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 • 3 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.

Moving Mountains

•August 30, 2019 • 2 Comments

It feels good to be here again.

So, where—exactly—is “here”?

It’s an open question the past three weeks finally answered as I moved into a new apartment for the first time in three years. That might seem long to you, but it’s short for someone who’s only moved nearly every decade of his life.

And “here”—that’s always been with paper, pen in hand, or at a typewriter or word processor, with time devoted to writing and thinking real thoughty-thoughts. It’s a glorious mental space I haven’t enjoyed in a while.

Even the story of this year’s move, on July 27, 2019 (actually ending with turning in the old keys on July 30), circles back around to where I last left off in this blog’s ongoing story: early in 1993, just after my late fall 1992 move to St. Paul, to a mansion on Summit Avenue.

My original 1993 journal was buried in a box with other memorabilia, making it the prospect of an unpleasant archaeological dig. And finding photos from the time to accompany the post added another layer of complexity. It was too much. Just moving one mountain—the housing stuff—was enough.

I recently took photos of the old apartment from February 1993 (pictured above right), after I’d bailed out of the mansion and piled everything into my Mitsubishi pickup to drive a mere half dozen blocks away—holing up until I saw my life’s new direction. My friends were exasperated, no doubt my family was, but my brother Brian came through and helped take photos of the old mansion bedroom so I could make the claim I’d left it as I’d found it. I recall he, along with my friend Theron Hollingsworth, joined us for a late breakfast in St. Paul’s Merriam Park on the big move day.

Still, transitions are difficult. I always forget that.

There are two kinds: survival transitions and aspirational ones. The original move to St. Paul, in November 1992, was definitely aspirational. I’d planned it for months and quit my job so that I could focus on the freelance business I’d hoped to grow there. When the mansion plan failed, up popped Plan B—pure survival mode. The one-bedroom apartment I found was on the second floor (my unit was toward the back, near the fire escape, which at the time kind of freaked me out).

“I paid some bills today,” the journal reports on Monday, Feb. 1, 1993, “and nearly broke down on the phone to [best buddy Terry] Hollingsworth. I’ve felt absolutely aimless the past 3 mos. It’s been more unsettling than I would’ve liked—or imagined. All today I felt trapped in my new place—like I had to wall myself in. I’m dreaming of a new place to move to after June 30—when I have to give notice of leaving here. I realize things could change, but I don’t feel rooted here on Cathedral Hill, especially with all that happened with the [mansion landlords].”

Even back then I knew physical movement was a remedy for uncertainty. “I got out today,” the journal states, “…but I was sort of in a fog.” For early February, temperatures were nearly 40 above zero, “beautiful…but I couldn’t see what I was doing in the world—I was wandering, dozing, observing and FEARING. I’m going to have to PICK MYSELF UP—but I felt so abandoned this morning.” Even T.H. tried to cheer me up “but I was on that Track.”

I’ve had positive transitions (St. Paul took a lot of re-adjustment along the way, but I’ll probably have more thoughts about that in the days ahead here in Minneapolis) and negative ones (where you have to move hastily and you realize your entire well-being relies on improved conditions). That January-February 1993 move from the Summit mansion to apartment #2 on Western Avenue at the intersection of Selby Avenue in St. Paul was a negative one: pure survival. I had to negotiate with the landlord on a short-term lease (he wanted one year; I wanted the flexibility of six months because I’d just come off a bad situation).

That bad situation got worse through the spring when I was sued for breaking the lease by the mansion landlords. My fellow roommates banded together in a determination to fight the fuckers so we could get on with our lives—the kind of bold things 20- or 30-year-olds do, but it’s seriously exhausting at 59.

Which is to say this is where 1993 collides with 2019 in a big way.

This summer’s move was entirely aspirational. I’d been thinking about it over the past three years, like Andy Dufresne secretly chipping away at his wall in Shawshank Penitentiary. My previous home, a cooperative condo on Summit Hill and mortgaged in 2006 (pictured at left during the 2016 move out), was the last aspirational dream that faded quickly when my parents died in 2008. The subsequent decade brought me to where I am now. But that’s a story for later.

So, I’ll just return to where we began.

It feels soooooooo good to be here again: Wrestling with words on a page, wondering about what it all means, sensing connections to the past, present, and future—as well as all the old hopes, fears, aspirations and transitions. It’s a place I definitely recognize.

Thanks for hanging in there with me.

Living in Transition

•July 18, 2019 • 2 Comments

Dear readers and friends:

I’m about to move out of my apartment of three years into a totally new environment, finally leaving St. Paul and moving across the river to Minneapolis. Over 20 years in one town! Amazing.

A new post on the transition of spring 1993 is in the works and I hope to publish it here in the next two weeks. Meanwhile, I need to get back to packing!

All the best, Mike

Cooking for One

•May 31, 2019 • Leave a Comment

From a young age I quickly realized that most things in life are rarely about “the one thing.” When compiling a list of things to write about, I try to focus on one concept. The longer I sit with that concept the more it begins to fracture, and I’m left wondering why I’d attached myself to the original idea in the first place.

Take for example this post.

It came out of a conversation with Sean Cooke, a St. Paul restaurateur, about families who cook at home and how my mother was so bad at it that my father despaired of ever having a decent home-cooked meal again. Sean laughed at this; I felt a twinge of guilt besmirching my dearly departed mother’s memory.

Mom never upped her culinary skills, probably because she basically wasn’t curious to see what she could do with it. Dad, on the other hand, being ravenous, negotiated his way past the Army-issue “shit on a shingle” to learning mise en place and homemade Asian stir fry. My brother Brian and I had our chance to fill in for Mom, too, especially once we were college-age young adults. Brian managed a Pizza Hut for a while, which I think commenced his fascination with all things culinary. For my part, I moved past Mom’s Hamburger Helper and Rice-a-Roni (photo at top right of Mom on a late 1960s apple-picking family outing in Maryland) and my own demands for butterscotch pudding or Jello 1-2-3, to the kind of fare I could serve my friends that said, “Hey! This guy knows his way around a kitchen!”

To be honest, the more I thought about this topic, the less interesting it became to me, at least in becoming a complete rundown of my every failed cooking experiment (and I had my share of those). What did become interesting is something I recalled from the mid-1990s, when I was dating M. I’d nearly forgotten about it until I started drafting this post. To the best of my memory, it went something like this: M. said something to me after I announced what I was planning to do—by which I mean it wasn’t something I proposed we do as a couple. Instead of saying, “I’ll probably get the car’s oil change this weekend,” I said, “We’ll probably…” and she interjected, “Who’s this we?” At the time I was taken aback—at least that’s how I remember it—probably a little confused about what she’d meant.

It stuck with me for years—why indeed did I use “we” instead of “me”?

I now have an answer, one that has become more sharply defined as the people I’d grown up with have died or left my life entirely: It was the conversational equivalent of “creating my own family.” It also originated with how my late father administrated our family. He used “we” all the time. As I’ve written since this blog’s start, Pop was the lead project manager of the experiment I call “The Family Project,” which meant he used every opportunity to seal the deal forever. I was doing that with myself, since I struggled with relationships and had to best learn how to “parent myself”—especially after 2008, when both Mom and Dad died.

But back to the food concept. Rather than wield food as an emotional weapon, or use it as a centerpiece for egotism and excess, how do you create a family for yourself through meal preparation? Well, here’s what I’ve learned.

Know thy taste buds. Eating is memory and memory is happiness. My early food memories revolve around apples (baked by Mom with cinnamon and spices), blueberries, bacon and eggs, chicken, sage, garlic bread, tomato sauce, French toast, cheese, and, sure … butterscotch pudding. After our family moved to the East Coast, seafood became a favorite: crab, lobster, shrimp, fish of all kinds, oysters. Family meals at holidays were predictable: Easter ham, Thanksgiving turkey, midweek meatloaf dinners, spaghetti with Parmesan cheese (yeah the Kraft stuff in a can), lasagna, chili, and chicken noodle soup. Once on my own, in the 1980s, I imagined “Linguine and clam sauce” was sufficiently elegant enough to prepare and serve on a date night. Of course the clams came out of a can and the pasta was store-bought and the cheapest I could find. I made it the other day the way I thought I remembered cooking it and, well, it was disgusting. I guess my taste buds have evolved.

Be curious about other cuisines. This is something I still do by visiting restaurants first and asking about the dishes and ingredients. In recent years I’ve made more chef friends than in all my life previously, and I love these people no end and never stop learning from them or their guests. I always check out food blogs, magazines, and newspaper articles on dishes that strike me as worth experimenting in my own kitchen.

Lastly, share meals with other people. I hope to do more of this in the months ahead as I move to a new apartment and kitchen (I’ve already bought a new chef’s knife). I’ll have the space to entertain once again (photo at left from a mid-1980s luau party I hosted at my first apartment—there are probably sweet and sour meatballs in that crock pot). In the past I’ve cooked for girlfriends, usually finding out what they like and tracking down a recipe to match. My last success was a Middle Eastern lamb pilaf that thrilled my girlfriend at the time. I recall I prepared it without being distracted, tasting along the way, and letting it come together gradually, without worrying and being in the moment as I was cooking. Once you’ve finished the cooking and set the dish before your friend? Give your attention to them. That’s the added gift you bring to the experience.

In the end, I guess we are all families of one. We carry the history of those who came before us and those who will follow after we’ve gone.

And who is this “we”? Me and you, my friends.

You and me.

Spring Breakin’!

•April 19, 2019 • Leave a Comment

Chillin’ this Easter weekend. Back again with new post Friday, May 31, 2019. Enjoy! MM

Completely in the Dark

My beautiful pictureSometimes, You. Must. Chill.

And that’s just what Completely in the Dark (CITD) will be doing for a couple weeks.

But no worries. CITD will return on Friday, April 25, 2014, with a slew of new stories.

Meanwhile, feel free to check out some previous posts: CITD began in Oct. 2010 with this. Then in May 2013 had some success at WordPress’ Freshly Pressed with this piece.

But I’m especially proud of stories like this and this one.

Enjoy your Easter holidays with family and friends!

Peace, love … and Happy Spring!

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The Fear Year (Part 3)

•March 29, 2019 • 2 Comments

[Last of three posts.]

“This is still the greatest country in the world, if we just will steel our wills and lose our minds.”
Bill Clinton, on the campaign trail, 1992

On Sunday, Nov. 15, 1992, I steeled my will to the sticking place (and maybe lost my mind)—and moved to St. Paul.

With the help of my parents, a couple friends, and a Ryder rental van, we had my apartment in Hopkins cleaned out by early afternoon. I drove the van alone to St. Paul. Everyone was to meet up with me at the Summit Avenue mansion where I was renting a room.

When I arrived, the street was lined with cars—the German Kulturhaus next door was having an open house—and there was no place to park. I tried to pull into the mansion driveway and, while attempting a wide turn, I hit a car parked near the drive. Because my father urged taking out insurance on the van, I was covered. But the woman whose car I’d hit was really upset. We couldn’t move the cars until she showed up. And I was getting depressed having to deal with it all on my own.

My new landlord, T., was there but wasn’t much help to the distraught woman because he kept telling her in his frantic New Jerseyish way: “I don’t understand what you’re so upset about … the insurance will handle it.” Later, when the police came and the car’s owner and I were filling out our accident reports, she told me: “Your landlord is an asshole.”

She was right. It was an evil omen.


Ahmed didn’t bother me at first.

A Moroccan guy with a room down the hall from mine, Ahmed was a production chef at the Town & Country Club in St. Paul. He took a bus to work in the morning and hung around the mansion at night. He liked to knock on the other tenants’ doors to see if they were home. Then he’d ramble on about this or that, seemingly uninterested in anything but his own opinion. He smoked cigarettes in his room, drank beer alone, and watched TV. He didn’t seem to have any friends.

He did seem to have money. One night we went out to the Cathedral Hill bar Cognac McCarthy’s and he pulled out a wad of cash—some looked like hundred-dollar bills. I had driven that night and we went out because we were bored. We first went to Sweeney’s on Dale, then walked down to McCarthy’s where he got to talking with a doctor, his wife, and a friend of theirs sitting at the table next to ours. I remember feeling out of touch with everything and mindlessly ate my shrimp cocktail and sipped red wine. Later I wrote in my journal:

“…the old Depressive Mind has a tendency to kick in…That happened briefly Friday night when Ahmed and I were at Cognac McCarthy’s…He left the table for a moment and I sat there glaring down over the sudden precipice of my old horror: self-doubt and despair so palpable it nailed me right to the spot and I was torn between the social and internal worlds…when he came back he snapped his fingers in front of me and I could tear myself away. But for a minute I was ‘in there.’ I felt fearful and small; I felt if I were to die, I knew it would be soon.”

Afterwards we stopped at the Lexington on Grand, where some woman bought us drinks. Then we went to Mancini’s on Seventh, where Ahmed got so drunk he threw up at the bar. I had been sitting alone in a booth drinking tepid coffee and had to pick him up off the floor and haul him back to the mansion. He’d been trying to pick up women twice his age.


My 33rd birthday was over and I had quit my job. And my new living situation was becoming shadier by the day. I tried to keep myself entertained by attending friends’ holiday parties and not thinking too deeply about the future (I threw my own at the mansion, Front Burner image at right). It was cold during those days in December, through year’s end.

Then, on December 15, after coming back to the mansion at 8 p.m., from my room upstairs I heard shouting and fighting downstairs. At first I thought the landlords were having a domestic outside their office. But as I ventured out to the top of the stairs, I heard T. shouting at “Shad,” a 20-year old kid they had moved into the penthouse apartment just two weeks earlier.

Shad didn’t have the money to pay January rent and the landlords were evicting him. He’d come back with a friend and started a fight. From what I was hearing, it sounded serious; I heard scuffling and didn’t know if weapons were involved, so I went back to my room and called 911. When the police showed up, I went downstairs. According to T., Shad had T.’s wife G. in a headlock and was punching her, saying “Let’s get ’em!” while his friend looked on and T. tried to pry them apart. Then G. picked up a trimline phone and beaned Shad on the forehead with it. Shad and his friend ran out of the mansion. Later he and his buddies sat in their car out on the street, watching the house.

Later I talked to T. about how upsetting it was to be in that sort of dangerous situation, in a place I thought was safe. He tried to assure me it wouldn’t happen again.


The holidays were hard.

Most people have family and friends to fall back on. My folks went to Florida to recreate and settle things for their move there later in 1993. Friends went on vacations with their families, and my brother entertained his old college friends. I was on my own, so I condo-sat for my parents most of the time.

I used the time to strip paint from the closet door of my mansion room, hauling it in my truck to the folks’ abandoned farmhouse in Minnetrista. I worked in the well-lit dining room, listening to the radio, and thinking about the past, present, and future. One Sunday it was so warm and sunny that I took a walk down to the frozen lake.

While stopping off at the mansion before New Year’s Day, Ahmed informed me the night before New Year’s Eve he’d caught a former tenant in the foyer. Apparently the tenant had made a copy of the house key and let himself in to rifle through the mailboxes. Ahmed surprised him and called the police. The former tenant was charged with burglary. That night I wrote in the journal:

“I’ve been fighting a melancholy lately—but it’s different than depression—which is like a raging blackness that freezes you in your tracks. This is wistful. Leaning backwards—lingering backwards, perhaps, but I’m sure a lot of it has to do with the place I’m at. I need to really move on, be around positive people who I can really help and who can really instruct me that there is a way an honest, positive & vital human being can ‘make it’ in this—quite—twisted world.”


“It’s time to make people just as important as owls.”
George H.W. Bush, on the campaign trail, 1992

Things changed quickly after the year began.

I dawdled out in the country and spent more time at the folks’ condo than at the mansion in St. Paul. There was too much instability there—as if stability were the first thing I’d expect after uprooting my life for the first time in nearly eight years.

When I returned to St. Paul Saturday night, Jan. 9, I was surprised by how quiet it was. The answer came Sunday morning when Jenny called me from her parents’ place. Ahmed had committed forcible rape early Jan. 8 and was hauled away by the Ramsey County Sheriff. She also told me Eric had served the landlords notice and was leaving at month’s end. It was odd because the last time I saw Ahmed was the previous Thursday afternoon. He thought I would drive him to the grocery store and he’d cook dinner that night. I was on my way to the condo. He looked disappointed.

After that, everything was on automatic. Monday afternoon I personally handed the landlords my letter to vacate upon finding a new place. It was war. They convened a meeting, during which there was much shouting. We tenants just stared at each other in disbelief.

I found a new apartment days after giving notice, moving all my possessions over three hard days at the end of January. On Thursday, Feb. 11, 1993, I was served summons to conciliation court by the landlords seeking damages of $10,800 in future rents, plus late fees and $100 cleaning costs. But in order to afford conciliation court, they had to lower the damages to $5,000, plus filing fee.

“Welcome to St. Paul. Enjoy the ride,” I probably thought.

I wasn’t alone. Fellow housemate Eric was summoned to court in mid-March of ’93. In the end, I lost … and I won. The landlords didn’t get the damages they sought, and I got the majority of my damage deposit back.

What did I learn from the start of my Fear Year?

That change is always hard.

But things did get better by autumn of 1993—way better.

The Fear Year (Part 2)

•March 15, 2019 • Leave a Comment

[Second of three posts.]

“I’m all for Lawrence Welk. Lawrence Welk is a wonderful man. He used to be, or was, or—wherever he is now, bless him.”
George H.W. Bush, on the campaign trail

For those who remember it, 1992 was a political year. Bush I was up for reelection. Of course, the Democratic contender was Bill Clinton.

On Nov. 6, 1992, I wrote in the journal: “It’s now the Clinton era. A new beginning, but I don’t feel it gets going until I get into it. Until I’ve thrown myself into The New Life. I’ve made numerous steps today…”

That was the day I’d gone to see the place I eventually moved into at month’s end on St. Paul’s Summit Hill. Rent was $300/month, but included a “work program” whereby renters contributed to restoring the 1885 mansion for reduced rent. I was probably overestimating I could do that and run a new freelance business in desktop publishing that I’d dubbed “Available Light Creative.”

The rest of the story of how the Fear Year of 1993 began leans on the debut newsletter Available Light created that winter, Front Burner, including how the “Goofy Year of MegaMorphic Change” morphed into “How Can I Best Avoid the Pitfalls of a Start-Up Process? or, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Future.”

In the above image (from Front Burner, click to enlarge), we’ve met “The Scumlords,” so now let’s meet the rest of the cast:

The Unsuspecting Tenants…

In the mansion…

First, Andrea U.,
Ahmed D.
Then, Mike M.
Jenny B.
Eric W.

In the basement…

Then, Dennis D.
Previously, John D.

In the penthouse…

First, Yvonne
Paul S.
Then, “Shad”
Later, Bill M.

In the carriage house…

Two doctors, nearly always unseen

Before I left my job for good on Dec. 7, 1992, I spent a couple weeks looking at apartments in St. Paul, where I had decided to live. I looked in the Highland area, Merriam Park, Mac-Groveland, along Grand Avenue, even Frogtown. I thought about Ramsey Hill, and I was knocked out by Summit Avenue. On November 5, I called this ad: “SUMMIT, help renovate mansion. Immed. Discount rent. Must qualify.” The woman I talked to, G.S., had told me to stop by 295 Summit Avenue, just around the corner from the University Club and up the road from the Cathedral and James J. Hill house.

When I saw the place the late afternoon of the 5th, I was amazed. It was impressive. A brick mansion built in 1885 by Albert H. Lindeke. …I had knocked on the front door to no answer, then waited about an hour in my truck for someone to show up. They never did. The next day I set up a time with G. and showed up on the morning of November 6th.

I thought G. was more than a little fawning, now that I look back on that day, but at the time I thought she was being nice. She was an overly made-up paunchy woman in her mid-to-late 40s, nasally voice, and coarse, forced conversational style. Not what you’d consider a “people person.” Her husband T. presented himself like a CEO of some large company. He wore a suit and tie, had thin longish hair, glasses, and the distracted look of someone who wants to “get on to the next thing.”

The mansion had huge oak doors and a front foyer that opened into a living room with fireplace on the right or left into a locked front office where [the landlords] conducted business. That office was cluttered with boxes, papers, furniture, lamps, posters, so much so that walking around in it was difficult. Through the foyer was a sweeping staircase that led up to the second-floor rooms, past a brass chandelier and gigantic window facing the German Kulturhaus to the southwest. At the top of the stairs on the right was the first room, Andrea’s, follow by Jenny’s room, both of which shared a bathroom with jacuzzi and shower, then the middle bedroom, which became mine; down the hall to the right, Ahmed’s room and across from that, Eric’s room. At the end of the hall was the bathroom shared by us three. They showed me the rooms and mentioned that the room I liked, the large middle bedroom, would be $300 a month, plus a flat utilities charge of $75 a month. All this on a 50-hour-a-month work program.

What was this “work program”? They weren’t terribly specific, nor did they seem concerned about who could do what for them. They said I could start by stripping paint off the two doors of my room, the bathroom and the closet doors. Then in the spring they had planned to start on renovating the kitchen, to the back of the house. The kitchen was nearly up-to-speed, paint needed to be stripped, drawers replaced, a wall knocked out, and linoleum pulled up. Yet there was a dishwasher, a washer and dryer, a stove that worked well enough, and two refrigerators for the tenants of the 2nd floor mansion to use. Adjacent to the kitchen was the pantry, stuffed with plaster bags and paint cans, discarded woodwork, jars, tubing, wires, shelving; leading into the dining room into which was packed floor-to-ceiling with mattresses and box springs, bedposts, furniture, mirrors, chest-of-drawers, banquet tables, clothing, tools, equipment, boxes, folding chairs and other junk. Eventually they said they wanted to clean out this room.

“A horror of cardboard, plastic and appalling colors, a construction of solidified chewing gum and idiotic fairy tales lifted straight from comic strips drawn for obese Americans.” —Jean Cau, novelist, describing the new Euro Disney theme park

So, in keeping with that plan for The New Life, I was honest with them about what I wanted. I thought I saw an opportunity to help them put their place in order in exchange for a nice address out of which to run my new business.

It felt as far away from the corporate life I knew as I could imagine. It was intoxicating and confusing. I signed the lease for 18 months, thinking it would take at least a year to set up my business and establish clients, and that would also lock-in the reasonable rent.

I was set to move November 15.


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