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.

The Fear Year (Part 1)

•March 8, 2019 • Leave a Comment

[First of three posts.]

Life is filled with big and small decisions. It gets complicated when the small decisions turn out to be big and the bigger ones were, in the end, just small potatoes. Time works its magic and sometimes you’re able to see it all in perspective.

My first real personal and career challenge—one I set for myself—came in 1992. Since 1985 I’d been bored at my corporate job and taking some university classes (at the behest of the ’rents), and furiously job searching. When I realized I could also try my hand at freelancing, I planned to quit the day job, move out of my Hopkins apartment and over to St. Paul where nearly all my friends lived at the time.

Seemed like a plan, right?

Well, I still needed to run it by my family. Although I’d been on my own as an adult for nearly ten years, I still worried about what they thought. I probably still do, and they’ve been dead for a decade. We’re all just anxious children deep inside, I guess.

This story is timely since I’m again risking another move to a newer (and hopefully better) living situation. Not quitting my job (that, I learned the hard way, is tricky, especially when dealing with landlords, banks, or anyone who depends on your income), so for the foreseeable future I have a reliable income.

Researching this post, I read forward in my 1992­­–93 journal to recall the immediate effects of my decision—and it caused me to shudder. Once I’d left corporate on Dec. 7, 1992, I wouldn’t find solid financial ground for another nine months after that.

It really gave me pause. But then I remembered that things improved. It just didn’t happen right away.

On June 20, 1992, I wrote in the journal: “My decision day, Stage One of Three for the next two months … I got to thinking that maybe I can make these changes by Sept. 1, but they needn’t be so dramatic yet, that is, I could make sure I pay up all my debts by the end of August, then find a cheaper place to live, Uptown maybe and then, after a few more months wading into freelance work, downshift part-time [at the corporation], then quit. It’s certainly another option. But I do know that change is in order.”

So, “wading into change” was in the mix—surely wise, so that I wasn’t making a hasty decision. (I had some debts, but not a lot.)

But nearly four months later, at the beginning of October, I’d “determined that if I don’t get the job [at a local ad agency] I will move to St. Paul and start up the freelance business by December 1st. I’ll have to by then because that’s when I have to be moved out of my apartment. I put my 60-day notice into the office yesterday.”

Again, a shudder when I look over this old yellowed journal. I peer into it like it’s a crystal ball, when it’s as opaque as ever. The words on the page were written in ignorance of the future. There I still see my younger self’s crackling sense of will power leaping off the ruled lines.

Between Halloween 1992 and Thursday, Nov. 19th, with its handwritten “I’m all moved…” I’d neglected to write about an incident I remember well and only wish the journal would have recorded it. There’s a hint of it in an Oct. 11th entry: “Saturday I helped Dad out at the house.” It would’ve been at their Minnetrista farm, where later we had supper with Colin, my infant nephew, while his parents were on an anniversary date in Stillwater.

Sometime before Nov. 6, 1992, I had dinner with my late parents at a supper club in Spring Park, Minn., called The Mist. I’m fairly certain my brother wasn’t there as he was already married and living with his wife and child. We sat in a corner booth overlooking Lake Minnetonka. I can’t remember if I sat next to Mom or Dad, but there are only three possible configurations: me all alone one side, the folks on the other (not likely); Mom and me on one side, Dad on the other; or me and Dad together and Mom on the other side of the booth. I’m going with me and Mom opposite Dad. At that meal I told them my plan to leave the sleepy corporate job, move to St. Paul, and do freelance desktop publishing. It was the first they’d heard of it.

Dad hit the roof. Voices were raised. Restaurant patrons eyed us. It was very uncomfortable.

My father’s objection was I wouldn’t make enough money to pay for insurance, health care, rent, you name it. I was disheartened he had so little faith in me, and it made me angry. Looking back on it now, he was probably right to be concerned.

In the end, I wanted a change. They ended up helping with the move, Dad loading what little furniture I had in the back of his Dodge Ram pickup.

Leaving the day job was a blur: signing some paperwork, transferring out a retirement account, throwing a send-off party in downtown Minneapolis. But moving into the new place—a bedroom in a St. Paul Summit Avenue mansion just blocks from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birthplace—was another thing altogether.

In the above photo, winter light from December 1992 (or heck, it could’ve been January 1993) shines through my new St. Paul bedroom window, along with a description of the property and a postcard sent by housemate Eric Wulfsberg three months into the new year, when we’d both moved out … to escape what had become the first nightmare of the Fear Year of 1993.

My Father’s Bathrobe

•December 14, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Its thin, navy blue plaid 100% cotton wasn’t very warm. “One size” (fits all), the label read. Rolled cuffs, tattered sash. Brand name: Van Heusen. Made in China, of course.

It was Dad’s bathrobe, probably the last one he owned. I had it hanging on my bathroom door since he died, first at my condo, then at the apartment. It was the only bathrobe I owned. Then I realized it wasn’t really my bathrobe.

And I didn’t want it anymore.

2018 has been the 10th anniversary of losing Dad, in September 2008. Mom died in May of that year. For the longest time I kept thinking: Why do I still have this? It’s not particularly warm or comfortable, and it’s not the kind of thing I would wear now. It had become a psychological drain I no longer wanted around.

So a couple weeks ago, along with some old clothes I didn’t want or that no longer fit me, I brought it to Goodwill and gave it back to the universe.

I admit this not to reject my dad, who was a big bathroom guy. I’ve written about it before, but that’s not the point. Every bathroom with that robe hanging on the hasp above the door was like his bathroom all over again. And I needed that to end so I can move forward with my own life and whatever that may include.

Morning time was Dad’s “golden hour,” no doubt.

He awoke early, turned on WCCO-AM radio for the jokes, the Boone and Erickson banter, the weather and “hog reports,” and once out of his bathrobe, he sang in the shower, “Rise and shine, and give God the glory, glory…” or, most of the time, “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” from Disney’s Song of the South. “…My oh my what a wonderful day/Plenty of sunshine headin’ my way/Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay!

I can still hear his voice now, ten years later.

Dad was happiest when he was in control of a situation—and morning, I think, availed itself to that more than any other time of day, except when he came home after work to go fishing before dinner. At the time I felt buried under the shadow of all that “controlling energy.” I had my own ideas of how I wanted the world to work, and I could get pretty dreamy and obscure about that. For example, I felt happiest late at night, with moody rock music and DJs who spoke directly to me. Dad’s world seemed too proper, too normal, too early. But I think he was satisfied with it because he knew he was providing for his family. It was important to him.

I didn’t see that at the time. I see it now.

When I think of Dad’s bathrobe, it’s like a second skin, like a coat you wore in the wintertime to protect you from the cold, to warm your shoulders before you got in a hot shower. It reminds me of that saying, “You gotta be comfortable in your skin.” You can instantly tell people who are not that way.

Sometimes Dad seemed comfortable, sometimes not. If he wasn’t getting his way, he’d get angry. He had expectations, and those expectations had to be met. For my part, I still struggle to feel comfortable in my skin. I’m not a kinetic person―I’m incurably cerebral. In many ways, as contrary to Dad as I believe I am, I am still my father’s son.

You see, years later while living in Hopkins, I was able—for the first time in my life—to create a workspace in my apartment I had absolute control over. The studio unit had wall-to-wall carpeting, so I put down a plastic floor mat below the drawing board so my desk chair easily shuttled between sketch pad and electric typewriter. I’d rigged up an architect’s lamp and T-square, where I could write and draw and do the oddball party announcements I made for friends at the time. My Olivetti typewriter was ready at the flip of a switch for those screenplays and stories I desperately needed to write.

Well, I wish I had a better connection between me and my father’s old bathrobe, but that is probably it—the Hopkins apartment creative space.

It was like Dad’s den on Casco Point, where we lived for nearly ten years.

He awoke with Mom in the master bedroom, crossed the living room with its stone fireplace and low-pile carpet, trudged past the Zenith color TV and down the hallway to turn left into the den. Once there he switched on the radio, entered the adjoining bathroom, slipped out of his bathrobe, took that shit, shaved and showered, then slapped on some Aqua-Velva and got dressed for work.

He sang, he laughed, he got ready to meet the day.

I must adopt a cheerfully hopeful attitude like Dad’s, if I can.

Jackie’s Boys

•October 19, 2018 • Leave a Comment

[Dear reader-friends: I’m back from a too-long hiatus over the summer of 2018, where I changed jobs and took a break from my planned 1990s posts here. It being the tenth anniversary of my parents’ deaths, I’d been working on posts about each of them. This is the first.]

My late mother, Jacqueline Adams, was an only child.

She was born on Sunday, Feb. 10, 1935, to Mamie Magee, her slightly neurotic third-generation Irish mother, and a well-to-do northern Indiana farm boy named David Raymond Adams. Her backstory: when Jackie was born, Daddy Ray had an affair with another woman (who remains unknown to Jackie’s first-born son—that is, me), and Mamie vowed to never have sex with her husband ever again (again, can’t verify the validity of that rumor).

I bring all this up now because 2018 is the tenth anniversary of my mother’s death.

September was also the tenth anniversary of my father’s death, so both anniversaries have been at the forefront of my mind since the year began. I published a memorial for Mom in the Minneapolis paper back in May, on the exact day she died. In the memorial I used the third photo in this post, which occurred on a momentous day in my life: when my only brother Brian was released from the hospital (he’d been born a premie), in February 1962.

It’s an odd sensation to see these photos over 50 years later, after all the experiences that have passed through my life, realizing there was a moment when this actually happened—when I got to meet my new brother for the first time (below right of me on the sofa taking in the sobering fact I was no longer star of the family). Dad likely took the photos, but it could’ve easily been Grandpa Ray, who was every bit the shutterbug throughout his long life.

The thought that’s been running through my mind is something that probably didn’t occur to me much while my mother was still alive: how isolated she must’ve felt living in a household of two boys and a husband, as well as a still-present conniving and charismatic father. The only other woman was her mother, who as mentioned had her own issues with men. Mom’s “sister” was her first cousin Lois, as they were only a year or two apart and were raised somewhat together.

I witnessed Mom’s isolation growing as the years passed, and I’m certain she didn’t get much sympathy from either my father or brother—both of whom failed to understand her clinical depression. I became more sympathetic when I was diagnosed with dysthymia in 1987, but even that revelation didn’t bring us much closer. I may have resented it—I know I was in denial about my mood disorder for the longest time. Things came to a head in 1995 when I nearly took my own life. I’ll be digging into that awful event in the weeks to come, but for now let me just say my affinity toward Mom solidified after the mid-1990s.

My brother harshly criticized Mom and her depression, especially in the 1980s after he graduated high school. I hated him for it and tried to defend Mom whenever possible. But I know I failed in that and, toward the end of her life, it was largely because I was afraid of how her illness had consumed her—leaving just a shell of her former self.

My brother and I weren’t always so distant.

As toddlers, we scrambled underneath clothing racks in downtown Indianapolis department stores, hiding there while Mom shopped and we were eventually discovered by ladies sorting through the racks for deals. We were schooled by our parents to be respectful of our elders, so when we were showcased in front of our parents’ friends we were always quiet, attentive, and dutiful. You know, like “good boys.”

The thing is, I don’t really recall any solid bonding with my brother from an early age. We had (and still have) different temperaments. We gravitated toward different interests and friends. Brian was always more tactile and drawn toward objects and material things; I preferred music and reading and being in nature.

Since 2008, and losing both our parents, we haven’t grown much closer. Brian went through a divorce a couple years ago, and I suffered job setbacks and a disruptive household move. It’s been a very confusing decade. I’m certain our parents would be heartbroken by the state of things, both in the world and within our family. And I’m not sure what to do about it. How my mother (and, for that matter, my grandmother) would’ve regarded the “Me Too” movement is hard to say, but I know in middle age Mom read feminist literature and was plain-speaking about all forms of intolerance. I like to think I learned more about how to treat women from my father, who never disparaged anyone as far as I could tell.

I’m hoping life settles down and things change for the better. There’s some reason to believe that is happening. After all, my brother and I are still alive, still healthy, still exploring how we will lead the rest of our lives.

I hope he’s feeling as hopeful as I am.


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