“Take a Peek Inside My Brain…”

“Take a peek inside my brain where fishin’ tales are spun.
My psychedelic fish parade has only just begun.”

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A lot has happened in the 9 years since I moved back to South Dakota. Some of it has been personally difficult, some grossly unfair and some just plain terrifying. But much more of it has been very special, made that way primarily by some special and inspirational people. Among those people is a tall, gentle, terminally cheerful fellow with extraordinary talent and imagination. His name is Steve Bormes. Steve and wife Tova own a very cool retail establishment called Rug and Relic in the 8th and Railroad building in Sioux Falls (rugandrelic.com) It’s a gallery full of genuine Turkish rugs, antiquities and folk art that shares space for Steve’s artistic creations, which mix a crazy array of found items, lights and an imagination unlike any I’ve ever experienced.

A year and a half ago Steve was notified he had been chosen for a major exhibition of his art at the big gallery at the Washington Pavilion. He immediately went to work creating the most wonderful and whimsical creatures which would inhabit his “Imaginarium”. Last Friday my wife Joan, my Mom and I went to see the show and reception for Steve. The show was even more enchanting than I had expected, and I’d expected a LOT. It was like walking into a backlit giant aquarium with these fish/creatures suspended on wires or mounted to pedestals, all glowing from within with lights of all colors. The Little Johnson fish (pictured) are crafted from vintage Johnson outboard boat motor cowlings, grandma’s wire wisks for fins and airhorns off of a Peterbuilt for tails. There was chrome from 50’s cars, tail lights from a Caddy ambulance and on and on. It was especially neat to see the gaggle of kids who accompanied parents to this show. I can’t begin to guess what was going on in their little brains, but I bet it was neat

Full disclosure: On occasion I’ll hook Steve up with some interesting items I find in my travels. It was surprising and delightful to find a few of those pieces artfully repurposed within the Imaginarum. It reminded me of the day when I found the words to describe the difference in what I do with old junk for repurposing and what Steve does as an artist. I can look at a late 50’s Electrolux canister vacuum cleaner, or a giant steel sieve sleeve from a long-ago combine or some whirly roof ventilators off of an old barn and say, “These things have style and personality. Someone could do something neat with them”. Steve however, can look at the same pieces and say, “These things have style, and I’m going to do THIS with them.” This creative invention is born in Steve’s brain in a millisecond.

Enjoy the photos, but If you’re in the Sioux Falls area stop in and see the show in person, which runs until the first week in January 2017. Bring along some cabbage if you have it and take something cool home with you. And in the process I hope you get to meet Steve, because there’s only one and he’s it. JT

 

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Bust A Move

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This month I was fortunate to receive the second freelance writing assignment of my long media career. Its for Dakotafire Magazine, a spirited and driven bi-monthly magazine dedicated to the revitalization of rural living in The Dakotas. I’m writing a story in the November-December edition, which explores how and why we live outdoors in the winter months, and how rural South Dakota communities might parlay winter outdoor resources into economic gain. My first freelance writing gig, by the way, was when I was 17, working for the Plainview News, writing game stories for the 1978 Plainview (MN) High School Gophers football squad as it battled week to week in the long-defunct but lovingly-remembered Hiawatha Valley League. The team lost more than it won, but the coverage was riveting. Or so I was told.

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Spending time writing about winter outdoor activities got me thinking about the real-world adventures my indestructible running buddies and I attempted/found ourselves in the middle of/were stupid enough to try back in the day. Some of these events have never been described or recounted outside our tight little group, but I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations has run out on all of them. Or at least most of them. I think.

The sport was simply named, “Drift-Busting”. Participants in town needed to be 16 and a licensed driver, although many farm kids started building their skills much younger. All you needed was a big US-built four door family sedan from the late 60’s through late 70’s. The early 70’s Chevy Impala and Ford LTD were ideal, although exotica like the “roomy” Plymouth Fury III, Buick LeSabre, Ford Country Sedan station wagon or Ford Ranchero or Chevy El Camino with extra weight over the rear axle added variety.

 

The ideal crew for Drift Busting included: 1) The Driver; 2) The Navigator, front seat passenger window who was the lookout for other cars and plows, snow-covered obstacles and law enforcement, and 3) An attractive and animated young lady front-seat middle to supply appropriate shrieks, support and laughter such as you might hear on a roller coaster or in a Steve McQueen movie. You went with just Driver/Navigator if circumstances dictated, but the “three wide” configuration was definitely preferred.

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There were three disciplines in Sedan-class Drift Busting. The first was “Classic Drift Busting”, where during or after a big snow ( 6-7inches and up, but more snow and wind is better). you busted unplowed drifts right where God dropped ‘em. “Classic” tested your behind-the-wheel skill to keep from getting stuck or high-centered, and your ability to negotiate a mid-storm corner. The second was “Post-Plow Busting” where you could pick up speed on plowed streets before busting through man-made piles. The heart beat a little faster with this one. The third discipline was “Free-style”, with the car on an unplowed parking lot or playground that was paved and flat, had lots of snow, and fewer things to hit. Free-style tested your artistry with rear-wheel drive V-8 skids, drifting and a set of various consecutive circle-spins and overheated engines referred to collectively as “shitties”.

There were many good Drift-Busters, too many to mention, but as a Navigator my favorite pilot, hands-down, was Thomas P. Harlan. Today Tom is a high-powered lawyer in the Twin Cities, but back then he was a wild-eyed pilot of a classic Dark Olive 1970-ish Chevrolet Impala v-8 equipped four-door sedan. The car was sparsely optioned, but did have a solid AM radio allowing for a long-distance “Boogie Check” with John “Records” Landecker on 89-WLS Chicago. The secret weapon of that car is that it came pre-dented, so when Tom took it home with some fresh dimples no one was the wiser. If you measured pilots solely on driving skill, Tom was well above average but not a savant. His gifts were a total lack of fear, the willingness to thread even the smallest needle, and a happy-go-lucky cackle even in the face of certain disaster.  Call it the “Luck of the Irish” if you like.

The demise of the rear-wheeled sedan, improved plowing techniques, fewer monster snow storms and a general distaste for such reckless activities make today’s Drift-Busting the winter equivalent of cock fighting, run by seedy gamblers swilling cheap peppermint schnapps and betting on strung-out adrenaline junkies piloting rusted-out Plymouth K-Cars. But I’ll remember when young princes like Tommy slung around that Detroit iron with a comely lass like Lou Ann Erickson or Susan Arnoldy in the middle, all of us singing “Sultans of Swing” at the top of our lungs, just for the fun of it all.

The Day The Earth Changed

It was exactly 15 years ago today just before 8am CDT. Dan Terhaar and the late Mark O’Connell were wrapping up the AM 1500 KSTP morning show when video popped up on the studio TV showing something crashing into the World Trade Center. I didn’t know it then but in that moment my career and life were about to change forever.

Radio the years before 9/11 was carefree. The economy was great. In Minnesota, things were cruising along so well it could afford to make Jesse Ventura governor. Money was flowing freely at work, and my station was soaring, having mastered a unique way of building comic and quirky shows using the news of the day as material. But on 9/11/2001, life got VERY serious VERY fast, and many of the station’s hosts had no idea how to go forward. One called me wanting to cancel his show as he had no idea what to talk about. Another went on air and immediately used the 50,000 watts to scream “Nuke all the Middle East bastards RIGHT NOW”. The enormity of the situation brought fear, and fear can manifest itself in very negative behaviors. A few individuals with news background, like O’Connell and the late Ron Rosenbaum, grabbed on and steered the boat straight, but it was abundantly clear the carefree days were OVER.

For me, the already high stress level went ballistic It exposed mental illnesses inside me which I didn’t know I had, and which I’d been coping with for decades in very unhealthy ways. Eventually I quit the job, but one set of stressors were quickly replaced with others. The mental illness and I spiraled downward. I eventually found an imperfect but sustainable pace, but it took chemical dependency treatment, a couple of exceptional doctors and health professionals to discover my mental health issues and get me constructive medical treatment. I also had a spouse who stuck with me when it would have been easier to bail on me and start over.

We’ve all been living with terrorism, war and tragedy (both individual and shared) for 15 years now. That’s 11 more years than the American Civil War, 11 more than WWII, and even longer than Viet Nam. With that much physical and mental stress and damage should we be surprised at all when the world or people in it goes crazy?

Whenever I meet someone or pass a stranger on the street I always try to say hello, show a smile and treat them kindly. The battle scars on the outside can be seen, but you never know the scars and wreckage they carry around on the inside.

(Note: I didn’t lose anyone in the 9/11 tragedy. I didn’t lose a family member or have one damaged physically or mentally in military action, although a family close to me lost a son. My damage is manageable. Their loss and sacrifice are permanent.)

Strange What You Remember

Memories are fickle. Sometimes they take you back gently, clouding over the bad spots and putting halos around the good. Other times the past returns and smacks you in the face. A couple of days ago Memories flashed me back to October 22, 1989 and punched me in the gut. Like countless others I stopped in my tracks upon learning that the Jacob Wetterling abduction case had been solved, the body found, and the abductor/killer in custody. After all the years of dead-end tips and broken hopes the case had the feel of a mystery which would never be solved. But there it was, in gruesome detail, all the answers to all the questions of what happened to an innocent 11 year old snatched off his bicycle at gunpoint near his home in tiny, safe St. Joseph, MN. The killer, Danny Heinrich, a serial child sexual predator currently charged with child pornography, confirmed every one of our darkest, worst-case nightmarish horrors: Sexual abuse, two bullets, two burials, other victims.

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Danny Heinrich

It’s strange what you remember. It was late in the evening of the Tuesday following the abduction. I was in Rochester, MN and the 28-year-old Program Director at KROC-AM. We were the only local station with a link to the state’s only satellite network.  A man named Douglas Wood, a neighbor of the Wetterlings, had written and recorded a song called “Jacob’s Hope” , which radio stations all over MN were asked to play at the same time the following morning, with the hope that Jacob would somehow hear the song wherever he was and somehow know people were looking for him.

Remember, this is 1989. no one was walking around with cell phones, email was extremely limited and nowhere near able to send audio files, no websites, no universally accessible satellite downlinks. There was no Amber Alert and no apps. The newsroom was just transitioning from electric typewriters to word processing. Not only was it impossible for stations to download the song, it was impossible to let them all know they were supposed to play it the next day. Impossible, except for the old-school ways. I remember getting one shot at capturing the satellite feed (got it), then made copies on reel to reel tapes. I then got in the car late at night and delivered those tapes one at a time to every radio station in town,

The sun was coming up by the time I finished my deliveries. Everyone got the song and played it the next morning at 10am. I knew in my heart the chances of that young man hearing that song were zero. It was an exercise which made no difference, other than give a state full of people a way to show they cared, wanted to help, but had no idea how.

I can’t imagine what the Wetterlings and those close to the case have gone through the past 27 years, and in the last few days. I hope I never have to know. The case was instrumental in making states create the first sex offender databases. It marked the end of small-town innocence in this part of the country. No more kids riding bikes and running unsupervised around small towns in the summer. Afterwards kid’s activities were supervised and scheduled. No more unlocked doors at night. The loss of trust.

Strange what you remember.

Pure Imagination

Actor/writer/director/singer/national treasure Gene Wilder passed away this week at age 83. Wilder’s movie comedy stripes were earned with “The Producers” in 1968 with co-star Zero Mostel and director Mel Brooks, starting a decades-long run of some of the funniest (and profitable) hit comedies of the 70’s and ’80’s. However, the first Gene Wilder movie I saw was a commercial flop. It eventually made significant money, but not until my generation watched it repeatedly on TV and purchased it on VHS (and later DVD) as adults.

“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, based on the the Roald Dahl story, may have been panned by adult critics in 1971, but for the hundreds of thousands of my pre-teen peers “Wonka” was a wonder. For the 10-year-old me, “Wonka” was a psychedelic experience affecting everything which came after.

I know that probably sounds over-dramatic, but it’s the truth. You must remember being 10 in 1971 was before video games. (It was before Star Wars, ILM, green screens, Pixar and CG graphics. It was also before Milli Vanilli, the Auto-Tuner, Japanimation, Smurfs and that giant ransom note I receive from Verizon every month, but those are topics for another day.) “Wonka” took you away and made you believe incredible things were real and anything was possible. An army of dwarves with orange skin and green hair. Soda that made you burp and fly. An elevator that goes sideways, through the roof and lands on time in Frankfurt. And that BOAT RIDE! I mean really…when was the last time you watched a “kid’s movie” featuring a real live chicken getting its real live head chopped off with a real live meat cleaver! And all the while there is Wilder, channeling the wild red-headed purple-jacketed sarcastic singer of songs telling rude children and their rude parents where they can get off the bus, all while serving as the ADULT CHAPERONE IN CHARGE! Everlasting Gobstoppers. Fruit-flavored wall paper. Bodiless human hands as a kinetic coat rack. A chocolate river that swallows up overweight German youth. A “bad egg” spoiled little girl falling through a trap door and headed for the furnace. Mike TV. SLUGWORTH!!! And all in eye-popping Technicolor, on one great big curved screen in the local Monoplex.

On June 12, 1970, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher “Doc” Ellis famously threw a no-hit, no-run game against the San Diego Padres while on LSD, walking 8 and hitting one batter in a 2-0 win. Had Doc had a little patience and waited until the following summer, he could have saved himself a lifetime of headaches and just bought a ticket to “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”. To my knowledge no one has ever had to answer to authorities for pitching a major league baseball game while sucking on an Everlasting Gobstopper.

Of News, Owls and Inspiration

 

News From Pierre

Last Friday at IPSO Gallery at Fresh Produce, downtown FSD, a packed room celebrated a lovably quirky fellow and his lifetime of experiences, observations and reactions to people, places and events in his home state of South Dakota. His chronicling of it all is in a new and innovative book, although calling this work simply a book is akin to saying Annie Oakley could shoot a gun.

The show celebrated the new book by Thomas McGill, “The Owl is Great at Being Silent” and featured art inspired by the book and author. McGill is better know to many as “News From Pierre”, a character from the original and unpredictable radio/TV/Information County Highway program “The Rock Garden Tour”. Suffice it to say RGT is not a “version” of some other radio program, and News From Pierre is not a “version” of a type of typical news reporter. The people involved with and attending the event Friday were not ordinary either. Heck, even the food and refreshments were not ordinary. You could tell you were among people who are special, unafraid to take chances on something or someone they believe in. These are not bandwagon jumpers. They are flex fuel hybrid bluetooth enabled bandwagon builders. They choose  to not let others define or limit them.   They choose not to conform. For me they’re an inspiration.

10 months ago my body and brain were in a dense fog born of anesthesia and the trauma three surgeries in four months removing cancer from my vocal cords. I could barely function, shouldn’t have been driving and was facing the possibility of losing the voice around which I’d built a successful 35 year career. I loved my work and had been told it was “transformational.”   I was told to not worry about work while dealing with the cancer.  And a month after the third surgery I was told my services were no longer required. When you’ve lived life on the rollercoaster I have, and seen what I’ve seen behind the curtain during 35 years in media, news and politics it’s a wonder I’m not at this minute zonked, naked, perched on Steve Bormes’ “Tatanka Ska” sculpture downtown singing the Broadway hits of the incomparable Ethel Merman.

Its 10 months later, and a friend asked me, “If you could do any job, what would you do?” I couldn’t come up with an answer. I kept thinking about it, though, and the answer finally came to me driving home Friday night: What I end up doing isn’t nearly as important as doing it in a place that’s INSPIRING. No workplace is perfect, but too many are full of cynical and negative people, rife with office politics and uninspired leadership. Live with that for any length of time and you can feel your soul being sucked out of your body.  Then your dropped into an inspiring culture full of teamwork, fresh ideas and support for creativity.  You listen and read things like News From Pierre’s uncommonly honest observations on life, and see the art inspired by this unique wisdom, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone when you want to be a part of it and not have it end.

The longer you spend time on this planet the more often you are reminded that life is short and not to be wasted. If you know people and places which INSPIRE you, please share that inspiration by leaving a comment. If you know people or workplaces which value inspiration, please share this post with them and encourage them to add their 2 cents. And if you could use a bit of inspiration, some good laughs or some sage wisdom, check out News From Pierre and he book “The Owl Is Great At Being Silent”.

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The Common Good

(Warning: The following contains my observations on current events, which I promised myself I wouldn’t do any more.  I used to do this for a living, and with some level of success. It also left me a miserable, broken mess. I promise not to make it a habit.  It’s also a bit long, another habit I’m trying to break.  Hate the sin, love the sinner y’all.)

Its easy to get romantic about the past, especially when the subject is the state of Life in America. When reminiscing, we have a tendency to remember the good better than the bad. We long for “The Good Old Days when America was strong and free,” etc. However, politics, corruption and persecution have always fit together much like Larry, Moe and Curley. Every war has its profiteers. Every era has its staggering public corruption. Every generation has a new group of immigrants to look down on and blame for our ills. The goodness of the “Good Old Days” was certainly relative to which end of the rope you were holding. Or hanging from.

However, I know there was a time when there were leaders with genuine respect for The Common Good. It was the constitutionally ideal notion that even though people disagreed and were corrupt or disgusting, when the going got tough every faction could come together to make decisions with The Common Good in mind (“Promote the general welfare”). During WWII, even the Boss of Bosses of the New York Mob Lucky Luciano volunteered to keep the mob-controlled waterfront in New York open for shipping and closed to Nazi sabotage because while he may have been a criminal, he was a loyal AMERICAN criminal.

I believe there are still individuals who are genuine in their support of The Common Good , but some days you have to look pretty hard to find them. For the first time in my 56 years an election looms and I feel genuine fear for the future of the country. I mean really…which of our leading people and institutions can be counted on to at least try to pull our collective fannies out of the fire today?

Donald Trump? America’s Favorite Bully Con Man? In Mr Trump’s world, all that matters is Mr. Trump. Every sentence starts with “I”.  He’s used his amazing deftness with self-promotion and people’s short memories countless times to run away from his failures if it served his purposes. He’s left countless innocent people holding the bag, and before he’s done we might end up a nation of grocery packers. Trump supporters need to know that if he wins, and it serves his purposes, he won’t hesitate a second to throw you all under the Trump Bus (which burns Trump Gas and has Trump-o-matic transmission). And now the real possibility exists that he’s in cahoots with Putin, or wishes he was in cahoots, or wishes he had the dictatorial power of Putin so he could be in cahoots with somebody powerful. Cahooting with a foreign power, let alone the Ruskies, just to win an election? I wonder how that’s going down with Republican conservatives both living and dead?

Hillary Clinton? To my great surprise and begrudging admiration she put politics aside and made a remarkable turnaround as Secretary of State. She took the job seriously, worked her butt off in a time of worldwide chaos and terrorism and did not grandstand when she succeeded. She looked authentic and (god help me) Presidential. Now she speaks with all the authenticity of those Air Jordans you bought for $10 from the guy selling Chiclets on the street in Tijuana.   Writing thousands of emails on non-secure email accounts was careless and dumb.  Being evasive about any number of other scenarios rather than coming clean, admitting mistakes and moving on is dumber (see R. Nixon, 1972).  Anyone running against Mr. Trump should be mopping the floor with him.  Hill’s campaign seems determined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Note:  Championing “The Common Good” is hard if you don’t first win the election.

Media? When I started in radio I looked at it as a sort of calling (and a way to meet girls). It was the best way I could to use my talents and skills to make my contribution to the community. Today? Before he was a lecherous sexual predator, the now resigned mastermind behind Fox News Roger Ailes demonstrated how you could totally abdicate public responsibility and the principles of fairness and balance, label propaganda as“The Truth”, yell at and demonize anyone who thinks differently, CALL it “fair and balanced” and make A LOT OF MONEY. Soon many followed suit. The liberals abdicated responsibility and TRIED playing the game from the other side, but mistakenly thought it was about changing minds rather than making money. They, of course, failed, and in the end sacrificed journalism for, well, nothing. Now we have entire generations of politicians, “journalists” and audiences for whom “The News” is nothing more than a  loud mosh pit in search of ratings.

Don’t get me wrong. I want a change from “business and usual” just as much as anyone. I’m just fearful that in a time when we all need to hang together more than ever ,we’ll all hang separately.  But those hangings will be televised, and the ratings will be GREAT!!!