Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Made in Minnesota

I’ve always thought of Minnesota as a pleasant place to live and a great place to raise kids. Three out of the four seasons are pleasant enough. But let’s face it, the winters can be brutal even for a lifer such as myself. But, as the saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder and I’ve found myself revisiting my home state even while sequestered in my winter haven.

Through various web sites and YouTube videos, I’ve returned to Minnesota a number of times. The ‘Explore Minnesota’ videos, TPT’s ‘Lost Twin Cities’ series and even smaller clips from local realtors have given me a renewed look at my home. Several communities such as the ‘North Loop’ and ‘the ‘Creative Enterprise Zone’ in St. Paul also have outstanding web sites covering their home turf.

Over the years, our tenure in Minnesota has been pleasant enough. We’ve raised our kids there and now watch two out of five grandchildren when we get the chance. But gradually my tenure in Minnesota became challenged by my West Coast other half knocking on the door of residency. Now that I’m part-time Californian, my perspective about my home state has changed. It’s a different view now, free of the daily distractions of living life there.

I have a long and storied history with California. It’s like Leonard Cohen’s Hydra calling me back once again. Its part delusional, part opportunistic and part magical. But mostly it’s a comfortable relationship that seems to bring out the flip side of me that a lot of folks never see. It is at once my friend, advisor, irritator and councilor. It forces me outside of my Midwestern comfort zone.

The first time I stepped foot in California, it was off a Great Northern Railroad passenger car from Minnesota. The year was 1946.  I was three and my sister two. Along with my mother, we had ended up in Carmel-By-The-Sea. My Mother, by then separated from my father, had been encouraged to come out West to become a housekeeper for a past client from St Paul’s Summit Avenue neighborhood.

When we finally arrived on the coast, broke and hungry, my mother was informed by the old woman’s son that she had gone senile and would no longer have use of my mother’s services. So much for California dreaming.

My second time in the Golden State was in 1964. Fresh out of basic training, my first assignment was at the Presidio of San Francisco. Life at the Presidio was a Camelot-like existence that ended all too soon eight months later.

The third time to bask in that warm California sun came in 2000. Our family was staying at a friend’s condo in Palm Springs. It was our first introduction to desert living. Thus began a twenty-two-year intermittent love affair with that diverse community and all of its surrounding amenities.

The Midwest is more staid and conservative than California in a common-sense kind of way. For me, it’s two different life styles and two points of view. Yet there’s a common thread running between the two states with openness for all and acceptance of different points of view. Both offer a realistic view of the world and not a closed-minded myopic wish for what used to be. They don’t dwell on a world that, in fact, never really existed except in television sitcoms and wishful thinking. Instead, they focus on what could be and not what once was.

The accolades continue. California leads the nation in the rate of economic growth – more than twice the national average. It is home to the nation’s fastest-growing and most innovative industries – entertainment and high-tech. It incubates more startups than anywhere else in the world.

Yet California is far from perfect. A housing shortage has driven up rents and home prices into the stratosphere. While its public schools used to be best in the nation now they are among the worst. Each election cycle brings a plethora of new propositions which often times only confuse and muddy the legislative process.

Minnesota is no slouch either when it comes to social issues. There has been drug sentencing reform, moves toward an open primary, various child protection laws enacted and health-related issues addressed in this last legislative session. 


As much by lucky accident as foresight, I now find myself immersed in two different life styles, two different geographic locations and a wonderful diversity of friends and associates. Two different worlds and two wonderful life experiences at the same time.

There’s a quote I love that goes something like this: “At some point in the journey, you realize it’s time to head back home. It doesn’t matter where you are in the journey, the Gods begin calling and you must return home.” I think there is something about that mysterious force called ‘home’ that calls to all of us.

Once back home, I’m looking forward to long distance tours with my new E-bike, road trips with Sharon exploring the Minnesota hinterlands and time spent with Brennan and Charlotte, always a delight. On a more personal level, a return to my ‘coffee and chat’ sessions is something I’m really looking forward too.

Work on my PTV songs will continue as I try to find a venue for the play and its songs. Among other writing projects, I hope to continue working on my concept album called: Made in Minnesota. While I have little to no idea of what I’m getting into I’m going to try. Perhaps if I can find more musicians to work with, I can carve out more songs for the album.

I’m a born and bred Minnesotan with a strong streak of California to taint my mind. Both states have become home in more ways than one. They’re like a cradle upon which my imagination gives birth to creative, frivolous, silly and sometimes enlightened ideas, concepts and storylines. If ever there were a balance in my life, it would be called the Minnesota-California connection.

What can I say; it works for me.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Waleed Does the Jungle

Waleed, the Skinny Hippo, is off on another adventure. This one is full of dark shadows, scary eyes and strange thumping sounds off in the distance. All the ingredients wrapped around another enlightening tale for our loveable hippo. This new theme is one that’s been a thorn in my side since birth. The old familiar refrain from that older generation to mine that counters the truth: That is, that ‘being afraid doesn’t make you a coward’ and ‘strange sounds can be scary’ to very young imaginations.

This new Waleed story idea came into focus last fall. But truth be told, it had been hiding in the shadows of my mind for a very long time. Since its first publication, Waleed, the Skinny Hippo, book # 1, (Being Different) has been searching for a home. Individual purchases have been nice but I was looking a larger audience. I decided that having a second book in the series might make both stories more attractive to potential buyers.

The first Waleed book discussed the feeling of ‘being different from others.’ This second book would discuss ‘facing one’s fears.’ Without a lot of fanfare and deep thought, this second story also evolved into a children’s moral tale that I hoped might strike a chord of interest with children and their parents.

For as long as I can remember, my parent’s generation thought that ignoring a child’s fear or dismissing their concerns about scary things was the right approach to take. That generation wanted us kids to ‘man up’ and face our fears. That monster under our bed didn’t exist and we should know that. Hesitation and stage fright and being uncomfortable in front of others was a challenge to be faced and/or ignored but never addressed in a caring, comforting way. As young as I was, I knew that was bullshit but never had the courage to challenge my elder’s stance on it.

As with the first Waleed book, I wanted this new book to have strong, bright colors, cute animals, and attractive surroundings. Authenticity was important in that all the animals had to be indigenous to the location of the story. In this case, the story takes place in a dark, scary jungle.

Years before, I had initially worked with an illustrator who created one cover illustration which I loved. Unfortunately, over the ensuing months, nothing much happened in terms of creating this children’s story. Fast forward to a drought in my writing projects a while back and my editor, Vida, suggested we revisit my children’s story about the little hippo that couldn’t face the fact that he was different from his fellow hippos.

Back then, Vida and I found 92 different illustrators from five web sites to review. That, in turn, was whittled down to four characters I really liked. Finally, we settled on two artists who seemed to meet my criteria of a drawing of a cute and cuddly little skinny hippo.

Waleed, in Swahili, means ‘he who hides.’ That, in turn, seemed the perfect male’s name that best described someone who was an introvert and afraid of his own shadow. The name matched perfectly my loveable tiny hippopotamus.

The final winner was an artist out of Bangladesh who goes by the artist’s name of Shamima. Her drawing of little Waleed won my heart over. When we were ready for a second book in the Waleed series, Shamima readily agreed to draw it for us.

Marketing is always the Achilles heel for many writers, present company included. A couple of years ago, I entered Waleed in the Minnesota Children’s Book Festival in Red Wing and got some nice comments but no prize. Then I thought a very nice article our local newspaper published last summer might spur some interest but it didn’t.

So, this spring, another new marketing campaign will attempt to bring the story of Waleed, the Skinny Hippo to youthful populations in the Twin Cities and beyond. Waleed just might be the little hippo that shows all of us a new way of looking at life.

There’s even a third book idea edging its way into my consciousness, ‘Being kind.’ But that’s shaping up to be another story entirely.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Pure as Folk

Most of us have a musical window inside our head. It’s that time period when music played a critical role in imprinting images and emotions into our brain. These are feelings that generally stay with us for the rest of our lives. My musical window extends from roughly the mid-fifties through the sixties. Folk music, now labeled Americana music, was one of the driving forces behind my rabid interest in music of many different genres, styles, and forms.

I recently finished a book that brought back a lot of memories of that period and some interesting footnotes for that style of music. It’s called: ‘Always A Song; My Story of the Folk Music Revival by Ellen Harper.’ Ellen is an accomplished folk singer and mother of Ben Harper, another well-known singer in that tradition.

One of the dichotomies of that period was the conflict between the folk purists and the new musical explorers. While I couldn’t define or even explain it, folk music struck an emotional chord with me. As the book points out: ‘Many in this largely affluent, well-educated, and restless generation, seeking inspiration and hope, embraced the authenticity of folk music as a powerful medium for expression.’ But storm clouds were on the horizon.

The book continues: ‘There has always been a tension between what is considered authentic and what is thought of as commercial. The folk music revival is a story of blurred lines, and navigating those often poorly defined boundaries as complicated. There can’t be a folk music revival without the music industry.’

Authentic folk singers such as Pete Seeger, Bud and Travis, The Steeple Singers, Hedy West, the New Lost City Ramblers, Woody Guthrie, Cisco Huston, and many more were always on the hunt for traditional material. They mined the hills of Appalachia, the printed volumes of English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish music and other cultural artifacts for long lost musical treasures. The thought seemed to be that if it wasn’t over a hundred years old, it wasn’t authentic.

I, on the other hand, was raised on the button-down folk groups like the Kingston Trio, Chad Mitchell Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary and many others of their style. Folk purists thought these new groups had sold out with their crass commercialization of their traditional music. I found the music easy to listen to, with a message that grabbed me on an emotional level that few other experiences had before that.

Folk music has been around forever but changes shape and form as new generations discover its power amid its simplicity. A new trend I’ve discovered on my Facebook newsfeed are the offers of free music from these folk types with only charges for shipping.

The old mechanism of music publishing and distribution has been thrown for a loop with the advent of the internet, YouTube and other streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. If I want to check out a group, old or new, I can either go to their web page or YouTube to see and hear them. Singers today must be their own best advocate with their home page on the internet and other means of reaching their intended audiences.

Talk about coming around full circle. So, here I am at age Eighty-One trying my hand at writing lyrics and creating songs of that style and period. I’ve been so fortunate to have met a fellow traveler who has been an enormous help in crafting nine original songs for one of my plays.

I’ve also written a play about an aging folk group still trying to make a dent in the music business. It’s a combination folk concert and a play. Both plays PTV and Tangled Roots are looking still for a home.

Added to that rucksack of stumbling ambition, my mind (as untethered as it is) has wandered off in a totally different direction. It’s the creation of a full-blown album called: ‘Made in Minnesota.’ My fantasy is that it would highlight periods, incidents, fellow travelers of my past through songs. It would be wrapped up in the cloak of folk and its universal themes of love lost and found, the angst of youth and pleasures of being raised in the North Country.

Where it might go is anyone’s guess at this point in its development.