Ladder (Part 2)

[Last of a two-part post.]

LadderPt2“You, Michael,” my late father once said to me, “are a pack rat. It doesn’t take you long to make your nest.”

Whether that quote is verbatim, I don’t know.

But he said something like it more than once, and that’s why I remember it.

Dad admired the idea of someone like Henry David Thoreau going off into the woods, self-sufficient and all, building his cabin on Walden Pond (Dad expected I’d do a similar thing).

But I seriously doubt he knew the social consequences of that behavior in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Or maybe he did.

After all, his den shelves were packed with Sigurd Olson books like “Runes of the North,” or Louise Dickinson Rich’s “We Took to the Woods,” or even “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” by Euell Gibbons. That kinda stuff.


I was waiting for a spaceship from the future to beam me up and just whisk me away.


On Tuesday, April 1, 1986, I wrote out my first rent check for $368.

While at the new apartment, I dragged in three boxes of books and inspected the room. On the way out I picked up a garage door opener for an indoor parking space that came with the rental.

That night, the journal states, “Mom, Dad and I went to a furniture auction in New Hope at a Factory Outlet Mall. I picked up a sleeper sofa (Queen size) for $270. It’s a $1,000 sofa, brand-new condition. The bidding started fast and furious, but Dad held in to the limit I’d set, and no one outbid us in the end.”

Saturday, April 5, was the big moving day. Friends Dan and Theron helped out.

“The weather was awful,” the journal says, “but the rain didn’t really begin until sometime after 4, while we were taking the second and last loads of furniture. I was anxious all day, but was able to calm down after Mom served us a late lunch … I was out like a light that night.”

Because the new crib was only four miles from the office, I didn’t have to rush to work, and noted that fact in the journal: “You know, I really like having this time in the morning to write. I think things are going to work out fine.”

I’d bought a drawing board, sketch pads (in which I drew full-page calendars for each month of the year), and multicolored artist markers, sectioning off a portion of the living room as my “headquarters” and workspace (photo above left).

It was all coming together.


Thirty years later.

I’d moved out of a St. Paul condo of ten years on a dismal, rainy, and bitterly cold Thursday night, for five seemingly endless hours. It was just my brother Brian and I, transporting all my belongings over three miles west.

Was I moving up the ladder … or down a couple rungs?

“Up” would’ve meant a lot of things in 1986 that they just don’t mean anymore: a bigger house, maybe a garden, a studio or den, a well-appointed kitchen, sunroom or patio, two-car garage … and perhaps my own family, wife, and children.

It’s none of those things.

And in a way, I couldn’t be happier.


Thursday night, May 1, 1986: “Well, it’s a month now … Have I ‘settled in?’”

The journal reveals that I hadn’t fully adopted a schedule, and work (at the office) and bills (delivered to the new apartment) were piling up.

“I’ve still got boxes I haven’t delved into yet,” the entry continues. “Every now and then I poke into the old diaries, of down at Iowa, and remember that wonderful melancholy first semester … I’ve been trying not to worry about money, but I’ve still been able to keep my checking account above $200, which is I suppose better than what most people my age can say about their finances. But I want more. I want to save money, not just make it and pass it on to somebody else.”

Thirty years later, little has changed.

Am I surprised by that? No, not really.

But I had my little corner of the world to work in, as I still do and probably always will.

A year later and I was making art: paintings, collages, party flyers, and poster art—and finishing a photo project that I explained to a Feb. 3, 1987, entry:

“…sort of a surrogate for my journal for January—a photo journal. I’ve been taking my picture with the self-timer each day every day for the past weeks. The experiment ends after this weekend and I get to see how the photos turned out. I plan to mount them on illustration board in the order they were taken … every day for a month, in black and white.”

Because the direct mail company where I worked extended its customers a “30-Day Free Trial” on their purchases, I called the project “My 30-Day Free Trial,” and signed it Feb. 16, 1987 (photo below left, all taken in front of the bookshelf Dad and I built).

I had it reframed in 2012, and still hangs on my wall—a strange window into the person I was, and maybe still am.

Perhaps this is why I’m so content with how my life has turned out in my mid-50s: I could’ve had a family, kids, steady career … but I really didn’t want that.

Regrets? Sure, but only when I’m not truly heeding myself. In the end I loved the idea of my own life and the possibilities of casting a wider net within it. Art projects like the one-month photo diary were ways for me to do that.

Each day, from Jan. 13 to Feb. 11, 1987, was another step away from the past; maybe a step up a ladder to where, I didn’t know.

I just had to keep building it.

And never stop building.


I lived at that Hopkins studio apartment until November 1992, when I left corporate life to try freelancing, as a desktop publisher, and moved to St. Paul.

So what became of the bookshelf Dad and I built?

Well, one night before I moved out the entire thing crashed down, yielding to gravity at the south end of the ladder posts. Had it fallen to the east, I would’ve been crushed in my own bed.

In hindsight, we should’ve sunk the top posts into the ceiling, rather than rely on those flimsy metal braces.

But Dad had it all planned out. And I helped him build it.

“It’s sturdy,” Dad probably said. “It’s structurally sound.”

Yeah, it would last.

Until it didn’t.

~ by completelyinthedark on May 20, 2016.

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