Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Ten Minutes with Carol Dunbar, A Ghostwriter Who Lives in the Woods

There's a difference between writers who dabble and those who purposefully practice a disciplined writing life. Hemingway's goal was 500 good words each day. Jack London produced a thousand. You will be impressed with Carol Jean Butler's output, as well as her personal history. I believe you'll learn much from her insights based on her decades of experience.

EN: Share how you came to be a professional writer. What was your path from childhood scribbles to a serious career decision?

Carol Dunbar: My path was not a traditional one. My first book titled The Dog Who Got Eaten was about a dog with a hole in the middle of its body who got mistaken by his owner for a donut. So, right away I struggled with plot. But I wrote many books until third grade when I decided to get serious. I labored over my masterpiece, the sequel to Peter Rabbit. I don’t know why I was obsessed with that rabbit, but it was an assignment for school, and I over-achieved, writing pages and pages—I wanted it to be really great. These were newsprint pages with those thin red and blue lines, and I erased so many times the pages became transparent and difficult to read. My teacher gave me a C. It was the only C I ever got and the hardest I’d worked on anything up to that point in my life. Then in fourth grade, I saw Man of La Mancha and fell in love with a more physical form of storytelling. I got my BFA in theatre, wrote in secret, and worked professionally as an actor for 10 years until I moved off the grid to finally focus on writing.

EN: You were born in Guam and have lived in several places such as Georgia, Rhode Island, Hawaii, and Texas. Now you live off the grid, in the woods here in Northwest Wisconsin. How have all these places and experiences informed your writing?

CD: I feel incredibly lucky to have this wealth of place to draw from, but it took me a while to tap into that. I used to think that because I was from nowhere, I couldn’t write with authority about anywhere. I used to bemoan the fact that I’d never write a cozy small-town story about growing up in one place where everybody knows everybody. I admire what Elizabeth Strout did with Olive, Again and how she brought all these characters from her previous novels back together into one fictional place. I might do that someday now that I’ve lived in Wisconsin for 18 years. But right now, I’m working on a novel-in-stories about people who can’t settle down. I’ve always wanted to read a book about people who move.

EN: You write both fiction and non-fiction. I myself feel my non-fiction has been enriched by poetry and fiction writing. How does your fiction inform your non-fiction writing?

Carol Dunbar
CD: This is an interesting question because my fiction informs my non-fiction from two different directions, both personally and professionally. And let me just say I think it’s wonderful you let poetry enrich your fiction. I admire poets and their precision.

From my fiction writing I learn how to tell the truth. A friend and writing colleague once shared with me that when she writes her characters in first person, they lie. That absolutely is true for me when I write nonfiction, and it’s why I prefer the third-person narrative. I have to work really hard to tell the truth when I’m writing personal nonfiction. It feels more vulnerable, and I only do it if I have something important to say that can’t be shared any other way. From a professional standpoint with the nonfiction articles and books I ghostwrite, my fiction skills help improve the writing because I know how to thread a narrative, how to draw out a story. Because of my theatre training I have a penchant for high drama, and I exploit that shamelessly to make my financial planning books more palatable.

EN: For authors seeking to publish books, especially fiction, finding a good literary agent is challenging. How did you get matched with yours?

CD: Serendipity. I met my agent at a writing conference and I pitched her. But making the decision to seek representation felt a lot like trying to decide when to go to the hospital during my first pregnancy. After so many years laboring over a book, I didn’t want to query too soon and be sent home.

I read this book called Your First Novel: An Author Agent Team Share the Keys to Achieving Your Dream by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb, with a kickass foreword by Dennis Lehane. Wonderful book. And I didn’t query an agent until I’d done all 10 things on this list included in that book, a list that basically said, “Don’t even think about querying until you’ve done X, Y, Z.” The list included impossible things like giving a public reading to a group of strangers, and my heart sank because, as a mom to little kids, I knew it would take me years to do all the stuff on the list. But the process was rewarding in of itself, and my novel got better with each item I check off. Through Lake Superior Writers, I was given an opportunity to give a reading at Grand Central Plaza. I was so nervous presenting my book to this group of seniors, but they were just marvelous. They listened attentively when I read the first three chapters, they asked questions and we talked. Then to my utter delight they wanted to know what happened next, so I read to them some more.

It was having this engagement with readers that clued me in on what was interesting and important about my book. It helped me both from a character development standpoint and from a marketing standpoint when writing my pitch. By the time I set out to query, I felt on solid ground because I knew how to talk intelligently about what I’d written. When I set out to find an agent, I received two requests for full reads after only five queries—and that’s going from the first 10 pages, to a request for 50 pages, to a request for the full manuscript. I share this not to brag, but to make the point that in my experience, if you really do all the things that the professionals advise you to do when setting about this process, the work pays off.

EN: You mention that you don’t send something out till you have read it out loud. This is great advice for beginning writers. What are some other tips you might suggest?

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash
CD: I can share two tips brought to you by my theatre background. First, learn how to read your drafts like an actor. An actor treats the written text like a holy thing where every word matters and is there for a reason. First drafts obviously have a lot of problems and are full of crap, but they can also offer unexpected gifts from the subconscious. If you can learn to identify these gems and trust yourself, they can reveal hidden motives and help show you the way.

Second, listen to yourself. Even if you’re not someone who typically engages with the written word aurally, even if you hate the sound of your own voice, even if you don’t have time, read it out loud, record it, and then listen to your story like a reader would listen to an audiobook. This process helps me edit in three different ways. First, as you said, when I read the work out loud, I suddenly see and hear big problems that I didn’t see when looking at the page. Second, reading and listening both help you to feel your way through the climax of a chapter, a story, or a scene. It helps you to recognize when you’re peaking too early, when you’re losing tension, when you’re doing too much or not enough or when you’re repeating yourself. And third, when you go for a walk or a drive and listen to your story again, you trick your brain into thinking you didn’t write this, and you become the person who just wants to be told a good story. And if the piece isn’t doing that, then you can identify why, and roll up your sleeves. Because the cool thing is that now, you won’t be just poking around, you’ll have a real intention to your editing because you will have identified what’s not working and why, so you will be able to fix it. This might sound tedious, but when you finally have a draft that’s a pleasure to listen to, there is no greater reward.

Photo by Levi Ventura on Unsplash
EN: You’ve had real success ghostwriting for a variety of clients. What do you like most and least about ghostwriting?

CD: What I like most is getting to interview people across the globe. It’s a little doorway into lives different from my own. I love hearing how they talk, hearing the background noises, and most especially I enjoy the conversations that are off topic. I once wrote an entire short story based on the sound of a young man’s voice who interrupted our interview with the word, “Grandpa?” So, my professional work energizes my creative work, which I’m grateful for, because you’d think it would be the opposite. I typically write 2,000 to 4,000 words a day for my paid work, and that’s in addition to logging in a 1,000-word minimum for my creative work. (I like to think that my writing muscles are buff.)

The physical fatigue is the hardest part. While the long form suits me, I’m banging away on a keyboard for hours at a time. I have an ergonomic everything plus a standing desk and a chiropractor.

EN: What are you working on now that has you jazzed?

CD: Great question. I’m working on a novel in stories that celebrates restaurant culture and the lives behind the hands that serve. These are what I call my waitress stories, and I wrote them between drafts of my novel. But the problem I’ve always had with short story collections is there’s no driving pull to get the reader to the end. So, with this collection, I’m working to thread a narrative that follows a group of individuals who all work together at a restaurant that has decided to close. So, the reader will follow them across the country to other places where they pursue other dreams and succeed or fail at building new lives.

As a writer I’m very interested in how people move through transitions. One of my favorite books is Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, and one of the most interesting parts to me was when Santiago worked at The Crystal Shop. He was very good at his job at The Crystal Shop and it was lucrative for him to stay there, but he was on a quest and so always felt this underlying dissatisfaction and a pull. I love this metaphor because I think we also get stuck in our lives working at our own equivalent of a Crystal Shop, and it can be very difficult to move on from that and answer what’s calling. Of course, in The Alchemist, the journey called him back home. And this is also interesting because in real life, it isn’t always that we have big ambitions; sometimes the greatest lessons come from learning how to stay.

EN: Thank you for your time and the rewarding read.

Related Links

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The COVID-19 Poetry Challenge

Poet / author Phil Fitzpatrick
On Memorial Day I received an interesting email from a writer/poet friend with The COVID-19 Poetry Challenge in the subject line. Naturally this intrigued me. His email began like this:

Dear Friends of Poetry, near and far,

Welcome to the COVID19 Poetry Challenge, an interactive, tournament-style elimination game in which 32 well-crafted poems (see below) about writing poetry are gradually whittled down to a Crowd Favorite, the champion, if you will. This is purely for enjoyment; no literary criticism is required or requested, implicitly or explicitly.

The tournament matches the format of the NCAA's March Madness playoffs in that poems are paired off in brackets and each week teams (poems in this case) get eliminated.

I love creativity of all stripes, and as a method for sharing great poetry with fans of poetry, this was truly a rewarding ploy.

The first four weeks will feature the Regionals, beginning with the Lift Bridge Regional, May 25-31. Poems competing in this first round are as follows, though not in this order.

1. Alexander, Elizabeth -- “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe”

2. Frank O’Hara -- “Why I Am Not a Painter”

3. Berry, Wendell -- “How to Be a Poet”

4. Bly, Robert -- “Words Rising”

5. Bukowski, Charles -- “So You Want to Be a Writer?”

6. Collins, Billy -- “Workshop”

7. Collins, Billy -- “The Trouble with Poetry: A Poem of Explanation”

8. Dickinson, Emily -- “Tell the Truth, but Tell It Slant”

Other regionals have names like The Hawk Ridge Regional, the Hobey Baker Regional, and the Poet Laureate Regional.

As soon as I received this email I couldn't help but start my day by reading all eight poems in the Lift Bridge Regional. There were no easy decisions here, all eight poems being worthy of a vote. Each decision came down to the wire, one game going into overtime.

Billy Collins is always a fun read, so I will end this by sharing one of his here.


Not Billy Collins
I might as well begin by saying how much I like the title.
It gets me right away because I’m in a workshop now
so immediately the poem has my attention,
like the Ancient Mariner grabbing me by the sleeve.

And I like the first couple of stanzas,
the way they establish this mode of self-pointing
that runs through the whole poem
and tells us that words are food thrown down
on the ground for other words to eat.
I can almost taste the tail of the snake
in its own mouth,
if you know what I mean.

But what I’m not sure about is the voice,
which sounds in places very casual, very blue jeans,
but other times seems standoffish,
professorial in the worst sense of the word
like the poem is blowing pipe smoke in my face.
But maybe that’s just what it wants to do.

What I did find engaging were the middle stanzas,
especially the fourth one.
I like the image of clouds flying like lozenges
which gives me a very clear picture.
And I really like how this drawbridge operator
just appears out of the blue
with his feet up on the iron railing
and his fishing pole jigging—I like jigging—
a hook in the slow industrial canal below.
I love slow industrial canal below. All those l’s.

Maybe it’s just me,
but the next stanza is where I start to have a problem.
I mean how can the evening bump into the stars?
And what’s an obbligato of snow?
Also, I roam the decaffeinated streets.
At that point I’m lost. I need help.

The other thing that throws me off,
and maybe this is just me,
is the way the scene keeps shifting around.
First, we’re in this big aerodrome
and the speaker is inspecting a row of dirigibles,
which makes me think this could be a dream.
Then he takes us into his garden,
the part with the dahlias and the coiling hose,
though that’s nice, the coiling hose,
but then I’m not sure where we’re supposed to be.
The rain and the mint green light,
that makes it feel outdoors, but what about this wallpaper?
Or is it a kind of indoor cemetery?
There’s something about death going on here.

In fact, I start to wonder if what we have here
is really two poems, or three, or four,
or possibly none.

But then there’s that last stanza, my favorite.
This is where the poem wins me back,
especially the lines spoken in the voice of the mouse.
I mean we’ve all seen these images in cartoons before,
but I still love the details he uses
when he’s describing where he lives.
The perfect little arch of an entrance in the baseboard,
the bed made out of a curled-back sardine can,
the spool of thread for a table.
I start thinking about how hard the mouse had to work
night after night collecting all these things
while the people in the house were fast asleep,
and that gives me a very strong feeling,
a very powerful sense of something.
But I don’t know if anyone else was feeling that.
Maybe that was just me.
Maybe that’s just the way I read it.

* * * *

Thanks, Phil for the thought-provoking and entertaining diversion. I can hardly wait till we get to the Final Four.

Related Links
Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins
Bill Collins, Poet Laureate
Phil Fitzpatrick Talks About His New Book of Poems, Hawks on High: Everyday Miracles in a Hawk Ridge Season
Three Feet Away by Phil Fitzpatrick

Meantime, he not busy bein' born is busy dying.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Lies, Lies and More Lies: No Wonder Baby Boomers Have Such a Distrust of Authority

More Notes from Ken Burns' The Vietnam War.

Just as the French underestimated the enemy at Dien Bien Phu, so did the U.S. consistently underestimate the enemy's strength and resolve. Even when we knew it was a mistake to get more deeply involved, we barged ahead anyways.* And all throughout we attempted to conceal from the American public what we were up to.

At first, we only sent advisors. Inconsequential results.
Next, we sent more advisors. Because President Johnson didn't want this fact known to the American people, it was done without fanfare, quietly and unobserved.
Next we sent troops. "They won't fight," they said, but would just stay in the background. Even so, the president didn't want this fact known to the American people.
Next, we're sending still more troops, this time to fight. Again, the president didn't want this fact known to the American people and it was hoped no one would notice.
Even as our involvement mounted, we were losing the war. "Gotta send more troops," went the cry. Simultaneously and privately, "Better not let the American people find out."

As the war went on, it became increasingly necessary to step up our response. It's hard to send 100,000 and 300,000 and 500,000 young men to potentially die without someone eventually noticing at home.

Karl Marlantes: "My bitterness about the political powers at the time was, first of all, the lying." I can understand policy errors and mistakes, if made with noble hearts. "That McNamara knew in 1965, three years before I was there that the war was unwinnable, that's what makes me mad."

Making mistakes is one thing, Marlantes said. Covering them up is "simply killing people to protect your own ego."

It's a famous joke, but so frequently true that it's become cliche. "How can you tell a politician is lying? His lips are moving."

LBJ kept telling people we're all about peace. Simultaneously, we start bombing villages with napalm.

Once LBJ bailed and Nixon took the White House, the same game continued. Tell the people what they want to hear and do what you want to do.

"I have a plan for getting us out of Vietnam," Nixon said. He concealed the truth that his plan was to win the war, which was already proven unwinnable.

According to Albert Einstein the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result.

I like the refrain for "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"  It goes like this: "When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?"

I am sad for our veterans who lost their lives in this meaningless conflict, and for those who have struggled with lifelong disabilities. Trivia: More than 200 journalists died covering the war.

* According to a recent New Yorker story on Kissinger, he knew the war was unwinnable as early as 1965.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Tower Records: Another Example of How the Mighty Fall

Creative Commons
It was one of the greatest tragedies of my life, to be honest with you, when it closed down. It really, really upset me. I miss it. I miss that routine, you know, of going to buy my records or my CDs, whatever.--Elton John

This month I've been reading How the Mighty Fall by Jim Collins. The book is a powerful analysis of how successful companies decline and fail.

I'd read two of Jim Collins' other books and found them both useful and personally rewarding. Built to Last illustrates the difference between founders seeking to create a legacy vs. entrepreneurs simply seeking to make a quick buck. Built to Last is a stark contrast to creative thinkers whose aim is simply to build companies they can flip into a big personal gain.

Good to Great's subtitle is pointed: "Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't." How do mediocre companies become superior and dominant in their industries? I couldn't help but think of  the New England Patriots as a team that transcended the ordinary when they hired Bill Belicheck. Exceptional leadership is definitely one of the features of great companies, Collins notes. A second feature, Collins notes, is "a culture of discipline."

The documentary All Things Must Pass is the story of Tower Records, its ascendancy and eventual decline. At its height this was a billion dollar record company with branches in 30 countries. A few short years later it was defunct. By watching this documentary you will vividly see the five steps process outlined in Jim Collins' How the Mighty Fall. These steps are as follows.

1. Hubris Born of Success
2. Undisciplined Pursuit of More
3. Denial of Risk and Peril
4. Grasping for Salvation
5. Capitulation to Irrelevance or Death

It's almost startling how the history of Tower Records, as outlined in this documentary, so perfectly follows Jim Collins' outline.

Established in 1960, Tower Records became a retail powerhouse with two hundred stores, in 30 countries, on five continents. Its humble beginnings in a small town drugstore happened to take place at precisely the right time. As they say, timing is everything. In 1999, Tower Records made $1 billion. In 2006, the company filed for bankruptcy.

* * * *

"It wasn't a job. It was just a way of life."

The documentary puts a positive spin on the story, but the realities of how it went down are pretty apparent. It was a party, and eventually there were people who got hurt. But while the party was going on, no one seemed to mind, I suppose. There was enough drugs, sex and rock 'n roll to satisfy those involved.

* * * *

At the core of Tower Records was this motto, which captured the essence of a generation: No Music, No Life. The emergence of radio at that time was also a phenomenon. The music was on the airwaves everywhere. AM superstations like WABC out of New York and others from the Deep South helped whet the appetite, marketing the new sounds. In the 60s FM radio bumped it to a new level.

In the early 80s Michael Jackson's Thriller and MTV gave the record industry another adrenaline rush. At the core, though, it was the same theme: No Music, No Life.

* * * *

The title of this documentary was borrowed from George Harrison's triple album released after the Beatles broke. In my own personal career I've often used this expression, All Things Must Pass. When things are going well, cherish it, because "this too shall pass."

The meteoric rise of Tower Records must have been a heady experience. Those who were there in the beginning talk about those days the way some might talk about a memorable event like Woodstock, except that this event lasted four decades. The astute viewer will observe that the seeds of their success were also their undoing. Things change, and the culture they created didn't.

Tower Records was not a victim. Many great companies do succeed in making difficult transitions.

* * * *

Today is Bob Dylan's 79th Birthday. He himself made many transitions during his career. With the advent of his Never Ending Tour in the late 1980's he began doing nearly 100 shows a year. COVID-19 succeeded in disrupting his schedule but hasn't interfered with his continuing to be relevant. His newest album of original material is due to be released in mid-June.

As I am oft fond of saying, there's a Dylan lyric or song for every situation. If you've read this for the marketing message sub-text woven into this blog post, then the Dylan line you'll want as your takeaway is, "He not busy being born is busy dying."

Life is about re-invention. Times change. Are you being renewed?

Related Links
Duluth Dylan Fest culminates today with three live streaming events at noon, 5 and 7:30 CST. Here is the Facebook Link to links for these three events.
Trivia: How many cover versions of Bob Dylan songs were recorded by other artists and sold via Tower Records from 1961-2006? 

Saturday, May 23, 2020

An Aesop Fable On Authenticity: The Monkey and the Camel

Photo by Vivek Sharma on Unsplash
Something I'd been reading recently triggered the recollection of the Aesop Fable, the Monkey and the Camel. The way I remembered it, the story took place near an oasis in the desert, hence the presence of the camel in this story. When I Googled it for this blog post, I found several versions of the story. This one here is told most efficiently, the way that I recall Aesop's tales usually being told.

This version comes from an unknown translator, copyright 1881, Wm. L. Allison, New York

The beasts of the forest gave a splendid entertainment, at which the Monkey stood up and danced. Having vastly delighted the assembly, he sat down amidst universal applause. The Camel, envious of the praises bestowed on the Monkey and desirous to divert to himself the favor of the guests, proposed to stand up in his turn, and dance for their amusement. He moved about in so very ridiculous a manner that the Beasts, in a fit of indignation, set upon him with clubs, and drove him out of the assembly. 

Moral: It is absurd to ape our betters.

The Library of Congress has a version which someone embellished, describing the Camel's knotty knees and other such details, which don't really strengthen the story in my opinion. In this versions the writer adds a sentence describing refreshments served afterwards, "mostly of camel's hump and ribs."

Yikes! As if it weren't enough simply bad enough to be shamed and laughed at. Making a fool of yourself can get you killed?

This InfoPlease version doesn't even include the moral of the story, an almost unforgivable oversight, since the pithy "moral of the story" endings are what make Aesop's Fables so delightful.

Photo by Andre Iv on Unsplash
The Monkey and the Camel
At a gathering of all the beasts the Monkey gave an exhibition of dancing and entertained the company vastly. There was great applause at the finish, which excited the envy of the Camel and made him desire to win the favour of the assembly by the same means. So he got up from his place and began dancing, but he cut such a ridiculous figure as he plunged about, and made such a grotesque exhibition of his ungainly person, that the beasts all fell upon him with ridicule and drove him away.

* * * *
I quickly found a couple versions identical to the first one above, but once again, this Heritage History variation adds embellishments. The first is the addition of the reason for this celebration, and then it says the Monkey was asked to dance.

At a great celebration in honor of King Lion, the Monkey was asked to dance for the company. His dancing was very clever indeed, and the animals were all highly pleased with his grace and lightness.

Now the way I remembered it, it was just another night at the oasis and when the music started playing the Monkey did what he loves to do, and does well. He danced.

Then the Camel gets into the spotlight, but this storyteller once again goes too far. The only detail he or she does correctly note is the Camel's motivation. He was consumed with envy.

The praise that was showered on the Monkey made the Camel envious. He was very sure that he could dance quite as well as the Monkey, if not better, so he pushed his way into the crowd that was gathered around the Monkey, and rising on his hind legs, began to dance. But the big hulking Camel made himself very ridiculous as he kicked out his knotty legs and twisted his long clumsy neck. Besides, the animals found it hard to keep their toes from under his heavy hoofs.

What's curious is this next detail. Instead of being laughed at and shamed, this version suggests that the camel got punished for something altogether different.

At last, when one of his huge feet came within an inch of King Lion's nose, the animals were so disgusted that they set upon the Camel in a rage and drove him out into the desert.

Shortly afterward, refreshments, consisting mostly of Camel's hump and ribs, were served to the company.

Do not try to ape your betters.

My vote is a thumbs down on this version, too. Aesop had it right, as did Hemingway centuries later. Less is more.
* * * *
The point of the story is lost when we go too far. Envy gets people in trouble. And trying to be something you're not makes it that much worse.

We all have different strengths. Through self-understanding we're better able to play to those strengths. Karen Horney, Freud's first female student, wrote extensively on neurosis, pointing out the psychological origin of our neuroses being due to a split between our real self and idealized self. In other words, when who we are is out of sync with who we think we are, we're going to have problems.

Our lack of awareness with regards to how we come across can result in our making fools of ourselves. I've done that. It's worse than embarrassing.

Hence, the Oracle at Delphi has this inscription above the door: Know Thyself.

Self understanding is fundamental to living authentically in a world half mad with projecting images of whom we're not. Be real, be true and you will be happier.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Astonishing and Creative Ways of Marking Time, Keeping Time

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash
Time it was, and what a time it was, it was 
A time of innocence, 
A time of confidences 
Long ago, it must be, 
I have a photograph 
Preserve your memories; 
They're all that's left you
--Bookend Theme, Paul Simon

Based on how often I've played it over the years, Tell Tale Signs must be one of my favorite Dylan albums. And one of my favorite songs on that double CD is Born In Time which I wrote about here in 2018:
Born In Time and Other Dylan Songs About Being Born

You can find the lyrics to Born In Time here.

Time is a concept that philosophers and thinking people have mulled over since the beginning time. Or at least since humans first appeared here. Poets and songwriters have be inspired by it, fascinated by the various ways we experience it, as too short, too long, too little and too much. 

Eve: Any idea what time it is?
Adam: Good question. Based on the angle of the sun I'd say it was after noon.


Gork: I killed another one of these things. After we skin it and build a fire it will be dinner time.
Glam: Oh good. I was getting tired of leftovers.

As life became more organized and sophisticated, so did our means of keeping time. When I took piano lessons as a boy I was given a metronome, which one can set to various speeds. It helps keep you from speeding up your pace when playing, something we can often do when nervous.

If you go to see a live orchestra performance -- nowadays you can watch them on YouTube -- you'll notice how the conductor uses his baton to set the tempo.

During my years in advertising I wrote quite a few scripts for radio advertising. I would utilize an Online Stopwatch to time these scripts so that they fit the radio station's time constraints. Today, I use that same Online Stopwatch to time my speeches for Toastmasters.

Photo courtesy @aronvisuals on Unsplash
The film Back to the Future had much to do with time. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) figures out a solution to being stuck in the past when he realizes that the Hill Valley clock tower will be struck by lightning on a specific moment in time...

Back to the Future is just one of many films that had time travel as a central theme. Other include 12 Monkeys, the Terminator films and Peggy Sue Got Married, among others.

When I was a little tyke we used to watch a cartoon called Mr. Peabody's Improbable History that was on the Rocky & Bullwinkle Show. Mr. Peabody was the smartest being on earth and one of his inventions was the WABAC (Way-Back) machine. A central feature of the cartoon series was going back in time to teach Sherman about various people from history from Napoleon and Lord Nelson to Jesse James and Sir Isaac Newton.

All these thoughts about time were stimulated by this fascinating web page titled Astonishing and Creative Ways of Marking Time, Keeping Time. I found it so interesting I wanted to. share it... and if you have time to explore, you will enjoy it, too.

Meantime, whatever is on your agenda for the weekend, have a good time. 

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Minneapolis Star Trib Features Bill Pagel and the Two Homes from Bob Dylan's Childhood

Bill Pagel, 2019
This was a fun story to read. Jon Bream of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (nicknamed the Strib by locals) has published a story about the the two homes Bobby Zimmerman lived in while growing up, here in Duluth and in Hibbing, both now owned by collector Bill Pagel.

Pagel, a relatively quiet behind-the-scenes kind of guy, was featured in chapter one of David Kinney's The Dylanologists, which mentioned in passing that he was in possession of Bob Dylan's high chair from when he lived in the duplex at 519 3rd Avenue East. At the time, the collector owned one Zimmerman house and that high chair. Since retiring he's devoted himself to filling the upstairs of this Duluth home with period furniture in accordance with the photos he's acquired from the time.

When I first got to know Bill he owned the house next door to the Hibbing home where Bob and his brother David grew up. He was like a mountain lion set to pounce the moment it became available. Today both properties are well on their way to being re-creations of their original forms.

Bass player Billy Peterson with Jon Bream during Paul Metsa's
Hour of Power program upon release of Bootleg #14
Jon Bream's article begins with this paragraph:
In his teeming Bob Dylan collection, Bill Pagel has more than 15,000 photos, 4,000 concert posters and 18 four-drawer file cabinets filled with manuscripts and ephemera. He owns the Minnesota native’s childhood homes in Duluth and Hibbing, not to mention little Bobby’s highchair.

The article includes 31 photos, including Bob Dylan's childhood high chair, which you can see online here at the Strib website.

Obviously not Bob Dylan Drive when Bob lived there.
The home he grew up in, today.

Related Links
Review of Jon Bream's book Bob Dylan: Disc By Disc
Archivist Bill Pagel Seals the Deal

Throwback Thursday: The Dylan Effect -- A Panel Discussion from 2012 Duluth Dylan Fest

Revisiting the 2012 Duluth Dylan Fest. It's interesting that I'd been invited to be on this panel of people whom I hardly knew at the time. It was the beginning of a number of good relationships with manifold insights.

22 May 2012
The Dylan Effect: Panel Discussion Is Rewarding and Insightful

It's Dylan week here in Duluth, an annual celebration of all things Bob that takes place in the North Country where he was born and raised. The banner over Duluth's activities is called Dylan Fest and in Hibbing it is Dylan Days. So much is happening that by week's end we'll all be dazed.

Last night's event in Duluth was billed as The Dylan Effect. The event took place at Tycoons Alehouse and Eatery in the old City Hall Chambers, beginning at 7:00 p.m. and finishing about 8:30 p.m. Following the discussion, Jim Hall, longtime musician and featured performer of Duluth and Hibbing Dylan Festivals for the past five years, played Dylan songs and at 10 PM, Dirty Horse continued the music with its rendition of Dylan and original tunes. I had to bail after John Hall completed his first set upstairs while we dismantled the room.

Essentially, the Dylan Effect was a panel discussion moderated by Karen Sunderman, producer and host of The Playlist, a local PBS show that covers the local arts scene among other things. The panel was comprised of  • John Bushey, longtime host of Highway 61 Revisited, educator, historian and professional magician • Don Dass, poet and preservationist, and one of the people responsible for the establishment of Bob Dylan Way • Susan Phillips • Nelson French • Tim Nelson, musician, local music promoter, and business owner, producer of the three Duluth Does Dylan CDs • David Everett artist and educator • and myself, Ed Newman. Behind the scenes manifold thanks are due to Zane Bail who helped put this all together.

Sunderman began by asking each panelist to briefly identify themselves and then say something about Dylan's influence on them personally. The answers varied but I was especially touched by David Everett's experience. Most of us in the room remembered Dylan's heart infection in the late nineties in which there was a concern that he might die. At the time 19-year-old Everett nearly despaired because he might never have the chance to hear Dylan live. Dylan survived and the very next year came to Duluth to do a concert, a richly rewarding experience for the young artist.

The second question, which we dove into with more vigor now that the dicussion was flowing, had to do with Dylan's influence on the broader culture. The way she worded the question was especially interesting. In what ways to do we see Dylan's fingerprints on the culture around us, locally, nationally and globally? Nelson French noted that everything Dylan does has been newsworthy almost his entire life. "Bob has always been in the news." He also mentioned that he has created a legacy, in the full meaning of the word.

In his own initial remarks John Bushey, host of Highway 61 Revisited, mentioned how he was impressed that Dylan had the courage to not be pigeon-holed.

Musician Tim Nelson described the way Dylan, even in all his permutations, carries something of the "Duluth sound" in him. "I hear it in Dylan....ecclectic... organic."

When I have more time I will elaborate on my own thoughts on this part of the discussion but my first notion, which I shared, was that Dylan's pervasive influence is far beyond what we see and hence we don't always see his fingerprints. It's much like the fashion industry. Insiders know that what appears on the Paris "Runway" will filter down over the next year into the chic styles and hip colors of boutique fashion down to the mass-produced styles and colors that fill clothing racks all across the continent. Dylan has been a seminal creative force in this same manner.

In preparation for the panel discussion we had been asked to assemble three words that we felt summed up who Dylan was, if such things are possible. One set was Bard, Passion, and Nature. David Everett said, "Pioneer, Dynamic, Fearless." (If you are reading this you will notice my blog here resides at, so I inwardly smiled at this word selection.) Tim Nelson's three words were, "Individual, Philosophical, Sassy....  in a devil-may-care kind of way. John Bushey used the word Multi-Dimensional, which also was assented to by all. There were many other good sets of word to which I added my own three and then a fourth:  Catalyst (someone else said this), Reservoir, Touchstone and Justice.

The discussion included questions from the audience and insights from there as well. While on his recent trip to China there were some critics who said he should have been more vocal about the oppression of artists and done more protest songs. John Bushey forcefully pointed out that Dylan opened his concerts there with the song "Change My Way of Thinking," and he urged all of us to really listen to the lyrics of that song. It very pointedly speaks to today's situation there.

All in all, I only wish my notes could do a better job of conveying here the richness of the dialogue that was shared. It was a very special time.

All pictures and paintings on this blog are my own unless otherwise indicated. Click images to enlarge.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Lessons from the 1976 Swine Flu Outbreak (A Reminder from History)

Jet injector immunization, 1976. CDC photo, public domain.
Yesterday I published a story on Medium about vaccinations, triggered by Alex Araz's appearance on Face the Nation this past weekend. The Secretary of Health and Human Services discussed a new program being fast-tracked called Operation Warp Speed, a massive effort to get 300 million people vaccinated by year's end.

At the end of last year I got my first vaccinations since the last time I stepped on a rusty nail, and in the process I learned some things. Even the most touted vaccines have their limitations. (Yesterday's article was titled So We Get A Vaccine, Then What?)

Afterwards I was contacted by a journalist friend whose mother was a public health nurse in 1976 when the Swine Flu outbreak occurred. I was sent a pair of article links that were quite eye-opening.

President Ford takes his turn. Photo: David Hume Kennerly. Public domain.
Very briefly, here is what happened back then. There was a flu outbreak at Fort Dix in New Jersey. As a result of a death, everyone at Fort Dix was tested and it turns out that two had what appeared to be a strain of the Spanish Flu that wiped out over 100 million people worldwide in 1919. There was suddenly a sense of panic and urgency to address this.

Before long it became a political issue as Gerald Ford put pressure on congress to fast-track a vaccination program. Merck and other drug companies balked at the initial pressure to create vaccines because they did not want to be held liable should there be negative ramifications.

Nevertheless, indemnity clauses were created to exempt the the drug companies from lawsuits, and President Ford pushed Congress to approve the program. In order to encourage the masses to get vaccinated the president himself went through with the procedure on national television.

Gagging the Whistleblower
Here are the two stories the journalist sent to me detailing the events of 1976.
The Public Health Legacy of the 1976 Swine Flu Outbreak
The 1976 Swine Flu Outbreak

The second of these articles includes information about an FDA researcher who publicly raised concerns about the safety of the vaccine. His fears were not unfounded. As it turns out hundreds of people who took the flu vaccine became paralyzed by the Guillain-Barré syndrome.     

Bruce Dull stated at a flu conference on July 1 that there were no parallels between the 1918 flu pandemic and the current situation. Later that month, J. Anthony Morris, a researcher in the Food and Drug Administration's Bureau of Biologics (BoB), was dismissed for insubordination and went public with findings that cast doubt on the safety of the vaccine.

45 million people were vaccinated before the government reversed course on the mandatory vaccinations for every man, woman and child.

My friend's email adds an interesting dimension to the story, anecdotal but revealing.
My mom spent her career in public health. She was passionate about her career. To her public health was a mission, not just a job. In 2016, two to three years before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was taking care of my physically failing mother. Her memory was fine and I asked her questions about her career, thinking I might write a book. She was a specialist in maternal and child health, which included vaccinating children before entering school. I recalled a time I was a teenager, and she was called away from her usual work to give vaccinations to the general public at the YMCA. I asked her for more information on that incident. She told me that there was a swine flu scare. The president had asked her to be among the hundreds of public health workers to give vaccinations to the general public.

She stated that she didn't really believe in these particular vaccinations. Shocked, because I knew of my mom's integrity, I asked why she would do this. She said, "Because the president asked me to." I think this is indicative of a simpler time. Even though the nation had just gone through an impeachment, people, no matter what political stripe, still respected their political leaders.

These stories are instructive on many levels. Today, more than ever, it seems like any statement that anyone makes is turned into a politically driven matter instead of considering that it may come from a good conscience and earnest doubts about a direction things are going.

I myself am not an expert, so am reliant on mediated information to draw conclusions that I can base decisions on. What I do know is that experts are not always reliable. I also know that the higher the stakes, the more challenging it is for whistleblowers to find an ear that will hear their concerns. I am thinking here of the engineers at Morton Thiokol who were concerned about the Space Shuttle Challenger's O-rings on that fateful and tragic day.

Lest anyone missed it, the incidence of Guillain-Barré was four times higher in vaccinated people than in those not receiving the swine flu. This is why the Discover article connects this 1976 incident with the Anti-VAX movement.

"Some of the American public’s hesitance to embrace vaccines — the flu vaccine in particular — can be attributed to the long-lasting effects of a failed 1976 political campaign to mass-vaccinate the public against a strain of the swine flu virus. This government-led campaign was widely viewed as a debacle and put an irreparable dent in future public health initiatives, as well as negatively influenced the public’s perception of both the flu and the flu shot in this country." 

* * * *
A maxim that I heard four decades ago rattles in my head as I consider these things. Sincerity is not truth. People can be sincere and also be wrong. Going faster may give the appearance of assurance, but if you go faster the wrong way, it will not get you to the destination you want to arrive at. 

We should take care not to be blind to the lessons of history. 

Disclaimer: I am not here advocating that no efforts be made to find a vaccine. I am (a) pointing out that there may be good reasons for being cautious about rushing the solution, (b) and legitimate reasons for why anti-VAXers have become uncomfortable with mass immunizations. 

Related Links
Who Are Your Experts (This was written as a marketing article, but applies to other situations including this one.)
So We Get A Vaccine. Then What?

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Dylan-Themed Art from the Heart--Virtual Dylan Fest Continues

Masked and Anonymous.
For the past several years Duluth Dylan Fest has had a number of regular features. Lots of music, a trivia night, poetry, more music, a wonderful singer/songwriter contest (in keeping with Hibbing's Dylan Days), a birthday cake on the front yard of young Bob's Duluth Hillside home, and an art event. The art opening has traditionally been on Monday evenings, i.e. last night.

For 2020 we had conceived a student art show in which we'd planned to have young people from three area high schools create work in response to the music of Bob Dylan. The idea was to share the power of Dylan's prose, music, stories with another generation while continuing to affirm the importance of visual art in Bob Dylan's creative oeuvre. 

Then, the pandemic came and shut down all the schools. 

In lieu of this I am sharing some of my own Dylan-themed creative expressions, plus links to posts from previous Dylan-fest art-related events. 

Meantime, art goes on all around you. Get into it.

Dylan as Wizard of Oz
"Blowin' in the Wind" -- 24"x 36" acrylic on panel. $300
Related Links
Inspired By Scorsese's Biopic on Dylan, Skye's Art Inspires Others in Duluth
Local Arts Scene Intersects With Dylan Fest To Produce Rewarding Event @ Zeitgeist
Duluth Dylan Fest Art Exhibit at Zeitgeist... and the Week Rolls On

Next year the Northland will be celebrating Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday. In anticipation, we’re desirous of making it The Year of Bob here in St. Louis County, where Bobby Zimmerman spent his youth. The dates for Duluth Dylan Fest 2021 have been finalized for May 22-30.

Virtual Duluth Dylan Fest Events

May 20--Virtual Dylan Fest Performance by Marc Gartman -- 7:00-8:00 PM

May 23--Virtual Bob Dylan Revue Reunion Concert Revisited (YouTube)

May 24--Al Diesan, Streaming Live from Rome Italy
Noon-2:00 P.M. CST  Diesan, a Bob Dylan sounds-alike and performer will be streaming live from Rome.

Danny Fox Livestream Virtual Duluth Dylan Fest Event
5:00 p.m. CST--Two-time winner of the Dylan Days Singer/Songwriter contest will be streaming live from Chicago

Gene LaFond and Amy Grillo
7:30 p.m. CST--Bob Dylan Birthday Bash Livestream with Gene LaFond & Amy Grillo
According to Geno, the event "will be a lot of lesser heard Bob tracks, a smattering of stories from my experiences on the road with Bob & his gigs buddy Larry Kegan & a couple of our new originals. It will be big fun honoring the maestro on his 79th!"

May 22 there will be a Cookin' At the O Covid 19 Live Stream Benefit
Benefiting COVID-19 healthcare workers across our region, specifically the Min No Aya Win Clinic on the Fond Du Lac Reservation, Riverwood Hospital in Aitkin, St. Luke’s in Duluth, Mercy Hospital in Moose Lake, Cloquet Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet.
How does this related to Dylan Fest? Bass player Billy Peterson, who recorded with Bob in Minneapolis (Blood on the Tracks), is in the mix. The jazz trio also includes Andrew Walesch, piano & vocals, & Glenn "Swanny" Swanson on drums.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Watching the River Flow--Dylan Wrestles With His Complicated Inner Self

"All rivers run into the sea, and yet the sea is not full." ~Eccles. 1:7

Here's a place I like to go to watch the river flow. 
Some of the great books that I've read featuring rivers include Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Nobel Prize-winning author V.S.Naipaul's A Bend in the River, Thomas Wolfe's Of Time and the River, Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Herman Hesse's Siddhartha. This past year I began an interesting book called River of Doubt about Teddy Roosevelt's journey up the Amazon. Hollywood films featuring rivers include Deliverance, The African Queen, Apocalypse Now and The Man from Snowy River, among a host of others.

At one time rivers were the primary means of transportation. Before the infrastructure of highways and byways, of rails and roads, the rivers were our transportation routes, hence all the major cities that we find along bodies of water. In Herman Hesse's novella Siddhartha, the river is a symbol. As he encountered the river in various stages of his life, its wisdom was revealed to him as it reflected his soul.

By this river I want to stay, thought Siddhartha... Tenderly, he looked into the rushing water, into the transparent green, into the crystal lines of its drawing, so rich in secrets. Bright pearls he saw rising from the deep, quiet bubbles of air floating on the reflecting surface, the blue of the sky being depicted in it. With a thousand eyes, the river looked at him, with green ones, with white ones, with crystal ones, with sky-blue ones.

I think I associate this song with Siddhartha because I was reading Herman Hesse around that time of my life when this song, and then the album, came out. But Bob Dylan's "Watching the River Flow" is a different kind of contemplation.  Recorded in March 1971 it was released as a single after which it appeared on his Greatest Hits, Volume II. It's a more energized song than the one he wrote with Roger McGuinn for Easy Rider. "The river flows, flows to the sea, wherever that river goes I want to be." (I used to play a harmonica lick with that when I was in college. It was very relaxing.)

The power in "Watching the River Flows" comes from the inner conflict that sits at the core of this story. It appears to be an autobiographical sketch that correlates with theologian Paul Tillich's intimate autobiographical sketch On the Boundary. In it Tillich explores the various polarities of his life and how they influenced him in different ways, between city and country, between social classes, between reality and imagination, between theory and practice, etc.

At the beginning of the song the narrator's been all night at an all-night cafe, "walking to and fro." This to and fro is the first clue of his inner restlessness, his life on the boundary between competing desires, two competing selves. There's a universality in this image as we all must learn to manage the polarities in our lives.

I love the matter-of-fact storytelling, similar to "I went to see the gypsy...saw him in a big hotel, he smiled when he saw me coming..." --just telling what happened, simple things, yet so much more. And in that song to he's been up all night so as to see the sun coming up "on a little Minnesota town."

As dawn is breaking, he here heads to a bank of sand by the riverside to mull things and watch the river flow.

What’s the matter with me
I don’t have much to say
Daylight sneakin’ through the window
And I’m still in this all-night café
Walkin’ to and fro beneath the moon
Out to where the trucks are rollin’ slow
To sit down on this bank of sand
And watch the river flow

This is a person very different from Siddhartha. Dylan is youth, Siddhartha full of years. Dylan is restless, Siddhartha inwardly at peace.

Wish I was back in the city
Instead of this old bank of sand
With the sun beating down over the chimney tops
And the one I love so close at hand
If I had wings and I could fly
I know where I would go
But right now I’ll just sit here so contentedly
And watch the river flow

The real Dylan was raising a family at this time. He had some little ones to look after, a father role to play. He states he'll sit here contentedly, sharing this quiet life with the one he loves. And yet... As he notices people in disagreements, it might be that he notices this external feature because he has his own disagreements within himself.

People disagreeing on all just about everything, yeah
Makes you stop and all wonder why
Why only yesterday I saw somebody on the street
Who just couldn’t help but cry
Oh, this ol’ river keeps on rollin’, though
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow
And as long as it does I’ll just sit here
And watch the river flow

We live in a world today where there's more verbal conflict than ever. It might be best for all of us to get off social media and read more books, or sit on riverbanks.

People disagreeing everywhere you look
Makes you wanna stop and read a book
Why only yesterday I saw somebody on the street
That was really shook
But this ol’ river keeps on rollin’, though
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow
And as long as it does I’ll just sit here
And watch the river flow

Watch the river flow
Watchin’ the river flow
Watchin’ the river flow
But I’ll sit down on this bank of sand
And watch the river flow
Copyright © 1971 by Big Sky Music; renewed 1999 by Big Sky Music

He began by asking, "What's the matter with me?" This is interesting because his accusation is turned inward. He's not saying, "Why are you so screwed up?" He's not finger-pointing. (He's not finger-painting either, but I'm curious if he'd paint his masterpiece with brushes or some other tool.)

He ends by taking a seat at the riverside. There's something refreshing and healing about rivers and water. They can be dangerous, too, when they rage and overrun their banks. But rivers, like people, have their rhythms.

Dylan has played this song 500 times live. Here is a YouTube video that has the first two of these live performances from 1978, courtesy someone who calls himself Mr. Tambourine Man. This is not a high-end production, but it's historical value can be underscored.

* * * *
Love the energy Joe Cocker delivers in his version of the song.

Rivers are cited more than three dozen times in Dylan's songs. His Hibbing home wasn't that far from the headwaters of the Mississippi and a rare triple watershed. Every river begins somewhere.

You can find insights from Robert Shelton, Greil Marcus, Clint Heylin, Christopher Ricks and others here on Wikipedia.

For a nice closure here, let's borrow these lines from Oscar Hammersteiin.

Ol' man river,
Dat ol' man river
He mus' know sumpin'
But don't say nuthin',
He jes' keeps rollin'
He keeps on rollin' along. 

* * * *
This week is Duluth Dylan Fest, a virtual event this year due to the literal disruption caused by the pandemic. For the first time you can participate from anywhere without being here. For the schedule of event, culminating Sunday on Bob's 79th birthday, visit Duluth Dylan Fest Goes Virtual