Keepsake (Part 1)

•March 24, 2017 • Leave a Comment

[First part of a two-part post.]

In John Ford’s The Searchers, John Wayne’s character, Ethan, reluctantly joins a posse pursuing Comanches that have abducted his niece, Debbie, played by Natalie Wood. There’s a scene where the posse freezes upon hearing the sound of a Comanche signal. Reverend Clayton glares at Ethan; Ethan glares back.

Ethan: Well?
Reverend: You wanna quit, Ethan?
Ethan: That’ll be the day.

***

So Buddy Holly and his pals, J.I. and Joe B., are slumming around Lubbock, Texas, in 1956. J.I., known to his teachers as Jerry Allison, wipes his nose on a sleeve and kids Buddy about Buddy’s latest girlfriend, Echo. Buddy stops, looks up for a sec, then glances at a storefront window, points at the mannequin, then elbows J.I. in the ribs, snorting, “Some chick, huh?” J.I. laughs, “That’ll be the day.”

What follows is a sort of ghost story. And a complicated one at that.

I have an inkling of where it’s going, but I won’t know how it ends until we get there.

Care to ride along?

Great.

***

The fresh, new 1988 journal spells it out in a Feb. 1 entry: “A lot of hope this year, pretty much all I can say. After 1987, ’88 has to be better. I don’t think I’ve been worse than that year.”

I was two and a half years into a hateful corporate job and fidgeting around for new creative work. Along with writing and doodling, I was also interested in photography and filmmaking. In late 1986 I wrote to the local PBS station about their “Screenplay Project,” so I could pitch them an idea. I’d never written a screenplay before, but attempted stage plays as a kid. I loved the idea of “making a movie,” but lacked the experience and skills.

I knew what I really needed.

I needed a story I could disappear into.

Previously it was all about “Write what you know,” just as my teachers had instructed. So I wrote about high school and living in my hometown.

What, I wondered, would it be like to write about things I didn’t know?

How would it feel to become characters whose experiences were entirely different than my own?

That’s probably what I’d hoped for in The Dumond Stories. But I was one story in before I realized I was in way over my head, so I stopped cold.

By September 1987 I had the idea for a combination teleplay/long-form piece. It would tell the story of an aging and nearly forgotten pop musician named Dean McLeary and his creative muse—the great Buddy Holly.

***

Tuesday, Feb. 2, 1988: “I rented The Real Buddy Holly StoryPaul McCartney’s documentary on Buddy Holly. I got to see J.I. and Joe B. in the film. Hopefully I will meet them tomorrow night at Bunker’s. I talked to Jon Bream of the StarTribune on the phone. I called him to find out the Crickets’ lineup for tomorrow night. He said it would be Jerry Allison, Joe B. Mauldin, and a Gordon Paine. He wished me luck in my investigations. I’m anxious.”

You see, that previous September I made a road trip to the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, to do research on a story with the working title Buddy’s Scrapbook.

The “raw writing” part would not be a script, but a straight-up short story told by the main character, pop musician Dean McLeary, and “embellished” by a “mysterious researcher” named Matt J. Durand.

This, I think, is important to the story I want to tell here, chiefly because it was the second time I’d used a pen name; my high school novella The Crowded Room was “written” by its main character, high school senior Jeffrey Dunne. Buddy’s Scrapbook was the first time I’d have one character “annotate” another character’s story. Clearly I was worried about becoming the “self-absorbed, egotistical author type.” I was trying to stay out of the story’s way.

Or so I thought.

Buddy’s Scrapbook begins with an outline of the plot:

“Dean McLeary flies into MSP airport on Feb. 6, 1975, a Thursday, from New York City. His dying mother’s partner, Chester, picks him up at the airport and takes him to his mother’s house on St. Paul’s Summit Avenue, where Dean spends an anguished night with his home-hospiced mother, sleeping in his sister’s old bedroom. There he finds some of his sister’s rock and roll memorabilia. The following morning he decides to drive to Clear Lake, Iowa, where estranged sister Nancy lives with her family. He plans to rent a car, but Chester offers him a 1964 Chevy Bel Air he’s been fixing up.”

Interposed with Dean’s story (who, by the way, was based on folk singer Don McLean, of “American Pie” fame) is Matt J. Durand’s “Model of a Binary Universe Set to Music” and his hypothesis that Buddy Holly’s life was mysteriously and inextricably linked to Bernstein’s West Side Story. It’s a stretch, but Durand makes a valiant attempt.

Meanwhile Dean “arrives in Clear Lake at Nancy and her husband Roger’s house, they have supper, drinks, and conversation around the kitchen table.” Before going to bed, Dean calls his girlfriend Missy in NYC, who’s playing Anybodys in an off-Broadway production of West Side Story. Dean decides to stay longer in Clear Lake and connects with the owner of the Surf Ballroom, where one night he takes the stage to play Holly’s “Well…All Right” to the delight of his sister and others present.

Obviously the story’s drama would work itself out “in the details.” I still have a hefty piles of notes, research, and whatnot of a draft … that never materialized.

What was going on?

What would I learn from this crazy writing process?

And would I ever finish the project?

Rediscovering Dumond

•March 17, 2017 • Leave a Comment

The year was 1989.

How did it change the course of my life?

I can’t quite go there without first examining what lead up to it. I last left off at 1986 and ’87—terrible, terrible years.

Turns out, after examining my journals going into 1988, things didn’t improve, although my intentions were more solid. A couple posts can be gleaned from ’88 that, hopefully, make things clearer.

So, where to begin?

The old 1986-’87 journal announces an end-of-year “ongoing essay,” explaining the dilemma at the time:

“…this journal [has] been a bit of a pariah with me and I figured that if I want to keep a journal for 1988, I’d like to start out fresh (I already have the book in my possession). After all, this book was begun in January 1986—two years later and I still wouldn’t finish it until, at the earliest, the middle of 1988, judging by the ‘speed’ with which I’d ‘attacked’ it before. This ‘ongoing essay’ is really intended to be rather open—the point is to write stuff, fill these pages, and maybe through the process of writing think about the things I’ve refused to think about in 1987, [though] the nature of which I’ve resented, but rather than talk them out, as most people do, I shut them up, just as I’ve wished to do to others. If this essay has any sort of Topic, that’s it.”

The “taskmaster-like punishment” in the process is interesting: no joy, no felicitous self-discovery—just crack the whip and “find out who’s to blame”:

“I’d just read over some of the last entries from 1986 on and was surprised to see how short the year 1987 was in this diary! Just what the hell did I do with my time? Summer, drinking, parties (unsuccessful Kafkian adventures at best), working late til summer’s sunset (I don’t remember hearing crickets last summer) and sleep a lot of the time. Obviously, no writing…”

In the essay I recount animosities toward friends, who, I report “have little time for me. They’re all married and are in a great respect quite boring to be around. So whaddaya have?”

There’s a lot of detail into the rituals with “the boys from the office” who hit “singles bars and dance places … our minds have been pretty closed and we usually go to [the same places] rather than break new ground and go somewhere else. Reason being we’re looking for quantity of single women wherein one may find quality. It stands to reason if you go to some hick bar in Mayer, Minnesota, chances are there may be one attractive woman in the place, but among five horny and bored single guys, that just doesn’t cut it.”

“Anyway, the point is,” a “second sitting” quickly assesses, “the past year or so, we’d been beating our heads against a social wall upon which is graffitied AIDS, earning power, clever talk and power dressing. A handful of anxious yet handsome, clever yet shy, creative yet invisible guys do not an ’80s statement make. You’ve got to have ‘your label’ sticking out now-a-days, and we all, from 25 to 31, seem a little out of step. I think we’ve refused to concede. Everytime we go out, we try to make the best of the way we look by saying to ourselves: ‘Hey, so I look sorta shitty. But what a guy inside! Take me or leave me!’ Maybe that’s not a bad attitude. But in the ’80s, it’s a poor formula for ‘success.’”

Finally a “3rd Sitting” really focuses on the moment. I loved rereading it:

“All I’ll tell you is that it’s the middle of January 1988 and it’s snowing outside. Snowing hard. There’s a good possibility that, if the snow comes down all night, work may be cancelled tomorrow. I hope that isn’t the case in one great respect: I need the money. In another way, I could use the day to finish filming the stuff I have lying around from 1987. That’d be nice.”

What was this “filming”? I’d forgotten that I owned a Super 8 camera and did some time-lapse experiments with it.

Meanwhile, the essay gets bogged down in its own muck:

“Anyway, this bit about ‘1st Sitting, 2nd Sitting and so on; I don’t know. I thought—I just noticed something peculiar about the way I’m writing now—I’m rushing—scratching away with this pen like a man with a gun to his head. I know I didn’t write this way before. I recall down at school, in Iowa, I wrote in the journal like a painter stroking canvas, caressing each word on paper, relaxed. If you don’t believe me, then compare the past year’s handwriting with the handwriting around October/November 1984. I think [I’ll] break briefly to do that, and when I come back I’ll try to write slower—through sheer effort of will…”

So I did just that (photo at right, 1987, clipped page is 1984):

“Well, I think I know the answer—much was happening then, and I remember I’d felt pretty happy, even in the most anxious moments. I’ve come a long way from then. I want to try to rehabilitate myself to the ‘old ways.’ I feel I will discover Dumond in there. I noticed the 1984 handwriting was tighter, more controlled. The 1987 handwriting is rushing to fly off the page, much I suspect, as my mind had been. The hand is, after all, only the talk the mind truly understands. It says more…”

Not sure what I meant by “rehabilitate myself to the ‘old ways,’” but “discover Dumond in there” was the hope that a planned story collection, “The Dumond Stories,” a follow-up to my first novella The Crowded Room, would finally see the light of day. Funny how I was more into thinking about writing than actually doing the writing.

You know, I wouldn’t be that young person again for all the tea in China (as the saying goes).

Where was that kid headed?

And what did he really want to do with his life?

The Heart You Break May Be Your Own

•March 10, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Republishing this oldie for today—off to fight some dragons today and readying all-new post for next week!

Completely in the Dark

Oh, to be so certain you know what you desire, and how you will go about getting it.

Or maybe you’re in the other camp: you let the world “happen” to you. That way there’s no responsibility for your actions and their consequences.

Lemme explain. Here I am, early December 2011. I’m reading the past and taking the temperature of the present: on the cold side, quiet and solitary. I’m unhappy. I feel stuck, uninspired, unloved, unmotivated—and I’ve been here before. Things could be happening, warming up, heading in a new direction. Or, maybe, that warmer place I want to be is the place I’m already at—I’m just not able to see it yet.

That’s an accurate distillation of the fall and winter of 1976. Sure, a new school year had just started, but so many things were stalling: the ambiguous “relationship” with Linda, the grind of the busboy…

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The Day We Shot the Bullfrog

•March 3, 2017 • Leave a Comment

If you asked me, “Do you remember that day we shot the bullfrog?” I’d say, “No, I don’t. In fact…” (I would insist) “I would never harm any. Living. Thing.”

That is, until the photo at left passed before my eyes.

Oh, yeeaaahhh … that.

When did it happen? It must’ve been during the 1960s. Who was holding the bullfrog? Was it me? Or an older boy? (As the arm seems to suggest. At the time I couldn’t have been older than 6 or 7.)

It was likely when the Family Project vacationed around the U.S., as the background shows: a white van, a speckled camper top above which recently deceased Jeremiah Q. Bullfrog is suspended. Also in the background are what seem to be lake cabins, so it could’ve been during a summer vacation in Michigan before we moved out East in the mid-1960s. I don’t know. It’s from “The Time Before the Diaries.”

So many questions. But it did happen. The photo is evidence.

Poor little guy. I felt sad for Mr. Bullfrog.

And I believe that I was the one who shot the bullfrog.

***

Ah, the vagaries of memory. That other side of life—the forgotten side.

What if everyone’s rock-solid “I remember…” was replaced with actual archival footage? Maybe even video that proved contrary to the “facts at hand”? Something like, “Body Cams for the Perpetually Forgetful.”

After seeing the above photo, I wondered about all the missing moments of my life—especially the ones where I probably wronged someone.bullfrog2

It brings to mind a print (at right) my late father cherished, mostly because the boy in the illustration looks a lot like he did in the late 1930s: “Nobody Loves Me.” Pop had happy memories of being a boy then. Its caption reads: “Nobody loves me. I’m going into the garden to eat worms. Yesterday I ate two smooth ones and one wooly one.”

Of course it’s ridiculous—it’s classically American ridiculous. Does the boy eat the worms because he enjoys them?

Hell, no. It’s because nobody loves him.

So, let’s all go to the garden and eat some goddamn worms.

***

My memory is shit, actually.

I wish I had a tenth of what these folks have. Or maybe not; it could be considered a freakish curse.

Keeping diaries and journals all these many years has helped me remember. When in doubt, I refer back to the exact date (or at least within a few days) that I think it happened.

I know I wronged my ex-girlfriend Sally, back in 1986 and ’87.

I’d started a corporate job in June 1985, met Sally in late summer of ’86, after I’d moved into my first apartment that April. I threw dinner parties and hosted movie-watching hangouts with coworkers. Sally and I worked in separate yet adjacent departments, she was around my age, nerdy with long, straw-colored hair, and freckles on her nose and chest. She liked to laugh and, I noted, appreciated my jokes.

An Aug. 6, 1986, journal entry records one such a movie-watching party on Friday night, Aug. 1. A quick recap: After the party, Sally stayed later than the others. She wanted to get to know me. I could sense that.

It got to be later and later, so she stayed over, but we didn’t have sex—we just made out all night. For this 26-year-old, it was extremely frustrating. The entry spells it out:

“I took a shower, got dressed, she floated around the apartment like a ghost. I made coffee and we stood out on the balcony, in the cool clear morning air. How awkward—? No, not much at least, but I could sense it in the distance, like a train. I suppose I was still ‘stoned’ by the renewed sexual vigor, the instant hugs and kisses…”

bullfrog3It’s still an awkward memory—like realizing I did shoot the bullfrog.

In December 1986, I wrote what still amounts to a cryptic journal entry:

“I know I’ve not gotten ’round to my Birthday party and the whole brief relationship with Sally at work. It’s important that that gets explained, because it’s the other side of the [girlfriend from high school/me] coin. I know I’ve told myself in the past that it’s easy to ascribe too much value to something: a person, an event…but sometimes these things move as if they had a will of their own, and I’m just there to watch as it bobs to the surface every now and then. But wanting love, returned love, unearned love. That’s approval, part of the ties with a family; even if it’s a family of two; me, and another, no doubt, no distrust.”

I know now I was rationalizing the situation to myself, probably to assuage guilty feelings. I treated Sally terribly. I tried to make it all about me, as I’m sure most of us do.

***

Then, it was 1987. One of those “bad years.”

Nothing written in the journal about what happened. No long, drawn-out intrigue; no heartbreak. Sally and I dated for a couple months, went to movies and dinners out, and of course had sex. I left the job in December 1992 and never saw Sal again.

In short, I didn’t care.

So, I shot the bullfrog.

What day was it? Any day we choose to forget.

Who is ‘we’? Anyone that is not me. But essentially that’s a lie. It’s me.

What is meant by “the Bullfrog”? Anything targeted for extermination. Followed by memory erasure.

How does one shoot it?

Every.

Single.

Day.

Grandpa in His Garage

•February 24, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Feeling The Weight. New post needing rewrite. Missed deadline. So, a repost to tide you over. Let’s try it again next week, shall we? MM

Completely in the Dark

Grandpa Adams 1962 You see, there’s a photo. I can picture it in my mind’s eye, but I can’t locate the actual print or slide.

It was taken by my maternal grandfather, Ray Adams. Of that I’m fairly certain.

You know how young children often stare meditatively at random things? Well, this photo cast that sort of spell over me. It’s an interior shot, taken in the 1960s, of a huge auditorium, much like the downtown Minneapolis armory. It was snapped from high in the grandstand seats. In the frame is a lone smudged window at the far end of the building.

I don’t know why that image still haunts me, but it does.

***

He was the first modern man.

Ray Adams was born on Oct. 10, 1900. He witnessed nearly a century of change. And he directed the course of the modern world all from a workbench in his Greensburg, Ind., garage.

If I…

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Goodbye

•February 17, 2017 • Leave a Comment

These days trying to add more hellos to goodbyes, but sometimes you have to move on. All-new post in the hopper for next Friday. Cheers, MM

Completely in the Dark

Goodbye1I’d entirely forgotten that, in the spring of 2008, I almost produced my first short film.

The impetus for the project was a local short-film contest, which set a maximum length of 12 minutes (or 12 script pages), four characters, and use of a specific location—in this case the Witch’s Hat Water Tower in Prospect Park, Minneapolis. The film also had to address the theme of “Agony and Bliss, Unrequited Love.”

I’d written a script with Chars Bonin, an actor-director friend, who cast three other actors. We scheduled production for the weekend of May 30. We chose that date because it was the only time the tower would be open to the public, and we’d be able to shoot our final scene from the top.

Work on the story started as early as April 16. The submission deadline was August 15, so we had it all planned. Our working…

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Heeeeere’s Danny!

•February 10, 2017 • Leave a Comment

I’m grateful to the generosity of my old friend Dan this past week, so celebrating with this piece from 5 years ago. New posts to follow in 2017! Cheers, Mike

Completely in the Dark

[Dear friends: Completely in the Dark will be taking a brief hiatus next week, returning with a new slate of posts on Saturday, Sept. 10. Thanks for stopping by!]

“Summer has just ended. Today was the first day of school. And in this letter to you, I hope to summerize the summer which has just ended. It ended with a wimper and started with a bang. Because on the last day of school I had a hassel with the kids around here and on the first day things went slow. I spent a lot of time with Danny this summer. We both said we should keep in touch and maybe, belive it or not, all this could become a book.” —August 1974

Things could be a real bummer, man.

Like, being 16 and having to work during the summer holiday. And remembering you used to use terms like, “It was…

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