Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Rock the Tree (of Life)

Never one to back down from an idea that has penetrated my consciousness, I now find myself toying with a new storyline centered around religion. It’s a tale of lost love, religion dismissed and the vapid presence of God someplace in the background.

My relationship with God has always been tenuous at best. It’s now playing itself out in a new movie script concept that is slowly leaching out of my brain in the form of vapid scenes, running dialogue and undercurrents of love smashing up against ingrained religious belief.

Rock the Tree (of Life) is a story of finding, losing, and rediscovering God in a whole new form-I think.

My disillusionment with God, religion, heaven, hell, the afterlife and all things religious began in Eighth grade. After eight years of Catholic indoctrination at the hands of those daughters of Christ and men of the cloth, I finally hit a Catholic truth I couldn’t accept. It was simple enough; the fact that unless one is baptized as a Catholic, one couldn’t get into heaven. That simply didn’t jive with my immature brain that thought if God is all knowing and all great, he/she would never dismiss my friends as unworthy of heaven simply because their parents were of another religion.

Further study into many other Catholic doctrines I’d been taught and I was gradually finding myself falling away from the confinements of my mother’s religion. That lasted through high school and college and a good portion of my ‘lost years.’

There was a brief return to the church during the Sixties when my friend, Susan and I, discovered the Newman Center on the University of Minnesota campus and their semi-hippie approach to God and goodness and fellowship. That feeling of fellowship and community continued with intense debates and honest discussion amid pitchers of beer at the old Triangle Bar on the West Bank.

It also initiated a plethora of soul-searching in the form of poetry and song lyrics as I tried to examine what I was feeling at the time.  That brief return of examining my faith left with Susan when another phase of life called marriage began.

Years later, the subject matter reappeared in one of my first story forms of a play/movie/novel called ‘Cafeteria Catholic.’ The core element of the story is simple enough. A man, devoid of any faith, meets a woman who is a believer. The plot revolves around their newfound love for one another and the challenges of one believer connecting with a non-believer.

In truth, the core structure and plot elements of ‘Cafeteria Catholic’ are now morphing into a new storyline call ‘Rock the Tree’ with added conflicts and more layers of love added in. The background setting is different but the core conflict remains the same.

It’s not as if I don’t have enough to write already. There are two completed movie scripts that still need to get under Hollywood’s radar and a plethora of other projects screaming for my attention. Yet, this question of the existence of God and all of its surrounding baggage is a subject matter I find fascinating. Garnish it with the warmth and depth of true love and there is a story inside just waiting to get out.

I have no idea if I will even begin this new writing project this summer. Yet the ideas keep coming out and snap me to attention deep into the midnight hour. How can I ignore a storyline as strong as that?


Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Seeking Light Inside my Head

I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting lately. Out West, it’s usually late at night after the sun has set and the mountains are outlined in gray and black. Back in Minnesota, it reverses itself and I find my reflective thoughts nudging out the bird songs and early morning dew on the grass.

What do I want to do with the rest of my life and is Eighty-One too late to start? Two questions with no concrete answers for either one. What I am sure of is that I’d rather be happy at the miles traveled rather than look back at the many stumbles encountered. It took me a lifetime to get here with no shortcuts but plenty of detours along the way. If one were to review the well over 600 blogs I’ve written, one would surely find a discernable pattern of reflective thoughts there. Over the years, I’ve discovered special spots here and there for those reflective thoughts.

One of my first places to take in the wonder of beauty around me was discovered while traversing one of the many steep switch-back mountain trails in my backyard. A flat rock, perfect for resting my backpack and tired limbs, gave me pause before continuing my climb to the top.

The panoramic views brought a state of enlightenment to my strenuous climbs and descents among the canyons and switch-backs that surround me here in the desert.

Nestled among the orange and lemon trees, two old worn out Adirondack chairs hid me from the golfers passing by and the birds romancing in the branches above. It’s a place to settle down with my coffee, tablet and open mind for the sights and sounds and smells that abound there. All of these quiet nature-made pews stimulate an appreciation for my life thus far. Of course, there are always mental nay-sayers along the way.

Unfortunately, what’s working against me is my German Catholic upbringing. Too much allegiance to the man of the cloth along with his sisters-in-kind. Their word was sacred and final and all too often wrong in all the right places. Emotions and feelings were a sign of weakness and our elders often preached that ‘children should be seen and not heard.’

What’s working in my favor is my German Catholic upbringing. There was always a focus on hard work, material sacrifice and a subtle but unmistakable desire to get ahead. Past generations would often describe it (and usually disparagingly) as ‘rising above your raisin.’ My mother led by example, not words or lectures. It was a subtle message but well received by my sister and I.

What I’ve stumbled across in my old age (relatively speaking) is the ability to see my luck (through the fog of daily life) in whom I married, my kids, and my grandkids. If there is a legacy to be left behind, I guess they’re mine.

I’ve been most fortunate with my health, managing my cerebral curiosity and how I’ve chosen to live my life on a daily basis. There’s been a real outburst of writing projects over the last several years that has surprised even me.

            Trying to write music for several of my plays.

            Getting my plays produced beyond the five already there.

            Getting my children’s book ‘Waleed, the Skinny Hippo’ in front of more kids.

            Exploring the idea of a graphic novel for ‘Sweetpea & the Gang.’

            Marketing two movie scripts to the right contacts in Hollywood.

            Toying with the idea of a concept album of my own music.

At this stage of the game, the one and only truth that counts for me is simply that: Health is Wealth. I’ve been incredibly lucky thus far.

Leaving the comfort of home for the rough, unknown of a mountain trek opens one up for all kinds of cerebral explorations. Early morning or late-night rendezvous with nature does the same trick with your head. It all comes down to not knowing what you’ll find and not caring. Just enjoying the serenity and peace and calm of mother nature. And luckily reflecting on a life well-lived.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Soft Drinks with Straws

I stumbled across a collection of old photos awhile back that hit that old familiar tripwire inside my brain. They were from my several European jaunts in the mid-Sixties. Back to a time and place long since faded from my mind except for the gentle nudging that old photos can do for someone open to a brain dump.

Back then, living in Europe was entirely different than living safely ensconced in the states. There were and still are so many different cultural and historical traditions that have withstood the test of time. Once you’ve lived abroad, it’s easy to see that the world doesn’t evolve around what the press, your neighbors or even Capitol Hill has to say…especially now. It’s a much larger piece of real estate than that. In short, it’s one of life’s lessons that everyone should experience.

This was especially true for me as I roamed from country to country in search of who-knows-what? There was no Starbucks on every corner. Coffee usually meant Nestlé’s instant coffee; just add water and cream. Corner cafés served only tea and cappuccino. The latter was a solid mass of black mud served in a tiny cup under the guise of coffee. If you ordered a soft drink, it always came with a straw sticking out of it.

When Brian and Melanie were in college, Sharon and I insisted they participate in a ‘study abroad’ program. Brian traveled around the world and Melanie went to Ireland. They both came back changed individuals with a much greater appreciation for their place in a world outside of Apple Valley, Minnesota.

Scandinavia, in the mid-Sixties, was a world (literally) apart from the provincial, sheltered, prudish Midwestern enclave I had immigrated from. It was open and accepting of different social opinions, individual sexuality, fuel-inducted free thinking and a world view of themselves. The same was true for the Netherlands.

That environment of free thinking was a bit unsettling for me when I first settled in Denmark but I quickly realized that this lack of judgement to those different from the crowd wasn’t threatening to them at all. The Dane’s open-minded approach to life made examining current social, political, sexual and artistic affairs more realistic and affirming. It was mind-bending and mind-altering at the same time.

When I returned to Europe for a second time, I spent the majority of my travels in and around Amsterdam and Copenhagen. I became integrated into a community of Dutch friends for several months. That city and country had embraced the free-thinking attitudes of the Danes and then pushed it even further down the road of enlightenment. It began for me in some back canal bar when I happened across a solitary guitar player serenading the pigeons gathered around him. We chatted over a couple of beers and soon became fast friends. The smoky atmosphere drifting out of the club probably sped up that process a lot.

John was a student at the local University. He was an aspiring guitar player and a budding architect. He was also struggling to find a major that mattered to his social consciousness and paid the bills at the same time. He was also desperate to move out of his parent’s flat and find his own apartment. We shared great stories of our travels, my time working in Denmark, his desire to go to the states and our collective hope for the greater world beyond the canals of Amsterdam.

One afternoon, I met one of John’s friends who was also his salon companion. I can’t remember his name but the young man was remarkable in his intellectual prowess and yet total lack of social skills. John’s friend wasn’t able to hold a steady job because of his mental and social inability to interact with people. So, he spent most days, reading, writing and interacting with his beautiful child.

John’s friend lived in subsidized housing just outside of town. His wife was from Indonesia and they had the most beautiful child I’d ever met…before my own kids and grandchildren.

I stayed with them for almost a month in an impromptu, unstructured home life full of questions and comments, pondering the possibilities and forecasting our future. I was their American guide for all their questions about Vietnam, LBJ, unrest on college campuses, current campus fashions,

Hollywood movie stars, American capitalism and our obsession with nudity and (in their mind) the timidity of Playboy magazine.

On weekends, John and I would often travel through the back-alley bars and University student union in search of those ever-elusive female companions. These college students loved to interact and exchange ideas with the American traveler and his shy folkie friend.

The women we met were primarily upper-class University students wise to the ways of their world and anxious to explore life beyond the canals of Amsterdam. Our conversations gave me a global perspective I’d never experienced before. Our evening socials were a series good natured intellectual fisticuffs, seductive meandering in a safe environment and mind-expanding concepts over cappuccino, coke with a straw and some of the stronger stuff. I can’t remember if the women were attractive or not. It hardly mattered. They were stimulating, engaging and attentive. It was easy to fall in love with them…if only in my imagination.

I’m sure I probably looked like a hobo with my worn jeans, hiking boots and frayed jacket. But the girls didn’t seem to mind. I remember their fashion sense bordered on the simple and practical and yet with a flare of their imagination. There was very little of the Carnaby Street or Bibi fashion trends going around at that time. With winter fasting approaching, now-a-days we’d probably call it the layered look.

Looking back after all these years, I’m sure I was too engaged in slight exaggeration tempered by intimate soul searching and honest bravado to ever delve into deeper issues. It was a salon for the time and it made an indelible impression on me. As for their impressions of that young fellow from Minnesota, I have no idea. In other words, I was probably talking too much to listen as well as I should have. Some things never change.

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

If I Die on the Tram Hill Road

There are places and times that can burn an experience into your brain for a lifetime. The Tram Hill Road was one of those heart-pounding exercises in pain that did just that.

I discovered the Tram Hill Road when we first began wintering in Palm Springs. The Tram Hill Road is a long, winding, torturous roadway that rises up over two thousand feet from the valley floor to the base of the tram way station which, in turn, takes its gondolas to the top of San Jacinto Mountain. It’s almost three miles of hot asphalt twisting and turning in the early morning heat. Perfect for a storyline and even better as song material.

References to that ribbon of heat figure prominently in my’ Debris’ Trilogy series of books about Palm Springs. ‘Drive’, book number two dramatizes the importance of the road to my protagonist. Last winter, while compiling song ideas for my concept album ‘Made in Minnesota’ I came across a poem I had written a long time ago about the Tram Hill Road.

In retrospect, it’s an interesting example of a poem written in one lifetime finally finding a home in another. I realize now that ‘Tram Hill Road’ could easily be a metaphor for the many different periods of my life growing up and the challenges faced there-in. Putting those experiences into song form is another extension of those feelings.

Turns out that ‘Tram Hill Road’ is a continuation of my attempt at song-writing that began many years ago. The ‘Broken Down Palace’ book of poems was a more established approach that cemented lyrics (poems, snippets’ visual scenes and song lyrics) into a book form.

I’ve been writing lyrics for a long time but my experiences up until this point hadn’t been very successful. Over the years, I’ve enlisted the support of different musicians in creating a music for various writing ventures of mine. Unfortunately, the outcome wasn’t very satisfying. I had envisioned working with the musician to write the music, melody and lyrics and then cooperate in the creation of different musical layers to fill in the bones of the song.

Fortunately, this pattern of one-sided venture-taking came to a halt with my introduction to a very talented singer/songwriter who ‘got it’ in terms of cooperation. 

The definition of collaboration is simple enough. ‘Collaboration is the action of working with someone to produce or create something.’ Sounds simple enough and therein lies the gaping black hole of potential failure. Give and take must be part of that equation if any partnership or collaboration is going to work.

True collaboration is really about finding someone who shares your vision for a project. Then working together to create that project to your mutual satisfaction.  In my case, it turned out to be with a very talented singer/songwriter by the name of AJ Scheiber. AJ does both solo work and plays in a band by the name of Wilkinson James. I would describe his work as akin to John Prine and Tom Paxton.

After a couple of meetings and AJ reading the script for PTV, it became apparent that he shared my vision for the play and the prominence of the songs therein. He introduced me to many different styles of music such as Texas Swing, Delta Blues, Chicago Blues, folk, Americana, Bluegrass, gospel, Appalachian, and a host of other similar styles of songwriting.

AJ wrote out lead sheets for each particular song. Lead sheets are tools used by songwriters to convey the basic structure of a song to musical directors and arrangers. The fun part (in my mind) begins in the studio when each song is layered with additional tracks of musical instruments. In my mind, the arrangement is everything.

Since I have a vested interest in the mood each song must convey to my audience, I see layering as critical to each song’s success in conveying that mood. In PTV, each song was written as another emotional cue to help the audience better understand my characters and their actions. It was imperative that each song emit that emotional reaction from the audience.

All of which leads to my poem-turned-song lyrics finding a home someplace. ‘Tram Hill Road’ might land in a new concept album I am exploring now. It might end up in another play centered on an aging folk singer and his quest for reaching audiences with his music. I’d love to see it circulated among musicians looking for new material. It might also languish for lack of interest.

No matter the outcome, it’s a story-poem-song that’s still in my bag of hopeful emotion-laced stories seeking a home and another morsel of truth I hope to share with the world someday.

If I die on the Tram Hill Road

If I die on the Tram Hill Road

Carry me home to lighten my load

Of haunting times and glory days

Of time run out and wasted ways


If I die on the Tram Hill Road

Strip me bare of rights gone wrong

And wrap them up in this song

Find a way to the truth

Of a world gone wrong in my youth


If I die on the Tram Hill Road

Bury me there beneath the fold

Of sunbaked rocks and things not told

Of gravel lies and pedal soft flowers

Dying in the sun hour-by-hour


If I die on the Tram Hill Road

Collect my thoughts and bury them there

Amid the relics of times long and fair

And memories haunted with the spell 

Of my sweet one’s truth never to tell


Copyright 2024

Denis J. LaComb