Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Learning to Appreciate

I once knew a girl who taught me a wonderful life lesson. I can’t remember her name, how we met or how long we dated. The only thing I remember about her is that she claimed she slept in the nude (not the life lesson I’m talking about here) and that she loved to walk in the rain.

She converted me from grumbling about the damn rain to actually enjoying the visceral experience of raindrops falling on my face, puddles to walk around and the sound of raindrops crashing on leaves. We would walk around some local lake and find a place, under a tree, to hunker down and feel the summer breeze on our faces, listen to the warm water lapping on the shoreline and just enjoy the mutual experience.

It was a great example of enjoying our surroundings without having to make reservations, prepayment, reserved seating or any crowds around us. It was there. It was free for the feeling. All we had to do was enjoy our surroundings.

Not that long ago, I rediscovered this joy of my surroundings that I had neglected for so long. It began with my secret garden in my side yard. Then morphed to the wonderful panoramic mountain views in my backyard and finally the scope of desert wash, distant mountains and clouds dancing across the sky on my daily walks. All free viewing at no charge, no expense and twenty-four hours a day.

Summertime in Minnesota brings out the best of our mulch garden. My ‘coffee and chat’ sessions take me to wonderful beachfront panoramic views of a local lake. Bike rides take me along the Mississippi River and peaceful spots to rest along the inlets there. But appreciation can take other forms too.

Last year, I self-published my 12th and latest novel entitled ‘Playground for the Devil.’ As I always do, I sent copies to family members and 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 wasn’t expecting a bouquet of flowers for my gesture. A simple ‘thank you’ 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.’ It was a good life lesson for me.

Instead of being disappointed because I didn’t get universal acclaim, I wish I had been able to see that I’ve been gifted with the ability to tell stories quite easily in any number of different formats and genres and I get to share those stories with others I care for. I shouldn’t expect to be thanked for every gesture of kindness I make. I’m working on that simple fact now.

Aiding me in that examination of gratitude and appreciation was a new book I just read called: ‘Social Intelligence.’ One of the gems hidden among the pages was this recognition of life around us and how to embrace it; without any price tag, social status or recognition.

Now I will be the first to tell anyone that I am hardly qualified to talk about gratitude and appreciation. While I accept that 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’ve come 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. 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.

While I’m not a 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. Taking time to (forgive me here) ‘smell the roses’ is a wonderful way to thank yourself for the life you lead and the ability to see any and all treasures all around your daily life. Taking in the beauty of our surroundings costs nothing and the ROI (return on investment) is priceless.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Living Longer

I’ve been traveling this old road of life for some time now. I’ve seen trends come and go and often masquerade themselves as the newest, the latest and the greatest. The ‘secrets to living longer’ seems to be the latest, abet not the newest, social media news trend on the horizon.

Brain supplements are multiplying, hair growth now comes in liquid and pill, cell and hormone replacements are common and it seems as if everyone over age 55 has had their knees, hips, shoulders, and other body parts replaced with titanium parts.

Maybe it’s the boomers looking to extend their stay on earth. The millennials and Gen-Xers might be looking for that proverbial ace up their sleeve to stretch out nature’s natural timetable on their existence. Whoever the audience might be, judging by the amount of news articles and advertising, a lot of folks are looking to extend their lives for as long as they can.

Dan Buettner made a name for himself as a National Geographic explorer when he popularized the concept of his ‘Blue Zones,’ described as those parts of the world where folks lived for a very long time like on the island of Okinawa in the Pacific or the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica.

Now he’s brought that home with his Blue Zones Project that has helped more than 50 U.S. communities (including Albert Lea here in Minnesota) to improve their own metrics of health and well-being.

Not long after reading about Dan’s ‘Blue Zones’, I came across a news article about a couple in their mid-30s who were looking to extend their lives by drinking strange concoctions, measuring body fat each day and fasting often. Of course, they were willing to share their secrets to successful long life with audiences…. for a price.

More recently, Tim Ferriss had a podcast with Dr. Peter Attia, a well-known physician, doing work in the areas of lean body mass, protein intake, hypertrophy and other doctor-specific areas of interest. I was lost after the first five minutes of listening to that ‘foreign language of body chemistry’ and quickly came to the decision that I didn’t have the time, interest, or energy to do the kind of research into the perfect body mass that Dr. Attia seems to have devoted his life’s research to.

As Dan Buettner likes to say: ‘When it comes to longevity and happiness, there is no short-term solution.’ It requires doing the right things and avoiding the wrong things for decades. I started running on a daily basis when I was around twenty-one. I kept up that regimen for over 45 years and still try to get my sorry old bones out walking on a daily basis. I haven’t touched hard liquor since getting smashed on that San Francisco beach back in 1964. Now both my kids continue to be active with running, climbing, winter sports and more. I couldn’t be prouder.

The Twin Cities owe a huge debt of gratitude to Theodore Wirth. Around the turn of the century, Wirth was a horticulturalist who designed our park system. His masterful design blanketed our chain of lakes in both cities with walking / biking paths, plenty of shoreline and associated amenities that have been enjoyed for over one hundred years.

In the end, all you can do is all you can do. Certainly, one of the most important things is moderation in all things liquid and solid. Exercise the body and mind equally. A positive mind set is important for balance in your life.

And take time to ‘smell the roses.’  As the old saying goes: You only have one life to live and this one is not a test, it’s the real thing. Enjoy it while you can.

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Scenes From My Life

I was recently commiserating with one of my salon buddies about old friends and past acquaintances who have traveled through our lives at one point or another. With many collective miles under our belts, my friend and I have both had many casual, some close and a few memorable connections over the years.

While some of my friends won’t admit it, I do know a number of them who have acquiesced to ‘Facebook stalking’ and/or perusing ‘Classmates.com’ in hopes of finding old school chums, friends, associates, love interests and other assorted contacts made over the years. I find myself fascinated with the age-old question of ‘whatever happened to…’

Some great philosopher once said that you leave something of yourself with everyone you come into contact with. Granted, you are a different person now than you were back then but if you have ‘history’ with that person even for a brief period of time, the connection can still be there even years later.

The categories where old acquaintances can be found are too numerous to be listed here. It really comes down to meaningful events in your life if for only short periods of time. They’re like brief scenes from the storybook of your life.

photo courtesy of Jerry Hoffman

One of my biggest regrets is that almost all of those kids I hung around with through my grade school years have long since scattered to the winds of time. It would have been so fascinating to find out how their lives turned out after life growing up in Highland Park.

I didn’t reconnect with any of my Cretin High School classmates until well after our 50th Class reunion. Back in school, I had a small cadre of friends; all of whom were on the college track in school. Then there was me; preordained to go into the trades or the service. A few of us reconnected after the reunion and continue meeting occasionally to this day.

The Army had a profound effect on me although I didn’t realize it at the time. My two-year enlistment was ripe with hundreds of storylines, personal antidotes and character studies. Events happened and were forgotten only to resurface years later when nudged forward by a song, comment or photograph. It was a colorful kaleidoscope of military images buried deep in my memory bank. It was only a ‘moment in time’ but there were enough instances of brain-burn that I still can’t shake them. Over time, some of those images have become characters in my plays, novellas, and novels.

Living in Europe on two separate occasions also supplied me with lasting memories of colorful characters, sad creatures, and intimate cerebral partners for late night salons.

There was my old roommate I called ‘animal,’ who only lived with me briefly but even then, left a memorable impression. Tiny Bailey, another lost soul from Arizona, escaped an alcoholic mother to seek solace in Denmark but ended up leaving for Israel instead. There was the guy from Canada who lived with a local family and was treated like royalty and Maria, my pal at the Danish laundry. There were a few even closer contacts that never went very far. For some that was a good thing. For others, I wish I was still in touch.

KTCA television was still evolving and changing from educational television to public television when I began volunteering there on the crew. I was the oldest among the gang but we had one hell of a time taping television programs and learning the trade.

In the eighties, I went on a film shoot to Costa Rica that lasted almost a month. My fellow travelers and I endured three weeks of heat and humidity and deadly tree-hugging snakes. They were a crazy bunch of writers, photo journalists, and adventurers. Any day now, I expect to see one or more of them on some National Geographic Special.

Where there is history, there are memories. The key here is to glance at the past but not to linger there. I think it’s human nature to want to know about past acquaintances no matter how close or vapid they might have been. They were all, in a way, a reflection of who you were at that point in your life. A point in time that can’t be returned, replaced, or replicated.

But can still hold some poignant memories nevertheless. ‘Happy Trails’ to all of them.

Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Strange California Connections

Around 1968, Paul Whiteman, a well-known big band leader from the 20s and 30s, built his west coast home in a new California development called Canyon Country Club Estates.

Canyon Country Club Estates had been carved out of the barren desert just south of downtown Palm Springs. It was meant to be a welcoming enclave for Jewish families who in the past had been denied membership in the other country clubs around the Coachella Valley. It turns out, this was just the first of a number of strange California connections for me.

Back up some forty-plus years and this same Big Band Leader and composer was performing in a midwestern auditorium as part of his nationwide tour for that season. A young adventurous woman named Hildegarde Noll was in the audience along with her girlfriends. They were all experiencing the big cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul for the first times in their lives. Hildegarde had moved down from Sterns County. She was one of eight children raised in a strict German Catholic farming family. She and her friends all worked as maids for well-to-do notables along Summit Avenue.

Hildegarde’s California connections run shallow and deep at the same time. She moved out west with several girlfriends and all secured jobs as maids for the monied elite who lived on Seventeen Mile Drive in Carmel. Her job allowed her to move from one millionaire’s home to the next, serving Hollywood stars and East Coast Industrialists.

As the kids and I drove along 17- mile drive by Carmel-by-the-Sea a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help but think about what it must have been like almost one hundred years earlier for my mother. She would have been in that same neighborhood, going into Monterey for household supplies and doing sundry chores. She probably walked the same wharf and along Cannery Row years earlier. It was as if we were both breathing in the same salt air. Sadly, all of that ended when her father got sick back on the farm and Hildegarde returned to Minnesota to care for him.

Fast forward a number of years later on and my mother, now separated from her husband (my father), was solicited for household help once again on the West Coast. Upon arrival, the job around Santa Barbara had unexpectedly disappeared. Hildegarde was left almost penniless with two toddlers in hand and no new job prospects. After spending less than a month there, she was forced to return to Minnesota once again.

As the kids and I drove around Monterey, Carmel-by-the-sea, Big Sur then down to Santa Barbara, I couldn’t help but reflect on what might have happened if my mom had gotten that job and stayed in California. Is it unreasonable to think that if she had stayed there, I might have found myself living an entirely different lifestyle rather than the one I had in St. Paul? I guess I’ll never know.

There is one thing I am sure of. Paul Whiteman only stayed in Canyon Country Club Estates for less than five years. He missed his old bandmates back east and returned to New Hampshire where he passed away shortly thereafter.

His home went through a series of owners until the mid-2000s when, once again, a Minnesota connection reappeared. Long-since enamored with California, this couple, a writer, and an artist, bought the house without knowing it’s past owner. My recent jaunt with the kids along the PCH only reinforced an over-active imagination that wondered: ‘What if?’

Mom, I’m back in California once again. Sure do miss you here.