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.”

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

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.


I 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.

A Brief Foray Into Love & Death

•August 14, 2015 • Leave a Comment


Remembering Robin Williams this past week. Three all-new posts in preflight mode—first of which will be published next Friday. Cheers!

Originally posted on Completely in the Dark:

We all forget.My beautiful picture

That can be good.

It can also be bad.

The death of Robin Williams on Aug. 11 sent shockwaves around the world. It affected me like the death of a family member—specifically, Mom and Dad six years ago.

But it also got me thinking, as I had been prior to that terrible news, about why life can be so difficult for some people, so much so that (brain chemistry aside) they take their own lives.

That question is easily evaded because, well, we all forget. I know I have.

That is until I discovered a seven-page, handwritten note to myself from a couple years ago. While it’s undated (apart from month and day on the last page: 11/16), I’m willing to bet it was poured out shortly after my parents died. I’d titled it “A Brief Foray into Love & Death,” and jotted down…

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Head Room

•August 7, 2015 • Leave a Comment

HeadRoomYesterday afternoon I went to a park, plopped myself down under a tall tree, and stared up at the sky.

There they were. Those clouds again.

Like that spring morning seven years ago when I learned that Mom had died.

Or, in the same year, that September afternoon we lost Dad.

It’s been ages since I’ve had so much time all to myself (probably on a similar summer’s day when I was, oh, maybe 12), lazing on the grass and gazing up at the sky.

I still wonder about the same things I probably did as a child: How big is the universe? Why are we on this planet? What is the meaning behind the shapes of plants, animals, people, buildings … clouds?

Is this—me, idle, lying under a tree in midsummer—all some sort of elaborate dream?

And maybe I’m entirely somewhere else?


On Wednesday, Oct. 17, 1984, while attending the University of Iowa, I walked around Iowa City “in search of Hickory Hill Park.” I wrote in the journal:

“I only made it as far as a cemetery, where I strolled through the gravestones. Automatically, persuasively, shifts the mind on to thoughts about mortality, fidelity, faith, mother earth, centuries, relations with others—such as husband and wife buried side by side by their surviving children, who inscribed on their stones: ‘Mother. Father.’ It set me wondering how close the couple actually were to each other. In the graveyard on a bright, cool, sunny day…the stone-studded hillocks pustulent with the dead, groundsmen were trimming the hedges and clipping the grass over cigarettes and small talk. I couldn’t find the park I intended to reach.”

Three months later I was back in Iowa after the holidays, and noticed that the undergraduate literary magazine, The Iowa Rag, was accepting submissions.

I’d been writing a short story with the working title “Mother & Child,” based on a horrific newspaper item I’d read about a high school classmate who’d abandoned her newly born baby in a Dumpster. Maybe I’d submit it to the Rag.

But it was a short story idea that was billowing into novel-sized proportions. I kept procrastinating. The journal explains:

“Is there therapy for procrastinators? The problem doesn’t lie in the creator, but in the critic. He’s stepping in too frequently and I don’t think he ever used to as much when I wrote before … it’s just that: I Wrote Before. And now how do I feel about how I Wrote Before? That it’s worthless, romantic, silly, pretentious (that’s a bullseye), verbose … Now, afraid of following suit and continuing that common tradition, I’ve Stopped Writing. Now that is silly. …Spill it out with the energy with which I attack this journal. That’s a first step. In writing, order and cohesiveness are important, but like any toy design, can be patched up later after one has stepped back to take a good look at it. There’s plenty of time to think, my mathematician friends tell me. Slow down. Look it over. I have to stop writing a sentence, glancing at it, and then hating the very sight of it. I want perfection, but I can’t get it.”


With the submission deadline fast approaching on Monday, Feb. 4, 1985, I ditched “Mother & Child” for a shorter piece I titled “Insomnia.”

A quick draft was followed by four consecutive days of rewrites and edits, “staying up late [the night before it was due] scanning the rewrite and making changes.” All submissions had to be in The Iowa Rag office in the English-Philosophy Building by 2 p.m.

“I typed the final and drank coffee until around 1:30,” the journal states, “when I tapped out the finishing period.” Furthermore, I admitted to not being “as happy with it as if I’d worked for weeks on ‘Mother & Child’ … and after all, I don’t risk submitting stuff anyway.”

That aching anxiety for perfection (and fear of risk) still haunts me today.

But I’ve learned to regard both with suspicion.

“There’s plenty of time to think…” It surprises me that I intuitively knew that 30 years ago. But when you’re younger, you’re always looking for cues from others.

Parental pressure was greater then, too. While my father was relieved I was back in college, I wasn’t sure what to do with all that education. Obviously some sort of career had to come out of it.

And Dad was determined I find one.


Perfectionism reared its ugly head. Again.

Sixteen days after submitting “Insomnia,” I was still tinkering with it. “I called Nate Oliver, associate editor for the Rag,” the journal reports, “to see if I could get [a] revision to him … he told me to drop it off in his mailbox. I’ve a feeling it won’t be accepted.”

You see, the submission committee had met a week after the deadline. They’d probably already made a decision about it.

“It’s a little squat-shit of a story,” I wrote, “but I’d like to see it printed. I know I can still do even better.”

In early April Dad loaned me $500 to get through spring semester. The plan was to come home for the summer, find a job, and then return to school in the fall.

It was also in April that I got the rejection letter from The Iowa Rag. When the issue came out, I was appalled to see that most of the accepted pieces were written by staff listed in the magazine’s masthead. So, I sent an angry letter to the Daily Iowan, which was published on April 24. A rebuttal from The Iowa Rag’s editor-in-chief followed.

I must’ve written a really petulant letter.


The bitterness of those sour grapes still lingers.

You see, “Insomnia” is as much of a dashed-off, insubstantial, “little squat-shit” of a story now as it was then. It was a conceit built around one measly “so what?” ending.

Anyway, a Thursday, Jan. 31, 1985, journal entry reveals that the inspiration for “Insomnia” came to me three months before, on that search for Hickory Hill Park:

“[The story is] about a man lying in the dark, trying with great effort to ‘sink back down into dreams,’ but he keeps resurfacing to consciousness, much to his annoyance. He slips into a dream, awakens, then slips into another, only to be awakened at its finest moment. The clincher to the story comes when the reader learns that [the] hero is … six feet under, buried in a cemetery, above which a day is warming in mid-summer afternoon sunlight: ‘Again, he’s staring up into the dark, eyes wide, fixed on the blackness, unblinking, up into the quiet, through the cloddy earth, the roots and fibers of the dry, late-summer grass, rippling in the fading afternoon, sweeping down past the headstones to the hedgerows, where two groundskeepers laid down their clippers to exchange cigarettes and small talk.’”

Facing Goliath

•July 31, 2015 • Leave a Comment


Brief midsummer hiatus after that massive 5-part post, then all-new posts again starting Aug. 7. Stay cool, cats!

Originally posted on Completely in the Dark:

“I cannot go in these,” David said to Saul, “Because I am not used to them.”
—1 Samuel 17347px-Osmar_Schindler_David_und_Goliath

Sunday, 5:00 p.m., Nov. 9, 2008: My girlfriend at the time, AJ, and I attended worship service at House of Mercy, then on St. Paul’s Snelling Avenue.

The previous weekend she’d talked me into returning to regular church services after the death of my father that September.

I was reluctant. It’d been a long time since I’d crossed the threshold of a Protestant church.

“I still think I’d like to do that,” I wrote in the journal. “The commonsensical approach [AJ] takes to emotions and spirituality is really appealing to me. I’ve never met a woman like her. I’m learning a lot and guess it stands to reason that a 48-year-old numbskull like me isn’t going to change overnight…”

Well, we attended services at House of Mercy throughout that…

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Finding the Nest (Final)

•July 24, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I’m telling you a
story to let myself
think about it. All

day I’ve been
here, and yesterday.
The months, years,

enclose me as
this thing with arms
and legs. And if

it is time
to talk about it
who knows better

than I?

Robert Creeley

Tuesday, Dec. 4, 1984, called for a celebration.

My grades were coming back with marked improvement. So I stopped over at MacLean Hall where roommate Bud Morris kept his teaching assistant office, just to see if he wanted to raise a glass of cheer.

He told me he’d meet me at The Nest.

Throughout the journal that fall I faithfully recorded the days, sensing I was in the middle of something important in my life—something I knew I’d want to remember.

I even had fun doodling in the margins and writing cryptic “sidebars”—single-line commentaries on the day’s entry.

That Tuesday night’s party entry is a great example (sidebars included):

“I sat there [at The Crow’s Nest] awhile, reading over my [Rhetoric] paper and sipping down two stouts when Sue walks in—

Sidebar: I love…

—[wearing] a herringbone coat and jeans, and it looked as though she wouldn’t be working. She flittered between the front and back. A girl, brunette, worked the front bar. Bud called me (I had to receive the call at the bar) and he said he couldn’t make it. So I scampered up to a seat at the bar. It was about this time that I mentioned I so happened to have with me a Van Morrison tape I thought they’d appreciate. [They] played it—all night.

Sidebar: The tape is now secure in the bowels of the Crow’s Nest. Talked to Tom [the manager] and introduced myself to him.

Well, an effeminate, nice, erudite old man [sat next to me] as a Tony Franciosa-Raquel Welch movie called Fathom came on. We cheerfully discussed old movies—his favorite actress was Angela Lansbury; mine, a cross between Ingrid Bergman and Katharine Hepburn. He had a bourbon & water; I was drinking Exports. Sue occasionally shot in to glance at, and shake her head at, the TV. My old friend left, at the consternation of his wife he said, at 11:30 or so. Van Morrison, second side, was still playing. While the band was on break, Sue approached the bar and sat in a seat just down from my right.

Sidebar: …you.

We started talking about the Raquel Welch movie … She asked the bartender why she had such nice, mellow music on [the girl pointed to me] and Sue seemed to approve.

Sidebar: We shook hands. An asshole spells his name. I’m caught!

We sat at the bar and talked somewhat interpersonally about—shit, I was dying with questions—I introduced myself—and she introduced herself—she said she had noticed me reading the paper I had mentioned to her about [she knew about writing papers] and when I told her that—‘yes, you’re a psychology major, aren’t you?’ She said, ‘How could you remember my major and not my name?’ I blushed, turned back to the TV, and remember being totally upset as to how to proceed with this wonderful conversation. She revealed that she’s in her final weeks [days, hours, minutes, she calculated: when would she leave Iowa City? She couldn’t wait!] She’s a senior. She said something about her father wanting [to my question, ‘had she seen the four years out consecutively?’] her to finish her schooling. … She also said something about Chicago [?]. Sue is beautiful. I sat there shy to look at her, I was taken with her so. She confidently assured ‘the audience’ she’d soon be ‘quitting’ Iowa City. It was getting too suffocating for her, I think she said, too small. Our conversation, sweet as it was, was too brief. I think she suspected—I’m almost sure she suspected—my interest in her, but it’s odd that she came to me—she sat at the bar up front, whereas I had thought I might go to the back and try to talk to her. It’s late. She’ll be leaving at the end of this semester I imagine. Nothing can form. Nothing can happen.”

Please note that decisive sense of doubt. It’s crucial to what follows.


The next evening brought the first snowfall to Iowa City.

But three days later the journal states it was “very warm and sunny. It must be near 50.” I’d been fighting a head cold from the previous weekend. Rick lured me out to mingle with all “the warm weather Christmas shoppers.”

I needed a ride back up to Minnesota for the upcoming holidays. That came in the form of my Geology Lab partner, a St. Paul native named Chris Hampl.

Chris had a car and was happy I’d be riding shotgun. We talked about The Crow’s Nest. When I mentioned eavesdropping on the Nov. 28 conversation between the bartender Jenny and some guy who dated Sue, Chris “filled in the gaps for me.” Apparently he knew Sue well.

He told me that “Sue, yes, is thinking of moving to Chicago or L.A., but she’s originally from one of the Quad Cities on the Iowa side, I forget which one. Yes, she’d gone out with this John guy, but he’d probably treated her like shit, Chris had said. ‘Why? Are you going out with her now?’ he sincerely asked. ‘No,’ I said, but I would, had I the time to get to know her, I’d give it a try.”

The following Friday, Dec. 14, Bud pulled himself away from finals to catch live music with me at The Crow’s Nest. The journal reports:

“Bud and I headed uptown around 8:00, stopped in at B.J. Records, then went down to the Crow’s Nest to see The Shy (with Letters From The Circus). [We] had a few stouts at the front bar and went back a little after 9:00—and Sue’s working…I said ‘hi’ when I saw her as I came in; she said ‘hi.’—that was the extent of any discourse between us all night—it was like a nightmare, in fact, I had one this morning like that—

Sidebar: A nightmare of rejection

—rows of chairs, an audience of people our age—Iowa City incarnate—in a place with the feel of the back bar of the Nest, yet it was outdoors. Sue was sitting among these people, talking with them…there was a large spinning bowl; a guy at the back told me you could throw lemons into it and they’d pop back out at you. I tried it. This railed the crowd against me. At the end of the dream, Sue walked away and I stalked after her, frantically going over in my head what I could possibly say to her. She walked ahead of me quickly and just as I got alongside of her, another girl comes up and Sue says to her, ‘Please, cover me…’ and with great haste the two veered off away from me. I was crushed and felt like the biggest fool…

It was a dream of rejection—right down to the lemons.

At the Crow’s Nest, I’ll admit to being a bit bored watching the bands, though The Shy are good, I kept looking back for Sue. She finished working back bar, it seemed, sometime around 10:30-11:00; strange, I thought, [as] she sat near the pool tables and shared a pitcher of beer with two other guys. They watched the band and talked. Bud went to the front bar one time for a stout and came back to our table and said, ‘What’s Sue wearing tonight?’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said, not seeing her anywhere. ‘She’s left.’

‘I don’t think so,’ he reported. ‘She’s up at the front bar.’

I moseyed up there.

Well, as I got there, she was on her way to the back bar. Jeez, I thought, this whole evening’s been silly. I got a Stroh’s and talked to the chick behind the bar (she’s in my Geology lecture) for a bit. Well, there’s not much more to say about the night. Bud and I waited for The Shy’s second set, he developed a headache and, close to midnight, I noticed Sue wasn’t around. Bud wanted to get back to Mayflower so I finished my beer and we left sometime after midnight, 12:30 or so. Just as we were leaving, I heard playing on the stereo at the front bar, ‘Sheeeeeee’s as sweet, as Tupelo Honey…just like honey, straight from the bee…’ Van Morrison. But Sue was nowhere in sight, and Bud and I trudged home.”


It was the last week before winter break. The clock was running out.

I hit the usual haunts: the 5th floor of the main library, the microfilm room, where I popped in a VHS tape of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries on Saturday, Dec. 15.

The following Saturday, at 9:30 a.m., Chris and I would be packing up his car to head north.

Wednesday afternoon I stopped in at Jeff Gardiner’s office in the English-Philosophy Building to pick up my Rhetoric class portfolio. “I’m getting a B in the class,” the journal reveals, “and I got an A+ on my final reading quiz. ‘You’re one of the best writers I’ve had,’ Jeff admitted, but noted my need for organization and thoroughness. ‘You’ve no problem with verbal stuff.’”NestFinalProcol

Thursday seemed uneventful—however, the journal tells a different story:

“After my Geology final this morning at 7:30, I went to the Union and then the library, and at around 10:30 I went up to B.J. Records to pick up Procol’s Shine On Brightly, which I had ordered months ago. It’s odd, because on the day I ordered it, I ran into Sue at the Deadwood…sometimes there’s—as Bergman put it in Wild Strawberries—‘a remarkable causality in…unexpected, entangled events.’ Well, I rode the Interdorm [bus] and after we pulled away from the Pentacrest stop sometime around 11:00 a.m., I looked to my left out the window and who did I see passing Gilmore Hall heading east down Jefferson St.—Sue! All semester I never see her around campus and a casual look out a bus window on the second day before the end of the bloody semester—and there she is.

Sidebar: She looked lovely. The last I shall see of her…?

She was wearing a dark blue overcoat, under which I could see she had on a long skirt and boots, and she had her backpack slung over her shoulder. A thought flashed through my mind: Was this her saying goodbye to the University on such a cold sunny day; a last look round, and a time to think of all she’d done, or failed to do? And what am I to do? Sit on the bus all the way back to Mayflower and that’d be it? No. I had to find out where she was going and it wasn’t until I’d charged off the bus at Currier and jogged back to Jefferson that I realized how silly and theatrical was this ‘chase scene.’ I caught sight of her in the distance, down near the stoplight at the road that passes by John’s Grocery (Gilbert?). I kept a distance from her wondering what I should say if she saw and recognized me. Eventually, after pacing behind her, my head humming, I saw that she crossed over to an apt. complex at the intersection of Jefferson and Governor, the Governor Apts. She went in. I waited outside a bit, then went in and scanned the mailboxes…a few ‘S’ names, but one Sue, Sue Rolfe, Number 9. Her roommate’s name is Elaine. I stood around wondering what to do. I regretted not making a fool of myself by talking to her on the street, by catching up with her and saying something. The gig’d be up. The cat out of the proverbial bag. But I turned back and caught a bus back to Mayflower. I told Bud when I got in the door. In the phone book was her name: Susan Elizabeth Rolfe. Though it said ‘liberal arts, third year,’ it couldn’t be right as she’s apparently graduating Sat. She’s from Bettendorf, Iowa.”

Finally. All the details. But still, I was wavering. Vacillating. Afraid. It’s all there in black and white, on the journal page:

“Sidebar: I want to leave. Tonight.


We had a final dinner at Currier Hall late Friday afternoon, Dec. 21.

Rick and I joined his friend Dick Bray and a guy named Jim at their table. They jeered at me, urging me to “call Sue up, since I now know her last name and number, and kidded me into thinking that I had nothing to lose.”

I got back to my dorm room around 6:30 and—nervous beyond belief—“called her number [twice], no one answered. I was a bit relieved. I [wondered] if she wanted to see It’s a Wonderful Life up at the Bijou with me.”

Well, I went to the movie alone. After it let out at 10:30, I shuffled up to The Nest one last time. I was glad I did.

The journal lays it out (sidebars included):

“…most of the employees of the Nest were in front of the Front bar giving Sue an impromptu farewell party. I sat at the end of the bar closest to the door; some guy sat to the left of me and got into talking about dogs, especially his Doberman Pinschers, and I was centering in on the conversation the Crow’s Nest gang were having. …After about my fourth Export I got the idea to buy Sue a beer as a congratulatory gesture, as her Miller Lite looked empty.

Sidebar: Love is rioting inward.

She peered down the bar as John handed it to her and thanked me. The music at the front was changed at one point to some loud, obnoxious stuff and Sue charged toward the back and abruptly changed it. She put on the soundtrack to The Big Chill and she stopped by on her way out of the back to thank me again for buying the beer.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘You’re finally graduating, aren’t you? Quitting Iowa City?’

‘Yeah,’ she smiled. ‘Saturday.”

Congratulations. She went back to her friends and sat down; everyone watched TV commercials and listened to Smokey Robinson. Finally, as I knew it would, ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ came on. It had spooked me, Procol Harum all day. Are some moments in life pure prophecy? Maybe, sometimes, it seems.

Sidebar: ‘Everyone I’ve ever known has wished me well…’ —Jackson Browne

Later in the night I called Sue over and asked her if she knew Chris. She couldn’t remember; I tried to describe him to her. When I think about this episode now, I think I was just trying to make conversation, something, anything.

‘I see so many people come in and out of here,’ she said.

‘Mind like a sieve, eh?’ I chuckled.

‘…Like Tom’s,’ she laughed. She said something and lightly hit me on the shoulder. It was sweet. One sweet, clever face quitting here. I left silently around 12:30 or 1:00.

It was the saddest walk I can remember. Some drunk girls on the mall said some slurred stupid thing to me as they passed me and I told them to go fuck themselves.

Tomorrow morning I’m going home.”


I never saw Susan again. It’s been over 30 years.

Why write about this now? For the sheer thrill of regret? Heck, there are so many ways this could’ve played out:

—Maybe you and Sue dated once or twice, like with Yolanda. But it didn’t work out.

—Or became friends, like you and Rick, but drifted apart over the years.

—Maybe you became great friends (like you and Bud), and stood up in her wedding, or she in yours.

—Perhaps even lifelong friends, like when you met Thérèse at the University of Minnesota.

—Or you married each other, had kids, maybe a couple of daughters. You supported them and watched as they grew into strong, bright young women. Then, 25 years later, you and Sue divorced. Hey, life happens.


You met at exactly the right time.

You realized you belonged to each other.

You grew old together.

It was kismet.

BUT. But it wasn’t.

“If you’re talking about love, you’re probably talking about something else.” My mother and father didn’t talk about love, they lived it, day-to-day. It wasn’t always easy, but they saw it through.

In my final dream of The Nest, everyone shows up at the front bar. We buy some drinks or smoke a cigarette. We know we belong.

We love by showing up for each other; we fight if it’s about things we believe in.

We pony up a couple bucks for the band and get our hand stamped. As the music starts to play, we gaze out at that empty dance floor.

Then we grab each other’s hand … and go for a dance.

Finding the Nest (Part 4)

•July 17, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Early Wednesday morning, Oct. 24, 1984, I had a dream.

I know because I put it down in the journal:

Sue [my Crow’s Nest crush] lived with a nameless guy who, at one point (the beginning of the dream) had left her. He had hurt her in some way (broken her hand?) and was now before me at another guy’s house talking about leaving her. Instantly I was anxious to steal her away from him, and I slipped out of the house, fairly certain as to where I would find her (God knows what I’d say to her upon finding her, marry me?)…In the dream I waited for a friend’s mother to get home from grocery shopping so I could borrow their station wagon (that was the car—with a dent in the right rear side). I was boiling over with impatience to see her… Finally, the guy she had been abandoned by returned and proposed marriage to her. The last thing I saw was both their names written in the sky, amid plaudits from others. When I awoke and realized that this was not true, my urgency to know the inner workings of her life became keener. Lest all my life slip through my hands like this dream, I must know what the truth is.”

That burning early-morning sense of urgency aside, it seemed there was little I could do. Since the blissful Friday convo at The Crow’s Nest on Oct. 19, I wouldn’t see Sue again for 15 days—an eternity.

NestPart4_HalloweenIt was Hallowe’en in Iowa City. The mornings were frosty. And classes droned on.

I was actually feeling homesick, daydreaming about driving my car through backcountry roads, being close to my books and the old Family Project farmhouse again.

But every chance I got to visit The Crow’s Nest, still no Sue.

Now that I knew she was a Psych major, I haunted the department library and Seashore Hall hoping I’d run into her. I calculated that any relationship that could form between us had to happen outside of The Nest. There were just too many distractions there.


Wednesday, Oct. 31, the journal reports Rick and I ran up to the grocery store: “It was a great Hallowe’en night, misty and a bit foggy, warm, and there was lightning flashing through the clouds. Jack o’lanterns in many windows of the Victorian-style homes of Iowa City.”

Returning to Mayflower, we ran into Carolyn and Dave on their way to “a Haunted House setup in North Liberty.” They invited us along. The journal tells the story:

“We got a little off-track on the way by following a few other cars—at one point everyone tried turning around and getting directions and a roadblock was thus formed. We were rolling with laughter. At last we realized our mistake and got to the place, a bit like a State Park, stuck out in the middle of nowhere. We paid the $2.00 to get in, waited until a group of about 30 of us formed, then we were led down to a campfire where a guy attempted to tell us a ghost story as it started to rain (a poor bit of horror was underway—a guy feigning to be ill rolled on the ground and ‘transformed’ into a gorilla) they drove us through the mud down to a hayrack, onto which we piled as the rain bashed down on us. We couldn’t see a thing as it rained, and the timid attempts of frightening us with jack o’lanterns and hanging shrouds failed to lift our soaked spirits. They cut the ride short and sped us back up to the entrance, refunded our money, and everyone scattered in the rain. The four of us got into the car howling with laughter, soaked through. The drive back was slow, through the deep puddles and thrashing rain. We joked and told ghost stories and gazed out at the lightning-lit fields.”

It’s times like this when I treasure the journal—when it transports me back to those forgotten moments with people I’ll likely never see again, and remember the laughter we shared.


It was Saturday, Nov. 3, when I finally saw Sue again.

Bud and I caught a late screening of Quadrophenia at the Bijou downtown, then went to grab a nightcap at Stonewalls or Joe’s Place—finally settling on The Crow’s Nest.

“Voila!” the journal reports, “Who appears behind the bar, as sweet-looking as ever—Sue. She seemed busy and Bud & I grabbed a table; at the time there was no room at the bar. We stayed only until our beers were down, probably about a half hour. Sue was working the back bar; she seemed beaten down, tired.”

I was so obsessed about her I had another dream the following Monday morning: “…it’s vague now and I spent much of the morning trying to recall one detail—but couldn’t. It was a feeling—the feeling of being a couple, and spending time together, alone.”

But November proved tougher than late October.

I didn’t see her again until the week after Election Day (as Ronald Reagan was re-elected for a second term), when Steve and Chris, from Rhetoric, joined me after class at The Crow’s Nest:

“We were up at the Nest from 9:15 to 10:30 or so… Sue was working back bar from what I could tell and the first time she glided round the corner I’d thought my heart had stopped. She really looked sharp, stylish slacks (?—they weren’t jeans), a shirt with the back end of the button-down collar crimped in. Lovely hair, with a cave of it over her forehead. She borrowed the sweater of the girl working front bar; it was, she said, cold in back. She didn’t notice me, I think, and that crushes me, to be invisible to one you admire and fancy. It’s hopeless, so I turn back to the table where Steve and Chris are talking about Dreams.”


I’m not entirely sure where to go with the rest of this.

I mean, I vacillated.

The Thanksgiving holidays were looming, which meant going home to Minnesota for a couple days.

Just before catching a ride north with Ann, another Minnesota transplant at UI, I went alone to The Crow’s Nest and saw a band—something I don’t ever remember doing by myself: “I went back for a buck to see the band Tetraphonic, had a few Exports and saw no sign of Sue. I sat there taking in the Nest. What a wonderful place it is! Everyone needs to experience that.”CrowsNest2

A rock band playing to a handful of people.

A glinty, spinning mirror ball.

And a quiet 1,000-square-foot oak dance floor.

I loved The Crow’s Nest.

And in an odd sort of way, I felt loved by it.


On Tuesday, Nov. 27, 1984, I was back in Iowa City after Thanksgiving. It was my 25th birthday. The town was on the verge of snow, and I was feeling sad. “What did I say to Hollingsworth once?” I wrote in the journal. “Your true love is about as close as you can come to a Real Ghost. I told myself that again tonight. What does it feel to be 25? …24, and dead.”

ThompsonThe very next day Hunter S. Thompson spoke at the University.

The journal reports:

“People smoking dope. Punkheads who walked out on him. He took two drags off a backstage-offered joint and drank brandy (?) on ice. He claimed everything was O.K.—different than the ’70s, but you could tell he seethed. He’s a drunk; a sort of street philosopher, the clever guy whose name you forget who sat with you at the bar and said more than an average Joe’s share of bright remarks. He prophesied that he’d be vilified, in death, as he said ‘his friend’ John Belushi would be.”

Afterward I veered uptown to The Nest, where I sat until 11:30 or so. “No Sue,” I wrote later, “but listened to the brunette who works bar there talk to a guy … who used to ‘go’ with Sue. He was surprised and disappointed with her. I was amazed, eavesdropping.”

It was the end of November, and things had come strangely full circle from the dream nearly a month before.

But what did it all mean?

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