs that remain from an abandoned World War II Marine barracks of Camp Dunlap.

It’s estimated that there are about one and fifty permanent residents (squatters) who live in the slabs year around. Some live on government checks, others just want to live ‘off the grid’ and a few come to stretch out their retirement income. The camp has no electricity, no running water, no sewers or toilets and no trash pickup service. Sounds like a dry run for the apocalypse.

Despite the free shoe tree on the way into town and the free library, most of the residents have sectioned off their trailers, tents and sleeping bags with tires, pallets or barbwire. Free is free unless it comes to their piece of the desert then even squatters want their personal space recognized.

No trip to Slab City would be complete with a swing by East Jesus. This outdoor gallery has been described as an experimental, sustainable art installation. Made from discarded material that has been reused, recycled or repurposed, East Jesus encourages visitors to imagine a world without waste in which every action is an opportunity for self-expression.

I think West Satan is a simply a suburb of East Jesus. I found the art gallery there fascinating and mind-expanding. It was like tripping out minus the acid and sneaking a glimpse into the lives of those who don’t want to be a part of ‘any scene’ here in fantasy land.

Our venture south of paradise was a fun trip that gave birth to other mind images that are still whirling around in my head. It challenged the notion of ‘what art is’ and dragged us out of our comfort zone for at least one afternoon. It was at once fascinating, intriguing, sad, mind-expanding and challenging. It was finding iconic and cultural-pop treasures in the middle of nowhere California…just a stones-throw from Palm Springs and the flip side of reality there.

It was tripping out without the acid and a glimpse into the lives of those who don’t want to be a part of ‘any scene’ here in fantasy land or the rest of the world. I get it. They got it…and want to keep it that way.

I’ve always been intrigued by a dark cluster of trailer homes strewn alongside the Salton Sea half way to Slab City. Its name, ‘Bombay Beach, North Shore,’ always seemed like the perfect title for a play. I had to swing by just to satisfy my curiosity.

With apologies to Slab City, Bombay Beach isn’t much of an alternative. Its housing seems beaten down by the harsh summers and its distance from civilization. Sharon and I drove down its main street and intended to stop to ask directions until we looked into the dead-eyes of one young woman shuffling down the gravel roadway. One stare was enough for us to gun the engine and ‘get out of Dodge.’

Despite this initial impression of doom, I could feel all the trimmings of a good story among the populous. It wouldn’t take much to dream up some pretty fascinating scenarios for a cast of characters in and around ‘The Bombay Beach Club.’

Now as the sayings goes, all I have to do is write the play, novel, novella or screenplay. There’s a delightful tale there just waiting to be told.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Transitions in Lieu of Eighty

The Zombies said it right. “It’s the Time of the Season.” That was a Sixties song that captured the subtle yet changing times in one’s life. While that band was just a flash point for a short period of time in my life, their song remains a benchmark for a lot of us. Changing times. Changing attitudes and aptitudes. Changing people. A time for a change.

I realized this inevitable life cycle after an extended period of time away from my Midwestern roots. The old homestead hadn’t changed much during my seven month absence but other clouds of change were swirling around me. It was different this time, not on the surface, but it felt like a vague undercurrent of change was pushing against me instead. For some reason, I could see more clearly now. The aging process was catching up on me.

The yard work came a little bit harder this time. I couldn’t get everything done as quickly as I had in the past. More importantly, I found that I wasn’t willing to go back to the old routines and patterns of agrarian behavior that had served me so well in the past.

This summer, I was determined to be more focused on a myriad of writing projects instead. Each of them were screaming for my attention.

There were several mystery suspense novels that needed more exposure to the reading world. I thought they were good. Now I just needed to get others to read them and hopefully, agree with that assessment.

The isolation of the pandemic had forced me to just keep writing one new play after the other. Now five plays later, I was anxious to get them into workshops and the hands of artistic directors. One, in particular, was a jute box musical which called for an inclusion of nine new songs, not yet written.

My first children’s book ‘Waleed, the skinny hippo’ was being translated into three languages besides English. I hoped that these Swahili, Hmong and Spanish translations would help broaden the potential audience for this tale of self-discovery.  A long awaited goal of mine to create a comic strip based on the lives of my grandchildren was finally taking shape. The projects just kept piling up.

Along with my writing objectives, physical fitness became a priority. Seven months in Palm Springs without a gym to go to had caused my body to go to jelly.

So returning to LA Fitness became the first step on my road to recharging muscle mass and endurance. A more focused attention to my physical health and writing was coupled with a desire to purge old relics of the past. I began to see this summer as a transitional period to the next level. Purging the past became a big part of that transition.

Of course, there were always some capsules of time that I didn’t want to change or disturb. Time spent with the grandchildren. Time spent with friends for our ‘Coffee and Chat’ sessions. Back to trail running, long distance bike rides, more reading time and savoring another Minnesota summer.

It’s not a return to the past but rather a refreshing reflection at all that’s passed before me and welcoming what lies ahead.

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

What Can I Say, It's Showbiz

I think for a number of Artistic Managers and Stage Directors the playwright is often seen as a necessary evil. Many of those creative architects of stage and screen see the playwright as irrelevant to the actual production of the play or movie. Selecting the actors, creating a set, arranging the music and lighting effects all seem to take precedence over the storyline itself. In many instances, the playwright’s role is lost ‘in transition.’ Many would say ‘those are the rules of the game’ and it’s always been that way.

The motion picture industry is even worse in terms of treating the screenwriter with little respect. Most movie folks believe the director is king, the producer is Mr. Money bags, the CG (special effects) folk’s geniuses and everyone else is subjective to the brilliance of the studio honcho’s. Independent films don’t fare much better. It would seem that often the creator of the story itself is often forgotten in the mix or at least moved to the bottom of the creative barrel.

I’ve always found that rather surprising because (at least in my estimation) without a story to tell, there is no movie or play or TV show to be produced in the first place. And what better resource of the story material than the creator of it him or herself?

Having vented about that other side of the business, I will admit that there are many talented professionals who understand the value that each one of the players brings to the game, including the playwright.

In my estimation, it takes a very confident, self-assured director to see a script, recognize the wealth of material there and realize that to bring it to fruition will call for a meeting of the minds and collaboration with all the parties involved. My experience (fleeting as it has been) is that a good director can vastly improve the material while a poor director usually hinders what potential there might have been in terms of the storyline.

Even with my timid first steps into the world of the theater, I understand these can be fighting words. I’ve stumbled twice now in sharing this honest assessment of the practices and pronouncements to my fellow theater practitioners. In both instances I was met with a polite but concerned look of astonishment that I would dare ‘cross the Rubicon’ of unspoken theater truths. In both cases, it cost me work that might have been.

So, it was refreshing, a couple of years ago, when we were in New York City taking in several plays on Broadway. I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with one of the lead actors from a fabulous play called ‘Come Fly Away.’

We talked about the theater, its nuances, good and bad, and the rules of the game. In his estimation, it takes a self-assured director, producer, manager, and other actors to recognize the power of words and the responsibility to bring them to the stage or screen. He reinforced two of the truths I’ve come to realize. It’s not a balanced playing field and ‘get over it’ if you want to participate.

Some friends have told me to tone it down or shut up for the greater glory of seeing my plays produced. But I guess I’m too stubborn to remain quiet if I think my work is being turned into someone else’s vision that doesn’t fit my own. I do believe there can be a ‘meeting of the minds’ that results in a shared vision of the work in question. Mutual respect plays a big role in this collaboration of the minds.

In terms of hubris, intellectual fisticuffs, personalities and inflated egos, the theater is on par with education, politics and the military. It’s ‘gamesmanship’ at its greatest. At this stage of the game, I’m an old man who has written some good material and would like to see it produced. Now the question is, can it be done fairly and honestly. That’s yet to be determined.

As one of my favorite composers (Tom Petty) liked to say: “I won’t back down.” Guess I’ll have to see where this takes me next.