Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Wabasha, My Old Town

I have a long and curious history with Wabasha, Minnesota. I don’t have roots there but I saw what it did for my wife, Sharon, in terms of solid, grounded values and a wholesome attitude toward life. Hers was and is an intellectual curiosity that went far beyond the classroom and school yard negotiations. It steeled her for life’s ups and down and a burning desire for more. Not bad for a one-horse town, few folks had ever heard about, down the old Mississippi from Saint Paul.

Almost 55 years ago, I met this girl in Saint Paul who was from Wabasha. For the following many decades, we ventured down old Highway 61, one hundred plus miles, to visit her parents and eventually introduce our kids to life on the farm. It was great while it lasted.

Eventually Sharon’s parents retired, leaving their one-hundred-year-old farmhouse and began a new life as ‘townies.’ Wabasha was growing old as they were and seemed destined for the gradual decline that has accompanied the many river town along the Mississippi. Then some strange things started to happen.

For years, small manufacturing plants had come and gone around Wabasha. Their life expectancy seemed to depend on attracting enough workers at competitive wages, the sometimes-foreign markets and capitalization. Then computer technology and the internet began to make inroads into what had been for centuries just centralized job sites.

Back in the early 80’s, I heard rumors about a group of hippies living in the hills around the town of Red Wing who were working for a new venture called Apple Computer. They were writing code for the company and enjoying their rural existence. Sounded fascinating to me.

Unfortunately, when I voiced my interest in such a venture to my father-in-law, he informed me that perhaps Red Wing would do such a thing but it wouldn’t be for Wabasha. His home town had been a grain-milling town for as long as he could remember and would always carry that moniker in his head. Old Delbert didn’t share my vision of entrepreneurship in small towns and I let it go as a chasm between generations too wide to cross. It was never talked about again.

Then a newly formed Wabasha arts group called the Wabasha Arts Council began a series of concerts called ‘Music Under the Bridge.’ One of their first groups was a folkie duo called the Floorbirds. I was smitten with the idea of a concert series in downtown Wabasha. I saw it as a sign of good things to come. Sharon’s mom dismissed it as ‘hillbilly music’ and wasn’t interested. A generational thing again, I’m sure. But the new ideas kept coming. The next one arrived on a six foot wing span.

It sounded like a crazy idea at first. A group of interested individuals met with the city fathers. “Let’s build a center”, they began, “where we can display some Eagles, explain the ecological and biological importance of these magnificent birds and perhaps draw a couple of tourists to town as a side benefit.” The City Council loved the idea and The National Eagle Center was born.

The city came together to plan a permanent waterfront museum in the early 2000s. A 14,200 square foot was designed that now attracts approximately 80,000 tourists and researchers to Wabasha every year.

Shortly, afterwards, new restaurants began to spout up, drawn by the tourist traffic that was extending beyond weekend and spilling over into the weekdays. The County began promoting the many outdoor recreational attractions for the whole of the Hiawatha Valley, extending from Red Wing, through Wabasha, all the way down to Winona. Entrepreneurial businesses soon followed and Wabasha became a ‘happening’ place.

More recently, a new venture called GrandPad is making its mark in the community and on-line. GrandPad describes its mission as making it easier for seniors to connect with family, friends, and caregivers. The company has developed its own tablet and launched a subscription service to support it. All of their live, around-the-clock customer service reps come from folks who live in small towns like Wabasha.

GrandPad says it has connected more than 1.7 million people in 120 countries. The company employs 165 and, to date, has raised $31million to scale its technology, both hardware and software. All of that centered in Sharon’s old home town

I’ve watched Wabasha’s evolution over the decades just as my life evolved and changed along the way. Sharon and I have talked about returning there next summer for a visit to some of the ‘old places.’ Until then, we wish the old proving grounds well in the years to come. Something new, something old, I guess, just like us.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Passing Down the Dream

I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of ‘the American Dream.’ Not unique to America, it’s the universal idea that anyone can pull themselves up from their proverbial bootstraps and earn success and happiness if they just work hard enough at it. In the past, I’ve written several blogs about the gradual demise of this ideology as a part of the American lexicon. Nowadays, it seems to harken back to a time and period lost in the history of our country.

Two books, in particular, have done a pretty detailed analysis of the gradual shifts in the business, political and social climates of the Seventies that led to this major change in American society. Neither book offers up easy answers to our current challenge of growing a stronger middle class and lifting up others along the way.

Recently, I’ve come across two more books that tie nicely into this question of advancement for the masses in the twenty-first century. Not surprisingly, there’s a curious correlation between education, neighborhoods and housing in addressing the causes of this problem.

‘Our Kids’ (The American Dream in Crisis) and ‘Golden Gates’ (The Housing Crisis and a Reckoning for the American Dream) both address this continuing crisis within American society.

It took a while for me to truly grasp the cusp of the problem. What I experienced growing up back in the fifties and sixties wasn’t the same as it is for younger folks today. Growing up, I, along with a lot of my friends, were neither wealthy nor middle class. But that didn’t stop us from moving up in society. We got an education, found jobs and advanced in our careers. On one level, it seemed as simple as that.

A friend was talking recently 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 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.

Photo by 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 or very few material things around the house. Most of us started working at an early age and accepted that as ‘par for the course.’

Starting at age six, Sharon grew up doing chores around 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 of their old farmhouse but a shiny new bulk tank instead in the barn.

One of the key differences for my friends and I verse our parents was education. My Mother had a 6th grade education. My father’s educational level is unknown. Sharon’s mother had two years of high school. Her father just went to the eighth grade. Not unusual for that generation.

Yet because of our own opportunities at education, our kids, Brian and Melanie, have between them a law degree and a masters in entrepreneurship. Our grandchildren have a legacy in education that will demand, even now, that they will probably have advanced degrees beyond just college.

As mentioned in ‘Golden Gates’: “It was hard to see it back then, but America was in the middle of a vast realignment that was fundamentally altering where we live, how we work, and the structure of our families. Ultimately, growing class segregation across neighborhoods and schools means that rich Americans and poor Americans are living, learning, and raising children in increasingly separate and unequal worlds, removing the stepping-stones to upward mobility.”

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 1970s were also notable for another reason. It harkened in the beginning of a new financial equation. It was the beginning of a new mindset about real estate, when property in every shape, location, and purpose became a good financial investment.

The intertwinement and entanglements of business and political interests has been going on for a long time now. It’s no 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.

A Harvard professor has been quoted as saying: “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.”

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 revealed the fallacy of this short-term thinking. We used to have an economy that manufactured stuff, now it manufactures debt. This concept of ‘wealth supremacy’ suggests that the core aim of our economy should be delivering ever-increasing gains to investment portfolios instead of a wider distribution of wealth to the masses. While there is no easy answer, education, once again, comes into play here.

Financial literacy is a topic of interest that every American should acquaint themselves with. 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.

While we can’t, as individuals, control the stock market, affect financial futures or the political games being played in Washington, we can steel ourselves against the mis-information and financial pitfalls all around us. It is up to each one of us to watch our pocketbooks and nest egg for the future. No one else will do it for us.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Journeys Inside My Head

I guess I’ve always been a dreamer; wondering what if and why not? It’s been a lifelong journey outside the fringes of consciousness, usually spurred on by vapid aspirations and free-flowing thoughts inside my head.

Transcendental meditation and chemical enhancements never appealed to me. I’ve always abhorred drugs and the idea of putting strange substances into my body was an absolute no-go. So, grass, gummies, magic mushrooms, chemical cocktails and the like all stopped before getting close to my lips. Alcohol, for instance, has been absent from my body for more than half a century.

While stationed at the Presidio of San Francisco, I decided one brilliant Friday night to get a little drunk along with my army buddies. After some Malt Liquor, a little wine, beer and who knows what else, I was totally wasted and gone from this world. Two days of recuperation and my body rejected any future ingestion of alcohol. Future partying went as far a couple of light beers and that was that. I haven’t touched hard liquor for the last fifty-five years and counting.

So where does that leave me if I want to venture forth into the world of esoteric thoughts, ideas, concepts, assumptions, reflections, and other soulful ventures into the unknown or cloudy past? Mindful exploring of the great unknown seems to be the answer. Yoga and meditation come first to mind.

Some claim that our mind is the ultimate filter. 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. One approach is to go someplace to meditate and not medicate. It can be a mountaintop surrounding the Coachella Valley, hanging off a cliff in Machu Picchu, or just reading about it in a book.

Starting in high school, I was curious about how to see the world in a different perspective. I wanted to journey inside my head sans chemical enhancements. After I stumbled upon Carlos Castaneda I was hooked. Granted, his approach to cerebral Valhalla was with magic mushrooms but the journey mesmerized me nevertheless.

Later on, despite my own divorce from organized religion after the eighth grade, I was mesmerized by a hip, chain-smoking priest named Malcom Boyd. Malcom’s approach to life wasn’t your semi-hippie ‘transcendental meditation’ so popular at the time. Rather, it was his attention to detail. Malcom spoke openly and honestly about real feelings, real emotions and real consequences in my own world. Following in Malcom’s footsteps, another group of truth seekers took up the lead that Napoleon Hill had created years earlier.

Napoleon Hill, Robert Pursig, Zig Zigler, and Brian Tracy all began preaching their own version of the gospel of success and self-enlightenment; the original ‘American Dream.’  Perhaps taking their cues from the original bible of self-determination, the ‘McGuffey’s Reader, first published in 1843, they adhered to the principles that ‘the road to wealth, to honor, to usefulness, and happiness, is open to all, and all who will, may enter upon it with the almost certain prospect of success.’ I’m sure if they were selling audio tapes of that book, they’d have made a million dollars by now.

Down through the decades, we’ve been introduced to a myriad of new-age dynamics that are guaranteed to change our lives. A recent trip to the library introduced me to this years ‘best seller’ and finally it seemed to make some sense. Without audiotape box sets, podcasts, U-Tube lecture series or in-person seminars, there seemed to be a rather simple approach to getting inside one’s head.

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.

Coupled up with these mind relaxing techniques are steps to facing our anxieties and learning to live with them. Almost all of the books refer to nature as an all-encompassing, all around us, every day, every time, kind of therapy.

Whether we venture to the top of a mountain, seek a quiet secluded spot among the oranges, or just rock in a chair listening to the birds, we ultimately end up in the same place; inside our head. It’s there, amid the distractions, outside noises, and nagging thoughts that our mind can slowly come clean to the honesty of our lives, our world, and what direction our heart is telling us to go.

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Facing Our Fears

In most cases today, normal childhood fears are handled differently than when I was a kid. The generation that proceeded us; our parents and their parents, grew up in a very different world. World War One, the Great Depression, World War Two put all of them in a survival mode. In turn, they wanted to pass on that toughness to their children.

Resiliency, self-preservation, and basic survival instincts abound. One took care of him or herself. You faced challenges head on. And if you could; so, should your kids. When the youngsters showed fear, you had a ready answer for their fears:

‘There’s nothing to be afraid of.’ ‘It’s all in your head.’ ‘Be a man.’ ‘Grow up.’ ‘Get over it.’

Of course, that belligerent, boisterous, manly response did little to nothing to alleviate the normal fears facing the child. It just taught them to ‘shut up’ and ‘don’t bring it up again.’ That truism never left me and now I can face it one more time…with the help of a little hippopotamus.

There are very few genres I haven’t at least tip-toed around in my writing explorations. I’ve helped find love for two older single gay men. I’ve been an interested observer for a woman in a polyamorous relationship. I’ve scanned the Western horizon for signs of Indian troubles and slashed my way through the thick jungles of Vietnam. My girlfriend and I’ve even run in terror from shift-changers through the ruins of Angkor Watt.

But to cozy up to an insecure, skinny hippo in the Pangani River under the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro was an entirely new experience for me. Undaunted by the challenge of talking to ‘little people’ verses my more mature crowd of readers, I stumbled ahead.

My first children’s book: ‘Waleed, the Skinny Hippo was the story of a skinny hippo who learns from a very wise fish that’s okay to be different. In fact, being different is something to embrace and welcome he is told. Feedback on this first version of ‘Waleed, the Skinny Hippo’ was fantastic. People loved the bright colored pages, the cute and cuddly Waleed, and the moral tale of accepting oneself as you are.

As proud as I am of this first version, I wanted to expand its reach as much as I could. So, Vida and I decided to create two new versions of the first Waleed. So now I’m happy to report that besides being translated into Swahili, Waleed is now also available in both Spanish and Hmong.

Despite the slow steps taken in marketing Waleed, it was time to think about a second book in the ‘Waleed’ children’s book series. I decided that this next book would discuss the ‘concept of facing one’s fears.’

As mentioned before, the idea of being afraid came from clichés thrown at me and other kids growing up. Unfortunately, it was from a generation that thought tough love meant little affection and manning up to one’s fears. I’ve always thought that denying one’s fears or trying to ignore them was the wrong approach.

Based on that wrong approach and trying to correct it, I wanted to write a moral tale about facing one’s fears but not necessarily conquering them. I honestly don’t know if that is possible, especially for a little kid. The story, as it’s been roughed out thus far, is pretty straight-forward.

Waleed is told about a magical river on the other side of the jungle. He is encouraged to go there and play with other hippos. But to get there Waleed must pass through this deep, dark and perceived dangerous jungle. All of his friends leave him and enter the jungle. Waleed is all alone. He doesn’t know what to do. Finally, he gathers up his courage and he too enters the dark jungle.

There are all kinds of scary sights and sounds in the jungle. Just about the time that Waleed decides to turn around and run away, he meets a wise elephant who talks to him about facing his fears and dealing with them.

I felt it was important to steer away from the clichés and pat-phrases I had been bombarded with as a child. While that older generation might have felt they were only trying to help, I think a lot of that advice fell far short of being helpful. The older generational ideas of masculinity and bravado proved to be obstacles to truly dealing with one’s fears.

Waleed learns that fear can be managed and might not go away entirely. He learns from a wise old elephant that it is perfectly okay to be fearful of sights and sounds and things that might not bother other hippos. Like dealing with his weight, Waleed learns that he is unique as a little skinny hippo and he must handle his fear as he feels best suits him.

That’s where the book stands now just before publication. I think Waleed and I are both very satisfied with its message. For humans and hippos alike, it’s pretty good advice.