Julie’s House

•February 6, 2020 • Leave a 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.”

Ouch.

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.

Retirements, Layoffs, Sabbaticals & Skid Row

•September 25, 2019 • Leave a Comment

“Dad retires from the U today,” a Feb. 26, 1993, journal entry reads, “It’s the End of an Era.”

It’s an interesting entry to find as it’s buried deep in a bottom-page paragraph. If you blinked, you’d miss it.

At that point in my life I was into my latest adventure, my second move (in three months) to Cathedral Hill in St. Paul, and trying to find my way in freelance desktop publishing. As intoxicating as it all was, it felt more like a sabbatical from corporate life than a firm new direction.

And the journal’s next page lobs another bombshell: On March 1, 1993, it reports that the previous Saturday I had a call from my brother Brian: “—his employer at Central Parking gave him the boot—he couldn’t transfer south to Texas as they wanted him to, so they said March 31st would be his last day! When I meant the End of an Era I didn’t mean all my family!”

The journal doesn’t go into any details on Dad’s retirement from the University of Minnesota, but I do recall that my brother and I planned a surprise retirement party for our parents with help from their pastor at the United Methodist church in their Minnesota hometown of Mound. Friends from all over showed up, and the folks were astonished and pleased.

When I think back to this time I must’ve been distracted by my new life in St. Paul, even though I disliked living so close to the “nightmare mansion” on Summit Avenue. I was nervous about the future and whether I’d made the right decision leaving a cushy corporate job and apartment in Hopkins. While waiting for funds to come in, I had to convince myself I’d done the right thing after all.

By March 9th my retirement account distribution arrived along with the year’s tax refund, so I felt like I had some financial breathing room while I looked for gigs and managed my new life. I also volunteered at Cable Access St. Paul, helping out with a children’s show called “Docksides,” and making a new friend in another volunteer tech guy, Ben Simon.

Reading over all this now, from the vantage point of 2019, is refreshing because it reminds me that renewal is possible for anyone at any time. It’s still scary, that’s true, but I’ve always had an oddly chummy relationship with ambiguity—not sure where that comes from, but it’s deep in my psyche, a fundamental part of who I am.

And the events of early 1993 probably tie more closely to 2012, when I left corporate life again—when I was desperately unhappy but older and wiser and probably seeing ambiguity as a one-way ticket to Skid Row: poverty and never-ending want. Dad was a hardcore advocate for financial security, which is why I was surprised to realize he’d retired before the government-sanctioned age of 65. Then again, he and Mom had just come from one of the major shocks of their lives together—the fire at the farmhouse where they’d intended to retire for the rest of their days. They hastily went for Plan B—building a retirement home in Southwest Florida.

Later in March 1993, after the money had come in and before my court date with the previous landlords, I drove north to Duluth for a spring “vacation,” staying mostly in Grand Rapids, Minn., and rewriting my screenplay The Wandering Moon. “Staying another day at Forest Lake Inn,” I wrote on Sunday, March 21, 1993, “It’s so quiet and cozy here. I’m gonna hate being back in the city. Maybe this summer I’ll move out of state. But will I find work if I do?”

I was only 33, but I felt really old. And totally aimless.

By month’s end, Brian had landed a new job with another parking management company, Mom and Dad’s Florida plans went off without a hitch, and I found a long-term contract job with a creative services company in downtown Minneapolis, along with establishing a copywriting partnership with Lakewood Community College buddy Pat Ciernia and his company, Four Eyes Design.

On Sunday, March 28, “I stopped Uptown to see Hollingsworth and we walked down to Dunn Brothers where we chatted and sipped coffee. It was lovely out, people were already breaking out the rollerblades around Lake Calhoun. Cycles repeating.”

It’s so good to read that now.

“Cycles repeating.”

Yes; yes indeed.

 
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