Tuesday, October 31, 2023

The Next Plateau

As she got older, my mother used to speak despairingly about ‘old people.’ At the time, she was in her mid-eighties and my step-father in his mid-nineties. They were still dancing occasionally and playing cards at the church at least three or four times a week. They did at least one or two cross country road trips a year and made special trips to Vegas too. They had an active and busy lifestyle.

I was always a bit embarrassed when my mother would begin one of her lectures about those crabby, complaining, always negative old folks. Whether at church, the senior center or dance halls, some of the old people would complain about their aches and pains. They didn’t want to pay taxes. They didn’t like how government governed. Their sporting teams weren’t being well coached and kids nowadays (oh, don’t get me started.) My mother wanted none of it.

At first, I thought that old people shouldn’t complain about other old people. I get it now. If your mind is in a different place and your attitude is better, then objecting to all that group’s negativity is perfectly normal. As the advertisement goes: Age is just a number and mine’s unlisted. Except it should read: Age is a mind-set and mine is still in search of more…of anything.

While my body can’t deny it’s age or the toll that decades of running has done to my joints; my mind is still clear and functioning everyday (I hope). My social skills have only improved marginally and my wife has all but given up on improving me in that area. Yet, overall, reaching seventy or eighty or ninety for that matter counts less than where your mind, attitude, aptitude and focus is at.

This is the next (or next to last) plateau for almost all of us. Class reunions, family gatherings, group photo shoots all remind us that there is no time to be wasting. A closer examination and we find that someone is usually missing from the photograph. As the cliché’s go; ‘Appreciate what you have now and not into the future.’ ‘Count each day as a gift’ and ‘enjoy the moment while it lasts.’

My mother wasn’t the most subtle when it came to criticizing other’s behavior but I think her heart was in a good place. Looking back on her life, working career and later on, the life she built with my step-father, I think she was just grabbing every opportunity she could to continue growing and learning and living. She got it right.

Treasure your friends and family. They’re the only ones you got for the journey ahead. Accept the aches and pains of growing old, keep your body and head moving every day, and be grateful each morning that you’ve got another day to do it all over again.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Passing Through Pasadena

Song writing is hard. Lyric writing is even harder. It’s not just arranging words to fit the mood, rhythm, sway, or beat of a bunch of notes crammed together into a verse. It goes far beyond what the ear can hear and the heart can feel. A good set of lyrics can capture the imagination like few things in life can.

I grew up listening to great songs that connected with my immature, naïve, and timid way of thinking. The New York tunesmiths in the Brill Building, the hipsters in the Village, the ancients in the West Virginia hills, the South Chicago whalers and slide guitar virtuosos in the Delta were all constructing story songs that spoke to my heart and my head.

I was always enthralled by the ability of a song and its lyrics to carry me to another world, to wrench my heart strings taunt and rip open emotions long left dormant in a sometimes cold and uncaring world. Three minutes of sound that captured my imagination, fueled my dreams and left me breathless sometimes with their self-imposed imagery. I was always left wondering ‘how in the hell were they (the songwriters) able to do that? Now I want to find out for myself.

After creating stories in a wide variety of genres from novels, novellas, screenwriting, poetry, playwrighting, children’s stories, comic strip and hundreds of blogs, I’ve come upon a challenge like few others.

Three of my more recent plays were written as musicals and now I face the dilemma of creating music to go with the plays. ‘PTV,’ ‘Wake; the Musical’ and ‘Tangled Roots’ all have at the heart of their respective stories, songs that are meant to enhance, extend and augment the story line into a whole new dimension. At least that’s the stated goal on my part. Accomplishing that is proving to be the big challenge.

Through a series of fortunate circumstances, I met a musician who seems interested in helping me craft the nine songs I’ve written for ‘PTV.’ To be clear, these nine songs are just a title and some lyrics that I thought best conveyed the feeling I was trying to emote from the proposed song. Lucky for me, AJ seems to agree.

AJ Scheiber is a multi-talented musician songwriter who sings solo and in a band, ‘Wilkinson James.’

We met through a mutual friend and had our first meeting at one of his favorite venues ‘the Amore Coffee Shop’ in West Saint Paul. After trying to collaborate with several other musicians in the past, I was a bit Leary of another attempt at song-writing with AJ. My past track record of collaborations wasn’t the best.

Those past experience usually consisted of initial conversations that seemed to flow nicely until it came down to the songwriter’s definition of collaboration. I thought collaboration meant that we would take the songs I had sketched out with lyrics and then they would craft music and adapted (theirs and mine) lyrics to accompany the melodies. Instead, their idea of collaboration was that they take my idea for the song; write melody and lyrics and there it was; with little to no input from me.

When I tried to explain that the song had to fit the mood and context of the scene I had written for the play, my words feel on deaf ears. It was their song; take it or leave it. That was their idea of collaboration. Instead, AJ immediately seemed to get it. Our initial meeting, e-mail correspondences and discussions of song-writing seem to be off to a much better start.

I was imaging some kind of compilation of the raw, unedited honesty of Woody Guthrie and the modern-day sensibilities of a folk artists like Tom Paxton. Both have captured the deep emotional connection between their times and its relevance to our lives today. AJ got it too.

A great example of this is the analysis AJ did of my nine songs in the play and how he felt they should ‘feel’ to match the moment.

Song            Performer/Scene                       Theme

Song # 1          Candle Stick Maker/stage front          Passing Through Pasadena 

Thoughts:      The song is meant to be a tribute to California and all of its imagery

AJ’s music notes: The setting of the play is 1969 (Edward mentions in a conversation with Flo that 1957 was “12 years ago”). So, this is the year of Woodstock, two years after the Summer of Love and the Monterey Pop Festival, and one year after the horrible year of 1968, with the assassinations of MLK Jr. and Bobby Kennedy (and the election of Nixon). The music of this period is edgy and boundary-pushing, more generational and cultural than specifically political, though remnants of the leftist folk / protest tradition are still in evidence.

California has eclipsed New York as the geographic center of American pop and rock music, so Pasadena can serve as a shorthand for the dynamism, creativity, and danger of this West Coast scene, as well as a metaphor for the “frontier” of what’s next for all of the characters. As we’ve discussed, Candle Stick Maker is something of a Greek Chorus as well as a character, a little like the stage manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. For “Passing Through Pasadena,” I hear a simple folky melody that could be sung in a couple of ways: for the opening theme, just a single voice and guitar, as kind of a hippie fireside song. When it comes back at the end, it could / should be a fuller production, more of an anthem that all the voices in the play have a part in.

Song # 2          Mary/at her desk                                 Nebraska Girl

Thoughts:      Mary is a small-time farm girl come to the big city. But she has big dreams and aspirations for her future.

AJ’s music notes: At this point in the play, Mary is a little uncertain but also grounded and forward-looking. As an introduction to her own history and inner life, it feels to me like a mid-tempo roots-rock song would capture this ambivalence well. (Think Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” for a reference point, at least in terms of rhythm and tempo.)

Song # 3          Ryan / studio                                      Words Unspoken

Thoughts:      Ryan is thinking to himself: Oh, my God, what’s happening to me? There’s something about this girl/woman I’ve never felt before with anyone else. Our eyes spoke volumes in a noisy room.

AJ’s music notes: We’ve talked about this one a bit already. This is a song that expresses new emotions Ryan is feeling in the moment, so I think this song should be less about his backstory and more about the immediacy of his feelings. For that, I think a more reflective pop-folk ballad style would be more effective—for instance, a Beatles-y love song like “If I Fell” or “Here and There and Everywhere,” or something in the Gordon Lightfoot mode (“If You Could Read My Mind” for an example).

Song # 4          Candle Stick Maker/studio                 Crazy is as crazy is

Thoughts:      This place is one screwed up circus. The inmates are in charge and don’t even know it.

AJ’s music notes: Still mulling this one a little bit. It feels like this would be a good place to bring in some psychedelic elements (fuzz guitar, etc.) but there’s part of me that wants to save that for Stuart and Eugene’s feature (“What’s Happening Here?”). (See notes below on that one.)

Song # 5          Edward and Flo                                  what’s next for us?

Thoughts:      Their safe secure world is changing/coming to an end/ They just want out of this place and to move on with their lives.

AJ’s music notes: This song, I think, should be the most stylistically “retro” in terms of sound and feel. I hear it as a pop ballad / duet from the pre-rock and roll tradition, though with simple, folky chords and melody that would still connect it to the other music. Flo and Edward have laid the groundwork for the present and the future. On the one hand, they are anachronisms in the present context; on the other hand, the present would not exist but for what they and preceding generations have done and suffered through. So, we want to see the continuity as well as the sense of times changing. I think that a simple melody, arranged for duet but with American Songbook / pop song chords (as opposed to folk / rock chording) could convey this.

Song # 6          Mary/at her desk                                 what’s come over me?

Thoughts:      Mary has feelings she hasn’t felt before. But she isn’t ready for love, not now, not so soon.  But it’s hard to deny her feelings for Ryan.

AJ’s music Notes: This is one of a group of “reflective” songs in the play, dealing with emotional confusion and ambivalence. We want to make sure each of these songs to have a particular musical feeling that fits both the character and the moment. I would like to have something here that shows Mary’s groundedness and strength (which she brought with her from her small-town upbringing) despite her confusion and uncertainty. These should not be the confusions of an innocent ingenue, but of a person who is growing rapidly to become older, wiser, more complex. Stylistically, I think that something harkening back to female singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell or Carole King would be both dramatically appropriate and a new musical “color” that is part of this period in American music and culture. Some possible musical reference points: Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” “All I Want”; Carole King’s “So Far Away,” “No Easy Way Down”

Song # 7          Stuart/Eugene                                     What’s Happening here?

Thoughts:      Bring on the good times. Electric magnetic moonbeams cruising through our brains, mellow out and enjoy the chill.

AJ’s music notes: I know it’s kind of obvious, but this is where the music really gets to let its freak flag fly. “I Just Dropped in to See What Condition My Condition Was In” would be the musical reference point I’m thinking of. Fuzz tone guitars, but also use the phrase “What’s Happening Here?” as a repeated line that could be sung in a group (perhaps even by the audience, if you want that kind of participation).

Song # 8          Candle Stick Maker                            Make or Break

Thoughts:      It’s a make-or-break world. The auction will either save the station or sink it.

AJ’s music notes: This should be up-tempo and a little funky. I’m also wondering if some of the folks involved in the auction / online fundraiser might not join the Candle Stick Maker, at least on a chorus or the title line—especially Ryan and Mary, whose romance hangs in the balance along with the fate of the station itself. Just a thought.

Song # 9          Candle Stick Maker / Everyone         Passing Through Pasadena (Encore)

Thoughts:      Same thoughts as song # 1 with rest of the cast adding their voices to this iconic image of ‘on the road’ romantic traveling over the horizon.

AJ’s music notes: See comments on the opening version that Candle Stick Maker sings. It will be a fun challenge to figure out a melody and chord progression that will work for both the beginning and the ending of the play . . . though I have a few ideas J

Thus far, AJ has roughed out five songs using my lyrics and adapting, changing, editing and filtering my vernacular verbosity to fit the melodies he has created. He’s batting five for five thus far and I can’t wait to continue this new trail-blazing path for the both of us.

As you can see from AJ’s notes, the man ‘gets it.’ While most of the songs written are strategically placed in the play to augment, enhance and elongate the ‘feeling of the moment’ the first and last song entitled: ‘Passing Through Pasadena’ are something entirely different. It is meant to be iconic for midwestern hopes and dreams looking west for the answer; be that reality or not.

I hope in the months ahead AJ and I can both blaze a new trail of songs for ‘PTV.’ ‘Passing Through Pasadena’ on our respective way to creating a new sound track for my play and adding to its overall merits. When completed, I (and AJ) will have layered another element to this play that I hope will add immensely to its overall appeal.

Then the hard part begins; marketing the play.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

A Mystery Unraveled

Only now, years after her passing, am I finally getting a closer look at the ambitious, liberated, free-spirited, adventurous woman gave birth to me over eighty years ago. Then forgot about the role she was supposed to play in my life after that.

Up until this point, with the rare exception of a couple of old black and whites, all I had to go on to retrace my mother’s life story was a series of hand-written notes detailing some of the sequences in her life growing up. It was a chronical of her experiences from youth to old age. Unfortunately, the notes were written later on in her life and was rife with errors, misstatements, and voids that she had purposely created to leave out specific parts of her story.

Then one day my sister, Marlene, met a cousin who had a treasure-trove of old pictures, many of which include our mother in her youth growing up on the farm. It suddenly opened up a whole new insight into our mother’s adolescence and young adult period. From the cars to clothes to rural surroundings it was a glimpse into a past long since shut dark by time and old age.

Closer examination of the pictures along with her own scribbled notes provided some clarity in my mother’s early life. There were pictures of her with her mother with whom she was never close. My grandfather whom my mother adored was there. There was her brother, Frank, a man wrapped in mystery, who died relatively young in his thirties.

Farm life around the turn of the century was a hard-scrabble life; twenty-four hours a day. Horse power provided the engine to harvest crops, move machinery and take folks to town. Our grandfather was the first in Sterns County to have a horseless carriage, one of the few in all of Minnesota at the time.

Fortunately, a few of the pictures had hard to-read-scribbles on the back that named names and connections. There were snapshots of mom’s close girlfriend, Delta, with whom she shared many adventures in and around Saint Martin, Minnesota and the twin cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Union depot always took my mother and her siblings back to the farm.

Our mother’s time, spent in the Twin Cities, was chronicled by pictures of girlfriends gathered on Summit Avenue where they all worked as domestics. Then there was an afternoon stroll over the Mendota Bridge with a friend.

There was a gap of time, sans photographs, between our family restaurant; ‘Frenchy’s Eats, our first rental on Smith Avenue, the six-plex we lived in among the DPs (displaced refugees from World War Two) and finally a real home my mother built herself on Randolph Avenue.

Unfortunately, there are only a couple of pictures of the house she built on an empty lot. I know she had the basement excavated by a contractor. Then professional framers came in to construct the walls and roof. After that, she and her brother, somehow managed to build the rest of the house from the frames on up.

There are only a few pictures of my mother and her new friend, Erwin, a recent widower. She met him at one of the many dance halls in the Cities and they eventually got married. My sister thinks there may be more photographs coming from that cousin. That would be a good thing. Any image would help in filling in the gaps of this mysterious, fascinating woman whom I called Mom a long long time ago.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Spot Bowling as a Metaphor for Life

Back in August, I published a blog entitled: ‘The Ultimate Filter.’ It garnered a number of comments and reactions from friends and some of my ‘coffee and chat’ salon compatriots. One of those friends responding commented that he had written a book a while back that seemed to encapsulate some of the same recognitions of life’s intricacies. His book was on spot bowling,

I had never thought of spot bowling as a metaphor for life. My coffee companion began telling me about a book he had written on wheelchair bowling years earlier. During the course of our conversation, I realized that my friend was right; that ‘spot bowling’ could be seen as a unique way of living one’s life.

I observed in my blog that our mind is the ultimate filter. It’s the newest cliché in a long list of ‘feel good’ labels is mindfulness. It comes after a long list of mind-altering techniques, with or without chemical enhancement, to see more clearly the world around us and thought patterns inside our head.

Starting in high school, I was always intrigued and curious about how to see the world in a different perspective. Back in the day, I wanted to journey inside my head sans chemical enhancements.

I had stumbled upon Carlos Castaneda and I was hooked. Granted, his approach to cerebral Valhalla was with magic mushrooms but the journey mesmerized me nevertheless. I was also mesmerized by a hip, chain-smoking priest named Malcom Boyd. Father Boyd’s approach to life wasn’t your semi-hippie ‘transcendental meditation’ approach that held my attention. Rather, it was his attention to detail. He spoke openly and honestly about real feelings, real emotions and real consequences in my own very real world.

Down through the decades, we’ve been introduced to a myriad of new-age dynamics that are guaranteed to change our lives. A quote from a book I recently read said it best: ‘Until we look directly at our minds we don’t really know ‘what our lives are about. Everything we experience in life goes through just one filter – our minds – and we spend very little time bothering to see just how it works.’

I would suggest that once people get a taste of it - it’s so completely fascinating, because really our life is a clear manifestation of what our minds are telling us.’ Good, bad, right or wrong, it’s all there for our perception, acceptance, denial, rejection or embracing.

I’m going to quote frequently and liberally from my friend and his book ‘Spot Bowling.’ So, let’s begin:

‘The important thing to realize from the very beginning is that there is only one score that matters in bowling. That score is the one you keep inside yourself. The one that says how good you really are.’ In our own little world, that truism can be applied to almost every aspect of life. Be it our job, our parenting skills, our hobbies, our relationships, or our aspersions in life.

Dick goes on to say: ‘Maybe the best bowler you can be is an 80-average bowler. So what? If 80 is the measure of how good you should be, when you shoot 90 you have won against the important opponent you will ever have to face – the one you see in the mirror every morning.’

I was never a good runner. To be honest, my jog-run-shuffle could best be described as covering a certain number of miles in any fashion fathomable to get to the finish line. I desperately wanted to run ultra-marathons. The closest I got was twenty-two miles in a 50 miler. I did run three marathons and surprised even myself by not dying on that asphalt journey to hell and back.

Dick continues: ‘Bowling is a mental game first, a scoring game second. What you are up against on the foul line is your ability to concentrate: to be aggressive, to be patient, to be consistent. Whether you have bowled up, as we refer to walking bowlers, or never in your life before wheeling out to the foul line, in a chair, there are only two significant differences between walking bowling and wheelchair bowling.

‘First, a walking bowler has an approach: the four or five steps he takes toward the foul line before releasing the ball. From a wheelchair, you do not have an approach in this sense. While that costs you something in speed and leverage on the ball, it can also be an advantage. Why? You can position yourself to deliver each ball you throw from the same spot. A wheelchair bowler can be far more deliberate and, as a result, potentially far more consistent.

‘The second difference is one you have probably long since adjusted to simply by being in a wheelchair. To be a good wheelchair bowler, you will have to depend on finesse, not force; smarts, not sheer strength. That is why I say bowling is a mental game first.’

I tried to touch on this subject in one of my blogs about my ‘secret garden’ and other quiets spots around my home. Each area provides a very peaceful daily dash of zest to my life. The journey inside one’s head is a life-long affair. Most of us don’t even know it in our lifetime. A few of us made that discovery a long time ago and are still exploring where that pathway might take us.

Carry on, fellow traveler, carry on.