Tuesday, February 27, 2024

I Have Seen the Elephant

The phrase: ‘I have seen the elephant; I have heard the owl’ is an American colloquial phrase that refers to gaining experience of the world at a significant cost. It was a popular expression in the mid-to-late 19th century throughout the United States beginning with the Mexican-American war and beyond.

Pioneers would speak about ‘seeing the elephant’ in their journeys west. James Michener in his novel ‘Centennial’ made it a key point in the life of one of his characters. For that young adventurer, it was an experience that left him shaken to the core and uncertain about his future.

Over the years, the phrase has become immersed in western novels, war stories and more poignant story-telling such as Margaret Craven’s wonderful novel ‘I Heard the Owl Call My Name.’ It’s been referenced in many bible stories highlighting those watershed moments and end of life experiences some biblical characters have faced.

It’s been argued that you don’t really know who you are until faced with a catastrophe or a near-death experience. Some will say that our best life experiences come through affliction and challenges we never expected to encounter. It might be an athletic event that stretches your abilities to their absolute maximum. It could be a personal struggle with health issues, personal or social relationships or any number of personal challenges.

Now to take that argument a step further I might also suggest that for many people the very act of planting one’s feet on a theatrical stage could be akin to ‘seeing the elephant.’ Over the years, there have been a number of octogenarians and their younger compatriots who agreed to do just that in several of my plays.

Creating plays has always been part of my writing arsenal. RAAC, the Rosemount Area Arts Council, in Minnesota and Script2Stage in California have both provided wonderful venues for me to showcase some of my plays. Actually, it started in the early Seventies in Tennessee.

My first experience with Community Theater started back in Tennessee in 1972. I had left public television in Minnesota to spread my wings in the Deep South. The Chattanooga Little Theater became my refuge. I crewed on the first play of the season and then acted in three more. Around the end of our fourth play, I was offered a new job in Maryland and my brief, ever exciting career as a thespian came to a sudden halt until years later.

I think a lot of my fellow actors found their true selves on stage. Much like politicians whose only claim to fame is their small town title, these folks truly embraced their new pretend persona. It made them feel accomplished and whole and fulfilled. I never reached that level of self-satisfaction. I was always more interested in the story-telling aspect of the theater and not the acting part of it.

Artists of another ilk have found refuge in an old building in downtown Palm Springs. The Palm Springs Art Center hosts a revolving gallery, art classes, etc. Some of those seniors may ‘see the elephant’ while others might ‘hear the owl.’ But either way, vision or not, it proves to be a great experience for them. They took a chance and risked the fear and trepidation for a chance to do something challenging, something exhilarating, something that many of their colleagues could only hope to accomplish.

The Palm Springs Writers Guild has, for years, been guiding, encouraging and educating hopeful authors in the craft of writing and publishing their own works of art. One could easily equate this group of vernacular warriors with those ancients seeking the Elephant and listening for the Owl. Each and everyone of them on their own personal quest to face their fears and solidify their future.

And always on the lookout for the elephant and the owl. In my case, it might be a skinny little hippo.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Let's Get Physical

If you want it, you can have it. Right now, anytime anyplace. Streaming services are all the rage. It’s immediate but it’s not permanent. You get a bite but no lasting satisfaction. If you want to go back and savor those feelings again, it’s gonna cost you. Welcome to the real world of streaming.

There was a great article on the Minnpost web site a while back. It was entitled: Protecting Physical Media in an Age of Streaming written by Joshua Badroos. I wanted to share some of his thoughts here because it struck me as an interesting insight into today’s approach to sharing… practically anything.

Joshua writes:” The constant shuffling of online media between major steaming conglomerates has resulted in physical media’s futility in the eyes of the general public. We live in the streaming age, but it’s also an age where the cultural impact of art preservation is needed now more than ever.”

I’ve had books on my shelves for many years. A lot of them came from my perusing the Better World Books website in their bargain bin and specials categories. It’s a book library I can go back to and revisit every ten years or so when my memory bank has finally let them go to dust and rereading them brings back only happy memories. Picture books are like that; treasures that never get old.

Joshua continues: “Art preservation is at the forefront of this streaming puzzle because of the cultural significance of owning physical media. Much like artifacts, art has been replaced, lost and not protected. Now, instead of encouraging ownership of your favorite titles, businesses that still champion the physical media medium are fighting an uphill battle.”

The physical media that Joshua refers to can take on almost any form and function. My vinyl and CD collection isn’t the greatest but it does hold numerous memories for me. The same is true of my 8-track tape collection. Of course, at this stage in the game, the only place I can play them are my record player and my old Buick back in Palm Springs. But they’re still useable and enjoyable to use.

Timothy Wilson, owner of Urban Lights Music, spoke on the importance of connecting to music in today’s streaming era. He said: “People are not in touch with music as much…music doesn’t have a shelf life anymore. When we used to open an album, we could see who produced the song and who wrote the song. Now nobody talks about what came out two weeks ago; they’re wondering what’s coming out two weeks from now because there’s no physical attachment to it anymore.”

Artists are on the losing end of this equation too. Wilson continues: “At the end of the day, a physical sale is worth more to an artist than the stream. Their stream is worth three-tenths of a penny. Whereas I can still buy an album and it might cost me 20, 30, or 40 bucks, but now the artist actually makes more for their art.”

Joshua’s conclusions said it best: “Taking the steps now to seek out and contribute to the resurgence of buying DVDs and records won’t just add to your bookshelf at home; it’ll play a role in art preservation for future generations.”

The same argument could be made for owning a home instead of renting, leasing something instead of buying it or subscribing instead of an outright purchase. In the end, it probably comes down to which approach best fits your lifestyle, income and personal preferences. I like to own physical property so I can watch it, listen to it, and know that it’s always there, ready to be taken off the shelf whenever the mood strikes me.

Amen to that.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Deposits and Withdrawls

Eighty-One is uncharted territory for me. In a couple of months, I’ll cross that threshold and enter even more foreign terrain. Like ‘walking point’ in the Nam, it’s one cautious step after another and may the best man live…for another day.

Micky and Me (photo credit: Jerry Hoffman)

It doesn’t seem that long ago when we were all young and dumb and the world was a rainbow landscape full of wonderous adventures and opportunities. Each of us set out to become whatever we thought we should be…at the time. The world was our oyster and we meant to have it all.

It’s funny how reality evolves and our past lives and aspirations finally catch up with us. That winding road called ‘life’ is either running smooth as asphalt or rough like gravel. And yet none of us want to get off the road even if the ride isn’t what we expected it to be after all these years.

It’s been forty or fifty years since we turned twenty-one and shed our cloak of anonymity to adorn ourselves with the costume of adulthood. Now we’re at a point in our lives where re-flection is more than a glass of chardonnay framed within a sunset or a cold brew among high school buddies.

Our current life style is an accumulation of habits born long before our birth. For some of us it was modeled after our parent’s pioneering excursion into life. For others, it was a process of discovery, loss, acceptance and rejection. And finally, our life style became us on a daily basis and we weren’t even aware of it. It’s only now that the accumulation of excess and/or scarcity raises its hidden head.

Ernest Hemingway is quoted as saying that life is like a bank account. How you use it is solely your determination. You can withdraw it in a hurry and live a very short life. Or you can be diligent with your withdrawals and live, hopefully, much longer.

We can always try to rectify some of our mistakes or enhance our positive steps but age and reticence to change are usually huge obstacles to overcome. We’ve let life’s ebb and flow (our gypsy muse) guide us in this rhythm of life. For most of us, the process was organic and without a lot of thought. The first apartment, the first job, first time camping overnight during a long Minnesota winter.

And now quite unexpectedly, we find ourselves both benefiting and/or suffering from past investments of our youth. The things we did to ourselves, the deposits we made on our bodies, our finances, our love life and our children. We’re now at the stage of making withdrawals from our youthful decisions and indiscretions.

The life investments have been made, squandered, lost, accumulated, divested, and set aside. Some things worked out and some things didn’t. Now we have the residue of our wisdom or luck or mistakes to live with for the rest of our lives. And all those life steps are now just a memory.

A career was hatched, grown and nurtured or changed many times over. That part of our lives is over unless boredom and fear of retirement pushes us in a new direction.

We abused our body with youthful indiscretion or ignored it and kept the blood flowing by never stopping. Now that investment or abuse is either paying back dividends or punishing us with worn out body parts along with the inevitable aging process.

My bank account of friends isn’t the greatest. A reluctance to make an effort back then, despite the chiding by my wife, has left me lacking in that area. Yet what I do have in the vault is now priceless. One of my aspirations is to mine those rich veins of past friendships to see if I might unearth more nuggets there. Occasionally I’ll strike gold and rekindle a long lost almost forgotten friendship from the dusty archives of my past. It’s a blast. And immensely satisfying.

Those random discoveries got me thinking about other friendships; past and future, strong and vapid, present, and omnipresent. I thought about the friends I’ve had over the years. Some of them shared isolated points in my life; high school, college and work. Some were but fleeting incisions in the tenderness of my youth. Others were shared experiences like the military; isolated, vacuous, and destined to crash with each discharge celebration where inane behavior in the barracks seemed to make perfect sense back then.

Most of those memories are lost now in that vacuum called life experiences. A few were found again but most are just fragrant memories of a life well spent. Like separating wheat from the shaft, I’d love to rekindle a few of those friendships and nourish them back to the point of commonality we once shared. A kind of harvesting from what I whimsically have called my Lost Years.

The cliché that you can never have too many friends dissolves over the pages of Facebook where collecting friends can be a cyber-game for some folks, devoid of meaningful contact and concern. Having friends on Facebook isn’t the same as having real friends who care and share and actually want to be somebody in your life. Big difference there! For some folks it’s like grade school best friends.

I guess that’s why I want to continue seeking out old friends and acquaintances who might share my same values and interests. The past can’t be replicated nor ignored. It can be accepted for what it was even if we couldn’t see it at the time. It’s all cloaked in that most evolving, trans-lucent, vapid metaphor called relationships. Together they fill our thoughts and dreams and aspirations with dream-like illusions we’d like to believe in. It’s a game we play on a daily basis as we go about the business of living.

But there’s one group that isn’t into that game-playing. Children are the most transparent of all relationships. No pretense, no pretending. They haven’t learned those life lessons of pretend, illusion and facial facades. It’s all there in front of us and easy to recognize.

So, it all comes down to friends and family and the most honest among those two groups.

I am in a good place in my life. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone anymore! As an artist, I love creating stories in many different genres and I intend to continue writing until my pen dries up or I go blind. I’d like to take my true friends along on this journey of discovery of self and life and whatever else comes my way.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

The Birth of Cool

As a young man growing up, there was one status level I never achieved. That was to be cool.

Back in the day, when appearances meant everything, there was a plethora of quirky and colorful characters who defined their lives and occupied ours by their dress, style, mannerisms and diction. It was a world of first images that held tight behind a façade of individuality, which, of course, it never really was.

There were the hard guys with their slick hairstyles and choppers and hot rods. The jocks with their letter jackets. The Brains hid out in the library with their books and slide rulers. And every school had its cache of rich bitches (male and female) with their parent’s money and cars. These cool kids had it all in one form or another. They were all ‘with it’, except maybe the Brains. Everybody envied the Brains because they were going to be our bosses sometime in the future.

In high school and even college, the rest of us were merely background distractions for those crowds of easily identifiable clichés. We were simply invisible fill-in wallpaper to their active lives.

Reflecting back, there were many reasons why I was never cool in the carefully coffered commercial way we thought of it back then. Born and raised in the Midwest may have had something to do with it. So many of those icons of cool came from California and California Cool, I wasn’t.

I recently bought a book which was published as part of an exposition on the birth of cool in Southern California. It helped me understand a little better why the West Coast always had such a draw on my uncaged imagination.

After World War Two, there was a migration of artist types to the West Coast, primarily California. Coupled with a burgeoning economy, thriving new industries and glorious weather, the West Coast became a mecca for the average Joe as well as his beatnik cousins.

‘Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture of Midcentury’ was one of the most ambitious exhibitions ever organized on this seminal period, encompassing the painting, architecture, furniture design, decorative and graphic arts, film, and music that launched mid-century modernism in the United States and established Los Angeles as a major American cultural center.

This coolness was reflected in the arts, architecture, music, film, and dozens of other esoteric cerebral ventures of commerce. It was all images and icons for hungry eyes like mine to take in. One of the major purveyors of that message was established in old Cow Town, center point of the country, when a young editor started up his own magazine to herald and embellish this new  scene for the hip cool set.

That illusion was only embellished, relished, and enriched by the monthly droppings of Playbook centerfolds, cool cars, hot bachelor pads, and jazz. I never understand that among the hip knowledgeable crowd, jazz spoke a language only they understood. I was a more folkie type.

I came of age (but never broken through) back in the Sixties when all the cool music, cool chicks and cool cars were emanating from Southern California. It was a mecca for immature, wonder-ing wandering minds like mine. The Beach Boys painted musical pictures that wetted my appetite for sand under foot and bikinis in sight.  Annette Funichello and Franky Avalon showed me what beachcomber life was all about, Hollywood style.

This culture of innovation, counter-culture living, and thinking outside-of-the-box continues on today in hotspots like Palm Springs. Blossoming solar panels and Modernism Week are but a couple of the many nodes to the storied and treasured practice of embracing California’s cultural past while looking to the future.

As cool as it is to think that one is cool, the concept can be a slippery slope, easy to feel but tough to grasp. It’s evolution in midcentury America now seems but a series of willful misunderstandings. It started out as black style but became white style. It was a response to alienation but became a mark of belonging. It came from the language of outsiders, but it became associated with very old ideas of about aristocracy and good taste.

In retrospect, I think my granddaughters have shown me the way of cool. Maya, age 17, Samantha, age 15 and Charlotte, age 12, have all embraced the style of mixing and matching vintage clothing with something new and modern. They create their own style and own it. They’re cool because they have become masters of their own fashion sense. Perhaps, doing your own thing is the cool thing to do. Follow no one but your own heart and desire. My tiny storefront in the desert is the perfect place for me to hide away and create stories of my own liking.

It’s the birthplace of Waleed and Sweetpea and numerous other imaginative retreats into my imagination. Minnesota is another place of vernacular worship for me but somehow it doesn’t have the same ambiance of colorful characters, coyotes in my backyard and Chocolate Mountains over my shoulders.

Past symbols of ‘cool’ are now old enough that they’re coming back in a strange amalgamation of form and style. The younger set sees them as new and trendy. Veterans of the movement see a resurgence of a colorful past. Me, I see form and function but little else.

Sadly, even now that I know what cool is, I don’t think I’m there yet and probably never will be.