Nostalgia Is Death

•July 29, 2020 • 1 Comment

Bob Dylan turned 50 on May 24, 1991.

I’d follow him 18 years later, but I only mention this because he just put out a new album this year—when he also turned 79—making one helluva strong case for “never looking back.”

Los Angeles Times writer Robert Hilburn wrote about Dylan on that landmark half-century birthday. During their interview Hilburn noticed a road crew member slipping Dylan a paperback book that outlined all his live sets over the years. When Dylan gave the book back, the roadie told him to keep it as a souvenir. Dylan didn’t want it.

“Naw, I’ve already been to those places,” he said, “and I’ve done all that.” Then, with a quick grin, Dylan added: “Now if you ever find a book out there that’s going to tell me where I’m going, I might be interested.”

This immediately struck a chord with me because I realized I had such a “book” in my possession—all my diaries and journals. While they’re a record of my past, they’re oddly clairvoyant at times; I often dive into them somewhat randomly for just that effect.

Reading Hilburn’s interview, where the journalist asked the artist to dissect his rich and varied past, to which Dylan shot back acidly, “Nostalgia is death,” I felt an opening into something that’s been on my mind lately with this blog.

Now I’m fairly certain many readers here depend on my reminiscences for their own nostalgic jags: memories about 1970s drive-in movies, supper clubs, soda fountains, high school football games on rainy fall nights, cruising a main drag, attending a rock concert, or falling in love (for the first of many times). Those are the common themes that bind our lives together—however separated we may feel—into a shared narrative. Heck, I guess I should be grateful for being able to do that.

But friends, that’s definitely not why I show up here. That’s not why this blog matters to me.

And that’s why nostalgia is…well, yeah, just another form of slowly dying.

“He not busy being born is busy dying,” our rockin’ 20th century Walt Whitman also sang. So, how can we keep busy “being born”? How can a journal or diary help you move past “noxious nostalgic vapors” into something closer to clarity, self-awareness, and ongoing personal rebirth?

Well, I think I can help you out with that.

Let’s start with curiosity—the rabbit hole that often leads to unexpected insights. Here’s a question: “What was I doing on Bob Dylan’s 50th birthday, on May 24, 1991?” After all I had journals from that time, although I only started to lean harder on journal writing in the mid-to-late ’90s.

Hey, it was worth a look.

The bad news: no entries for May of that year, but I did find an entry that dovetails with Dylan on March 25, 1991. The juncture was his performance at that year’s Grammy awards, with a blistering and bewildering version of “Masters of War”—occasioned of course by the same thing I was writing about in my journal at the time, the terrifying month-long Persian Gulf War. With my trusty fountain pen I scratched out a late-night entry, posted here in full:

“It’s just after midnight, but feels like 3 a.m. I’m lying awake and afraid I’ll be dead at 31 of a heart attack. My stomach is rumbling for a second night. I think I had a mild case of food poisoning yesterday but it really isn’t worth mentioning. I suppose I’m writing more out of fear than anything now; I’m a little angry at the black side of solitude, the genuine feeling of loneliness. I’m fucking sick of it. But I don’t know what to do about it. Thursday night at work I asked N. if she wanted to go see The Doors movie (Oliver Stone) after work and she thought about it. Friday afternoon she asked me if I was still going and I said yes and asked if she wanted to go, but she gently declined. I didn’t say much the rest of the day and left at 7:30 (a bit sullenly, I suppose), just saying ‘goodnight.’ It was raining like all hell when I left, so I went and rented two movies and got something to drink. I did the same thing Sat. night after grocery shopping and Sunday afternoon I caught the aforementioned Stone movie, ate supper at the Lone Star Grill and had two drinks and went home. I hadn’t heard from anyone all weekend save the proverbial Folks who’re still enthusing about the Winning of the Goddamned War and Jesus Christ’s Fucking Pointless Resurrection et al next weekend. I suppose I’ve a little leftover Evil Lizard King left w/me, but shit, really. I don’t want a sitter, no ‘friend’ or chum/pal o’ mine. Want something MORE—something bigger than this shell of mine that fills a family. Life Alone Is Hell. But that’s not the same as solitude, which is like being a part of Something. When will it End?”

Well of course it would end, but it was startling to fast-forward two years and three months ahead to discover exactly how:

“A man who keeps a diary pays
Due toll to many tedious days;
But life becomes eventful—then
His busy hand forgets the pen.
Most books, indeed, are records less
Of fullness than of emptiness.”
William Allingham’s diary, 1864

That was on July 5, 1993, when—nine days later—I’d landed a new apartment at 108 Pierce Street in St. Paul’s Merriam Park. I’d be leaving Cathedral Hill and heading west again. The previous 1991 entry was a year before I moved to St. Paul—when I was holding down a dead-end job, living in a joyless apartment, trying to date indifferent women, and feeling completely hopeless about the future.

So, I shook things up.

It took awhile, but eventually “life became eventful.” And because life became eventful, I knew I had to get it down in my journal—so I wrote even more throughout 1993 and beyond. The early 1990s were a bad patch that I couldn’t see through—maybe like these “Covid-19 days” we’re all experiencing.

So let’s not wallow in nostalgia, friends. Nostalgia is futile, but when you’re there it sticks to your soul like rusty old coffin nails. There were no “good old days.” The best you can do is take what you’ve learned and retool that knowledge. Keep expanding.

Keep making better days.

Bob Dylan did that time and time again, as he’s currently doing with Rough and Rowdy Ways. He doesn’t take cues from the crowd. He goes inside and feels around for whatever treasures he finds there. Or more dirt to plant things in. Or interesting scraps to play with. Life is the grand experiment. If it feels like forward motion—even if no one else approves—then it’s all good.

And that, I think, is a great strategy for keeping busy “being born.”

Lastly I’m willing to bet Dylan knows he does have that book about the future—it’s all there in his sketch pads, notebooks, concerts, and every song and lyric he’s ever written—and will write as long as we’re blessed to have him among us.


Dylan photo above retrieved from Rogelio A. Galaviz C. Under Creative Commons license.


•July 2, 2020 • Leave a Comment

I’m determined to leave this world a kinder person than when I came into it.

And if that means leaving some junk behind, well, all the better.

But first I need to tease out some questions.

What is valuable and what is worthless? What is junk to me but may be treasure to someone else? And how can we tell the difference?

In the past dozen years since the ’rents died, I’ve tossed a lot, including some pretty major stuff—family furniture connected to my earliest memories, to books and memorabilia I’ve decided I no longer want. The winnowing has lessened since the pandemic hit in early March, but I need to return to it more forcefully. What I’ve kept are things I would miss if they were gone because they’re useful. The old furniture, however, was kept merely out of sentimentality. The hardest items to toss are my papers: stories begun yet unfinished, poems, plays, lyrics, and ideas for other things—I never know when I’ll wonder: “Hey whatever happened to the source material for that idea?”—and poof—it’s been lost forever as if it never occurred to me.

I sympathize with families now dealing with wrenching changes (especially with aging parents who are reluctant to give up stuff they’ve collected over the years), and the urge to purge is hitting them all at once. It’s exhausting, I know. But maybe now is a good time to reallocate resources, sell what you don’t want, keep what still brings any kind of happiness (joy being a rare commodity these days), while remaining suspicious of familiar things that merely bring you contentment.

It’s time to look at all my junk like I’ve never done before.


A calendar entry for Saturday, Aug. 22, 1993, reads: “Flea market? Yes if possible,” followed by the all-caps addition: “RAIN.” I had to backtrack a year or two earlier to hone in on this cryptic note. But I knew exactly what it was about.

You see, my high school “track and field philosopher” buddy Theron Hollingsworth and I started selling stuff at the Medina Ballroom’s Sunday flea market, according to my old sketch pad calendars, beginning in the summer of 1991—June 9, specifically.

So naturally I went to look for a journal entry.

The result? Cold shoulder from the journals. I wasn’t writing much in the late ’80s, early ’90s—only returning with a vengeance in 1994 and beyond. I now know why: writing needs a good table, strong light, and essentially regular habits. The early 1990s were full of personal upheaval—I was getting too far away from myself.

What I enjoyed about Terry in those days was his innate ability to rope me back in: “Hey buddy,” he’d telephone on a summer Saturday. “What’d’ya say we pool together our junk and haul it out to the Medina Flea Market to sell? Maybe make a couple bucks, people-watch, drink some coffee, catch up and chill!”

I guess at that time in my life it sounded like a sweet mini-vacation. I don’t recall anything particular I added to our “booth table,” but it was always good fun. We reminisced about those outings a couple months ago. Terry even shared a photo from that time (above left) taken by his friend Mike Bailey at the aforementioned flea market. Sorta tells you everything you need to know in an instant.

Another valuable thing about the experience was our conversations with passersby. People would pick over items at our table and sometimes all they really wanted to do was chat. Terry and I would squint through our sunglasses, sip our coffees, and ask how they were doing. If that sort of sociability isn’t still valuable, then I sure as hell don’t know what is. Terry was the kind of friend who could appreciate it, too.

Exactly the kind of friend you want to keep for as long as possible in this sad world.


So, is my writing “junk”? Or is it as-yet-unearthed treasure?

Time will tell. Like all good journalists, I only know that recording thoughts, ideas, and events from one’s life can lead to insights. I say can because we’re in a world apparently adverse to doing just that. Recording history is a practice that can change lives, possibly moving us toward a more inclusive and inquisitive world. It’s a hopeful attitude to take—one I’m willing to uphold and fight for.

The journal doesn’t bear it out, but I’m fairly certain the summer of 1993 was the last of the flea markets for me and Terry. Eventually he sold his Dodge pickup and we just moved on to other things. At the time I didn’t think those excursions were worth recording into lengthy journal entries. It might’ve seemed like more daily ephemera—you know, junk.

But I was as wrong as wrong can be.

I now realize that it’s in the little things—the stuff we often cast off—that the world is made anew.

Worlds In Turmoil

•April 22, 2020 • Leave a Comment

“America’s uncanny Beach Blanket Bingo Isolationism continues,” I wrote in my journal back in June 1989. “My feeling is that one day soon it will all catch up with us and I’m not sure I want to be here when it does.”

Well, it has and I am. And I’m drafting an all-new post for next Friday, so stick around! Best, Mike

Completely in the Dark

“…1959 was a very strange time, a bad year for Labour and a good year for wine.”
—Al Stewart, “Post World War Two Blues”

Although I was born in late ’59, I consider myself a child of the 1960s.

So it follows that I was a wooly teenager of the 1970s and newly minted adult in the 1980s.

The ’80s, in retrospect, was a cakewalk. I was employed for most of it (1981–1984 at the print shop, not far from my late parents’ hobby farm; 1985–1992 at a direct mail marketing corporation in Hopkins, Minn., where I then lived in my first apartment).

Although, as you’ll see shortly, by the end of it I’d declared the entire decade “horrible.”

As I’ve mentioned lately, the late ’80s was a creative watershed for me. Once I was independent, I discovered my own way of doing things: using gainful…

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Talkin’ South Texas No Mariachi Tropical Depression Blues

•April 3, 2020 • Leave a Comment

“I started an entry the other night,” a 1993 Memorial Day weekend journal post begins, “but the phone [kept] ringing, and it got later so I’ve scrubbed it all.”

On May 28 I took my late parents to the Sheraton by the airport so the following morning they could board a flight to Florida and inspect work on their retirement home, which was completing construction.

I was escaping St. Paul yet again to stay at their temporary condo in Mound, not far from where I went to high school, on the site of this beautiful page torn from my teenage years. Just before they left town we had a family photo taken with us all wearing denim shirts at a Brookdale Proex (photo at right with my first nephew Colin in aforementioned denim).

In another month I’d be boarding another plane for my cousin Jason’s wedding in south Texas.

In the interim I was wrapping up a contract project at CTS in Minneapolis and volunteering at Cable Access St. Paul, where new friend Ben Simon and I did tech work (camera, sound, etc.) on the program “Docksides,” after which we walked over to Galtier Plaza and “talked for over an hour over two beers about stories & Life—and the rest of the production crew showed up (and like Techies—assholes snubbed us—it bothered Ben more than I). Much happened—more than I first sensed.”

The journal makes an odd observation: “To know your personal value is no small thing. The waves of influence. Personal power. Ideas moving people. Wow.”

I was 33 years old and writing like a maniac.

On June 3, 1993, I “paid for my flight to Jason’s wedding in Corpus Christi on June 18,” the journal reports. No indication how I was feeling about that, how expensive it was given I was unemployed for a while, but I was looking forward to traveling again and seeing new sights.

Meanwhile much was going on in the lives of friends and family—the biggest seeing my parents off to retirement thousands of miles away in mid-June, better chronicled in a future post.

For cousin Jason’s wedding, it’s best to just throw out here, mostly unedited and transcribed as it appeared in the journal (photo at left), which was one of the strangest experiments I ever did in the early 1990s journals.

I didn’t take a laptop to Texas, or the actual journal for that matter, but instead brought a small Daytimer journal where I painstakingly wrote in mechanical pencil the events of the wedding. When I got back to Minnesota I transcribed them into the journal, which took up four and half single-spaced pages.

In the interest of keeping this post short, I’ve edited for clarity where possible:

Tuesday, June 22

Here’s the transcript from Corpus Crispy:

Airlines & doctor’s offices—treat you like you NEED them. Oh Babylon! Oh Airline Industry!

Here’s my predictions on the wedding party, just by studying the invite:

Alaniz family: Maids of honor Jessica Ann & Patricia Andrea are sisters of Yvonne’s [the bride], both are obviously unmarried. No guess about ages. I’ll try: 22 & 23 [no, much younger, 14 & 15]

Ana Lisa is married, I’d guess and Luis Daniel & Sara Ann are her son and daughter [no I don’t think so]

Cynthia Canales—don’t know. I guess she’s a friend of Yvonne’s—unmarried, but with a boyfriend. There’s no other Canales listed so that’s why I’d guess that [dead on]. Seems the Vasquez & Alaniz families are pretty close [related]

Yvonne’s two brothers, I’d guess, are the two ushers [cousins]

Billy Joel’s “Rosalinda’s Eyes”

FLYING OVER CLINTON’S CLOUDY AMERICA. LBJ shudder. “See muh scar?” 1:20PM passed over Dallas/Fort Worth

WHATABURGER w/onions & jalapenos. [When I first hear about these I was asking about all the billboards, but Gabriel had said Waterburger, and I didn’t understand] Pico de Gallo: cilantro, onions, chilies, tomatoes = hot


Got in last night at 2AM. Slept this morning till 9:30, wedding’s at 4 PM today.

Jason & Yvonne, Joe & Cynthia got in a tiff.

Bought Gabriel a Whataburger after midnight $10.00 between the two of us [but that included fries and drinks] In [my Uncle] Gordon’s van: Lou drove. Jason shotgun, me, Greg the Best Man from Albuquerque NM, Freddy, quiet guy, Gabriel & Joe (19) all the rest of us were at least 21. Greg married, wife stayed in NM.


Big grass leaves—like steroidic Astroturf. Reading Molly Ivins’ column on John Connally’s death. Big Sky—huge Clouds—Hot wind—Palm leaves blown, birds madly chirping

Article of Concealment or Fashion Statement? Black guys wearing hoods at Starlite Dance place [like a drunk crazy bastard I ask one black guy why he likes ’em. He shrugs and mutters something like “cause they in, man…” His breath reeks. We all walk out Lou Sitter is amazed at me]

Cynthia returns Joe’s ring (were they engaged?) I talk to her in front of the van and she reaches out, touches my face and smiles. Emotions move in torrents here like the hot wind and then the rain. Sex on the beach.

Bratty children. Fidelity in marriage. The monsignor (priest) spoke of “Cheers” final episode and “empty characters.” It was, I thought, a pugnacious sermon. But from the beginning…

THE WEDDING—got some sun Friday.
Miscue on the wedding march—had to start again. I sat w/Kelly, Bret, Marcy & Andrew—who fussed. Virginia sat at the end of our pew to my right. We said “Peace be with you” to each other as everyone else did during the Mass.

Wedding went from 4:00 to 5:30 or so. Monsignor Michael Heras was amusing, as I said. He instructed the congregation not to chew gum during the Mass [I suspect not just because they’d take the Eucharist]

Pictures after—there was a brief rain shower during the service

Eagle Lodge #2…? Mariachi band & regular amplified band that played things of a more polka flavor. Margaritas, beer and champagne. Supper: Beef brisket, onions, pickles, white bread, rice & pinto beans, slice of pork sausage. Groom cake and wedding cake with lighted pink fountain spray of water. More people came to the reception than came to the ceremony. I tried to talk to Ginny at the head table where she sat with Greg. No husband, no boyfriend, no reason. She seemed detached, uninterested.

What is a punta?

“Menudo”—tripe soup red (tomato?) base with lining of cow’s intestine. We ate this late Friday eve after the reception & dance to wish the bride and groom good luck. Back at my motel room while getting ready for bed, Curly of the Three Stooges on TV sits at a lunch counter putting crackers in his bowl of clam chowder. Each time he puts one in, a clam eats it while he’s not looking. He hits the clam with his spoon, and ends shooting the bowl of soup with his side revolver. Just another hot night in South Texas.

3-20-93 SUN AM re: Sat
Oil refineries glow like mini-cities in the night, burning well stack. They were disorienting when I first saw them Thursday night. I thought Corpus Christi sure looked small, but well-lit.

Arlene’s been downgraded to a tropical depression. Gordon’s shock in the men’s room of the Eagle Lodge when I was chatting with the band (Los Campeones de Raul Ruiz, to reach him you may call him direct or his “beeper” #) about R&B, and Steve Ferguson (late of NRBQ)’s “Midwest Creole” and a proper 4/4 downbeat. They seemed fascinated.

Gabriel’s belt buckle. Freddy’s belt buckle. Texas’ belt buckle…

Some regrets:

—not near the beach, see & smell the Gulf of Mexico
—not getting to see San Antonio & the River walk
—Indefinable “not belonging” yet honorary belonging (will get into this more)

About Saturday:
We were late for the gift opening at the Alanizes at 2:00—getting there closer to 3:00PM. I’d wanted to go to San Antonio or the beach for the day, but it was raining all over South Texas.

It was at the gift opening that I noticed Jessica—a 13-year-old cousin (I assumed) of Yvonne’s. She acted a little older than her age—which I learned when mention was made of her “Turned 15 years Party—like a “coming out” or “confirmation” celebration big, I gathered, in Hispanic culture—an event two years in the future. She was proud of planning for it already. She was wearing a sleeveless blue denim shirt, with a black & silver crucifix on a chain around her neck, and pink denim shorts. She’s a classic Mexican beauty—long clumpy dark brown hair, and golden brown eyes that really twinkled, tiny pink lips and skin that was perfect. She had gangly long arms and legs and really was a child—I, of course, thought of the youthful Ellen Terry in spirit, which in a land of symbols can still mean anything [?] She was curled up in a lounger in the living room watching Poltergeist III when I first saw her—her twinkling eyes spraying everyone with generosity and cheer. I was a little embarrassed I was so struck with her beauty, in light of her age. I tried to tell myself I was appreciating beauty for its own sake, of course.

[The beers sanctioned by Texas State Law: Bud, Bud Lite, Miller, Miller Lite]

[Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”:]
I started out on burgundy
But soon hit the harder stuff
Everybody said they’d stand behind me when
The game got rough
But the joke was on me
There was nobody even there to bluff
I’m goin’ back to [St. Paul]
I do believe I’ve had enough

[Ginny didn’t have an opinion about Bob Dylan]

[U-turn lanes—what a concept! Texans don’t stop—they YIELD to oncoming traffic. Humidity’s always high. Everything sweats—windows, eyeglasses, pop cans…and the cockroaches! I saw one dead in the men’s room of the Eagle Lodge & one alive on the wall of the motel outside—alive and pokey: he gingerly scratched his hairy insect ass like it was nobody’s business, nobody—and NOBODY fucks with a South Texas cockroach!]

At the [Greyhound race track] I was tired, but was still glad we got out of the house on a rainy night. Joe had the right idea. He seemed to warm up to me after Friday night—maybe because I stuck around after the Menudo. I think Joe’s looking forward to when his son Daniel (now 7) will be my age, so he can take him hunting and to the track.

Some words then about belonging…or my frustration about not belonging…I’ve got to find HOME. That’s my career for the rest of my life.

I’ve seen so many alternatives. [Aunt] Joyce said when I was young I was too picky. She’s dead right—But! We all go our roads & find our paths as we may (or as we go).

I looked back: England, Minnesota, Kentucky, Indiana, now Texas—where next? California? Mexico? Florida?

Texas accent. I actually heard little of it: a few old white folks at the wedding reception and dance. The drawl—it’s deceptive. Punch and push—go—go—get it! Give it gas! Use it! Plastic-pushing, nail-biting Yeah.

I’ve got to remember I have an artistic mission. It’s no small thing.

Remember that.


Julie’s House

•February 6, 2020 • 1 Comment

“You know you lose a lot of social skills if you’re a writer. You spend too long alone. And it’s forced me to address that.” Anthony Minghella

While taking a shortcut through my new apartment’s underground garage, I suddenly thought: Hopkins, late 1980s, first apartment, parking garage.

I’m back there again.

But not in the same way, as the same person, in the exact same location.

The next thought was a feeling: a comforting one; one I recognized as security and stability. After that feeling passed, a new thought emerged: How is this place the same or different from all the other places I’ve lived? What were the houses, rented rooms, apartments that have sustained me all these years? And even more importantly, who have I lived with? Why did I live with them, and why did I leave their company? And why am I now living alone?

As I took the elevator up, Leo Kottke’s song “Julie’s House” popped into my head:

“I climbed the hill to Julie’s house,
The place I used to live,
I climbed the steps and tried the door
And let myself in.”

I wasn’t sure I had the lyrics right, but intuitively felt they were somehow connected to the questions I was asking. I was excited by this idea—after all it’s been a while since I’ve tried a “thought experiment” in this blog and maybe it was overdue.

So let’s peer through the keyhole of All Places Past, do some digging, and see what there is to find. Working back from my 2020 parking garage, to the front door of my last place (pictured above), to the place before that, and before that … a theme emerges of old city brownstones with built-in kitchen cupboards, cheap gas stoves and klunky-loud refrigerators, smudged windows, dust, cobwebs, mice and silverfish—all which began when I moved to St. Paul (leaving the Hopkins apartment of the aforementioned parking garage) in 1992.

The first rented room was in a mansion built in 1885. That followed with an old storefront and apartment, built in 1887 and still on the National Register of Historic Places. After that comes the resounding repeat of brownstones, early 20th century, some renovated, some not, all similar.

And since 1992, not a single roommate. The mansion had down-the-hall fellow renters, but no one with whom I’ve shared the questionable intimacy of snoring, bathroom habits, late night parties or grumpy mornings—guests and girlfriends for sure, but no one on a regular basis as a live-in partner.

The last “live together” was probably my family: mother, father, brother. And that ended once and for all in 1986 when I landed that Hopkins apartment. I was overjoyed to be on my own—it was, actually, a long-awaited dream, one I only got to taste in short bursts during my convoluted college years. The tentative “living together” experiments I’d had with old girlfriends included some happy moments (like quiet moments after meals, watching movies and sleeping over, running errands or doing lawn work together) but in the end were unsustainable (the last relationship was probably the most similar to “being in a family,” but the “idea of we two” was more compelling than its execution).

All this begs the question of family influence. After all, I was raised in a loving and supportive family (the photo at left of Mom and Dad on their 45th anniversary, five years before they died)—so what’s the wrinkle? What led me to the state I’ve been in for the majority of my life?

Temperament, I think.

When I was diagnosed with dysthymia in 1987, I was wary of how relationship expectations adversely affected my moods. It was like always being on shaky ground.

But I don’t think this “solo living thing” need be a permanent condition.

Ironically it’s leading full circle, when I think about where this post began, with that Kottke song thrown into the mix.

“Julie’s House” is an object lesson: the clock that the singer remembers always staring at has stopped at five to five. Why then? Well, he knows this house and Julie’s post-work schedule. But it’s no longer his house to enjoy, particularly with Julie. We’re left to wonder why.

A car comes up the drive—of course, it’s Julie. In this object lesson, Julie is “the other,” everyone and anyone you or I have ever known—mother, father, sister, brother, lover, friend, you name it. The “house” is any space where people come together.

So the singer tells Julie he’s back to stay; he wants to live with her again. She laughs at him outright. More questions—what has this guy done to be no longer welcome at Julie’s house? She lays it out short and sharp:

“She said that I’d grow old believing
That I was what mattered most,
That I’d uncover real feelings
When I got close.”


And therein lies the possible solution to my “problem,” right there smack in the middle of the chorus: “That I was what mattered most.” Self-preservation isn’t exactly the key to unlock someone else’s heart. When you’re afraid to be yourself, you live alone, privately with the knowledge you’re failing to connect with other people. To reveal who you really are inside takes work—and only then can you be a solid partner, spouse, roommate, friend.

I’ve failed. I haven’t done the work.

And that full circle? When I moved into the Hopkins apartment, I thought long and hard about my new life, which included a full-time job, good benefits, workplace friends and old pals I’d known since childhood. I knew I wanted to expand my new life, not have it contract. So I threw parties and invited new friends to events and outings. It was a happy, fulfilling, and socially active time.

Maybe I’m not in the same place and time, as the same person, but of course that’s to be expected.

But as long as I’m breathing, change is possible. It’s already started.

Living in the Past

•January 17, 2020 • Leave a Comment

By year’s end, this blog will turn ten years old.

As it’s been about my life, it sure feels like I’ve been writing it all my life. And if you lean as heavily as I have on diaries and journals, that’s definitely true.

If you’re new here, it began on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2010, with this post.

In those early days, all I knew about the scope of the blog was I’d: 1) Edit each draft as much as necessary before publishing; 2) Rely on sense memory and recall for those posts leading up to the first diaries and journals (in 1972–73); and 3) Write regularly (I aimed for 4–5 posts a month) and go deep (explore everything about your life).

My motivation? Grieving the loss of my parents (both died in 2008) and recovering from depression and anxiety. Another motivator was getting boxes upon boxes of photos and memorabilia from my brother. Those really helped in producing the second step listed above, since memory alone is a flimsy thing. Once I got to the early 1970s, a new step was added to the above—one I still employ today: reading over the journals before sitting down to draft a post.

I’ve also kept a legal pad on a clipboard (for the past ten years) with a running list of story ideas. Ideally I’ll review where I am in the chronology (currently we’re in the spring and early summer of 1993), but sometimes I’ll get an idea for something based on a cultural concept (like old TV, radio, or even drive-in movies) or a family ritual (like summer vacations or mealtimes) or a way of behaving that feels worth investigating (like being a young diarist).

The “editorial slate” is the official name for this running list, and it sort of requires at least an hour or two of downtime (phone off, no Internet, surrounded by mementos and photos and aforementioned clipboard) to do a gut check and see what’s kicking around in my head and heart.

For example, this post “Living in the Past” was originally going to be titled “Junk” and work in some stories about the early 1990s when old friend Terry and I hit flea markets to buy and sell our combined junk. That could still be a future entry, but being it is a new year (2020—whoa—who knew we’d make it this far?), I felt a post with a reset button was in order, throwing in a dash of the current narrative of 1993 (post-Kentucky Derby road trip) for good measure.

So let’s drop the needle on Jethro Tull’s “Living in the Past” (released in 1969) and sniff the air of winter 1972–73 (we’d just arrived in Minnesota the previous year). It’s cold and smells slightly moldy, I recall. Bleak, gray, morose. I was probably standing on my bed, looking out the window at our driveway, wondering about the future.

Fast forward. Twenty years later, it’s spring 1993.

Everything feels new since I’m no longer in Minnetonka, or even Hopkins for that matter, but St. Paul, Minnesota. It’s a Tuesday evening, May 11. I’m at the Macalester College library, writing after a long day’s work at a contract gig, “the BSI project for CTS” the journal entry states, and mulling thoughts after returning from Kentucky on a long weekend getaway.

“I’ve made some immediate short-term decisions,” I wrote. “First, I will be moving out of 191 Western on July 31st. Since the weather’s gotten nicer, the neighborhood’s gotten worse.” I was worried about crime and vagrancy and running my new desktop publishing business out of Cathedral Hill. I had my eye on moving further west, over to Merriam Park.

At The Clearing, in Wisconsin, fall 1986.

“It’s really getting me down,” I confessed. “I feel like I don’t want to be there [at my apartment, to work]. So I’ll be looking around and first will make a list of all that I want and need in a St. Paul apartment—then get another 6-month lease—and if I like it, probably stick with the business program through the fall, winter, and next spring. With a list and some steady looking, I’m sure I’ll find a better place.”

That wouldn’t happen until later that summer, but I was already planning my next trip out of state: to cousin Jason’s wedding in Corpus Christi, Texas, on June 18. For that I’d be getting a plane ticket and visiting Texas for the first time. Another adventure! I can still feel the excitement and anticipation, even after all these years.

“So tonight,” I concluded the entry, “I’m going to try to pull myself through doing some more work on the screenplay. In view of leaving Cathedral Hill, I’ve been looking over my Daytimer Journal of the last couple months—Wow, such a lot in a little time. I wonder what more is ahead?”

Yeah, don’t we all?

A Run for the Roses (Part 3)

•December 4, 2019 • Leave a Comment

[Last of a three-part post.]

“Searchin’ through the fragments of my dream-shattered sleep, I wonder if the years have closed her mind…” —Gordon Lightfoot, “Carefree Highway”

Sunday morning, May 2, 1993, I was up around 8. The road was calling, but I didn’t want to listen.

“Let it wait,” I thought. “Let me have breakfast with my friends.”

And what a breakfast it was! I was staying at Bud and Ellen’s apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, so we joined forces to cook up “some buckwheat pancakes, mini biscuits with country ham, and plenty of hot coffee. We had a nice last chat about my writing and about families and that was good.”

I confessed to the journal: “I love them both very much.” Then I packed up my truck, we said goodbye, and I hit the road.

“I drove all day,” the journal reports, stating I went west rather than the way I’d come, from Indianapolis. The weather had improved and “I saw the Hoosier National Forest (and was surprised to know there was one!)” sweating the draining gas gauge and talking to myself “nearly all through Illinois … Then it started to rain and rained most of the way, even when I left Iowa City after 8:30 p.m.”

At this point the journal gets introspective. Case in point, this paragraph:

“You probably would be interested in what I talked to myself about. I was thinking about Louisville and how much I love it down there, but I kept coming back to Lynn and was relieved that I wasn’t at all in love with her and was a little saddened by it—I think it was important for me to have someone who was my focus and when I realized that wasn’t the case, well, I felt a little empty. But, like I said, relieved. There was nothing there, I felt. I had yet to ‘crack’ the person—as well as she to me. That’s the beginning of love, I suspect. You spy an element of a person that is miraculous in its respect—indefinable yet reassuring. She/He’s that way, I see. Oh, but how wonderful! So, I was driving along and really wondering about the future. Where was I going to go? What was I going to do? It was a Real Journey.”

This is where a road trip is so much like life: it’s a real journey.

Because on that journey there’s no avoiding the return trip, even if it seems it may never actually happen. When it does, there you are, on your way to the future and whatever that entails. And there I was, driving and thinking about all the people I knew and would soon come to know—but then it was just me, the rainy lonesome road, and some Zen-like thinking.

“I guess it must be wanderlust or tryin’ to get free, from the good ol’ faithful feelin’ we once knew.”
—Gordon Lightfoot, “Carefree Highway”

“I drove like a weary madman,” the journal says, “until I got to Iowa City” where I stopped for dinner at a Japanese restaurant before getting back out on the road northward to Cedar Rapids, and where “the rain came down so hard I almost thought about pulling over for the night. My windshield wipers were shot as well and I was afraid I’d get in an accident. I was pretty scared until I got around Cedar Rapids and the rain stopped.”

Sometimes the road is terrifying; it demands your attention. You have to gauge whether you should continue on. But at some point you must keep going.

“I listened to the radio and the lights played on my eyes on the highway.” I entered into a sort of dream state, driving through that haunting May night:

“I thought it was strange how cars in the distance all of a sudden were right on your bumper, or how you could see a car going off a side road and it could seem so comforting and busy at the same time. Turning off onto 35W going northbound I latched onto, completely by chance, an AM station out of Louisville. I listened to it nearly to downtown St. Paul. They talked of the incipient rain and the post-Derby letdown. The woman who read the news was chatted to by the announcer who had her tell her Derby story: her boyfriend had proposed marriage to her in a park near downtown Louisville and she had, of course, accepted. I was laughing. Then they played Christopher Cross’ old hit ‘Never Be the Same,’ and Chicago’s ‘Questions 67 and 68.’ Later they played James Brown’s ‘It’s A Man’s, [Man’s, Man’s] World,’ and Mary Hopkin’s cover of the McCartney song ‘Goodbye.’ It made my drive—damn, damn tired as I was—all the more bearable.”

Around 2 a.m. I’d pulled into my parking spot at my Cathedral Hill apartment and passed out on my bed until the alarm rang at 6:30 a.m. “I dragged myself to CTS where I proofread banking Truth in Savings forms until I went home at 3 in the afternoon, still stoned from the road.”

I’d made a run for the roses and truly attained them: it was only the first road trip in a spectacularly eventful year.

New adventures were ahead further down the road.

A Run for the Roses (Part 2)

•November 27, 2019 • Leave a Comment

[Second of a three-part post.]

“Turnin’ back the pages to the times I love best,
I wonder if she’ll ever do the same…”

—Gordon Lightfoot, “Carefree Highway”

The road was miles away.

I couldn’t even hear it from where I was—in a new land with familiar and wonderful people. The road might’ve kicked up a stink—what with me being so idle—but I didn’t care. It would just have to wait.

The sun was rising on Kentucky Derby Day: Saturday, May 1, 1993.

The journal sets it up: “I awoke [on Bud and Ellen’s] couch around 8 AM but fell back asleep with the ceiling fan overhead blowing cool floral-scented air all around me.” It was so peaceful I dozed until the phone rang and the answering machine kicked in. Bud’s brother Chris was calling to get details on the Derby Day party later that afternoon.

We arranged to have lunch first with Bud’s parents, driving to his mother Faye’s antique shop at the Loop off Bardstown Road. “Bud’s dad Charlie was there and we all chatted, and then Chris [showed up] with his little daughter Hilary (nearly all of five now) then followed by his sister Beth and her new son Ian (a baby of a few months) [and] her husband Tom. We all walked across the street in the hazy sunshine to the Loop Deli and ordered sandwiches, salads, iced tea and lemonade.”

It was as far from the road as you could get—surrounded by friends and extended family. I seem to recall a pool nearby, with children laughing and splashing in the water. Chris’ daughter Hilary “played with her hat and everyone [was] admiring the baby Ian and catching up on news and joking at Charlie’s expense.”

To crib from Randy Newman, it was a “real nice way to spend the day in Louisville, Kentucky, on a lazy Saturday afternoon in 1993.”

“Now the thing that I call livin’ is just bein’ satisfied, with knowin’ I got no one left to blame.” —Gordon Lightfoot, “Carefree Highway”

By 3 p.m. everyone had convened at Bud and Ellen’s for the Derby Party and the Run for the Roses on TV. Ellen’s youngest sister Lynn showed up alone, as the journal states, “I saw her come up the lane to the door in the spring light…” and Faye burst through the door uncharacteristically “asking for a beer.” Once the party was in full swing, the Birkett side of the family had arrived and young Hilary “had taken a shine to me. Lynn coddled Beth’s baby boy Ian and I remember thinking how lovely it all looked—though my guess is that Lynn is still frighened by the looming domesticity of the whole scene. I think it’s The Future, inevitable but certainly not hopeless.”

It’s interesting because, from this distance, the lens is less in focus than it appears. It might’ve been me who was “frightened by the looming domesticity” and I wasn’t quite ready to sharpen the lens on myself. Who knows? But my reaction to reading the journal entry feels exactly right.

Ellen played a song by an Iowa City duo that had us all laughing, titled “I’ve Been in a Funk Ever Since My Wife Went Punk,” and Lynn put on some music while we waited for post time: The Jayhawks’ Hollywood Town Hall and some stuff by the Cowboy Junkies, along with Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey.”

I’m sure I had the biggest grin of that spring on my face.

“You can’t stop us on the road to freedom, you can’t stop us ’cause our eyes can see…” —Van Morrison, “Tupelo Honey”

The road might’ve meant freedom, but right there, right then, I couldn’t have wished to be anywhere else.

“We all watched the Run for the Roses around 5:30,” states the journal, “when Race #8 came up … I made a reference to the fact that the whole thing was like life and sex: too much expectation and over way too soon.

As history will affirm, Sea Hero won that race, “the horse I drew at random from a coffee can [into] which Bud had put cuttings from the newspaper listings … and a few of us sat outside as the sprinkles of rain came down on and off, and minded the grill with its hamburgers and hot dogs.”

As the booze flowed, talk veered in every which direction: “…here we were drinking beer and bourbon and smelling the air and perfume—god, and the talk from ’68 Chevys to Dennis Hopper to horses and politics.”

Lynn left the party at 7 p.m., vowing to return. When she didn’t, we all took off for dessert at the Blue Bird Café on Bardstown Road, where “we had coffees, espresso, cheesecake and other dessert. It was nice. The waiter was pleased with us because we were nearly the only sober patrons he’d had all night.”

Then the journal makes an observation right in the midst of that memory: “Jesus, if I think about it, I’m old.” It was an odd remark to make when I was not yet 34.

The following morning, Sunday, before my return trip northward, “Ellen expressed disappointment to Bud in the kitchen (while I was in the dining room) that Lynn couldn’t have joined us at least for dessert…”

“I had to agree.”

A Run for the Roses (Part 1)

•November 15, 2019 • Leave a Comment

[First of a three-part post.]

“Pickin’ up the pieces of my sweet shattered dream, I wonder how the old folks are tonight…” —Gordon Lightfoot, “Carefree Highway”

There’s no telling what you can learn about yourself when you travel.

So travel I did.

Page 74 of my 1993 journal kicks off its seven-page entry with the title: Monday, May 3, 1993: The Big Derby Weekend.

It’s funny because as I reread the entry I thought of much earlier memories—ones nearly 20 years before that road trip to Kentucky. Dad positively lived for our summer family vacations cross-country. But my memories were of course also tied to music, particularly Gordon Lightfoot’s “Carefree Highway,” which hit the AM airwaves in 1974. I still adore that song; it totally evokes wanderlust—a feeling I drank in 100% proof in late April 1993.

And while I didn’t own a fancy convertible back then, I did take my 1986 Mitsubishi Mighty Max pickup south to hang out with University of Iowa roommate Bud Morris and his new wife Ellen and their families. I was going to “Do the Derby,” smell southern flowers in bloom, and recreate for a couple of days.

But the real protagonist of this story, I think, is the road itself.

It asserts itself in a circuitous way, like the winding Highway 61 out of St. Paul I took the morning of April 29, 1993. I wrote about this in a previous post (“Grandpa in His Garage”), where I focused mostly on my family and one of my last visits with my maternal grandfather. I left just after 7:30 a.m., following the Mississippi down to La Crosse, Wisconsin, where I turned east and had lunch at Essen Haus in Madison.

I was in Indiana by 7 p.m. and stayed overnight with my paternal grandfather in East Indianapolis, where I saw my aunt, uncle, and cousins Marcy and Joshua, who was getting ready for his school prom. The following morning, April 30, I awoke at Grandpa Maupin’s. “…We had instant coffee, he had instant oatmeal and he warmed up an apple pie (like a toaster pie) and I gnawed on that and looked forward to breaking out on the road.”

Again, the road asserted itself.

But I jotted down some observations about Grandpa, since it was probably the last time I saw him alive, too: “[He’s] looking bent, and it’s wearing hard on him, doing things on his own. I love the old guy, for all he’s been through—the Maupin thing is: Tough, Skeptical, Humorous, Opinionated, Generous…I’m damn proud, but know there’s better we could work on: Sensitive, Accepting, Logical/Reasoned. Oh well. Help! Anyone!”

After a visit with Grandpa Adams, “I hit the road again (FREE!) around 2 PM. The sun was shining…” so I stopped and bought two 12-ounce Coors and sipped them on the highway south to Louisville. “Life,” I wrote in the journal later, “and Freedom are simple things like cold beer and a bright road and hopes ahead.”

I crossed the Kentucky state line early afternoon and steered into downtown Louisville around 3 p.m. I stopped to call Bud and Ellen but had a confession to make as it was the Friday before the Kentucky Derby: I was going to place a bet at Churchill Downs. They were adamant I shouldn’t do that, but I went ahead with my plan, parking “off Peachtree Street not far from the Downs… It was warm and I had my Cricketeer jacket on and there were street vendors in everything from t-shirts to hot dogs and [Derby] tickets and barbecue and balloons. It was hilarious. I got my pick-tickets and walked all the way round back to the truck and then got stuck in traffic for over an hour before I was able to get back up to Eastern Parkway and over to Bud & Ellen’s off Bardstown Road on Richmond.”

Once I met up with my friends, we were off for supper and drinks “at a place called Kelligan’s Café.” On the way over Ellen played a song by Arrested Development titled “Mr. Wendal,” and we made a plan to catch Steve Ferguson of NRBQ at Uncle Pleasant’s, but not before we’d first grabbed some ice cream at Graeter’s. At the show, everyone was sipping Mint Juleps and beers and boppin’ off the walls to Ferguson’s cover of Huey “Piano” Smith’s (and Johnny Rivers, as I remembered it) “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu.”

“Her name was Ann and I’ll be damned if I recall her face, She left me not knowin’ what to do.” —Gordon Lightfoot, “Carefree Highway”

Ellen’s sister Lynn, who’d I’d met at the wedding, joined the party, and later I confessed to the journal that she “looked as lovely as ever. Ellen told me she’s currently ‘guyless’—but it’s funny…I had Lynn in the back of my mind, but never felt there was likely to be a renewed connection. I have to admit, also, that I was relieved there wasn’t a hint of one.”

Ears still ringing from Ferguson’s “Midwest Creole,” we disappeared again into the soft spring night. The journal paints the picture:

“Driving back, we stopped by the Derby eve parties of the Limo Crowd off Cherokee Park, you know, John Goodman and Tony Curtis, et al., they were having a New York theme this year and a huge head of the Statue of Liberty was on the lawn of one mansion on the hill, with music in the distance and police cars and leafy large trees shading the wealthy from moonlight and high clouds.”

It was a heady evening.

Back at their apartment, Ellen played a scene from an independent film that Lynn helped line produce out of Tennessee titled Borderlines.

I wanted to watch the rest of the movie, “but it was late and we had tomorrow ahead of us, Derby Day.”

Strongest of the Strange

•November 8, 2019 • 2 Comments

I first read it in Eric’s room when I moved into the mansion in November 1992. Every time I stopped by to chat with him, or see if he wanted to grab a beer, I had to read that poem.

Most people put up family portraits, vacation photos, or memories they want to preserve on their wall. Eric Wulfsburg, one of the many renters at the Summit Avenue mansion, hung a poem by Charles Bukowski titled “The Strongest of the Strange” in a simple frame.

I thought it was fantastic.

It had stayed with me so much that I noted it in my calendar/journal for April 3, 1993, a day after appearing in conciliation court with the former landlords Eric and I had suffered under in my first move to St. Paul, buying into the Fitzgeraldian dream of freelance independence and city living.

Or whatever. It all seems so small and stupid now.

By April 1993 the money had come in and working gigs had picked up. It just wasn’t a “hand me a check and let me slum a little longer” new life I was leading. I needed to sustain the dream. And dreams need funding. It was an exciting time, but I was still nervous. Outside of new gigs, I wanted to rewrite my screenplay and travel. That would be the theme of 1993, the Clinton I era: “See the U.S.A. from Coast to Coast.”

Bukowski’s poem ends with the startling question: “Where did I go?”

As the years zip by, it’s become a constant question. I think of the people who have passed out of my life either by dying or just leaving my orbit (or mine from theirs). It’s unsettling—proof that change is the only thing we humans can ever really expect. There was a time—probably before 1993 that’s for sure—when it looked as if nothing would ever change. I could count on calling my parents and they would invariably pick up the phone.

Now they’ve left the planet and it’s an odd realization. “Sometimes,” Bukowski writes, “you will only note their existence suddenly in vivid recall some months some years after they are gone.”

If the “weakest” of the strange are those who succumb to depression, anger, confusion, fear and regret, then perhaps the “strongest” are those who get back up after losses and failures and reinvent themselves, try to be cheerful amid the mundane which, Bukowski also writes, might surprise others as “a lightning quick glance never seen from them before.”

Sitting here in “the future,” I’m thinking about that spring of 1993, how hopeful and new it was, and yet the past was still “available”—just a phone call away. For me it was always a sort of “Christmas morning anticipation,” the happy expectation of people and new places to go to, faces “dreaming against the walls of the world.” It’s basically what got me up and out the door every day in the middle of unsettling change.

Later this month I hit a landmark birthday—60. Fifty-two years ago, my mother snapped this photo of me (at left) scratching my head while my brother Brian (across the table from me in the blue shirt) and neighborhood friend John Gottschalk pretended to smoke my birthday cake candles as if they were cigarettes. It’s a joyful memory; I was just eight years old. John passed out of my life many, many years ago, after we left Maryland and moved to Minnesota.

Every year I feel more distant from my brother, and I’d like to change that. As I’ve written before, we’re fundamentally different people—I’m sure that, either weak or strong, he counts me among “the strange.” I’ve always tried to think creatively, to go wherever the crowd isn’t going, to find my own path—behaviors I’m sure my brother finds distressing. But I’ve tried to stay true to myself. I know I haven’t been the most attentive or thoughtful brother, or uncle to his three boys. Those are my regrets.

Nevertheless, in an April 4, 1993, letter to my friend Thérèse, I wrote about the birth of my oldest nephew, Colin, admitting to her that I found myself weeping at the office on the day he was born:

“It was like the Spirit of God touched everything—to realize the power of love is stunning…the simplicity of it, yet people all over the world try to get this and try to get that, when it’s the GIVING that brings it all about. It’s the trust and the pride, the courage and the faith. It can sometimes be a difficult place to be…I’ve learned so much that I realize I have more to learn. Fear ate me up. Walls went up. My goddamn heart wasn’t for anybody. Now I’m less interested in what I get. It’s all out there in the Wild Wide World, people living and dying by the lack of it every day. Can we introduce a New Morality, Thérèse? You know, one that says, ‘I respect you. I’ll help you. What can I do for you? I’m sorry. I trust you.’ A morality beyond games and politics. I may not know anything about jurisprudence or multilevel marketing or catalytic converters, but goddamn it I know about the human heart.”

Can I get an amen, somebody?

I guess, in the end, if you’re still alive and in a position to improve things, there’s hope.

And while Charles Bukowski’s poem isn’t exactly a paean to aspiration or expectation, it’s oddly inspiring, like a cracked window into people—or maybe even ourselves—that we thought we knew well.


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