Last Letter to the Old Man

•October 2, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I saw you on the street today. At least I thought it was you.

photo via Unsplash / Gerard Moonen

Photo via Unsplash / Gerard Moonen

Seems you’d just been to the pharmacy and had your walker cane in your right hand. With the other you had a suitcase in tow, atop of which rested your purchases in a plastic bag.

You really struggled to keep walking onward.

I wondered about your home—was anyone waiting there for you? Or are you still living alone?

Have you solved the riddle of relationships, or do they still confound you?

I’m guessing you’re at least 75 years old, so that means you’ve got 20 years on me. Hopefully your memory is as sharp as ever. But if it isn’t, there are always those diaries and journals you’ve kept most of your life, right?

Your maternal grandfather kept a log of his day’s events. He lived to 95, so you have a shot at 20 more years. Your paternal grandfather lived until 82. The women in your family? Not so lucky. Barely cracked their 70s.

It’s now October 2015.

Just so you’re up-to-speed, the past seven years have been the worst patch of your entire life. I’d like to say you got through them swimmingly, but not so.

Both your parents died during that time, you ended a love relationship, and your career atrophied. So, I guess that qualifies as Epic Fuckedupdom. However, I’m going to assume that the choices you made when you were my age turned out for the best.

You had one hell of a history to surmount to get to where you are now. Let’s tackle that living situation first, because I just gotta say this…

Living alone sucks.

You did it for most of your life, except for those early college years. As soon as you got a fulltime job, and began your career in 1985, you were always yanking at the Family Project chain, hoping to get away and into a place of your own.

But an adjustment always came with that choice. Living alone, while freeing, involved loneliness and isolation. I really hope you’re not carrying those things into your “twilight years.”

You deserve to enjoy solitude, but not endure the pain of loneliness. You deserve to share your life with another person.

Where I’m writing to you from—right now—has been the grindstone that nearly wore you down to nothing. You were in a place from which you needed to escape, like back in 2005. It was one of your father’s last wishes that you quit renting and buy some real estate. But you didn’t want to own a house, and knew you wanted to stay in the city. That, I think, was the smart part of your decision. The stupid part was the choice you then made.

—But that’s all history.

Hopefully you’ve found family again.

A new tribe.

A strong home base and some sort of Creativity Command Central.

You deserve that, old man. You deserve to have that buzzing hive where you can entertain family and friends. Where you can make art or play music and always be yourself, unconstrained.

You know, you’ve always been a great weatherman—you could tell when the environment wasn’t right, when storms were coming and you needed to get to higher ground. Your Pop sensed that in you. He was proud that you could do that.

In some ways he worried about you, but not as much if he didn’t think you had that kind of intuition. After a while your mother started to worry more about you because she knew you both shared a mental illness. It was okay for her to be concerned. But worry ate away at her like an acid until only her bones were left. Then even those crumbled. Depression does that to humans.

You see, old man, I had a vision about your future.

This is weird, because I know you don’t like talking about the future—it’s a topic not meant for discussion. But bear with me here.

I see you at home with a lovely partner. She’s, actually, not at all similar to you, which surprises you both daily.

If I could describe her one characteristic, she’s like a pit bull. She will fight you or others over what she believes in. You’re somewhat exasperated by this, but you realize she’s mostly right. And she eloquently expresses her opinions, which delights you endlessly.

Also, she won’t let you wimp out or do less than your best. That tests your mettle, too.

You and your partner live in a community of other families and couples, so it’s very … communal. In this place, you all happily share your skills, knowledge, and talents, and there’s a ton of laughter. But it’s not just all “seniors.” That’s the cool thing about this community.

There are younger people around and you’re mentoring them. And they’re teaching you new tricks. It’s an amazing experiment on reciprocal, cross-generational relationships. In a sense, you’re not aging, you’re improving.

Everyone is.

34 YearsAnyway, hate to say goodbye, old man, but I must.

Every day is something of a goodbye.

But you knew that, right?

So, as you hobble up the steps of your new place with your bag full of whatever pharmaceuticals have been unleashed upon your future world, dragging your suitcase and leaning on your walker cane, I just gotta ask you this—

Is she there waiting for you, worried if you would make it home okay?

And when you step through that door, will you tell her you’re grateful she’s in your life?


•September 25, 2015 • Leave a Comment


CITD celebrates its 5-year anniversary! (Woo-hoo!) Here’s an oldie but goodie about a dog. Back with all-new posts 10/2/15.

Originally posted on Completely in the Dark:

Insufferable 1Two humans in one.

And all it took was a dog to complete the equation.

Last Saturday around 4 p.m., I was driving home from an artists’ meeting in Minneapolis. While turning onto Osceola Street in Saint Paul, I was flagged down by a guy standing in the middle of the road. I pulled over and reluctantly got out to see what was up.

“I found a dog,” he said. “Looks like a stray—it’s all shaky and seems frightened and hungry. I can’t take it home—could you?”

My condo’s rules disallowed dogs and I wasn’t even sure I had the resources to take care of one, even temporarily.

The guy seemed exasperated, so I agreed. He gave me his name, phone number, and I went to his car to check it out.

The dog was a mixed terrier, trembling down to its little paws, staring sadly at us from…

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No One Ever Left Alive in Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five (Part 2)

•September 18, 2015 • Leave a Comment

[Last of a two-part post.]

On Tuesday, April 23, 1985, there was a quiz for Lit class on Crèvecœur’s Letters From an American Farmer. And I was struggling to finish the book.

“Laura popped up in my Linguistics class just as it ended,” the journal states, “to ask me if there was any assignment—we chatted a bit after class about the party at Dolphin’s on Saturday—she wasn’t there—she’d gone home for the weekend. I saw her again, while Rick and I waited for the bus outside Currier after dinner—she was going up to eat and we chatted again. Shame that she has a boyfriend…”


The journal describes the vibe in Iowa City on Monday, May 6: “Anti-apartheid rallies, daily, on the Pentacrest. They’re making news, writing all over Jessup Hall—which they’ve renamed Stephen Biko Hall. Beautiful weather. Trees have ‘leafed out.’ River’s flowing, occasionally bristled by a strong wind. Mosses pushing through cracks in the pavement.”

But me?

“I feel like a real nobody. I talk to people and I’m afraid to say too much. I wish I’d shut up, never [make] small talk.”

I’d gotten on the bus that morning with Yolanda, from my dorm floor. “She was on her way to ‘Selected Authors.’ ‘What’s on your mind?’ Samuel Johnson. ‘Wasn’t he kind of a pessimist, a real grump?’ —Depended on who he was with, Boswell—he just knew what was really, truly good, she said (earnestly?) … ‘Well, isn’t that the mark of a good critic?’ —That’s bullshit, she said.”

I ranted through the rest of that day’s journal entry: “Who? Johnson, or literary historians, or me?”

I was feeling utterly friendless in Iowa City.

“I don’t have that here, not with Bud, or Rick, or anyone. If I were to get married tomorrow, I wouldn’t have a best man to choose from! How sad things have become!”


Dad had sent me the Sunday Minneapolis Tribune want ads. You know, so I could look for a summer job once the school year was over.

So I answered an ad for “Proofreader” at Fingerhut Corporation in Hopkins, Minn.

It was Friday morning, May 3, when our dorm room phone rang. It was Fingerhut’s human resources department calling, requesting an interview. I told them I was still a student at the University of Iowa; they said were willing to schedule the interview around that.

So I took a Greyhound north the following Tuesday, stayed at the farmhouse overnight, then interviewed the morning of Wednesday, May 8, 1985.

Afterward Dad gave me the keys to my car—the dark blue 1981 Datsun GX coupe I loved so much, with cassette tape deck and zippy wheels—so I could drive back down to school for the remainder of the semester. But I couldn’t keep it at Mayflower Hall due to parking restrictions, so Chris Hampl let me stow it at his apartment.

Then, after Fingerhut Corporation called to offer me the job that same Friday, I was beginning to feel like somebody, too.

Bud and his girlfriend Kim seemed to be on the outs, so his sister Beth and her boyfriend Larry came up from Louisville to join us for an R.E.M. concert at Hancher Auditorium that Thursday. After the show we went to The Crow’s Nest, but “stayed only until midnight”—later learning R.E.M. had also crashed The Crow’s Nest after midnight to catch the local band and shoot pool.

We felt totally crestfallen.


It’d been cloudy and rainy for four days straight.

So Rick, Jane, and I went to one last movie.

It was John Sayles’ Brother From Another Planet, at the Bijou, on Saturday night, May 11. “I loved it,” the journal says. “You can take a fantasy film like [Ron Howard’s] Splash and throw it out the window compared to Sayles’ film.”

After the show we piled into Rick’s Volkswagen Bug and headed over to Fitzpatrick’s, where we grabbed a booth in the back. We shook off the rain and drank pints of Harp, “talking about relationships, sex, all the abundance or lack thereof—getting in a few jokes as well.” I found out Jane was from St. Louis, Mo., and mentioned my friend Thérèse to her, also from St. Louis. We left the bar near midnight.

“The last 6 days,” the May 22 journal entry (written back in Minnesota) reads, “have been fireworks aboard a Concorde that leaves Nome, Alaska, and lands on a beach in Bermuda.”

The week before was filled with final exams and graduation parties.

My roommate Bud Morris’ parents were due in from Louisville on Thursday, and he was packing up to leave Friday morning, May 17. Friday night Dick Bray had planned a grad party at Harv’s House. I still needed to pick up my Datsun at Chris’ apartment, and get it gassed up so I could leave early Saturday morning.

On the way to supper I ran into Susan, a friend of Jim’s, and also Laura Speaks. “Laura and I got into talking about our upcoming Literature and Language final exams, so she invited me over to her place … to exchange missed lecture notes.”

This is funny because I’m sure I was past caring about anything at that point: college or relationships.

Or, maybe not.

The day before I was to leave Iowa City for the last time, Laura and I were at her place. Here’s what the journal says:

“In between scanning each others’ notes, we chatted about music, books. … She said she’d like to get into proofreading, too—eventually, maybe, she said, becoming an editor in a publishing house. We watched the fish in her aquarium. I even got to talking about old girlfriends—noting to her that I’m anxious to pry into my old diaries for story ideas. I guess her present boyfriend’s a music major. I didn’t think to ask what he plays. It seems a lot of these attached girls I meet are genuinely happy. Oh well. I’m thinking about how I’m going to end my little stint here—that is, most assuredly in a whimper, not a bang.”


Laura’s boyfriend’s name was Michael.

Like, of course.

Great joke, universe. Ha, ha, you’re freakin’ brilliant.

Friday, May 17, 1985: Rick and I shared a last supper at Currier Hall, after I’d had my Astronomy final and scrambled to pick up the Datsun at Chris’ apartment.

My Literature final exam (cruel in substance as well as timing) was at 7 p.m. in the English-Philosophy Building. “It was short-answer, identification, and two essays,” the journal states. “It was difficult. I sweated through the whole two hours. Most people did. ‘Fifteen more minutes,’ Franklin said. ‘Keep shoveling.’”

Franklin wanted to see me after the exam, as I’d failed to turn in a paper. “He knew about my job interview and gave me an extension of two weeks” to mail it to him.

After the exam I ran into Laura—“she did really well on her paper and was happy—I was really down and knew I did badly in the exam; she stroked my face and then gave me a lovely, big hug.”

I’ll never forget that moment. It was amazing.

It was Friday night, finals were over, and a six-hour drive north lay ahead.

But not without One Last Party, at Harv’s House with Dick Bray and friends. I went to see Laura one last time, over at Dolphin’s, “but she was cleaning out her aquarium with her boyfriend.”

Rick Kubat showed up at Dick’s party. “I had quite a few beers,” the journal says. “Jim, Laura and her boyfriend Mike showed up later. We listened to old ’70s songs that LeeAnn played. Jane was there. We got stoned. I vegetated. I spilt beer on myself while sitting and talking with Laura. I decided it was time to leave.”

I think that’s when the 1970s finally ended for me, odd as it seems to say that now.

But leave I did.

Driving back north the following morning.

And into Corporate America, 1985.

No One Ever Left Alive in Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five (Part 1)

•September 11, 2015 • Leave a Comment

[First of a two-part post.]

NoOneEverWe drove south, stopping at nearly every roadhouse that caught our eye.

It was Tuesday, Jan. 15, 1985, and fellow University of Iowa chum Chris Hampl and I traded driving duties in his car.

“We split a six of Molson,” the journal reports, “and a little shot bottle of bourbon on the way down.”

Once back in Iowa City, ahead of winter semester, we dropped my stuff off at Mayflower Hall (pictured at left), took some drapes over to a couple he knew at another house, then went downtown to a bar called George’s for cheeseburgers. After dinner and more beers, we headed to his apartment, smoked a joint, and listened to music—totally crashing me out on his living room floor for the night.

The next morning I watched game shows until Chris awoke. Then he gave me another ride back to the dorm where I waited until roomie Bud Morris had returned from holiday break in Louisville, Ky.

“It’s a letdown being here,” the journal confesses. “The place looks hideously bare … and I’m feeling as lonely as I did when I first moved in last autumn. …It’s an odd feeling, being neither here nor there, moving about as I’ve been doing.”

Sue Rolfe, my crush from The Crow’s Nest, had graduated and left town. It was back to square one with new classes and new faces.


Six days later, with Bud back and Rick Kubat returned from Illinois, we ventured into The Crow’s Nest again, popping a couple bucks to see a band called Boys With Toys. I later confessed to the journal that while at The Crow’s Nest I “waxed a bit nostalgic; of course Sue’s no longer there, but I still really like the Nest.”

Classes that winter included Language & Society, a remedial Math lab, Astronomy with Dr. Fix (who tried to “dramatize the size and scale of ‘heavenly bodies,’ and sometimes his attempts seemed pretty ludicrous…”), and American Literature and Culture with professor Wayne Franklin. I was feeling pretty solid about the semester.

However by mid-February, things seemed shakier. After all, there was Valentine’s Day.

Bud was despondent when his longtime girlfriend Kim couldn’t make the drive from Louisville due to a freak snowstorm, which made Indiana impassable.

So, on Saturday, Feb. 16, we attended a party at Ted, Carol, and Doug’s place (Bud’s fellow Stats TAs) where, in the kitchen, an eight-gallon keg of Old Style sat in a tub on ice. Of course I was curious if there’d be attractive young women there.

“There were hardly any good-looking girls,” the journal reports, “—none, actually—and I spent some time amusing myself by putting up quotations on a ‘Graffiti’ board they supplied for people to scrawl on.” Bud, still moping over a Kim-less Valentine’s Day and drinking heavily, vomited at one point. So we all started moving closer to the door.

“Before we left,” the journal reveals, “I gave Carol a big ‘thank-you-for-having-us-over’ hug. It was real nice to wrap my arms around someone.”


Two weeks later it was spring. Well, it was a “False Spring.”

“Very warm, near 50, and the river, now flowing, is gushing downstream flooding over the banks on the way.” It was Thursday, Feb. 28, and I was feeling pensive after struggling through Math lab, so I went on one of my long walks by the river. The journal describes my thoughts:

“I tried to gauge how happy I really felt, realizing all the ways I could be happier, and yet feeling generally contented. Some of those happier ways included an energetic circle of friends (much like the group I had at Lakewood, when we’d all meet at Jethro’s, the local bar, and pulled tables end on end so that we could all be together), and perhaps a girlfriend would be nice—someone I would be sexually and intellectually (not so much with wit and pedantic knowledge, but simple wisdom, a kind of common sense) fascinated with. She’d have to be very attractive to me, otherwise how could my fascination have any real grasp? So I saw how I could be happier, and the day seemed a little less cheery.”

So, what did I do?

Join the other sad sack single guys—Rick, Dick, Gundy and Jim—for our usual glum dinner at Currier Hall.


After spring break, I was more desperate.

“I’m fed up with everyone and everything,” the journal declares. “I hate Math. I’m tired of myself and Empty City, Iowa. Where was the charm I thought I saw here? I thought it formed a place in my future—now I don’t know what my future will be—I have no plans—if anyone were to ask me, I’d say I don’t know.”

Then, on Monday, April 8:

“After a regular, busy day [during dinner at Currier where] everybody was present and we all sat at a large round table: Rick, his friend George from the Quad Cities, Jim, Dianna, Dick, Gundy, and Brian. Jim says to me, ‘Oh Mike, Laura tried to get from me your last name, so she could look up your number and call you about an assignment or something for the class you two’re in.’ Really? Well, I told him my last name and then he said, ‘Why don’t we just stop over at her place and see if she’s in? She lives right across the street from Harv’s House (where Dick lives)…”

Cripes, Laura.

Laura Speaks, from Lamoni, Iowa.

I’d nearly forgotten about her. And even now I faintly remember her: petite, short sandy hair, pretty smile and plain-speaking directness.

So Jim, Dick, Brian, and I stopped over and knocked on her door. The journal continues:

“She was in, eating graham cracker cookies with chocolate cake frosting—she dipped them in a glass of milk. She said she wanted to know if we were having a quiz in Literature. No, we weren’t. I nosed around her room: a large in-the-wall bookshelf loaded full with books on literature and film—a bean-bag chair, study area above which suspended her bed in a loft arrangement, an aquarium meticulously clean—only two fish.”

She talked with Jim as I plopped myself down into the bean bag—Dick and Brian were already scouting around upstairs. A guy came in looking to rent a room. “She seemed to be in charge of securing rents for a sublease, or sublet, whatever it is,” the journal states. “He said he ‘talked with some guy on the phone yesterday,’ and she said, ‘yeah, that was my boyfriend.’”

The journal lays it bare:

“I was sitting in the bean-bag chair, or rather, sinking in the bean-bag chair. Never, never be smug about a girl. No matter what she looks like, or what her personality, or background or environment, Law dictates that she must have a boyfriend.”

Here was the first time I’d ever met Laura Speaks and I had such a strong feeling that I was, well, nearly livid: “…there’s still the Man,” I ranted to the journal, “that Wonderful Guy that always has a name.” I told Jim I had to get going and we all said goodbye.

The next day, as I hoofed it into Literature class, Laura “cheerfully smiled at me. Of course, I smiled back. But I didn’t, and really don’t plan to, talk to her. She has a friend. What more could anyone want?”


Rick had an artsy, movie-loving friend named Jane.

He knew I loved movies, too. So he invited me to join them at a screening of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall at the Bijou downtown. But something more was going on, something weird, as the journal reports:

“Rick’s always placing Jane next to me. Now, Jane has a boyfriend, a tall, lanky guy named Greg—who’s now—just now, I take it, dropping out of school. So Jane fits the category … of ‘attached’—supplying another case to the maxim that ‘there’s no such thing as a single woman.’”

A long-haired brunette, Jane was apparently shy, but “once you get her to talk,” the journal reveals, “she’s lively and interesting. We’ve got somewhat similar interests: she reads classics; she likes art, as well as draws. I fantasized myself as Alvy Singer to her Annie Hall. But that won’t work. Who’s kidding who?”

After the movie with Jane and Rick, there was a party at Dolphin’s, “but I didn’t see Jim, or Dick, or Laura for that matter.”

It was the end of April.

And there were blossoms on the trees just outside Currier Hall.

End of the Season

•September 4, 2015 • Leave a Comment


Reposting this chestnut and getting outside to enjoy the end of the summer! See you next week with all-new posts!

Originally posted on Completely in the Dark:

We didn’t say a final goodbye to anyone.

July 31, 1976, was a beautiful summer Saturday and, the diary reports, “that’s a good feeling.”

While all the campers at Shamineau trudged up to a last late-morning service, Loren, Sherri and I packed our stuff into the Volkswagen and drove back to Minnetonka, arriving around 2 that afternoon.

I’d come down with Loren’s ’flu, and had a fever of 104. At home, I called two friends but crashed out, sick all night.

It was the beginning of the end of the season.


Just over 31 years later, I’m standing outside my parents’ back door in Florida. Thanksgiving 2007 is over.

I’m on my way out to the rental car that will take me to Tampa, where I’d catch a flight back to Minnesota.

Mom was the last to see me off, standing by the other side of the…

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Baby Bright Star

•August 28, 2015 • Leave a Comment

There is a Family Project legend that—left untold—might just die with me.BrightStar1

I’m not even sure if my brother knows about it. Or for that matter my Aunt Joyce, who was likely there when it happened.

Dad told me the story many times, especially when he knew I was feeling down in the dumps.

“The night you were born,” he said, “your mother just glowed. She was so happy to see you.” As she first held me in the maternity ward of Coleman Hospital in Indianapolis, Ind., the window shade beside her bed—he reported—suddenly snapped open. Out the window she saw a bright star in the sky. It was sometime during the evening of Friday, Nov. 27, 1959.

Later, in a 1997 birthday card posted from South Florida, Mom wrote to me: “Thirty-eight years ago, I still remember [lying] awake in the middle of the night, after you were born, feeling very awed & seeing a very bright star out my window. I knew then you were going to be very special & gifted.”

The folks (then in retirement mode) were en route to a vacation in Hawaii, and I was home in St. Paul, having just started a new job in the spring of that year. That was 11 years before Mom died on May 24, 2008.

Whether the window shade was an embellishment Dad added to the story, I guess I’ll never know.

But there it is. A legend passed down once again.


If being “very special & gifted” means having a highly sensitive nature, then I’m not sure I want to be. Seriously.

In 1987 I was diagnosed with dysthymia, a form of low-level, lingering depression. It took years for me to learn how to manage the worst part of the condition—commonly called a “double-dip depression,” when my overall mood nosedives into a full-blown depressive episode. I fear those like nothing else.

My friend Thérèse called me out on it just recently. “You know,” she said over the phone, “I think you’re an empath.”

I wasn’t even sure what an empath was (outside of an old Star Trek episode), so I did some nosing around online.

Some of my psychological qualities seemed to match the description of a so-called empath: the need for quiet and contemplation, annoyance at over-stimulation and noise (such as any place where a lot of people are talking at once), an ability to walk into a room and pretty much know what’s going on emotionally with everyone in it (even the knack for guessing what people’s news is even before they announce it)—and strenuously avoiding most intimate long-term relationships.

That, I understand, is the modus operandi of an empath.


I’m not sure what to make of all this.

While it may be revealing, just acknowledging being an empath doesn’t provide any clues for how to live with such a condition.

Thérèse probably said it best: “You like to interact with the world, you like getting out and meeting people. But you need to figure out how to protect yourself and not get drained by others.”

People who meet me for the first time are confused to learn about this. “You’re so outgoing, it’s hard to believe you’re actually like that.”

I know, I know.

It makes for a minefield of ambiguity: my outward affect doesn’t always match my internal emotional state.

BabyBright2I wonder what Mom would’ve made of that—her eldest boy being “an empath.” She knew I was highly sensitive and praised it as a quality she hoped I’d never lose. But being a highly sensitive male tends to alienate me from other men—and women.

“You feel things too deeply,” my ex-girlfriend AJ once said to me. I found her comment confusing, and it hurt—somehow confirming that, well, maybe she was dead right.

I can usually detect lying, deceit, fear, or apprehension upon meeting a person for the first time. If there’s residual sadness, pain, suffering or disease, I can sense it in a room, even if the space is empty.

Now that I think about it, the “gift” goes all the way back to my early childhood, when my paternal grandfather took me into a bar once and I said, “Grandpa, I don’t like it here! Let’s go!” That’s another of the family legends passed down to me.

So, how can I not be that way? How can I be stronger, more dependable, more detached and therefore more rock-solid?

Or maybe these are the wrong questions.

Maybe it’s a matter of how can I be more empathic—use this curse, gift, aberration, psychic ability, fuck-if-I-know-what—where it can help others.

My first step is to do more research into what is, if nothing else, an apparently highly sensitive state. Is there even such a thing as an “empath”?

And what are they really good at doing, like no one else can do?

The English Teacher

•August 21, 2015 • 2 Comments

“…I still didn’t have the paper done, God, it was bugging the hell out of me anyway. I always screw things up really bad in that class, and MacHardy even kinda bugs me. He’s always picking things apart, you know, analyzing too much. I suppose a teacher’s gotta be consistent or something or else parents would be curious, about his competency, I mean.”   —Jeff Dunne, “The Crowded Room”

EnglishTeacherThey were the enemy.

They were the ones creating all the stress, the assignments—and doling out those dreaded grades.

And while that may be putting it a tad strongly, they were on the other side of the fence from us kids. Especially us nerdy ones.

I almost never think about the teachers in my life, but I did just recently.

You see, my high school English teacher (and student newspaper advisor) Paul McHale died on July 14. He was 82 years old.

I’ve mentioned him a couple times in early posts of CITD. But it wasn’t until I’d read his obituary that I realized I never really got to know the man.

After all, Paul McHale was probably 45 years old when I was in his Advanced Composition class at Mound Westonka High School (photo above, left, from 1978). Back then 40-anything was old. I mean, as old as my parents old.

And like parents, teachers were the kind of people that any teen needed to view with the utmost circumspection. It was simple: they could rat on you at any second! So it was always best to keep them at arm’s length.

Still, I’d gotten off on a good footing with teachers all the way back to elementary school in Maryland. Then, once I’d moved to Minnesota, there was my Grandview Junior High School English teacher, Rhys Evans. He was a real character.

When we arrived for class, he was always sitting at an upright piano in the room. He’d play ragtime and jingles (that he claimed he’d written himself); one in particular was titled “Queenie in Her Bikini.” (Try getting that past the school board today, folks.)

Mr. Evans had slicked-back dark hair and glasses with thick black frames. Class never formally began until he stopped playing the piano, closed the keyboard lid, and sauntered over to the lectern.

Our assignments were usually due by the next class. Since I was already creating short stories on my own, I loved writing “descriptive narratives” or “dialogue between two characters.” One such assignment came back with a bright red A+ and a note at the bottom: “You have a talent, Mike, a gift for expressing yourself with words. Keep developing it. I know you will make good use of it for pleasure as well as for your work. You have some fine writing here for an 8th grade assignment.”Eide_English

Mom proudly affixed it to the refrigerator, where it stayed probably well into my high school freshman year.

The positive reinforcement continued with a junior-year class called “Literature in the Real World” with Duane Eide. Eide assigned us a personal narrative, so I wrote about a snowy walk out on frozen Lake Minnetonka to an abandoned cabin, where my brother, a friend and I found some old tintypes. “Your descriptions are vivid and interesting,” Eide wrote. “Your last short sentence really gives your narrative a clear purpose!”

However, once I’d made it to senior year, McHale raked my writing over his searingly hot editing coals—something I thoroughly resented.


Jack_EnglishTeachI needed some insight into what may’ve been going on, so I interviewed Jack Schlukebier, a retired St. Paul Central High School English teacher.

I’m grateful Jack took the time to talk with me. We chatted on the front porch of his Summit Hill home on Wednesday, Aug. 5.

Taking puffs from his pipe, he said that 10th and 11th grade is a critical period for kids’ writing. His statement really surprised me, so I asked him to explain.

“It seems,” he said, “like that’s when it’s either the maturity or experience, or it’s the kind of literature you’re reading, that’s when it gels for those who are going to really get into it. By senior year, I never saw much development—saw a lot of refinement, maybe … but kids then are going to catch on to [metaphors]—well, English teachers love metaphor. We just think that’s the coolest thing in the world. That’s when it sort of catches on. They’ve been using them all their life, but they don’t understand … by senior year everything is more mechanical.”

I explained to him how criticism from McHale weighed so heavily on my mind at the time. “You needed that affirmation from the right guy,” he said flatly.

But I was only a kid! It’s easy to forget what it’s like under a teenager writer’s skin. Jack gave me the view from the business side of the chalkboard:

“The other thing I’ve noticed in high school writing, and it was true in junior high … there’s so much angst. You know, and self-pity. These kids would do personal narratives, just reams of paper about how the world is screwin’ them. And they just can’t see past that. When it came to expository writing, or even trying to write a fictional piece, many students could never become somebody else—you could tell it was always about them. And being able to develop a persona, as a writer, for your story, is kind of a difficult concept.”

I asked him how a teacher could best help a young writer develop a persona, get into the skin of a fictional character. Could it be through emulating a writer who’s already doing that?

“I think you hit it,” Jack said. “The kids who are good writers—and I think this is true for adults, too—are avid readers. You’ve got to get outside of yourself and into another character in a book or place. And when you can do that, then I think you can write. But the kids who were not good readers … I mean, they could put together a simple sentence but it never became a character—or something other than their angst,” he laughed, “My God, the angst! Give me a break.


LastPaulMcHaleIn one of my last Advanced Composition classes, McHale sent back a descriptive narrative I’d written about the first date with my high school girlfriend Kim—finally with an A-.

“You show a sharp eye for detail,” he noted on the back of the assignment. “Your style is not opaque at all—it’s most transparent. I enjoyed your paper.”

Whew. You really ran me through the mill, Mr. McHale.

And I wish I could’ve seen you one last time.

Just to tell you how grateful I am that you did.

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