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

Happy Lamdomgs!

•February 27, 2015 • Leave a Comment


Been thinking about past mentors lately and Mr. Harrison was probably my first, that is, along with Mom and Dad. All-new post next Friday, March 6! Cheers, Mike

Originally posted on Completely in the Dark:

MrTomHarrisonI’m not likely to ever meet anyone again quite like Mr. Tom Harrison.

The Harrisons lived next door to us on Old Baltimore Road in Maryland. I recall little about his wife Phoebe as she passed away a short time after we arrived in Olney.

Mr. Harrison lived in a sprawling colonial overrun with plants and books. There was an observatory in his backyard that housed a telescope. He often invited my brother and I over to peek through it and observe the stars. One night we even got to see a comet.

After his wife died, he and my parents became good friends. Mr. Harrison was a former RAF pilot. He was tall, with thick white hair and a lovely, craggy, angular face (pictured at left with Mom in the early ’70s). I was certain that in his time he must have made a dashing pilot.


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Curly Toes

•February 20, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Dear Mom and Dad:CurlyToes

How are you enjoying disembodiment?

Good, I hope.

I often think about all your former aches and pains, especially as I’m growing older, too. No longer having a physical body must be a huge relief. Whew, I can only imagine.

And while I’m grateful you gave birth to me, I just gotta say…

Having a body totally sucks.

Take for example my early childhood fevers, those terrible leg aches—I remember you both staying up at night, taking turns rubbing my legs while I cried, and feeding me applesauce laced with aspirin. I thought those nights would never end.

Or my baby tooth, which never had an adult one underneath it, insuring I’d need my first dental bridge.

And while we’re on the face part of things, why couldn’t you have left me the ability to smile, to show teeth? While at a recent checkup, I asked my dentist how I might have a beaming smile for all to see. He shrugged and said that, genetically, my face didn’t allow for it. So when people ask me to smile, say, for a photograph, I tell them I’m only able to muster a Dustin Hoffman-like smirk.

Or the acne that plagued my junior high years: greasy hair, greasy skin, leading to pimples, blackheads (oh, yeah, thanks Dad for letting baby brother help squeeze those horrid things on my back—in the living room of all places—another wonderful Family Project bonding session) … my whole body was a battlefield, land mines of stinging red pimples that would suddenly appear, pus oozing from its pores.

The human body. What a pathetic thing.

Then there was the public humiliation that followed—revealed in gym class, I’m sure, while we changed into school shorts and t-shirts for the daily game of Bombardment (aka Dodgeball)—of my…

Curly toes.

There, I said it. I have curly toes.

You know how most people’s feet just lay flat, and the big toenail, also flat, juts out ahead of it? Well, I don’t have that. It must be a recessive gene because I don’t remember either of you having curly toes. Or baby brother. Everyone else: normal, human-looking, flat and regular toes.

Who cursed me with these hideous things?

There in the junior high locker room, naturally, came the teasing. “Man, you’ve got some weird-ass feet. Hey guys, check out Mop’s curly toes! Curly Toes!”

Oh God, it all comes rushing back.

Of course all of that had to happen at an age when you’re the most emotionally susceptible to taunting and humiliation.

Then you jump on a school bus in the afternoon to arrive at home in time for your father to pop out more blackheads on your shoulders and back. And you couldn’t just try and smile about it because your teeth were terrible and you were always a loathsome, greasy, slimy, unsmiling mess and, well, nobody ever really loved you.

That sounds about right.

Now, I would’ve forgotten all this had I not discovered copies of doctor bills for a procedure done in early December 1983, when I was 23 years old.

CurlyToes2That year I dealt with the worst case of ingrown toenail ever. The fault was mine, because I was advised to always cut my toenails longer—if I cut them too short, they’d grow straight into my flesh. Then it was like walking around with daggers sticking out of your feet.

Before heading to work at the print shop, I wrapped my big toes in gauze and wore Sorel boots all day, just to allow room for my feet to move freely without stabbing me. If my shoes were too tight, my feet bled. It was agonizing.

Enter Dr. S. Scott Standa, podatrist.

On Dec. 3, 1983, he inspected my curly toes and said: “Well, we could permanently remove your big toenails. Forever.”

Dr. Standa’s diagnosis (which came with a copy of the insurance report) stated “pyogenic paronychia” and “onychogryphotic nails,” which were actually never as bizarre-looking as the “ram’s horn” condition—just a regular toenail growing into an abnormally shaped toe.

But hold on. Lose a body part? Like, never have a big toenail ever again?!

I’d lost teeth before. The Tooth Fairy always came and left a quarter for every baby tooth gone belly up. Fair deal.

But both my big toenails? And forever?

Apparently I didn’t consider it very long, as six days later Dr. Standa numbed up my feet and yanked out the offending nails. Then he applied phenol to the toenail’s germinal matrix to ensure it would never grow back. The entire procedure cost $275. I was off work for a couple days so I could keep my feet elevated and heal up.

So, Mom and Dad, I’m still your curly toed eldest son. But I no longer have to deal with the agony of ingrown toenail.

Now if I could only figure out how to get that face with a winning smile.

My Monster’s Keeper

•February 13, 2015 • Leave a Comment

MonsterI haven’t wanted to write this, even as far back as last July, when I first added it to the edit slate.

So I yanked it, worried about “getting it wrong.”

Then it popped up after New Year’s, while I was searching through 1982–83 letters for topics.

There it was againmy monster—on the page.

The memory had been easily forgotten, since there’s no journal for 1983.

“I’ve not been in a ‘people’ mood lately,” reads the aforementioned page—a copy of a letter to Lindsay Clarke written on Sept. 7, 1983 (photo at left probably taken early that year, in Dad’s den at the farm, likely prior to the Guthrie date with Thérèse).

“I’m finding fault in everyone and trying hard not to say anything out loud. Let me explain.”

I’d returned to Minnesota from Britain feeling more lonely than I’d ever been, moreso after Thérèse and I stopped dating sometime that year. She’d met a carpenter at the theater where she then worked. They married and moved to South Dakota.

So I looked into a singles group advertised in the Sunday paper. That September letter to Lindsay tells the story in full (italics mine, 2015):

“Well, I turned up Friday and drank, and drank and eventually made a fool of myself in a way which ashamed me I think, more than others. Turns out that the members of this group, and its visitors, rarely venture in age any younger than 40, are divorced, widowed, separated … God knows what these people had been through for they all looked tired and lonely. Their talk was of trivial things (one woman chattered away about horoscopes and astrology—perhaps you would have enjoyed talking to her, it seemed to me that she really didn’t have an interest in it, it was just a chatting-up topic. A hollow one, but one nonetheless).

Our discussion question—or topic, I should say—was slang, language usage, popular and unpopular. Of course, being the youngest one there I thought everybody would turn to me for some explanation of just what the hell their children were saying. The conversation was lively, even though after my first few beers I felt a bit surly and disappointed to find my young and lonely self under the scrutinizing eyes of my elders. I felt like one of them! Boorish and old before my time! Where had all the young, silly faces gone?MonsterToo

Well, I struck up a conversation with a bassoon player for the Minnesota Orchestra and in my drunken state tried to impress him with my ‘heartfelt’ appreciation for Tchaikovsky. He wasn’t impressed. His face was flat, his eyes dead. He said, ‘All these stupid people talking about things they don’t know anything about.’ I said, ‘You know, we’re all different. Some people when they’re put in a group situation make statements about things they’re not sure of just to see if anyone will politely correct them. It’s a way for some people to ask questions.’ He still didn’t seem impressed with my observation; so, to keep his audience and to anger him a bit I started asking him direct, specific questions such as ‘How long have you been with the Orchestra?’ and in the attitude of not really caring how he answered—just as long as he said something, anything. In the middle of one of my pointed, pointless questions he stalked off, leaving me embarrassed.

You cantankerous old bastard, I thought, how dare you make a fool of me! I caught up with him across the room, with a beer lodged in my fist and said quietly: ‘You’re a sad, bitter man. I feel sorry for you.’ And I walked away taking a slug of my beer.

Feel sorry for him! I feel sorry for myself, after all, now that I write this and think about that evening, I was in the wrong, for I had realized how much he bored me and I was looking to ‘punish’ him for it. It’s like kicking the hell out of a stranger and then saying to him, ‘I feel sorry for you, you sad, worthless person,’ without knowing the least thing about him.

Monster3Later in the night, when a few of us stopped in at a small local nightspot for more drinks, a group of the singles and the bassoonist were there and I started in again talking without listening. One of the guys said to me: ‘You know, you’ll end up a sad and lonely person if you don’t stop attacking people. You have to accept them as they are.’ I was hurt and confused by this. Was I really so bad? I’d begun to think so.

In your letter you reminded me of something I wrote to you, the bit about physical confirmation of things we call ‘higher’—about possession. I was feeling smug and comfortable with myself as I wrote that, and now I think it is an interesting revelation—you wrote that ‘Affection, friendship, whatever, can be given, it can be received, but not owned … never can it be possessed.’ Why I feel hurt: I think I can receive an unconditional guarantee that someone or something for which I hold wavering respect and fickle affections will never do the same to me. My hopes lie in possession, not simple acceptance. Getting in the way of myself! My inclination is to shudder at this and then stupidly move on … I’m tying myself in knots over this thought. Someone once told me not to be so introspective. I can’t help it.”

The story shows “my monster” in three removes: 1) the 22-year-old who experienced the event firsthand, 2) the 22-year-old telling the story to a trusted friend and, 3) the 50-year-old rethinking everything over time and experience. Thirty-two years later, reading this story, I still feel that knot—tightening like a noose around my monster’s neck.

Sure, I get it. What’s past is past.

But past is also prologue. And my monster is older and stronger.

He’s three parts ego masquerading in confidence and nonchalance, the remainder horrible to other people even as he’s acknowledging his own awfulness and desperately trying to pass off faint sparks of emotional intelligence as bright bonfires of self-awareness. He’s in love with his own story, throwing Hemingwayesque punches with “a beer lodged in [his] fist” and “taking a slug of [his] beer.”

Hey there, Mr. Beach Bully Monster, kick any sand in people’s faces lately?

That poor bassoonist was probably looking for a sympathetic ear. If monster had shut up long enough and been genuinely curious about this fellow human being, he might’ve truly learned something that night—something more than what’s revealed in the letter.

So, well, of course his—my—“inclination is to shudder at this and stupidly move on”—because I’ve been successful at that, oh yes, ending up a “sad and lonely person”—evidenced by the fact that I’m 1) sad and 2) lonely. Even my inability to decide on which grammatical person says it all: “I” turns into “he” (or “it”) because, well, distance is safety.

I still seek not to understand, but dominate or control. “How dare” anyone make a fool of me—when there I was, doing a fine job all on my own.

A thirty-plus-years incident, forgotten until revealed in a letter, private until made public … but to what end?

Possibly, to finally ownbe 100 percent responsible for—the consequences of my behavior?

To be a better person?

Charles Thomas

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