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Archive for March, 2014

#Amtrakresidency: The Empire Builder

12 Mar

I knew I needed Twitter followers @SpaffordJason when I saw something posted online called #Amtrakresidency. I was intrigued. What are the odds of that, kind and relentlessly charming readers – something intriguing on the big web? This residency involves getting picked to be one of 24 writers who will get a round trip ride on Amtrak for a few days to work on writing. I thought it was a good idea – for writers and the Amtak marketing people. The application was simple enough. I only needed to submit a story under ten pages, I needed to give my full name (I do that a lot anyway), and I needed to tell how this would help my writing. But, I also needed to give my Facebook URL, Twitter and Instagram handles. Uh, oh. I smell a marketing experience. Nonetheless, it would be a good experience.

For the most part, I’ve decided that my chances at this residency are limited, as they may weigh the number of twitter followers and Facebook friends more than writing skills. I’m afraid my 16 twitter followers are not going to help my cause. I follow a rock and roller named @woolyB on Twitter. If only he could expose me to his huge following of 70 plus persons, then and only then might I have a chance at the #amtrakresidency. But let’s not worry about that right now, because this whole thing reminded me of a story that very few people will ever read.

Several years ago we needed to attend a wedding in Indiana. I had to work, so decided to leave later and meet my family there. I had never ridden Amtrak before and the price made sense. This was well before hearing of such a thing as the #Amtrakresidency, but as luck would have it, I was even writing things at that time that people would never read. I thought this would be a perfect chance for me to have some quiet writing time.

I boarded the Chicago bound Amtrak train, The Empire Builder, at 7:30 am on a Friday morning in St Paul, MN. I found a seat and placed my ticket stub above the seat to officially lay claim to said seat. I unpacked my lap top, opened a blank word document and began to not write. It quickly became obvious that I needed a break. Breakfast seemed like the most rational escape.

Making my way to the dining car I walked through the observation car. I observed that the sun was streaming in and the early morning light made any shadows disappear like sin on Sunday. I thought this would be a better writing place than my seat and stuck a mental post it note on my cerebral cortex. I entered the dining car and chose a window seat at one of the white linen covered tables that partnered with four chairs. Soon after, three more people joined me. I would like to, for the sake of this story, be able to say that these were the three most interesting people I had ever met. But that just doesn’t happen every day and my guess is they might say the same of meeting me. Nonetheless, it was nice to hear about where they were going and search for those connections that are fun to stumble upon.

After breakfast, I went back to my seat. I took with me a small bowl of oatmeal with plastic wrap over the top, because for some strange reason the waitress had offered that she could make it “to go”. I sat my bowl of cooling porridge and plastic spoon in my seat, grabbed my lap top and moved back to the observation car. The car was not very crowded and I found a seat that I thought would be just the right amount of sun, but not too much, and could produce the best writing. Once my screen was up I decided to look out the window and enjoy the scenery. I like to watch people and scenery.

This watching all started, kind and curious readers, many years ago with my dad. Years ago, in rural areas Friday nights across the country were spent on Main Streets. People would be paid on Friday and then go to town. Growing up in Northern Wisconsin our Friday nights meant going to the thriving metropolis, the hub of the north, the home of the Hodag (that’s another story) – Rhinelander. My dad would sit in the car with the kids while my mom shopped at all the finer stores – JC Penney’s, for instance.

As we complained about boredom my dad would tell us to watch the people. The people are interesting. What’s their story. In the summer, are they local or a tourist? In the fall, do they work in town or in the country? In the winter, why are they here? In 1972 the people looked a lot alike in Rhinelander. One summer evening a young man was walking down the street with long hair, ripped pants to the point of underwear hanging out and an American flag patch attempting to bridge the gap. I thought to myself, what’s his story. My dad slowly shook his head and said, “Look at that God Damn Hippy.” I guess he knew the story with this guy. The window was rolled down and I always wondered if the God Damn Hippy heard my dad.

Twenty five years later as I was walking into a store with my own long hair, I walked by a kindly looking older gentleman and under his breath I heard him say, “Hippy.” Fortunately for me I was not considered “God Damned.” I was relieved and amused and went about my shopping.

As I looked out the window of the moving train, at that particular moment I really wanted to see a hippy. Nothing. Only trees. All of this thought had made me a bit tired and I decided that I should go away from the brightness of the observation car for a short nap in my seat. It was at this moment, upon evaluating how much writing I could possibly do, once I could start writing, that I thought about how it would be a good idea someday if there was something called “Twitter,” to have a writing “residency” aboard an Amtrak train. Maybe call it something like #Amtrakresidency. I didn’t know what the number sign would mean, but assumed some clever person in the future would figure it out. This twitter thing could be really cool for a few years – until old people started using it, and by that time there would be something cooler.

I made my way to my seat. There was a woman in my seat. She appeared to be in her late 50′s with unnaturally blonde hair. She had Birkenstocks on her feet and wore a necklace with a peace sign. She was sound asleep. My bowl of oatmeal was empty and on the floor. This Goldilocks had eaten my porridge and now she was sleeping in my Amtrak chair. I coughed in the aisle. She didn’t wake and run from the chair. She didn’t budge. I fidgeted for a short time, but couldn’t bring myself to wake her. I looked at her face in a real hard way and tried to figure out her story. I walked back to the observation car and all the way back I tried to figure out her story. No luck.

Upon my arrival back in the observation car I found that there were a few more people. Some of them had just gotten on the train. Among these extra people were two elderly gentlemen setting up what looked like a small P.A. system. They also had a microphone – nothing fancy, the trusty workhorse Shure SM58 microphone. These guys were fixing to talk into that microphone. They did a couple of squelchy microphone tests. You can tell when someone is no stranger to the audio field. These nice elderly gentlemen were somewhere in the audio forest – far, far away from the audio field.

I was getting ready to help them, but they finally pulled it together and plugged the mic jack into the right hole on the P.A. Whatever they were about to do, they were now off and running. Happy to have a microphone in hand, they made small amplified talk to those who made direct eye contact with them. I was curious and wanted to know their story. I stopped beginning to start writing for a time to try to understand the purpose of these amplified retirees.

Bob and Ed were their names. Bob got out a large three-ring binder with laminated pages. They flipped through the pages apparently trying to find the correct starting point. Once they came into agreement, Bob held the microphone and Ed read from the holy binder. It became apparent quickly that they were reading information about the towns we were going by. The interesting thing about trains, like boats, is that you are often seeing the back side of towns, so other than an occasional crossing sign you may never really know what town you’re passing.

They read facts and figures about the places we passed. They told little stories about the towns or semi-famous people from the towns. It wasn’t bad, aside from the fact that Ed probably had not read out loud since 8th grade, some sixty years ago. Bob would have a turn, but he obviously had not retired from the broadcasting business, either. So, it went like this for a couple of hours, with long breaks in between towns and banter Ed and Bob had apparently came across in some record books that may have discussed Vaudeville.

During one of the breaks in the entertainment I went back to my seat to see if the fairy tale was over. It was not. Goldilocks was still sleeping in my seat. I didn’t even stop, but continued on in search of the car where food could be found. It was now early afternoon and I was hungry. It was probably a good idea to eat something, then I could jump right into writing. I felt that I had soaked up enough of the atmosphere. I ordered a sandwich and decided to soak up a bit more atmosphere in the form of an alcoholic beverage. One beer would probably just loosen up my fingers enough to be able to keep up with my brain’s story telling. Yeah, one beer would be perfect. I had a sandwich and a beer and headed back to the observation car. I walked back past my seat and saw Goldilocks’ sandals and thought, “God Damn Hippy.”

Back in my writing position, with fingers poised on my key pad I decided to quickly go to the calculator function on the lap top and mentally go through our monthly finances. Sure enough. The outcome was the same as the last time I did this. Just before focusing on writing something, I paused to notice what Ed (I must have missed Bob’s last turn) was talking about. There was a break between towns then it was Bob’s turn again. At Bob’s turn I realized the problem. They were one town off and had been for a while. Tunnel City was Camp Douglas, Camp Douglas was Mauston, Mauston was Wisconsin Dells etc. I couldn’t believe I just noticed this and I was more shocked that these old timers with mile markers on their pages had not caught it. But suddenly the microphone went silent and there was a non broadcasted meeting. I think they just realized it. They came back on-line and announced a break.

The sun was so warm and the beer and sandwich were working together in not an unexpected way. I decided that I would come up with a title – one that I could easily change later – then I would take a short nap. I deserved that. In anticipation of years to come I titled my little story “#Amtrakresidency”. I slept as the hum and sway of the train wrote great stories in my brain that would be forgotten when approaching the waking station.

I must have slept for a while. When I woke the elderly men were gone, replaced by shadows of late afternoon. We were just starting out from a station and I overheard a ticket taker talking to another Amtrak staff person. Apparently, there was a woman who had gotten on at the Fargo station in the early morning and she was very drunk. She had slept through her stop and we had to make a special stop to let her off the train. The ticket taker anxious to get the skinny on the scuttlebutt asked the other person who it was. The staff person said it was a blonde woman who sort of “looked like an older hippy.”

My God Damn hippy must have been the woman. No wonder she didn’t budge. And what drunk hippy wouldn’t eat a bowl of oatmeal? It all made sense. As we slowly pulled away from the station I spotted Goldilocks outside on the platform fifteen miles from the station she wanted to be at, looking hung over and a little confused. Being a former hippy I felt a little bad for her. But, you’ve got to keep it together my hippy friend. It’s a tough world out there for the God Damn Hippy.

Now that I could go back to my seat I didn’t really want to. The observation deck felt like home to me. It reminded me of my small town Main Street with people coming and going. I could listen to people and watch people and possibly talk to people. I heard stories about towns we went though, albeit not exactly the right towns. I even got to see a hippy through that great big train window. The only problem was that we were almost to Chicago and I had not written a single thing. I didn’t have a single story. I only had the title, “#Amtrakresidency”, and I had no idea what that meant. All I could think is that maybe I could find some quiet time at the wedding. Then, for sure I would write something. And if not there, maybe I’d take another train ride someday and I would absolutely write something then.


Lincoln Logs and Legos

08 Mar

Hoyt and I saw the Lego Movie on opening day and we both really enjoyed it. To be honest, I didn’t think I would and expected I could sleep for 20-30 minutes. But I didn’t. We tried to go back a week after opening and see it with the entire family plus a couple of friends – which, by the way, leads people to believe that we have five kids, and people get out of the way for the five kid family. We didn’t buy tickets on-line and they were sold out. Sort of a bummer when your whole day was leading up to that event. However a few minutes later with popcorn and Amazon on Demand in the family room everyone was placated.

I really didn’t need to see the Lego Movie again, even though I liked it. In fact, I love watching movies and very seldom need to watch a movie twice. Even if I can’t remember what happened, it seems like a waste of time.

The only movie I can watch over and over again is one that is on no lists of those in the know. Those lists that include films like “Battleship Potemkin” – you know it as the 1925 film by Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein that was a breakthrough in editing. He totally beat MTV to the punch of montage. Then you have your Swedish hero in Ingmar Bergman. Don’t forget Italy’s “The Bicycle Thief”, and the French new wave movement with “Breathless”. We would also want to mention a whole bunch of U.S. films spanning several decades. We would want to mention those, but I don’t have time to. And I suspect my clever and informed readers know more than I do with regard to lists of such things.

All the top lists of films do not list my favorite film of all time. I list comedies in a place that doesn’t allow them to be overall winner for “film of all time”. Sorry, comedies, these are my rules (for the record, it’s Spinal Tap). My favorite film is “Jeremiah Johnson”. This film starred Robert Redford and was directed by Sydney Pollack.

As is the case with many favorite things, part of the favorite factor can be traced to a time and a place. For me, it was the first time that I thought about being on the back side of a camera, making the camera pan, making a shot. I like to believe that I connected with the quiet of the shots, but at the age of twelve I think it was the fight scenes. Jeremiah triumphed in the end, after a difficult path. It was a slice of his life. To this day if I see it on TV I usually put down anything at any time of the day or night to watch it. Everyone needs one move like this – even if it means being Patrick Swayze’s “Red Dawn”. My wife has “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”- even though she wasn’t around in the early 1960s. But that’s the quintessential girl’s movie. No skinin’ Griz or fightin’ Indians. Just Audrey Hepburn being skinny and fashionable.

But I digress. We were talking about the Lego Movie. Legos have been around for over 50 years now, and have really pushed the brand forward in the last twenty years. It’s now even hip to be a thirty year old Lego geek. 40 years ago kids didn’t have the volume of Legos that kids have today. I think we had some Legos, but not many. The way it used to work is you got some Legos to build whatever and then you slowly lost all those Legos. Once the limited cache of Legos was depleted it was just time for you to be done playing with them. The Lego arsenal was just not replenished at every birthday and holiday.

I don’t want to be the old guy in the room saying things like, “We just used to play with sticks”. “Kids today have it so good” or “That Elvis corrupted our youth”. Dearest reader, I am only here to provide perspective on this crazy ever-changing world. One of my perspectives happens to be that I wish the Lincoln Logs people could have brought their game to the Lego level. As a kid, I loved the Lincoln Logs. They’re still around. But not the way the Legos are. I guess it is more difficult to drag Lincoln Logs into the 21st century. It’s harder to visualize a log cabin Star Wars space ship or any other kind of ship using logs rather than Lego’s plastic multi-shaped blocks.

Lincoln Logs were originally invented by Frank Lloyd Wright’s second son, John Lloyd Wright in 1916. The inspiration was said to come from the Imperial Hotel that Frank was building in Tokyo. By the way, have you ever noticed that nobody ever refers to Frank Lloyd Wright as “Frank?” So, inspired by Frank’s building John came up with Lincoln Logs and patented the idea in 1920. It was an instant hit but he sold the idea and company before the real popularity set in. The company’s owners tried to cut costs by going to plastic in the 1970s, until realizing the mistake and switching back to wood. Since then, Lincoln Logs have remained on store shelves but never experienced the renaissance that Legos did.

But let’s not just give up on the L Log, dear problem solving reader. We can figure this out. In fact, I just got an idea. First of all, let’s just make sure Lincoln Logs continue to be made out of wood. Quiet yourself, tree hugger. I know what you’re thinking. What if the sawdust that is used to make wood pellets was also compressed into the shapes of the logs. Or they could use scrap wood. I don’t think we need to take down sequoia trees to make tiny logs. Hmmmmm. One sequoia tree would make an awful lot of……sorry, that was out of line. I just don’t want to see the logs go to plastic again.

The next idea will require the Lincoln Logs folks to step up to the plate. We all know what licensing of Star Wars did for Legos. Lincoln Logs needs to get a piece of that action. Ok, maybe Star Wars isn’t the right fit- and it’s too expensive. Maybe they could start by licensing easier properties. I would propose starting with “Jeremiah Johnson”. That’s it. Jeremiah built several log cabins and there were other log cabins featured. There could even be a young Robert Redford Lincoln Log guy.

Wait, why not license some of the classic films. “Breathless,” the 1960 French movie could feature Paris in black and white Lincoln Logs. Who doesn’t want to see a rustic Eiffel Tower made out of Lincoln Logs. Maybe a Lincoln Log “Bonnie and Clyde.” Their getaway cars could all be made of Lincoln Logs. And while they’re at it, I think we want to bring the girl demographic into what I’m dubbing “Log Mania.” This could be done by introducing a “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” Lincoln Log set. There could be a Lincoln Log New York City and a Lincoln Log Tiffany’s that would display little logs in place of jewelry- of course, these would be fancy little logs.

The Lego movie was entertaining and had a good message, but I think a Lincoln Log movie could do the same. The Lincoln Log movie could be a historical look at Abraham Lincoln, the name sake of the logs, or a movie about the architect known as Frank. This could focus more on Frank’s architecture and less on some of the other parts of his life-like the murders and mistresses and debts, oh my.

It’s all about making logs cool again. Let’s all work together to make logs cool again. I’m hoping this is just the beginning and in a few short years I’ll be dragging a collection of my own kids and other people’s kids to go see Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin as a 3D IMAX Lincoln Log movie. I think I could stay awake for that version.