Up on the Roof

•May 22, 2015 • Leave a Comment


A perfect spring day to be outside … Or maybe up on a roof? All-new post next Friday, May 29. Happy Memorial Day weekend!

Originally posted on Completely in the Dark:

It’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside.

Casco House 1Can’t leave my time with the Family Project at the Casco Point house without lingering on one fleeting moment—being up on the roof.

When that exactly happened I can only guess, but it was certainly before high school in 1975, and during a summer after we’d moved to Minnesota in ’71. Dad was probably cleaning the gutters and had a ladder up. It was a pleasant summer day, much as it is as I’m writing now.

Our yard was surrounded by cottonwoods, maybe a pine tree, oaks and elms, all mottling the rooftop with shade and sunlight. It made for an astonishing view of the lake. And while I was up there, I recall patches of moss.

Which, of course, I kicked off.

No song on the radio quite affected me like Elton John’s “Your Song.” As I’ve said before, I…

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The Face in a Jar by the Door

•May 15, 2015 • 4 Comments

EleanorRigby“I’ve never felt lonely,” Dad once said to me. “Solitude, sure, but not loneliness.”

He probably said this while we lived on the farm, when I was in my 20s. Heck, it could’ve even been earlier, when he gave me that advice about a high school girlfriend. Who knows?

I do know one thing.

The man was as wrong as wrong can be.

A person can have the most connected life—always consumed by “something larger than oneself,” with money, friends, travel, family and career—but never feel lonely?

Oh, no. Not on your life.

My late father, project manager par excellence, was an expert at solitude. When angry, rather than stew about it, he’d just yell. Get it out of his system. Then take off in his boat and go fishing.

I think early in life he quickly learned to deal with upsets by cultivating solitude—something I’ve tried to do, too. Like right now. Things aren’t the best, but I’m writing and happy. That’s the white-hot fiery core of my solitude, when its edges are unsinged by loneliness.

Loneliness is absence. It’s loss. It’s “the pain of being alone.”

And it’s going to be an epidemic as the world gets older.


I love questions.

Ask me a question and I’m curious to know if there’s an answer. Or maybe another question to ask based on the previous question.

I first heard The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” in the late 1960s, when I was almost 10. I’d never heard a song so packed with questions.

Two people, a woman named Eleanor and a priest, Father McKenzie, are doing things we all do: she’s been to a wedding, and waiting for something or someone; McKenzie is busy writing his weekly sermon, and later, all alone, repairing his socks.

The isolation is intense and unrelenting: nobody comes to Eleanor’s door; Father McKenzie’s sermon goes unheard.

Where do they both belong?

Where do any of us belong?


The statistics are eye-opening.

While the general perception of social isolation is that it’s a problem of the elderly, it is creeping into the lives of much younger people.

According to a 2012 Canadian study of “34,000 Canadian university students, almost two-thirds reported feeling ‘very lonely’ in the past 12 months. More Canadians are living alone than at any other point in history, and half again as many of them (21 per cent) are more likely to report feeling lonely than those who are part of a couple (14 per cent).”

In the US, a Washington Post article (almost ten years old now) states that “…nearly three-quarters of people in 1985 reported they had a friend in whom they could confide, only half in 2004 said they could count on such support. The number of people who said they counted a neighbor as a confidant dropped by more than half, from about 19 percent to about 8 percent.”

All those lonely people. Where do they all come from?

And what’s really going on here?

Is the Internet, movies and videos, gaming, and social media to blame? An increase in divorce, separations, and breakups? Stress and overwork? Lack of funding to support social services, churches, and charitable organizations?

Or something deeper, maybe in every lonely person?


This past winter a young family was found dead in their Apple Valley, Minn., home.

David Crowley, 29, had shot his 28-year-old wife Komel, then killed their 5-year-old daughter Rani before taking the gun to himself.

While a murder-suicide is horrific enough, the truly shocking detail was that their bodies weren’t discovered for nearly a month.

Minneapolis StarTribune columnist Gail Rosenblum wrote: “The Crowleys’ neighbors likely assumed (as I would have, if I’m being honest) that the family was on vacation, or that Crowley, a filmmaker, was off pursuing a movie project.”

Or, back in 2003, the jaw-dropping story of a 38-year-old British woman, Joyce Carol Vincent, who was found dead in her north London flat, alone.

Three years had passed before her body was even discovered.

On May 25, 2008, my father was alone. Mother had died the previous day, a Saturday, so I’m fairly certain he went to church that Sunday.

We always talked on the phone after he returned home from worship services—something we continued to do after Mom passed away. I don’t recall him speaking much about her over that summer. And I wished he had come to stay with us in Minnesota, or traveled to Paris, France, as a neighbor friend urged him to do.

I can’t know what he was thinking or feeling those 15 weeks before he died on Sept. 7, 2008, of a myocardial infarction. But I concur with what his doctor said to me when I arrived in South Florida shortly thereafter.

“The man died of a broken heart.”


John Cacioppo, director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, says lonely people have “a higher vigilance for social threats.” That vigilance morphs into “social evasion”—avoiding interaction with others, and ensuring a downward cycle of loneliness, depression, and illnesses such as hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, and heart disease—all leading to the possibility of premature death.

If our homes, houses or apartments, are like our bodies—places of refuge away from the threats of the outside world—what then are our windows, our doors?

Block upon block of houses with the window shades drawn.

No one outside on their lawns, their porches, their stoops, smiling at strangers.

Just closed doors, bolted and locked.

We observe events like National Night Out every August. But that only works for the folks who step outside their door. What about the ones who choose not to? What are they thinking as they peer out their windows, under the blinds, crouching in the dark?

Actor David Sutcliffe (Gilmore Girls, Cracked) is on a mission to nip the stigma of loneliness at its core.

“I saw a very lonely guy,” he stated after first viewing his appearance on Cracked, “and I know that pain wasn’t the character; it was me. But I was glad to put it out there, because it’s important for people to know they’re not alone. We’re all struggling.”

Sutcliffe calls bullshit on what he regards as “society’s tranquility mask,” the tendency many of us have to claim that “everything is okay.”

Maybe that mask was the face Dad kept in a jar by his door.

I know I have one. Maybe we all do.

Who is it for?

Flashlight Tag for Dummies™

•May 8, 2015 • Leave a Comment

By the look of it, love has evaded a lot of people.FlashlightTag

Even those who had love—real, true, requited love, amazingly soul-rending yet somehow grounding and rejuvenating—lost it.

And still few people remind you that loss is part of the price of admission.

As an incorrigible romantic from as early as I can remember, I’ve never found it easy to find love. But once I’ve decided I’m attracted to someone, a strange sort of confidence seems to kick in. Not a puffed-up sort, more like a solid wait-and-see sense of detachment.

The last time that happened was nearly seven years ago.

Boom, that was it. I was in deep.

But now is not the time to write about that.


“I don’t want this journal to trail off into nothing,” a Jan. 8, 1984, entry reads. “I need to write when I’m able to write. Now I realize how pleasurable the simple scribbling and scratching of my pen on paper feels to me. It’s like playing a goddamn piano sometimes.”

Still living at the Family Project farm in Minnetrista, I was working at the print shop and spending my spare time with a local theater group, the Indianhead Players.

I was lonely and bored and tried dating again, but nothing seemed to stick.

Then, one Tuesday night, April 24, 1984, after watching one-act skit rehearsals at the Westonka Community Theater, “I ran out to Country Liquors in St. Boni for a six of Green Death,” the journal reports. There “I saw a young woman, blonde, whom I had seen working there months before. She looked at me curiously as I paid at the counter. I noticed not one ring on her fingers. If I were making a movie I’d cast Tatum O’Neal in her part at 25 [years old]. Was there mutual attraction? I don’t know. I want to find out more about her.”

That wouldn’t be until May 1st, when I was back at the same liquor store. I wavered outside the door, chickening out and dashing into a nearby convenience store.

When I finally went in to get the six-pack, the cans were lodged in the cooler, so she helped me free them. We chatted back at the register. “…I asked her her name. She said it was Monique. I [started to leave and] she said, See you later. She seemed cold and old. She excited me. I saw myself with my arm wrapped around her. I think she runs the Dance studio in the Community Center.”

Four days later, while watching rehearsals for the Indianhead Players, I discovered Monique’s dance school was at the community center.

“I heard a voice,” the journal continues, “instructing a class behind the door and decided it was the same Monique. …Around 7:30 I saw that her office door was open, so I went in to chat with her. At first she seemed surprised, but that quickly wore off and the general pace of the conversation slackened. She apparently went to the U of M and Arizona State in Dance. I told her about the theater and her interest seemed more intent.”


“Follow You Follow Me” wriggles out of stereo speakers like a glow worm of pure longing.

Once the light hits you on the face, once you’ve found her, or she you, then you’re It. You’re now the one with the flashlight, searching for the next It, out there hiding somewhere in the hedges, probably.

“The night is long, but you are here.”

One evening, probably in 1977 and likely on a Sunday before a school week, I played Flashlight Tag with friends in a neighborhood far from our Casco Point home.

Flashlight2There was a mix of boys and girls. We probably started out playing Kick the Can. But after sunset someone suggested Flashlight Tag. It was probably at the home of my one-time date Connie Conklin’s house, since I remember she was friends with the lovely Cindy Dorn, who (as best my memory serves) was also there. Both girls were in the class just a year after mine.

I was frantic to find a diary entry with even the slightest mention of that night—just to confirm that it actually happened. I wondered who might’ve been there, too. Whether we played the “team version” of the game, or one person was “It” and had the flashlight to tag the others, I can’t recall. We played outside, in their spacious yard, well after dark.

The diary entry still evades me. I know it’s out there—a glimmer in the distance, something from the past pointing straight into a dusky future.


Monique is never mentioned in the 1984 journal again.

In May ’84 I’d planned to return to college that fall. Sights were set on the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, and the undergraduate writing program there.

I was really nervous about the future: quitting my job at the print shop, packing up what little I owned in my stripped-down bedroom at the farmhouse, and finally, finally, leaving town.

I’ve thought about that tiny bedroom a lot lately, especially given the “confinement” of the past three years. It’s tough to be searching and not finding “It.” You know it’s out there, expecting you. But you just can’t see it.

Yet, they say, there’s a time for everything. Whoever they are, I wish they’d just shut the hell up already.

Back in 1984, love would have to wait, again. Twenty-four years later.


•May 1, 2015 • Leave a Comment


Now that the nights *are* becoming sweeter, taking a week-long Internet & social media holiday. Back with new post 5/8/15!

Originally posted on Completely in the Dark:

After the day exhales, it gulps down the ripe fruit that is nighttime.

During the spring of 1976, it never felt stronger given my March suspension from school for smoking pot, after-school Drug Relate meetings with my fellow troublemakers, the new busboy gig at the Lafayette Club one or two nights a week, and definitely on the weekends.

As kids, we stayed out late, often past ten. When the parents wanted us home, they rang a bell Dad had installed just outside the front lakeside door.

“Michael! Brian! Home, boys!”

The neighborhood dogs barked in reply; we were blocks away playing Kick the Can in another kid’s yard. When night blossomed, the air turned sweeter. And as it breathed in on itself, the stars twinkled like the cymbals in that song where the orchestra quiets and a flute holds a lone note in the air, and a harp shivers…

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The Impossibly Improbable Inevitable

•April 24, 2015 • Leave a Comment

My beautiful pictureIt’s been just over three years now.

On Thursday, April 5, 2012, at around 1:30 p.m. EST, my brother Brian and I lowered our parents’ ashes into the grave plot of a Greensburg, Ind., cemetery.

Sixteen years earlier, on Saturday, Sept. 14, 1996, we’d walked around the very same cemetery.

Grandpa Adams died the following Monday night, Sept. 9,” the journal reports. He would have turned 96 that October. He’d lived a long and happy life.

My brother, his wife Stacey, and I arrived for the funeral that Thursday, staying in Greensburg at Mom’s childhood home until we flew back to the Twin Cities on Sunday. Then Mom and Dad returned to their retirement home in Florida, where they’d been living for a year or so.

“It was, actually,” the entry continues, “an enjoyable time together with my family… The viewing was on Friday night and the funeral service was around 10 a.m. Saturday. Saturday afternoon we revisited the cemetery to see Mom and Dad’s planned plot, and we wandered around reading the old headstones. Saturday evening Dad treated us to a nice supper in the neighboring town of Batesville.”

I remember that meal well. It was at a German restaurant.

There we were—the entire Family Project—laughing and telling stories about Grandpa.

Sixteen years. Blink of an eye.



Now it is late April, 2015.

Ed McMahon appears at my back door holding an oversized check. There are Mylar balloons and cheering people and a gigantic red velvet sheet cake that reads: “You’re A Winner!”

Sixteen years from now it will be 2031. I’ll be 72. One year younger than Mom was when she died.

But I am not my mother, my grandfather, nor my great-grandmother for that matter (all of us pictured above left, together in the early 1960s). And of course Ed’s not here with my sweepstakes winnings.

I know, I know. For someone “not particularly fond of the past,” I seem to spend a lot of time there. Maybe, I think, there’s some mystery that can only be discovered by examining the past and the present—a kind of weird amalgam that will reveal the future by carefully mixing those two elements of time. Since the future element is uncertain, the only tools I have to discover that mystery are the diaries, journals, photos, letters—and who I am right now.

It’s something to believe in, whether there’s anything there to hang your hat on.


On Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015, I was hit by a white Nissan, in the middle of a crosswalk, on the walk light at St. Paul’s Grand Avenue.

I saw myself going over the car roof, rolling off the trunk and into the intersection—directly under the wheels of the car behind the one that hit me.

It’s true. Everything. Slows. Down.

Take any normal day—that hubris most of us commit against “the sanctity of the present”: You’re on a walk light, minding your business, not hurrying, not distracted by a cell phone or music in earbuds, just walking across the street—and suddenly you’re dead.

Seems improbable given those conditions, but there it is.

Except, I am alive.

The driver braked just as her car bumper connected with my left knee, leaving only a bruise for a couple of days.


My friend Thérèse was in St. Charles, Mo., on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2000.

She’d arrived from Santa Fe, New Mex., to care for a young cousin stricken with Burkitt lymphoma. She’d hoped her cousin would join her for a walk down to the Missouri River. But when the cousin declined, Thérèse invited her father instead.

Father and daughter rarely got to see one another so, after enjoying lunch, they crossed Frontier Park to sit and talk on the jetty. Atop a large rock, Thérèse’s dad suddenly turned and fell backward, headfirst, into the river.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “He surfaced and, at that time, the daughter realized the current was very strong and he could not get back to the dike.”


I flew to South Florida on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2000.

Mom and Dad picked me up at the Southwest Florida International Airport, just outside Fort Myers, and we arrived at their home in Englewood around 3:00 p.m. I’d be spending five days with them over the holiday.

On Friday, Dec. 22, I rode with them in their Cadillac to Sarasota for some last-minute Christmas shopping. We also took in a matinee, Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away. After the movie we drove to Venice for supper. The journal fills in the rest:

“…a large camper, parked on the side of the road about a hundred feet or so ahead of us, suddenly pulled out into traffic and turned left as if it were going to turn around. An SUV in front of us slammed on its brakes, Dad maneuvered the Caddy to the right, and we smelled the burning rubber of the SUV’s tires as we passed the near-carnage. It was really unnerving.”

If that wasn’t enough, on the same evening:

“Turning into Cape Haze off 775, a drunk guy in a white car slammed into us. We all sat there stunned for a good couple of minutes, Dad swearing at him. I got out of the car and looked at the guy: he looked straight ahead, like he was really trashed. I walked around and got his license number, and the license number of the car just behind him. Dad got on the cell phone and called the police. When we pulled the Caddy over, the guy and his buddy behind him just drove off.”


Thérèse’s father, James, was pulled from the Missouri River two days later. He was 66 years old.

At Christmastime 2000, Mom was 65, Dad, 68, and I, 41. We got hit by a car. We survived.

But then, eight years later.

I didn’t think I could make it after they died. Not a lot made sense anymore. It’s like I’d become that toddler all over again, sitting on a sofa in the early ’60s. Except all the people around me had suddenly vanished, dissolving into the upholstery.

I will dissolve next.

As it is with everyone, that’s not an if, but The Big When.

So, here—now—on this three-year anniversary, I’m happy to recall my brother, his wife, and I having lunch at a vegetarian café near our birthplace in Broad Ripple, just north of downtown Indianapolis.

Out in our rented Honda, packed into plastic Baggies inside wooden boxes, lay the remains of our parents.

Inside, we laughed, reminisced, and enjoyed our meal.

Just like we did at Grandpa Adams’ funeral all those years ago.

The Horse Field, the Woods, the Barn

•April 17, 2015 • Leave a Comment


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

Originally posted on Completely in the Dark:

School. Church. Home. 

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

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

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

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

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You Can Have the Town

•April 10, 2015 • Leave a Comment

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

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

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

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

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

I was a shy kid trying to make new friends.

And she, of course, had spunk.

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

How Will You Make It On Your Own?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Can Take a Nothing Day?

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

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

Sure! This was the place to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could I imagine Mary Richards there?

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

Why Don’t You Take It?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Thomas

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