The Return of the Birthday Boy

•November 25, 2015 • 1 Comment

Funny how those calendar dates sneak up on youMomDadLetters

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.

Terrible Weather Conditions

•November 20, 2015 • Leave a Comment

OneOfTheseDaysDear friends:

First off, I hope all your pre-New Year’s activities are coming together and that life is good.

Which sort of leads me to a massive amount of contemplating I’ve been doing lately, and I’m hoping you may have some good advice for me.

God knows I need it.

Now, nearly ten years after the break of 1992 (about which some of you may remember; others, well, ask and I’d be happy to relate the story sometime), I feel I’m playing it safe and boring again. I can’t decide if I merely need a new environment, a new career, or just a new outlook.

I know I have projects I’ve wanted to complete, and still feel a desire to do them, but just “increasing my creative output” doesn’t feel like the solution.

Maybe I’m wrong.

Hence this flaming arrow into the void.

There are things I want to eliminate from my life. I want less distractions and “niggling details.” Most of those details are connected with the consumerist frenzy one does when one “settles down,” i.e., buy more things, appropriate more space, consume more goods, and basically take more from society than giving. I need to break my isolation and allow for more community, but I’m afraid of that being too much at odds with “increase creative output.”

I guess I’m writing to you guys because you’ve all jettisoned the orbit of Minnesota and, for your various reasons, may or may not be coming back. I’ve been questioning whether it’s wise to stay here, or move on.

BY MOVING ON, that could mean ANYTHING. I could teach English abroad; I could take a stab at a graduate degree, that is, before I collect retirement. I could join a community of like-minds—shit, I may even have that here in the Twin Cities.

But still, I would love to hear your take on the various different places where you live and work. What do you like about it? What do you dislike about it? How does it compare with the Twin Cities? Where do you think is a great spot for a single and (relatively) young artist to live and work? What places encourage more community and involvement?

The other facet is career. I’ve been in book publishing for nearly five years now. I was blessed to get the experience I’ve gotten, but I’m more than ready for the “next level” of that, whatever that may be. I’ve come as far as I can go at —, and I’m not hopeful of that deepening in 2002 and beyond. There’s a raft of other possibilities: literature, writing and storytelling, communications wonk, theater and stagecraft, movies and screenwriting, arts advocacy, libraries and museums—even cooking, for Christ’s sake.

Anything can happen in one’s life, and career often lies at the heart of it.

For those of you who have yet to see The Shipping News, this won’t mean much now, but will after you see it (and please do, it’s a wonderful film): I feel like I’m Kevin Spacey’s Quoyle, going from inksetter to cub reporter. I guess I’m looking for my Scott Glenn to take a chance on me. And I realize that package includes the learning curve.

Here’s another question for you: What would YOU suggest I do, short of pulling another “1992”?

A: “Stay where you’re at, yet all through 2002 actively explore other career possibilities. Make sure you follow-up on them. Create a plan.”

B: “Make a clean break. Find a place that intuitively calls to you, and go there. Check it out. If it doesn’t work out, you can always leave.”

C: “Consider yourself lucky. It’s a vicious new economy and you’re rich if you even have a job. Don’t change a thing (but maybe you need to change your perspective). (And keep writing those screenplays. What do you have to lose there?)”

There may be another possibility I’m not seeing. I had the Pollyanna notion of buying and renovating a “big old house” in St. Paul and making it the locus of “my own” community of filmmakers, writers, artists…but I realized that that had somewhat dictatorial overtones.

A friend once remarked to me of this “oversight” of mine, emphasizing the amazing results people sometimes get when they “allow things to grow organically” rather than “forcing things into being.” Wise words. Note to self: Skip applying for the Hitler Day Job. The hours are killer anyway.

I apologize for the Mega Text chunk, but I really do hope to get your thoughts on this stuff. I know some of you were merely “passing through Minnesota” from other places; others seriously call it home.

The concept of “home” will mean more to people as the century moves on. I spent a good portion of my time off over the holidays looking at photos and remembering the places I’ve lived and visited and the concept of home still seems to elude me.

What does “home” mean to you? Where have you felt at home? For me, it was always small quiet moments, either alone or with friends. Can (or SHOULD) a person MAKE home?

Happy New Year, y’all! I look forward to seeing some of you in January.

Love, blessings, and best wishes,




By John Engman

Am I poor?
Are the leaves falling because I can’t afford them?
Am I crazy? I think the leaves are falling because I can’t afford them.
Am I alone? Autumn leaves are falling like little lessons

but I haven’t learned anything.
The wind is cold and the leaves have fallen for three days.
For three days, the leaves illustrate how your hair falls.
Wouldn’t you call these terrible weather conditions?

Loud sky, red rain, white crow, moon flying away.
How can I love you in autumn when everything goes wrong?
Last night, I burned three hundred calories dreaming about your hair.
I thought I felt animal earth lurch forward

and fell into the dark ages between now and now.
Sometimes, I want you to believe that I am an ancient poet
who can say grand things, “Last night, I couldn’t sleep
because the leaves were having an excellent

discussion full of sad knowledge.” But really,
this is sweet confusion, mistaking leaves for something more,
and all I can think to say is, “Do you like leaves falling?
I would like to see you today. That’s all.”

Someday, what will I be when I am nothing but a flutter
behind your breastbone like a leaf falling? Will you be the sky?
Wouldn’t you call these terrible weather conditions? There’s a hole
in the bottom of my old brown shoe, a hole in the sleeve

of my old gray coat, a hole in the pocket of my old blue shirt
where the wind blows autumn in and chills me: wouldn’t you call these
terrible weather conditions? Something should be done about this.
Someone should write to someone, as I am writing to you.

The Adventurers

•November 13, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Sometime in the late 1960s or early ’70s, one of my cousins on Dad’s side of the family, Dennis Barton, gave me his Boy Scout Handbook.AdventureA

Mind you, I had no intention of becoming a Boy Scout, especially after Dad had subjected me to Cub Scouts while we still lived out east. All I recall about that experience was super-sexy den mothers and some sort of weird soapbox car race. Which I’m pretty sure we lost.

But that’s not the reason I happily snapped up Denny’s handbook.

I wanted to be an adventurer. I wanted to learn how to live by my own wits, to strike off on my own.

Back then I probably didn’t read it in much detail, only pored over the illustrations and topics. It was oddly inspiring: you could camp out by yourself; learn how to stalk wildlife; how to cook your own meals over an open fire. And being “mentally awake”? Surely that had to lead toward new ideas, places, things!

Barentsz_Full_MapAt that age, about 10 years old, I became fascinated by world explorers. They set off in wooden ships from “the Old World” in search of trade routes to the East. What would it be like to have that sort of bravery and faith? That solely on the basis of an idea, you’d get a crew together, pack up your belongings, and sail off in search of discovering that idea?

It blew my mind that people once had that kind of courage.

My “old world” was deep in the fold of the Family Project. The motto there was always: “Be careful!”


My late father, however, was a risk-taker. I see that now in hindsight.

As his oldest son, I had no idea at the time exactly what was behind his thought processes. It felt like a conspiracy, with Mom his co-agent. Moving house twice in a decade didn’t seem like any kind of adventurous risk—it’s just what Dad did. If he didn’t like something, he’d damn well change it. But not without a lot of consideration and planning. After all, the man was a consummate project manager.

His explorations weren’t dangerous risks, just “that seems like what I want to do, so we as a family should go do it.” We were all then sucked into the undertow of Dad’s latest plan.

It’s funny because that’s probably the most solid link between me and Dad: The desire to take risks. Mom was forever cautious (again, that drumbeat of “Be careful!”) and my only brother a lot like Mom in that respect (a comparison I’m sure he’d never recognize in himself).

You had to venture forth, say “No to the status quo,” add a resounding “Yes!” in order to change things, Dad would’ve said. But being closer to Mom, I was often torn between her pleas for caution and Dad’s huge sense of derring-do.

It’s often hard to live in the shadow of a giant.


In the summer of 1987, two years into my first corporate job, I was bored.

I needed an adventure.

I’d always been writing stories, drafts of stories, a completed novella out of high school, a draft of a novel, and unfinished creative projects when, in ’87, I learned about “The Screenplay Project,” a contest funded by our local PBS station (then KTCA, now TPT), meant to encourage local writers.

I had a story I wanted to tell, and set about researching and drafting it.

It now sits in a binder called “Buddy’s Scrapbook,” with lots of notes and ideas, but no finished first draft.

I clearly remember what I’d hoped it would become.

“Buddy’s Scrapbook” was set in the late 1970s, amid Star Wars, disco, and the emerging punk scene. It was about a folk singer who hit it big in the late 1960s only to see his star quickly fade, and who was visiting his dying mother in St. Paul, Minn. Extending his stay in the Midwest, he borrows his stepfather’s 1962 Chevy Bel Air to drive down to Clear Lake, Iowa, to visit the Surf Ballroom, where Buddy Holly played his last show in February 1959.

On Wednesday, Sept. 16, 1987, the journal reads: “Friday I’m taking off for Clear Lake, if the weather’s nice, and do a little weekend investigation, photography, and research into my Holly story.”AdventureB

Like any good adventurer, I took the journal—my captain’s logbook—with me on the road trip. Its entries are instructive to anyone thinking of leaving “the old world” and “heading out on the high seas”:

“When I left my apartment it was rainy and miserable out. I really wasn’t in much of a mood for traveling. But a few miles outside of Albert Lea, the clouds began to break up, and though not a clear sky, it was still nicer than when I’d left home.”

I’d planned to stay in Iowa a night or two, then drive back up to the Twin Cities. I visited the Mason City library to do my research, then drove into Clear Lake around 1 p.m., stopping to eat a sandwich in the city park while the high school Homecoming parade was in progress. It was exactly what an adventurer does: scour every corner of town, because you never knew where you were going to pick up a clue aiding your search.

I’d planned to spend the night camping at McIntosh State Park, so I inflated an air mattress at a nearby gas station for sleeping in the covered back bed of my new Mitsubishi Mighty Max pickup truck.

Later that afternoon I watched the Clear Lake Lions lose their homecoming 0-18 to the Humboldt Wildcats. “There was gorgeous lightning in the sky to the north,” the journal reports, “[and] the sunset bled the clouds red with blue lightning in the bellies of the clouds.” After the game I drove out to the Albert Juhl farm, where Holly’s plane had crashed, and observed “shafts of light fanned down out of the clouds.”

At the Surf Ballroom, I listened to a country trio play Hank Williams, Sr. in the small bar off the main ballroom. Scott, the bartender there, introduced me to the manager, Darrel Hein, who talked with me in his office for half an hour about the ballroom’s history and its ongoing Holly legend.

That night in the state park I froze in the back pickup bed, awakened at 6:30 a.m. “by light rain and sounds of gunfire from hunters on the lake.” I showered at the park facilities and drove to a local Country Kitchen for breakfast.

Sunday afternoon, Sept. 20, 1987, I returned to the Twin Cities.

By Monday I was back in the clutches of the corporate office … but fresh with the memory of yet another adventure.

In The Cage

•November 6, 2015 • 1 Comment

samplerI’ve been in this goddamn thing for eight years now. In fact, it began two years before my mother died on May 24, 2008.

Even though I’d willingly moved into the cage in January 2006—at the insistence of my late father—something, I knew, just wasn’t right.

So I had a Realtor put the place I’d just moved into, a co-op condo on St. Paul’s Summit Hill, on the market again.

By the spring of 2008 I was a happy idiot, working as managing editor at a national magazine, teaching an adult education class one night a week, and, well … falling in love with the woman next door.

And I regularly hit the St. Paul Jewish Community Center a couple days a week to exercise. It wasn’t far from my condo, so I enjoyed running the track, swimming in the pool, lifting weights, and then relaxing afterward in the hot tub of the men’s shower room.

That afternoon Mom died, I noted in the journal: “At the JCC I ran into Tom and Susan’s friend Michael and told him the news and he gave his condolences and a hug.” Later I slid into that hot tub, naked as the day I was born, mesmerized by the swirling water and dazed that I’d soon be attending the unthinkable—Mom’s memorial service in South Florida.

That summer my new girlfriend AJ and I went to a Fourth of July party. I wrote in the journal later: “I was thinking how bizarre life is lately—my mother has passed on, I’m in love for the first time in my life, my career situation has never been more stable, ever, and yet I’m still trying to find out where my next home will be. [AJ] and I talked about ‘home’ and I had to admit I’m adrift there. It’s a huge theme for me: what is home?

Then, just two months later, Dad died.

While attending his memorial service, I was already thinking ahead. “What would be great,” the journal confesses on Sunday, Sept. 14, 2008, “would be to come back to Minnesota and find someone has made an offer on the condo.” Thinking about my job, teaching, and the condo, the journal admits: “There’s a sense here about error, being in error, living in error, mistaking things, people’s intentions, emotions misread, resentment…”

The evening of Dad’s service, my brother and his wife, our aunt and uncle, were in the living room laughing and talking while I was off in the back bedroom where Mom had died, writing in my journal and staring out the window at a steamy Florida sky:

“Heat lightning out to the south, although it doesn’t look like it’s going to rain. I should join the others, but it’s been good to decompress back here. I sort of got through my worst grief and shock on Sunday. Right now I’m just moving a step at a time; I get bugged when people expect me to react in certain ways. Hey, it ain’t gonna happen, really. It’s strange to realize both my parents are gone. I knew this day would come, but didn’t expect it like this. But now this is sounding like the trite stuff I’ve heard all afternoon. I miss the news, good coffee, even my daily commute! I miss the train station crossword at the end of the day, and stopping by AJ’s for a catch-up of her news and a bite to eat. And even sleeping with her, seeing her all disheveled in the morning, hair glowing, beautifully groggy.
It’s 8 o’clock. Dark outside.”

After I’d returned to Minnesota that autumn, the journal makes a surprising revelation:

“I shut down my blog Completely in the Dark last night, permanently, but find Facebook a nice quick way to post short, blog-like pieces, photos, music, and keep in touch with people. CITD was just too ‘remote,’ and its movie-related theme just wasn’t connecting with me any longer. Maybe in the future I’ll come up with a blog-Website concept.”

Nearly two years after that, as my brother was about to destroy old family photographs because, as he told me, “I don’t recognize who’s in them,” I finally had a reason to resurrect this blog. “Give the photo boxes to me,” I said. “I’ll figure out what to do with them.”

Once I’d planned to join up the diaries, journals, and letters with the photos—voilà: Completely in the Dark 2.0.

That was October 2010.

But between September 2008 and that October, the bars of the cage kept closing in.

Photo courtesy Unsplash by Przemysław Sakrajda

Photo courtesy Unsplash by Przemysław Sakrajda

At the JCC, I fought back tears while running the track, jogging faster, pushing myself harder. After the workout, there I was again in the hot tub.

Staring at the swirling, brightly lit water.

Wondering if I would ever get to leave the cage, and where I would finally find home.

By then AJ and had broken up. I met with a psychologist after a particularly bad depressive episode. While complaining about AJ’s habit of conflict avoidance in our relationship, the psychologist openly wondered what it was I was avoiding.

“Yes,” the journal admits:

My life. My deep interests, be it writing, drawing, cooking…then it occurred to me that I may think I know what my passions are, but have I fully explored them? Are the ones I assume to be passionate about a hindrance? Are there ones I used to have that I have abandoned, ‘avoided,’ that are actually deep passions? …That was the key! I focused too much on a person, who can never fill that need.”

The cage wasn’t all leg-irons, locks and bars and dungeon doors—more like a pleasure bubble of giddy, ridiculous assumptions: a dream job, a supportive relationship, loving and living family members, a mortgage, a car—all, still, a goddamn cage.

I keep throwing off as many of those shackles every year, starting in 2010 when our magazine was acquired by multinational corporation. It wasn’t the right place to be anymore. By 2012, it was time for me to go.

So I went.

Cages can be mental, emotional—heck, even spiritual. And all those can be influenced by a geographic location.

Cages do not a home make. Home may travel with you, but it still needs a place, a physical space, with the right people in it, to reside. I’ve been trying to make that change for too long now.

Maybe that change isn’t happening on the timetable I expected, but I have to believe it is underway.

It’s what I have to keep believing in.

Don’t Get Cocky, Kid!

•October 30, 2015 • Leave a Comment


Yet another reblog, since I had to shelve a previous draft for a wholesale rewrite. :-( So, since I’m halfway through Chris Taylor’s marvelous Star Wars book, here’s a blast from the past. Enjoy. :-)

Originally posted on Completely in the Dark:

On the night of June 15, 1977, there was a disturbance in The Force.

I even described it in the next day’s diary entry: “I had a very strange dream last night: that the world was being completely annihilated and there was an escape (a world directly after). Strange, eh?”

It was officially summer, the school year done, and I didn’t have a job. But I busied myself with a short story I’d started in Creative Writing class, based mostly on the story Pete Martin told me about the Swedish girls he’d met many years before.

Mom even popped for rental of an electric typewriter from an office supply store in Wayzata. Typing at the desk in my bedroom, I was never happier.

And I was still hoping for a reconciliation with Kim, especially when our family joined my brother at the Lake Koronis summer camp he…

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Ghost! Busted!

•October 23, 2015 • Leave a Comment


Back-to-back reblogs and my apologies! All-new posts next Friday for sure, drafting & editing now! Here’s a ghost story for you. :-)

Originally posted on Completely in the Dark:

GhostOf course it had to happen early in the morning.

My routine: Up at 7 a.m., coffee on, bathroom. But while switching on the home office lights, I happened to glance at the dining room table.

“Hmm. …That’s dustier than usual,” I thought. Petals had fallen off flowers in a vase. I ran my finger through a fine grayish-white powder on the tabletop. No idea what it was or how it got there.

Seems I’d left the 1978 diary there, too. Odd.

I showered while the coffee brewed. Over the roar of the water I heard—well, at least it sounded like—a throat clearing. I turned off the tap, grabbed a towel and dried off, bending an ear toward the door.


After throwing on clothes and pouring some coffee, I saw him sitting at the table, leafing through the diary.

He looked up. “G’mornin’, Muffy.



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The Magic Has Gone

•October 16, 2015 • Leave a Comment


Here’s one from last autumn that underwent some minor modifications. New post next Friday, Oct. 23!

Originally posted on Completely in the Dark:

My beautiful pictureIt had to be the worst moment of Dad’s life.

That morning in May 2008, when he called to tell me Mom had died.

I don’t know why, but I never stopped to imagine what that moment must’ve been like for him, after he was told.

I picture him in the kitchen, sipping coffee and looking out past the lanai—another Florida day of humidity and haze only just beginning.

The home hospice nurse—heck, I don’t even know her name—how did she deliver the news to Dad that morning? After she spoke with him, when he walked down the narrow hallway from the kitchen to the sewing room, which then served as Mom’s final bedroom, what was running through his mind?

And that moment he gazed upon her, so still—his wife, the love of his life—my mother, gone. How do you take something like that in?

There I…

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