Family Baggage — Saga of the Suitcase


I keep myself from meddling in my children’s lives.  They see a lot of me as it is without me exerting extra effort to influence their fates or poking my nose into their business.  This time I couldn’t refrain, although I asked permission first.

The Kysylyczyns, the family of my daughter Michel and her husband Sid with my grand daughters Clara and Tess, took advantage of a great air fare deal booked several months in advance on Icelandair to take an August vacation to Switzerland.  They lived in Swiss Canton Zug almost four years.  This was their first visit back to Switzerland since repatriating to Minneapolis two years ago.

Of course I was jealous.  I love Europe and past touring with the Kysylyczyns making family memories is among my fondest highlights of my life.  I would have been machtig cool to hike Rigi Kulm, swim at the Bade of Zugersee at Oberwil or gaze at the Matterhorn from Zermatt with the kids, but alas, it was not to be.  Primarily I was not invited, though nobody said I couldn’t go.  Rox and I essentially spent this year’s european budget remodeling our kitchen.  The Kysylyczyns had friends to see and to stay with.  Besides, we had all, just the month before, taken a brilliant family vacation to the American Southwest, so I had no reason to feel estranged.  This was not where I butted my nose.

They did invite me to drive them to and from the airport, MSP.  One the way they anticipated a good flight on Icelandair.  By all accounts they heard the airline offered splendid hospitality and a little more legroom and coach comfort as you can find on a transcontinental flight.  They would have to pay for food but that wasn’t different from Delta.  There would be a stop at Reykjavik, where they would disembark, go through Customs (get their passports stamped Iceland) and re-board to fly to Zurich, but this was as much as flying into Amsterdam, going through Customs and boarding a regional jet on to Zurich, only the stop in Iceland was like a halftime break almost midway to each destination.  For Michel, whose fear of air travel is surprisingly palpable for someone who has flown so much the airline amenities mean a lot.  There would be individual movie screens, though the selection of titles were limited.  She really liked the price, it made the whole excursion affordable, but she wouldn’t have chosen Icelandair if they didn’t have a customer friendly reputation.

Icelandair flies in and out of MSP at Terminal 2, once officially named the Humphrey terminal.  It is the smaller and most approachable of the two terminals here.  T2 — or Humphrey as some still call it — flies small airlines such as Southwest, Sun Country, Condor and Icelandair.  T1 — called Lindbergh — handles some boutique carriers but mainly big ones such as Delta, American, United and Air Canada.  Thus Terminal 1 Lindbergh is vastly busier, frequently jammed three lanes deep in cars vying to drop off and pick up, not to mention short and long term parking, and the car approach to T1 Lindbergh is all only freeway accessible.  T2 Humphrey, on the other hand, can be easily approached even at peak times by a back road between the airport and the national cemetery, and rarely are cars more than one lane deep at the drop off and pick up curb.

We dropped the Kysylyczyns and their baggage at Humphrey under the Icelandair canopy sign, all hugs and chocolate promises.  Roxanne and I nostalgically watched after them as they shouldered their carry on backpacks and everybody gripped a suitcase and glided through the automatic doors to the terminal like they were going downtown on a train.  At home Roxanne and I watched the planes in the sky from our front porch thinking, off they go.

They were gone ten days.  Facebook real-time post cards showed they were have a good time (when Michel and Sid could get wi-fi — deep in the Alps it was iffy or not worth the fee.  Everything is expensive in Switzerland, alas.)  Sentimentally I followed the weather page of the paper for conditions in Frankfurt and Geneva.

Their flight home was on time.  We estimated about a half hour to get through customs and baggage claim.  On the drive to pick them up we talked about Lindbergh and Humphrey, the terminals and their namesakes.  At the time there was a hotel construction project next to Lindbergh causing lane closures on the freeway and a severe backup of traffic into the terminal.  Glad we’re not going there, we agreed noting the smooth flow towards Humphrey.  Just for conversation we eventually mused about the dropping of the terminal names in favor of mere numbers, 1 and 2.  It was ostensibly done for the ease of strangers, of whom there must be many — 1 or 2 simpler to identify on freeway signs.  But like many things these days a political motive can be extrapolated behind the name changes:  a desire by illiberals to erase Hubert Humphrey’s name from local iconography, and a campaign to disassociate the airport from Charles Lindbergh, a vocal anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer.  The nexus of these two causes resulted for the sake of simplicity in renaming the two terminals after the numbered euphemisms for urine and feces.  In that case, I offered, they numbered the terminals backward.  Lindbergh should be number 2.


Pick up traffic was heavy even for Humphrey that afternoon but we readily found an opening at the curb and waited.  Roxanne texted Michel where we were.  Michel texted they were at the baggage carousel.  Moments passed.  Other cars came, picked up their people and left.  For a few moments we were parked in.  We dreaded the security cops would come and direct us to keep moving and we would be obliged to go around the return loop and position ourselves all over again.

Then Michel texted one of their suitcases was missing.  We held our turf and waited and got lucky against airport security.  In about twenty minutes the Kysylyczyns emerged to daylight.  Kiss-kiss, abrazos and hugs.  We stowed the luggage, one suitcase short.  Sid took the wheel — it was their car, after all, a big GMC Denali, six passengers plus luggage reminiscent of the VW Tauran we used to rent when we used to tour Europe together, big family car.  After about ten hours in the sky and a frustrating hour on the ground, Sid had an edge of determination like he needed to control something, so he drove.  I rode shotgun.  They were all tired and edgy and the ride provided a perfect moment to give in to their exhaustion and gush about what a great time they had but the moment was stolen by their consternation over the missing suitcase.  A beautiful catharsis spoiled.  Try as they might to answer Roxanne’s and my questions about impressions of their trip their thoughts were tainted with the question of how their suitcase got lost.

It was not a good night to all go to supper.  The girls were cranky and jetlagged.  Sid was expected to go to work the next day.  Michel needed to place her house in order before bedtime and come to grips with a bag of her possessions somewhere Out There maybe never to be found.  Even though she didn’t have to work the next day she faced a day of making phone calls.  We went straight to their house.

The suitcase contained all their clean clothes.  Michel’s makeup, their toothbrushes, their toiletries and four pairs of her jeans.  Tess had a couple of dear stuffed animals she called lovies.  Clara had a favorite pair of shoes, some shorts and blouses.  All their souvenirs and mementos.  Yet nobody cried.  Roxanne said this was a good example why you should always pack your toothbrushes in your carry on.  Michel worried that the bag got singled out because it got tagged Heavy Bag — it weighed two pounds overweight but was allowed to travel because the other bags weighed under the limit.

Roxanne suggested some other blurry faced passenger may have taken such a big black generic anonymous bag by mistake.  This mere observation set Michel into speculative agitation thinking some stranger had possession of their belongings, the invasion of privacy and susceptibility to theft.  It soothed her to figure most strangers who would make such a mistake would quickly rectify it, bring it back to the airport and turn it in to the lost and found, not loot it and dump it in the trash.

In any case, Michel resigned the issue to something unlikely to resolve itself overnight.  It would require phone calls the next day.  Back at Humphrey they filed a report with Sun Country Airlines, who handles baggage for Icelandair at MSP, and for the moment that’s all they could do.  Nobody, least Sid or the kids, was going to let this inconvenience spoil their vacation.  Already they looked back and it all seemed funny.  When we adjourned for the night everybody hoped it would all work itself out.

The next morning Central Daylight Time an international phone number to Icelandair went unanswered.  Michel said the number would ring and ring and then hang up.  This discouraged her and Sid, who said up to this point they were rather impressed with Icelandair customer service.

On the phone to Sun Country Airlines Michel found a sympathetic customer service rep named Nick, who counseled patience.  Another Icelandair flight from Zurich arrived every day at the same late afternoon hour at Humphrey terminal.  The suitcase could be on the next flight.  It wasn’t.

Next day, same thing, no suitcase.

It was part of the fabric of conversation now.  By the way, how’s the suitcase?  Sid and Michel speculated at what could have gone wrong.  Airline travel being such a closed system they reasoned there ought to exist a tracking system by barcode or some such to account for the whereabouts of every bag.  It was difficult for them to believe and seemed unreasonable nobody could track their suitcase in three, four, five, six days and counting.

We know this is a rich world problem.  There are societies where real persons go missing and are never found.

I’m not materialistic, dad, she said.  There’s stuff I’d rather have and not lose but it’s just stuff.  What gets me is nobody knows.  Nobody owns it.

The nobodies who knew where the suitcase went included this Nick guy at Sun Country, who Michel credited with always answering his phone but didn’t know anything.  Sid got a hold of a person at IGS, the ground services provider for Icelandair at Keflavik airport at Reykjavik, Iceland, who referred him to Keflavik Lost and Found, who referred him to Icelandair.  Michel and Sid filed a formal claim of loss online and entered into email correspondence among a network of aviation affiliated entities, and they received a claim number and apologies but no word where was the suitcase.

I remembered back at St Simon of Cyrene parochial school, 5th grade, Connie Hechter went to our teacher Sister Alsace Lorraine in tears one afternoon.  Connie alleged somebody stole her fountain pen from her desk during lunch recess.  It was a special fountain pen, I heard her tell the nun, a present from her grandma.  Sister Alsace Lorraine ordered everyone in the class to close their eyes and put their heads down on their desks for five minutes.  She said she would do the same.  During that time, whoever had the fountain pen was supposed to quietly tiptoe to Sister’s desk, return the pen anonymously and tiptoe back to his or her seat.  The rest of us were encouraged to spend the five minutes in prayer saying silent Hail Marys, Our Fathers and Glory Bes.  An Act of Contrition if you could get through it without having to say it out loud.  In five minutes when we opened our eyes we would expect to see the fountain pen on Sister’s desk, no questions asked.

My question was whether you could trust Sister Alsace Lorraine not to peek.  I had no trouble keeping my own eyes closed, though I didn’t stifle my ears.  There were giggles and whispers and hushes and somebody stifled a weak fart sound almost too genuine to be a prank.  Sister raised her voice once to invoke quiet, remind us to pray and to give the guilty party two minute warning to repent.  She wore a Timex wristwatch so you could suppose she could check it with her head down, but some way I had the feeling she was watching us.  I tried to sense if she were circulating among us but I heard no sounds of the clack of her beads, detected no swish of the linen of her habit, so it seemed plausible she was not up and moving about hovering above us on patrol.  I thought I may have heard tiptoes, but not more than one or two, not enough to get to Sister’s desk.  A cough.  Another cough, call and response.  I think I wished I could take a nap.  The tiptoe sounds could have been faked.  The kid across the aisle from me had sniffles but I can’t think of his name.  Mike somebody…

Sister said it was Time’s Up.  Our eyes got used to the light.  Connie’s fountain pen was not on Sister’s desk.  It was not on Connie’s desk.  It was on the desk of a kid named Micmac Murphy, an obvious plot to frame him.  Sister didn’t fall for it for an instant and almost credited Murph for finding the pen as she presented it back to Connie and said, No more need be said of this, but we can be proud because we’re honest, which was a message for the rest of us who didn’t steal the pen or get into trouble on their own as much as Micmac Murphy.  We clapped applause.  Pride.

Personally I didn’t think it would work.  I hoped Connie got her pen back, out of justice, but I overestimated the thief’s willingness to take a chance to smuggle it out of the classroom.  I guess it was a nice pen.  And far as I know the amnesty deal was honored with no repercussions, and I don’t recall any rumors or people talking out of school who took Connie’s pen.  Far as I know there were no more fountain pens reported stolen in 5th grade that year.  I was glad nobody got slapped.  Seems we all went to disposable ballpoint pens by 6th grade.

I was optimistic the Kysylyczyns’ suitcase would just suddenly arrive at their front door, no explanation.  I also had a more sinister theory that the bag had been interdicted on purpose by Interpol or Homeland Security.  And not as a Heavy Bag per se.  Perhaps innocently, at first, a random baggage inspection, one in every so many many, seized and examined up close — routine, just happened to be the Kysylyczyns.  Or perhaps not so innocent, Sid and Michel were targeted for surveillance after all those years mysteriously undercover in Switzerland.  When Clara and Tess used to pretend to be Sky Kids maybe they weren’t really playing but acting out drama based on secret family baggage.  I never fully understood Sid’s job — I could see him as a secret agent.  That’s why I believed all that week the suitcase would simply arrive at their front steps.


And then there’s my memory of the Swedish Fish and the Hokusai Wave watercolor.  My favorite non-chocolate candy is Swedish Fish, a fruity jelly chewy gumdrop cast in the shape of fish, scales and all.  In America they come in bright bold red, yellow, green and orange — lingonberry, lemon, lime, orange.  I buy them by the pound and hand them out, raised my kids on them and been dishing them to Clara and Tess since either had more than three teeth.  While in Switzerland the Kysylyczyns made friends with families who were Swedes and learned Swedish Fish were a real Swedish thing.  Visiting their friends in Sweden they discovered the candy there is more citrus and tart, and the colors of the flavors more translucent and pastel — in fact they call them pastelfiskar.  The American recipe is made by Cadbury, the Swedish recipe by Malaco.  After a visit to Gothenburg a few years ago Michel mailed me a package from Zug, Switzerland containing a rolled up watercolor on paper of whitecap waves on a blue ocean with Mt Fuji in the background painted by Clara after the iconic image by Hokusai.  In that package was a presumably generous share of Malaco Swedish Swedish Fish.

It can take a while for mail to travel between Switzerland and the United States.  It was meant to be a surprise.  In due time when I didn’t email Michel I received the package after about a month, she asked me on a Skype day if I’d received it and I had not.  It was disappointing but somehow easier to accept something getting lost in the mail than something like an airline losing a suitcase.  Then about a week later I received in the mail a manila envelope with Clara’s Hokusai watercolor in it, rolled up and rubber banded, intact if a little rumpled and wrinkled, no worse for wear.  The address on the envelope had been transcribed by another hand, and inside with the watercolor was the original mailing label wrtten out by Michel along with a fragment of the original package.  There were no Swedish Fish.

I told Michel when the suitcase eventually arrives to count the Swedish Fish.

At the end of the week there was a break in the case — the missing suitcase, that is — I never got that missing batch of Swedish Fish — maybe some customs agents thought it was a semi clever way to smuggle drugs, oh what a surprise — I complained to Cy my longtime mail carrier but all he could offer were condolences and sad acknowledgement he knew of postal workers abusing the mail.

Sid made contact with somebody of the lost and found ground services company servicing Icleandair at Reykjavik who said the suitcase had been located at the airport at Warsaw, Poland.

But of course.  Everyone Sid told the news said the same thing.  Of course it went to Poland, did not the luggage tag say Kysylyczyn — where else would it go?

Michel used to say that almost every time she went through customs at Amsterdam the agents would look at her passport and tease her about her name — Kysylyczyn?  Shouldn’t you be going to Poland, ha ha…

Sid accepted a vague assurance from his source at Reykjavik the suitcase was found at the Warsaw airport terminal and would be routed to Minneapolis, but nobody knew how or when.  That might be known after the week end.  Nobody seemed to know how it got to Warsaw.  Icelandair does not fly to Warsaw.

There go Michel’s jeans, I thought.  I let go of my pet spy scenario to allow for another fluke incident, although it opened my mind to possibilities of eastern European intrigue.  Could it have been on its way to Moscow, or Istanbul?  I always felt the Kysylyczyns innocent of western counterintelligence skulduggery and shenanigans — be it, we are all ambassadors when we travel — and now I wondered what sort of international mischief may be in play to divert this one of all bags to a place backwards from its intended route to a place which used to be known as behind the Iron Curtain, where the airline which lost the bag does not fly.  I imagined a plot.  Recalling a craze not long ago in eastern Europe, a craving for all things denim, I said to Michel, forget the Swedish Fish, kiss your jeans bye-bye.

Turned out Michel packed the Swedish Fish from her Swedish Swiss friends in a different suitcase.  We savored their tart sweetness while discussing our questions and our hoped-for answers while anticipating the bag’s arrival maybe Monday.

We celebrated Michel’s birthday — 39 years on this earth.


Nothing Monday.  On Tuesday Sid contacted his source at Icelandair’s ground services provider IGS at Reykjavik and was advised to contact Icelandair directly because the bag was not in the hands of IGS and they had no more information than a notation in a computer case file that the bag had been located in Warsaw and might be forwarded to them in Reykjavik.  Or not.

Michel tried Nick at Sun Country at MSP and learned nothing.  She asked Nick to call somebody at Warsaw Chopin airport, but Nick said he had no authority to make international calls.  He advised her to file a claim with Icelandair for compensation.  It was as though he knew the suitcase was never coming back.  He advised replacing the missing items and expecting compensation.

She mentally inventoried what was in the missing bag.  Clothes.  The jeans — Michel always said she had to search hard to find jeans she fit just right, she had an eastern European figure descended from Czechs and German-Polish border people on her mother’s side — usually high-end shop jeans, more reason to expect the jeans were gone even if someday the bag turned up.  There was her make up, not that she applied much or needed to, it would still have to be replaced.  Toiletries, easy to replace at Target — they already had new toothbrushes.  The airline would settle by and by.  Tess’s stuffed animals would be mourned irreplaceable.  Sid valued his shaving kit bag, not for its contents — he was given to going bearded — but because it was a nice bag by Tumi presented to him by Delta airlines on a first class flight he took on business to Bangalore.  There were souvenirs and mementos from Switzerland, including a full tube of Thomy Mayonnaise a la Francais intended as a gift for me and Roxanne — Thomy is the eggiest most delicious mayonnaise on the planet and comes in a big tube like a family-sized toothpaste — when I learned it was among the missing I counted it gone with the jeans.

And all the Swiss chocolate.  Michel estimated enough pounds of quality chocolate bars to push the suitcase overweight enough to get tagged Heavy Bag.

No word that whole next week, no bag.  Sid and Michael fatigued at squeezing futile phone calls and emails during the business hours of their day jobs.  The girls mustered to go back to school the following week, the week before Labor Day.  Roxanne and I took an excursion to a cabin in the Boundary Waters with our son Vincent and daughter in law Amelie.  Everyone went about their normal way enjoying summer while it lasts.  The Kysyslyczyns planned to hit the State Fair.  I expected the suitcase would be resolved by the time we came home and reconnected.

If nothing else, I said on the phone to Michel before departing for the Boundary Waters where there would be no wi-fi or cell phone service, a big black Lada sedan will pull up to your house and a guy in a black suit will wheel your suitcase to your door and ring the doorbell.  I believe this belongs to you, I said in a dramatic Russian accent — Have a nice day — and with no explanation he’ll go back to the car and drive away.

Count your jeans.

Back from the glorious wilderness where you can see the Milky Way I learned the suitcase still had not arrived.  Frustrated as the week went by without word, Sid and Michel knuckled down and tried to contact anyone remotely connected with custody of the suitcase.  On a hunch inspired by IGS in Reykjavik, Sid contacted the lost and found office at Warsaw Chopin airport operated by a firm called Welcome Airport Services.  A person from the Arrival Services department told Sid the bag indeed had been in Warsaw but had been sent to MSP six days prior via Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  This person suggested the bag might still be in Toronto and to contact MSP lost and found.

The suitcase had not gone back to Icelandair at Flughafen Zurich airport the way it came but instead was put on a LOT Polish Airlines flight from Warsaw Chopin airport to Toronto Pearson International airport, where Air Canada was supposed to bring it to MSP.  Six days ago.


A consensus developed between the Kysylyczyns and their new airlines cohorts that the bag may be stranded in Toronto, but no one could give Sid or Michel a straight answer.  Michel learned that United Airlines handled baggage for Air Canada at Terminal 1 MSP so she called United on a hunch the bag might be stuck unclaimed at Lindbergh when it should go to Icelandair at Humphrey.  United declined to acknowledge either its knowledge of existence of the suitcase or any affiliation with Air Canada.  Air Canada denied possession of the bag.  Sun Country declined to offer any further assistance because more than six days had elapsed since the disappearance of the bag and all inquiries hence should be directed to the primary carrier, Icelandair — plus, this Nick guy was unempowered to call Canada.  Everything seemed fishier and fishier.  Is this how it gets when they want you to give up?

Finally a travel consultant from Icelandair contacted Sid by email and confirmed the suitcase had been indeed found in Warsaw and for a week been in process of being sent to MSP.  She suggested the bag might be stuck in customs in Toronto because of rules not permitting a US bag to be sent through Canada.  She advised Sid — if he had not already done so — to file a claim for compensation, hinting the bag may never arrive.  Not giving up hope, Sid wondered whether there might be a kind of quarantine protocol being imposed, a wait time.  The Icelandair agent wrote she did not know but would be in touch as soon as she received additional information.

After three more days of hearing absolutely nothing, I asked Sid and Michel if they would mind if I took up their cause and inquired into the case myself.  Sure, have at it, they said, knock yourself out.

With the girls back to school and no need for us grandparents to look after them while mom and dad went to work, I had a little extra time on my hands.  All along the story fascinated me.  I felt rather honored and delighted to get actively involved.  Michel forwarded me copies of emails between her and Sid and various reps of the airlines and ground services firms they had corresponded with the past two weeks.  I read them and also asked Michel and Sid about their phone conversations to get myself up to speed.

I started with Icelandair, the airline ultimately responsible.  I wrote a letter — an email in letter format — addressed to the travel consultant who last contacted Sid, four days before.  Her name was Lydia with a Reykjavik e-letterhead.  I chose to go to her first because she was last contact and her emails showed she knew the most up to date information and might confirm the history, and also because she expressed a sincere desire to make things right for the Kysylyczyns.  She seemed to authentically take the whole thing seriously.

I presented myself as a journalist writing a story about the lost suitcase.  I did not disclose that I am Michel Kyslysczyn’s dad because I did not want to demean Michel and Sid’s own dogged efforts to get the bag as if Michel’s Daddy Rides to the Rescue.  Instead I credited the Kysylyczyns for my research and asked questions about what happened and how, what would happen next, and if in fact Icelandair was actively investigating the case.

I recited what I thought I knew.  I asked whether there was a security protocol that a bag of luggage must fly on the same flight as a ticketed passenger — seemed fair from recalling experience at Amsterdam Schiphol airport and listening to the public address system paging passengers absent from their flights and warning them if they failed to show up their luggage would be removed from the plane (I did not cite my Schiphol experience in my letter, only asked the protocol question).  I essayed to be friendly and respectful and even said the purpose of my story was not to impugn the reputation of Icelandair or anyone who took part in the mistake but to find the bag and see it happily returned to the Kysylyczyns.  I signed it Sincerely and gave my phone number.

The next day I received a phone call on my home land line.  It was an overseas call with that land line clarity phone companies used to brag you can hear a pin drop.

She spoke in a continental accent, asked for me and said her name was Asta from Icelandair calling from Reykjavik and we proceeded to hold an entertaining and pleasant conversation.

Asta did not bury the lede and said straight up the suitcase was located at that very moment at Newark Liberty Airport, EWR, in New Jersey, USA.  An Icelandair handling agent at Newark was going to hand-carry the bag directly to a FedEx station at the airport where it would be shipped directly to the Kysylyczyns at their home.  She promised there would be no more flights.

Except on a FedEx plane, I laughed at her joke.  Caught awkward she said, “I hadn’t thought of that.  Iceland is such a small country I think of FedEx packages going by lorry, but I suppose you are right, one last flight on FedEx to MSP and then to the Kyslysczyns.”  She unhaltingly pronounced their name.

She had yet to reach out to them with the news.  She estimated the bag would arrive the next day and said she would forward the FedEx tracking number as soon as it was available.

We agreed two weeks was a long time to fly a lost bag from Warsaw to Minneapolis.  I asked how it got to Poland if Icelandair doesn’t fly there.

Asta explained:  Both Icelandair and another Icelandic airline called WOW Air share the same baggage baggage handlers at Zurich airport and she theorized the suitcase was mistakenly loaded on a WOW Air flight to Warsaw.  Discovered in Warsaw, the recommended remediation was to put the bag on a WOW Air plane back to Zurich to be flown on Icelandair to Keflavik airport in Iceland and then on to Minneapolis St Paul.  Matter of factly she said, “This did not happen.”

Instead somebody decided to put it on a LOT Polish Airlines plane to MSP via Toronto, Canada.  This was a problematic course since LOT Polish Airlines does not itself fly into Minneapolis St Paul.  She said she believed Air Canada was supposed to fly the bag from Toronto to MSP.  How it arrived at Newark was unknown.  LOT does fly directly from Warsaw to Newark.  Air Canada flies there nonstop from Toronto.


Asta could not account for where the suitcase languished the past ten days.  Asked more about Toronto and whether it had been hung up in Canadian customs she sounded more cautious, not sure the bag ever went to Toronto at all.  She seemed reticent to declare whether the Canadians had anything to do with it.

I didn’t press.  We shared some joy that the suitcase was virtually home.  I sincerely complemented her customer service skills and thanked her (and Lydia) for the response.  I said all I ever heard about Icelandair were good things, that my son and his wife had anice experience flying Icelandair, and apart from the suitcase Kyslysczyns reported positive things about the hospitality and comfort.  I said I and my wife hoped to fly Icelandair some day.  To visit Iceland.  I said I’ve always been fond of Iceland from a distance.

Why? she asked.

I did not name-drop my old friend Eleanor Arnason the science fiction author of Icelandic descent, or John McPhee who wrote about Iceland’s volcanoes.  I answered honestly I had the impression the people were happy and friendly and I was interested in volcanoes, hot springs, rugged scenery, the midnight sun and aurora borealis.  Yes, she said, we have all that and barely four hours of daylight in the winter.

And then I mentioned one of my great grandmothers was born in Iceland.

Yes?  When?  Where?  What was her name?

Embarrassed, I fumbled the answers and apologized for my ignorance of my own ancestry.

Asta said, Iceland is a very small country with population 350,000 people and you would be amazed how connected and historical known many Icelanders are.  She offered to look into the Iceland database for me if I would send her some clues.

She said she would call the Kyslysczyns next.  She said she would forward me the FedEx tracking number and an email recap of her research into the suitcase.  A few hours later she emailed me to say due to the lateness of the hour, almost midnight in Iceland, she would not be able to confirm the tracking number until tomorrow.  She concluded by saying all her handling agents had responded to her requests and she had reached Ms Kysylyczyn and informed her of the status of the suitcase, and reminded me to send information about my great grandmother so she could help me research my heritage.

I regret I did not disclose my family tie to Michel Kysylyczyn.  I owe Asta that courtesy.

Meantime, right after Asta’s phone call I did not call Michel right away.  Part of it was to allow Asta to break the good news.  And I hesitate to call Michel at work — she’s a clinical nurse.  But I called Roxanne, who was working that day, because I needed to tell somebody.  Roxanne then texted Michel — call dad.  When she called me she hadn’t heard yet from Asta, so I got to tell her the news.

As she later told Asta on the phone, No offense but I’ll believe it when I see it.  They had a nice laugh.

That was a Wednesday.  Thursday passed with no word, no suitcase, no guy in a black Russian sedan.  No FedEx tracking number.  No Asta, no vista.  We decided to give one more day.

Friday late morning Michel got a call from someone at Sun Country Airlines (not the Nick guy) at the Humphrey terminal who proudly announced they had found her lost luggage and would be sending it to her by FedEx that afternoon.  He confirmed her address and estimated delivery around 6:00, the dinner hour.  Michel said the guy made it sound like Sun Country wanted to get the final credit.

A little before six Michel texted Roxanne to say the suitcase arrived.  Crazy eyeball emoji.  Then a photo.  Not long later we talked on the phone.  It came in a FedEx van.  Intact.  No external scars.  No stickers, just some tags on strings.  The contents undisturbed and complete — jeans, chocolate and Thomy mayonnaise.  Stuffed lovies.  Shoes and shorts.  Swiss placemats and magnets.  Tumi shaving kit bag.  All there.  The way it was.

Only it smells like airplane, she said.  What do you mean, I asked.  Like the atmosphere inside the cabin when you first board a plane, she said — times ten.

So I composed a grateful email to Asta confirming my knowledge the Kysylyczyns received their bag.  I complimented the ultimate result and feinted a suspicion the final stage didn’t go as planned.  She replied she had her own confirmation the bag was delivered.  She offered again to help me research the origins of my great grandma and wished me a good weekend.  A short while later she followed with another email composed of copies of email exchanges and chains between herself and colleagues the past two days illustrating how things didn’t go as planned at Newark airport.

According to the emails the suitcase arrived at Newark Liberty Airport on an Air Canada flight.  Icelandair lost and found service at Newark was alerted but before anyone could intercept the bag it was handed over to Delta airlines for a quick flight directly to MSP.  Delta flies into Terminal 1 Lindbergh.  Delta needed to put it into the hands of Icelandair at Terminal 2 Humphrey.  Asta and her North American counterpart got somebody at Sun Country to mobilize somebody across the tarmacs between terminals to claim the bag from Delta.  Once secured, Sun Country put it on Fed Ex.

Not a word about Canada.  Only a reference to an Air Canada flight carrying the bag into Newark but no reference from where.  No mention of Toronto.

In Asta’s own words in one of the emails to the Baggage Coordinator at Sun Country corporate headquarters:

So this is quite a journey that the bag has been on.

If that suitcase could talk.

At Michel’s house I examined it.  I read the string tags: one from LOT Airlines with MSP as destination via Toronto, and it had inscriptions in Polish referring to Warsaw Chopin Airport; a tag from Air Canada in red saying RUSH and dated fifteen days before its eventual recovery and showing origination from Toronto Pearson International Airport with destination to Minneapolis St Paul; a tag, also red, designating the recent Delta flight from Newark to MSP; and of course the big plastic FedEx bill of transport.

Could we obtain readable fingerprints — run them through Interpol and CODIS.  Could I run the bar codes from the airline tags — maybe take them down to Cub foods and try them on the self checkout bar code reader, or at Target where they have those price check scanner guns.

My latest fantasy is the suitcase decided to take a vacation.  Maybe it met up with another suitcase and they ran off to Poland.  Maybe the suitcase (please don’t call me bag) made friends among other expat suitcases all those years in the basement storage at the apartment in Switzerland and they all held a reunion in Toronto.  Maybe the suitcase reflected upon itself, skin now rubbed and beaten shiny black and its seams shabby, the zipper teeth unsure of its gnarly smile, maybe a wheel going weak, the handle stiff and cranky, and seeing its useful life coming near its end decided to take one last fling and get lost for two weeks.  Who knows, maybe the suitcase went all kinds of places unrecorded, wasn’t stuck in Toronto at all.

If only that suitcase could talk.

The Kysylyczyns have a story to tell.  They are pleased with the outcome, needless to say.  What’s more, Michel, inspired by my correspondence with Asta, has piqued new interest in our family tree.

I am the one thinking too much about the suitcase.  Roxanne and I experienced lost luggage on one of our trips to visit the kids in Zug.  Our checked bags did not arrive with us at Flughafen Zurich.  Nobody’s did.  The luggage conveyor system at Shiphol Amsterdam where we made our connecting flight from Minneapolis broke down and the luggage was left behind in Amsterdam.  We filed a claim at the Zurich airport along with everyone else.  We gave Michel’s phone number.  Next day the bags showed up at the Kysylyczyns’ apartment via courier as promised in a phone call that day.  Zug is about thirty miles from the airport.  It was all Swiss efficient.  We never worried.  The lesson we learned was to bring toothbrushes and so forth in your carry on bags just in case.

The suitcase led me to learn some things about the aviation industry, such as the IATA (International Air Transport Association) codes which identify all airports in the world by three letters.  MSP is Minneapolis St Paul.  WAW is Warsaw Chopin.  YYZ is Toronto Pearson.  Keflavik in Iceland is KEF.  Amsterdam Shiphol is AMS, Zurich ZRH.  Newark Liberty Airport is EWR.  Sometimes the IATA codes make no intuitive sense.

A guy at the Oyster Card shop at London Heathrow Airport (LHR) noticed on my passport I was from Minneapolis and he said to me, Mary Says Please — his Heathrow mnemonic for MSP.  There’s an international airport language.

I learned the existence of more regional airlines of Europe like WOW Air, LOT Polish Airlines, and another Polish airline which flies in and out of Warsaw Chopin called WIZZ Air — no evidence WIZZ Air had any connection to the Kysylyczyn suitcase.

By my count seven different airlines and five sovereign nations participated in its journey, counting Canada although our neighbor seems to want to remain anonymous.  Countless people somehow collaborated to locate and transport a single misplaced suitcase to its true destination in this world.

One suitcase.  Lost and found.  In the time frame of the Suitcase Saga, and just since, the greater world has experienced planet-stunning events.  Hurricane Harvey basted Texas in a barbecue of putrid stew.  Irma blew away the illusion of the good life in Florida and leveled society in parts of the Caribbean.  An earthquake rubbled Juchitan, Mexico, a place so obscure nobody knows where it is relative to Cabo or Cancun.  There’s genocide in Myanmar on the border with Bangladesh.  North Korea toys with a hydrogen bomb and sends missiles over Japan like bottle rockets over the neighbor’s house across the street.  There’s an opioid crisis within the cultures of pain.  Dreamers of a thing called DACA face mass deportations to countries unknown and foreign.  Wild fires storm the forests.  A volcano called Katla rumbles beneath Iceland and fixes to blow its glacier into the sky.  That’s not all.  That’s just the past weeks.  That’s just some of the bold headlines.

And yet a bunch of people collaborated across five countries to rescue one American family’s vacation suitcase.

Nicely done.  Thank you all.  Including the Canadians who would rather not be recognized — talk about a network of secret agents.

At the top of this story is a picture representing Icelandair.  This is how it sees itself.  Take a good look at it and imagine which character represents Asta and which one Lydia — probably not the one in red.

Nex year Roxanne and I plan to visit Iceland.  Fly a deal on Icelandair.  See volcanoes.  Hot spring thermal baths.  Mountains.  Fjords.  Midnight sun, or maybe northern lights depending on the season.  Perhaps by then we’ll know the origin of Michel’s great-great grandma, but if not we’ll make one up.  It’s a small and friendly country, they say.




My Last Confession Was


I am sorry for all my sins

for farting in the barroom from all those gins

for teasing my sisters with safety pins

for making fun of fat girls with double chins

for stealing lunch money from the charity bins

for watching european girls sunbathe in their skins

for stylizing opiates after Ho Chi Minhs

I’m so sorry for all my sins

for barfing in the barroom from all those gins

for using cuss words at the Minnesota Twins

for tipping outhouses just for grins

for leering after ladies with alabaster skins

for criticizing Jesus in the church of Original Spins

for harassing muslims for growing out their chins

for kicking crippled old ladies in the shins —

just for grins

I’m truly sorry for all my sins






Tear up your red shirts

Dress yourselves in bogaine

Cartwheels in hoop skirts

Alejandro Romaine

Call the bunny fundamentalist taxi

Ride until the meter hits maxi

Get that double bubble out of your mouth

Looks so rude like your soul’s gone south


Whoa whoa Black Saturn


Seal off the stand pipes

Wash your hands in turpentine

Misread the bold types

Swishing in the Serpentine

Loot the funny pandemonium outrage

Suck the wind and blow a power outage

Stand up straight and put your shoulders back

Be so bad like they cut you slack


Ooh ooh Black Saturn

Whoa oh Black Saturn


One of these days you’ll get your degree

You’ll have an excuse to set yourself free

One of these nights you’ll get a job

Carve a wooden knob, pick corn on the cob


Ooh ooh


Sign all your pictures

Hide yourself in plain sight

Wear Stafford t-shirts

Affect a smiling overbite

Picture sunny lights painted on darkness

Choose bon mots to answer snarkness

There’s an eclipse due high in the sky

It’s the moon and the sun, you won’t fry


Oh oh Black Saturn

Woo hoo Black Saturn

Oh yeah Black Saturn







The Shitheads


Pronounced Shith-e-ads, it refers to adherents of a philosophy called Shith, named for Shitheus, a 2nd or 3rd century Roman mid-level territorial imperial governor of a region in Gaulius.  Corruption allegations did him in, accusations affirmed that he amassed vast land for himself, too much Gaul.

Any record of Shitheus and Shith philosophy survive today mostly courtesy of WikiLeaks and Wikipedia for their diligent digitalysis of historical research.

Among the basic precepts of Shith:

Always throw waste into the river.  Or burn it up into the air and toss the ash in the river.  Rivers flow to seas where the dumpwater disappears into the horizon where beyond there be dragons.  Let the dragons deal with garbage.

Never make peace, especially with allies.  Keep your friends close and your enemies closer to the extreme.

Always lie.  Truth can be manipulated to conform to any point of view so why bother with logic and linguistics, just make up a story.  Never mind if no one believes you, the more reason to keep lying because if no one believes you there’s no recognizing a standard baseline for truth.

Political opponents should always be rounded up and escorted to a sequestered place where they may consort among their own kind and be kept apart from disrupting the social order with contaminating ideas.  Greek style athletic fields were ideal for places like this.  And rock quarries.

Only one religion allowed but several deities were recognized by the state.  Gods and goddesses were often submitted to the populace for popular vote, a Shithead scheme to foster a symbolic sense of republican democracy.

The poor of Shithead society were encouraged to eat their own children first before resorting to sell them as meat on the open market.

Slavery was common back then so it was assumed everyone not of the noble class could be enslaved at any time for any reason.  Essentially all women, even noblewomen, were slaves.

The official line of the Roman empire of the day was that the borders were boundless, nowhere beyond the pale, but Shith philosophy foresaw the eventual takeover of Rome by the Barbars, and Shitheus a couple centuries ahead of his time identified christians as the number one threat to the internal stability of the empire.  He himself predicted by a hundred or so years the eventual move of the imperial capital to Byzantium by Emperor Constantine, leaving Rome defenseless and in the custody of the pope and a few helvetic mercenaries.  Shitheus preached a philosophy that attempted to militarize the up and coming christians to defend the empire against barbars, franks, turks, moors, anglos, saxons, mongols and you name it, whoever bordered the empire.  Shitheus tried to get Jesus elected to the state sponsored pantheon of deities.

Abruptly at the height of power Shitheus was removed as territorial imperial governor and accused and convicted of high crimes and treason.  He was sentenced to be beheaded and his history erased after his writings were intercepted and purged by order of the emperor’s tribunal that found him guilty.  He escaped to a fringe hinterland.  In an ancient twist of digitalysis, his philosophy persisted to influence leaders for almost two millennia even though his name and reputation were officially stricken from all historical records, and any references to him by name or inference were buried by dark ages historians and scholars as false (fake) history, called the Myth of Shitheus.

Even fake history repeats.







Mother’s Day came and went like the walleye fishing opener.  Father’s Day will pass like Grandma’s Marathon.  Spring has arrived in Minnesota.

The neighborhood streets have been swept clean of the leftover winter crud just ahead of the annual tree bud, pollen, blossom and seed fallout from arboreal awakening.  Fallen blossom petals from boulevard crabapples tint the street pink.  Maples launch helicopters.  Natural litter.

I haven’t seen this phase of spring at our house in five years.  The past five Mothers Days we celebrated in Paris, Zug, London, Lake Como and Rome, all with our daughter and her family living in Europe, except last year when we planned to visit again but they moved home sooner than planned but Roxanne and I went to Europe anyway.  We would go away in April (air fare what it is if you go to Europe you might as well go a month) and return before Memorial Day to an overgrown yard (maybe mowed one time by our son Vincent to discourage wildlife nesting) and morass of weedy garden we fondly call the jungle.  We usually arrived in time to see our sparse gangly, spindly poppies bloom but too late for daffodils and tulips and usually missing out on the neighbors’ lilacs and the riot of crabapple.  We would pick up with the hostas, lilies and phlox.  Weed the weeds.  Catch up.  As Minnesota goes it’s already summer in progress by the time we came home.

This year it’s good to be here.  Instead of someone else’s spring — Vondelpark, Rigi, Tuileres, Hyde Park, Parque del Retiro, Parc Guell — it’s good to be right here.  Home.  Buffalo Acres.  The day to day of April and May.  Who knew we have six red tulips in the jungle, a pink one and one white?  We have a daffodil — yellow!  Pink peonies?  Really?  All the autumn and winter detritus removed a month sooner, weeds clear, those poppies are shorter and sturdier this year.  Roxanne sprouted zinneas, bachelor buttons, cosmos and sunflowers in a rack of indoor starter pots on the window seat last month and they transplanted nicely — Minnesota nicely — in the weeded gaps in the jungle flower beds.  Roxanne has thinned the rampant prairie grass and laid cypress mulch around the borders of the house and garage where the day lilies dominate.  We have pruned more bushes so far than we would usually do by mid-July, just to have something to do.

The birds are back.  The sun rises before six and sets after eight-thirty.  Yellow dandelions — by the time we saw the dandelions they were white puffballs.  And cute little purple flowers amid the grass — some call it Creeping Charlie but I call it Ground Ivy.

Meet my old friend Moe — Moe Delaun.

It feels more rhythmic this year keeping up than playing catch-up.  A month gallivanting around Europe then leads to a frantic catching up at home.  This year we’re pitching in at home at a relaxed speed.  When we were in Europe we sometimes talked about things awaiting us back home, well now as we do these things at a zen pace in real time we discover more put-off domestic details to attend to, chores and projects to undertake to pass the time and tidy up for the closing stages of life.  Poking in the garden gives me moments to remember and savor our travels and the places we’ve gone and not feel sorry for a bucket list of unfulfilled dreams.

Married 45 years next year Roxanne and I have lived a charmed life, simply put.  Our romance nearing fifty years goes like the eternal flame of the sun.

They say some men marry their mothers.  Not me.

Mothers Day reminds me every year how different they were as people, as women and as mothers.  About the only two things they had in common were each were strikingly good looking and both highly intelligent.

My mom passed away eleven years ago just a while after Mother’s Day and just before the Memorial Day weekend.  Sudden.  Heart attack.  Not quite 73 years old.  I used to cringe at the approach of Mother’s Day for its conflict between attention to my mom and the mother of my own kids, plus Roxanne’s mom and eventually our own daughter becoming a mom — for me it was like a holiday of anxiety like some people experience Thanksgiving.  When my mom died the liberation simplified Mother’s Day so much for me it was like the transformation of Scrooge.  I could pay more attention to the mothers I really liked, Roxanne and daughter Michel.  The past years in Europe gave the day an exalted and exotic status.  The more recent passing of my mother-in-law simplified things a little more.

This year for some reason I’m given to what Huckleberry Finn called the fan-tods, a melancholy bout of reflection.  I feel guilty I wasn’t nicer to my mom.  I wasn’t mean.  I just wasn’t nicer.

For example I never took her to Ireland.  It’s every son of an Irish descended American mother’s duty to take her on a trip to the Old Sod, but I resisted, put it on my much younger brothers Sean and Kevin who never did it either (though they came close, Sean went with her to Paris when he was in the Air Force stationed in Belgium, and Kevin once went with her to Hawaii to visit Sean, again stationed in the Air Force).  I knew deep in my heart I could not travel with her.  She was no Roxanne.

My mother’s name was Colleen Kelly.  She was known far and wide as Kitty.  Charismatic, she was regarded as colorfully eccentric to outright mad crazy.  Her grandchildren called her Mimi.

I was her oldest child.  Oldest of ten.  She called me by my middle name, Michael, or Mickey, and for the first four or so years of my life I thought I was Michael Sturgis and my nickname was Buff or Buffy.  You may wonder why my surname is that of my mother, Kelly, and not my father, Sturgis.  My father, Dick Sturgis, allegedly and admittedly named me Buffalo Michael Sturgis instead of Michael Kelly Sturgis behind my mom’s back, filling out and signing my birth certificate at the hospital while my mom reveled in the heroics of her labor and delivery.  He named me after his best friend in the world, a guy named Buffalo Denny, who died in a car crash in Michigan when I was about ten.  It was a hard loss for my dad to bear but he claimed he got over it.  As he used to say, none of us gets out of here alive.

Dad was Richard George Sturgis.  Dick Sturgis.  Dad loved his name was Dick.  Proud to introduce himself as Dick Sturgis.  Business card said Dick Sturgis.  He was a car salesman.

Sold Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Ford, Dodge, Plymouth, Rambler, whatever was hot.  Made a good living.  Always drove a big new demo.  (Mom always drove a late model Cadillac convertible.  With so many kids we needed a big car and mom refused to drive a station wagon.)  He loved selling cars, closing deals.  He worked usually six days a week, open till closing.  He would have worked seven days a week if Minnesota law allowed car dealerships to open Sundays.

He sold imports for a while.  As a joke one weekend to get Mom’s goat he brought home a demo Renault Dauphine, that of the two horns, town and country, honk honk, bee-beep.

Dad’s favorite story was the time he sold a Ferrari Mexico Coupe.  His friend Mr Denny, my namesake, had followed Dad into the car business and they worked together at Riviera Imports on Hennepin Ave.  Guy came into the showroom and fell in love with a scarlet red Ferrari 340 Mexico Coupe.  Didn’t have the cash and couldn’t get financed.  He offered a stack of utility bearer bonds.  Mr Denny was my dad’s boss, the guy my dad went into the office to okay tough deals.  They took the bearer bonds, drew up the papers and closed the deal.  Soon as the coupe was out of sight towards Lake Calhoun, Mr Denny and my dad took off downtown to find a broker by closing time to cash the bonds.  Turned out they were worth thousands over face value and earned them both the fattest commission ever in 1950s dollars.  Plus they heard from the customer the next day, called long distance from Albuquerque, he needed to order an engine because he’d blown the coupe’s engine doing 180 mph in the New Mexico desert on Route 66.

I cannot say my dad and I were close. Being the oldest kid meant I knew him the longest, not that I knew him well.  He was kind to all his kids, all ten of us.  Never laid a hand on Mom except in self-defense.  He simply wasn’t around much.  When he was around or we went places and did things together he seemed like a fun guy.  He was not our disciplinarian — no wait till your father comes home because that could be really, really late into the middle of the night.  He worked.  He hung out after work with his friends.  He played golf .  He drank.  He womanized.

Mom kicked him out for keeps when I was in 8th grade.  Kevin wasn’t even born yet.  I was 13.  Mom organized a ceremony, filed papers for the sheriff to evict him.  She might as well have hired a color guard.  In front of the neighbors.  My sisters cried.  Mom explained to us that Dad wasn’t around anyway, he might as well live somewhere else, we wouldn’t miss him.

She immediately went on a dating spree.  It lasted decades.  Years later when my sisters and I talked about Mom we imagined she was making up for the adolescence she lost married to Dad at sixteen.  Married at sixteen and not even pregnant.  Dad was eighteen.  Grandma Mary, Dick’s mother, tried to politely describe how hot Dick and Colleen were hot for each other.  Efforts tried to keep them apart — Colleen sent to boarding school, Dick exiled down to his uncle’s farm — but Colleen ran away from boarding school when the nuns kicked her out and she tracked Dick down at the farm.  Dick converted to Catholicism for Colleen.

There must have been some kind of fraud committed to get their marriage license.  Grandpa Kelly, my mom’s dad, was a lawyer and probably could have found grounds for annulment, but apparently he told Colleen, you made your bed so lie in it.

Their teenage marriage presaged the era of Chuck Berry and you would have hoped his song about the teenage wedding would come true:  C’est la vie say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell.”

It took about fifteen years but ten kids later it all crashed.

Along with the divorce decree Mom took advantage of the court to change her name back to Kelly.  While at it she legally changed her kids’ names to Kelly too.  We were all minors awarded to her custody after all.  So I became Buffalo Michael Kelly.  At the same time she changed the youngest kid’s first name from Peter to Kevin.  If she was really out to get revenge on Dad I don’t know why she didn’t change my full name while she had the chance.

She called me Michael until I started kindergarten, when school insisted on calling you by your true legal name — no nicknames allowed, especially at St Simon of Cyrene.  My name exposed a sore point with my mom, the shame from the nuns and devout Catholics for not naming her child after a saint.  She faced this at my baptism and corrected herself by naming her next two Kathleen and Bernadette.  But with the fourth child she lapsed — there is no St Molly.  Or Kerry.  Sean may be a play on John, or not.  Then Meaghan, Heather and Mavourneen.  Then Peter, who within his first year would be Kevin.  All suddenly Kellys.

The real Kellys — Mom’s kin — didn’t like that though Grandpa Kelly was dead, Grandma was remarried and Mom’s only siblings raised Kelly were sisters and married, none left named Kelly except now Mom.  And us.

I did not mourn my loss of being named Sturgis.  I still don’t mind even though it divorced me from from my father’s heritage, sketchy as it is.  My Grandma Mary, dad’s mom, already had a different surname, McMann, having divorced my grandfather after WWII, remarrying and starting a new family, migrating to Ft Wayne, Indiana.  Her family name was Farmer, and since she only had a sister and her own father was an only child, there were no known relatives named Farmer.  They say my Grandma Mary’s mother’s name was Mueller, maybe Danish, born in Iceland and migrated through Canada.  My grandfather George on my dad’s side was pretty much a ghost, completely absent and uninvolved in our family — people said he was intimidated by my mom.  Mom said he didn’t like children.  I only recall meeting him twice when I was a little boy and don’t recall a warm, beguiling grandpa.  I think I resigned my dropping the name Sturgis less than disloyalty to a dad and his clan than going with the flow.  At thirteen my family fell apart and my life crashed.

Within the parish of St Simon of Cyrene our status imploded with the scandal of divorce.  Shunned.  Rumors raged about an affair with a popular parish priest named Father Kevin who abruptly got transferred across the archdiocese.  Mom was summarily and almost ceremoniously excommunicated from the Catholic Church, though she pretended she wasn’t whenever it suited her and she continued to take holy communion at other parish churches the rest of her life whenever she wanted to be Catholic.  (Dad was excommunicated too but couldn’t have cared less; Sundays instead of mass he could be found drinking coffee at the Krispy Kreme, smoking Camels and reading a paperback by somebody like Mickey Spillane.  The divorce relieved him eternally from Easter Duty and liberated him for more golf.)  I graduated eighth grade as Buffalo Kelly with transcripts from St Simon of Cyrene.  Mom enrolled me at the Academy of St Bernard high school, a college prep program, defying a perfect chance to integrate me into the public school system because my mom didn’t trust public schools, especially for her gifted eldest son.  Years later she told people I attended Stanford when I was actually at San Diego City College.

In a short time we lost our house to foreclosure and more or less got run out of town, the Sturgis deadbeats.  Exiled from our cozy suburban residence, we embarked on a series of commorancies — temporary places to live — in the inner city.

It could have been a fresh start.  Single mom, ten kids, an opportunity to prove something and do extraordinary things.  Instead we leaped headfirst down the rabbit hole of dysfunction.  Our mom could have organized us as the family who persevered and created a home culture of quality aspirations.  Instead she led us into haphazard anarchy treading down a mill of despair.  She wasn’t just a bad role model, she was no role model at all.  Oddly she preached the air of nobility when in fact she led us in the ways of the riffraff.

Lip service was paid to values of getting an education, practicing good manners, owning personal responsibility and treating others with respect and dignity.  No fungible guidance on how to behave.  Didn’t read to her little children.  No plan to sustain stability to survive and prosper as a family unit.  We could have been contenders.

I say “we” because I choose to accept some of the blame.  As the oldest child I failed as a leader of my siblings to set an alternative example and maintain order to our household.  I realize it wasn’t my role to be parent and guardian to my nine sisters and brothers.  I and my two next sisters, Kathleen, called Leenie, and Bernadette, and to an extent the next one, Molly, rather wise and street savvy beyond her years, all under the age of 16, formed an alliance to keep things going — laundry, housecleaning, feeding the little ones, dressing them, reading to them, in Kevin’s case (we still called him Petey) changing diapers — covering for Mom day to day while she was out gadflying and days when she barely got herself out of bed.  We used to have a cook and housekeeper helping us do chores, and now we did it all ourselves — good thing the kindly lady taught us how.  We couldn’t keep up.  We fell behind in school, except Bernadette who had priorities and was the first to crack and say, this isn’t my job.  We had no social lives.  No extended family.  No parents.  I gave up.

With a new name our family could have made a new life of at least above average prosperity if Mom had used her intelligence and personality, connections, peculiar tastes and talents to persevere somehow in basically raising her kids to, in turn, persevere in intelligent pursuits and develop talents.  Instead she burned every bridge, freaked out, played the victim, overdosed, told everybody to go to hell and we all squandered chance after chance to be normal.

Dad meanwhile drifted further away living his own version of the playboy life.  Hugh Hefner.  Frank Sinatra.  James Bond.  Vito Corleone.  He fought the divorce, though ineptly — Mom scorned him he didn’t fight enough, acted weakly — and lost.  He was delinquent in support payments from day one into eternity.  Mom had trust fund income from her late father’s estate, enough, my dad reasoned, to sustain a decent, average household economy if managed unextravagantly, in his opinion.  She schemed to deny him visitation with his kids because he withheld child support and spousal maintenance, so he held back making support payments because she had her own money and wouldn’t allow him to see his kids.  This went on forever, literally, which was long after Dad virtually disappeared from just about everyone’s life.

Within two years of the divorce Dick Sturgis left the Twin Cities in disgrace.  An accused swindler, known deadbeat, philanderer, boozer and cheat, he would say he was a sharp negotiator, shrewd businessman who played by the same rules as everybody else.  No criminal charges pending, he stayed employed somewhere, maybe despite his reputation, and maybe because of his notoriety, until the last year or so of his life, until his charm wore off and his health gave out before he even reached Social Security.

The time around my parents’ divorce was the unhappiest years of my life.  At first I refused to concede that it made any difference in my life.  I denied my parents had any real influence on me.  They fought so wickedly, there was promise of peace and quiet if they kept apart.  I used to secretly hope they would break up just to stop the fighting, and then when my wish came true and the fighting changed to something else, and I began to understand more what they fought about and realized they were trying to destroy each other with bad choices, almost deliberately.  I blamed them now for their selfishness, destroying our family making reckless choices.  I blamed them for corrupting me into believing that they were the adults who knew what they were doing.  I figured if Mom could gin up the confidence to get married and go on her own at sixteen, then surely I her gifted child of almost that same age (aided further along by technological advances of the 20th century — don’t think that didn’t figure in my judgment) with a little help could manage our household until Mom stabilized and things could get normal.

I had hope something good would come of the divorce but it kept getting worse.  Dad took off for Wisconsin.  Mom embarked on a series of boyfriend trips to places like Acapulco and Honolulu, escalating the dating binge which lasted most of the rest of her life, searching for her own Ari Onassis.  Maybe Dick and Colleen were victims of all that Free Love of the 1960s.  Maybe it was the epidemic of identity crises sweeping through the culture in those days.  Mom and I argued.  I would passive-aggressively accuse her of child abandonment and she would scold me for disrespecting her and telling her what to do, then slap my face.  Once I dodged the slap and she smacked a door jamb and told everybody I broke her finger.

Ultimately I gave up.  I ran away from home.

Somehow Mom finagled our new parish to subsidize my tuition to the Academy of St Bernard, an all boys school, but midway through my sophomore year the school was contemplating not having me back as a junior.  I was not gifted.  I got a job at a cinema, and with a little money of my own I stayed out late, came home when I pleased, hitch-hiked flagrantly, drank beer and whiskey.  After passing my driver’s test (in one of Mom’s boyfriends’ Grand Prix) I took up driving around in cars borrowed from parents of naughty girls, cruising the parkways in the middle of the night listening to the radio and looking for places to park.  I smart-talked adults.  I cut classes.  At St Bernard I got caught passing a pornographic poem about Adam and Eve.  When the principal — the Dean of Men, he was called — let me off with a warning, he impressed me with his milk of mercy when he stressed he would not inform my parents this time.  He didn’t know it would make no difference.

Dick and Colleen were way beyond this or any future wake up calls regarding the nurture of their kids.  We are fortunate indeed to not have ended up way worse.  Some of us wandered and the younger ones were virtually born into a wilderness.  We could have been devoured by predators or lost in the flood, all together or one by one.  As things turned out, we all outlived our parents and their mistakes without committing fatal mistakes of our own, unguided or unwittingly flirting with danger or bumbling into life ignorant and unaware of higher expectations or opportunities to do better.  Helped or hampered by white privilege, our family never came under investigation by the system of child and family protection.  Even if anonymously tipped off, the social workers were busy working welfare cases far more dire and egregious of abuse and neglect than our mere white trashy dysfunction.  Even white trash privilege offers expectation that a family like ours can figure it out and survive without bureaucratic intervention.

Two of us served prison time.  Both as advanced adults.  Molly went to the state pen in Pierre, South Dakota for repeat drunk driving.  Bernadette did time at the federal pen at Lexington, Kentucky for kidnapping a newborn infant from a hospital nursery in Las Cruces, New Mexico the year after our dad died.  Molly’s crime illustrates her stubborn sense of exceptionalism and the family propensity to alcoholism.  Bernadette’s is significant because she was the most accomplished of the ten of us, a masters degree in nursing and working on a doctorate in public health, and she pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.  Her defense presented a case that severe childhood abuse caused her to have multiple personalities and an uncontrolled other and not the real Bernadette masterminded the kidnapping of the baby.  To prove her defense she presented a story of horror at the hands of our mom’s brutality and rage, and named me as Mom’s chief enforcer, putting us both on trial charged with driving her insane.  She expected Leenie and Molly to corroborate her stories and expected me to confess and testify, to get even with Mom and set her free.  We all had grudges against Mom but this was hardly the time or place to get even, so none of us were willing to go into federal court to condemn our mother just to help Bernadette skip the consequences of kidnapping a baby.  Of all us siblings, Bernadette was crafty and bold, one who had run away from home the furthest and maintained the greatest distance — some of us joke that she is our family’s only Only Child.  She told the US attorney our mom used to threaten to give us away to the Indians if we misbehaved.  She didn’t strengthen any bonds portraying us as a sub-trailer trash clan.  Her anecdotal fabrications and exaggerations weren’t far off the mark but they just weren’t true.  I for one spent hours with the FBI and US attorney being questioned in anticipation of being called to testify for the prosecution.  In the end the judge rejected the insanity plea.  She lost on appeal.  She served time.  She remains remorseless about her strategy, and the irony remains that our mother’s abusive and neglectful behavior probably did drive Bernadette crazy.  Along with the rest of us one way or another.

Delinquencies.  Depression.  Identity crises.  (Bernadette apparently had four.)  Therapy.  Drugs and alcohol.  Therapy.  AA.  Religion.  Two penal incarcerations.  Could have been worse.  No psycho killers.

Success stories?  Leenie became a special ed teacher.  Molly owned a roadside cafe in Deadwood.  Kerry is a manufacturing superintendent.  Meaghan a registered nurse.  Heather is a champion equestrian and runs her own cleaning business.  Sean enlisted in the Air Force right out of high school and retired to Florida as a Top Sergeant after 27 years.  Kevin, whom we still occasionally call Petey, owns a piece of a business that remanufactures manufacturing equipment.  Mavourneen is an office admin in upstate New York.  Bernadette practices holistic medicine under the alias Dr Lourdes Sturgis somewhere in west central Virginia.  All functionally employable, even me.

Dad eventually turned up a little over a year before Bernadette kidnapped the baby.  On a Greyhound from Miami, where he lived in Liberty City where he had a flophouse room at a sort of halfassed-halfway house after being released from detox, and where he wore two pairs of pants to keep his wallet and cash in the pockets of his inner pair, Dick Sturgis returned to the Twin Cities with a secret case of melanoma and an obviously bad liver.  Fired from his last job telemarketing hearing aids in south Florida for being drunk on the job and tipping over in his chair (lost the appeal on his workers comp case) he moved in with his father, who was long retired from the highway department down in Miami Beach.  Then Grandpa George died and his brother, my dad’s uncle Bob representing grandpa’s estate, kicked Dad out of the house.  When the time limit for his stay at the shelter in Liberty City ran out, he cadged bus fare to Minneapolis.

He moved in with his aunt, his mother’s sister, Aunt Winnie — for some odd reason we kids called her Aunt Weenie — rhymes with Leenie — behind her back.  She was a dear gnarly lady who loved to read fiction like John O’Hara, always sympathetic to us wild kids though she never did anything.  She lived alone and widowed in a senior high rise, well into her 80s.  Like Dad she liked to drink.  They chummed it up like it was some kind of old times.  Dad expired one afternoon in Aunt Winnie’s bathroom in a bloody mess from gastrointestinal hemorrhage induced by heavy drinking.  Aunt Winnie felt badly about it the rest of her days but laid some of the blame on me for not responding to a voice message she left on my home phone while I was at work, and when I got home he was already dead.  The medical examiner told me there was nothing I could have done, he was dead as soon as he hit the tile.

Mom paid for his cremation.  She also got his spousal benefits from Social Security.

Mom lived about fifteen years more than Dad.  It can be said that in the years after kicking the last of her brood out of the nest she settled down and took a semblance of control over the drama of her life.  Too late for us kids to benefit but by then none of us were dependent on her to survive.  At some point she began to depend on us, for emotional outreach, to reconstitute our past to reinsert herself into our own version of extended family and make herself know to her grandchildren.  She matured, showed some impulse control and discipline in conducting her personal life.  It may have been the influence of a boyfriend who actually gave her good advice she listened to.

During the wild years after the divorce Mom was shunned by her family as the black sheep — they actually called her that to her face — which by extension is why my siblings and I barely know our cousins to this day, and few of us remember our grandma on Mom’s side, or our aunts, Mom’s sisters.  We were all shunned — except Bernadette who got a job as an assistant au pair for one of our aunt’s neighbors — as bad influences on the cousins.  Only when Grandma died did Mom begin to reconcile with her sisters, but that did not include the rest of her brood — they called us a brood, and also a tribe and a pack.

When Grandma died in the 1980s Grandpa’s trust fund dissolved and Mom finally came into some assets.  A lot of us held our breath watching to see if she would blow her inheritance and buy the Brooklyn Bridge.  She bought a townhome — no kids — in a modestly posh suburb.  She got a reputable funds manager and attorney.  No longer living hand to mouth on the stricture of the trust income — Mom never worked except as a local fashion model when I was little — and dodging creditors, hoping God would provide, now she paid her bills on time, balanced her checkbook and filed back tax returns.  She got a part time job as a restaurant hostess to pay into Social Security.  She bought a Camaro convertible.

For a minute there I thought she might get her high school diploma and go to college.

It’s one thing to forgive your parents for not being perfect, but it’s another thing to let them get away with not even being good.  Good parents make sacrifices for the welfare of their children.  My parents sacrificed their children.  Mom would say she did the best she could, but I doubt it, I know she could have done better and she didn’t.  Rather than punish her and Dad forever in my heart I’m inclined to believe living well is the best revenge.

“Don’t judge me,” Mom would say, and I would judge.  “Buffy, God put you on this earth to be my son, not tell me what to do,” she said — when she called me Buffy I knew she was displeased.  And I would criticize.  She did what she wanted regardless.  It was all I could do to recognize being sucked into the same friction and spite that demonized my dad.

I lived with my dad off and on in my teenage runaway years, in Wisconsin and California before he dropped out of sight.  You could say I mooched him good.  I say we weren’t very close, didn’t confide in each other much, kept a certain privacy, but I observed him more than he observed me.  I did not want to be like him, suave and convivial gentleman as he was.  He was old school debonair.  A playboy.  Ladies man.  Sharp dresser.  Republican, even in the face of his socialist mother and aunt.  I did admire his taste in Aramis cologne though.  I even tried golf as a little kid, never got any good at it and never shared his game.  He never taught me how to rebuild a carburetor.  As I did with my mother, I eyed Dad from the perspective of of the inside outsider who thinks he knows too much, only with Dad I kept my cynical opinions to myself.  Let him do the talking about politics, not that I feared him I just didn’t need to bait him to hear him out.  I told myself there must be a universe out there that didn’t depend on fast talking wheeling and dealing.  We could talk sports but I did not appreciate his concern for the over and under, as I didn’t make bets.

When he would reminisce about my mom he was clear she was the love of his life.  They didn’t have ten kids from sleeping in a narrow bed.  There was cold resignation and willful detachment when he spoke about their past and sometimes he confessed he was glad it was over, like a stint in the army.  He said he thought it was the best for the kids he stayed out of their lives, kept things uncomplicated from the strife with Mom.  He accepted that Mom poisoned our minds against him as if he deserved it.  “You know Colleen,” he’d say.  “She always wins.”

When he eventually showed up the summer before he died he knew he faced some hairy eyeballs.  At our little memorial thing we held at my house with his ashes in the plastic bag inside the plastic urn, Mom acknowledged it took some guts for him to show his face and look us in the eye.  No one disagreed even as some testified they would never forgive him for ditching us.

When Dad reminisced about his old friend my alleged namesake Mr Denny, he would get chillingly unsentimental as he concluded reciting the facts as if he were a third party to their friendship, almost third person.  Yet in his blue eyes there was a glimmer of a persona who wanted to express uncharacteristic emotion, love and grief, that he rationalized away like he rationalized away his lost marriage and fatherhood.

Mr Denny had all the world going for him.  He was on his way to open his very own Chevrolet dealership in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  The world by the ass.  Just out of Indiana, south of Kalamazoo, there was an accident and he died.  Back then we called them car accidents.  Today they are called crashes, as though there are no accidents.  Dad never ventured into the details of the crash that killed his friend, whose fault, only that it was a Sunday night, not especially late, and his friend was driving alone on a highway in Michigan on his way to open his very own Chevy dealership in Grand Rapids and bang he was dead.  That’s how my dad would tell it.  “None of us gets out of here alive.”

Mom on the other hand had an exquisite funeral at the Basilica, attended by everyone who ever knew her who was still alive (except her old night club friend Mona, who couldn’t get a flight out of Florida) and they tolled the bells at the procession out of the cathedral’s front doors and down the stairs to the hearse for Colleen’s last ride in a Cadillac.

I never took my mom to Ireland, or became a priest, but eventually I scattered her ashes in Galway Bay.  Best I could do.

The first time I saw Roxanne was at a Target store where I was standing in a checkout line to buy a Mother’s Day card for my mom and Roxanne was the Target cashier.  Roxanne was the prettiest girl I ever saw in my life.  Our encounter was purely transactional, overwith as quick as you can say $2.03, but I saw she wore a nametag with a dymo label — Roxanne.  So began the courtship of the mother of my kids.

Unless it was a Hallmark my mom would hardly read it, no matter how verbose the prose.  Other brands like American Greeting and Carlton cards to her were low class.  To tick her off I would give her cards from Papyrus and Shoe Box.

Roxanne and I don’t exchange cards anymore, just engaging glances and blown kisses.

We are better parents than my parents.  I know that’s self righteous.  I recall a time when I didn’t believe I would ever have kids, afraid I would screw them up.  (I also used to fantasize that if I ever had kids I would get a court order to keep my mother away from them so she wouldn’t somehow screw them up.)  I didn’t want the responsibility of misguiding a fresh life.  As it was, Roxanne and I were married five years before we had Michel and I was 30 when Vincent was born.  Roxanne deserves celestial credit for bringing about the best from our kids and evoking the best from me as a father.

Instead of exploring more Europe, running away from home to ruminate the past of western culture, making up for a lost education, catching up with things my parents were apparently unaware to pass on as important to know, this spring I’m staying home.  Memorial Day would be our usual homecoming holiday.  This year I’m already here.  Stuck in my own roots and history, struck by what informs my own character.  Memorial Day is officially to commemorate dead soldiers and sailors, but for me — it’s dubious whether my family tree includes anybody who served in the armed forces, though Roxanne’s dad served under Patton and her grandfather served  during WWI — I tend to include all the dead in my commemoration.  My parents.  My mother who died on a Memorial Day weekend readily comes to mind.  Memorial Day is like my own personal Dia de Los Muertos.  The past five years it’s been an occasion mixed with reveries of Mother’s Day in exotic locales with daughter and grandkids and jealousy that my parents didn’t raise me in Europe.  Or take me there on vacation.  Or send me there to college.  This year, at home this whole while, my fingers dirty with my own dirt, American soil, putzing in the yard and contemplating having this hundred year old house painted so it looks nice another ten years, it’s as much like Thanksgiving for me as Day of the Dead.  Nothing turned out so bad.  It is what it is, and if I’m unhappy I have only myself to blame.

I’m actually happy.

It doesn’t matter to me whether I am or am not remotely related to a fallen lieutenant who died at Little Big Horn — I don’t see how we could be related if the men in that family traditionally went to West Point — or whether my dad’s dad was named after George Armstrong Custer.  I am relieved I got through life without my name associated with a motorcycle festival although I could have drank and dined forever telling tall tales about being named Sturgis.

After my dad died Aunt Weenie told me my dad’s friend Mr Denny’s real name was Byron, Buffalo was his nickname.  It doesn’t change a thing.  No matter.

Whatever genetic combination that composes me, I am nobody’s copy.  Not even as much likeness as one tulip in the jungle one spring to the next.  No pretensions of noble blood of any tribe, there’s no tracing ancestors of my own at the empire capitals of Europe but rather to trace the paths of my descendants.  My grandkids could have been in Manchester to see Ariana Grande.

In its common context the term “American soil” is mostly used as something being defended, but it literally means the dirt in yards and gardens like mine.  I can guess that ten thousand, or one thousand years ago no wild peonies grew on this lot, or tulips, crocuses or daffodils, as it was not somebody’s lot back then but possibly a fen or a glen.  I am stuck with it now, the hundred year old house and it’s detached garage, but everybody has to live somewhere.  Ending up here is not so bad.  The neighborhood may only go back a hundred years but the culture of the people around this land goes back thousands and thousands, comes from a population of various people who in some way imported themselves and their ways from some other place than this continent except the aboriginal native people, who also have been said to first arrived crossing a land bridge from Siberia to Alaska.  On days like this.

My people are mutts.  We are a litter of mutts.  Woof.  Domesticated.

Hear the birds at dawn.  They chatter all day, birdsongs in tongues.  Bird rap.  Mating songs, call and response.  Later in the summer they won’t sing so much, so urgently, so all at once.

Another year.  Mothers Day.  Memorial Day.  Fathers Day.  I am a better parent than my parent isn’t saying much, their bar set so low.  This old homestead, my Buffalo Acres, is where my kids grew up.  Where I raised my kids.  I look around this place and I can see measures of memories of ways I was a good parent, a good father.

Except for once when my teenage daughter lit into me about risking all our lives for choosing to live in the ghetto, my kids have expressed no resentments against me or their mom, though they tease me from time to time about when I would cloister myself upstairs in the loft to write a book as if I lived up there with an imaginary family.

Michel is modest with verbal praise.  Vincent says if anything we were too nice and not strict enough.  That makes me feel good because I see what good people he and his sister are and what good lives they live, and I can proudly think my kids took advantage of parental too-niceness and turned it into a positive outcome.

In myself I see my parents, but not as a copy.  I like to think I see actualization of their best traits, my dad’s gift of gab, his memory and recall, his taste in clothes, and I admire in a strange way the cynical edge he used to perceive the world and yet he played along.  I catch myself and my brothers using mannerisms like his and wonder if it’s from our physical similarities, because neither Sean nor Kevin spent enough time with Dad to learn to imitate him.  One the phone my son Vincent sounds like the voice of Dick Sturgis speaking.

Mom comes out in all us kids, especially my sisters as can be expected.  I feel we are fulfilling her potential.  Bipolar as she was, when she was manic nobody could match her zest for life.  We channel her arrogance as self confidence tested by our own trials and errors.  My sisters who benefited from the assertion of feminist power in their lifetimes got no support from Mom, who clung to a biblical belief that women should always subjugate themselves to men, who believed mothers should not work outside the home and scorned her daughters for pursuing jobs and careers, who espoused ladylike behavior and despised feminist politicians, especially Hillary Clinton who wore pant suits.  Mom’s most admired women included Phyllis Schlafly, Anita Bryant and Nancy Reagan and she used to make fun of Eleanor Roosevelt for having a weak chin and buck teeth.  Michele Bachmann was her kind of gal.  I don’t know where Mom came to embrace arch conservative politics, maybe originating from her father, a corporate attorney, or her mother, a self-styled southern belle, but it seemed when I was a kid she raised us as JFK liberals.  After the divorce she veered off towards Billy Graham and consorted with evangelical partisans and bible study conservatives.  She had a crush on George W Bush, thought he was one handsome devil, and one can only speculate what she would think of our current president.  She didn’t live long enough to see Barack Obama coming, but she was always on guard against Hillary Clinton — it was almost funny how Mom saw her as an archvillainess, and when we wanted to mess with her we only had to mention Hillary Clinton’s name.  It’s unfair to wish our mom had been like Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem, or even Aunt Weenie or her sister Grandma Mary, but Mom had ample chance to catch on to progressive politics but chose not to go there.  In some ways she benefited from feminist cultural changes in her lifetime without supporting the cause, like getting the wages without having to join the union.  Still, my sisters benefit, Roxanne, my daughter, and my grandchildren benefit from the gains women have made in modern society in my lifetime and fulfilling potential my mother did not dare to develop.

My daughter Michel has some of my mom’s good looks.  I see the future there.  I see my mom if she had gone off to college and worked for a living, had a good life and dear marriage without so much drama and baggage and still have an interesting life.  If my mom had had a good mother, and she did not.  As I aspired to be a better parent than my mom, I see Michel and Sid trying to be even better parents, and that means the cycle of generational dysfunction is broken, I am confident of that.  The last thing I want to teach my grandkids is that it’s normal to disrespect grandparents.  Same with my own kids who grew up around Mimi and formed their own impressions of the Kelly matriarch without the help of my exposition, and I am chuffed that they remember her with kindness.  It was only recently, maybe when she was living in Europe or just after she got back, it dawned on me Michel’s voice sounds like my mom’s.  She may have inherited Mimi’s vocal chords, or maybe my sense of hearing is adapting to my memory, but I hear my mother’s voice in my daughter.  That comforts me.  It recalls a time in my life when I was unconditionally loved, when I was Michael or Mickey.  It echoes what my mom sounded like if she were a mom like Michel.

If wishes were horses then beggars would ride, my dad used to say.

If Michel ever calls me Buffy I know I’m in deep trouble.

Taking another quote out of context, William Faulkner’s, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  Funny when you come across a saying like that in your mind when you’re pruning yews.  Looking at the house and eying it up for a paint job that might last another ten years, I should live so long.  Past.  Future.  Now.  Dead.

Mom’s heart gave out in the ER of a Colorado trauma hospital.  She was not alone, Leenie was with her.  Mom was visiting Leenie on a long weekend — just because you moved away from Minnesota you didn’t get to avoid Mom, she would come visit you.  Mom had a heart attack at Leenie’s, and Leenie drove her to the trauma center where she died.

I got the call about 3:30 in the morning.  It came as quite a shock.  Everybody knew Mom had cardiac risk — her father died of a heart attack at the age of 59 — but it seemed Mom possessed an eternal flame, nobody saw it coming, herself least of all.  She seemed immortal.  She lived like she was a goddess.

Eleven Mothers Days Memorial Days ago.  We all realistically believed Mom would age into gradually degenerating health but live long enough to spend all her assets on palliative care.  Not so.  We thought we would end up looking after her like she never looked after us, and in one night we were orphans.  If it took our entire lives to get over our miserable childhoods, in one night it was all over, no more Mom to bind us, no more need to think of Mom in the future tense, she was suddenly past.  Part of my grief was dealing with feelings that it was the best thing that ever happened to my sisters and brothers that they were suddenly free, but I dared not say so.  All these years hoping Mom would finally get fixed, love us the way we each wanted to be loved, behave in a manner that did not embarrass us, stop ragging about our flaws, accept boundaries and respect our privacies, in one night everything was solved.  No more recriminations.  No more need for a fix.  It tells me something that nobody called me to remember her passing.

All caught up with yard chores in time for a rainy day.  The atmosphere here at the 45th parallel trends warmer overnight even as the days are not too hot, a hard freeze way unlikely.  With atmospheric changes come storms, but the air is stable today if damp.  The forecast says partly sunny.  It’s amazing how lush and green the vegetation is this year.  Like this is how everything always should be.  Equilibrium.

Serene.  In the canon of faith based recovery programs is a philosophical gem they call the Serenity Prayer.  It essentially asks of oneself to accept what one cannot change and to take courage to change what one can, and hopes for the wisdom to know the difference.  It’s that last part, knowing the difference, the wisdom part, where I stall.  Ruminate.  Look for the secret patterns.  Where does responsibility begin and end?  What is courage?  The weather ball is green — no change foreseen.

If not change, at least there is maintenance.

I have been blessed with a charmed life.  Graced.  It’s about what comes next — I’m getting old now, chronologically.  In percentage of life expectancy I can say I’ve already lived most of my life’s adventure already, yet I’m in a place where I can pick and choose the quality of what remains.

If this spring is different from others it’s the observation of the full passage of the season, a culmination of an era rather than a beginning.  A reverse of autumn, un-fall, this spring goads me to look backwards and inwards for something to link myself, some kind of unified field theory of my existence, an internet of things about myself, a je ne sais quois, something that defies words but is not a new beginning but defines what is.  That’s apparently all I ask.  I would like to see Grand Canyon again.  And Eiffel Tower.  No going back in time, I go there in my mind, and if I go again it will be new.  Somewhere in my memory bank is my long ago childhood, someplace not lost, noplace to return.  Lessons learned.  What I look forward to is summertime and I’d rather not start the cycle over with amnesia.


Nanny to Daddy State

100 days of what?

It’s a sexist meme but let’s look.

Interest in a book called “The Fourth Turning” arises from a general fascination with cycles.  We happen to live in exciting times.  As is the appetite for explanation of the Now, let’s play along.

The Nanny State takes care of its citizens.  Wipes their noses.  Examples in the United States abound.  Social Security and Medicare.  Workers Compensation.  Section Eight housing.  Title IX.  Title X.  Unemployment insurance.  Public Assistance, aka Welfare and Food Stamps.  Medicaid.  Obamacare.  School Lunch — some would argue public education in general.  Public transportation.

Fringe conservatives, neocons, freedom caucusers, alt-rights, anarchists, libertarians, illiberals and other extreme thinkers opposed to state sponsorship of a caretaking society may name countless more such examples, but these are the commonest sore spots thus conspiring to undermine independence and individual initiative and purge self-reliance and reliance on God from human character.  Make that American character, as in America first.  These are the institutions of the state said to engender fatal dependence upon the state.  People get accustomed to having their noses wiped and others object to paying for and enabling the snot rags.

Critics of the Nanny State, or Welfare State, argue the social inefficiency of liberal social engineering as failed strategy creating more problems than it has solved.  Where such governments show actual success at achieving measurable social harmony along with maximum human rights, such as nations of Scandinavia, it is roundly pointed out the economic costs to each country’s GDP putting the average standard of living at beneath American middle class standards of aspiration, and cost a lot in taxes.  It’s always the taxes.  Sometimes it’s the social engineering’s fault but always it’s the taxes even where liberal policies work.  The taxes and the national debt.  It’s a matter of conservative principles.

Europe gets credit as incubator of nanny states.  England gets most scrutiny, perhaps due to its constant democratic self-examination, but France, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Spain all get faulted for providing too generous benefits to its citizens and residents.  (One is not sure where Switzerland fits.)  Not a failed state among them.  None a perfect democracy.  All one time world empires.  If the common nanny state emerged here in Europe as a form of social contract responding to the aftermath of World War II, it certainly asserted a collection of ideals going forward, learned the hard way, how to form humane democratic states.  Americans might like to think the Marshall Plan influenced this outcome.  It’s this humanity now under attack for having open borders, resettling migrants, asylum seekers and refugees from inhumane conditions.  A grand mass migration of people is occurring and it frightens people to see infiltrators in their space.  Who can blame these migrants for seeking a good life?  Blame the nanny state for generously subsidizing more vagrancy and the erosion of national culture.

In America the nanny is about to get fired.  Sacked.  Given the shoo.

The seminal importance of “The Fourth Turning” is like similar popular obsessions over the Book of Revelations (and its offshoots like the Left Behind series) and the writings of Nostradamus (Alas, Babylon) to divine prophecies that define or self-fulfill current events.  The Heisenberg theory applied to history, it can be entertaining.  And can stimulate serious discussion and evaluation of cycles and trends on the planet occurring before our very eyes.

The sociopolitical meme appears to be turning from Nanny State to Daddy State.

The archetypal strong man takes over to rule over the unruly disorganized overly democratic masses in order to bring stability and ostensibly prosperity  and security to the nation — what people really want.  The strong man promises ultimately to grant what best for the people.

This is hardly a new method of governing — as old as tribal humanity.  See it in the animal kingdom.  The empires of the ancients.  Sovereigns of Europe. Popes.  Genghis Khan.  Kublai Khan.  That Napoleon thing.  Adolf Hitler.  Lenin and Stalin.  Chairman Mao and Uncle Ho.  Chiang Kai-shek.  Idi Amin and Moammar Khadafy.  The Ayatollah.  The Shah.  Fidel.  Pinochet.  Hugo Chavez.  Rodrigo Duterte.  Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.  Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  Kim Jong Un.  Bashar al Assad.  Vladimir Putin.

A patriarchal pantheon.  In addition one hesitates to classify emerging statespersons such as Marine Le Pen, but perhaps she will not matter.  More difficult to classify Theresa May — maybe so, maybe not.  Angela Merkel comes from the nanny school.  One has an even harder task classifying the likes of Queen Victoria, Cleopatra, Indira Gandhi or Catherine the Great, so I’ll stick to focus on clear Daddy State regimes.  What would the sands of Arabia be like without the Saudi monarchy, after all?

America’s classic strong man was FDR , and it is ironic FDR is credited for creating the American nanny state.  Barack Obama, among other firsts, was perhaps history’s first male nanny.


The American fuhrer, Donald Trump, President Hump, is now more than 100 days embarked on his mission to remake the country in his own image and likeness.  Fuhrer knows best.  Don’t question him.  Don’t doubt his authority.  You can get disinherited.

He rants like a drunken abusive head of household come home from bar closing.

He never laughs, certainly not at himself.  Can’t take a joke.

He brands the news media as the enemy of the people.  Wants to manage the news, control information, invent facts, and subverts the common practice of issuing press releases through a press secretary by posting Tweets and tossing non-sequiturs like bon-bon bon mots at the tourists.  When quoted he complains the news is fake.  His press secretary has no credibility but no one else wants the job.  Faker or fakir?

A recent ranking of countries by freedom of the press placed the United States somewhere in the 40s.  Seems modest.  Maybe we don’t wish to brag but America enjoys a delicious and generous quality of press freedom, how else a bumpkin like me gets a website much less President Hump himself uncensored license to spout gibberish and expect to be taken seriously.  In another country he might be in jail or assassinated.


He skipped the White House Correspondents annual dinner, a traditional convivial roast fest which might have got ugly if he had shown up, if nothing else in memory of Don Rickles — remember, the fuhrer never laughs and can’t take a joke.  Instead at that same moment in real time he hosted a rally in the capital city of Pennsylvania where he addressed a hippodrome worth of avid admirers for about an hour, denouncing the media, promising jobs and health care, thanking the armed forces, winking at China and vowing to build a border wall against Mexico, rousing his crowd all frothy and sublime until you can almost hear them chant, sig heil.

Witnessing this display for any liberal must have felt like being in the Moral Majority in the 1970s if Hugh Hefner were elected president.  At least Hugh Hefner read books.

There’s a bunch out there who call themselves The Resistance.  Who might they be?

Most opponents of the fuhrer can take heart knowing there is evidence of fair mindedness and reason across the land.  The numbers of his fans are not increasing, despite what he thinks, and as he turns to his fans for another rally fix he’ll find it’s the same old mob, time and time again.  That may be as well, it helps identify the grievous among us.  He has no new ideas.  He attracts no new converts.  He will alienate the rest and bore the brightest.  He’ll fib his way along.

There’s a card carrying GOP Hoosier Daddy named Mike Pence working in the wings, just in case.

Meanwhile there no ignoring the fuhrer and his inner circle deconstructing the administrative nanny state and reconstructing a daddy state in its place, regardless of unpopularity, under scrutiny of the free press, against all professional advice, contrary to science, in the face of academics, no matter what anybody says including boomers and millennials, or even Congress.

He doesn’t care if Congress passes a bad health care law as long as it fulfills his promise to repeal Obamacare.  It’s a win for him.  So now he objects to the ACHA (American Health Care Act) being dubbed Trumpcare, and rightly so, it’s fake, he is Trump but he does not care.  Humpcare.

See how Trump admires dictators.  He praised Putin during his campaign.  He hosted El Sissi.  Invited Duterte.  Erdogen visits in May.  Says Kim Jong Un is a “pretty smart cookie” he would be “honored” to meet.  You almost wouldn’t be shocked to hear him say for all he knows Assad and Hitler weren’t such bad guys except for the poison gas, they just had a rough time trying to rule their countries under duress.  When more truth comes out about Russian election meddling you can expect to hear him say the Russians have proven there is no such thing as democracy.

The Russians always lie, so no one on earth believes them, so they lie.

One thing a majority of citizens approve of is the fuhrer’s actions as civilian commander in chief of the armed forces, namely his missile blitz against Assad.  One badass daddy licks one bad daddy.  Well staged.  He said in his campaign he had generals, and he has generals.  (Mike Flynn was a general.)  In a few weeks he will tour the Middle East, his first venture outside the USA since being president.  Will he attract throngs?  Will he simply meet heads of state beyond the view of the public eye?  What kind of mischief can President Hump stir up outside our borders?  Should we allow him back in?

I’ve been to Belgium, and it is not a hell hole.

He just said out loud it might be a good idea to have a shutdown of the federal government in September.  Like it’s a cleansing exercise at his daughter Treblinka’s spa.  Teach us all a good lesson.  We’re all grounded until we shape up.

In his faux state of the union speech, which stands out as his most reasoned address to date, the fuhrer spoke of a new chapter for America.  We should have known he meant Chapter 11.

Chapter 11?

He’s a real estate guy.  His universe is built on leverage — borrowed money — mortgage loans secured by minimal collateral, sometimes unsecured or undersecured.  Big debt.  You know he won’t release his tax returns because he’s leveraged way over his ears, and the parties to whom he’s indebted would not surprise you and yet blow your mind.  Nothing illegal but blatantly oligarchic for someone passing himself as a man of the people.

In the immortal words of Aretha Franklin, who’s zoomin’ who?

Show us your golf scores!

Did I hear right, he referred to Sen Elizabeth Warren as Pocahontas again at the NRA convention?  He’s truly run out of material.  Look back at the early days of the GOP candidate debates and you see Donald Trump emerge and set himself apart as a stand up comic, campaigning as a right wing Mort Sahl.  Oh if it were funny…

The fuhrer’s chief of staff called the 9th Circuit Court “going bananas” for its rulings against Trump’s proclamations against immigration and withholding funds from cities.  The court system is the administration’s opportunity to further slip on a peel.  It would be justice if Gorsuch turns out to be a stricter constitutionalist than the fuhrer intended.

Can Hump really roll back Obamacare by proclamation?  Rescind national monuments?  Get away with licensing the pollution of air and water?  Condemn the planet to antiscientific global disintegration?  Force our children to eat coal?

If he were a smart daddy he would come up with new material, fresh angles, ideas he can pitch as ahead of the curve.  So he promised to build a border wall coast to coast against Mexico.  He could say, I’ve been thinking about the wall and I came up with this fabulous idea.  It’s going to be an invisible virtual wall, this wonderful high tech border wall made of the most state of the art lasers and wi-fi and microwaves and drones and satellites, the most imaginative engineering and physics you can imagine.  Why spend all that money on brick and mortar that can go to infrastructure projects?  Why waste rebar?  Why go through the hassles of aggravating land owners over eminent domain, or the blockage of the Rio Grande, the scenic blight, environmental pollution, the inevitable hassles in the courts, when we could build a virtual wall and achieve state of the art security with 21st Century technology at much less the cost, more quality for the money I tell you.  And since the technology works both ways, maybe Mexico would offer to chip in!  Believe me.

No, he won’t see it that way.  He’ll go on conniving with his henchmen more ways to dupe the country.  He’s no visionary, he’s a con man, pure and simple.  His most telling metaphor is his tried and true rally staple recitation of the entire lyrics of the song “The Snake”, as he did again to close with huge fanfare his 100 days at Harrisburg, PA.  He presents it as a parable of how kindness to immigrants will turn and bite us.  In reality he is the snake.  He never hid his true nature from us.  We knew all along he was a snake.

The drama of the Hump presidency unfolds with absurd surreal majesty like a pageant of the Emperor’s New Clothes meets the Pied Piper of Hamlin.  Salvador Dali, who had a green card, would be LOL.  Call it the Dada State.


So where’s Mama?


Crybaby President


What have we done?

What do we do next?

The first question ruminates the words of Paul Simon from “The Boxer” —

“A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”

A woman too.  As for the disregards — to regard comes from a visual root, to see something, which suggests a reference to the song “Magic” by Bruce Springsteen:

“Trust none of what you hear, less of what you see, this is what will be, this is what will be”

People say we get the government we deserve.  A fine-tuned machine, by one account.

We have elected the most charismatic and mercurial egomaniac to emerge as a public figure in our lifetimes the President of the United States.  We elected him.  He won.

A man who campaigned relentlessly for xenophobia, nationalist anarchy and anti-intellectual demagoguery got elected fair and square by the free voting electorate according to the law of its beloved Constitution.  This was not a putsch or a coup.  This did not come about by mob rule or insurrection.  Not by ballot fraud.  This was accomplished by a year-plus campaign culminating in a free election.  Donald Trump.

Who voted for this guy?  These people are fellow citizens to be reckoned with.  These people have hopes and desires, demands and expectations of the new administration to act on their behalf.  What do they want?  What will Donald Trump deliver?

A large swath of conservative people voted to rid the executive branch of the liberal party, at whatever cost.  They do not see liberal values as progressive in the right way for the country or the culture.  On the contrary, they see the social goals of liberals as a form of tyranny.  Regulations of food, air, water, weapons, energy, property rights and business practices all impede freedom, they say.  Political focus on the civil rights of minorities makes some citizens feel uncomfortable and left out.  Dispossessed.  Counter disgruntled.  The government spends too much money, and everywhere it’s wasted, especially on social programs.  Taxation isn’t fair.  Immigrants are social liabilities who either steal jobs or soak up welfare benefits.  Compulsive health insurance is government socialized medicine.  Global trade kills jobs.  Gangs kill cities.  Liberals aren’t nearly tough enough on gangs.

Theses are some of the mainstream things I hear why voters went GOP this time, if not wholeheartedly for Donald Trump.  Already discussed is the influence of digitalysis — the collection of private cyber data for unauthorized publication — contributing to the upending of Hillary Clinton and much attention to efforts of Russian operatives to spin it against her campaign.  Americans are loathe to concede their free choice could be compromised by Russian propaganda, but they received fair warning it might be coming from Donald Trump himself when he previewed the suggestion in a presidential debate the Russians should hack Hillary Clinton, suggesting there might be something there — something like what, a link between pay-for-play with the Clinton Foundation, the State Department and the Trilateral Commission.


Hillary Clinton to her eventual discredit campaigned like a nerd girl running for student council.  She remanded a linear campaign focused on platform talking points of liberal and progressive goals.  The moral highground seemed obvious.  It seemed obvious to her that human rights — children’s rights, women’s rights, the rights of asylum seekers and the poor and downtrodden of this world — should be of greater concern than the petty complaints of white privilege.  It seemed obvious to her of the certainty that she represented the virtues of being on the right side of history.

How prescient when one of the few times she broke character debating Donald Trump she called him a Russian puppet, and the two of them bantered back and forth like second graders:  You’re the puppet, no you’re the puppet.  Puppet!

I know you are but what am I?

Hillary Clinton failed to define herself as someone who would make America greater.  By default we get a president who won’t even accept he won.  Even if he does, would it make the criticism go away?

The president is a crybaby.

He disrespects his own office.  He disrespected his candidacy, his opponents, the electorate and the institutions of his country.

It’s all about him.  Were he a poet he could claim poetic license, but his verse rings rank and foul with unholy lies and half lies.  He said in the campaign, he’s the only guy who can.  He’s a brand.  An entity.  He’s going to makeover this country in his image, combover America with dyed hair.  Of course he has a plan, an unbelievable plan, an agenda, it’s his plan, his agenda.  Did he not speak plainly enough in his campaign?  How many quotes back do we need to go?

He built a fan base out of a cult following of people who admired his behavior and that he told it like it is.  His most admired quality besides being rich is that he says outrageously rude things and gets away with it.  He has no pretense of political correctness and people love that.  He hijacked the Republican party and stole away the Tea Party and the GOP sold its soul to put Donald Trump in the White House to push conservative legislation to downsize government, except the military.  So far Trump’s populist base favors the results so far from Congress, but the fan base might not see enough loyalty from legislators who may sense the President is playing them with shenanigans.

There used to be a caucus called the Liberal Republicans.  Dick Nixon was considered one when he was in Congress.  Nelson Rockefeller was one.  In Minnesota we had Senator Dave Durenberger.  Today any politician with a trace of liberal philosophy has been chased out and exiled from the GOP, sometimes turning up as independents, like unradical unleftist Democrats often do.

Donald Trump is his own guy.

Doesn’t need the party.  Doesn’t need Congress.  Not the intelligence community.  Not the courts.  Not polls.  Not the Fifth Estate.  He just needs fans.  That’s why he continues to campaign.


The people who voted for him include significant numbers of people who voted a straight ticket and crossed their fingers and only thank their creator that the Devil Witch didn’t get elected.  There’s that “Thanks Obama” punchline, people who politically oppose the Dems for being Dems.  Most of them would say they would have preferred Lyin’ Ted or Little Marco or Rand Paul, but they would rather give Donald Trump a try than trust Hillary Clinton.

The population who voted for Trump who puzzles me are the women.  Aside from the many straight ticketers who could not abide Hillary, who crossed over the gender line to endorse this so-called sexist pig?  This beauty queen trafficker.  Deprecator of Carly Fiorina, Megyn Kelly and Elizabeth Warren.  Vilifier of Rosie O’Donnell.  Bragger of grabbing coochie.  There must be a lot of female voters out there attracted to Bad Boys, especially rich ones.  Is it like the women who write love letters to guys in a penitentiary they don’t even know?  For some women Donald Trump is like an outlaw rock star.

Bad Boys, Billionaires and Bigots.

Fascination for being rich enthralls people.  It follows that the envious and the emulators support Trump’s enterprising attitude.  In the event they too hit the big time they don’t want to pay taxes either.  They want to keep secret accounts too.  When the illegal immigrants are gone then the poor can get kicked off welfare to take the vacated jobs.  For some people the middle class is just a stepping stone.  Nothing gets in the way of making money.

The portion of the people — yes, they are people, as in We the People — who elected Donald Trump who concern me the most are the ones Hillary Clinton called a basket of deplorables.  The basket.  In another rare spontaneous wisecrack she defined an estimated half his supporters, which in sheer numbers is one big basket.  He draws rallies like Billy Graham.  There’s people who would take a grenade for the guy.  Donald Trump could literally shoot somebody on 5th Avenue and they would still love him, and he knows it.  Talk about a cult of personality.

Every time I see him give a speech I hear jackboots in the background.  Every Twitter rant sounds like marching orders, coded signals to get ready.

Even if the estimation of half his voters is way too high, the deplorables — not to confuse with Les Miserables — are the very ones the crybaby is appealing to, whom he’s been addressing all along, who identify his message as their own and would carry out deplorable acts to get their way.  In the name of their demigod, Donald Trump.

This is why Donald Trump worries me, he has had such success projecting his personality on American society by guessing right at reaching the lowest common denominator.

His latest conceit, that a “sick” (sic) President Obama tapped his phones, is so believable among the birther mentality we could see a demand for a special prosecutor to look into innuendo that the surveillance ran through Hillary Clinton’s server.  Then we’ll learn it was hacked by Russians and intercepted by the NSA, CIA and FBI then leaked to Wiki.  Digitalysis by the numbers.  If the DNC had actually hacked Trump’s tax returns don’t you think they would have been leaked by now?

Yes, we vetted him over a year and elected him anyway — well almost three million fewer of us than voted for Hillary nationwide, but he won by electoral votes.  Not a landslide, but he won.  What do we do now?

Somewhere in the scheme of things we owe ourselves an examination of conscience.  In each our own lives we first have to reckon what kind of person we are and want to be.

Then we have to look after our families and communities and recognize our common affirmations.  We need civil dialog as we strive for solutions to social problems.  We need to make the effort to stretch our understanding of others of a different mind to arrive at common enlightenment.

To be specific to Donald Trump there is an urge to resort to low satire, call him Hump our Douchebag Fuhrer.  Call his daughter Treblinka.

Then I think about Barack Obama and the cruel things the obstructionists said about him.  Donald Trump has not nearly the grace to hold up with nearly the dignity, and I don’t want to see this presidency degenerate into a horrifying mirror image of the last, depersonalizing and dehumanizing the President like unmerciful trolls — not that Trump wouldn’t do that to you if he felt he had to.

I would refrain from stomping on Ivanka because she has expressed support for Planned Parenthood and women’s empowerment issues enough to make one wonder if she even voted for her dad.  Women are going to put more influence on Donald Trump’s administration than he may think and he depends on them more than he may know — can he imagine a day without Kellyanne Conway?  His election has invigorized women to demonstrate their political and socioeconomic power and we’ll see a lot of culture clout the next four years.  Anita Bryant and Phyllis Schlafly are gone, and it shouldn’t come to Lysistrata, but there is movement to resurrect the Equal Rights Amendment, and it poses an opportunity for Donald Trump to reveal his true colors about women.


On policy he should be challenged at every forum.  If he gets something right he should be acknowledged.  If he contradicts his own mission or double-crosses those displaced workers he panders to he should be called out.  If he negotiates bad trade deals or reneges on treaties he should be shamed.  If he fakes the press and lies the news he’ll be found out, believe me.

I am not objective.  I am white and quite privileged.  I am not disenfranchised or unempowered, nor do I feel left behind by the times.  I thought the country was great already and going the right direction and take issue with those who think the opposite.

To his hard core supporters be gentle but firm.  Give them wide berth to wear their prized Deplorables badges and do not abridge their constitutional rights.  Let them manifest themselves so we can know who they are and what they really stand for.  Let them out themselves.  Do not engage them or bait them with violence.  Bypass their confrontations with alternate channels of persuasion.  There has to be a way to educate people who fear an armed insurrection of Somali immigrants in caravans of taxicabs and minivans.  Let the fools reveal themselves as idiots by and by, and we’ll move on, this too shall pass.

Resist despair.  Take heart.

Look people in the eye.  Do a good job.  Wear a safety pin on your lapel.  Keep the faith.  Pay attention.  Don’t get suckered.  Assume positive intent.  Be the nicest one.

In Minnesota there once was a ballot referendum to amend the state constitution to explicitly prohibit same sex marriage and after all it became the first state to make it legal by legislative action, not by the court.  Be careful what you wish for, ye who wish to rule the world.

In Trump’s case pay attention to his fine-tuned machine.  If it breaks down and the wheels come off he won’t be able to hide it under a clandestine pit stop.

He can’t fire everybody.  He’s the apprentice now.  The mid-term election is just next year.  Constituents have the power to hire and fire the House and Senate, which goes both ways with Trump-era legislation.  He can’t fire voters.


Sid my son-in-law observes that you never see Donald Trump laugh.  Sometimes he smiles, you see him smirk, but you never see him laugh.

Ask him why America should trust a businessman who dodges his bills and goes bankrupt.  Ask him for his tax returns.

Hound his subordinates.  Chase after the Steves, Bannon and Miller, seek after cabinet appointees and staffers like paparazzi and question whatever they say.  Saturate Congress with attention.

If this presidency folds up its bridges of access and retracts itself into a fortress like Trump Tower, don’t expect Congress or even Mike Pence to rescue Donald Trump from his perceived enemies of the people, by the people and for the people.

My friend Jim offered caution to the President when Trump first disparaged the intelligence community and he wondered out loud if maybe Trump whined enough about the CIA being like the 3rd Reich a black ops team under the 25th Amendment might show up one night at Mar-a-Lago, put him in a bag and whoosh him off to an undisclosed location, never to be seen again.

How can Donald Trump expect America to be great when he makes us look like morons?  He embarrasses us to the world.  The crybaby better grow up.




Nobody holds hands like my little girls.

My little girls still include my daughter Michel, now a generation away from being little.  She still is not tall but it was ages since we held hands, ages from that awkward vague random age when it wasn’t cool to be seen at school or the mall holding hands with your dad, somewhere between nine and thirteen.  I get it.  Yet I do recall the feel of her palm and tight little fingers.  I am reminded by the palms and fingers of her daughters, my grandchildren, my little girls Clara and Tess.

They are 12 and 9 now.  Old enough to cross the street untethered to a grown up — most streets — or hand in hand with one another.  Still, on a walk around Lake Harriet with ice cream cones or strolling down the main mall at the U going to the Weisman, they will glide their palms into my fingers as we stroll and talk.  There is no time to feel self-conscious but only to savor the sublime grasp of their small lifelines and fingers in mine and the transference of enduring grace and the soft energy of simple love.

The moment Clara was born I was there behind a curtain where I could hear her first inhalations.  She didn’t cry, just sort of chuckled.  After a few awesome breath catching moments bonding with mom and dad, the nurse drew the curtain aside and brought her out to weigh her and clean her up.

“Hold her while I set up the scale,” said the nurse and placed Clara in my arms.

In that moment I experienced the most profound life altering flash.  I looked into that baby’s blue eyes looking up into mine, eye contact, and put my finger into her tiny grasp and said, “Hello Clara, my sweet sweet baby.”  This was the highest high, cosmic intensity, the most beautiful awareness of the soul of the universe.  At that moment I knew in my heart and soul my life meant something good, and this goodness was not fleeting but sustaining everlasting joy.  This exalted fulfillment — my first grandchild.


Thus Clara opened the way for Tess.  Someday I hope I can appropriately express to Clara how grateful I am for that moment and its effect on my life ever since.

Tess is another story.  I used to wonder if I compensated with Tess, making up for the two years and eight months she wasn’t around, when Clara was an only child.

Tess was born almost an hour before I held her.  Around dinnertime, waiting for Michel to go into deep labor, Granma Roxanne and I took Clara out to Burger King.  The Burger King featured a playland for kids made of colorful conduit tubes to climb around in like hamsters.  We let Clara climb inside.  When Michel’s husband Sid called Roxanne’s cell phone to say Tess was on the way, we called up into the tubes to tell Clara it was time to go.  She by then had climbed to the top of the tube maze and cried out she was lost and didn’t know which way to come down.  We tried to talk her through the route but she wouldn’t budge.  Too narrow for an adult to to climb in to get her, a boy about seven offered to go up and escort her out.

By the time we arrived back at the hospital Tess was weighed, bathed and swaddled.  Sid’s parents were already there and holding the new baby.  Michel relaxed in the rocking chair.  My first face to face with Tess she looked crabby.  Unlike Clara, who was born bald, Tess had a full head of dark hair.  She wore a wizened face.  She seemed to demand an apology for being late.  I held her.  She squirmed.


The first impressions of my grand daughters no way eclipsed the megaton experiences of the births of my daughter and son.  Fatherhood bestowed its own blessings, not least from my son Vincent whose masculine handshakes, fist bumps and abrazos inspire me to this day.  Vincent has his own story.  This is about my girls.

Clara and Tess were both named after me.  Their middle names are each Michel, their mother’s name.  My middle name is Michael.  Sid’s middle name is Michael.  When it comes up at school or an airport customs station they say it’s their family name.  When I asked Roxanne if she resented not being a member of the Michel Club, she said no thanks, it’s enough to bear just being a Kelly.

Michel’s middle name by the way is Angela.  That’s why her family, school and social (but not professional) nickname is Angel, or The Angel.  Never Angie.  And never never never Mike, Mikey or Mickey.

Clara is named Clara after Sid’s maternal grandma, Clara Stix, who is 99 years old.

To me the word Clara conveys a consistent expression of clear understanding, as in the Spanish expression clara.  Clear.

I recall a precious quote attributed to someone named Billy, age 4:

“When somebody loves you, the way they say your name is different.  You just know your name is safe in their mouth.”

From the first eye contact between us the day she was born, Clara and I have clear communication.  I take credit, in part, for her vocabulary and syntax and know her today as an articulate young lady not shy to look you in the eye.  We all like to think our offspring precocious.  Early on Clara organized objects and directed play.  I let her — encouraged her — to boss me around as I played the role of the customer/bus driver/pupil in her scenarios.  I gave her crayons, paper and markers.  I played music on the stereo.

When she was a baby I waltzed her in my arms to Madonna’s “Baby’s got a secret.”

“Mmmm mmmm, something’s coming over, something’s coming over me…”

You may observe in me the signs of a devious, insidious and sinister Master Plan.  Based in proud success parenting Michel and Vincent into adulthood, here with Clara — wow — what an opportunity to really grandfather this bright kid, really show her the world.

The first time I brought her to the Minneapolis Institute of Art we happened into the gallery of medieval european paintings which features detailed depictions of the Crucifixion.  Barely three years old, Clara began to cry and wanted to know why those people — how could those people — be so mean to that man?  Why?  What did he do?  She cried and sobbed pointing to the man with nails in his hand, bleeding from his head and side, unable to look away.  I carried her to distraction at the next gallery, consoling her tears but virtually speechless — there was no way I could say like oh don’t worry, that didn’t really happen, nobody was ever really made to suffer and die in such humiliation in this old world.

A lesson in granprogramming.  First do no harm.  Be careful what you wish for, especially wishing on behalf of somebody else’s child.  She was Michel and Sid’s kid and I had no right to risk her ruin.  I promised to mentor Clara as much as she mentored me.  Roxanne and I set up a college fund so maybe she could someday study a semester at the Sorbonne.


Clara nicknamed herself Sparkles.

She identifies her looks with her father Sid, less with her mother.  What Clara doesn’t realize is how much she resembles me.  Not now, and not that she was very white and bald the first year of her life, or that we both have blue eyes.  I was fair and blond as a child and there is a resemblance between us in old pictures of me in black and white.  I understand why a pretty girl would feel less pretty compared to resemble a bald and wrinkling man of the third age and favor being likened to a handsome guy like her dad, who also has blue eyes.

Tess is Tess.  Not Teresa, or Tessa, Contessa, and only to her mama is she Tessy.  I call her Kitty.  I asked her permission, and she asked why, and I said because you remind me of my mom.  Tess resembles her mom, who both resembles Roxanne and my mom, who went by the name of Kitty and was once a fashion model.  She passed away just before Tess was born, so she never knew her.  Do you miss her, Tess asks.  Every day, I reply.

Tess saved Clara from the awful fate of being an only child.  Clara was pushing a precocious three years old when Tess showed up to challenge Clara’s sovereignty.  From Tess’s inception Clara was schooled to the expectations of being a big sister.  Michel told how she had a talk with Clara the night before Tess started infant day care at Clara’s pre-school, and Michel asked Clara to look after Tess because Tess was new there and had no friends yet.  Clara said back to her mom, “She also has no teeth.”

Tess and I didn’t bond like Clara and me.  She was Granma Roxy’s girl from the outset.  I had to earn Tess’s affection.  She didn’t snuggle up to me.

As we were saying our good byes at their house after a family dinner I moved towards toddler Tess to hug farewell, she stiffened, stepped back and shouted, “Get out of my house!”

Another time soon afterwards she was left alone in my care.  We were on my front porch, she had some toys, and abruptly she gestured she wanted to go indoors.  I didn’t want to go inside, content to sit and read on my porch swing and so encouraged her to keep playing with her toys out on the porch.  Too small and uncoordinated yet to operate the screen door, she began to scream.

A penetrating high-pitched scream like a diva on metabolics.  A full lung’s worth.  Aside from awe for the child’s vocal power my first thought was one of the neighbors was calling the cops.  Soon as she exhausted her lungs she inhaled deep and let rip again, a higher note yet, Tess’s fierce face like an enraged christmas caroler.  “My goodness,” all I could say, “you can really hit those notes.  Keep going.  I think you can be a singer.”

Granpa Buffalo Kelly calmly rocked in his porch swing waiting for the child protection cops while the baby diva belted high E.  Showdown.  Opportunity to establish what kind of grandparent I wanted to be, tested here at my house, one on one, by some kind of beast of the east, a bullying tantrum to get her whimsical way, not even asking much less saying please.

Eventually she began to cry.  Big tears.  Sobbing she asked if we could go indoors.  She let me console her, and we picked up the toys.  No incident like that ever occurred again.  We moved on.  We made lunch.


Though she remained Granma’s Girl for several years, Tess and I bonded faithfully on her terms.  Like with Clara we played whatever Tess wanted, only Clara sought consensus or contentedly played alone whereas Tess implied compulsion and resisted solo activity.  My devotion to Tess for her own right made me conscious she wasn’t Clara and it seemed sometimes I owed Tess the two plus years Clara had as a head start.

Their sibling rivalry manifests along personality lines.  Clara is contemplative and deliberate.  She is given towards an artistic eccentric temperament.  Tess is overt and plain spoken when grumpy.

It took years for Clara to accept Tess as a bona fide character beyond her big sister shadow, just as it’s taken Tess years to catch up where Clara leaves off.

Once I overheard them playing in the bathtub.  Tess seemed to have a dialogue going with her toys.  Clara was singing to herself something bluesy.

“I woke up in the sky.  You woke up in a dead fishy’s mouth.”

If this was directed at Tess, Tess made no reply, apparently kept playing toys.

They both love to sing.  Both have lovely voices and can carry a melody.  Kiz Bop.  Bedtime with the Beatles.  101 Best Kid Songs Ever.  Annie.  John McCutcheon.  CDs and FM radio in the car.  Their parents have eclectic and modern pop tastes.  Sid has been a deep fan of My Morning Jacket.  Michel first introduced me to Counting Crows.  At barely three Clara got a listen to Andrea Bocelli singing “Con Te Partiro” and made it her song a while after the cute phase, but it showed taste and what she could do vocally even if she didn’t know the words, sort of made them up phonetically.  I plied her with Shakira songs in Spanish.

John McCutcheon said he told his grand daughter not to take up the banjo, that girls who play banjo don’t get dates.  After Taylor Swift no grand daughter will ever believe him.

Tess has a throatier voice and actually does a decent Shakira impression.  Just as I used to rock baby Clara to sleep in my arms to Madonna’s “Secret” I used to rock Tess to sleep with Shakira’s “Something”, a song about looking into someone’s eyes and finding the existence of God.

“You accept me like nobody, and I will always love you baby…”

It was about the time Tess was born Clara took up gymnastics.  All cartwheels and a balance beam a foot above the mat.  For a few seasons she ran track and field.  Swimming.  Pre-school led to kindergarden and grade school.  She sang at school choir.  Granma Roxy and I attended meets and concerts.  Grandparents Day was a sweet deal.  Sid and The Angel’s family the Kysylyczyns lived in a suburb east of St Paul on the way to Wisconsin, not exactly close neighbors or even nearby neighborhoods but at least a straight shot via freeway away.  We were cosmopolitan metropolitan grandparents, lucky to have them this close.  (And Sid and Michel probably considered us far enough away — an independence consideration.)  Near enough to babysit.  Gladly.  Sleepovers.  Most Fridays in the summer Roxanne took off work and went to their house for the day or took the kids to the beach.  I looked forward to retirement as a future hanging out with the kids any day I wanted, attending their events and plays, volunteer reader at their school, helping with homework and projects, going to shows and museums and amusement parks and Wisconsin Dells.  Baseball games.  Fishing with Uncle Vincent.  Pizza nights.  Apple picking.  Fourth of July.  Christmas.  All those amazing things you can do with grandchildren between birthdays.


Future so bright, as the song says, I had to wear shades.  This grandfather gig was a sweet deal.  The modified and improvised Master Plan was going like a proverbial Swiss watch and I could never have asked for a more ideal family relationship.  I was learning about childhood all over again through the eyes of my own experts.  I was there for them to find answers to fresh questions, give support to their discoveries and provide love and support to their day to day.

Clara was six and Tess not even four when I had retirement in my sights and visions of Camp Granpa Kelly — my future contribution to their summer day care.  I was living the dream in grandpa paradise when Sid and Michel introduced the idea that in six months they would all be relocating to Switzerland.

For at least three — maybe five — years.

It wasn’t for sure yet.  They hadn’t officially said yes and there were details to work out.  Sid works for an international information corporation headquartered in the Twin Cities and they wanted him to go manage some assets at their Swiss office in a town called Zug.  Nobody could conclude this was anything but a stunningly fantastic opportunity for all of them.

So much for my vague imperial master plan.  Just when I had everything to give — future Wicked tickets, a city of lakes and parks, library cards, Minnesota historical sites, Nickelodeon Universe at Mall of America — life turned on me in the weirdest way.  Here I dedicated my life to Clara and Tess, and what do I get?  They go away and run off to Europe.

Deep in my heart I knew this was by far the better deal.  Chance of a lifetime.  Deep heart BS, it was no brain obvious.  It would be insane to pout over such good fortune for my girls and their mom and dad.

Call it a Sting lesson — if you love somebody set them free.

Six months was hardly enough time to get used to the idea.  Sid and Michel were offered a “look see” and flew to Zurich for a week finding their way with the corporate guide.  Sid’s company treated him and their family with utmost fair compensation for upending their regular lives so Sid could take this assignment.  They found a three bedroom apartment in a town next to Zug at the foot of a mountain along a lake in a valley  about 20 miles south of Zurich and about 15 miles north of Luzern in the foothills of the high Alps.  On a map.  The kids would attend an English international school.  Michel would not be able to get a work visa right away so she was not expected to work outside the home.  They leased a Skoda sedan.

They put most of their belongings in storage, shipped a freight crate of things, leased out their suburban house, packed every suitcase they could cadge from kinfolk, and after the longest long goodbye in family history we ended up at MSP airport hugging and weeping at the TSA entrance.  Sid told me, “Stay healthy.”

I gave Clara and Tess each a Sacajawea US dollar coin to save until they came back home, to remind them of home, the USA.

Too soon it was time to part, for them to pass through security and board the 7:40 red eye all nighter to Amsterdam and off to a new life far away without me.

“Free free, set them free…”


This was summertime five years ago.  I grieved, milked sympathy.  I put up more pictures in my office.  The Swiss Family Kysylyczyns would get one specifically paid-for home visit per year and they elected to always make it four weeks around Christmas.  As for the rest of Sid’s allotted personal time off, it wasn’t long before Michel broke the truth not to expect them back in Minnesota other than Christmas.  Three years in the heart of Europe suddenly seemed to Sid and Michel a very finite time to explore the surrounding continent — no offense, Minnesota.

We Skyped most Sundays, noon our time, seven p.m. theirs.  Even when they looked onscreen like Georges Braque cubist portraits it was better than no contact at all — what Roxanne’s dad might have said was better than a poke in they eye with a sharp stick — especially when the audio was any good.  For all its glitches, interruptions and bad video and audio connections, Skype saved my heart.

Roxanne had Facebook.  I wrote e-mails.  I wrote stamped letters.  Michel called on the phone and chatted with her mom like mothers and daughters do.  It was important not to be forgotten, and important not to forget.

Roxanne and I turned the situation around to our best advantage.  This was our chance to explore Europe.  We could visit the kids and use their place to base tours.  We could be Bumpkins Abroad.  We schemed from the very day Michel said it was six months away to budget and plan to go to Europe as much as we could.  As much as Michel and Sid would welcome us.

Here we got off lucky.  Michel and Sid never seemed to tire of our visits.  Since Clara and Tess shared a bedroom — Ikea bunk beds — the third bedroom was kept as a playroom library with an Ikea daybed, where Granma and I slept and kept our stuff when we visited.  On one wall hung a giant poster of Paris in monochrome except the Eiffel Tower in a golden hue, an Ikea print that symbolized our mission.

We made six trips to Europe in four years, including the last one after Sid, Michel and the girls suddenly repatriated to Minnesota, so they weren’t even there to visit any more.  Before they moved to Switzerland, Roxanne and I had been to Europe exactly twice, and we were already in our 50s — once to France on an extended trip surrounding an international scientific convention Roxanne attended in Dijon, and once on a Kelly family pilgrimage to Ireland.  In our forty-some years together she and I have been all over America and especially our region, the obscure middle of this continent.  We have gone to Canada, Mexico and a tiny bit of the Caribbean outside the US borders.  We have not been to Asia, Africa, Oceania (except the northern tier, Hawaii,) the Middle East, South America, Australia or Antarctica, ever, although we have met or met up with people from most of those places (who might hail from Antarctica?) while wandering Europe.  Only the past dozen years or so of our lives did we set foot in Europe.

We are not sophisticated people in the realm of world travelers.  We are Americans.  There’s no Grand Tour of classical romantic education on my curriculum vitae from my younger days, no memoirs of a post adolescence vagabond adventure en europa.  Roxanne did not backpack from Iberia to Istanbul the year between high school and university and she did not study at Toulouse.  We are American bumpkins.


Our grandchildren by contrast have already lived much of their lives embedded and unconsciously enthralled in the cultures and lands we could only imagine when we were their ages, and until recently could only imagine most of our adult lives.  Clara and Tess have been to at least a dozen countries in Europe and North Africa.  They have held hands to cross streets and canals in some of the most monumental cities of western history.  They speak and read high German and sometimes spell words like color colour.  They have skiied the Alps.  They can read basic Greek street signs.  They know kids from Sweden, Ireland, Spain, France, South Africa, Turkey, Scotland and Massachusetts.  They are used to hearing people speak in tongues.  They know how to ride trains.

I do not expect them to vividly remember Vienna but there was something gained from strolling the boulevards of Mozart once upon a time.  The deep effects of exposure to so much culture may never be measurable.  We can say it gave them untold insight to serve them all their lives.  Already at their new schools in Minneapolis they are finding other kids who lived in foreign lands once upon a time.  The value of this insight beyond what may have been gained by ordinary bumpkin childhoods presumes outcomes we cannot foresee based on Granpa values.  I will say this, I am very jealous and wish I’d had a childhood like theirs in Europe.  Of course they don’t realize how special their experience was because they are children and don’t know any different.  They take their lead from their parents, who realize how exceptional their situation was but neither let it go to their heads nor let it get them down.

I forget that Michel and Sid felt separation too.  Sometimes it seemed for them it was one glorious adventure but day to day realities and routine practices require support from our closest people sometimes, and it is good to share good things.  That’s where Skype helped.  We smuggled care packages of taco and enchilada spices, Skippy peanut butter, Twizzlers and books.  Sid and Michel took turns reading to the kids at bedtime.  They took a shine to a series we sent them about Betsy and Tacy set in Mankato, Minnesota about a hundred years ago during the childhood times of their living great grandma.  The girls wanted to visit where Betsy and Tacy grew up.  Living in the land of Heidi, Clara and Tess wanted to visit a town not a hundred miles from where they were born.

When Granma Roxanne and I came to visit it was magical.  The first thing we learned (besides how to catch the train from Zurich airport to Zug) was how to say “Gruetzi” — hola, aloha, hello, the Swiss German way to greet people on the street.


Sid and Michel always planned excursions.  The first trip they rented a Volkswagen Touareg so all six of us could drive to Munich, stopping to gaze at the castle at Neuschwanstein.  At Munich we saw the rooftop glockenspiel at Marienplatz and Clara lost her first tooth at the Rathaus beer hall.  (The tooth fairy at our hotel paid up in Swiss francs.)  Too late for Octoberfest (which is in September) we strolled through the English Garden park on a beautiful autumn day and stopped for bratwurst and kraut at an outdoor beer hall serving Hofbrau beer adjacent to a Chinese tower.  On the drive back to Zug we bought a chocolate birthday cake at an Agip gas station — the station with the logo of a six legged doggie facing backwards over his shoulder and breathing flame at its tail — and back at the apartment we cut the cake and celebrated Tess’s fifth birthday.

Agip petrol new.jpg

Subsequent family excursions took us to Paris, Paris Disney, Normandy, Montreaux, Lake Como and Venice, either in the same rented Touareg or by train.  We went to Rheinfall, Europe’s Niagara near the German Swiss border.  We walked the beaches of Normandy in the solemn footprints of the brave.  Near Brittany, in France where you can hardly swing an incense burner by the chain without hitting a shrine to Archangel Michael, we walked the pilgrimage on the dry causeway to the Gothic monument on the sea at Mt St Michel dedicated to our family namesake.

Clara, Tess, Granma and I found the Statue of Liberty in the Luxembourg Garden in Paris and Clara skinned her knee trying a cartwheel on a gravel path.  Together we all gazed at the Mona Lisa.  At the Zurich Kunsthaus we canvasses of Monet’s water lilies as big as a kitchen.  Clara and I rode and re-rode the pharaoh’s roller coaster at the French theme park Asterix.  We’ve hung out high up on the Eiffel Tower.  We’ve hiked Zugerberg and ferried Zugersee.  Heard vespers sung in Latin in the reverb of the Paris Cathedral of Notre Dame.  At Luzern we saw one of the saddest things Mark Twain and I have ever seen, the grotto sculpture of the Dying Lion.  We have seen fireworks at Menaggio over Lake Como, Italy.  In Montreaux we walked among eternal music along Lake Geneva’s Christmas market and the next day rode the funicular up the mountainside to visit Pere Noel at the snow capped top.  Together with the kids, the little girls.  All these things and every savory moment of indulgence in the very trivia of their lives kept me from losing out on who they were and who they were growing into being, just because they lived a quarter of the world away.


Four years away is a long time.  We did not allow the the time and space to estrange us.  We attended choir concerts at their school, met their teachers and friends.  Tess took up soccer.  Clara kept up competitive gymnastics.  Granma and I couldn’t help but miss all the other concerts, plays, meets, matches and other events, but we showed up enough to get how much these things meant to them and to feel their joy and sense of accomplishment.  In second grade at their school they were assigned to paint a self portrait in acrylic on a fairly large canvas.  Clara is a serious and bemused, wry pose of fauve color expressionism.  Tess — painted just before coming home, barely enough time to cure before shipping — is insurmountable overflowing impressionistic joy.  They are both adorable people.


It’s natural for a grandfather to be proud of his grandchildren, and I allow for my kinship bias as they are my two favorite people on the planet in my life.  I see in them the best of what I see in myself and what kind of person I can be.  They are intelligent and kind.  They are confident and unafraid of the world, given certain boundaries.  They give other people a chance.  They respect people’s privacies.  They know how to be true friends.  How to ask and answer questions.

Sid quotes a favorite professor who said, the more you see the more you know the more you see.  His daughters have seen a lot in their four years in Europe.  They are growing into fine young women.  One does not need Title IX to expect they are capable of whatever they undertake and will not be held back by any force, least because they are girls.


At the Tate Britain Clara asked me , “Granpa, why are there so many paintings of women — naked women — and so few paintings by women artists?”

Think I had an easy answer?  I try.  Let me begin and end with a painting that translates as Luncheon On the Grass.  At the Tate I counted exactly zero women artists but zero female nudes.  Since then I have composed a list in progress of female artists starting with Frida Kahlo, Kathe Kollwitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Cassatt, Marie Vigee Lebrun and Marianne Werefkin, for the day she asks me to name some names.

At Zurich they have an extensive collecton of medieval triptyches of the Crucifixion.  It was awkward to come upon them with Clara, for me, but Clara regarded them with a childlike squinting objectivity as she lingered a little, took her time through the gallery, and I escorted her at her side at her pace, explaining nothing.

She said, “Remember at the MIA I cried when I saw paintings like those?  I was afraid somebody could do that to me.”

About a month or so ago I was driving her to gymnastics practice after school and she said out of the blue from the back seat, “Granpa, I don’t think anybody knows who God really is.”


Clara is a writer.  She keeps notebooks and journals.  She makes lists of character names.  She writes stories of girls in peril.  She has a natural narrative voice and a way with written language.  She rarely finishes her stories, abandons them without endings and moves on — I don’t know what that is a sign of but I somehow trust Clara to know in her own way what stories are worth ending and what are practice exercises in musing.  She is proud that I published a novel, though it was 25 years ago, way before she was born and she’s never read it — probably shouldn’t read it either so long as To Kill A Mockingbird and Bean Trees are in print, disgruntled horror story that it was.  She makes iPad videos with herself and sometimes Tess lip synching music like the reggae “Here Comes Trouble” by Chronixx.  On her Christmas visit before last she proclaimed herself to be my publicist for a day and produced a video of an array of stuffed animals (and a Tess cameo) all posed reading copies of my novel, sitting around the furniture of my home like this cuddly fluffy book club engrossed in copies of my novel set to the song “Disappearing” by the War on Drugs.  The books she found were unsold copies stored in my loft closet.  She’s after me to write a new book.


I am humbled that she is proud of me for what I reflect back as a dubious achievement.  One positive thing, I actually finished something.  The downbeat is that maybe it should have gone unfinished.  I cannot belittle the book in her eyes because I don’t want her to think I’m ashamed, but I all but hide it away around here.

Another different ride to gymnastics practice and from the back seat Clara asked me about doubt.  Was it okay to have doubt?

“Yes, it’s okay to have doubt,” I answered not offering myself as the family expert, though I am.  “Doubt is a reasonable check and balance.  It keeps us honest about what we want and what we think.  It’s not healthy to be absolutely certain without looking at the other side.  Doubt gives us a chance to evaluate what is right.  Doubt can help us be more sure what’s true.”

A week or two later she told me nobody really knows God.

It was hard for Clara to leave Switzerland, her school and her friends in the middle of fifth grade.  She achieved success at gymnastics and academics.  She belonged to the school’s prestigious choir, so short she stood in the front row and looked so into it, every song.  Her final semester at the international school she won the part of Auntie Em in the school production of the Wizard of Oz.  Because of her voice in the auditions they created a solo reprise rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow from Auntie Em’s point of view.  They say she played Auntie Em with compassion.  A long way from the new kid in second grade from the States, and practically overnight Switzerland was gone and she’s back in the States starting over, not even finished fifth grade.  It was sad but it was built into the bargain, after three or so years they would eventually have to go home to America.


Tess came into the age of reason, turned seven in Switzerland.  She too lost a baby tooth at a German beer hall — I wasn’t there but I saw a picture.  She lost a lot of baby teeth in Europe.  A bright polite conversationalist, she will begin by asking politely, “May I tell you something?  May I ask you something?”

Being American expats pressed Michel to be most mindful of good behavior.  Ambassadors of their country and family.  I overheard her remind Tess in a grumpy mood over a schoolyard tiff, “Your job is to be the nicest one.”

Tess learned to read and write in Switzerland.  Cursive.  Not just the grade minimum, Tess tries to read at a higher grade level or two, chasing Clara.  Tess learned cartwheels and backflips.  She sang herself into the choir’s junior varsity, the Young Voices, who were chosen to sing in Zurich’s old town giant scaffold Christmas tree — another event I did not attend but saw pictures.


She says she loves math.  She wants to be a veterinarian — has a lab coat, a clinic and toy animal patients.  She loves horses.  She’s got all the time in the world to catch Clara.

The most meaningful outcome of their years in Switzerland was the ultimate bond between the two sisters.  They shared a bedroom — and lived!  They watched out for each other.  They fought over each others privacy.  They shared books and songs, apps and devices and sometimes clothes, and a mom and dad.  They were paired forever by fate, destined to join forces forever.  Sometimes they fought more like brothers.  Sometimes it’s like they read each others minds.  Their love is obvious.


These are my observations, actually witnessing their — as Tess puts it — real life.  Not the imaginary product of some ideal wish list ginned up by a granpa left behind who sees a Facebook photo once in a blue moon and a badly staged Skype — no, this was real life.  And life was lovely.  The kids were truly all right (without Granma and me hovering around six months at a time) and actually prospering.  Not feeling left out, we felt privy to their confidence.  By our fourth visit there was no anxiety about estrangement or being out of sync.

As early as July before their third Christmas visit Michel expressed a wish to spend at least one extra week surrounding Christmas instead of just four.  This meant She and the girls would have to travel one way unaccompanied by Sid, who for compliance with the terms of his Swiss work permit could not be outside Switzerland for more than 30 consecutive days.  The issue was with Michel who is terrified of flying.  She somehow gets through it every time.  Short hops aren’t too bad, but the 12 hour transatlantic can be murder for her, especially when turbulent and nothing to see out the window.  She keeps somehow from freaking out and remains a calmly intense and reasonable good sport role model for the girls, and credits Sid her husband beside her.  She wasn’t sure she could endure the transatlantic alone with the girls.  She needed another adult at least.  She asked around among other American expatriates going home the first week of December, willing to tough out a final leg alone if somebody could at least let her fly with them across the sea to Atlanta, Boston, JFK, Montreal or Detroit, but there was nobody.  Michel truly sincerely wanted to come home five weeks for Christmas.

What we won’t do for our children.  I offered to fly there and escort her home for Christmas.  I would arrive a week ahead — enough time to adjust from jet lag and take in some Christmas markets, meet Sami Clas.  So I wouldn’t feel lonely and she wouldn’t be sad, I booked a ticket for Roxanne.  Around the first of December we flew to Zurich to rescue Michel.


Sami Clas is a character based on the bishop St Nicholas.  In Zug he arrives by boat on the lake in a ceremony to commence the Christmas season.  Sid and Michel arranged a home visit to Clara and Tess from Sami Clas while Roxanne and I were there.  He arrived at the door in his red robe wearing his miter and carrying his crook, his long staff and symbol of his bishop’s authority.  He was flanked by two Schmutzli, silent shadowy figures in austere brown hooded robes who symbolize the dark elements of winter.  Legends say the Schmutzli carry bad kids off into the mountains never to be seen again.  They stood with their heads bowed, faces obscured, either side of Sami Clas who took a seat in the good chair in the living room and read from a leather book a list of positive accomplishments Clara and Tess achieved over the past year, things only a Sami Clas would know outside the family.

This same visit we rented the Touareg and drove to Montreaux, hung out at the Christmas market along Lake Geneva, ate raclette, rode the ferris wheel and found a shrine to Freddie Mercury at the beach.  Next day we ascended above the clouds to the blue sky at the top of Rochers de Naye to visit Pere Noel, as they call him in the French region — no schmutzli here, just nice alpine helpers.  Out the windows the mountaintops rose up from a sea of fluffy swirls like islands in whipped cream.  We got off the tram halfway down the mountain into the prevailing overcast to have lunch at a dining hospitality academy and hiked a trail where interactive musical art installations busied the kids making melodies from the sounds of the contraptions.

Another excellent adventure with our Swiss Family Kysylyczyn.  It never really was a rescue mission.


The last time I’ve held Michel’s hand was takeoff from Shiphol Amsterdam airport that Christmas trip.  I was Dad.  For her it was an immensely drawn half minute of panicky uncertainty while the aircraft picks up speed and lifts off the runway.  Michel was born five weeks premature and spent the first few days of her life in an incubator where Roxanne and I could only touch her and hold her tiny hand through portholes most of the time.  The first times I held her hand, just the tip of my index finger in her tiny grasp.  Now convincingly in the air and entering the clouds above Amsterdam and nothing bad happened, she gave my palm a firm squeeze of thanks and let me go, the worst was over.  It reminded me of the last time before that when she held my hand and let go, her wedding day, two times that day, when she gave me an assurant squeeze before she took my arm to walk her down the aisle, and again at the reception when we completed the father and daughter dance, “My Girl” by the Temptations.

During the Swiss expatriation Roxanne’s dad passed away.  In a way it was sudden but mostly his demise came as a systematic cascading decline of the body and mind to where the inevitable meets the eventual.  In the hospital he said to me, “There… there oughta… there oughtabe a law!”  What he meant clearly was a law against getting old and dying, which is the natural law whether we like it or not.  When he entered hospice care we notified Michel.  She, Sid and the girls exercised Sid’s bereavement benefit to fly home.  It’s a wonder we didn’t name her Eddie.  Michel was born on his birthday.

At hospice he hung in almost a week.  One morning while the rest of the family who were at the hospice met briefly with the nursing staff in the kitchen to talk about expectations for the day, Michel lingered alone with her Grandpa Ed dozing peacefully.  At his bedside she held his hand and said nice things, and that’s when Grandpa Ed exhaled his last.  I cannot imagine a gentler way to pass away.  I should be so lucky.

Roxanne’s mom said later, “No wonder they named her Angel.”


The trip to Europe the following spring we planned a family vacation in Venice.  This vacation would include Vincent and his wife Amelie.  This would be the third spring and possibly the last opportunity to visit the Kysylyczyn family in Europe, before we learned they would be extended a fourth year and made plans to come back a sixth time.  Roxanne and Michel by this time were experts at finding and booking excellent, affordable accommodations anywhere we went.  They reserved an apartment that slept eight near Piazza San Marco.

We would only need to sleep seven.  Our rendezvous in Venice coincided with a performance of Clara’s school choir scheduled to sing at St Mark’s Basilica.  Clara would be traveling with the team.  The venue changed from singing at St Mark’s to singing at a little town Catholic school nearby on the mainland, but the rest of the choir’s field trip itinerary stayed intact.  From the morning Clara boarded the tour bus at Zug at the school car park she traveled with the choir.

In Venice we caught glimpses of her on canal bridges, on the Piazza between tours of St Mark’s and the Doge Palace dressed in their uniforms like the school girls in the Madeleine stories.  I got to hug her twice, saying hi at the restaurant where the kids ate supper, and ciao after the concert at the little Catholic school.  Otherwise she was busy.  This was my first encounter with Clara committed to an activity transcending family.  The independence becomes her.  You see it now in her game face with her gymnastics team.  Back then it was the light in her eyes when she sang with the choir.  Never looking lost in a crowd.  At ease with her peers.  This visit to Venice essentially being about Clara without Clara was a sign to me Clara was letting go of my hand, setting me free.


If fell to Tess to be the grandchild, the niece.  The child leader.  She took my hand as we walked upstairs and down and crossed the bridges of the myriad canals of Venice, she the tour guide companion who had been there before with her other grandparents and assured me we would not lose our way.

When we settled into the apartment, accessed from the alley through a medieval door with a modern electronic lock, Tess sang for Granma and me the Skye Boat Song, the classic Scottish hymn about the Bonnie Prince sailing to his homeland.  Never faltered one note or one lyric.  Later when Vincent and Amelie joined us from Amsterdam she sang it again for them, never faltered.

At dinner at restaurants she was polite and ate all her food.  Her conversation was engaging.  She never got grumpy or complained on long walks exploring the tangled old city.  She bought a feathered opera mask.  We found a park, a green space beyond the Lido where she could do cartwheels and run around, and she was happy.  She was the nicest one.

“May I tell you something Granpa?”

Anything you want.

Free free, set them free…


That Christmas we went to Montreaux and we escorted Michel home a week ahead of Sid, they stayed at my and Roxanne’s house that first week, this old house where Michel and Vincent grew up.  The kids use Michel’s old bedroom (Vincent’s is now the TV lounge) — actually the kids have the run of the entire house.  It’s a safe and tidy place with nothing to hide that’s not well hidden, so to speak: I wouldn’t expect to find Clara and Tess poring over our tax returns anytime soon, but it could happen — Clara unearthed a case of my novel hidden in plain sight.  While she made iPod videos, wrote, drew pictures, made lists, played pop radio and watched American TV (oh Disney) all downstairs, Tess staked out the upstairs loft.  She built a city up there of all the dolls and houses and animal figurines and Legos and little people like Polly Pockets collected over thirty something years of childhoods, sprawled like an urban sprawl along a highway across the loft carpet alongside the bookshelves and the desk, carefully arrayed not to block normal grownup passage and thus to allow her keeping it set up the better part of the week.  She temporarily loaned Clara the stuffed animals for her video.

On white typing paper Tess drew a picture of a town colored in red and green and made it into a sign with an arrow, which she taped to the wall along the stairway so the arrow pointed upstairs.

Tess Town

Magic Words Sola Mola Toy

Tess made a Christmas card for her mother that year.  When Michel opened it Christmas day she read it out loud.  You could see from the artwork and the text graphics that Tess had worked on this card carefully, not casually.  Michel read the sentiments of how Tess loved her mama, and it ended with this statement:

Our family is permanent.

Thank you Tess and Clara — Kitty and Sparkles — and Michel and Sid who made you and gave you to me, my dear grandchildren.  Through your eyes and ears and voices I am privy to discovery and rediscovery of the essence of being human.  I love you.

Thank you for going away and enabling me and Granma Roxy to follow after you and to explore places and see things we may never had a chance to know if not for you living in Europe.


Six times we flew over there and back.  From our first visit we made time to go off on our own and book passage to a series of places.  Switzerland by itself is a marvel of sights.  In the Alps we’ve felt like we’ve stood at the top of the world.  One road trip with Michel and her Skoda brought us by GPS to a tiny Czech town where Roxanne’s grandmother was born.  We have walked battlefields near Colmar.  We have walked the city streets of great capitals.  We’ve browsed the countrysides, crossing borders on trains and buses.  We’ve wandered the excavated city of Pompeii and drank lemonade from lemons grown below Vesuvius.  We hiked the trail Mark Twain hiked at Rigi.  We rode taxis, city buses, boats, cable cars, subways and tubes and followed endless maps to navigate ourselves in and out of lost, finding where we were and where next.

My grandchildren enabled me to tour several of the world’s finest art museums.  Thanks to Clara and Tess I have seen with my own eyes an incredible abundance of the most exquisite and sublime original works on the planet, images and buildings I only knew and thought I would ever know from lectures, slides and books.

I cannot express how grateful I am.

Every spring for four years Roxanne and I would be gone a month or so.  We would see the kids a week or ten days, not always in succession, at their place, take an excursion together, then she and I would go off on our own chasing castles, cathedrals, platzs and piazzas, cafes, monuments, dwelling on the fly among people talking in tongues.  We met a lot of nice people.  We learned to eat left handed — knife right hand, fork in the left.  No trip ever went badly, and that says a lot considering the intense events that occurred in Europe those years.

Our biggest gripe is of ourselves and our persistent inability to learn to pack lightly.  Roxanne refers to those times as being our Senior Backpacking Tours, but the joke there isn’t that we didn’t stay in hostels but that our luggage were no backpacks.  The bane of the adventure was our travel day, lugging our heavy suitcases aboard trains and up strange streets looking for the hotel.  London and Paris underground stations are mainly accessible by stairs — not conducive to big suitcases.  Like the themes of those Alice and Jerry books back in gradeschool, If I Were Going and If I Were Going Again, we tell ourselves we need to learn to pack lighter and smarter.  That and stay longer at one place, near a laundromat with an outdoor pub nearby like in Barcelona and Chamonix.

For Clara’s tenth birthday, the year of the choir trip to Venice, Granma and I took her to London to see Wicked.  We flew EZ Jet in and out of Gatwick.  The terminal to me for some reason suggested a WWII airfield where we stood in queue at the customs booths with passports in hand and it seemed half of us at least should be in some form of service uniform besides the customs agents themselves behind glass, all of us ready to hand up our papers and our orders.

Rox and I handed up our passports, then Clara hers with the required to-whom-it-may-concern letter signed by her parents consenting us grandparents permission to transport this minor child across an international border.  The customs lady asked, “Where’s mum?”

Instinctively Granma began to speak but was stopped by a flick of the agent’s eyes.

“Back in Switzerland,” Clara answered.  “These are my grandparents.”

“Why are you entering the UK?”

“We’re going to see Wicked.  It’s a play.”

Another sign the kid is growing up, answering for herself.  That’s the idea from day one, holding her and looking into her newborn eyes, getting her ready to answer for herself.


I tease Tess telling her she has lovely blue eyes, which is only true under certain light.  She says her eyes are green, like her mom’s.  Under certain light Michel’s eyes used to look blue too when she was a little girl, and I tried to catch it with a camera, but they were green.  Clara’s are blue, though.  Definitely blue.

The day they flew back to Switzerland from the Montreaux five-week Christmas we rode to the airport in three cars.  Clara and Tess rode with me, singing school and Christmas songs from their car seats in the back seat without the radio on.  We were on highway 5.  Out of the blue they began a duet from the top, a complete rendition of “Illegal” by Shakira.

“You don’t know the meaning of the words I’m sorry  /  You said you would love me till you die /  Far as I know you’re still alive  /  Baby, you don’t know the meaning of the words I’m sorry  /          I’m starting to believe  /  It should be illegal to deceive a woman’s heart  /  Open heart, open heart /  It should be illegal to deceive a woman’s heart”

There could be no greater proof — if I ever felt insecure and needed proof — that Clara and Tess love me.  They must have learned the song on their own to sing to me.  Of all the singers they could have covered they chose my favorite singer.  All I could do was drive and listen.  They sang it flawlessly, verbatim, note for note.  Yes, those kids love me.

Much as my future relies on these two little girls, my strategy has grown simple: be nice to them now and someday twenty years from now maybe they’ll take me out clubbing once in a while to see live music.

Now they live in west Minneapolis, a few neighborhoods away.  We haven’t Skyped in more than a year.  Sid and Michel sold their place in suburban St Paul to a young family who fell in love with it as a place to raise kids.  The Kysylyczyns moved into the city, close but not too close.  It’s like they never left, only better, there are all kinds of reminders and mementos all over their house of the life they lived as expatriates four years abroad.

They had the family Christmas at their house this year.  Real life.  Mimosas.  Unwrapping gifts from beneath the tree.  No Schmutzli.  The kids gave me a priceless CD they burned entitled Kitty and Sparkles of songs they recorded to karaoke, mostly Christmas songs but also priceless renditions of tunes from their latest pop discovery, the Disney movie Moana.  (No Shakira.)  We talked about some Christmas we should spend a vacation in Hawaii.  Vincent came up with the idea we all rent a cabin somewhere down near Zion national park in late June next summer and explore the desert Southwest, see Grand Canyon, all by way of Las Vegas.  We’ve done similar arrangements to the Boundary Waters with him and Amelie in the past summers while the Kysylyczyns were off avoiding us in favor of touring Europe — laughter, cue sibling rivalry jokes — leaving the brother to look after us poor lonely old folks all by himself.

I unwrapped a present from the Kysylyczyn family.  It was kind of heavy.  Sid said Clara picked it out.  It was a paperweight.  Bronze in appearance and texture, it was a casting of a narrow pile of half a dozen ballpoint pens.  I unwrapped it and read aloud the inscription on the base:

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing – Benjamin Franklin

As they say in Spanish, “Clara, mis carinas.”



Hollis MacDonald — Missing From The MIA


Wherever I go I love to visit art museums.  A museum’s collection reflects the values of a community, what people hold dear.

In my home town we have the Minneapolis Institute of Art with its world class world view.  A little of everything, from pre-ancient to post-modern, each piece is an example of the highest quality.  Its Rembrandt may be the finest in North America.  The Van Gogh is among his best found anywhere.  The eclectic quality of the extensive collection makes the MIA an ideal teaching museum.

My grandchildren, girls now eleven and nine, lived in Europe and when I visited them I took them with me trekking through galleries of works of humanity’s enduring beauty.  They are children after all and I would rather not they grow up with memories scarred by forced-marches with Granpa, so I limit our tours to their own spans of engagement.  They are resilient and curious children and they have been known to go more than two hours before showing temperaments of disenchantment.  I tend to lead them to something they might have seen on a poster or in a book, like Mona Lisa, or a place they might recognize, like Venice or Rome, or by someone they may have heard of, like Pablo Picasso, and from there we wander, room to room, pausing to gaze at whatever attracts the eye, and we keep moving, flowing along towards the next attractive thing, and the next.  They read the wall didactics out loud.  They are home now and we keep up our museum field trips in the Twin Cities where there are several, and they are familiar enough already with the MIA to lead me around to what they care to see first, and next, and eventually we get lost at a place they never been before we find our way out.  Some museums you can see the whole thing in an hour or two.  The MIA asks return visits.  There’s enough in there to sustain wonderful wonder.

Could The Heart But Know The Way     1967                 oil on canvas    51 x 45″

In my twenties, decades ago, I used to have a job at the MIA making AV programs in the education department.  The size and floor plan of the place has doubled at least since then, and even if the core of its collection is familiar to me the layout has changed with additional gallery space and we easily get lost, which is to say Granpa doesn’t exactly know his way around any more.  When I worked there the museum had just undergone a vast expansion to enable it to expand its collection, put on more and bigger special exhibitions, and pursue a goal of open storage, showing its whole collection instead of keeping a lot of it stashed in storage out of sight.  I was telling this to Clara and Tess, my grandkids, lost again trying to find our way out down a stair route somewhere on the periphery, when I recognized a wall as a remodeled area that used to be my office.  The kids paid little interest since the actual office didn’t exist any longer, there was nothing to see but a wall.

And it was time to go.  Later, thinking about memories of that office, I remembered the painting hung on my wall: Could The Heart But Know The Way by Hollis MacDonald.  This painting was something tangible I could show the kids to illustrate my granpa story next time we visit the MIA.

It hung in the office of the head of docents where I first saw it.  The image stunned and soothed me at the same time.  Sinister and celestial.  Playful yet dangerous.  Foreboding but hopeful.  Burnished etherial colors defined eccentric concentric and opposing shapes seen from a perspective of space probe geometry.  I passed by that office at least a dozen times a day.  When the head docent left for a job back east the painting went away to deep storage.  The new occupant preferred Hudson River School.  Gallery space was precious.  The focus of the paintings collection did not favor contemporary modern and even within this narrow niche this painting was not considered critical to the curator, who was more interested in the 17th century, as I recall.

The artist was from Minnesota, an unknown with sketchy baggage.  They said he was once a great star who went to New York expected to impact the scene like Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and David Hockney but something happened — nobody said exactly what but they described it kindly as a nervous breakdown — and he returned to Minneapolis broken and bitter, beaten, disillusioned, unfulfilled and sad, a hasbeen nobody.  His style fell out of fashion.

I didn’t care.  I liked the painting.  When I learned it was in deep storage I asked the registrar if it could be put in storage on my office wall.  A day or so later a guy from the crew measured my wall and the next day the crew hung the painting.  If no one else wanted it, I did.

It was bigger than I remembered from the docent office.  The title made no sense to me.  I all but forgot the artist’s name.  The painting endowed my often harried office with sublime serenity.  Sincere serendipity.  Innocent bliss.  Naive iterations.  To me it was an undiscovered masterpiece.

A year or so later I enrolled in a theater arts class at the university.  One slushy autumn day I was loitering in the commons of the theater arts building on the West Bank campus when a bearded guy several years my senior wearing a wool knit hat and coveralls came in from the inclement outdoors wheeling a bicycle.  He was the building’s maintenance engineer.  Being a smartass I made reference to a sign that said no bicycle parking indoors and he shot me a look that melted my spine like who the hell are you.  “This is my building,” he said as he passed me by.  I looked at his name badge.  Hollis MacDonald.  “Wipe your feet when you come in here.”  He walked his bike across the commons to his office.

He was almost there by the time I realized who he was.  By then it seemed unseemly to chase after him at the moment.  The more I thought about it I didn’t want to risk embarrassing either of us by suddenly coming on like I knew his life story, coming on like a suck-up — something told me he despised suck-ups.  I hoped for another better chance to chuff him about his art without invading his privacy, stalking him or implying I felt some kind of cosmic connection to him, but the semester ended and I never saw him again at work at the U.

untitled     1960s

Another few years later, still the 1970s, I was driving on W 26th Street, a one way arterial going west across south Minneapolis.  Just past the intersection of 26th and Nicollet Ave (that’s pronounced Niklit) something caught my peripheral eye and made me look in the rearview mirror and see people painting a wall behind the corner building, the Mark Richards beauty salon.  I knew the style in a flash.  I parked the car and went to the scene where Hollis MacDonald directed a crew of kids from Whittier Park painting colors to his designs of hearts and arrows against a whitened wall facing the alley and the parking lot.

Hollis seemed more congenial than when we first met, but he made little eye contact and kept his attention focused on the project on the wide wall.  I’m sure he did not remember me.  Still bearded and gnarly, now he was outdoors on a summer day and instead of coveralls he wore shorts and a tee shirt paint stained.  Concentrating on his wall he barely suffered this fool’s interruption for long, even if all I could do was praise what I was seeing.

He gave orders to the kids through a staff of teenagers who acted as camp counselors instructing the day campers what Hollis wanted them to paint.  There was a knurled modesty about him and a light in his deep set eyes while he bossed the kids and explained what they were doing.  He was having fun.

I admired the mural for decades.  The concentric hearts eventually faded away.  Today I cannot pinpoint exactly when they disappeared.  The mural faced the wrong way on a one way street, so it was hard as hell to see it.  It may as well have been painted on the underside of a bridge.

Ages have gone by.  I wonder what my grandkids would think of the painting once hung in my office.  I went to the MIA website to search the permanent collection.  Museums these days have beautifully accessible websites.  I searched by artist’s name because I couldn’t remember the name of the painting but nothing came up.

Back on the internet I googled Hollis MacDonald and learned he had died two years ago.  I found a picture of the painting and its title.  I searched the MIA website again by paintings by title and got nothing.  I double checked the spelling of MacDonald.  The Google reference to the painting gave its MIA accession number 67.27 (27th work acquired in 1967) and I searched the collection that way and got nothing.  At last I went to the Contact Us page and asked what ever happened to Could The Heart But Know The Way by Hollis MacDonald.

The answer did not come within 24 hours, as many websites promise these days.  The reply arrived after two weeks.

In the meantime I went back to Google.  After forty years forgetting him and respecting his privacy, now I wanted to know all about Hollis MacDonald.  Now that he’s dead.  The whereabouts of his MIA painting unaccounted for in its virtual inventory.  If I hadn’t found a picture of Could The Heart But Know The Way on the internet I would have doubted my memory such a stirring and soothing image actually existed.

He was a real guy.  Born in 1928 in Minneapolis, he grew up near Broadway and Emerson, the city’s near north side.  He served in the army.  He graduated from the Minneapolis School of Art, now known as the Minneapolis College of Art & Design — MCAD — which shares campus and heritage with the MIA.  He earned an MFA from Cranbrook Academy, a fishy sounding name for any grad school to a bumpkin like me but nonetheless an institution called the cradle of American modernism located just north of Detroit.  He worked as a security guard at the MIA — it’s never unusual for working artists to day jobs (or night jobs) at museums — and this was back in the era of the original museum’s footprint, the old McKim Meade & White monticello parthenon, before Kenzo Tenge expanded its architectural consciousness with bold annexes and vast lit gallery space rebuilding the Institute into a formidable exhibition space aimed at the 21st century to come, this the era when I came to work there, long after Hollis MacDonald.

I may have come to work at the MIA at the beginning of its era of cosmopolitan outreach from a burgeoning metropolis, but I came after another golden age era of its director Tony Clark.  All the museum people who knew him spoke about him with a hilarious respect for his aesthetic eye and scholarly integrity.  He was an art historian’s art historian.  On the internet I found a page of criticism Tony Clark wrote as MIA Director:

“These paintings of Hollis MacDonald are genuine landscapes of the imagination, in which nearness is also far, catastrophe and terror are also triumph and serenity.”  He concluded saying the paintings “bear important human testimony.”

untitled     1960s

I found a review by noted Minneapolis Tribune critic John K Sherman dated Sunday, June 6, 1965 describing Hollis MacDonald’s one man show of 30 canvasses at the Bottega Gallery downtown at 8th & Hennepin as “brilliant”.  The critic wrote:  “MacDonald’s large paintings might be called a combination of mystical landscapes and epical still-life — form superimposed on form, leading the eye into deep space while riding on lyrical and nuanced color that makes direct emotional impact.”  Sherman concluded, “It bespeaks an original and seeking mind and gratifying skill, in this day of fuzzy forms and half-stated ideas or suggestions thereof, in clearcut expression and shapes the eye can seize and grapple with.”

These testimonials say why Hollis was expected to make it big in New York City.  If these same voices felt betrayed when he came home a failure, no one extrapolates for the record.  The MIA accessioned — museumspeak for acquired — Could The Heart But Know The Way in 1967.  About the same time the Walker Art Center, MIA’s counterpart and rival specializing in modernism, accessioned a companion piece called The Way Is Not Easy, and at this time they aren’t showing it.

I learned from the internet Hollis maintained a studio in a former concertina repair shop on the fringe of old downtown east.  Other known titles of his paintings from the 1960s include once Again The Fallen and Another Good Soul Goes Under.

The website provided archival proof of life of this self-kidnapped guy who by all accounts had all the credentials.  Smart.  Deep.  Asked in 1965 about nudes in art, the 37 year old answered, “They’re over worked.  Eveybody’s using them, but few artists are saying much with them.”

I never saw a human figure in any of his paintings.

The Way Is Not Easy     1964  Walker Art Center      oil on canvas   49 x 36″

Concurrent to his brilliant one-man show downtown at the Bottega he was also simultaneously among 95 Minnesota artists exhibited in the MIA’s biennial celebration that year — the MIA celebrated its centennial, two massive expansions later, just this last year.  In a Bottega show interview Hollis was asked about the Institute Biennial and he said, “It’s a good reflection of contemporary sickness.  It’s trying to make a little show of good things instead of showing what’s going on in art locally.”

He may have been speaking truth to power, biting the hand or burning bridges en route to New York City.  In the transcripts of the same interview he showed (off) the irascible edge I recall from my brief encounters ten or twelve years later.

Asked to categorize his paintings he replied:  “You want a label?  Ah… Romantic Expressionism, how’s that?”  In the age of pop art and op art, the guy sounded poised to take on all icons.  Who was this guy?

After Hollis described his mode of painting for the existential moment, the interviewer (unidentified in the transcript — it could have been himself) says, “Then you paint just for yourself and not the viewer?”

“Not exactly…” Hollis replied.  “It’s kind of like making love… you can’t tell when you’re giving and when you’re taking.”

untitled       1960s

After the 1960s until his obituary, which described him as a colorist, there is scant coverage of what happened to him.  No mention of shows or reviews in New York.  No paintings since.  The obituary said he retired from the University of Minnesota but not that he had been a janitor.  He was survived by no wife or children.

An article published in 2009 in called Unsung Alchemist: Hollis MacDonald by Sean Smuda caught up with Hollis in his later years.  Smuda himself an artist, photographer, grew up in a household where his parents owned Hollis MacDonald paintings and didn’t realize who Hollis was until they met as neighbors when Hollis moved into Smuda’s apartment building when Hollis was near 80 years old.

In a reverent and touching profile Smuda befriends the old man and searches the soul of the artist whom he refers to as the alchemist after Hollis’ affection for a book, Fire In The Crucible by John Briggs.  Smuda paints a portrait of a man who lives the “crossroadss of genius and failure” every day.  “Any apologies he makes for himself,” Smuda wrote, “which he does with contradictory frequency, sound like obfuscations, the sort of disappearing-act typically employed by scholars and mystics hopingto obscure their philosophical vulnerabilities.”  Smuda described him as a “gruff mystic who has no need of society, but has a lot to say about it.”

Smuda called him cantakerous and recalled how his parents put up with his company yet spoke of Hollis as a cautionary tale of what might happen if you devote your life to art.  And Smuda sketches in the lost epoch in New York: Hollis broke up with his wife Karen and became a hermit unto his studio, stopped exhibiting and socializing.

This the nervous breakdown the people at the MIA whispered about so loudly.

Smuda likens Hollis’ imagery to Paul Klee.  I see Joan Miro.  Hollis said he admired Arthur Dove.  I wondered about the 30 canvasses from the Bottega show in 1965 and wondered how many paintings of Hollis exist.  Through the internet I can only find six.  Nothing since 1967.

A research librarian at the MIA eventually responded to my inquiry about Could The Heart But Know The Way saying bluntly the painting was deaccessioned in 2014.

I wrote back:  Where is it now?

I hoped it had been sold, donated or otherwise acquired by another museum like the Weisman, somebody who would actually appreciate it and put it on view.  Where my grandkids could see it.

untitled      1960s

Over the next five days a correspondent from the MIA Visitor and Member Services acknowledged the deaccession of the painting but could not account for its whereabouts; then assured me the painting was still in storage at the museum but he did not know the reason for its deaccession.  I asked if he would find out.  And how was its existence tracked?  How can anybody see this painting if it’s in storage but deaccessioned?

Deaccessioned is a synonym for disowned.  Hollis MacDonald disowned by the MIA.  Same year as the artist’s death.  I couldn’t summon the cynical heart to see a conspiracy theory in the making.  The irony seemed all too appropriate though.  Undeserved and unjust but not unbelievable.

Steve from Visitor and Member Services — by now we were on familiar name basis — emailed me:  “The painting is in storage with the artwork that is not on view, and is tracked in our system as any other stored artwork would be.  None of the paintings in storage are available for public viewing.  (Most of our collection is in storage.)

“It appears the previous curator did not feel the piece was relevant to our collection, and suggested it to be deaccessioned.  The accessions committee of museum trustees voted to accept that opinion.  Deaccessioned pieces are typically stored until another institution is found that has interest.  Sometimes deaccessioned pieces are sold.  At this time, no decision about this piece has been made in that regard.”  He concluded our correspondence:  “If I hear more about this painting’s next phase of life, I’ll look up this email chain and let you know.”

Hard to put a sinister bend on such cordiality.

If nobody else wants the painting I’ll take it, hang it in my house.

I don’t understand why Hollis MacDonald is not recognized, why he is obscure.  Do I look at his paintings and fail to observe the irrelevance?  Am I so much bumpkin I fail to see the obvious ugly?

Far as I can find Hollis MacDonald had no criminal record and especially no accusations of sex predation.  Yet the art community of his home town shuns him and his work as if his symbolism and visual memes were not hip enough at least, too heinously commonplace at worst, his moral character vile or pathetic, a moral plagiarist, a failure to act stellar.

All I know about Hollis is hearsay and gossip.  By his paintings I am awed.  I hoped his civil service pension kept him comfortable enough.

I engaged Sean Smuda in correspondence and informed him Could The Heart But Know The Way was deaccessioned from the MIA.  In some way I meant to enlist an ally in case something fishy became of the painting.  Mostly I wrote as a belated fan.  I didn’t want to feel sad for Hollis and I drew comfort knowing Hollis had a friend to the end with Sean.  I asked if Hollis died happy.

“Hollis remained consistently driven and differentiating,” he wrote back, “as though the tough-nut aesthetic, philosophic and social questions that obsessed him could crack open in an explosion rather than a slow reveal.”

photo by Sean Smuda

He kindly assured me Hollis had friends.  His last years he lived in an assisted care facility, as most people do his age.  Sean visited him regularly, and a coterie of social workers befriended him and helped him relax.

A certain middle aged female Presbyterian minister developed a crush on him at his advanced age and they talked metaphysics and God’s beauty.

None of this explains why there’s no evidence he produced any art the last 40 years.  And no evidence he didn’t.

In the folklore of the MIA you would think he would be legend.  Instead he’s disowned.

Sean said there’s interest in a retrospective exhibition but acknowledges it may be years away as these things go.

There’s talk of a body of his work going to the Minnesota Museum of American Art where my Clara and Tess can go view them with me — after they get drivers licenses and register to vote at this rate of attrition.

Hollis left no offspring to remember him or emulate him genetically.  His paintings are all he left this world as what Sean Smuda called his blueprint for others to follow, not a dynasty it appears but a subtle and nuanced tribe of orphaned enigmas.

Of inspiration and essence Hollis himself said, “I try to make a painting… that lives.”






Digitalysis and Hillary Clinton


Used to be the stuff of archives, historians and libraries.  Discovered documents.  Long lost letters.  Musings of the bard.  Caesar’s notebooks.  Leonardo’s Codex.  Dead Sea Scrolls.  Written words, unintended for publication, found among the random mementos of long deceased luminaries, used to go centuries — millennia — until unearthed and analyzed by the scholars.

Now everybody’s e-mail can be trafficked for instantaneous access to pop history.  In real time we can witness pithy deliberations of a political party or governing department.  We can see candidates debate issues and consequences and make policy recommendations.  We can judge their scenarios and make fun of their grammar.  We can watch, listen and read their words and claim to derive insight into their thought processes and motives in advance of any actual history taking place.

Hackers enable you and me to justify our demand to know the inside story.  So gullible for anything labeled True Story, yet so paranoid of being hoaxed, we trust nobody and still fall prone to conspiracy theories when lone wolfs band together.  This is America where we need no pundits or elite intellectuals to interpret data, just give us the data.  The paparazzi of the internet troll day and night.

No wonder Hillary Clinton kept her own server at the State Department.  Who trusts the privacy security of any government intranet platform right now, even the FBI?  Classified may not mean mishandled or abused.  The innuendo of something going on will affect the vote.  Unanswered allegations taint the fact that all the e-mails in question remained perfectly secure and confidential until the FBI hacked them open.

Between the earliest days of Edward Snowden and the pursuit of Anthony Weiner, the secret reach of government into the cybersphere is well known and accepted as a working meme of the 21st century.  It is an unfortunate irony that Hillary Clinton’s fate entwines with Weiner.  The words Clinton and Weiner in the same story don’t connote well even if their denotations couldn’t be further apart.  You can bet Donald Trump has his own server and always will.

FBI Director James Comey is famous for his stance for civil liberty by his opposition to provisions in the renewal of the Patriot Act authorizing covert domestic surveillance.  He’s also clashed with hardware makers over back door encryption access to data banks on computer devices used by criminals.  Using a proper search warrant to examine a laptop seized from an unrelated federal investigation he — we can say it is he here because he is the director and has made a public statement via Congress that an investigation is in progress — is examining a trove of e-mails pertaining to Hillary Clinton to determine if any of these missives in any way show willful treachery against the United States of America, which is what her political opponents charge is already true.


650,000 is a lot of e-mails.  It’s amazing that a laptop computer has memory capacity to store so much information.  Think of future historians poring over unearthed memory chips.  What will they think of our middle class ponderings?  What the FBI determines from Huma Abedin’s e-mail isn’t being challenged as spousal privilege, focused only on her communication with her boss doing government business.  They bureau is looking for messages sent and received through a non-government server that are of a secret nature — state secrets — and determining whether these secrets were conveyed deliberately by said private server to intentionally secure the information against a government secured server.

Most of what what one expects to find is Good Morning Boss, How Goes…  But what if on a bad day in an unguarded moment of passion somebody wrote somebody they are so glad they’re on a private server secure from government control because government servers are constantly getting hacked from without and within, would that get leaked to the media?

Recall the days of J Edgar Hoover when we used to worry about being subject to mail cover surveillance for opposing the Vietnam war.  We used to talk in code about reefer on the phone because we were paranoid of being tapped.  Those days are gone the way of hijacking the Pony Express.

As a portable laptop today sports the computer capacity it used to require a unit the size of a house in the days of J Edgar Hoover, so advanced are the means of surveillance.  Algorithmic software programs seek and sort megamega information like lightning.  James Comey risks his own top secret technology when he can confide to Congress before the election that the e-mails were reviewed and nobody broke the law so let’s end the innuendo and put away this notion of e-mail criminality.  It won’t end, though, even if the FBI gets hacked and all the e-mails go public.

Spyware is bad, invades privacy, compromises individual liberty and corrupts personal identity.  Spyware is good when it catches perpetrators of evil.

Malware is really really bad, like home invasion and kidnapping for ransom.  Malware is good when it disrupts evil regimes and despots who plot catastrophic goals.

State Secrets are what undid the Soviet Union, specifically the government’s increasing inability to control information.  Globalization and its culture without borders has democracized knowledge in a cacaphony of tongues never witnessed before on the planet, bringing immense potential for shared understanding.  Yet bad political leaders seek new ways to control propaganda, manipulate information, censor criticism and consolidate power over cybersphere, which is all data and all media.

If this historic presidential campaign means anything it foretells the power of metadata in daily life.  E-mail, Facebook and Twitter.  (Remember when DOS was the name of a computer language you had to learn for work?  Now it’s an acronym for denial of service.)  A candidate openly invites hackers to go after his opponent’s computers, so what would stop him from using the power of the presidency to hack your computer or mine?  He questions the validity of the election process, casts aspersions on the privacy of the voting system and scorns the honor system as if he knows personally how to rig the outcome, and he is believed without proof because, like metadata itself, it’s out there.  He implies he will use the means to track every undocumented immigrant and deport them.  He says he doesn’t know if the Russians hacked the DNC or not, but he admires the governing methods of Vladimir Putin.  In the digital hands of Donald Trump the cybersecurity of the modern world could go nuclear.

Hillary Clinton called half of his supporters a basket of deplorables.  Soon we will see a measure of just how big that basket is and who will beg to identify with that other half.  The deplorables are not the same as les miserables though they will self-select themselves in the aftermath of the vote and make themselves evident by their behavior after inauguration day.  Maybe it isn’t half of them, but there is a basket of people who side with Trump for deplorable reasons.  They will push their point of view and demand attention.  Like caesar on a balcony, Donald Trump rallies crowds with the ghost of George Wallace, mobilizing jackboots and evoking law and order while inspiring vigilantes, and it scares me what a society or world order it portends — terrifies — terrorizes me.


Hillary campaigns like the nerd girl running for student council.  I try to get inside the heads of those who despise her.  Like hacking into their mindsets.  What’s the grudge?  Who is she to them and what has she done and what does she symbolize that makes her the enemy of the state to so many people?  Are liberal public servants deplored as a class by a certain class?  Maybe not, as her detractors trend across all social classes.  It’s the liberal philosophy Hillary Clinton epitomizes that her craven critics deplore.  It’s the professional public servant who preaches social justice and equal opportunity who wrote It Takes A Village and espouses principles of community cohesion.  She sees government as an instrument of progress towards a better society and a better world based on enlightenment as a way we govern ourselves as a free society.  She believes all people should have health care insurance.  She sees our infrastructure as a path to environmental sustainability and jobs, believes in peace through diplomacy, and realizes that the good standard of living and exceptional prosperity of the USA isn’t cheap and the cost of sustaining and growing a vibrant and fluent middle class has to be shared by taxpayers who benefit most from the economy and make the most money.  She has given speeches to Wall Street, and why not, they’re a powerful institution like the FBI.  It’s not about the little people unless you call out the big people.  Hillary Clinton expressed a vision of borderless trade — free commerce around the planet — this includes unimpeded internet — and if not as mighty as I Have A Dream, it seems a modest version of Imagine There’s No Heaven, Above Us Only Skies.


When supporters of Donald Trump say this country is going the wrong direction I am alarmed and don’t understand what that means.  It suggests we should reverse ourselves and go back.  We should reverse civil rights.  We should unfund education, shrink our economy, reduce productivity and decrease jobs.  Roll back regulations protecting air and water quality and prohibit shady financial dealings and prevent monopolistic predatory practices in the consumer marketplace.  It suggests a return to subsidizing coal mines.  When I hear people say the country is going the wrong direction and Donald Trump will make America great again, I wonder what is so wrong with who we are that people cannot see how great it already is.

Troubling enough the negative direction Donald Trump leads this country.  Presumably the other basket of his supporters are afraid of him — afraid if he wins he will fire them if they don’t join his locker room fraternity.  When he said he preferred war heroes who weren’t captured, someone should have said they preferred businessmen who didn’t cheat workers and investors and go bankrupt.  Who ever heard of a business that actually used a tax cut to actually create a job instead of padding profits and dividends?  No one should earnestly suggest hacking his tax returns, invading his privacy, not even for the sake of history.

His word is no good.  He should not be elected.


History gets written by victors, they say.  Today thanks to mega-metadata we’re always on the verge of history.  The verge of victory.  We talk of living on the right side of history as if we truly know what historians will say about us in the future.  We anticipate — those of us who see ourselves inching the right direction — for all our flaws we will strive for that more perfect union.  We shall overcome our deplorable history of slavery and subjugation of native peoples as evidence of mistakes never to make in the future.  Even white women were not allowed to vote until 1920 — that’s less than 100 years ago in a country 240 years old.

In less than a week we should elect Hillary Clinton the first woman President of the United States.  That would be cool.

History could be determined by the intercession of the FBI.  Wouldn’t that be huge.

Que sera.




Summer’s gone.  Been wearing long pants for a week.  Socks and shoes.  Slippers.  It’s hard to let go of that season of balm, lush green, iridescent flora, sultry breezes and the scent of earth and fresh water.  Life at the 45th parallel, far from ocean beaches but surprisingly close to freshwater seas, thrives and throbs with such glorious grace it’s like eden and heaven incarnate, with Utopia and Elysian fields and Atlantis mixed in for good measure.

Summer here is so nice we celebrate it early, set out the yard furniture and wear short sleeves as soon as the snow melts and the lawn greens up for the first mow and ice is off the lakes.  Trees barely bud and the lilacs hardly bloom when we hear those pre-dawn songbirds, windows open, our pith and sap run like rivers, and spring it may be to y’all by your calendar or market cycle, in the hearts of Minneapolis it’s already summer.  The next months only get better.  We prolong summer in every way.


The daylight aspect, after all, declines from June 21, when civil twilight in the morning commences about four a.m. and evening twilight fades after ten at night on a clear day.  There’s as much daylight November 1 as February 8, least of all December 22, and in that span there isn’t much to illuminate outdoors that isn’t gray.  No wonder all the colored lights.  Winter alas is otherwise a prison sentence of light deprivation and hard labor in a hell of subzero cold — Celsius and Fahrenheit combined.  Kelvinville.  Essentially you serve your sentence with good behavior.  Go to work, go to Target, celebrate some holidays, try to keep busy and warm, make your own fun, pay your bills and try to live as routine and normal life as possible by acting as if this cold habitat inflicted upon us by our ancestors or employers isn’t so bad, just a minor inconvenience compared to X (insert your favorite worst place in the world) and this is a just penance for the privilege of miraculously living in the best place on the planet the other nine months.

Serve your sentence — be sure to get your time in the exercise yard.  Serve your time and get out feeling righteously entitled to be free again.  Liberated.  Exceptional.  Mid-sentence escape to Mexico, fly over the wall free on bail, for a scent of outdoor flowers, get wind of open air music and taste food cooked near the ocean, get extradited back after Valentines Day.  Serve the rest of your sentence getting your mind right until spring springs you out of the slammer of winter.  Another year when you walk free like a political prisoner convicted of civil disobedience.


Fall comes.  Like sudden cones in a construction zone everything goes all blaze orange.  Pumpkins deck the terrain in every direction like an occupational army.  It’s sad to realize soon you will be under arrest again.

It isn’t so much the kids are back at school as seeing them wear coats at the bus stops — when kids wear coats and jackets there’s a sign it’s getting nippy outdoors.  Clip the deadheads in the garden.  Tasseled prairie grass looks like overripe wheat.  Time to bring indoors the hibiscus and potted palm from the front porch.  No frost yet — unusually late — the nights gradually chill down and the days don’t catch up.

Funny how a 50F degree day in March feels so warm but so cold in October.

Get out the woolly hats.  Sweater.  Layers.


Brilliant slanted sunlight inflames the arbor life of the cityscape and all over the countryside so the forests everywhere go allout strange.  Foliage so lush and green goes reluctantly ablaze.  Oaks go red, maples golden and all shades orange, lindens and elms left after the Dutch Elm plague go gold.  Amazing how the photosynthesis stops and the chlorophyll goes away, the decomposition and decay begins, and yet the trees never look more alive.  Stunning.

A friend summarized it’s no wonder autumn colors inspire photographers and painters to replicate such scenes as we commonly see in northern America in our woods.  I’m reminded of the Barbizon school of painters, Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet.

Then, just as sudden but predictably inevitable, beneath skies gloomy gray from a sun unseen somewhere slanted south, a light not so much up there as over that way, the leaf colors dim to beige and brown.  The wind picks up and leaves cascade in the air with gusto like it’s raining postage stamps.  Leaves blanket the lawn like a jagged parquet floor.  Leaves clutter the sidewalks like patchwork tattered welcome mats.  Leaves blend in with what is left of the garden.  Trees go naked and gray.  The silvertone sky shows through the skinny limbs.  Surrender the leaves.  Time for rakes and bags.


I remember my kids playing in piles of leaves when they were little.  I miss that.  I miss being younger and more fit to the chore of raking the lawn in the fall, look at myself advancing in age, grudgingly declining in stamina and dexterity, considering a future when I might have to give it up and hire a service — not just the leaf raking but shoveling snow off my sidewalks, which comes next.  Not so much eden or heaven.  Speaking of life and art, the thought of shoveling snow reminds me now of Marcel Duchamp and his piece called In Advance of the Broken Arm.  Cue icy cold wind.  Shudder.

In Advance of the Broken Arm, Marcel Duchamp 1915

This is mainly a grid city of avenues and streets.  I live on a corner.  Today they are sweeping my cross street and there are No Parking signs on the boulevard poles allowing the sweeper trucks and zamboni looking vehicles to mop the gutters as well as thoroughfares.  Three, four five pass throughs.  Good to see my city taxes at work.  It’s funny as long as I remember as long as my wife and I have lived at this homestead, the street sweep of the cross street has ever been scheduled too soon in the fall: most of the leaves in this wooded neighborhood and my yard are still up in the branches of the trees and don’t fall en masse until about five days after the sweep.  I imagine some other neighborhood gets swept clean after the peak fall, but my street (not always my avenue) goes all winter with leftover leaves smutched into icy pavement.  It’s not pretty.  I suppose now that I am at a certain stage of my life with time on my mind if not my hands to contemplate such things maybe I could pester city hall to swap out my street’s annual fall street sweep pushed back two weeks, shall I say to satisfy my own obsessive compulsive sense of order.

No.  Nature will take its course, of course.  My responsibility to civic duty is to keep my homestead up to code, so to speak, and said chores are enough if not entertaining.


In the stillness of an autumn afternoon, no hurry to see the brown leaves fall, no hurry to see another Sagittarius birthday, it’s so hard to let go of summer.  Was it just this summer, or do I go through this every year?  Or is it this fall — is it falling harder on me than ever?  Time for a little cognitive therapy, and time for a little zen.  Replace the screen windows with the storm windows of glass and think how many years we’ve done this.  How many more?  Supposedly smart wise intelligent and hip people plan ahead for such contingencies, so perhaps I should bone up on these essential questions of existence.

Shoulda, woulda, coulda.  Might, maybe, oughta.  Wanna, gonna, go.

Rockenroller as I claim to be, it’s the voice of Frank Sinatra I hear in my head — a guy of my father’s generation — singing that last verse of that song A Very Good Year about the days grow short, the autumn of my years, and I see it playing on a hi-fi turntable in my mind, the Reprise label going round and round, and try to put a good spin on it.

Seems like yesterday my son went trick or treating in the Halloween Blizzard dressed as the Punisher.  Winter came really early that year.  Leaves froze on the trees and lawns and in the streets like tannic popsicles.  We got through it.  They sweep the streets again in the spring.  Summer comes back.


Naughty Words

Dred Scott

I truly hate to use the word nigger, even in my personal journal, but there’s no way to talk through the word without using it.  Just calling it the N word doesn’t do it justice.

We were not allowed to say it at home, and it was not allowed in the neighborhood where I grew up, or at school.  Not at home for very good reason because it was offensive to people we were close to, and it was a naughty word.  In the neighborhood it was almost as bad as fucker (you put a mother in front of that one and you might never see the light of day again) but worse than shit or asshole combined, and any kid who said it could get called in or sent home for a licken and a virtual mouth wash with soap, and the rest of us forbidden from playing with that kid for a while.

At school you could get expelled, or at least slapped.  The nuns at St Simon of Cyrene tried to teach us basic civility.  One nun cleverly baited a notorious badboy in class by using the word niggardly.  When the badboy predictably snickered, sister asked him if he knew what niggardly meant, and he replied, “To be black.”  For the whole class — we were all white, of course, and properly shocked — the nun defined the word, and I recall thinking, oh great, now there’s license for the local knuckleheads to go around referring to stingy people as niggards.  You know how kids seize new words.  But nothing more came of it.  That nun knew exactly what she was doing.

When referring to race, out of respect, we were encouraged then to refer to black people as negroes  — a term now reserved for that baseball league where their great players played before Jackie Robinson made it to the majors.  Some still used the word colored and insisted they meant no disrespect, only being descriptive.  We were race conscious then, our biases were challenged, and we grew up aware of how privileged we were to be white.  How lucky we were to be northerners free from the stains of slavery that corrupted the white people who lived down south.  (Never mind Dred Scott.)  We were proud that black people could move up here and escape the hate, like we could share desegregation as if sharing our abundant water supply.

Of course we were very naive.  Few of us really knew any real black people.  I did — my dad had connections — and I could vouch for their positive character.  There was every reason to imagine they were every bit as cool as the Four Tops or the Supremes.  Willie Mays.  Sidney Poitier.  It seemed only charitable to give a helping hand to those less fortunate who were just starting out in our Great Society.  Some of us speculated that Dr Martin Luther King Jr would be president by 1980.  Maybe that’s why he got shot.

There were no gangs back then shooting up the streets with guns.  Not here.  As if we knew.  From the perspective of our Roman Catholic parish where I grew up, it looked like a sure bet by the time we grew up and got jobs, got married and had our own kids, the whole subject of racial discrimination and segregation would be settled forever in our future culture, and America would be way advanced in leading the world (as opposed to the commies) in matters of peace and justice.  There was every reason to believe the conflict of race relations we saw in the news would be solved in our lifetime, we shall overcome.

What went all Robert Burns gang aft a gley can best be attributed to the magnitude of forces unforeseen and unintended that clash and contend endlessly for righteous power in this complexly indifferent universe.

In other words, the real world is composed of elements that cohese and conflict, realign and repel, and no social order ever emerged is perfect.  With adolescence came encounters with contradictions, awareness of conditions subversive of my privileged kumbaya.

Medgar Evers

Bob Dylan sang, “A bullet from the back of the bush took Medgar Evers’ blood.”

It was appalling to see race riots.  One was forced to examine the point of view of people so outraged they burn down their own neighborhoods.  Weren’t things going well?  I guess not.

Venturing into the real world I heard that word nigger again.  Used with the same defamatory pith as the kid who called me one because he thought in the heat of the moment I was worse than a shitty asshole, almost a fucker.  Used it the way we imagine nazis spoke of Jews.

Later, liberation language co-opted the word to symbolize anybody oppressed, as in the thesis The Student As Nigger, or the phrase I ain’t your nigger.  Comedians jumped on it for discomforting laughs.  An ex-Beatle and his Japanese-born spouse recorded a song called Woman is the Nigger of the World.  Cavalier work crews might refer to the foreman as the HNIC — Head Nigger In Charge.

Meanwhile Amos ‘N’ Andy and Disney’s Song of the South were withdrawn from public view as entertainment that shamed their white producers and predominately white audiences as well as the black characters portrayed in the stories.

There was Black Like Me, a confessional written by a white guy who used a pharmaceutical to darken his skin so he could pass for black to go undercover to experience being black so he could write a book.  Norman Mailer published his essay the White Negro to describe the phenomenon of white hipsters counter-assimilating black culture.  This accounted for Allen Ginsburg and Elvis Presley, and presaged Eric Burdon and Eminem.

How do you expect people to react when Charles Manson interprets the Beatle song Helter Skelter to predict a race war?

Ralph Ellison became highly visible.  To Kill A Mockingbird placed the onus of racism on the heads of white education.  Does everyone know by now why the caged bird sings?  Cornell West reminds us Race Matters.  Malcolm X urged people to do liberation by any means necessary.  Muhammad Ali fought the system.  With his Soul On Ice Eldridge Cleaver reminds the persecuted to know where your shoes are at all times.  FUBU came into fashion.

The term African American emerged as the preferred moniker for common polite discourse.  Polite discourse remains possible.  People of color replaced colored people.  Negro — that baseball museum in Kansas City.  Black is most common.  Black is ever the new black.

Rap music and hip hop reclaimed ownership of the word nigger, as in NWA — niggers with attitude.  Sometimes you see it spelled niggah.  The word is locked in a tabernacle of niggardly utterance.  Maybe it’s good riddance, but not to the point of censorship of Mark Twain in public schools.

What now, and what next?

A legacy of organized street narcotics marketing, dramatized in the mafia conference scene in the Godfather, has fostered lost generations of career criminals, addicts and prison lifers.  Any wonder why some call us white devils?

Some law enforcement officers behave with deadly force as an extension of the mentality of bring the fire hoses and sic the dogs.  There are bad guys in the bunch.  The rest attempt to keep the peace in the face of defiant criminal exceptionalism, facing death.

Black gunslingers spray bullets all over the place, and it’s not for a righteous cause or to prove black lives matter.  It’s hate on hate — hate crimes, not even crimes of indifference or ignorance, or accident of birth.

Lawless defiance, vigilantism and brutal police tactics, along with palpable disregard for life by individuals within black communities, have made black lives madder.  And madder.

All this from the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and all the indignities of disparities, despicable repression, cruel history — add it all up and who wouldn’t have an attitude?

Say it loud…


Black people, please don’t be mad at me.  How I was brought up I would have gladly given up my seat on the bus to Rosa Parks, and probably have, countless forgettable times but didn’t take credit for doing an obviously courteous thing.  You know what I mean.

I’m a white guy trying to live right and do right by my fellow human beings.  I try to atone for wrongs inflicted in any way by me, bearing in mind the core of the Serenity theme of knowing the difference between what is my own responsibility and what is not.  I vote.

I’ve tried to raise my own kids to embrace an open humanity and live by codes if integrity and justice.

I am sorry for the conditions that provoke the confrontations and the antipathy based on race.

No words can express how bad I feel.

My desire is not to shush anybody.

I want an end to the madness, a cease in the fighting words, a civil dialogue to replace the need for civil disobedience.

I want to feel more than a sense of Dred when the race card is in wordplay.  We’re all players.  Everyone at the table has a stake.  Let’s begin with a code of civil conduct that does not justify reprehensible behavior.

What you see is what you get.  Say what you will.  Tell it like it is.  Address the violence.  Stop disparate treatment.

(I know — cure the sick, raise the dead.  Or raise the sick, cure the dead.)

Or damn us all if we don’t listen to our own profane words of retribution.  Are we doomed to keep repeating ourselves?

Kids pick up this kind of stuff.

I’m just saying.

Buffalo Kelly Rides Again


As a kid, I packed heat.

I wore a sidearm. Strapped a big iron on my hip, just like Marty Robbins, one of my idols of the day.

As a little boy, nothing made me feel so vital every morning as getting dressed, putting on my cowboy hat and strapping on my gunbelt.  A few birthdays and Christmases and I owned quite an arsenal.

Toy guns, of course.  Cast alloy replicas of authentic firearms of the Old West favored by the good guys and bad guys portrayed on TV and in the movies.  Modeled after guns made by Colt, Remington and Smith & Wesson (which I mispronounced Smith & Weston without any adult correction) all made in the scale of a child’s hand.  Some of the metalwork was scrolled along the barrels like they were engraved and finely tooled.  The handles either had some kind of rough grips or were mother of pearl smooth.  The trigger and hammer mechanisms worked with varying smoothness, depending on toy manufacturer – I seem to recall Mattel as being of high quality and most realistic to a discerning kid under eight years old.  And there were the holsters, stitched leather and snug against the hip, belts tooled with cowboy baroque designs and cinched with big bold buckles.  Some holsters had ties for the thighs to facilitate a quicker draw.

How can I reconcile American gun culture without confessing my own complicity?

My earliest TV and movie heroes carried guns.  Hopalong Cassidy.  Gene Autry.  Roy Rogers.  Wild Bill Hickok and his old pal Jingles.  Cisco and Pancho.  The Lone Ranger – my heart still stirs when I hear the 1812 Overture.  Wyatt Earp.  My namesake, Buffalo Bill Cody.

I most liked the ones who favored pistols.  Bat Masterson carried a trick cane.  The Rifleman lacked a certain savoir faire.  Yancy Deringer – not to be confused with Henry Deringer – relied on a sneaky little pistol that reminded one too much of John Wilkes Booth.  Josh Randall the bounty hunter carried a sawed off Winchester carbine, a little overhanded for my taste but kind of cool aesthetically.

Above all I admired the ones who righted wrongs and came to the aid of the downtrodden and the victimized.  Yule Brenner and Charles Bronson’s Magnificent Seven.  Paladin for hire, who dressed as a gentleman in the city and embossed the image of a chess piece on his calling card – for all I knew about chess it might as well have been the jack of spades.  The Maverick brothers, Brett and Bart in nice suits, reluctantly distracted from their livelihoods playing poker to help somebody unfortunate.  John Wayne and Gary Cooper and every epic drama based on a theme called Shane.  Destry Rides Again – a crush on Marlene Dietrich – “and don’t be stingy baby.”

Nothing like a shotglass of Pepsi at the Long Branch Saloon of my dreams after confronting the bad guys of my fantasies in a shootout on the streets of my own personal Dodge City.  Good guys came and went, but every week of every year there was Matt Dillon the US Marshall, the plain spoken righteous quintessential good guy standing tall against the forces of bad in Gunsmoke.  The star, James Arness, was from my own home town.

“Hey Buff, let’s play guns!”

Didn’t have to ask me twice.  Me and my friends, as we used to say before we were taught good grammar, shared for a time a common fanaticism for gunplay.  Dressed in cowboy hats and gunbelts we chased each other around the neighborhood, hiding behind garages and taking cover behind birdbaths, swingsets and sandboxes, all pulling triggers.  We shouted pow-pow-pow and blam-blam to enhance the ambient sound effects.  Then there were caps – paper spools of dots of gunpowder threaded through the chambers of some toy guns like a movie through a projector or like an old school computer punch tape that synchronimously detonated with the impact of the hammer and made a loud explosive crack like a firecracker, obviating any need to verbally pow-pow and bam-bam.  Caps also emitted the burnt aroma of what Francis Ford Coppola in another weapons context would later describe as Victory.  Caps generally annoyed grown-ups and became forbidden long before we were discouraged against pointing our guns at each others faces.  So it continued blam-blam-blam until we all finally gave up our puny pistols for Daisy air rifles and their hefty pump action pop when we evolved to more sophisticated games of combat.


From the early days we did not play Cowboys and Indians.  It was always cowboys and cowboys, or just cowboys.  Nobody wanted to be Indians.  Up north of where we lived we encountered real Indians living in teepees on reservations, and among us guys there was a tacit understanding it seemed wrong to play at persecuting people so obviously picked on and bullied – like picking on someone not your own size.  We weren’t interested in being cowboys either, or cared about horses, saddles, or acting out the humdrum routine of herding cattle.  It was all about posses, and chasing rustlers and thieves and no ‘count polecats and bank robbers.  It was about hideouts, forts and territory, somebody’s back yard.

From there it progressed to cops and robbers as the themes on TV changed.  Gradually the westerns diminished and detectives and private eyes came into vogue, and I acquired a snub-nosed .38 complete with shoulder holster to wear concealed under my Sunday sport coat like Jeff of 77 Sunset Strip – wondering if Kookie would ever graduate from parking cars to getting a license and solving his own cases.

There were experiments with forays into galactic space gunfights with ray guns that generated sparks, the forerunners of phasers, but they didn’t catch on.  We had some fun with water pistols crafted in the designs of Lugers and Berettas, but they had to be refilled with water all the time and we were too impatient to take time outs.

Then came the war movies and TV shows like Combat.  John Wayne went military.  The focus of entertainment went from winning the wild west to refighting and redefeating the nazis in World War II.  Audie Murphy.  That’s about the time me and my friends took up Daisy air rifles.  Me and them, playing jungle war in the wild woodlands of the nature preserve along the swamp they called the lake, that last summer playing guns.  Man that was fun.

I don’t remember any grown ups strictly forbidding us from playing with toy guns.  There was no event transforming our behavior – no one shot out an eye, even though it got darn close when somebody discovered you can pack the barrel of an air rifle with dirt and shoot little mudballs, a practice we made a pact to disavow except at inanimate objects and squirrels.  I don’t recall any formal decree from a parent or authority person telling us to stop playing guns.  Looking back I would hope somebody saw through the fun we were having and saw the crazy violence we imitated and said, we have to stop this.  We just stopped.

Maybe it was like St Paul the evangelist who wrote about putting away childish things.  For me, I cannot point to any transformative revelation.  Nobody said to me, look at what you are doing – you are entertaining yourself pretending to kill people.

Maybe it was sports, or rock and roll.

I never went hunting – men in my life didn’t hunt, except for an estranged grandfather who never got to know me.  The first time I fired a real gun was at summer camp, under strict instruction and supervision.  It was a breech load bolt action single shot .22 rifle fired from a prone position on the ground.  It was scary to shoot a permanent hole in something at a distance, even if it was a paper target.  Later I fired shotguns at cans in the woods, and then at clay pigeons.  I was awed by the force and scared of what could go wrong.  I never got comfortable with the responsibility.

Along with the rest of the toys of my youth, my guns disappeared.  Today they would probably be illegal because they were such faithful replicas and so similar to real weapons.  Whether I chose not to keep them or I just let them get tossed out, the timing coincided with a phased awareness of firepower and death.

Even in my musical soundtrack I can trace awareness of the futility of the life of a gunfighter, from the lessons of the ballads of Marty Robbins – how come the guy from the West Texas town of El Paso sings the song if he ends up dead – and the most blunt cautionary tale from Johnny Cash, Don’t Take Your Guns To Town.  My mom likely presumed I would grow out of it, playing with toy guns, and I did.  By the time the Beatles White Album came out I was ready to be transfixed by the John Lennon song that goes, “Hey Bungalow Bill / What did you kill? / What did you kill?”

In the movies, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid brought the Old West into the 20th Century by deglamorizing gunplay.  On TV the western genre went away in a puff of Gunsmoke.  Doctor shows took over.  Little House on the Prairie and the Waltons cozied in.

And hard news journalism.  There was a bloody war in Southeast Asia.  The whole world watched.

Somewhere in there I got delusions of peace and love.  A yearning for a society and a world without violence.  Seemed doable.

So in my life I never owned a real gun – an admission these days which could cause me harm, I suppose, from somebody who knows I’m unarmed.  Not owning a firearm seems to run counter to the demographic trends that show more and more people are armed with guns in their households and taking advantage of conceal and carry permits.  Do I feel left out?  Not when it comes to having the right to choose not to make up reasons to own a gun.The sense that everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean it’s right for me.

It’s a dangerous world.  Agreed.  Cars crash and we are allowed to treat them like toys.  We use cars for transportation and we regulate and license their use.

Violent crime exists, and wars.  Gun crime occurs with appalling frequency.  People arm themselves for protection, I get that.  Fear is a basic motivator.  Self defense is a basic instinct codified as a right and doctrine of law.  If you outlaw guns, the saying goes, only outlaws will have guns – and the police, our hired peacekeepers.  And the armed forces who defend our country, of course, against regimes who would kill us all and trash the Constitution with its Second and all Amendments, all of them armed with guns to use against us supplied by who knows who of the worldwide arms trade.

Like Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee I feel responsible for the gun craze, and I can’t take it back.  I think of kids today and the allure of video games that simulate the killing of human beings more graphically than any kid of the 1950s could imagine, yet there is no proven causal relationship between video games and violent behavior, and this is a free country.  The same could be said of toy guns in my day.

There is a serious worry about the allure of real guns.  The allure of real bang-bang pow-pow.  The illusory intoxicating smell of victory.  Real caps, as in cap your ass.  The empowerment of solving a problem impulsively and with an aura of impunity with guns.  Joining up with others to solve perceived wrongs, take territory, impose ideas and creeds, and change the world with guns.

I look at succeeding generations, and the next ones, and I wish I could reset my example.  Our culture has defined itself repeatedly by legends of the Old West, and what sticks is the image of the gunfighter.  Are we so ignorant that we are doomed to repeat it?  Can this be altered without denying the past?  In the age of Star Wars and Quentin Tarantino?

What comes to mind is advice from Leonard Cohen’s song about the Old Revolution:

“Into this furnace I ask you now to venture/ You whom I cannot betray.”

I know, this brings us back to the beginning.

The other day one of my neighbors held a family picnic, and there were kids all over, sometimes playing in my yard.  One little girl about 8 had a toy gun.  It was bright blue and had a boxy stock with a bright red barrel, and she kept peppering a younger boy with orange nerf bullet projectiles.  At a pool party I recently attended I observed kids shooting one another with colorful toy water guns called Super Soakers, and I heard one kid cry out, “Not my face!”  There must be something primitively hard wired into sisters to torment little brothers by any means at hand.

It was interesting to observe these modern toy guns were conspicuously designed not to resemble in any way a real firearm.  Whether manufactured voluntarily or mandated by some state law or federal regulation, you cannot mistake these toys for the real thing.  The days of little boys running around with replica Colt .45 Peacekeeper Army pistols appear to be over.

If a consensus can be achieved to regulate toy guns for a greater good, rather than try to take them all away, then real grown ups ought to be able to negotiate meaningful regulation of lethal firearms, as if regulating a well regulated Militia.

There Are No True Stories Here

What may ring true or seem true commingles with the creative suppositions of the reader and the subjective sublime of the writer.  There may be facts presented or maybe a pack of lies offered, but no truths.  Just stories.  They may seem realistic.  Or not.  They may evoke fantasy or belie imagination.  Could emote rantings like a false religion.  Might seem to make sense out of no sense at all.  No promises.  There will be stigmas, and stigmata.  Graphomania, apophenia, ekphraisis, pareidolia perhaps, and maybe a smattering of agoraphobia.  Some serious kidding, and maybe a little folderol.  But no true stories here.  Suspend disbelief at your own risk.  Nobody is stopping you from critical thinking.  Welcome to the website of Buffalo Kelly.