The Horse Field, the Woods, the Barn

•April 17, 2015 • Leave a Comment


Blast from the past this week, then all-new post next Friday.

Originally posted on Completely in the Dark:

School. Church. Home. 

The Family Project had its contexts, and out of those came a tacit meaning: “School is where you learn about the world,” “Church is where you worship God,” “Home is where you feel safe…”

Our parents liked order: Dad was an early riser and off to his office in Bethesda; Mom, between hustling to her night shift at Montgomery County Hospital, made sure we received music lessons.

But outside there was another world, one that was starting to fascinate me—even to the point where I considered becoming a naturalist. It likely began, ironically, watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on TV. Nature, wildness, the woods, freedom—all informed a personal mythology that began in the late 1960s.

After moving to Minnesota in 1971, it would be taken to the next level with campouts on lake islands, explorations of northwoods lagoons, Lake Superior’s shoreline, pine tree forests, and…

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You Can Have the Town

•April 10, 2015 • Leave a Comment

“Saw her walking thru the crystal court/she made a scene by the revolving doors…”The Hold Steady, “Party Pit”

We motored into Navarre, Minn., in our blue-green Chevy station wagon one snowy, cold January in 1971.

She came down to Minneapolis from a town up north, with everything she owned in a white Ford Mustang.

My father would be starting a new job with the University of Minnesota.

She left her friends, family, a dead-end relationship, then landed a plum gig at WJM-TV.

I was a shy kid trying to make new friends.

And she, of course, had spunk.

Say it with me now: “…And I hate spunk.”

How Will You Make It On Your Own?

Mary_and_Rhoda_1974My first memories of Minneapolis blended with a sit-com that aired on Saturday nights at 8:30 p.m.

When I was a couple years older, in 1975, my new Minnesotan friends and I rode the 51 bus from Minnetonka to downtown, hanging out at the IDS Crystal Court.

We haunted the science fiction section of B. Dalton Bookseller, dug into our pockets for quarters outside Baskin Robbins, rode the escalator up to the skyway level to gaze at where we supposed Mary Richards lunched with her date at Basil’s, the restaurant overlooking the Crystal Court.

If you watched the show, you assumed that’s where it all happened. You know, a parallel universe, not unlike some bizarre Star Trek episode.

At the time I had more in common with Phyllis Lindstrom’s precocious daughter Bess than anything like the newsroom characters of cantankerous Lou Grant, circumspect Murray Slaughter, or ever-gullible Ted Baxter.

After school, I was in thrall to TVGilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family—all the bizarre, otherworldly family situations, completely distant from my own life.

But the Mary Tyler Moore Show seemed to be happening in my new backyard.

The regular episodes were filmed in Los Angeles, with only Reza Badiyi’s iconic title montage shot in Minneapolis. Badiyi created the cap-tossing freeze frame, taken in the middle of Nicollet Avenue Mall near the intersection with Seventh Street.

The people on the street, in that opening montage, were the people my friends and I saw as we waited for the bus that would shuttle us and our ice cream cones back to the suburban safety of Minnetonka.

Who Can Take a Nothing Day?

It was one of Mary Richards’ default boyfriends, Howard, who put it all into perspective for me. When feeling pressured about a long-term relationship, he argued his case to Mary:

“I gotta have my freedom—I gotta! I get the desire to jet up to Duluth—one phone call—that’s it! I get the urge to spend one weekend in…St. Paul…” He snaps his fingers. “It’s done.”

Sure! This was the place to be.

Looking through those broad picture windows of Mary’s apartment D at 119 North Weatherly (read: Lake of the Isles Boulevard), the seasons changed with startling clarity: in some episodes Mary kept flowers on the balcony, behind which the dark green leaves of summer glowed in the humid night air.

Mostly the setting was winter—snow drifting down outside, the Foshay Tower hulking grayly in the distance (which natives would know to be geographically impossible—but hey, what the hell, it’s Hollywood), and the tree branches just at loft-height, laden with ice.

So, what was there to do in Minneapolis in the 1970s?

Well, if you were older, you’d hit one of the ubiquitous “fern bars” satirized in Richard Guindon’s cartoons.

When I attended the University of Minnesota, my friend Therese and I often met over margaritas at The Haberdashery on Seventh Street.Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 11.34.45 PM

Our family regularly ate at The Jolly Troll buffet in Golden Valley.

Could I imagine Mary Richards there?

Well, no, not particularly—although it wouldn’t surprise me if Murray and Marie Slaughter could be found ahead of us in line for the Jello desserts.

Why Don’t You Take It?

So, I’m hoping there’s a somewhat logical progression to all this.

I mean, if some post-millennial Mary Richards were to arrive in Minneapolis, and had the town to take all over again, what would we advise her to do?

Get out of the office more.
Urge Lou to have power lunches at Manny’s. While Ted might be at Aveda getting a manicure, Murray could be doing research at the new library (hours limited, unfortunately).

Cultivate your friends.
So Rhoda does window dressing? A lot of young theater troupes need set dressers. The pay might not be up to Mary Richards’ standards, but at least Rhoda gets to keep her creative integrity. After a hard day’s work, loosen up with cocktails at Foreign Legion. C’mon, Mare. You owe it to yourself. And to Rhoda.

Hook it up.
Okay, so meeting men is a problem, then as well as now. But there are options for an awesome single woman like Mary Richards. Ever heard of Tinder?

Get on social media.
And while we’re at it, why not try Twitter? It’s a great way to get ahead of breaking news, which is sure to make you an even bigger star over at WJM-TV. Time to ask Lou for that raise!

Renaissance Boy

•April 3, 2015 • Leave a Comment

On Sunday, Aug. 13, 1972, the Minneapolis Tribune reported that U.S. B-52 bombers flew 130 strikes over Indochina, dropping more than 3,000 tons of weapons “on North Vietnamese supply caches, staging areas and troop concentrations.”DrawingMain

The news included other “similarly mundane” headlines to this 12-year-old: Harriman, Vance say Nixon ignored 1969 peace bid” and “President claims economic success.” In sports, Tarkenton, Vikings topple Chargers 24­­–13.”

The top movies that summer were Ben, The Candidate, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, The Godfather, Frenzy and Slaughterhouse-Five.

Donny Osmond (“Puppy Love”) and Wayne Newton (“Daddy Don’t You Run So Fast”), oddly enough, dominated the radio. The big hit since July was Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally).”

That Sunday’s forecast hinted at a chance of showers, high of 90, low of 62, under fair skies.

And just around sunset, at 8:23 p.m., after the dinner table was cleared, television sets were switched on.

There I was, probably in front of our living room RCA color TV, watching a program that would affect me for the next couple of years—if not the rest of my life.


While there’s no diary entry to reveal exactly how that Sunday unfolded (I wouldn’t start writing in diaries until Jan. 1, 1973), I recently discovered four spiral-bound Easel brand stenographic notebooks with drawings from that time.

My inspiration?

Leonardo da Vinci.

Drawing1You see, a CBS broadcast that Sunday at 8:00 p.m. was the first of a five-part drama titled “The Life of Leonardo da Vinci.” Produced by Italian TV, I recall the out-of-sync English-dubbed commentary by a bearded presenter named Giulio Bosetti. After Part 1, I was hooked. I stayed with it until it ended in September.

What surprises me now is how the Family Project was on board, too. Or maybe they weren’t.

Dad was a huge fan of Bonanza, on the local NBC affiliate, which ran at the same time as “Leonardo.” On ABC, Part 2 of a Russian production of Tolstoy’s War and Peace aired. Mom probably wanted to watch that. Independent station WTCN-11 viewers settled in that night for the musical stylings of Michel Legrand.

So whether the folks watched “Leonardo” with me that night, and then resorted to their usual TV fare for the subsequent parts, I don’t know. I probably watched later episodes alone on the small black and white TV Mom kept in the kitchen.

I now wonder how all this young, nerdy-artistic enthusiasm was received by others—kids at school, in the neighborhood, and the Family Project. Being that Dad’s background was architecture (he liked to draw, too, and had impeccable handwriting), he probably encouraged me. I don’t recall anything specific, but the fact the parents gave space for me and my brother to explore must’ve been a way to involve their children in new things without seeming pushy. Dad had tried that once before, to somewhat unhappy results.

When I saw a two-volume, soft-covered Dover Publications set of The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, my obsession only deepened. I saved money from a paper route (and whatever allowance I received) to finally make the purchase at Ridgedale mall’s B. Dalton Bookseller.

I pored over those thick Dover volumes: the intricate sketches, diagrams, maps, and even philosophical maxims, letters and notes. Da Vinci was someone a sensitive preteen could aspire to be like: artist, scientist, philosopher … a real Renaissance man.

So, literally taking a page from The Maestro, I started learning how to draw.RenBoy

This went on for another two years, when the diary finally took over. The self-portrait (at right), drawn in early Sept. 1972, before the final episode of “Leonardo” aired, is a good example. I found drawing difficult; it took concentration, taking the time to truly see things—the shape of eyes, mouth, face—and render them on paper as best I could.

Later, on Jan. 6, 1974, I used a drawing as background for a story titled “Mind and Body.” It was another Sunday, so I noted in the diary: “…time to work on my story ‘Mind and Body’ and my Geography booklet.” The previous summer, before leaving on a Family Project trip to Canada (photo below left), I made sketches of ancient Roman soldiers, writing in the diary on July 11: “This morning I went to Vera’s to get a book and a sci-fi mag for our trip.”

DrawingFinalThere’s that obsessed kid again, nose in a book or magazine, always studying.

And you know something? I’d like to get him back.

As I’ve gotten older, I take things for granted. I assume I “already know stuff”—an assumption that constantly needs checking.

However, there’s something deeply satisfying about veering off the beaten path, looking at things in a way you never did before.

Perhaps Leonardo in his notebooks said it best:

“Learning acquired in youth arrests the evil of old age; and if you understand that old age has wisdom for its food, you will so conduct yourself in youth that your old age will not lack for nourishment.”

Let’s hope so.

Lassie Gets Knocked Up

•March 27, 2015 • Leave a Comment


Another chestnut from long ago. Adding to edit slate and all-new post next Friday, April 3!

Originally posted on Completely in the Dark:

Suppose I haven’t mentioned the family dog.

The only question is, which dog?

There wasn’t ever a time in The Family Project when we didn’t have a pet in the house: Taffy, our Cocker Spaniel, was the first dog we ever had. She was there when I was a toddler in Indianapolis, protecting me from wandering into the street. And I was there to watch over her when she died shortly after we’d moved to Maryland.

Lickety-split, Dad went out and got us a Sheltie. Naming rights somehow went to Brian: “She looks like Lassie! Let’s call her Lassie!”

Just brilliant, lil’ bro.

So, Lassie she was, though her tendency toward canine altruism and heroism in the face of impossible odds must’ve been stunted in the gene pool.

Fact is, Lassie was a first-class sneak.

That dog assumed she had license to terrorize the neighbor’s trash and…

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•March 20, 2015 • Leave a Comment

“I’ll tell you what I’ll do (What will you do?)
I’d like to go there now with you…

(What will we do there?)
We’ll get high.”                          —The Small Faces, “Itchycoo Park”

Solemn drumbeats, then a scratchy electric guitar chord from a boom box—Mad Dog’s cassette tape player—echo through the SOS Printing basement pressroom.SOSPrinting

September ’77, intones Peter Gabriel,Port Elizabeth, weather fine. It was business as usual in Police Room 619…”

“Mad Dog,” of course, is John Larson, head pressman at the print shop, squinting through smoke from a cigarette dangling from his lips, raising his ink knife in salute to the memory of Stephen Biko.

And me? Just another day huddled over the light table, stripping negatives, burning and developing plates and … suckin’ down beers after 4 p.m., sometime in the early ’80s.

Or, maybe the shop mood was mellow and the other pressman, Mark Huttner, popped in his cassette of Michael Franks’ Tiger in the Rain. Mark and Mad Dog step outside to light up a spliff, we crack more beers and chill to “Underneath the Apple Tree.”

Mad Dog was probably in his 30s then, since he graduated from Mound High School in 1966. Shortly thereafter he was sent to Vietnam.

Scrappy and tough, but generous and playful, John—like most of us—enjoyed getting high.

I’ll never forget his glinty-eyed, stoned grin and high-pitched, staccato giggle—or pure animal enjoyment of cooking burgers and brats when we fired up the shop grill in summer.

After returning from the muni across the street with a 12-pack of Special Export, I’d toss beer cans to John and Mark. Then Johnny would regale us with stories about his time in ’Nam: Walking by a barber shop that the Army used as a makeshift morgue—black body bags zipped up and stuffed in barber chairs.

While in country he took a lot of pills—whatever they were (in answer to my question), he didn’t care.

He’d just knock ’em back with a drink (beer, whiskey, whatever)…

And wait for the effect.


“What will we touch there? (We’ll touch the sky.)”

Then there was David, younger brother to Casco Point buddy Dan Rogers. Dave liked to get high, too. And, like Mad Dog, he also served in the Army, stationed in Germany during the 1990s.

Irreverently funny, a bit scattered but highly musical, he drifted a lot after returning from service, busking with his guitar on the streets of Minneapolis—once, I’m told, in front of former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura.

As preteens we’d steal our fathers’ beers (Dad kept his cans of Schlitz above the washer and dryer), then hang out under a boat by the dock, smoking cigarettes we’d stolen from Keaveny Drugs and catching a buzz.

A huge sense of power came with catching that buzz—a way to push back against our own young anxieties and insecurities.

Dave loved to laugh—impishly poking at the adult absurdity and authority we faced in the early 1970s. When David was happy, everyone around him was, too.

But as he neared 40, things got harder.


“(But why the tears there?) I’ll tell you why…”

Into my mid-20s, I, too, was drinking more, between working at the shop and after rehearsals at the theater. By late January 1984, I was cast as George Deever in the Indianhead Players’ production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons.

Dad and I took an exercise class together at the community center—completely negating calories burned with a stop at the local Chinese restaurant, House of Moy, for Sweet and Sour Chicken.

“I had a long, drawn-out haul at work today,” reads the Tuesday, Feb. 14, 1984, journal entry, “three [Schlitz Malt Liquor] Bulls after with John, fitness class at 8:30 and All My Sons blocking at play practice.”

Back in high school I drove to a varsity basketball away game in the family car, the 1973 Dodge Dart we’d dubbed “the Dartillac,” with friends Steve and Scott (aka Harvey), all drinking Scotch whisky. Friday, Feb. 25, 1977, “I got to the game very drunk,” the diary reports, “I made it home alone, around 11:00. Bad!”

How I made it—driving drunk and solo—is a total mystery, without injuring myself or anyone else. The next day’s entry confesses that other kids worried about me that night.

Yeah. I could’ve died.


“It’s all too beautiful.”

On Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2002, Dave’s sister Laura called. Dave had died the previous weekend in South Minneapolis.

Laura’s twin sister Linda recently wrote that the landlord of Dave’s Section 8 transitional housing had discovered his lifeless body in bed “fully dressed and … shoes on [his] feet.” The toxicology report revealed he’d died from “an overdose of OxyContin and alcohol.”

David left two lovely daughters and had struggled to keep his life together. But he also wanted to remain true to his inner artist.

One time he’d called me asking for advice on how to write a book about his time in the military. Since I knew writing wasn’t his strongest suit, I suggested he just tape record it. Get all the stories out in his own voice rather than worry about writing it down.

I don’t know if he ever got around to doing that.

On the way to Dave’s funeral, Friday, Sept. 20, 2002, I stopped off at John Larson’s new printing business just to say hello, since I didn’t return to my hometown often.

John’s wife Paula met me at the front desk. She said that John “had died in June of [a sudden cardiac arrest due to] an apparent heart arrhythmia in his sleep.” The journal adds: “He was 53 years old.”

I include The Small Faces song here because it’s a solid bridge between John’s generation and mine and Dave’s—one that celebrates a drug culture as insidious now as it was then. But the song also seems to suggest how altered consciousness can expand creativity.

Same coin, two sides.

Linda described her brother just before his death as “a sad man [who] had lost his soul. [His] physical body was there but [his] true being had gone somewhere else.”

I’d seen Dave’s (and John’s) “true being” many times—madcap amazing, always swan-diving head-first into the pure pleasure of just being alive. Like I wanted to do, too.

Whether you’d lived a brilliantly full life to die at 96 (as my grandfather had done) or you were a leukemia patient in a children’s hospital, the measure of a life, I think, is how completely it’s been lived.

Life is going to take you down. How you decide to live it, while you’re alive, is entirely up to you. As Kinky Friedman once said (wrongly attributed to the poet Charles Bukowski): “Find what you like and let it kill you.”

Hey, it’s a no-brainer. Addiction is bad. It’s born of pain, shame, sorrow—the very opposite of pleasure, connectedness and joy.

And for fuck’s sake, it’s an illness, not a character flaw.

I’m all for getting high. Sometimes that comes by being immersed in my work—writing, creating artwork, or even just by conversing with people. Sometimes it comes by indulging in what many people, I think, would recognize when they’re out at a happy hour and “getting a skinful.”

“You can blow out a candle,” Gabriel sings, “but you can’t blow out a fire.

“Once the flame begins to catch, the wind will blow it higher.”

It Was and Shall Always Be Monster Road

•March 13, 2015 • Leave a Comment


Reposting this piece from over two years ago while working on a longer new post for next Friday, March 20. Happy Spring!

Originally posted on Completely in the Dark:

MonsterRoad_newThere’s no journal entry, so I can’t recall an exact time. But I do have the date and place: Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2007, at a Placida, Fla., seafood restaurant called Johnny Leverock’s.

It was around noon.

I sat at the bar alone, a vodka gimlet in front of me and cell phone to my ear, fighting back tears.

That morning I’d had breakfast with Dad in their kitchen. He suggested I bring Mom something to eat in the master bedroom where, for what seemed like the first time in years, I saw her. It was clear from her paleness and emaciation that she was dying.

I told Dad I was going out on my own for a while, to drive along the coast and maybe have some lunch. Leverock’s wasn’t far north of their house, so I settled in there for some clam chowder. That’s when I called my…

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Life as a Poor Player

•March 6, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Dear Vicki Spaling:Piglet2

Thank you for your encouraging note. Maybe I was funny because I was SO NERVOUS! Glad you laughed all the same. Yeah, Kanga pulled me around A LOT!

Much love and delicious, crispy bacon, your friend, Piglet

My Casco Point buddy Dan Rogers had left town for airline pilot training in Seattle.

So I wrote to him on June 21, 1983: “I hate my job. I abhor every aspect of Mound, its prayer-perfect attitudes, its sports-minded parents, its make-a-buck mentality, its goody-two-shoes mothers and daughters … I think the problem is not with them, but with me: I’ve been here too long, learning too little; the end result becoming another hypocrite with a lot of words for everything and no real experience.”

Nearly a year after the British trip, things felt stale—again. “When will I get the new spark back into life?” the letter continues, “I had it last year just before and while I was in Britain. I thought, Life isn’t so bad, it really is kind of an adventure—and new faces became fresh and interesting, not drab and featureless. I really miss that.”

That June I confessed to Dan about life on the farm: “My mom’s in the hospital for tests, both physical and psychiatric, and she comes home tomorrow. I’ve been cooking for my Dad and Brian’s been working a lot lately.”

Bored working at the print shop, I auditioned for a community theater play. I needed to get out of the Family Project farmhouse—and away from Mom’s dark descent into We-Didn’t-Know-Where.

I’d acted once before, in Winnie the Pooh, back in junior high school. So here I was messing around with theater again.

It was a rough time. We didn’t know what was happening to us.


Player1“I joined up with the Indianhead Players,” begins a letter to Terry Hollingsworth on Oct. 21, 1983, “and was cast as Dr. Sanderson in the upcoming production of Harvey—you remember the film with Jimmy Stewart, about Elwood P. Dowd and his imaginary rabbit? That’s it!”

The Indianhead Players were the ad hoc acting troupe assembled under the auspices of the Westonka Community Theater board. Not sure how I first heard about them, but it was likely through The Laker, our town newspaper. Since there’s no journal for 1983, I’ve no record of Harvey outside of letters to friends, photos from the show (above left, below right), and a copy of the feature article in The Laker.

“I’m not sure of my acting ability,” the letter continues, “but it’s great to work at something with a group of people and enjoy it, too. There is something beautiful, magical, about the stage. There, everything is possible.”

Harvey would run for two weekends in November. That October we were in rehearsal, so I was probably leaving work early for dinner at home, then rushing to the community center, playscript in hand.

A month before, on Sept. 10, I wrote to Lindsay Clarke: “…my parents aren’t getting along well and my mother is going through that so-called ‘change of life’ that sends many husbands climbing the walls. She has turned into a bit of a manic depressive—sleeping all day, mumbling negative, pessimistic comments about everything, eating like a horse…it’s awful to see her growing old this way.”

Mom was only 48. Seven years younger than I am now.


Probably the most remarkable person I met in the Indianhead Players was an attorney named Tom LaCrosse.Player2

Mercurial and wickedly funny, he became a mentor and friend, and was an amazing actor to watch (pictured at right behind me in a skit we did months after Harvey). Tom never talked law. I think the man was an artist.

After rehearsal, late at night, we’d all huddle over a table in the back of the local American Legion Club, just down the street from the print shop. Karin Davis, who played “Veta Louise Simmons” in Harvey, an older, heavy-set woman who loved to laugh, often joined us, with others maybe tagging along. We’d close the place down most nights, drinking, laughing, telling stories and, well, feeling part of a new theater family. Between home and work angst, they saved my sanity.

At home, mumbling lines while cooking dinner for Dad and worrying about Mom, I wondered how I could leave a job and town I was starting to despise. I couldn’t wait for more post-rehearsal wit sessions at the Legion Hall.

And performance dates were looming.


PlayerFinalThen, it was showtime. And it was magical.

I still recall the behind-curtain glances, penlights clicked on and off before hearing cues and walking onstage. The hum of the audience behind the curtain—who was out there? Would they enjoy the play? What’s my next line again?

Harvey ran five performances: Friday, Nov. 11 (complete with opening night jitters), that Saturday evening, then the following Friday with two performances (a matinee and evening performance) that Saturday, Nov. 19. I’m sure we partied it up Saturday night at the Legion Hall.

To Lindsay Clarke, in a Dec. 12 letter:

“Actually the play was great fun and it kept me out of the house most nights of the week. After performances the players and sometimes friends in the audience met for snacks and drinks at a local restaurant and usually closed the place down. It was nice to get together with these new friends and their friends and chat and tell jokes. …Since the end of the play, I’ve been very bored and as soon as I’m on my feet again, I’ve got to get out of the house.

When you live with your parents as I do, getting out of the house at 24 years of age means a lot.”Piglet1



Hello Paul Nelson!

Great to hear from you! Thanks for your compliment on our show. It WAS a nice show, and the only show I’d been in—to date—but had a couple later shows that were nice, too—magical, even!

Yours truly, Piggly Wiggly Piglet

Charles Thomas

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