Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Zen Habits

What do you want to do with the rest of your life and is Eighty too late to start? Two questions with no concrete answers for either one unless you’ve really got it all together which few of us ever do. What I am sure of is that I’d rather be happy at the miles traveled rather than look back at the stumbles along the way. It took me a lifetime to get here. No shortcuts allowed along the way. So, I might as well enjoy the time still left on the clock.

What’s working in my favor is my German Catholic upbringing. There was always a focus on hard work, material sacrifice and a subtle but unmistakable desire to get ahead. Past generations would often describe it (and usually disparagingly) as ‘rising above your raisin.’ My mother led by example; not words or lectures. It was a subtle message but well received by my sister and I.

Unfortunately, what’s working against me is my German Catholic upbringing. Too much allegiance to the man dressed in black along with his sisters-in-kind. Their word was sacred and final and all too often wrong in all the right places. Emotions and feelings were a sign of weak-ness and our elders often preached that ‘children should be seen and not heard.’

What I’ve stumbled across in my old age (relatively speaking) is the ability to see my luck (through the fog of daily life) in whom I married, my kids, and my grandkids. If there is a legacy, I guess they’re mine.

I’ve been most fortunate with my health, managing my cerebral curiosity, and how I’ve chosen to live my life on a daily basis. There’s been a real outburst of writing projects over the last several years along with a very real satisfaction with my ‘Coffee and Chat’ sessions.

Those early morning coffee clutch gab sessions provide much more than just doctor talk and exercising intellectual prowess on our part. It’s both male and female companionship in my old age.

All of which leads me to a more recent practice of Zen habits or more clearly stated, getting lost in the woods or wash or berm or mountain top as a precursor for getting lost inside my head.

Alone or with a friend, leaving the comfort of home for the rough, unknown of a mountain trek opens one up for all kinds of cerebral explorations. It all comes down to not knowing what you’ll find and not caring. Just enjoying the serenity and peace and calm of mother nature. And luckily reflecting on a life well-lived.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

That Was My War and I Missed it

Down through the ages, most generations have had a war or two occur in their lifetime. Some were called to duty, others volunteered for action, some watched it pass by and a few looked the other way.

In his outstanding book ‘Mekong First Light,’ about his involvement in the Vietnam War, Joseph W. Callaway, Jr. quotes the Greek philosopher Aristotle who said: “The search for truth is in one way hard, in another way easy. For it is evident that no one of us can ever master nor miss it wholly.” The truth is that war is bad but that perspective is often lost on youth.

Adolescence and competitive behavior often times run in parallel tracks. Many young men engage in high-risk behavior in order to satisfy their sense of self-worth.  This “rite of passage” can manifest itself in many ways; athletics, mountain climbing, fast cars, sexual activities and bar fights. If I were to think long and hard about it, that was probably my back story in the condensed version of my life.

I never really did anything ‘totally stupid’ in my youth but there were moments…

Volunteering for Vietnam was about on par with my failed attempt at grabbing a tramp steamer out of high school and sailing around the world and escaping to Europe after college to find myself. None of those events were thought-out, rational or goal-seeking. They were just ideas that came into my head one day and sounded ‘very cool’ at the time.

Vietnam could have been my war but, in the end, I only manned a typewriter instead of a hog (M60 machine gun) and sat behind a desk instead of in a foxhole. Two years of honing my journalism skills plus learning self-control and discipline was the best I could get out of the service. Mind you, I’m not complaining. It was a life-changing experience and I have only the greatest respect for those who wear the uniform of the United States of America. Truly spoken, unless you’ve lived in a barracks and marched the parade grounds, you really don’t understand what it means to ‘be in the service.’

Now, fifty-nine years later, I find myself somewhat ambivalent about my lack of combat experience. To be honest, the closest I ever got to bombs exploding nearby and bullets flying overhead was in basic training. It was reenacted in one of my first novels ‘Love in the A Shau.’ Fortunately, I was able to reimagine that as a cathartic experience of combat and translate it to the written page.

I wasn’t there; not really. Writing that novel was an exercise in purging my soul of a lack of real-life combat experience. In that vein, I tried very hard to be realistic and respectful of the brave men (and women) who did go through that special kind of hell. It must have worked. I’ve had several combat veterans compliment me on the ‘action sequences’ in the book so at least I got that part right.

In past blogs, I’ve rambled on about various sequences in my military experiences. Fort Leonard Wood was where I went through basic training. I had a chance to sign up for OCS (Officer Candidate School) but chose not to because of the additional four years commitment required. Good decision or not; I don’t know.

The Presidio of San Francisco is where I did volunteer for duty in Vietnam. But only because of the extra bonus pay; overseas duty and hazardous duty pay. A year and a half later, I was offered the opportunity to reenlist with a guaranteed transfer to Vietnam (they had kept my record of volunteering). I politely declined their offer.

While Army slang labeled the Presidio the ‘Country Club’ of the Army, it also pigeon-hoed Fort Polk in Fort Polk, Louisiana as a certain part of the human anatomy which, in fact, came close to describing the place in the hot, humid summer months I spent there.

Fort Lee, my last assignment, meant a promotion to sergeant (Spec 5), a nice desk job and weekends spent in D.C. Then it was an early-out and back to finish college.

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be returning to the Presidio 58 years after I left there. My kids and I are going on an ‘On the Road’ venture to celebrate my eighty years of being around. We’ll start in San Francisco and then swing down the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) to L.A. and then over to Palm Springs.

It should back some very strange memories and interesting feelings. It seems like a million years ago and relative to all that’s happened to me since, it probably was. I followed a different path instead of a jungle trail and now here I am. Life can take some interesting twists and turns. I’m so fortunate I got to experience them.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

What Happened to the American Dream

A couple of weeks ago, my son and I were talking about the American dream. He’s commented in the past about my own success and admired what his mother and I have accomplished in our lifetime. ‘We were lucky’ is my usual reply when the subject comes up. Granted, Sharon and I have worked very hard for our success but luck certainly had a part to play in that. More importantly, I would argue we have been lucky in the areas that really count.

We’ve been married going on 52 years and they’ve been good years. We have two stable, successful children who are raising five grandchildren between them. The grandkids show every sign of being normal, sometimes taxing (again, very normal) healthy active kids. Education was always a top priority with our two children and they, in turn. seem to be pushing that same agenda with their kids as well.

So, in the areas that really count for us; our health and family ties, we have been blessed. All the other accoutrements of success are secondary. Now Sharon and I are not kidding ourselves about this lifelong road trip we’ve been on. At some point it is going to end and we wonder (sometimes worry) about how the journey will go for our kids and grandkids. Hence the discussion Brian and I had recently about the American dream and if it’s still attainable in today’s world.

It wasn’t always so cloudy in this country in terms of potential financial advancements for the average person. After World War Two, there was unprecedented growth with the GDP. That growth in the middle class slowed and gradually lost its luster beginning in the late 60s and early 70s.

The intertwinement and entanglements of business and political interests has been going on for a long time now. It’s an open secret that lobbyists weld an enormous power in Washington for the vested good of special interests and the moneyed elite. Generally speaking, it’s the middle class who gets the short end of the dollar stick in most of these transactions, arrangements and agreements made into law.

Norman Lear’s autobiography ‘This Too I Get to Experience’ touched on the same subject matter… short-sighted vision instead of long-term perspective. Lear talks about a conversation he had with a Harvard professor who lamented ‘the most rapacious societal disease of our time: short-term thinking.’

The professor explained: “There will be a time very shortly when young people-very young people- will be looking into computer screens. They will be looking directly into screens, not to the side, so there will be no peripheral vision; they won’t be looking over the top, so they won’t see what’s ahead; they’ll be staring straight ahead into those screens, blind to everything ahead and around them.”

Money managers and financial product traders will be selling, buying, and swapping financial products around the world. With that narrow focus, like a horse with blinders, they will have more control and hold more power in those split seconds than we can today imagine. And all of it entirely focused on short-term gains.”

Back in 2008, the near collapse of our world-wide financial system, and Wall Street in particular, should have been a wakeup call for all Americans to pay more attention to their wallets and events happening around them. Unfortunately, not much seems to have changed over the ensuing years. Every day there are new financially-coated products, events, angles, schemes, and ‘can’t lose’ facades presented to the general public.

To that end, financial literacy and media literacy are two topics of interest that every American should acquaint themselves with ‘What is financial literacy all about, you may ask? Essentially, it is the ability to use one’s knowledge and skills to effectively manage financial resources, ideally for a lifetime of financial well-being. Indeed, financial literacy is something we all have to work on each day—it’s part of our ongoing education.

Despite being a relatively new field of study, financial literacy has become increasingly important for governments and citizens – without it there can be broad implications for the economic health and stability of countries.

Media literacy, on the other hand, is using common sense instead of letting some so-called journalists do it for you. A good definition can be found at Medialit.org. It reads as follows:

What is important to understand is that media literacy is not about "protecting" kids from unwanted messages. Although some groups urge families to just turn the TV off, the fact is, media are so ingrained in our cultural milieu that even if you turn off the set, you still cannot escape today's media culture. Media no longer just influence our culture. They ARE our culture.

Media literacy, therefore, is about helping students become competent, critical, and literate in all media forms so that they control the interpretation of what they see or hear rather than letting the interpretation control them.

To become media literate is not to memorize facts or statistics about the media, but rather to learn to raise the right questions about what you are watching, reading, or listening to. Len Masterman, the acclaimed author of Teaching the Media, calls it "critical autonomy" or the ability to think for oneself.

Without this fundamental ability, an individual cannot have full dignity as a human person or exercise citizenship in a democratic society where to be a citizen is to both understand and contribute to the debates of the time.

It simply comes down to that old, worn, yet so true cliché: Let the buyer beware. We all have the responsibility to listen and learn for ourselves instead of letting someone else do it for us. To use common sense instead of group-think and to forge our own path to enlightenment instead of following the crowd.

On one of my playdates last summer (translated ‘coffee and chat’ session), a friend was talking about being raised poor and not knowing it. His father, along with his uncles, all worked at the Firestone Tire factory in Akron, Ohio. It was no different in Northeast Minneapolis at the Northrup King seed factory.

It was a hard, honorable job but one that didn’t pay a lot, especially for a household of many children and a mother who didn’t work outside of the home. My friend’s situation was no different than the Irish, Polish, Black and Eastern Europe neighbors in his community. It simply was what it was.

My friend casually commented how he remembered having to put cereal box cardboard into his tennis shoes because he only got one pair of shoes for all summer. His parents couldn’t afford to send him to college but fortunately, he felt ‘the calling’ and went into the seminary instead. His brothers and sisters weren’t so lucky. They barely finished high school and went directly to work.

Photo Courtesy of Jerry Hoffman

My own story of growing up poor has been chronicled in many blogs over the years. Again, it wasn’t something my friends and I were acutely aware of aside from the lack of a family car, no summer vacations and few material things around the house. Most of us started working at an early age and accepted that as ‘par for the course.’

Sharon grew up doing chores at six years old on the farm. If the bulk tank wasn’t cleaned twice a day, her dad couldn’t sell his milk as grade A and there wouldn’t be a milk check at the end of the month. She remembers growing up with no sink in the kitchen but a shiny new bulk tank instead in the barn.

This idea of growing up poor is a central theme in one of my first novels ‘Love in the A Shau.’   There are certain advantages to being ‘born hungry’ as Daniel likes to say. I didn’t have a choice growing up but I’m not sure I would have changed a thing even if I could have. I’ve learned over the years that ‘growing up hungry’ is not a bad thing.

As nebulous as words like ambition, hunger, focus and striving might be, the simple fact is that nothing much has changed over the years. Yes, prices have gone up, some opportunities have disappeared and sometimes the future can be a dark and bleary horizon for a lot of folks. But the simple fact remains that a lot of the clichés we’ve heard over the years still ring true:

No job is secure

You’re on your own

Bosses and politicians all lie

The world is conspiring against you

Don’t get caught up in all the hype

Cover your cost

Cover your ass

Have goals – know your place

Let the buyer beware

Be Kind to Others

Work more than expected

Do more than expected

Yes, these are all simple, sometimes simplistic - yet true, clichés. Bottom line; it’s all up to you.

Do I know if the American Dream still exists? Frankly, I don’t know but I have to believe it does… and has for generations. It’s still up to each of us to find our own way in this crazy, exciting, sometimes contradictory world. If not us, then who?

Tuesday, February 7, 2023


Years ago, in another time and space, it used to be that I could change the oil in my car. Touch-up work and small mechanical projects were within range of my pioneering mechanical talent. My 1959 Plymouth was the easiest project for me to tackle but even later on my Pinto easily came in second. But time and automotive advancements slowly brought an end to most of my automotive mechanics. After that, cars got a lot more complicated and harder to work on. By the mid-eighties with my two back-to-back minivans, I was out of the auto self-servicing business altogether.

Concurrently, during that period, many products in many different categories grew more complicated. For example, sewing, quilting and crochet all seemed to fade away and were replaced by inexpensive garments from Kmart, JC Penny’s, etc.

Overseas manufacturing flooded the US market with a cascading wall of items built cheaper overseas than could ever be made here back in the US. The whole cottage industry of making one’s own clothes, drinks, etc. slowly gave way to mass marketing and the demise of individual creative design.

That is, until now. As I’ve told my younger compatriots, there is an advantage to having one’s toes in the sand long enough to see history repeat itself all over again.

A classic example, of course, is the movie industry. It has always been at its core a ‘business.’ Despite the glitz and glamor of tinsel town, almost every action taken there was really focused on the bottom line. In the beginning, the studios dominated the landscape with their entrenched way of doing business. In the late 40s and 50s television became a growing threat to their iron-fist dominance. Studios responded with ‘blockbuster’ movie events and CinemaScope. But it wasn’t enough to stop the ‘little box in every living room’ from capturing market share and eyeballs.

More viewer choices grew with the introduction of VHS tapes and viewing habits gradually morphed from the downtown theaters to one’s living room. Cable quickly followed and captured an even bigger share of the market.  Gradually streaming services radically changed the playing field. Now I can watch almost anything from movies to games to news events on my iPad or Tablet, at my leisure, anytime I want to.

This movie scenario is a good analogy for how the whole idea of DIY ‘doing it yourself’ has gradually gained momentum. Certainly, YouTube videos and Pinterest are good examples of showing the way to individual creativity.

Comics and comic books were at one time the sole domain of large newspaper chains and select national magazines. Now the internet is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of comic strips and comic books written by individuals without the anchor of newspaper publishers holding them back.

Prohibition forced the major brewing companies to close. Out of that mistaken public policy grew a thriving industry of moonshiners and illegal brewing operations. The end of prohibition quickly strangled that cottage industry and the major brewers came back in force. Fast forward fifty years and we now have a thriving industry of individual brewing operations. The next logical step was the advent of ‘designer’ cocktails and specialty hard liquor drinks.

Etsy is another example of the internet as a vehicle for individual creative artists to show their wares.

As a self-published author, I am not beholden to the publishing industry anymore. In the past, if I didn’t have an agent or publisher, my only option was to go the ‘vanity’ route and find a publisher who would publish my novel for a fee and guarantee of hundreds of books that I had to have printed (and usually ended up in my garage or basement.) Vanity publishers seldom if ever did any marketing for the neophyte author.

Major publishers might conduct some kind of marketing campaign but their royalties usually hovered around 10 to 15 percent….and only after the gross expenses of the publisher had been returned. Now as a self-published author and using ‘print on demand’ I can determine how many copies of my product that I want to print at any one time. I am responsible for my own marketing campaign but I also enjoy a ROI of 70 and 85 percent royalties on my works that sell. In short, I am in control of my own publishing and marketing future. Another example of DIY at its finest.

This list goes on. If I want to conduct my workshop on ‘How to Get Started Writing’ I can do so by taping my own how-to course and put it on the YouTube Channel. If I want to start my own comic strip, I can place it on the internet. If I want to create music videos with my very talented granddaughter, I can place her songs on the YouTube Channel. It’s all there. It’s all up to me. Unshackled and unbridled, future endeavors are in my hands now. Like I said, given enough time some things eventually come around again.